Wednesday, January 16, 2013

520. Solaris – Stanislaw Lem

History: This book was published in 1961. Solaris is one of Lem’s philosophic explorations of man’s anthropomorphic limitations. First published in Warsaw in 1961, the 1970 Polish-to-French-to-English translation of Solaris is the best-known of Lem's English-translated works.
Plot: Solaris chronicles the ultimate futility of attempted communications with the extraterrestrial life on a far-distant planet. Solaris, with whom Terran scientists are attempting communication, is almost completely covered with an ocean that is revealed to be a single, planet-encompassing organism. What appear to be waves on its surface are later revealed to be the equivalents of muscle contractions.
Kris Kelvin arrives aboard the scientific research station hovering (via anti-gravity generators) near the oceanic surface of the planet Solaris. 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, record and categorize the complex phenomena that occur upon the surface of the ocean. Thus far, they have only achieved the formal classification of the phenomena with an elaborate nomenclature — yet do not understand what such activities really mean in a strictly scientific sense. Shortly before psychologist Kelvin's arrival, the crew has exposed the ocean to a more aggressive and unauthorized experimentation with a high-energy X-ray bombardment. Their experimentation gives unexpected results and becomes psychologically traumatic for them as individually flawed humans.
The ocean's response to their aggression exposes the deeper, hidden aspects of the personalities of the human scientists — whilst revealing nothing of the ocean’s nature itself. To the extent that the ocean’s actions can be understood, the ocean then seems to test the minds of the scientists by confronting them with their most painful and repressed thoughts and memories. It does this via the materialization of physical human simulacra; Kelvin confronts memories of his dead lover and guilt about her suicide. The torments of the other researchers are only alluded to but seem even worse than Kelvin’s personal purgatory.
The ocean’s intelligence expresses physical phenomena in ways difficult for their limited earth science to explain, deeply upsetting the scientists. The alien (extraterrestrial) mind of Solaris is so greatly different from the human mind of (objective) consciousness that attempts at inter-species communications are a dismal failure.
Review: Solaris is the best-known work of Polish SF writer Stanislaw Lem. Published in 1961, this work continues to intrigue readers from casual SF fans to academic critics like Frederic Jameson and Slavov Zizek. It has been the basis for two cinematic adaptations, the first by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (critically acclaimed) in 1972, and the second directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney (critically “meh”) in 2002. Lem, who died in 2006, was not happy with either film, both of which focused more on the human relationships and the love story than on Lem’s philosophizing or scientific speculation.
He was also dissatisfied with the translations of his work. Most print editions you will find in the US today (bearing an image of Clooney smooching co-star Natasha McElhorne) are reprints of a rushed 1970 translation of the French translation of the original Polish. Literally, it’s a translation of a translation. Lem didn’t even think the French translation was faithful, and, as a fluent English speaker, liked the Polish-to-French-to-English translation even less. Anyone who has done translation of any kind realizes it’s never an exact process, so lots of time and care is necessary to preserve the writer’s vision and intent as much as possible. The process is eased a bit when translation between languages with similar bases (like Spanish to French), but Solaris went from a Slavic language (Polish) to a Romance language (French) before being translated into a Germanic Language (English, and if this surprises you, listen for that Germanic lilt in this reading of Beowulf in the Old English). Needless to say, some things were lost in translation.
Given the book’s notoriety, it’s hard to believe that there has not been a direct translation from Polish-to-English in the fifty years since its publication; until now, that is. Bill Johnston, an Associate Professor of Second Language Studies and Comparative Literature at Indiana University, has made the first direct Polish-to-English translation of the novel with the permission of the Lem estate. On the previous translations,
So far, the Johnston translation has only been released as an audiobook available on , although it will be coming out as an ebook and–if the Lem family has their way–a paper copy as well. When I received an email from Audible advertising this, I was initially excited but then a bit peeved because I knew it meant that my next listening credit was spoken for!
Opening Line: “At nineteen hundred hours ships time I climbed down the metal ladder past the bays on either side, into the metal capsule.”
Closing Line: “I had no idea, as I abided in the unshaken belief that the time of cruel wonders was not yet over.”
Quotes: “We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is.”
Rating: Good.  

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