Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris provides a multi-faceted look into the human psyche, our desires and failures, human sin and hubris, goals and hopes through confronting an utterly “other” alien. The version I read was translated in 2011 by Bill Johnston (the previous translation was a translation of a translation, typically not good). I can’t tell you how great the translation is but I can say it’s well written, especially the dialog.
It’s hard to talk about Solaris whilst avoiding spoilers; let’s summarize it this way – there is an alien life form that appears to be a volatile, usually liquid form of an ocean that lives on planet Solaris. It can form objects, the equivalent of whole cities very quickly. They do not remain permanent. This creature could somehow plumb the depths of the minds of the inhabitants of the station on Solaris and take their deepest sin, realized or simply desired, and personify it to them. For the protagonist, Kris, this means he meets his deceased wife.
Mr. Lem builds this world where we cannot directly communicate with the alien, we cannot fully trust and communicate with each other; we don’t even fully trust ourselves and our own sanity. He uses this world to deal with perennially issues of love, trust, purpose and objective reality. The novel takes you on an incredible journey investigating these issues while arriving at no obvious destination. The author places you in the midst of the confusion, options and questions raised by Kris and his companions. Mr. Lem makes palpable the struggle these characters undergo.
Now, this may sound boring and, oh so introspective. It’s not. Not they way that Mr. Lem brings you on the journey through the use of the world and the Solaris-people from our dreams.
Overall, Mr. Lem is very good at articulating and thinking through the psychological, ontological and metaphysical issues. I think he wanes most went attempting theology. In particular, his whole discussion on a “defective god” at the end is weak. His reasons why we “need” a “defective god” partly hung on the putative fact that traditional gods, including the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible won’t do. Part of his reasoning was:
How do you mean? In a certain sense the god of every religion was defective, because he was encumbered with human qualities, only magnified. The God of the Old Testament, for instance, was a hothead who craved servility and was jealous of other gods. . . the Greek gods had just as many human imperfections, with their quarrelsomeness and their family squabbles—
Lem, Stanislav (2011-12-08), Solaris (Kindle Location 3268), Premier digital Publishing, Kindle Edition.
So this would suggest that the God of the Old Testament is different than that of the New and displayed impatience. Yet a theme that comes through the OT again and again is that of chesed or steadfast loving kindness, where it is emphasized that His loving kindness endures forever. He is so patient that He depicts this through His prophet Habakkuk marrying a prostitute to show how Israel, God’s own bride has prostituted itself to other gods again and again. Yet He will, like Habakkuk, make Israel His bride again. Yes, He is a jealous God and will not allow His earned love to go to another, but He doesn’t deal with this through hot-headed hate, but rather through grace. He will make the prostitute clean by making her new:
And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
Ezekiel 36:26-38, ESV
Indeed, in Solaris, our protagonist comes away with no real answers. While he doesn’t always ask the right questions, Kris is right in one thing: the answer is found in relationship. It’s in relationship with the very God whom Snaut (and by concurrence, Kris) so easily dismissed.
I highly recommend Solaris both as a story and an opportunity to think through issues of objective truth, relationship and motivation for the work we do.
As I often do, I went between the Kindle and Audible version of this eased by Whispersync for Voice. The narrator on the Audible version, Alessandro Juliani, does an extraordinary job. He embodies the characters of Kelvin, Snaut and Sartorius; I especially love his Snaut. He even does a commendable job with Harey. I heartily recommend the Audible version as well.