Study Guide

Solaris

By Stanislaw Lem

Solaris Introduction

Solaris is science fiction for folks who think science fiction is just a little too exciting. So if laser battles and monster aliens erupting out of chest cavities is all a bit much for you—but you still like yourself some outer space—then you are in a Solaris mood. Put your feet up; rest awhile. This book is going nowhere fast.

So what's up with Stanislaw Lem's Solaris? Psychologist Kris Kelvin goes out to a space station monitoring the planet Solaris and its giant—possibly intelligent—ocean. On the station, Kelvin meets a replica of his ex-wife, Rheya, who killed herself back on Earth. He finds this really freaky. Which seems about right.

And that's pretty much it. The rest of the book is taken up with brief glimpses of the other scientists on the station (who have their own visitors) and long discussions about the history of scientific investigation of Solaris. And here's the thing about this history of scientific investigation: It boils down to the fact that scientists don't know diddly about Solaris. Yup—nothing.

That's kind of the fun of the book, though. It's less a plot than "a three-dimensional dream" (5.7), as Kelvin puts it, that you wander around in, toddling into dead ends and toddling back out again, horror and suspense and surprise and awe swathed in a dreamy haze of half-reality. Rather than the usual sci-fi narrative that takes you somewhere else, Solaris takes you nowhere in particular. Which is exactly its intention: This book believes you can't escape your own brain, and it uses this futile space exploration to demonstrate this.

Sound kind of heady? It is. But that's part of its appeal—it takes a tried and true genre and upends it, toying with readers' expectations and inviting them to rethink foundational ideas we easily take for granted like, say, that science ever produces truth. Perhaps because of this, since Lem wrote it in 1961, Solaris has been surprisingly popular. The 1970 French-to-English translation became very well-known in the English-speaking world, and the 1972 film adaptation by Russian Andrei Tarkovsky is widely considered one of the greatest films of all time.

Pro tip: The 2002 American remake of the original film by Steven Soderberg is not considered one of the greatest films of all time. But it does have George Clooney in it, so there's that. We're here to talk about the book, though, so grab your walking shoes and get ready to take a leisurely stroll through science fiction land.

What is Solaris About and Why Should I Care?

You should care about Solaris because it is about your head.

Folks tend to think they can get outside of their heads. You read this, for example, and you say to yourself, "Hey, Shmoop is talking to me about my head. I have achieved real contact with Shmoop. Shmoop and me, we are different, one from another. Shmoop is outside my head, there on the web, and when Shmoop talks, content crawls off the screen and makes its way into my brain and I am changed. It is like alien contact, but with a user-friendly online study guide." Or, you know, something like that.

But are you really outside of your head? Is there really a Shmoop that is different from you? Or is Shmoop just a projection of your own brain? How can you tell?

That's the big question Solaris asks—except instead of friendly online study guide, there's a giant sentient ocean. Psychologist Kris Kelvin thinks he is getting right out of his head and into the vast depths of space, but instead all he finds is himself. As the scientist Snow says:

We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. (6.90)

When Kelvin tries to understand Solaris, he just unearths his own past. Which begs the question: When you read Solaris, what do you see? Because while we can all read the same words on the page, what they mean varies for each of us—so arguably, we are each reading ourselves as much as we are reading Solaris. Feel free to agree or disagree, but good luck escaping your head in order to do so.

Solaris Resources

WEBSITES

Stanislaw Lem's Official Website
Web center for all things Lem, including includes news, biography, interviews, discussions of Lem's works, and more.

Stanislaw Lem Bibliography
An extensive list of Lem's works, including many links to other Lem resources.

That Genre Lem Hated
A site focused on science fiction books, including tons of reviews.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

The TV Movie No One Has Heard Of
The first film version of Solaris was a two-part, black-and-white 1968 Russian television movie. It was quickly overshadowed by…

The Really Famous Movie
Tarkovsky's ridiculously long (three hours) and slow 1972 Russian film Solaris is considered one of the greatest movies ever made. It's way more famous than the book, which is maybe why Lem resented it.

The George Clooney Movie
This 2002 remake of the Tarkovsky film is only ninety minutes long—so short, right? It impressed no one in particular, but it did have George Clooney in it.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Everything You Wanted to Know About Lem, Or At Least Many Things
A long essay about Lem and Solaris.

"Writing for me is drudgery. Hard labor."
A lengthy 1981 interview with Lem.

Lem is Dead, Long Live Lem
Lem's 2006 obituary in the New York Times.

The Boring Artificiality of Solaris
This is focused on the Tarkovsky film, but it touches on many themes in the book. Yes, boredom is a theme. Click the link to find out whether you are bored or fascinated by boredom.

VIDEO

Lady Gaga Reads from Solaris.
Here's a link you probably weren't expecting to see, huh?

Hey There, Ocean
A clip from the 1972 Tarkovsky film.

Stanislaw Lem Google Doodle
Yep—Google made a doodle honoring Stanislaw Lem. It has robots and aliens.

Solaris Sync Up
You know the whole Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz sync up trick? Well, apparently a band called the Lightning Bug Situation put out an album… that syncs up with the 1972 Solaris movie. Get ready to have your mind blown.

AUDIO

Solaris Versus Solaris: To the Death
A film critic compares the Tarkovsky film to the one with Clooney in it.

The Sounds of Solaris
Broadcast of Ben Frost and Daníel Bjarnason's symphonic suite "Solaris," inspired by Tarkovsky's film.

IMAGES

Brain in Space
There are some awesome book covers for Solaris, but this one may be our favorite.

In The Future, We'll All Look In Some Mirrors, Okay?
A still from Tarkovsky's 1972 film.

Mission to the Planet of Giant Authors
Stanislaw Lem and a miniature visitor.