Study Guide

Solaris Themes

  • Exploration

    Science fiction is often about exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilization, and all that space jazz. This is sort of the case in Solaris, too; Kelvin goes out to a new strange planet and learns stuff.

    The difference is that what Kelvin learns is mostly inside his head. Exploring out there just leads you back where you started, looking at yourself in a mirror—so when humans look out to the stars in Solaris, they're really looking into themselves. You can explore as much as you want, but the eyes that see the distant land, and the brain that processes it, are still your eyes and your brain. Adventure is a cramped and insular thing; the more you travel, the more you're stuck in the same place. Why bother even getting out of bed in the morning? (Yes, Solaris is a cheery book.)

    Questions About Exploration

    1. What do humans learn from exploring Solaris?
    2. What does Solaris learn in exploring humanity?
    3. Is exploration in Solaris an external or internal process?
    4. Is Kelvin's reading part of his exploration of Solaris? Is yours?

    Chew on This

    The exploration of Solaris the planet is really the exploration of Solaris the book.

    The exploration of Solaris the planet is really the exploration of God.

  • Foreignness and the Other

    Sci-fi stories are filled with freaky foreign others—think: logical Vulcans with pointy ears, toothy drooling monsters exploding from your stomach, invading Martians blasting puny earthlings with heat rays—and they're all scary or weird or disturbing. In Solaris, though, the real scary, weird, disturbing thing is that there might not be any foreignness out there at all. The Vulcans, the aliens, the Martians—they're all just you. Which either means that the icky aliens are you, or you are them. Either way, it is confusing and unpleasant. And also, you have pointy ears.

    Questions About Foreignness and the Other

    1. Is Rheya scary because she's an alien, or because she isn't?
    2. Are the aliens in Solaris human? Explain why or why not.
    3. Are Snow and Sartorius foreign or other from Kelvin's perspective?
    4. Can scientists understand the Solaris ocean? Can humans ever understand an alien?

    Chew on This

    Solaris shows that the alien is always the self.

    Solaris shows that the self is always an alien.

  • Identity

    Identity can mean who you are, your self, but it can also mean an identity—two things that are the same. So identity is both one and two—or more than that on Solaris, where people keep appearing out of thin air and replicating and splitting into several. How many people are there in Kelvin, anyway? How many people is Rheya? How many brains are floating around in that ocean? Rheya is part of Kelvin, and Kelvin is part of you, if you read him. In Solaris, it's hard to keep track of your self, and harder to figure if this self is in your head or out there, somewhere in space wearing a different dress… or the same one.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How many Rheyas are there, anyway? Are they all the same person? Explain your answer.
    2. If all the Rheyas are the same person, is that person Kelvin? Explain why or why not.
    3. Is the ocean just a reflection of the scientists? Does it have its own identity?
    4. Is the Kelvin at the beginning of the novel the same as the Kelvin at the end? How is this different from the multiple Rheyas… or isn't it?

    Chew on This

    Rheya is the most real part of Kelvin.

    The ocean is the most real part of Kelvin.

  • Isolation

    The characters in Solaris get a lot of alone time. The scientists all stay away from each other on the station, closeted with their visitors. And since their visitors are their own dreams, that means they're essentially sitting there by themselves with their thoughts. The ocean, too, is all by its lonesome with its waves and its mimoids, bubbling and sloshing. Sad lonely ocean brain. When you need to talk to Kelvin for company, well, you know you're really desperate. The guy isn't exactly a rollicking good time—which, of course you know, if you've read his analysis in the "Characters" section.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Is Rheya afraid of being left alone? Explain your answer.
    2. Is Kelvin afraid of being left alone? Explain your answer.
    3. Why are the scientists afraid Kelvin will see their visitors? What isolates them?
    4. Is anyone not alone?

    Chew on This

    Contact in Solaris is isolation.

    Contact in Solaris is the opposite of isolation.

  • Memory and the Past

    If ghosts are memories of the dead, then Rheya is a ghost in Solaris; she's Kelvin's grief made flesh. She's a nightmare of guilt: He feels responsible for her suicide, so he hideously kills her, or watches her die, over and over. She's also a dream of happiness: The two of them go everywhere together, sleep together, tell each other they love each other, and plan for a future. And she's a bland recapitulation of a not very happy relationship: They're constantly arguing and talking about how they can't communicate.

    Whether nightmare or dream or just memory, though, Kelvin can't get rid of her—which is how memories and grief work on earth, in space, or anywhere else humans may find themselves.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Does Kelvin come to terms with his grief? Or is he still not reconciled to Rheya's death at the end of the novel?
    2. Is Kelvin's grief more important to the novel than the character of Rheya? Should it be?
    3. Does Kelvin love Rheya or the memory of Rheya? Is there a difference?

    Chew on This

    Nothing in Solaris really happens; it's all just Kelvin's dream about Rheya.

    Memories in Solaris are more real and permanent than the people who remember them.

  • Religion

    Solaris is supposedly science fiction, but since it isn't really interested in explaining any of the science very clearly, much of it can also be interpreted as mystical, or even religious. You have dead people resurrected; a vast, unknowable consciousness that is both outside and able to read your inmost thoughts; miracles and—when explorers are destroyed by the ocean structure—devastating natural disasters as acts of (some sort of) god.

    At the end of the novel, Kelvin suggests that the ocean may be an imperfect god—but we don't know enough about it to figure out if it's imperfect or perfect. And, of course, its unknowable nature only makes it seem more divine.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Could Kelvin's imperfect god be the writer of the novel, Stanislaw Lem? Explain your answer.
    2. Is the ocean too much like the humans to be a god, or too different from them?
    3. Does the book suggest that science produces miracles? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    Kelvin is in hell being punished for his sins.

    The ocean answers prayers.

  • Science

    You'd think someone writing science fiction would like science. But not Lem. In Solaris, science instead often seems to be a joke. Scientists have theories about Solaris, and then the theories are shown not to work, and then they figure out new theories, and then those theories don't work either, and all the theories are equally nonsensical gibberish and in the end everyone just sort of gives up. Science is a silly, pompous endeavor, and it generates a lot of nonsense. Scientists think they have knowledge, and then the ocean kicks their butts and they whimper.

    Have you checked out the "Genres" section yet? Now would totally be a good time to do that.

    Questions About Science

    1. Do scientists ever learn anything for sure about Solaris? If so, what?
    2. Is Lem making fun of science or of science fiction? Or does he see a difference?
    3. Is the ocean a scientist performing experiments? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    Lem respects scientists even though he doesn't respect science.

    Kelvin respects scientists and science, but Lem doesn't seem to respect Kelvin.

  • Versions of Reality

    In Solaris, dreams become reality, and the contents of the characters' heads crawl out of their brains and become real. This is upsetting. It also calls into question what is "real" in the first place. Is reality out there, agreed upon, like the ocean? Or is it also what you think about the ocean? (That it's a big old brain, for example.) If Rheya isn't real, it also seems to call into question whether Kelvin is real—and of course, he ultimately isn't since he's a character in a book. The book is a kind of puzzle, tossing up different versions of reality to watch them totter about or fall apart—much as the ocean does.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. Which version of Rheya is the real Rheya?
    2. Kelvin often dreams or thinks he's dreaming. Are the dreams more real than his waking life or less real? Explain your answer.
    3. Does science present a version of reality? Is that reality more real than dream or less? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    Nothing that happens to Kelvin is real.

    Everything that happens to Kelvin is real.