Study Guide for Stanislaw Lem: Solaris (1961)

More information about Lem
During the Soviet era, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem was the most celebrated SFauthor in the Communist world. Although he read Western SF when he was young, hesoon found it shallow and turned for inspiration to the long tradition ofEastern European philosophical fantasy. Western readers not familiar withthis tradition often misread his works, expecting more action - oriented,technophilic fiction. Solaris comes closer to being atraditional SF novel than most of his works, but its main thrust is stillphilosophical. There is a deep strain of irony which runs through this work, forall its occasionally grim moments. The great Russian experimental director Andrei Tarkovsky made an important film based on the novel which is considerablymore confusing that the book. Keep in mind that what you are reading is atranslation from a French translation which was in turn translated from thePolish original. We are some distance from Lem's original words.
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Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 9, Chapter10, Chapter 11Chapter 12 Chapter 13,Chapter 14

Chapter 1: The Arrival
The novel begins as the narrator, a scientist named Kris Kelvin, is descendingtoward the surface of the mysterious planet Solaris. How many instances can youfind in this chapter of failures to perceive, breakdowns in communication, etc.?This is to be the main theme of the book. Whereas conventional SF poses puzzlesonly to solve them, Solaris concentrates on the puzzlingnature of reality and the limits of science. The ship that has brought Kelvin toSolaris is called the Promethus, a name associated withcivilization and enlightenment in Greek mythology, but also with condemnation toterrible torment. As he enters the station suspended above the planet'ssurface, note the many instances of wear, disorder and confusion. In the original Polish, Snow's name is "Snaut." What do themany concrete details given suggest about the state of things in the station?Snow's strange initial reaction to Kelvin will be explained later. Whatfeatures of this chapter are reminiscent of a mystery story?
Chapter 2: The Solarists
Keep in mind the scribbled word "Man!" as you read on. See if you canunderstand why someone would have written it. Why does Lem treat Kelvin's"premonition" as he does? Much of this novel is a well - informedsatire on the process of scientific research and publication. What may seem tothe novice like tedious passages of irrelevant exposition reminiscent of JulesVerne (what modern SF fans call "info - dumps"), are in fact oftenamusing parodies of academic scholarship - - especially those which occur later inthe novel. Whether or not you catch the humor in these passages, they arecrucial for understanding the central themes of the novel. They provide a widevariety of interpretations which succeed only in revealing the minds of theinterpreters, leaving Solaris as mysterious as ever. In this way they arestrikingly reminiscent of the writings of another Eastern European master, FranzKafka. The ability of Solaris to control its own orbit anticipates some of thewilder fantasies built on the "Gaia hypothesis," according to whichEarth has the ability to maintain conditions favorable to life. Solaris' abilityto remodel the instruments created to study it resembles quantum physics' uncertainty principle: studying subatomic particles affects their behavior inways that make it impossible to separate the observer from the observation.This theory underlies the whole novel, and embodies many of the most crucialproblems facing modern science. "Ignoramus et ignorabimus" is aslogan of the ancient skeptics proclaiming the impossibility of certainknowledge: "We do not know and we will not [cannot] know."Skepticisms' approach to knowledge is being compared to that of quantumphysics. What is the difference between these two theories: the "autisticocean" and the "ocean - yogi?" What does the condition ofGibarian's room suggest? What plan of Gibarian's does Kelvin discover? In whatway does the manuscript of this plan reflect the themes of the novel? Note howthe ending of the chapter begins to resemble the mood of a ghost or horror storyor monster movie. Watch how Lem begins to depart from traditional"monsters - from - outer - space" themes as the story unfolds.
Chapter 3: The Visitors
Even in 1961 the figure of the "giant Negress" would have beenoffensive to many Western readers; but keep in mind that Lem was writing inPoland, where there were very few black people. As it turns out, there are goodreasons for her stereotypically cartoon - like appearance. How does Kelvin try toget more information about the X - ray experiments out of Snow? How did Gibariandie?
Chapter 4: Sartorius
"André Berton" is a pun on the name of the famous surrealistspokesman and leader André Breton, who delighted in breaking down logicby irrationally juxtaposing objects in an arbitrary fashion - - an apostle ofdisorder and madness. ÒSartoriusÓ is the name of a thigh muscle, not a common personal name in either Polish or English. Lem studied medicine, and was probably taken by the name when he encountered it in his anatomical studies. The identity and nature of Sartorius's child"visitor" are deliberately kept a secret. One can make guesses, but itwould be a mistake to treat this as a conventional "mystery" to be"solved." How do we slowly come to realize that Sartorius' secrecy ismotivated not so much by fear as by shame? What is significant about the"Negress's" feet? An old - fashioned technique of discovering whetherone is dreaming or awake is pinching oneself. What more sophisticated methoddoes Kelvin invent? What does this mean: "I was not mad. The last ray ofhope was extinguished"?
Chapter 5: Rheya
The name rendered "Rheya" here is "Harey" in Polish, doubtless latered because it suggests the English masculine name "Harry." In what ways is Rheya like a traditional ghost? What does the hypodermic needlescar suggest, and how is it connected to what Kelvin "had said to her fivedays earlier"? Why does Kelvin prick himself with the spindle? How doesKelvin discover that this is not the original Rheya? Avenging ghostsdeliberately set out to haunt those who have wronged them. In what way is Rheyadifferent? Does this make her more or less terrible? How is the behavior ofthis Rheya different from that of the original? Why is it significant that sheknows about "Pelvis"? What stops Kelvin from strangling Rheya? Why arethere no fasteners on Rheya's dress? "Spanner" is British English for"wrench."
Chapter 6: "The Little Apocrypha"
Why is Snow now more willing to visit with Kelvin? The reference to thewell - aimed ink bottle comes from a famous incident in which Protestant reformerMartin Luther was visited by the Devil in his study one day and threw anink - bottle at the figure to frighten it away. Supposedly the stain of the inkremained visible on the wall. What does Snow mean by saying "We have two orthree hours at our disposal"? Although scopolamine is famous as "truthserum" it is also a powerful sedative, and that is its use here. What is Snow's theory about the nature of the " visitors"? Snow's long speech on space exploration in the paragraph which begins "It's almost as if you're purposely refusing to understand" is one of the best - known and mostoften - quoted in the book. What are its main themes and how do they relate totraditional science fiction? "Succubi" is the plural of"succubus," a sort of evil spirit who haunts men by having sex withthem. Why is Snow convinced that Solaris is not trying to destroy them? Why doesKelvin consider it important to point out to Snow that his burn wounds have nothealed? Note that this being the early sixties, a growth of beard is considereda sign of emotional collapse. Why does Snow say it might be worth while stayingon Solaris although they cannot learn anything about the planet? To understandBerton's theory of how the ocean operates, one must understand something ofFreud's theory of the unconscious (not to be confused with the"subconscious"). The unconscious consists of feelings and memorieswhich have been suppressed from the conscious mind by "contraryfeelings" mostly having to do with shame and guilt. Although they are notaccessible directly, their presence is revealed in a distorted form in dreams andas a powerful distorting force which can cause involuntary mistakes in speech("Freudian slips"), and neurotic obsessions and illnesses of variouskinds. How do Solaris' activities seem to relate to the unconscious? Be carefulnot to use the common misspelling "unconscience."
Chapter 7: The Conference
What is different about Kelvin's second encounter with a "Rheya"? Whyis he so horrified by the sight of the two dresses? What are the main superhumanqualities of "Rheya"? What can you infer from "Rheya's" eating patterns? What does Kelvin discover about the visitor's blood? Theobjections to Kelvin' s neutrino theory are perfectly sound. The whole passageis merely a pseudo - scientific way of expressing a mystery, though the basicconcept is important to grasp. The ocean has somehow created objects with astructure that differs at the deepest level from ordinary atomic structure. An angstrom is one - hundred - millionth of a centimeter. A neutrino hasalmost no mass and hardly interacts with other matter at all. It therefore makesa good basis for an unsolvable mystery. It is not clear whether or not there isany conscious intention behind the creation of the "phi - creatures."Which possibility is more frightening, in your opinion?
Chapter 8: The Monsters
In what way is this speech of "Rheya's" ironic: "I'm such acoward"? What kind of book does "Rheya" choose to examine? In thelong passage describing Giese's work we learn more about the"mimoids." Their name comes from "mimic" and the suffix"oid," which implies similarity. This sort of loving detail is afeature of Jules Verne's fiction, but here it serves a different function.Whereas Verne is seeking to educate (sometimes simply copying out long passagesfrom reference books), Lem uses a Kafkaesque technique to bewilder the readerwith a plethora of concrete detail which does little to unveil the mystery,only multiplying possibilities, though in brilliant language. An "erg" is the standard unit of energy, defined as the amount of work done by one dyneacting through a distance of one centimeter. A dyne is the unit of force whichin one second can alter the velocity by one centimeter per second of a mass ofone gram. Analyze the philosophical statement in the paragraph which begins"The human mind is only capable... ." What are its implications? Howhas Kelvin's attitude toward "Rheya" changed? What does "I'mdivorced" mean? According to Freud, the rational and moral parts of ourmind dwell in the conscious realm. It is their activity which keeps theunconscious suppressed. Therefore what is the point of beaming encoded versionsof their conscious thoughts at the ocean via X - rays? What is the alternativeplan, and how does it differ from this?
Chapter 9: The Liquid Oxygen
How is the arrival of the "new" Gibarian different from the otherstrange appearances which have occurred? What has happened to the tape recorder,and why is it important? What is different about the suicide in this chapter?What does "Rheya" learn from it? How have Kelvin's feelings changed?How have "Rheya's" feelings about herself changed? "Firstcontact" with an alien species is a major theme in SF. What does Kelvinhave to say on this subject?
Chapter 10: Conversation
Why does Kelvin shout "You're out of your mind!" when Snow suggeststhat he determine whether the phi - creatures can exist away from the planet'ssurface by examining the vehicle he earlier launched into orbit? According tothe Greek historian Herodotus, when the Persian general Xerxes was frustrated inhis attempt to invade Europe by a storm at the Hellespont which made it toorough to cross, he had the stream scourged by beating it with rods, cursing it.This has traditionally been used as an illustration of tyrannical egotism andirrationality. In the paragraph beginning "I'll give you an answer"Snow keenly analyzes Kelvin's motives. What are his main points? Why is Kelvinafraid to carry out the proposed experiment?
Chapter 11: The Thinkers
According to Kelvin, what did human beings have in mind when they first set outfor other worlds? This chapter contains a long satirical passage in theKafkaesque mode tracing the history of Solaristics, a passage also reminiscentof some of the stories of Jorge Luis Borges. The more scholarship you haveread, the more amusing it will be. If you are not familiar with much of thissort of thing it may well seem pointless. Identify a few of the patterns thatrun through this history. The most important passage, one which underlies thephilosophy of the entire novel, concerns the pamphlet by Grastrom. This is theother most famous passage in the novel. What are its main messages?
Chapter 12: The Dreams
Describe Kelvin's dream (the long one, told in the paragraph beginning "Onthe fifteenth day"). What do you think it means? When Snow calls Sartorius"Faust in reverse" he is thinking of the fact that one of Faust'sfirst uses of the devil's powers after signing his famous contract was to makehimself decades younger, greatly prolonging his life. "Agoniaperpetua" is Latin for "eternal torment, referring to the punishmentof the damned in Hell. Snow calls Rheya " Aphrodite, child of Ocean."Why? (Hint: look up Aphrodite in any encyclopedia or mythology handbook.) Whatdo you think Kelvin is feeling in the last paragraph of this chapter?
Chapter 13: Victory
Why can't Rheya and Kelvin "live happily ever after?" How doesKelvin's last dream affect the emotional impact of the immediately followingscene? Why does Kelvin want to destroy Solaris at first? What does this title ofthis chapter mean?
Chapter 14: The Old Mimoid
How has Kelvin been changed by his relationship with "Rheya?" Manicheanism was a religion founded by a third - century prophet named Mani,distantly related to Persian Zarathustrianism. Like the latter, it argued thatthe presence of evil in the universe could be explained by the existence of anevil god named Ahriman who was perpetually in conflict with a good God namedAhura - Mazda. The sort of imperfect god Kelvin describes had in fact beendescribed by at least two writers before him: Nikos Kazantzakis presents such animage of God in many books, particularly The Saviors of God, andOlaf Stapledon in The Star - Maker; and Lem specifically acknowledges having read the latter. What is the argument that Kelvin makes against the ability of humanbeings to create gods according to their individual desires? What do you thinkof this argument? What do you think Kelvin is trying to do as he plays with thewaves? Why is it significant that he cannot actually touch the surface of theocean? What does the growth of the flower in his hand suggest? "Finis vitaesed non amoris" means "life ends but not love." What does thelast sentence of the novel mean?

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