Distant: That's Lem's attitude towards his novel. It sometimes seems like he's writing from the other room, with a blindfold over his eyes and humming loudly so you can tell he's not involved. Yep, the book is over here, and I, your author, am over there. It is going to chug along without me, so don't bother me, reader. And a lot of times, the distance even feels clinical. This can be literal, as in the conversation in which we learn that Gibarian, Kelvin's old friend, has killed himself.
"The locker? Was he dead?"
"His heart was still beating, but he had stopped breathing."
"Did you try resuscitation?"
"Why not?" (3.57-61)
They might as well be talking about the Solaris weather as about the death of Kelvin's mentor, right? Maybe Kelvin's upset, but even though he's the narrator, Lem doesn't let us get into it; he ain't here for the feelings.
In part, this clinical distance is part of the book's work as parody: Lem's making fun of science fiction's pretense to science. You want cold science? he seems to say. Here are two cold fish talking about a dead body. Have fun!
The parody is also a form of distance, though—and it expresses itself in a kind of abstracted playfulness. The novel is filled with puzzles, which Lem drops in and then never explains. One of these is discussed over in the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section—Kelvin finds a bunch of tools fused and melted, but we never find out how that happened or why.
Similarly, we don't see most of the visitors. Sartorius's seems to have a straw hat… and why does Snow have bloody hands in that one scene? Why is Gibarian's visitor a semi-nude black woman? For that matter, why do the visitors come and why do they leave? Lem sets up questions and then just abandons the answers, as if they have nothing to do with him.
This distant tone fits with many of the themes of the book. The novel is about how contact is impossible and you can never know the other, and so it treats the text as well as something you can't know. If you can't reach the mind of Solaris, why should you be able to reach the mind of Lem?
When Kelvin thinks, "I did not believe that it could respond to the tragedy of two human beings. Yet its activities did have a purpose" (14.69), he could be thinking of his own author: remote, apparently unfeeling, and yet, somehow purposeful and perhaps even caring—if only from far away.
Science fiction, or sci-fi, is a story that draws on imagined scientific advances for its themes and plot. Think: Star Wars, Star Trek, and some other thing that starts with star. With Solaris, despite not having star in its title, we're definitely in science fiction land because it features space travel, distant planets, alien life, and psychic whozits. Whozits and whatzits = science fiction, kids. Well, that or Dr. Seuss.
The thing is, though, Solaris isn't just sci-fi. It's also—kind of, sneakily, around the edges—a parody of sci-fi. Sci-fi is often about going out there into the new world with tricky gadgets and knowing more new cool stuff. Even dystopias are like that; Orwell's 1984 is a bad place to live, but that's because in the future they're better at being bad, thanks to fancy surveillance equipment and figuring out how to break people better than we've figured out how to break people.
Solaris, though, is all about how, in the future, we know less instead of more. Oh sure, they have clunky spaceships and they've discovered a new planet. But the more they study it, the more they know they can't know. As one Solaris specialist bleakly concludes, "there neither was, nor could be, any question of 'contact' between mankind and any nonhuman civilization" (11.61). Rather than finding new stuff, then—as is usually the case in the sci-fi genre—we find nothing. Go us.
The disputes in Solaris seem more like religious arguments than like science. The future isn't the future; it's just like the stupid past, where humans haven't figured anything out and aren't going to: "That human existence should repeat itself, well and good, but that it should repeat itself like a hackneyed tune, or a record a drunkard keeps playing as he feeds coins into the jukebox…" (14.68). Sci-fi writers, the book seems to suggest, are just writing the same stories as everyone else—only dumber. Bummer for Lem.
The title of the book—Solaris—is the name of the mysterious planet where dreams creepily come true. Easy, right? But if you've poked around this learning guide a bit, then you probably have a hunch there's something else going on here. Lem's nothing if not an awfully tricky dude, after all.
So here's the trick: The book is about the planet, yes, but the planet is also about the book. You turn the first page and are on the "launching pad" (1.1), you squeeze into the pages where there's "scarcely room to move" (1.2), and soon you're on that other planet, where you can't tell the inside of your head from the outside. The title tells you that this is a book about a book—or a book about how entering a book is like visiting another planet. And in this way, Solaris points to Solaris as much as Solaris points to Solaris.
And you thought science fiction was all bug-eyed aliens and light-sabers, huh?
At the end of Solaris we have Kelvin futzing about at the ocean and thinking vaguely spiritual thoughts about hope's renewal. So, water = rebirth. Again. Thanks, Lem. How many times have we seen that one? Approximately a trillion, give or take a billion.
But before you close the book muttering, "Ho-hum, more water imagery," consider this: That ain't water. The liquid Kelvin is mulling in is some sort of semi- or super-sentient colloid thingamabob. It's not your grandpa's Old Man and the Sea ocean we're asking for rebirth here—it's some sort of bizarre other thing with which "The entire human race had tried in vain to establish even the most tenuous link." Rebirth is figured not as the same old same old, then, but as something that looks like the same old same old but which actually no one can really understand.
So the ending note isn't so much, go into the water and be reborn or at least somewhat less dirty, hallelujah. Nope, it's more like wander into that whatever-it-is and hope for the best, sucker. Good times.
This is a metaphor for religious faith, in part. "Must I go on living here then, among the objects we both had touched, in the air she had breathed?" Kelvin laments in a state of grief. And when he asks, "In the name of what? In the hope of her return?" he's connecting the weird Solaris second-body rebirth to a rebirth in heaven.
So instead of making a boring water-rebirth comparison, you could see the ending as complicating that link, and thinking about the alien-ness or weirdness of faith, the way we look out into the distance and dream some dream is coming back to us that is not too foreign to hold in our hearts, to make sense of. When Kelvin says "hope of her return," it is fair to think of Jesus—either his resurrection or his second coming—and, in doing so, to recognize just how otherworldly both of these concepts are.
The ending may also be deliberately self-referential. The alien liquid here is not water and rebirth; it's a metaphor for water and rebirth, a weird ocean standing in for the real ocean. And that's exactly what happens in the usual ocean metaphors as well: They're not real oceans either, just words on pages. "That liquid giant" Kelvin's talking about isn't the ocean; it's something like the ocean, which is to say, it's words.
When Kelvin wishes that "the time of cruel miracles was not past," you can see him as lamenting the fact that the book's over and he won't see Rheya again—or as urging you to turn right back to the first page, so he can do the whole thing over again.
Solaris is set on a space station hovering near the surface ocean of the planet Solaris. Solaris the planet is mostly ocean, and the ocean is maybe sort of sentient—scientists think it's a kind of big brain, which could be controlling the orbit of the planet.
You don't necessarily get a strong sense of place in ether the space station or on Solaris itself—but that's perhaps part of the point. Again, Solaris is a brain, and going to Solaris, therefore, is less going to a particular place than going into a head—perhaps Lem's, perhaps yours, perhaps someone else's.
This is most clear when Berton describes flying over the Solaris ocean, circling through the fog and suddenly coming upon:
[…] something which looked like a garden. Yes, a garden. Trees, hedges, paths—but it wasn't a real garden; it was all made of the same substance, which had hardened and by now looked like yellow plaster. (6.180)
We eventually learn that the garden is probably something from the mind of Fechner, a pilot who committed suicide by leaping into the ocean. Solaris has become, more or less literally, Fechner's mind; the landscape is his dreams. In flying through Solaris, Berton is flying through Fechner's head.
Again, this is an obvious instance in which the setting is a brain or a dream. But you could read virtually all of Solaris this way. For instance, early in the novel, Kelvin is wandering around the station and muses that:
I had never lived on the Station, but during my training on Earth I had spent six weeks in an exact replica of it; when I reached a short aluminum stairway, I knew where it led. (4.1)
Kelvin has been on the station before he's been on the station—the station is in his head before he's in the station. In coming to the station, then, he is entering a memory; the image in his brain of what the station is like. The setting of Solaris is the interior of his mind—which is where he finds Rheya.
Solaris is short, and the language and sentence structure is straightforward. Which is good, because there's a lot of dry technical mumbo jumbo, and the plot is vague and drifty and suggestive rather than page-turning and event-filled. So Shmoop considers this read middling hard, and as such, we've placed it smack in the middle of the tough-o-meter.
Part of the distance of tone is achieved by the matter-of-fact prose. Lem describes the most impossible, miraculous, or terrifying situations in the same flat voice. Check it out:
But the spasms resumed, and again I had to hold her down. Now and then she swallowed drily, and her ribs heaved. Then the eyelids half closed over the unseeing eyes, and she stiffened. This must be the end. I did not even try to wipe the foam from her mouth. A distant ringing throbbed in my head. (9.118)
That's Kelvin describing the gruesome death by liquid oxygen poisoning of the love of his life, using language appropriate to describing a rather uninteresting experiment. "But the spasms resumed." "This must be the end." That is one low-key horrific death scene.
The matter-of-fact dryness becomes almost like a parody of itself in the passages where Kelvin goes on at length about Solaris history and Solarist theories. But it can also attain a kind of blank poetry, as in the final paragraph, when Kelvin's longing and confusion becomes more poignant because of the understatement:
I hoped for nothing. And yet I lived in expectation. Since she had gone, that was all that remained. (14.69)
You feel more is expressed here because Kelvin, as always, expresses so little in his clipped, simple sentences. Unmodified by descriptive language, the chasm between his hope and expectation looms in its fullest possible size.
The Visitors are constructs plucked from the scientists' fantasies and dreams and memories. So guess what? They symbolize fantasies and dreams and memories.
Easy enough, huh? Who said this Solaris stuff was hard? Oh wait, we kind of did—and this is definitely true when it comes to the black woman visitor.
The first visitor Kelvin sees on the station is a black woman, or, as Kelvin says, "A giant Negress was coming silently towards me with a smooth, rolling gait" (3.9). He goes on to say:
I caught a gleam from the whites of her eyes and heard the soft slapping of her bare feet. She was wearing nothing but a yellow skirt of plaited straw; her enormous breasts swung freely and her black arms were as thick as thighs. (3.9)
He adds that her grass skirt resembled "one of those steatopygous statues in anthropological museums." FYI: The word steatopygous means having fat or prominent buttocks.
Kelvin's initial alien encounter, then, is with a stereotypical, enlarged, supposedly primitive black African woman, dressed in sexualized native garb. Kelvin refers to her with the racist word "Negress" and focuses on her rear end. This woman, then, is not only alien because she is alien—she is alien because she is black, and because she is a woman, and because she is a black woman. She defines difference and otherness, in short, because of racism and sexism—she is strange, sexual, and grotesque because she is not white and not a man. It's terrible.
Lem may be drawing a parallel between science fiction and earlier exploration narratives. Fantasies of exploration often involve white Europeans going into remote areas of the globe and conquering or discovering non-white peoples, so Lem could be exposing the way that those stories and science fiction exploration are related.
Contact, whether with people on the globe or in space, involves an image in one's mind of the other as different. So when Kelvin says, "Rule them or be ruled by them: that was the only idea in our pathetic minds!" (11.10), he could be referring to science fiction space travel stories, but he could also be referring to imperial adventures on Earth. The message, then, is: Go out, find people who look different than you do, and kill them or enslave them. That's what exploration is all about.
So again, the book is probably using the black woman as a symbol of the way that science fiction stories of exploration are just another riff on older stories of exploration and conquest, which were often racist. Gibarian (whose visitor she is) is subconsciously revealing the subconscious of the science fiction genre, then, exposing the ugly fantasies that have often powered the genre.
It's also true, though, that Lem's explorers and scientists on the station are all white men. The only two visitors we meet, on the other hand, are both female. So you could argue that Lem himself sees women, and especially black women, as other/different/alien. If he's exposing the racist and sexist dreams behind science fiction, those dreams also seem, to some degree at least, to be his. Lem was, after all, a white man with a fondness for science.
The mimoids are formations thrown up by the Solaris ocean, discovered originally by Giese. As Kelvin says, the name that Giese game them "indicates their most astonishing characteristic, the imitation of objects, near or far, external to the ocean itself" (8.55). In other words, the mimoids look like real-world objects; the ocean copies things. The visitors, then, could be seen as a new kind of mimoid, copied from human thoughts.
The mimoids can also be seen as dreams, though, and if Giese was following a dream, that explains perhaps why he "fell in love with the 'mimoids,' and was soon devoting all his time to them" (8.54). If the mimoids are dreams, however, that they are written about suggests that they're the kinds of dreams you write down. In other words, the mimoids could be seen as literature, or literary forms—the great ocean brain trying to write Hamlet, or at least "The Three Little Pigs."
The mimoids, then, are a symbol of writing—and of Solaris itself. Which means that Solaris symbolizes Solaris, and vice versa. (See "What's Up With the Title?" to untangle this mess.) When you read about the mimoids struggling to form images, you can imagine Stanislaw Lem, seated at his desk, brow creased, trying to form the image of a mimoid. And then give him a little whirly cap and a funny false nose with a mustache or anything else that suits your fancy. It's your mimoid, after all, so go with whatever you like.
Kelvin reads a lot in Solaris. And let's face it: A lot of the books he reads are pretty boring. On and on he goes, telling us about how this Solarist thought this and that Solarist thought that, but then they decided they were wrong and we don't actually know anything about Solaris. And then he picks up another book and it says that this Solarist thought this and that Solarist thought that and… well, you get the picture.
So what gives? The reason we need these boring books is that Lem thinks they're funny. And the reason he thinks they're funny is that the world is filled with boring books. Boring books of science, in which scientists say how they think this and that this other scientist thinks that, and then they decide they're both wrong and don't know what to think. All the science books are, if you will, fiction. They're science fiction that insists on not being seen as science fiction. Which is actually pretty funny if you think about.
So the Solarist books, and Kelvin's careful, exasperating attention to them, are a joke. They're a joke on science, which often doesn't know what it's talking about, and they're a joke on science fiction, which never knows what it's talking about, even though it pretends it does. Hardy har har—everyone takes themselves so seriously, right? And in this sense, the Solarist books are also Lem making fun of himself, of his own effort as well as his own product.
The tools? What tools? Shmoop can hear you asking. And Shmoop will explain.
A long, flat box lay in the hollow at the base of the shower: I carried it into the room. As I put it down, the springlid flew up and disclosed a number of compartments filled with strange objects: mis-shapen forms in a dark metal, drotesque replicas of the instruments in the racks. Not one of the tools was usable; they were blunted, distorted, melted, as though they had been in a furnace. Strangest of all, even the porcelain handles, virtually incombustible, were twisted out of shape. Even at maximum temperature, no laboratory furnace could have melted them; only, perhaps, an atomic pile. I took a Geiger counter from the pocket on my spacesuit, but when I held it over the debris, it remained dumb. (2.5)
Kelvin finds these mysterious melted tools early in the book. They show up later—he uses one to cut his hand when he first sees Rheya to try to wake himself up from what he assumes is a dream—but they are never explained. We never learn what happened to them.
Did one of the visitors twist them up with its superhuman strength? Did they come along with a visitor—are they malformed visitor baggage, like Rheya's dress that doesn't quite work? Did Gibarian or one of the other scientists perform some experiment on them? Feel free to make up your own story; it's as likely as any other.
The tools, then, are a puzzle without an answer—just like the planet Solaris itself, and just like Rheya, the memory that is an alien that is a human (or is she?). Solaris is science fiction as unanswered puzzle; it's a book that winds round and round and then leaves you in dead ends and blind alleys. The tools are just one small example, a little plot hole to look at while you fall into the bigger ones.
Kris Kelvin is the guy who's telling you the story, and he's also the main character. You can't get out of his head—which is a central theme in the story. Solaris is about being confronted with the contents of your skull, and about how you can't ever get out of that skull, so everything is ultimately unknowable.
Kelvin's not particularly reliable or forthcoming as far as narrator's go (how much do we find out about Rheya anyway?), but again, that's the point. You're trapped in there with him—or as the man himself says:
I was going around in circles; there seemed to be no escape. It was not possible to think except with one's brain, no one could stand outside himself in order to check the functioning of his inner processes. (4.95)
Welcome to Kelvin's brain.
Okay, so Solaris is fairly plot-less in a lot of important respects, so it doesn't fit super well into any of Booker's plot analyses, since Booker was all about the plot, and Lem is all about the sitting there. What we need is an eighth Basic Booker plot, Waiting Around to Die.
But we've only got the seven of them, so here we go: Voyage and Return.
Kelvin launches off for Solaris in Chapter 1, and is teetering on the edge of something very strange through Chapter 2.
In Booker's analysis, a happy dream stage should come first. But Kelvin doesn't really get a chance to enjoy the Solaris weirdness—he's freaked out right from the beginning, when he sees the black woman at the beginning of Chapter 3, and from there, things only get worse, sending us right into the next stage.
Rheya appears to Kelvin, and he ejects her into space in Chapter 5. He learns that she'll be back, though, moving us forward in Booker's trajectory.
Again, Booker thinks this should come before frustration and nightmare, but Lem is tricky. After his initial panic, Kelvin is enchanted by the idea of having his wife back, and falls in love with the fake Rheya. There are some bumps of course (like when Rheya tries to kill herself), but nonetheless they start thinking about a life together, even planning to go back to Earth (at the beginning of Chapter 13).
This really doesn't fit Solaris; there's no escape and no return. Instead, the scientists just figure out how to get rid of the visitors, Rheya convinces them to make her disappear, and that's it. Kelvin will go off planet eventually, but at the end of the book he's gone to see the Solaris ocean, where he wishes that Rheya would come back. So it's not so much that he's gotten away as that he wishes he could go back. You might say this is a twist on the classic return.
Kelvin, our somewhat uninspiring hero, goes to Solaris station and finds everything higgledy-piggledy: Gibarian dead, Sartorius locked in his room, Snow snowing unpleasantly, and an inexplicable semi-nude black woman wandering around. That's the initial mucked up situation that Kelvin has to navigate. We're not sure of much, but we're also definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Kelvin is visited by an alien reproduction of his dead ex-wife, and then by another after he kills the first. He is freaked out at first, but then falls in love with her. Kelvin's relationship with Rheya is the main emotional conflict and complication of the story; they're the two characters you know most about, and really the only ones who have any meaningful extended interaction. They're the ones who matter, and what happens to them is what you're going to care about, if you care about anything, which this book doesn't exactly insist you do.
Solaris is one of those books where not much happens, and what does happens slowly. The rising action doesn't so much rise as drift, with Kelvin cogitating and reading and then doing nothing some more.
Given that, it's somewhat hard to figure out a climax or a crisis. But if Shmoop had to find one point, Shmoop guesses Shmoop would choose the moment where Kelvin allows Snow and Sartorius to read his EEG.
It doesn't feel like a big deal, but it's when the scientists get what they need to stop the visitors from coming back. Kelvin's vision of his father and Giese (11.25) also suggests this is an important turning point. Kelvin even more or less says the rising action is done: When Sartorius asks, "Do you think that stage has been successful, Dr. Kelvin?" Kelvin says, succinctly, "Yes" (11.28-29). It's not much, but then again, anticlimax is kind of what Solaris is all about.
The scientists have the key, and now it's only a matter of time until Rheya kills herself. The resurrection is over, so now it's time to get back to death. Action here passes almost entirely out of Kelvin's hands; he does even less than usual as the scientists and Rheya and even the ocean (with its weird storming) conspire to get things back to normal. Not only is the action falling, but Kelvin seems to have fallen out of action altogether.
Just like the rising action didn't really rise and the climax didn't really climax, the resolution doesn't resolve much. Kelvin goes out to see the ocean for himself, and decides to wait for Rheya's return, which is more or less what he's been doing the whole time. He's living with his grief—but he's always been living with his grief, and he'll go on living with his grief. And so the story ends.
Before we break Solaris down into a sort of beginning-middle-end framework, we'd like to be clear that Lem went to great lengths to refuse this framework with Solaris. A big part of what this book does is refuse classic plot trajectories… but we're going to squeeze it into this one anyway. It's how we do.
From the beginning of the book when Kelvin arrives to the end of Chapter 6, when the second Rheya shows up and Kelvin decides to treat her as if she's the original Rheya he married.
From Chapter 7, when Rheya and Kelvin begin their life together on the station, to the end of Chapter 11, when the scientists complete the preparations that will allow them to get rid of the visitors.
From Chapter 12, as Kelvin waits to see the effects of the experiment, to the end of the book, when Kelvin, having lost Rheya a second time, goes out to the ocean and determines that he will wait for her to return.