Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
I decided to read one of Stanislaw Lem’s books based on a fascinating New Yorker feature about him. What caught my attention from the piece was the breadth of topics his writing covered:
In addition to many novels and stories, he composed a huge philosophical treatise on the relation of human beings and machines, a good deal of pungently argued literary criticism, a volume of reviews of nonexistent books, a stochastic theory of narrative fiction, an experimental detective novel, speculative essays dealing with artificial intelligence, cybernetics, cosmology, genetic engineering, game theory, sociology, and evolution, radio plays and screenplays. Such staggering polymathic curiosity over such a vast range of material, all of it explored with lucidity and charm, gives his writing a unique place on a Venn diagram in which the natural sciences, philosophy, and literature shade into one another with mutually intensifying vividness and fascination.
Curious, I picked up Lem’s most popular book. Solaris is the story of a faraway research outpost on an eponymous planet covered by a gelatinous, ocean-like surface that responds to human incursions. Over time, it becomes clear that the researchers are the rear guard of a once-great expedition still trying to make contact with whatever consciousness the planet’s surface contains.
The story starts with gradual, foreboding revelations about the mission, its dwindling set of characters, and the station’s oddities. I felt pulled in by this darkening dynamic and the rich detail that Lem weaves alongside it. As an example of the story’s richness, Lem devotes significant sections of the book to the academic lineage of Solaricists (academics who study Solaris), the evolution of their theories about the planet, and the disagreements that occurred between different schools of thought on those theories.
Solaris didn’t feel dated, unlike other science fiction from the 60s. Instead, it feels like a history book of a possible distant future.