"Solaris was widely regarded as a planet endowed with life - but with only a single inhabitant...The ocean spoke in the language of mathematics...This led scientists to believe they were dealing with a thinking monster, that it was some kind of protoplasmic sea-cum-brain grown so vast it covered an entire planet."
Stanislaw Lem is probably one of the most thought-provoking sci-fi writers in the world. While most of his works cover a simple idea - the impossibility of true communication between humans and a truly alien being - the sheer number of ways Lem is able to discuss and examine the idea is wonderfully energetic to anybody tired of aliens more human than extraterrestrial. Naturally, this means when reading a Lem piece expect it to be weird, unsettling, and at times downright scary.
Solaris explores a very interesting --and mildly depressing-- idea: there might be some intelligent creatures in the universe that we are simply incapable of ever understanding on even the most basic levels. The story shifts from science fiction to psychological thriller to exploratory essay to borderline nightmare-inducing horror multiple times throughout the entire novel giving an overall strange and surreal feeling to a simple concept.
The central plot of the story revolves around the existence of a planet dubbed Solaris. Solaris defies many of the basic laws of planetary motion -- such as maintaining a stable orbit in a system that should have forced the planet out of orbit and into one of its two stars. This naturally leads to a great deal of study into the planet. However, while the planet first appears to be covered almost entirely by a single, large ocean, it is later determined that the ocean is in fact a single living organism, aware of several applications for various mathematical principles that even space-faring humans don't possess.
Unfortunately every attempt at studying and communicating with the planet has been met with complete failure. The organism never responds to stimuli in the same way and often doesn't react at all. This basically causes scientists to simply watch the planet and catalog what it does without ever understanding how or why the planet performs in such a way. Eventually, a group of scientists decides to perform an unapproved experiment and bombard the planet with large amounts of X-ray radiation. The planet responds by creating a personal hell for each of the scientists in a vaguely I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream fashion.
The plot builds as the scientists on-board the orbital station attempt to come to terms with the strange planet and its terrifying effect on reality. The strange nature of the planet, combined with its eerie defense systems, unpredictable actions, and monstrous size, make the novel worth a read if nothing else.
Who Should Read This Story
Solaris is worth a read if you're:
Interested in reading one of the sci-fi classics
A fan of Stanislaw Lem
Interested in strange and unsettling books
Looking for aliens that aren't simply "humans with horns"
Everything considered, Solaris certainly deserves to be the classic that it is. With interesting characters, a wonderful premise, and a memorable plot, Solaris is definitely one of the best sci-fi books around. At times some of the translations can get a bit strange and might feel just a bit off but modern translation techniques seem to have removed most of the issues present in earlier editions. It's also fairly cheap, always a plus. You can buy it off Amazon here You can also get an audio-book translation here -- though I can't really comment on the quality of the translation as I haven't heard it.
Lastly, don't forget to leave a comment if you've read the book or like the idea. What do you think about truly alien aliens? Do you think not being able to communicate with an intelligent life-form would be depressing? Do you think scientists in reality would behave in a similar manner to those in the book?
Rusty is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and gets up to all kinds of shenanigans planning for any and all kinds of apocalypse when he's not busy reading, writing, or yo-yoing. Keep up with him and Rachel on Facebook and Twitter to get cool, space related news or click here to read more of his thoughts on the terror of alien invasion novels.