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“Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.”

Solaris

Solaris is Stanisław Lem’s classic 1961 science fiction novel about a researcher, Dr. Kris Kelvin, who lands on the planet Solaris after a sixteen-month journey from Earth. Solaris raises very interesting astrobiological questions about whether a planet that orbits two suns can support life. In the case of Solaris, the two suns that it orbits have vastly different intensities. Hence, the climate on Solaris varies drastically depending upon which of the two suns is currently nearby. These climatic variations occur on a timescale equivalent to millions of Earth years. However, since biological evolution takes tens or hundreds of millions of years, scientists doubt that the climate on Solaris would be stable enough to support life.

Nonetheless, life on Solaris appears to exist in the form of its organic ocean, which is believed to be a single giant organism. Scientists from Earth have been sent to study this mysterious and possibly intelligent lifeform. However, the ocean lifeform treats the scientists occupying the planet as a type of tumor that it tries to excise through psychological manipulation, i.e., by creating hallucinations in the minds of the scientists.

Nobody rushes out to greet Dr. Kelvin when he arrives on Solaris. Of the three residents Kelvin expects to meet on Solaris, one is dead and the other two are apparently crazy. It doesn’t take long for Kelvin himself to start having visions and succumb to the same type of madness as the other two remaining researchers.

The setup for this novel is brilliant. Based on the above description, I was fully expecting this to be a five-star book. Unfortunately, the first vision that Kelvin sees is incredibly racist. This type of “surprise racism” came out of nowhere, having no legitimate context in the story and occurring just as I was getting into the plot of the novel. It completely threw me out of the story, and I was unable to get myself mentally engaged again after that incident. This casual racism is never addressed anywhere in the novel.

Another serious problem is the pseudoscience that is constantly spewed throughout the book. The astrobiological setup of the story is brilliant. Unfortunately, all the rest of the “science” is laughable, consisting of Lew name-dropping scientific terms and principles, apparently without much understanding of what they mean. There was a warning of incoming pseudoscience early in the book, when Lew invokes the thermodynamic concept of Le Chatelier’s Principle in a context that made no sense. The worst offense is Lew’s nonsensical references to neutrinos, suggesting that the hallucinations seen by the scientists could be real and made up of neutrinos. Of course, an absurd theory such as this only supports the notion that the scientists have gone crazy.

There are also massive plot holes. For example, why is there no communication between the Solaris crew and the home base on Earth? If it only takes 16 months to travel from Earth to Solaris, then communication between the planets should be trivial. Why do they keep sending scientists to Solaris if they don’t even bother to communicate with them? It makes no sense.

With the brilliant setup of Solaris, this could have been a masterpiece. Unfortunately, the plot is derailed by racism and pseudoscience, without any satisfying answers about the astrobiological questions raised by the author.

2/5

Solaris

Solaris

Solaris

Solaris

Solaris

Solaris

Solaris

Solaris

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

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