Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Solaris and Stanislaw Lem

One of my all time and for many years now favorite authors is Polish Science Fiction writer, Stanislaw Lem. Originally made famous to me when I first heard in High School he had coined the term, "Robot". Many believe it was Isaac Asimov. I owe Isaac a lot from my young readings of his works, but sadly, it was not him.
Stanislaw Lem

However, I later found out it also wasn't Lem, Actually it was Karel Čapek, a Czech writer who coined the term "robot", or rather made it popular.  "He introduced and made popular the frequently used international word robot, which first appeared in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) in 1920. HOWEVER, the true inventor of the term robot was actually Karel's brother Josef Čapek"

"The word robot comes from the word robota meaning "drudgery", "work of a villein" in literary Czech and "work", "labor" in literary Slovak. While Karel Čapek is frequently acknowledged as the originator of the word, he wrote a short letter in reference to the Oxford English Dictionary etymology in which he named his brother, painter and writer Josef Čapek as its true inventor."

Still, once I heard that that Lem had coined the term, I originally had to look him up and from time to time revisit his writings. It was only shortly after I started looking into Lem that I found the mistake and corrected it in my mind. But that then lead to my finding the 1972 Russian film by Andrei Tarkovsky called, Solaris, from the Lem novel of the same name. That lead me to finding Tarkovsky's other films which I came to appreciate.
Russian Film Director, Tarkovsky

Solaris was a fascinating novel that the two films, both Tarkovsky's and the newer 2002, Steven Soderbergh , American remake with George Clooney, has yet to fully explore. They always seem to focus on the primary Human interactions, rather than the planet's (Solaris being the name of the planet, though the story in the films takes place on the orbital space station).

Russian Solaris film version poster

Wikipedia describes the differences between literary and cinematic like this: "In the literary Solaris, Stanisław Lem describes human science’s inability to handle an alien life form, because extra-terrestrial life is beyond human understanding; in the cinematic Solaris, Tarkovsky concentrates upon Kelvin's feelings for his wife, Hari, and the impact of outer space exploration upon the human condition. Dr. Gibarian’s monologue [from the novel’s sixth chapter] is the highlight of the final library scene, wherein Snaut says, “We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors”."

A symmetriad, one of the structures produced by Solaris
What I would like to see is an interpretation of the planet research, rather than those researching the planet extrapolating their experiences so much. It's a fascinating story either way, but we've done the Human elements to death and it would be interesting to see the alien elements explored a bit more.

"What appears to be waves on its surface is later revealed to be the equivalent of muscle contractions. The scientists there have studied the planet and its ocean for many decades, a scientific discipline known as Solaristics, which over the years has degenerated to simply observe and record the complex phenomena that occur upon the surface of the ocean. Shortly before psychologist Kelvin's arrival, the crew has exposed the ocean to a more aggressive experimentation with a high-energy X-ray bombardment. Their experimentation give unexpected results and becomes psychologically traumatic for them as individually flawed humans." - Wikipedia

An apt description. Thus the story goes into how Humans begin to degenerate into complacency when they do not understand something within their short time frames of interest. Everyone wants to keep their jobs, but don't know what to do. Rather than explore the actual planet, to use Phenomenology, or other forms unused to this point, they more or less give up and start trying to irritate the planet, causing them much grief and confusion.

The book is a great indictment of our natural inclinations and a warning for us to beware and look beyond when we become lost. To not remain lost, but find another way to understand the universe around us. Although Lem's construct is that we cannot understand a very alien lifeform, which may be extremely relevant, it also points out our need to understand what we cannot understand.

There is a great scene in the book, where they land a helicopter like craft on one of the creations of the Solaris mind. It is like an island of white, made from something chalk like, buildings, structures, as if you walked into a Mediterranean village, with no people, no color. These things last only a few hours and so, at some point, it began to dissolve, and they had to leave, to watch from above is it was assimilated into the vast liquid planet. It is a fascinating scene that never finds its way to the silver screen.

There is much to be explored in this novel, the films to come based upon it, Lem and Karel Čapek's stories (though I prefer Lem). Also, check out Tarkovsky's films. Though slow by modern and American standards, have a bottle of wine and some snacks and settle in for an interesting intellectual journey.

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