Sep 1, 2019

Lem's Autistic Alien

Humans ponder the living
planet of Solaris.
cover art by Paul Lehr
This is the first of three related blog posts about Stanisław Lem's science fiction novel Solaris.
Here is something I wrote back in 2012:

"Stanislaw Lem died in 2006. His story Solaris was one of the first science fiction novels I read and it remains one of the most disturbing first contact stories I've ever read. It would be interesting to know how much influence Solaris has had on other authors such as Asimov (Nemesis)"

Lost in Translation
Written in Polish and first published in 1961, Solaris was translated into French and then that French version was eventually translated into the English version (download here) that I read back in the mid-1970s. To this day, I have emotion-tinged memories of how I reacted when I read a copy of the 1971 Berkley Medallion edition of Solaris with cover art by Paul Lehr.

Berkley International Science Fiction
The feelings that were evoked in me fifty years ago by my reading of Solaris still rest in my memory like some alien artifact that was telepathically planted in my brain. I received a $0.25 weekly allowance and so I did not have big bucks to spend feeding my addiction to Sci Fi. That there was a cheap paperback edition of Solaris, a story written by a non-American, was something of a miracle. I don't know how many Berkley International Science Fiction titles got published or how they selected the authors to be showcased. In the mid-70s I read other Berkley Sci Fi novels such as The Santaroga Barrier.

Bill Johnston interview
I should probably read the more recent (2011) directly translated (by Bill Johnston) version of Solaris, but there are simply some books (such as the nightmarish Level 7) that I will never read twice. In the case of Solaris, I agree with Randy Byers: "It's a very dark, disturbing novel", so I will probably never read it three times.

2011 eBook
As a 14-year-old boy, I was reading science fiction for entertainment, and I was only modestly entertained by Solaris. Mostly I was disappointed and, as I recall, "revulsion" was the predominant feeling that Solaris provoked in me. A 14-year-old should probably not be reading about a suicidal woman who tries to kill herself by drinking liquid oxygen.

Inter Ice Age 4
by Kōbō Abe,
another medical
science fiction
story teller.
Apparently, Lem was not happy with Western science fiction as an escapist literature, so it should surprise nobody that he had goals in mind for his readers other than simply entertaining them with a rousing space travel adventure story about meeting aliens on a distant exoplanet.

cave art
Autistic Aliens
Given Lem's educational background, we can't expect that he would have written an American-style Sci Fi adventure story about interstellar space travel. On the other hand, what other writer of science fiction would have created a novel about an "autistic ocean"? The meaning of the term "autistic" has changed in the 60 years since Lem wrote Solaris. Originally, autistic children were often viewed as having an "unhinged mind", in the same way that psychotic adults were thought of as having "escaped from reality" into a delusional inner world. These days, autism research leans towards identifying defects in brain function that disrupt a child's ability to function as a human being with normal inter-personal social behaviors.

Aliens or just one Alien?
I'm agnostic with respect to this question: is there only one life form on the planet Solaris or is there a population of Solarians? I assume that the alien(s) of Solaris has/have telepathic powers: not only can they "read" the memories of humans, but if there are multiple Solarian "individuals" residing in the ocean of planet Solaris then I imagine that they can easily share their thoughts with each other and their "individuality" is very different from what most people experience as human individuals.

In a human society, being autistic disrupts the pattern of normal social interactions with other people, but it can also insulate the autistic individual and allow them to "do their own thing". These days we think of an autistic spectrum that may merge at one end with "normal" people who have only minor problems with social skills and sometimes these are unique "high functioning" individuals who can do great things... maybe create a great work of art or become a famous scientist. Maybe the "autistic ocean" of Solaris needed to attract autistic human scientists; maybe only a scientist on the autism spectrum had a chance of 1) understanding the alien life form(s) of Solaris, or 2) of being understood by the alien ocean.

American Sci Fi adventure: Skylark
Why was I disappointed when I read Solaris? After my startling discovering of the existence of science fiction novels, I had been reading books such as "Doc" Smith's Skylark novels which feature the adventures a dashing hero who jumps in his spaceship, zooms off to distant planets and meets a multitude of humanoid aliens. 👽

Most of the imaginary space aliens from the Golden Age of American Sci Fi had human-like interests and motivations, so it was easy for a 14-year-old (me) to follow along with the story. Still, the first Sci Fi novel that I ever read (The Gods Themselves) explored human interactions with extremly odd aliens, so it is not as if Solaris was my first exposure to non-humanoid aliens.

Assignment Nor'Dyren
I read Assignment Nor'Dyren at about the same time when I read Solaris. In the decades since, I have read Assignment Nor'Dyren many times; it is a flawed novel, but it is FUN. 😋 Remembering Solaris as dreary and annoying, many decades passed before I could bring myself to read it for a second time (I'm glad I did, Solaris is not nearly as horrifying for an adult as it was for me in my innocent childhood). Assignment Nor'Dyren suffers from a common problem found in many science fiction stories: humans travel out into the interstellar depths of the galaxy and find that there are many other humanoid species, all miraculously having reached the same technological stage of development. This was one of the dominant ways of writing about space aliens ever since the early days of "planetary science fiction" with its stories about finding human-like civilizations on Mars and Venus. Many story tellers have no interest in "weird aliens" who might be a billion years into their age of high technology, so they write about space aliens who are very similar to we humans.

Solaris: A World Thinking
Solaris was completely different! As a young Sci Fi fan, it was frustrating to read Solaris because I wanted a rational and coherent account of an interesting alien creature or culture. Instead, Lem provided me with a confusing stream-of consciousness vision of a trip to Solaris as experienced by Dr. Kelvin who struck me as a poor excuse for a scientist of the future. In Assignment Nor'Dyren, the story is told from the perspective of a practical, hands-on repairman who, like Kelvin, goes through a mind-wrenching ordeal upon reaching a distant exoplanet. However, young readers (like my 14-year-old self) will find it easier to deal with the accidental death of an alien in Assignment Nor'Dyren than the multiple deaths of Kelvin's young wife that Lem wrote into Solaris. For me, Assignment Nor'Dyren was a satisfying adventure story while Solaris was a source of disappointment.

An old 1960s Mimoid
Mercury space capsule.
Disappointment #1: The first page of Solaris reads like a description of a 1961 Mercury astronaut's descent to Earth. Where were the sparkling spaceships of the future? Disappointment #2: In Solaris, the first words spoken by Kelvin make him sound like a blubbering crybaby. Where is the dashing Sci Fi hero with nerves of steel? Disappointment #3: rather than arrive at a sparkling Hi Tek research station, Lem drops Kelvin (and readers) into a hell hole, what seems like a run-down haunted house. I had not intended to buy a ghost story! 😞

Lem had no interest in providing 14-year-old American Sci Fi fans with their dashing heroes. And it wasn't only that Kelvin does not play the role of a stereotypical Sci Fi action figure. The first person he meets (Dr. Snow) at the Solaris research station acts like a total dick (and he's drinking 🍾🍺). Rather than tell Kelvin why he's acting so strangely and what has been happening at the station, he reflexively lies: "'s nothing, I assure you." Then with his next breath, "A lot has been happening here." Then Snow "explains" why the station commander is not there to welcome Kelvin by letting Kelvin assume that there was "an accident". At this point, Kelvin just shrugs and wanders off into the station.

A 14-year-old science fiction fan does not like to read a story about adults who are pathetic liars and who are acting irrationally. Soon enough, Kelvin learns that the commander of the station recently killed himself. Kelvin has just traveled for 16 months across a vast interstellar distance to reach the Solaris research station and yet he barely reacts to the news of the commander's death. 😕

The Metamorphic ocean.
The alien ocean can manufacture
objects such as an artificial child.
image source
We might graciously say that Lem wrote Solaris as a mystery story.  Alternatively, I can hypothesize that Lem was playing with the idea of autism and the telepathic effects of his "autistic alien ocean" on the research station's staff. In the first chapter, without any explanation, Dr. Snow warns Kelvin that he might see "visitors" on the station. Kelvin asks if the visitors might be what he calls "polytherians". Not until the next chapter's exposition dump do we learn that Solarian life has been classified as being in it own unique category: Polythera Syncytialia Metamorph.

cover art by Paul Blaisdell
Readers of Solaris gradually come to know Kelvin fairly well by watching his thought processes and following his actions and conversations. After deciding that the station commander is dead and Dr. Snow is a drunken lunatic, Kelvin goes off and contemplates the commander's dead body. Ew. And then we get a meandering info dump: Kelvin's thoughts about the history of "Solaristics" (the study of the planet Solaris), including a flat statement that the first scientific investigation of Solaris detected no life on the planet. But the second expedition to Solaris decided that the ocean was "organic", maybe a giant living cell. Kelvin knows vast amounts about the 100 year long history of Solaristics, but he thinks that the voluminous published studies of Solaris are just a "useless jumble of words". If these are truly Kelvin's inner thoughts about the state of Solaristics, then why has he come to Solaris?

in the Ekcolir Reality
original cover art by Paul Lehr
As the Chapter 2 information dump continues, we learn that some of the researchers' devices that had been lowered into the ocean had been cleverly modified by the ocean, and some had even been "duplicated" by the ocean. In fact, the mimoids (odd structural artifacts that occasionally that rise from the ocean surface of planet Solaris) routinely make "copies" of any human artifact that is placed nearby. However, we are told, mimoids ignore humans and other Earthly life forms.

symmetriad image source
A huge gap in Kelvin's stream of consciousness "narration" is that there is no mention of life on other exoplanets besides Solaris. We have no context for the science of Solaristics or the general state of human science in this future time. 😕

While learning about Kelvin, I ended up asking: what is wrong with this pathetic excuse for a planetary scientist? Are we supposed to conclude that Kelvin does not care about Solaristics? Why did he come to Solaris and what does he care about?

Electroencephalographic analysis of Rheya.
original cover art by Wojciech Siudmak
It is not until one third of the way through Solaris that we learn Kelvin is a psychologist. Almost at the end of Solaris, the reader finally learns that Kelvin has studied patterns in the "discharges" of the ocean that seem to resemble electrical activity inside the human brain. Typically, our unreliable narrator (Kelvin) can't be bothered to provide we readers with any details about his research. Similarly, we never hear any details about the organic chemistry of the alien ocean, as if calling it "organic" is all we need to know. With such omissions, Lem is telling me that he was not actually trying to write a science fiction story; he simply used a Sci Fi setting to write a type of anti-science lamentation.

The Ghost Gift
One quarter of the way through Solaris, Kelvin receives a "gift" from the aliens: a woman named 'Rheya'. But it takes 80 pages more before we learn that this is a copy of his wife and that Rheya killed herself ten years previously (when she was only 19 years old).

Rheya on twitter
The "narration" method used by Lem is vastly annoying for any reader who enjoys linear narrative. Readers might begin to wonder: is this a Sci Fi story about an interesting type of space alien or is it a psychological study of Kelvin? Has Lem selected this method for telling the story as a way of making readers share the frustrations that have been experienced by generations of Solarists? Quickly we learn that Rheya is fearful of her husband because he has a "very bad temper". Ya, this just keeps getting better and better. 😠

Dr. Kelvin and Rheya's brain scan.
When they first meet on Earth,
is he investigating what is wrong
with the brain of a suicidal girl OR
does Rheya become suicidal because of
the anti-social behaviors of her husband?
"Kelvin's personal ignorance, personal loss, and personal guilt are the narrative's main thrust." (source)

Kelvin believes that he was largely responsible for Rheya's death. He married this young woman, then left her, ignoring her warning that she would kill herself. Kelvin thought Rheya was too much a coward to actually kill herself, and told her exactly that as he left her. Given that Kelvin is such a creep, I was intrigued by the idea that the 2002 film version of Solaris went to the trouble to provide viewers with a significant amount of background information about this "happy couple". Did Kelvin become a psychologist after Rheya's death or before?

What would Kelvin do?
Solaris chapters
There are major info dumps
in Chapters 2 and 6.
Quickly after the alien-constructed copy of Rheya arrives inside the Solaris research station, it becomes clear that she is not a magically reincarnated complete Rheya, rather, she has been constructed from Kelvin's memories of his wife; she is cognitively incomplete. However, the reconstruction was done in a strange way. This "new Rheya" knows nothing of how she died, even-though that is a painful subject in Kelvin's memories of Rheya. The gaps in Rheya's memories are what makes me think of Rheya as a "gift" provided to Kelvin by the aliens, a finely crafted artifact provided to Kelvin that might (if he used it correctly) allow him to escape from his guilt over how he treated his wife. At the same time, the artificial life version of Rheya might function as a kind of device by which the Solarians can study humans, particularly human social behavior. This "copy of Rheya" has her own mind.

How does Kelvin make use of this precious gift? He gets out of bed and starts his morning ritual of shaving. Then he tells her that he must depart (go to work) and this reveals a fundamental part of her alien programming: she has an uncontrollable compulsion to stay with Kelvin every moment.

In the Ekcolir Reality.
Returning a gift girl to the Ocean.
original cover art by Nelson Poulton
This is where the rational science fiction fan in me says: "Okay, people have been studying Solaris for 100 years, trying to attain meaningful contact with the aliens of Solaris. Now, Kelvin has made contact with this 'artificial copy' of his wife, a strange gift from the Solarians." I must ask, "What will Kelvin do?"

I answer myself, "He will send a report to Earth, letting everyone know about this amazing ability of the Solarians to make 'copies' of people."

But no. That is not what happens. Kelvin tries to tie Rheya's hands behind her back, but "she" has super-human strength. So he tricks Rheya into getting into a space capsule and launches her into orbit. Why? He can't stand to be with a "living" reminder of his dead wife? Because a scientist, having made a long-sought break-through, will always quickly destroy the physical evidence of the new discovery?

Can the autistic ocean get it right?
A new gift for the humans, version 3.0 .....
a Solarian; 3D "printed" by a neutrino beam.
As a 14-year-old reader of Solaris, I felt that Lem was not writing about scientists. I wondered: did Lem ever know a single scientist? Miraculously, at the end of the novel, Dr. Snow regains his sanity and suggests to Kelvin that their "visitors" might have been gifts from the aliens. There is a short science fiction story hidden inside Solaris, hidden under a meandering abnormal/alien psychological medical mystery. Eventually, after almost 200 pages, the scientific report (concerning the artificial humans created by the alien ocean) finally gets written and transmitted back to Earth. The overly-long and contorted central part of Solaris has passed, like a bad dream.

human pollen invades Solaris
I love the idea of an exoplanet where a type of ancient artificial life resides, having possibly lived in isolation, enjoying the fruits of its advanced technology for a few billion years. When humans arrive, it might take the Solarians a century or two before they can begin to communicate with humans. At first, the aliens might not even notice the humans, much in the way that I might not notice a grain of pollen that has drifted into a room where I am watching a movie such as the 1972 Solaris.

Imagine a human child who grew up in the absence of social interactions with other people and even other animals; maybe raised by robotic nurse maids who don't talk and show no emotions. How long would it take for such an asocial human to learn how to interact socially with other humans? The asocial oceanic life form of Solaris might need to experiment and create a new technology for studying humans, just as we would need a microscope in order to study pollen. Alternatively, the Solarians might find humans to be annoying and they might choose to deploy their automated defense system that provides a way of shielding themselves from any unwelcome "humanoid pollen" that lands on their planet.

Please Go Away
Lem produced intricate verbal descriptions of artifacts that were made by the alien oceanic life form that he imagined for Solaris. Sadly, Berkley Books did not see fit to publish an edition of Solaris with cover art that depicts one of those oceanic artifacts produced by that vast planetary-scale life form: alien growths such as mimoids and symmetriads. Science fiction fans have, at times, crafted their own images that try to capture the wonder evoked by Lem's verbal account of odd structures arising in the ocean of planet Solaris (see the image to the left on this page for an example). The cover art by Paul Lehr that was used for my 1971 edition of Solaris seems to have no obvious connection to the story. 😞

Cover of the 1973 edition by Arrow Books
One interpretation of the alien artifacts (such as symmetriads) is that they were intentionally crafted by the Solarians with the goal of confusing the Solarists (the human scientists who went to planet Solaris in order to study the alien Solarians). In creating artifacts like the symmetriads, the goal of the Solarians may simply have been to frustrate the scientific investigational spirit of the Solarists and make we humans abandon further study of Solaris, ignore the the planet Solaris and turn our meddlesome attention to other parts of the galaxy.

The human condition.
Pest Control
The alien(s) of Solaris may have been treating humans in much the same way that we deal with pesky mosquitoes that can find their way into our bedroom at night, whine annoyingly in our ear, then cut into our body and suck out a drop of our blood, possibly leaving behind a disease-causing microbe inside us.

The planet Solaris is located in a binary star system.
Artwork from the 2002 film version of Solaris.
And what else should we expect? The atmosphere of Solaris contains "poisonous gasses" and "no oxygen"; the planet's surface has only a few seemingly barren and lifeless islands. In an era when hundreds of new planets are being visited every year, why should humans even pay the least attention to the world Solaris? What first attracted the attention of Earthly scientists was that the orbit of Solaris defies the laws of physics.

The living ocean of Solaris, 1972. Just fog for
the "special" FX? Not even one old mimoid? 😖
After orbital observatories were positioned close to Solaris, it was noticed that there was an "active character" to the ocean's movements. Eventually it was decided that the ocean of Solaris was a either a single gigantic living organism or the life-sustaining medium for a population of Solarians who had the ability to alter space-time and stabilize the the orbit of Solaris.

Giving the Gift of Rheya
"Old Mimoid2" by SalvDivin (source,
usage CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
An alternative interpretation of the events in Solaris is that the alien Solarians were actually trying to communicate with the Solarists, but due to fundamental differences between the aliens and we humans, meaningful communication did not come easily. Rather than have a wizbang discussion with the alien ocean about artificial gravity technology, the Solarists depicted in the story ended up having a devil of a time dealing with the "gifts" that were provided to them by the aliens and they struggled to maintain their own sanity.

The only alien "gift" who becomes a major character in Solaris is the artificial copy of Kelvin wife, 'Rheya'. We never really get to know much about the "gifts" that were provided to Dr. Snow and the other staff members at the research station, but readers know that every human on Solaris was "unhinged" by a combination of 1) the "gifts" that they received from the telepathic alien ocean and 2) the effects of what Kelvin describes (poorly) as bizarre thoughts that pop into his head and 3) the troubling "dreams" that disturb their sleep.

An imperfect material god.
image source: David Arenas
In the last chapter of Solaris,  Lem finally allows readers to step outside the research station and get more physically intimate with the alien ocean. Seen through Kelvin's eyes, readers see how the ocean playfully reacts to Kelvin's touch. However, Lem also allows Kelvin to wax philosophical and ask Dr. Snow about the concept of an imperfect god. During their discussion, out comes the idea that the alien ocean of Solaris might be the embryonic form of a material god. Maybe the ocean is in the process of  "growing up".

Is a Science Fiction Story the Place for Celebrations of Ignorance?
A giant cell in space!
Lem gives biological evolution little attention in Solaris. This creates a literary safe haven for commentators such as Darko Suvin to over-emphasize the problems that we humans face when we reflexively apply the intentional stance to all aspects of the universe. However, when we explore and study the "foreign universe", we can move past our first failed attempts at understanding; we need not give up and proclaim that we will never understand. The history of science is full of defeatist proclamations such as, "Because they are so remote, we will never know what the stars are made of." Spectroscopy became a tool for astronomers and now we easily study the atomic constituents of distant stars. The Solarists may have spent 100 years failing to attain meaningful communication with the Solarians, but that does not mean that human will NEVER understand the planet Solaris and its unusual life form.

"The way evolution works, I can't see it happening."  -Peter Ward

Asimov's conscious planet.
Could the evolution of life on a planet avoid populations of organisms and go directly to one giant world-spanning ocean that exists as a "single living cell"? It is not likely. Not everything that Lem could imagine is possible. Lem went way out on a speculative limb by suggesting such a possibility in Solaris. Anyone trained in organismal biology would react to this as if it were a silly idea and would not write a Sci Fi story suggesting direct development of a planet-sized cell. For his novel Nemesis, Asimov imagined his own kind of "conscious planet" with a planet-wide network of telepathically-linked cells. Sadly, Asimov never explained the physics of telepathy or his imaginary "neuronic" detectors. 😞 Like faster-than-light travel and time travel, telepathy and spontaneously-arising planetary consciousness are fun Sci Fi story ideas, but not scientifically plausible.

click image to enlarge
I can imagine that when Lem was in medical school, he may have seen psychologists working with autistic children. That experience may have contributed to Lem's creation of a story in which a planetary life form is viewed like a growing child rather than as an evolving form of life. The Solarists seemed comfortable imagining that the alien ocean arose spontaneously without having to go through an evolutionary process similar to how we humans evolved. In contrast, it is far easier to imagine that a biological species such as we humans might, in our far future, reach a state of artificial life that is similar to Lem's living ocean.

at home
There is an alternative to the belief that we humans find ourselves trapped in an inexplicable "foreign universe". As creatures that evolved by natural selection as biological components of the universe, we should be "at home in the universe", our brains having been slowly and carefully crafted so as to allow us to understand the world around us. There is nothing wrong with Lem reminding us that humans need some humility, but I prefer my science fiction as a literature of hope and progress. Lem's Solaris does not scratch that itch. 😞

Searching for Interesting Aliens in film...
Solaris blog series parts II and III
Solaris in Film
Imagined First Contact involving mysterious telepathic messages passing to and from the human unconscious mind is a challenging topic to depict in a movie. In parts II and III of this series on Solaris, I will look at the 1972 and 2002 Solaris films and comment on them from my perspective as a fan of science fiction.

Next: the 1972 Solaris movie (directed by Andrei Tarkovsky)

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