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  • Yehoshua Paul

1961 - Solaris

1961. The Berlin Crisis. Stanislaw Lem writes Solaris.

“...It is easy not to believe in monsters, considerably more difficult to escape their dread and loathsome clutches.” (Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad)

East Germany is experiencing a brain drain. Over 4.5 million people have escaped to the West through the East Berlin border, 20% of the country’s population. The Soviet Union is frustrated, but there is little it can do. The four occupying powers – The United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union – are jointly administering the city border, making it an easy route through which people can escape.

In 1958, the Soviet Premier, Nikita Kruschev, issues his first ultimatum. He demands that Western powers withdraw their forces and make Berlin a free demilitarized city – under the control of East Germany. In reaction, the Western powers negotiate (for two years), but just when it seems like a compromise can be reached, the Soviet Union shoots down an American spy plane, and Kruschev reissues his ultimatum.

The Soviet Premier knows that neither side wants the ultimatum to be implemented, but East Germany’s puppet government also needs to solve the problem of people using the Berlin border as a convenient escape route. The countries decide to construct a barrier, and secretly begin stockpiling material, waiting for a diplomatic green light.

In June 1961, President Kennedy and Kruschev meet in Vienna to hammer out their issues. President Kennedy makes the mistake of inadvertently admitting that the US won’t actively oppose the building of a barrier. He then later delivers a televised speech in which he announces his plan to ask Congress for an increase military spending. Kruschev has his excuse.

In August, the Foreign Ministers of the US, UK, France and West Germany secretly meet in Paris to discuss the Berlin Crisis. None of the countries want open warfare. The US wants a deal. The other three countries want economic sanctions, and all of this information is faithfully reported back to the Soviet Union by spies. Kruschev has reassurance and construction on the Berlin Wall begins.

The East German government closes off the border. Soldiers tear up all the roads to the western part of the city making them impassable to vehicles. 32,000 combat and engineer troops install barbed wire entanglements, mine fields and fences around the western portion of the city. They then clear a huge no man’s land for shooting fleeing refugees. The fences will later be replaced with a concrete barrier. While construction is going on, the Soviet army maintains a presence in the city to discourage Western interference and contain potential riots.

The Berlin Wall is now an established fact. The loophole enabling East Germans to flee their country has been eliminated. They are now no different from any other country in the Eastern Bloc, ruled by a puppet government, given the facade of a fake democracy, and allowed to run their lives as usual, provided they don’t protest too hard. And, it’s not like life is all that bad. Poland for example, just got its third round of fake elections and that didn’t stop Stanislaw Lem from writing Solaris.

Shelf of books by (and one about) Stanisław Lem in nine different languages

“A writer should not run around with a mirror for his countrymen; he should tell his society and his times things no one ever thought before”. (Stanislaw Lem)

Stanislaw Lem (1921 – 2006) was a genius. He was a Polish author (and trained physician) who wrote science fiction, philosophy and satire. Lem’s books have been translated into 41 languages and have sold over 45 million copies.

Lem had Jewish roots, but he was raised with no connection to Judaism or Jewish culture. He discovered the hard way what that meant when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. He and his family managed to use false papers to avoid the Ghetto, but he would later recall how it was Nazi legislation that forced him to acknowledge his ancestry.

After Nazism came Stalinism, and with it censorship. Lem chose to focus his talents on science fiction, a less restricted genre. However, even science fiction writers still had to deal with the occasional forceful edits, and most of Lem’s work produced during the late forties and early fifties were compromised with artificial references to “the glorious future of Communism”.

This all changed starting from 1956 when Kruschev introduced de-Stalinisation to the Soviet Union, leading to the Polish October and an increase in freedom of speech. During this period, Lem wrote over a dozen science fiction novels as well as numerous essays on science and culture.

What was it that made Lem such a genius? Personally, I think it has a lot to do with how he was able to combine hard science with philosophy and religion to ask difficult questions about God, human nature and the reality we live in. Much of his work is original in the sense that instead of raising a mirror to society, it poses new questions, gets you to think about them, but leaves them as questions. Elaborate word formations, idiomatic wordplay, puns, alien and robotic poetry are added bonuses intended to torture his translators.

“How do you expect to communicate with the ocean, when you can’t even understand one another?” (Stanislaw Lem, Solaris)

Solaris is a first person narrative told from the perspective of Dr. Kris Kelvin a psychologist who has just arrived on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. However when his craft docks, there is no one there to greet him. After much searching Kris is able to discover one drunk crewmember Snaut. From him he learns that the other crewmember, Sartorius, has reclused himself in his room, and that the third and final crewmember, Gibarian has committed suicide. Also, there is a mysterious woman wandering about the station, and that all of this has to do with the mysterious ocean covering the planet, an ocean that defies all human comprehension.

The planet Solaris is a planet with an unstable orbit that defies the laws of physics. Eighty percent of the planet’s surface is covered with a plasma ocean, which in many ways behaves like a gigantic biological organism, except it’s an ocean. The ocean can manipulate space, time and matter, doesn’t communicate, and for over a century has been baffling human scientists trying to extract some sort of meaning from this god-like enigma.

Original cover of Solaris

“But what am I going to see?

I don't know. In a certain sense, it depends on you.” (Stanislaw Lem, Solaris)

The novel is not a mystery novel, although it contains many mysteries. The mystery is how Lem teases the story. Each chapter, raises more questions than it answers, but these questions while related to the current mystery that the planet Solaris is throwing at the space station, also engage in philosophy, religion and the nature of human existence – questions that inherently cannot be answered.

When I started reading Solaris, I had no idea what to expect. I knew it was considered by many to be Lem’s greatest novel, but I had no prior knowledge of Lem or his writing style before this book.

This book is not an easy read, although the first chapter does a deceptively good job of drawing the reader in. It’s not a straightforward tale, but it’s also not an essay posing as a story. It’s a bit of both, and this has advantages and disadvantages. For example, when it comes to exposition, there is a lot of it. Initially, this is a good thing as it brings the reader up to speed with the planet. Afterwards, it weighs down the story even though the information is necessary to understand much of what is happening in later chapters.

Characters are all too human, but in ways that I found annoying. Lem decided to torture the psyche of his cast of scientists, which explained their behavior and attitudes. I just found it very difficult to empathize with.

The deeper questions posed by the novel were abstract issues, as far as I was concerned. I consider the premise of the novel, the existence of an incomprehensible, alien god-like entity, to be entirely theoretical. Most religions don’t consider God to be all that distant or unknowable, and communication is there for those who want to listen. It’s the interpretation and implementation where things tend to get garbled. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the theoretical issues raised, but they didn’t affect my outlook. They were more like “what if” thought exercises.

If you’re looking for a deep science fiction mystery novel that will leave you with lots of questions and no answers, this book is highly recommended. You could easily read it five or six times and each time come away with a different experience. Personally, I don’t think I’ll be revisiting the novel or Lem because I find the writing a little too heavy for my tastes, but I can see many others enjoying it.