Study Guide

Solaris Quotes

  • Exploration

    I had missed the precious moment when the planet first came into view. (1.15)

    Kelvin launches himself into space on an exciting expedition and misses the big moment. The first small anti-climax of the novel. If you missed it when you read, though, worry not—there'll be plenty of others.

    A narrow looking-glass, built into the locker door, reflected part of the room, and out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of something moving. I jumped, but it was only my own reflection. (2.4)

    The alien thing turns out to just be Kelvin, after all. This is a kind of summary of the whole novel: Kelvin thinks he sees something new and different and ocean-brain shaped, but then it's only him (or his memory of his dead wife). It's hard to explore when your head keeps getting in the way.

    […] they bowed to the unknown, proclaiming the ancient doctrine, arrogantly resurrected, of ignoramus et ignorabimus. (2.36)

    Ignoramus et ignorabimus means "we do not know and will not know." Are there limits to human understanding and exploration? Or can we learn everything if we just keep looking? Does exploration lead to knowledge, or just to giant oozing colloids laughing at you?

    "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)

    Snow is saying here that not only can't human beings ever find anything in the universe but themselves, but they don't want to. Exploration isn't a quest for knowledge; it's a quest for the chance to stare at your own toes wiggling. If you ever find something really alien, you'll be confused and frightened; if you explore, it's to find yourself.

    The human mind is only capable of absorbing a few things at a time. We see what is taking place in front of us in the here and now, and cannot envisage simultaneously a succession of processes, no matter how integrated and complementary. (8.75)

    Exploration is limited by the explorer. The universe is one giant Jack Nicholson shouting, "You can't handle the truth!"

    "You don't love her. You do love her. She is willing to give her life. So are you. It's touching, it's magnificent, anything you like, but it's out of place here—it's the wrong setting." (10.96)

    Snow is arguing that in space, the rules of morality have broken down; love has no meaning. Out here on the borders of civilization, new rules apply, tough rules, explorers' rules. It's not clear if we're supposed to believe Snow or not, though. Is he right that social rules have broken down? Or is Lem making fun of violent sci-fi stories where the heroes murder and generally act un-heroically and it's okay because they're explorers?

    "Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed." (10.123)

    Or, in other words, screw your head on right before you go out to Mars.

    "Earth is a common type—the grass of the universe! And we pride ourselves on this universality. There's nowhere we can't go; in that belief we set out for other worlds, all brimming with confidence. And what were we going to do with them? Rule them or be ruled by them: that was the only idea in our pathetic minds." (11.10)

    Kelvin is saying that humans explore only to conquer or be conquered; it's all about control, not about actually finding anything new. Exploration is about imperialism, not curiosity.

    Over the years, Contact has become sanctified. It has become the heaven of eternity. (11.68)

    The dream of alien contact is directly compared to the dream of heaven. But guess what? God isn't any easier to understand just because he's a big ocean brain.

    "Contact? Still Contact? Haven't you had enough of this madhouse? What more do you need? No, it's out of the question. Count me out!"

    "Why not," he asked quietly. "You yourself instinctively treat it like a human being, now more than ever. You hate it." (13.67-68)

    Snow's reasoning here seems kind of off. After all, we hate the couch we always stub our toes on, but that doesn't make the couch a sentient being. Kelvin seems to have the right idea, though: Enough of these ocean-brains and couches leaping out to stub your toe willy-nilly. Snow can stay there rummaging in the couch cushions if he wants, but Shmoop is going home.

  • Foreignness and the Other

    "I don't know you…" His voice croaked. "I don't know you… What do you want?" (1.37)

    This is when Snow first meets Kelvin. He's freaked out because he thinks Kelvin is a visitor, and confused because if Kelvin is a visitor, then Snow should know him (because he would have come from inside Snow's head). It's not clear if Snow is more frightened because Kelvin is unfamiliar, or because he worries that Kelvin will be familiar.

    As I did so, I had a premonition, amounting almost to a certainty, that there was someone inside. I went in. (2.2)

    Kelvin's premonitions aren't especially reliable. Here he thinks there's someone in the room, but there isn't; it was just his own brain in there tricking him. Or… maybe he's sensing the psychic emanations of the alien ocean? Is he mistaking his own brain for an alien presence, or an alien presence for his own brain? Kelvin is a man of two minds.

    A giant Negress was coming silently towards me with a smooth, rolling gait. (3.9)

    This is the first visitor we see, and she's marked as "other" in numerous ways—she's black, she's a woman, she's dressed in non-Eurocentric style (topless and with a grass skirt). Alien-ness is presented in terms of race, gender, and culture. This could be a critique of the way sci-fi treats these issues, or it could just be a continuation of the way sci-fi treats these issues. Check out the "Symbolism" section for further discussion.

    As she tried to take off her dress, an extraordinary fact became apparent: there were no zips, or fastenings of any sort; the red buttons down the front were merely decorative. (5.134)

    Rheya is an artificial person, so she has an artificial dress. The dress isn't real, which makes sense, since the dress is in fact not real—it's part of a story, which you're reading about. You can't put on the dress, just like Rheya can't. Lem is emphasizing the foreignness of the alien Rheya, but he's also slyly pointing out the foreignness of the character, Rheya. A character in a book might be considered a kind of alien, with whom you get to have a limited psychic content, even if you can't ultimately understand them.

    I could not bear to expose myself again to the sound of that horrifying voice, which was no longer even remotely human. (5.156)

    Has Rheya really stopped sounding human? Or is Kelvin just seeing her as more inhuman now that he's shut her in the rocket and blasted her into space? Maybe foreignness is in the ear of the hearer—in how much humanity you're willing to grant someone else.

    "Its eyes sparkled, and you really would have thought it was a living child, if it hadn't been for the movements, the gestures, as though someone was trying… It was as though someone else was responsible for the gestures…" (6.208)

    Berton sees a giant human baby in the ocean, but it doesn't look quite like a giant human baby, and he doesn't like it at all. This sounds something like the theory of the uncanny valley: the idea that people are revolted by human representations that look almost, but not quite, like human beings. The baby looks like an alien other is manipulating it; it's uncanny. Humans are okay, and aliens are okay, but an alien that looks almost like a human is uncanny. Run, do not walk, Berton. Giant evil-possessed baby critter is coming.

    "He was giving me such a strange look."

    "So you're an attractive woman."

    "No, this was a different sort of look… as if…" She trembled, looked up at me momentarily, then lowered her head. (8.170-172)

    Rheya says Snow gave her a strange look—or perhaps a look that says that she is strange. Kelvin suggests it's a look of desire, emphasizing the difference between men and women, but Rheya thinks it's a look emphasizing another kind of difference. The parallel here seems important: Rheya is different because she's an alien, and being an alien is, for the novel, analogous to being a woman. Which raises the question—is Solaris the ocean a female or a male?

    "It is true that we are not exactly alike. But there is nothing wrong with that. In any case, whatever else we might think about it, that…difference… saved your life." (9.171)

    Kelvin is happy that Rheya is an alien other because this means she can't kill herself. Difference is also presumably part of the reason he loves her, since he's a heterosexual guy. Difference is good. But Solaris often suggests that difference doesn't exist. So that's bad. You can't win on Solaris, which is why no one has built a casino there (even though it would be a boost to the tourism industry).

    ""The Despairing Jelly," "The Planet in Orgasm"" (11.175)

    Kelvin's Ph.D. implied that the Solaris ocean might have something analogous to human emotions. Headline writers loved the idea, and cheerfully anthropomorphized the ocean. Kelvin thinks this is stupid—but, of course, his whole experience on Solaris has been of the planet anthropomorphizing itself, and creating a face (Rheya) that really does despair, and perhaps has orgasms (though Lem is very circumspect about Kelvin and Rheya's sex life: see the "Steaminess Rating" section). So are we silly for seeing the other as the self? Or are we silly for harrumphing that the other is not the self?

    "Do you know what he wants to do? He wants to punish this ocean, hear it screaming out of all its mountains at once." (12.34)

    Is Snow right about what Sartorius wants? He is saying that Sartorius is projecting humanity onto the ocean, but perhaps Snow is projecting his own feelings onto Sartorius? Other people are a mystery, especially when they are (or aren't) planet-size alien liquids.

  • Identity

    "Do you know Sartorius?'

    "In the same way as I know you—only from the photographs." (1.90-91)

    Here it sounds like Kelvin is capable of distinguishing the image from the person. Later, though, he's going to get confused. And maybe we are, too; after all, what do we see of Sartorius except this story about him? Maybe Kelvin is already mistaken in thinking that there's a real Sartorius behind the image.

    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)

    This is only the first exact replica we see in the novel. Kelvin thinks the replica helps him know where he is; Earth is a guide to space, what you've left behind you tells you where you are. It doesn't exactly work out that way for him, though. Watch that last replicated step there, Kelvin—it's a doozy.

    I felt I was justified in thinking that I had defeated the "simulacra," and that behind the illusion, contrary to all expectation, I had found the real Rheya again—the Rheya of my memories, whom the hypothesis of madness would have destroyed. (5.158)

    Kelvin has ejected Rheya into space, and he's congratulating himself on having rescued the real Rheya, who is in his head. But is there a real Rheya in his head? His memory of Rheya isn't any more real than the simulacra Rheya—in fact, they're the same real, since the simulacra is based on his memory. Kelvin is patting himself on the back without being sure which is his real back.

    "A normal man," he said. "What is a normal man? A man who has never committed a disgraceful act? Maybe, but has he never had uncontrollable thoughts?" (6.83)

    Human beings aren't entirely in control of their heads; thoughts scurry out. Which means, on Solaris, that "a normal man" isn't just a normal man; he's also that odd thought, over there, hiding under the desk or just out of sight beyond the viewfinder. If your thoughts aren't yours, then who are you? A bug-eyed alien, as it turns out.

    "How do you know I'm really the same old Ratface who landed here two years ago?" (6.110)

    Snow is saying he could be a visitor himself. It's interesting that he refers to himself here by his nickname, Ratface. Maybe Ratface and Snow aren't the same person; maybe Ratface came on the station and eventually was replaced by, or turned into Snow. Think about a comic book for a second: Is the Superman in the first panel the same as the Superman in the second panel? You are you now, but is the you tomorrow still you? Even without an alien ocean to intervene, Superman replaces himself. Maybe you do, too.

    The sight of the two identical dresses filled me with a horror which exceeded anything I had felt hitherto. (7.56)

    One identical dead ex-wife in your room is disturbing, but two is downright horrifying. The key here is probably that the two dresses show that Rheya is replaceable or replicable; she's not one person, but a hollow form. As mentioned before, it's the uncanny valley thing again: people who are almost but not quite people are the scariest people in the world.

    "In a way, it's a super-copy, a reproduction which is superior to the original." (7.159)

    If a copy is better than the original, is it still a copy? Or is it instead more real than the original? In this case, it's worth noting, the copied Rheya is the only Rheya we know; we never meet the original Rheya, and Kelvin hardly mentions her. So in terms of the novel, too, the fake Rheya is more real than the "real" Rheya.

    "You are not Gibarian."

    "No? Then who am I? A dream?"

    "No, you are only a puppet. But you don't realize that you are."

    "And how do you know what you are?" (9.41-44)

    Is Kelvin dreaming this, or is Gibarian there as a ghost, or as a visitor? It's never exactly clear. Either way, it's true that Gibarian is a puppet; he's a character in a book after all. He doesn't realize it, though. Do you?

    "I felt as if there was no body underneath my skin and there was something else instead: as if I was just an illusion meant to mislead you. You see?" (9.159)

    Rheya is despairing because she's realized she isn't real; she's just a hollow shell meant to deceive. That's the truth. But it's also the truth that people actually feel that way; Rheya could be describing a state of depression, of alienation from the self. Feeling unreal is one way real people feel. Again, Rheya feels more real as a character in part because she is able to articulate these feelings of unreality. The less real she feels the more real she feels.

    "Does she know that she came once before, and that you…." (10.54)

    Snow is referring to the time the fake Rheya came to the station and Kelvin killed her. But he could be just as easily referring to the time Kelvin left Rheya and she committed suicide. It's not just Rheya who comes back again and again; it's Kelvin's tragic relationship with her that repeats. It's like he's running the memory through his head over and over.

  • Isolation

    This was it, the descent. If I had not seen the figures racing across the dial, I would not have noticed the change in direction. I could hear my heart thudding heavily. I could feel the coolness form the air-conditioning on my neck, although my face seemed to be on fire. (1.12)

    Kelvin's first experience of space in the book is of being trapped in himself; he can't tell where he is, or do much except hear his heart thud inside a metal box. Reaching outward just leaves you more trapped inside. Don't say Shmoop didn't warn you.

    "Hello, Kelvin!" he croaked. "Well, did you discover anything?"

    "Yes… he's not alone."

    "Snow grinned sourly.

    "Oh, really? Well, that's something. Has he got visitors?" (4.69-72)

    Sartorius isn't alone… or is he? Does having visitors mean you're not alone, or more alone? Remember, Sartorius' visitors come out of his head, so it's like talking to your own daydreams. Not very social.

    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)

    You're always in your brain, which means you're always isolated, unable to get away from yourself, or out in front of yourself. You're stuck and alone. Unless maybe you're a psychic space ocean—then all bets are off.

    So the computer existed independently of me; that meant that the Station and its inhabitants really existed too. (4.103)

    Kelvin has proved to himself that he is not just making everything up. He would maybe be disappointed to learn that Stanislaw Lem is making everything up, though, so even if he gets out of his head, he's still stuck in Lem's.

    "… I saw you weren't there, I was very frightened, and…" (7.73)

    Rheya explains why she Hulked out and bashed a door down when Kelvin left her alone. Remember, Rheya (the real Rheya) killed herself when Kelvin left her. It's not entirely clear if she is desperate not to be alone because that's how Solaris visitors work, or if it's part of her personality because it's part of her personality.

    "We are the cause of our own sufferings. The polytheres behave strictly as a kind of amplifier of our own thoughts." (9.45)

    It's not aliens that torture you, it's your own thoughts. The reason the visitors are bad news is because the scientists aren't talking to anyone else; they're trapped in their own heads. They need to get a Facebook account and meet other people, obviously.

    Grastrom's conclusion was that there neither was, nor could be, any question of "contact" between mankind and any nonhuman civilization. (11.61)

    Humans can only talk among themselves, as the scientists only talk to their visitors. Just as individuals are isolated, so is the whole species isolated, at least in Grastrom's opinion. You can't touch anyone, no matter how many tentacles they've got.

    For days on end, I remained sitting in the library or in my cabin, accompanied by the silent shadow of Rheya. (12.9)

    He's alone with Rheya, the construct, but he might as well be alone with Rheya, the memory. Or, to put it another way, Kelvin is grieving.

    I was alone—alone in bed and in the cabin…

    "Rheya!" I screamed, one last time, then my voice gave out. I already knew the truth… (13.41-44)

    Kelvin's reaction here is almost exactly parallel to Rheya's reaction when Kelvin left her alone; he becomes violent and angry and then doesn't remember what he's done (though he doesn't tear through a door, it's true). Is Rheya's reaction the same as his because they're feeling the same emotions? Or because he created Rheya, and she's him? And if she's him, is he mourning himself? He may be the only one in there, which is presumably why he's upset.

    I shall find new interests and occupations; and I shall not give myself completely to them, as I shall never again give myself completely to anything or anybody… And this future Kelvin will be no less worthy a man than the Kelvin of the past, who was prepared for anything in the name of an ambitious enterprise called Contact. Nor will any man have the right to judge me. (13.5)

    Kelvin is contemplating a life of semi-isolation, in which he won't give himself to anyone again. Is the Kelvin in future semi-isolation different from the past Kelvin? Kelvin didn't seem like a particularly open or warm person to begin with, and you could see his embrace of construct-Rheya as an affirmation of isolation, rather than a breaking with it (since Rheya is just his memory). Kelvin's future (like Rheya's?) seems like it's going to be much the same as his past—isolated, in both cases.

  • Memory and the Past

    For a fraction of a second, my throat tightened and I thought longingly of the Prometheus and its strict discipline; the memory of an existence which suddenly seemed a happy one, now gone forever. (1.67)

    Kelvin has barely landed on Solaris, and he's already nostalgic for the lost past of being on a spaceship and having people tell him what to do. This is not a forward-looking, no-regrets kind of guy.

    But evidently the dead do not change; they remain eternally young. (5.5)

    This could be a comment on the afterlife, but it could also be a comment on how memory works by freezing people in time. And you could also say that memory has frozen Kelvin himself in time; he can't get past Rheya's memory (and we know this is true, because the magic ocean told us so).

    I leaned over her and turned back the short sleeve of her dress. There, just above her vaccination scar, was a red dot, the mark of a hypodermic needle. I was not really surprised, but my heart gave a lurch. (5.35)

    This is a creepy bit of business. Rheya has the mark of the needle that she used to kill herself. Kelvin's memory of her is also the memory of her death; the two can't be separated out.

    "I have the feeling that I've forgotten something," she went on, "that I've forgotten a lot of things. I can only remember you. I… I can't remember anything else." (5.68)

    Kelvin's memory of Rheya's memory is not what it should be: She only remembers him. And since he thought her up, you could see this as meaning he only wants her to remember him. Welcome to the Kelvin show.

    "No," she said at last, "be quiet, don't talk like that. It's no good, you're not the same person any more." I started to protest, but she went on: "No, you don't want me." (8.13)

    You could understand this as Rheya recognizing that something really weird is going on (like she's some sort of phantom projection made of neutrinos, for example), but you could also see it as Kelvin running through fairly standard-issue relationship-falling-apart conversations from his past. It seems possible that Kelvin and Rheya have had this exact dreary discussion before. They're doomed to repeat their breakup over and over inside Kelvin's head.

    "It… it didn't work," she stammered. "Why are you looking at me like that?" Then she screamed out loud: "Why are you looking at me like that?" (9.123)

    This is what Rheya says after she drinks liquid oxygen and then regenerates. She keeps trying to get rid of herself and keeps coming back, like a memory you can't forget.

    "Then who are you?"

    There was a long silence. Then she bowed her head and murmured:

    "Rheya… But I know that I am not the woman you once loved."

    "Yes. But that was a long time ago. The past does not exist, but you do, here and now. Don't you see. " (9.145-148)

    The real Rheya's gone, the fake memory Rheya is still around. So does that mean the memory of Rheya is the most important thing? It doesn't seem like it should. But Kelvin is under a lot of stress, admittedly.

    "Now all I see is you." (9.186)

    Again, you could see this as being kind of sweet (he loves this Rheya so much he's forgotten her prototype)… Or you could see it as kind of icky and sad—the memory of Rheya has completely erased the real Rheya, so now he's just in love with his own projection, not with the real woman.

    "Who do you want to save? Yourself? Her? And which version of her? This one or that one? Haven't you got the guts to face them both?" (10.81)

    Snow says "which version of her," in reference to the first and Rheyas who showed. But it could also mean the memory of Rheya or the real Rheya, or perhaps all the different memories of Rheya. Anyway, the answer to Snow's final question is clear enough: Kelvin does not have the guts to face them both. Guts are not his thing.

    […] I was finally no longer able to tell which of them was looking at me, my father or Giese. They were dead, and neither of them buried, but then deaths without burial are not uncommon in our time. (11.25)

    This is an odd passage, in which Kelvin's father (whom we know nothing about) and Giese (whom we don't know much about) blur into each other; a doubled, ill-defined ghost, to go along with all the other doubled ghosts Kelvin is keeping around himself. The line about the commonness of deaths without burial seems like it could refer to memory itself and the fact that, for Kelvin, people don't die and go away; they just stick around in his head.

  • Religion

    Compared with the proliferation of speculative ideas which were triggered off by this problem, medieval scholasticism seemed a model of scientific enlightenment. (2.33)

    Medieval scholasticism was devoted to trying to explain or understand the nature of God; it was notoriously confusing and abstruse. Lem suggests that Solaristics (and all science) is similarly involved and meaningless. Science is ridiculous because it's like religion. So, yes, he doesn't have a very high opinion of religion—or at least Kelvin doesn't seem to here.

    "Did you try the rope, or the hammer? Or the well-aimed ink-bottle, like Luther? No?" (6.17)

    Martin Luther was a monk who lived in the 1500s; he started the Protestant Reformation. He also sometimes saw the devil, and would drive him away by throwing ink bottles at him. You'd think the devil wouldn't be scared of an ink bottle, but then, you wouldn't think an alien ocean would make a simulacra that couldn't get out of its dress. Once you've got miracles happening, it's maybe silly to quibble about the details.

    The fact is that in spite of his cautious nature the scrupulous Giese more than once jumped to premature conclusions. Even when on their guard, human beings inevitably theorize. (8.51)

    This seems like it applies to science (humans can't help making scientific theories) but it also seems to apply to religion. Humans see things out there, whether gluons or angels or some combination of the two. Glugels? An-ons?

    "You are going around in circles to satisfy the curiosity of a power we don't understand and can't control, and she is an aspect, a periodic manifestation of that power." (10.96)

    Snow's language here, about powers and aspects and manifestations, seems theological rather than scientific. It's like he's saying, don't let God get you.

    "[…] so like my father's, that head, not in its feature but in its expression of old-fashioned wisdom and honesty…" (11.25)

    Kelvin here is saying that the picture of researcher Giese's head is similar to Kelvin's father's head. He's ruminating about this while having a semi-mystical experience as his brainwaves are measured, which suggests that the wise, old, honest father here is supposed to suggest the divine father as well. Is God Kelvin's dad? Or is God the big weird ocean? Could God be both at once? (Well, he's God, right? He can do whatever he wants.)

    The quest for this key, the philosopher's stone of Solarist studies, had absorbed the time and energy of all kinds of people with little or no scientific training. (11.60)

    The philosopher's stone was a mystical alchemical stone that could supposedly convert lead to gold (useful!). Kelvin is comparing the search to harness the Solaris ocean's energy to the search for the philosopher's stone. The stone was also supposed to grant immortality—and of course, the ocean gives Rheya a kind of immortality, or at least a second life. So religion, mysticism, and science are all transmuted into one another.

    According to Muntius, Solaristics is the space era's equivalent of religion: faith disguised as science. Contact, the stated aim of Solaristics, is no less vague and obscure than the communion of the saints, or the second coming of the Messiah. (11.67)

    Contact with aliens is like contact with God—tricky to pin down. Which makes sense: Have you ever tried to talk to you cat? If that doesn't work, it seems like aliens or God would be even tougher—or at least almost as tough. Meow.

    "… Faust in reverse… he's looking for a cure for immortality! He is the last knight of the Holy Contact, the man we need." (12.29)

    Faust was a medieval magician who supposedly made a deal with the devil for knowledge and power and immortality (the usual stuff). So Snow is comparing Sartorius to a reverse Faust, trying to give the devil back his deal by getting rid of the miracle visitors.

    "Do you happen to know if there was ever a belief in an… imperfect god?" (14.17)

    There have actually been beliefs in imperfect gods; there's a Christian philosophy called Gnosticism which has argued that the earth was created by a lesser spirit who didn't get everything right. And Joseph Heller in Catch-22 has a riff where he talks about how if there is a god he seems to be a drooling yokel who has screwed everything up. So Kelvin isn't original here (nor should he be since everything's a copy in Solaris).

    Must I go on living here then, among the objects we both had touched, in the air she had breathed? In the name of what? In the hope of her return? I hoped for nothing. And yet I lived in expectation. Since she had gone, that was all that remained. I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures still awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past. (14.69)

    Is Kelvin talking about meeting another Rheya clone? Or is he talking about meeting Rheya in heaven?

  • Science

    At that time the Gamow-Shapley theory—that life was impossible on planets which are satellites of two solar bodies—was firmly believed. (2.11)

    This is one of the first future scientific theories we hear about… and of course, it's wrong. Science is almost always wrong in Solaris.

    "Do you intend continuing with the experiments?"

    He gave a contemptuous shrug:

    "What good would that do?" (3.118-120)

    Experiments are useless, so abandon all hope, science folks. Your test tubes will not help you.

    "You must know that science is concerned with phenomena rather than causes." (6.105)

    Snow is saying that science can just catalogue or observe what happens; it can't tell you the cause of what happens. For example, science tells us how gravity works, but we still don't have a very good or certain explanation of why gravity works.

    "The source of all the various forms observed by Berton is Fechner—rather, Fechner's brain, subjected to an unimaginable 'psychic dissection' for the purposes of a sort of re-creation, an experimental reconstruction, based on impressions (undoubtedly the most durable ones) engraved on his memory." (6.259)

    The scientists are speculating about the actions of the ocean, which they think is acting like a scientist and performing an experiment. So… is the ocean really performing scientific experiments? Or is that just the sort of thing a scientist would think? Are scientists discovering new things, or are they just discovering themselves? Which would mean the ocean as scientist is just finding its own damp visage inside Fechner, too.

    But the final step, into the heart of the matter, had taken me nowhere. (7.137)

    Again, this is how science works in Solaris. You look closer and closer and closer and then you're looking at nothing. Though, note that in this case "nothing" is really the truth; Kelvin is studying Rheya's blood, and finds that ultimately it is made out of nothing. And Rheya really is made out of nothing—she's just an imaginary character in a book—so science tells the truth. Go science, go.

    "I don't know. I'm not a physicist." (7.166)

    Shmoop laughed at this. No one knows anything in Solaris, and the sci-fi explanations tend to be gobbledygook. The idea that it would all be explained if only we could get hold of a physicist just seems pretty funny. To Shmoop. At the moment.

    "Sartorius has decided that it may be possible to use some form of energy to destabilize the neutrino structure." (8.43)

    Shmoop likes the vagueness here: "[…] some form of energy to destabilize the neutrino structures." Sure, and Shmoop has decided that it may be possible to use some form of gehusaphritz to nemotize the flutterblurts. That'll show 'em.

    It plays variations on the theme of a given object and embroiders 'formal extensions' that amuse it for hour on end, to the delight of the non-figurative artist and the despair of the scientist, who is at a loss to grasp any common theme in the performance. (8.63)

    Here the ocean is presented as not being a scientist, but as an artist. In fact, it sounds kind of like it might be Lem himself, throwing up elaborations or noodling off there as he makes up his world, to the despair of other science fiction writers, who like things neater (with fewer flutterblurts).

    Grastram set out to demonstrate that the most abstract achievements of science, the most advanced theories and victories of mathematics, represented nothing more than a stumbling, one or two-step progression from our rude, prehistoric, anthropomorphic understanding of the universe around us. (11.61)

    More about how scientists know nothing. In particular, Grastram is saying that science is still anthropomorphic, which means it still sees the universe in terms of human beings. Scientists look at Solaris and see a huge brain, because the brain is the only thing that they have to look with.

    There were also visionless dreams, where in an unmoving, clotted silence I felt myself being slowly and minutely explored, although no instrument or hand touched me. Yet I felt myself being invaded through and through. (12.13)

    Another vision of the ocean as scientist, since it seems like the ocean that is examining him here. But… it might also be the reader, right? You're looking into Kelvin and invading him just like dissecting a frog. Though with less green innards, hopefully.

  • Versions of Reality

    "Mad! Good God!" He tried to smile. "But you haven't understood a thing, not a single thing. He never for one moment thought that he was mad. If he had he would never have done it. He would still be alive." (3.105)

    Madness would have comforted Gibarian, because he would have been able to separate his own version of reality from the really real reality. If your chair got up and danced a jig, would it be more upsetting to think you were imagining things or to think you really had a jig-dancing chair?

    His thin face, entirely composed of vertical planes, exactly as I had always imagined Don Quixote's, was quite expressionless. (4.45)

    Sartorius is described as a figure from Kelvin's imagination. And not just any figure, but Don Quixote, a character known for his own flights of imagination (he read too many romances and thought he was a medieval knight). So the supposedly real character Sartorius is a dream of a dreamer.

    There was only one possible explanation, one possible conclusion: madness. Yes, that was it, I had gone mad as soon as I arrived here. Emanations from the ocean had attacked my brain, and hallucination had followed hallucination. (4.88)

    Again the suggestion is that it's better to be mad than to have reality go mad on you. Part of the point of Solaris, though, is that you can't always tell the difference—especially in a book which is a fantasy in the first place.

    I persuaded myself that she had only been play-acting, that she had wanted to frighten me and had taken an overdose by mistake. (5.37)

    Kelvin is acknowledging that the Rheya in his head is not the same as the Rheya in reality. There are multiple Rheyas even before there are multiple Rheyas.

    "Certain events, which have actually happened, are horrible, but what is more horrible still is what hasn't happened, what has never existed." (6.80)

    Snow is saying that the real reality can be bad, but fantasies or versions of reality that never happened can be worse. This seems to suggest that fiction is worse than fact. Which seems hard to credit; horror movies deefinitely aren't worse than the Holocaust. In any case, since Solaris rather scrambles what's real and what isn't, it's not like Snow can tell the difference between what's happened and what hasn't anyway.

    "I saw 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)

    Berton sees a garden made by the ocean, and it actually looks like a fake garden. It is a real fake version of reality, and a fake real version of reality both at the same time. You half expect the ocean to make a department store with talking dummies next.

    The name he gave them indicates their most astonishing characteristic, the imitation of objects, near or far, external to the ocean itself. (8.55)

    Kelvin is talking about mimoids, or structures the ocean builds based on real things. The mimoids are similar to novels in this way: Lem, for instance, writes about people (like Kelvin) who are imitations of real people. And in this case Lem is writing about a mimoid that imitates literature; it's like a mimoid of a mimoid of a mimoid, and so on forever.

    "Leave me alone. They aren't real tears." (9.65)

    Can a fake person have real emotions? Or to put it another way, are Rheya's emotions real even though she's just a character in a book?

    I am the prisoner of an alien matter and my body is clothed in a dead, formless substance—or rather, I have no body, I am that alien matter. (12.10)

    Kelvin is imagining himself essentially in Rheya's position; a consciousness in a non-human body, or a consciousness that is a non-human body. You could say that he's experiencing her feelings of artificiality. Or you could say that she represents or embodies his feelings of artificiality. Alienation is a real feeling; maybe Rheya shows how we are all really aliens to ourselves.

    We talked about the future, and our life on Earth on the outskirts of some great city. We would spend the rest of our lives among green trees and under a blue sky, and never leave Earth. Together we planned the lay-out of our house and garden and argued over details like the location of a hedge or a bench. (13.2)

    Kelvin and Rheya are sharing a daydream of normality, a happily-ever-after romance ending. This is presented as unreal—or is it? Surely, the life together, never leaving Earth, is actually more real, or more likely, than that Rheya is an alien construct on a distant planet. Romance is more real than science fiction. Right?