There’s an episode in Little House on the Prairie – the book, not the tv show. Jeez, people, I’m writing here on bookface after all – where Laura finds a book of Tennyson’s poems in the house. She realizes that it’s to be gift from her folks to her, and shuts up the book and puts it away, but not before reading these tantalizing lines, from “The Lotus Eaters”:
“COURAGE!” he said, and pointed toward the land,
“This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.”
She obsesses about this: what will they do? What manner of monster will they meet? Will they have the courage they need to face the island and its foes?
She receives the book, in due course, and is horrified, shocked, by the culmination of the poem: they do drugs, and wander off in haze of beauty and iambic pentameter, shucking all their dreary work. It offends Laura’s Midwestern Protestant Work Ethic that this happens, and gives her an excuse to tell us to Not Do Drugs, kids. Apparently, the American war on drugs has been going on for a while longer than we thought.
I thought of this after reading Solaris, because there’s something of the “Lotus Eaters” in this book. It starts out, in medias res, with our protagonist, Kelvin, on his bumpy descent to the outpost above the planet of Solaris. It’s very Joe Blaster science fiction: the rocky ride, the will-he-or-won’t-he dock properly, the opening scenes in the station itself, with mayhem and blood on the floor, the protagonist looking for some sort of futurist scifi gun, etc. And then, nothing. Or not nothing, but a lot of thinking and considering, musing in the emptiness of space about the nature of consciousness, of God and Man. It’s the 60s, Woman hasn’t been invented yet.
Despite my Midwestern Protestant upbringing (because of?), I rather liked this. It’s nowhere near perfect: Kelvin periodically gets himself to the library for some seriously painful info-dumps. We spend several chapters learning about scholarship about the planet of Solaris, or its topography, or whatever. I was seriously tempted to skip this stuff, and skimmed like crazy, but I was bothered by the sense I may be quizzed on this later. I wasn’t, so skip it if you’ve never read it.
The central conceit: the person who most embodies your shame, your guilt, will appear in bodily form in the station above Solaris. The person appears to be a manifestation of the strange, long-studied, planet-wide ocean entity on the surface. Kelvin’s is his long-dead wife, who killed herself after they had a nasty fight. She is unable to leave his side, and moves doors off of hinges to stay with him. She is indestructible, immortal; when she is killed, and who wouldn’t kill the person of his shame? she resurrects, horribly. We never learn about anyone else’s “visitor” but Kelvin’s, but they are there nonetheless, in bangs and murmurs, the sounds of murders and arguments, the glimpse of a hat on the vid-phone (I mentioned that this is 60s scifi, right?) This isn’t Terminator; they don’t wake to a terrible purpose and murder Kelvin and his fellow scientists. Kelvin and his fellow humans become increasingly isolated from one another: locked into the rooms of their own shame, reading quietly while a resurrected lover sits quietly in the half-light.
What if our first contact with an alien race was so alien that we could never understand that contact, and the contact, for them, was at best a reflex of the nervous system? What if that alien was a child, a god-child, unknowing and unknowable? Lem plays with this, doesn’t let us know anything but the unknowing, the voyage within, the self and its mirrors in the claustrophobia of our humanness. How can you understand what you’re not? Sometimes, its transcendent, beautiful, and his language soars in the kind of poetry science fiction is attuned to. Kelvin is talking; his colleague, Snow responds:
“’No’ I interrupted. ‘I’m not thinking of a god whose imperfection arises out of the candor of his human creators, but one whose imperfection represents his essential characteristic: a god limited in his omniscience and power, fallible, incapable of foreseeing the consequences of his acts, and creating things that lead to horror. He is a…sick god, whose ambitions exceed his powers and who does not realize it at first. A god who has created clocks, but not the time they measure. He has created systems of mechanisms that served specific ends but have now overstepped and betrayed them. And he has created eternity, which was to have measured his power, which now measures his unending defeat.’
Snow hesitated…. ‘There was Manicheanism.’”
Don’t you love this? Isn’t it funny and sad, this essential lack of communication between one person and another? C’mon, Snow, Manicheanism? Were you even listening? Sadly, I think you were. How could we hope to contact the alien when we’re so thoroughly baffled by the familiar?
But, unfortunately, sometimes this kind of story is just boring, and I feel like Laura, on the prairie, frustrated by all this thinking and not doing. Lem is definitely being subversive, the way he begins by shouting “Courage!” and pointing to the shore, but the shore is a mirage, and you’re left in boat, in an ocean that may not be real either, dreaming of status reports and neutrinos, whose reality is transitory, at best.