Solaris (novel)

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Cover of the first edition
Author Stanisław Lem
Cover artist K.M. Sopoćko
Country Poland
Language Polish
Genre Science fiction
Publisher MON, Walker (US)[1]
Publication date
Published in English
Media type Print (hardcover and paperback)
Pages 204
ISBN 0156027607
OCLC 10072735
891.8/537 19
LC Class PG7158.L392 Z53 1985

Solaris is a 1961 philosophical science fiction novel by Polish writer Stanisław Lem. The book centers upon the themes of the nature of human memory, experience and the ultimate inadequacy of communication between human and non-human species.

In probing and examining the oceanic surface of the planet Solaris from a hovering research station the human scientists are, in turn, being apparently studied by the sentient planet itself, which probes for and examines the thoughts of the human beings who are analyzing it. Solaris has the ability to cast their secret, guilty concerns into a material form, for each scientist to personally confront. All efforts of human probing into the secrets of Solaris proved to be futile. As Lem wrote himself, "The peculiarity of those phenomena seems to suggest that we observe a kind of rational activity, but the meaning of this seemingly rational activity of the Solarian Ocean is beyond the reach of human beings".[2]

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.[3]

Plot summary[edit]

Solaris chronicles the ultimate futility of attempted communications with the extraterrestrial life on a far-distant planet. Solaris is almost completely covered with an ocean that is revealed to be a single, planet-encompassing organism. Terran scientists concluded it is a sentient being and are attempting communication with it.

Kris Kelvin arrives aboard Solaris Station, a scientific research station hovering near the oceanic surface of the planet Solaris. The scientists there have studied the planet and its ocean for many decades, mostly in vain. A scientific discipline known as Solaristics over the years has degenerated to simply observing, recording and categorizing the complex phenomena that occur upon the surface of the ocean. Thus far, they have only compiled an elaborate nomenclature of the phenomena — yet do not understand what such activities really mean. 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 intrusion exposes the deeper, hidden aspects of the personalities of the human scientists — while 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 simulacra, including human ones; Kelvin confronts memories of his dead lover and guilt about her suicide. The torments of the other researchers are only alluded to.

The ocean’s intelligence expresses physical phenomena in ways difficult for the protagonists to explain using conventional scientific method, which deeply upsets the scientists. The alien mind of Solaris is so greatly different from the human mind that attempts at inter-species communications are a dismal failure.


The protagonist, Dr. Kris Kelvin, is a psychologist recently arrived from Earth to the space station studying the planet Solaris. He was cohabiting with Harey (Rheya in the Kilmartin/Cox translation), who committed suicide when he abandoned their relationship. Her exact double is his visitor aboard the space station and becomes an important character.

Snaut (Snow in the Kilmartin/Cox translation) is the first person Kelvin meets aboard the station, and his visitor is not shown.

The last inhabitant Kelvin meets is Sartorius, the most reclusive member of the crew. He shows up only intermittently and is always suspicious of the other crewmembers. His visitor remains anonymous; Kelvin only gets a glimpse of a straw hat.

Gibarian, who had been an instructor of Kelvin's at university, commits suicide just hours before Kelvin arrives at the station. Gibarian's visitor was a "giant Negress" who twice appears to Kelvin; first in a hallway soon after his arrival, and then while he is examining Gibarian's cadaver. She seems to be unaware of the other humans she meets, or she simply chooses to ignore them.

Harey (Rheya in the Kilmartin/Cox translation, an anagram of Harey), who killed herself with a lethal injection after quarreling with Kelvin, returns as his visitor. Overwhelmed with conflicting emotions after confronting her, Kelvin lures the first Harey visitor into a shuttle and launches it into outer space to be rid of her. Her fate is unknown to the other scientists. Snaut suggests hailing Harey's shuttle to learn her condition, but Kelvin objects. Harey soon reappears but with no memory of the shuttle incident. Moreover, the second Harey becomes aware of her transient nature and is haunted by being Solaris's means-to-an-end, affecting Kelvin in unknown ways. After listening to a tape recording by Gibarian, and so learning her true nature, she attempts suicide by drinking liquid oxygen. This fails because her body is made of neutrinos, stabilized by some unknown force field, and has both incredible strength and the ability to quickly regenerate from all injuries. She subsequently convinces Snaut to destroy her with a Sartorius-developed device that disrupts the sub-atomic structure of the visitors.

Cinematic adaptations[edit]

Solaris has been filmed three times:

Lem himself observed that none of the film versions depict much of the extraordinary physical and psychological "alienness" of the Solaris ocean:

Criticism and interpretations[edit]

In an interview Lem commented that the novel "has always been a juicy prey for critics", with interpretations ranging from that of Freudism to anticommunism, the latter stating that the Ocean is the USSR and people on the space station are the Soviet satellites. He also commented on the absurdity of the book cover blurb for the 1976 edition that the novel "expressed the humanistic beliefs of the author about high moral qualities of the human".[5] Lem noted that the critic who promulgated the Freudist idea actually fell into a blunder, because he based his psychoanalysis on dialogues from the English translation, whereas his diagnosis would fail on the idioms in the original Polish text.[6]

Cultural allusions and works based on Solaris[edit]

English translation[edit]

Various translations of Solaris, including the English one

Both the original Polish version of the novel (first published in 1961) and its original English translation are titled Solaris. Jean-Michel Jasiensko published his French translation in 1964 and that version was the basis of Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox's English translation of 1970[12] (published by Walker & Co., and republished many times since).

Lem himself, who read English fluently, repeatedly voiced his disappointment about the Kilmartin–Cox version, and it has generally been considered second-rate. Since Lem sold his rights to the book to his Polish publishers, an improved English book translation seemed unlikely. Always remaining in print, the rights to it never reverted to the author.


On 7 June 2011, released the first direct Polish-to-English translation as an audiobook download narrated by Alessandro Juliani.[13] The original Polish text was translated into English by Bill Johnston, with the approval of Lem's estate.[14] An ebook edition (ISBN 978-1-937624-66-8 ) of the Johnston translation followed.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Solaris". Solaris. Retrieved November 17, 2010. 
  2. ^ Stanislaw Lem, Fantastyka i Futuriologia, Wedawnictwo Literackie, 1989, vol. 2, p. 365
  3. ^ Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, fourth edition (1996), p. 590.
  4. ^ Lem, Stanislaw (December 8, 2002). "The Solaris Station". Stanislaw Lem. Retrieved July 13, 2013. 
  5. ^ Lem's FAQ
  6. ^ Lem's commentary on Solaris (retrieved March 2, 2017)
  7. ^ Staff (July 29, 2007). "Solaris". BBC Radio 4. Retrieved July 15, 2013. 
  8. ^ Devdariani, Dimitry (2012). "Solaris Play". Dimitry Devdariani. Retrieved July 13, 2013. 
  9. ^ "Single of the Day: Fierce Mild "Solaris" (2017) – the AU review". the AU review. Retrieved 2017-02-15. 
  10. ^ Размышления после премьеры, at ballet author's website
  11. ^ Лем Станислав - Радиоспектакль Солярис
  12. ^ Kellman, Steven G., "Alien autographs: how translators make their marks", in Neohelicon (2010) 37:15 (online).
  13. ^ Flood, Alison (June 15, 2011). "First ever direct English translation of Solaris published". The Guardian. Retrieved July 13, 2013. 
  14. ^ Solaris: The Definitive Edition audiobook
  15. ^ Lem, Stanislaw (November 22, 2014). "Solaris [Kindle Edition] - Bill Johnston (translator)". Retrieved February 8, 2016. 

External links[edit]