Sep 14, 2019

80 Sols

"Marooned off Vesta" by Isaac Asimov
in Amazing Stories, March 1939
Uncertain about the exact date of his birth, Isaac Asimov celebrated his birthday on January 2nd and my plan is to celebrate 100 years of Asimov early next year (2020). However, here in 2019, we can celebrate the 80 year history of Asimov's science fiction stories being in print. Previously, I commented on Asimov's first published story (March 1939), "Marooned Off Vesta".

In 1939, Asimov was a young man trying to get into medical school. Four years ago, I wrote a story called "The Asimov Reality" which described an alternate Reality in which Asimov got help from an Interventionist agent (Svahr) who made it possible for Asimov to attend medical school. However, in our Reality, Asimov instead studied chemistry at the post-graduate level. This career path forced Asimov to take a physical chemistry course and that soon led to Asimov's famous imaginary science of Psychohistory.

image source: Escape Artist
Alternate History
It is very difficult for me to imagine all of the challenges that Asimov overcame when he started writing science fiction stories for publication. According to the Asimov legend, his first Sci Fi story was called "Cosmic Corkscrew", a time travel story that Asimov submitted for publication in 1938. That story was rejected and it was never published. It would be fun to have a chance to read "Cosmic Corkscrew".

In March of this year, as part of my story called "The Zal Intervention", I imagined that the typed manuscript of "Cosmic Corkscrew" was "lost" when an Interventionist agent stole it from Asimov in 1947. That theft was part of the Reality Change that created the Final Reality.

cover art by Leopoldo Morey y Pena
Another early story that Asimov had trouble publishing was "The Secret Sense". In that story (download here), Asimov imagined that the human brain has a latent capacity to sense electric fields. In later stories, Asimov would go on to explore the idea that some positronic robots and some special humans might develop the ability to sense patterns of electrical activity. In Asimov's stories about telepathic robots and telepathic Second Foundationers, the ability to sense electric fields in human brains was what could endow a being such as Daneel with a telepathic "sense": the ability to "read thoughts" and detect emotions. Not only could Daneel detect another person's thoughts, he could even reach into the mind of another person to alter their on-going brain activity, a type of mind control.

page 2 advertisement
"The Secret Sense" was written in 1939 and submitted for publication in Astounding. Editor John Campbell rejected the story, but it was finally published (March 1941) in an obscure pulp magazine called Cosmic Stories.

Look at those covers for the March 1939 Amazing Stories and the March 1941 Cosmic Stories (above, right) The Amazing cover depicts a "raid from Mars" with humanoid aliens in a war machine. The Cosmic cover shows another battle scene; nine months later, the United States would formally enter into World War II.

As a sister publication along with Cosmic Stories, another new pulp Sci Fi magazine that started in 1941 was Stirring Science Stories. Asimov was a fairly prolific writer of letters to the pulp magazines that he read. In a letter that was published in the second issue of Stirring Science Stories, Asimov wrote the following:

"Sure, I'm an escapist. So what! Take a look at the awful mess around us. Don't you want to escape?"

The Escapist Clan.
I like to imagine that there has been an analogue of Isaac Asimov in every Reality of Earth's Reality Chain. Back in the First Reality, the Asimov analogue was a member of the Escapist Clan and among the first humans to ever write science fiction stories.

Only one member of the Escapist Clan had a normal human morphology: Gohrlay. The other Clan members were humans, but they had been modified by developmental control nanites so as to take on a physical form that mimicked that of the hermaphroditic Prelands.

The End of Eternity
Asimov may have been a self-declared escapist, but other writers of science fiction took escapism to a whole new level. In his time travel novel, The End of Eternity, Asimov wrote imaginatively about alternate Realities, but science fiction story writer Philip K. Dick developed the idea that the shared existence of our day-to-day reality is some kind of cosmic deception that shields us from another, deeper, true reality.

The issue with Asimov's letter.
In a strange twist of fate, Philip K. Dick was first exposed to science fiction by reading an issue of Stirring Science Stories. In the first edition of Stirring Science Stories, there was a full-page advertisement for Cosmic Stories that mentioned Isaac Asimov. Dick also read Astounding and Unknown and while he read stories by Asimov, Dick was more strongly influenced by other Sci Fi writers such as Alfred Vogt. I previously commented on Dick's 1954 story "The Golden Man", but I've read very few stories by Dick... I'm more the Asimov hard science fiction type of Sci Fi fan.

image source
Last month, in August, as part of my annual celebration of the science fiction stories that were written by Jack Vance, I wrote a story called "The Qua Intervention". Both Jack Vance and Philip Dick are characters in that story. "The Qua Intervention" is set in the time when Vance was attending UC Berkley and Dick was regularly attending Sci Fi fan club meetings at a nearby high school.

image source
For the Exode Saga, I imagine that Dick was the original "Editor", the special human who was selected to tell the people of Earth all about the Secret History of Humanity: how alien Interventionists had long guided the course of human civilization on Earth. In my imagination, Dick had the ability to use the Bimanoid Interface and so he was able to telepathically receive information from sources inside the Hierion Domain. However, at the last minute, a better alternative was found (a new "Editor") and so Dick was abandoned by the Interventionists and that is why he was forced to invent his own explanations for the strange ideas that popped into his head, mysteriously arriving from the Hierion Domain.

Solaris in an alternate Reality (source)
By all accounts, Philip Dick had a difficult childhood. During some parts of his life he (over)used amphetamines and other drugs. In college, he apparently took some psychology classes (among other subjects), but he never graduated. I can offer no diagnosis of Dick's mental state, but others have written about the possibility that he flirted with Schizophrenia. For me, Dick seems "custom made" to serve as an imagined target for alien Interventionists who unsuccessfully tried to use him to pass information to the rest of humanity.

It would be interesting to know the extent to which John Campbell's interest in psychology led writers such as Asimov and A. E. van Vogt to devise stories that would scratch this particular itch.

Columbia Daily Spectator,
Volume LXI, Number 84,
28 February 1938
Earlier this month, I wrote down my thoughts about the novel Solaris by Stanisław Lem. While reading Solaris at the age of 14, I was baffled by Lem's choice to depict the main character in his novel as being a psychologist. It is easy to imagine that during his medical school training, Lem had known working psychologists. Maybe it was obvious to Lem that it should be a psychologist who would be best prepared to make First Contact with an alien creature on a distant planet. Alternatively, I can't avoid imagining the possibility that Lem was deeply troubled by the efforts of psychologist to understand human behavior. Maybe the writing of Solaris was a way for Lem to point out the futility of psychology as science of behavior when it treats the human brain as a black-box.

Unlike the perspective on psychology afforded to Lem by his medical background, the young Isaac Asimov had a different kind of exposure to psychology.

Homo Sol
squid giant axon (image source)
I don't know how Asimov first became so interested in psychology when he was in school. Apparently he had a National Youth Administration (work-study) job working for a psychology professor, so he may have gotten interested in psychology while he was in his second year of college. Starting in 1892 under the leadership of James Catell, Columbia University became a center for experimental psychology. Psychologists at Columbia when Asimov was there included people such as Edward Thorndike.  I wonder if Asimov read about some of the biophysics researchers at Columbia. Kenneth Cole arrived at Columbia university in 1937 and published research on squid axonal electrical signals with Howard Curtis. Cole devised equations that could be used to study the electrical properties of tissues. Asimov was taking physical chemistry in the fall of 1939 and it is easy to imagine Asimov being impressed by the application of mathematical equations to biological systems such as neurons and their action potentials.

interior artwork for Homo Sol, by Manuel Isip 
Asimov's story Homo Sol was written early during his studies for a Masters Degree in chemistry, at the end of 1939. Asimov was trying to earn money from his Sci Fi story writing to help pay for his education. The main character in the story is an alien psychologist named Tan Porus. However, Porus is not too alien. As a Rigellian, he is relatively tall (about 5 feet tall) and has green eyes. The story begins on Eon, second planet of Arcturus, a center of psychology research within the Galactic Federation of humanoids. Tan Porus is hard at work studying a "damned freak squid from Beta Draconis IV" when his work is interrupted by a news flash: the humanoids of Sol have just developed interstellar space travel and they are soon to be invited to join the Federation.

September 1940
cover art: Reginald Rogers
The psychology research of Tan Porus involves much use of the slide rule (with some help from experts in the Mathematics Department) to do calculations and solve equations that describe animal behavior. What sort of equations? In the words of Dr. Santins of the math department, the "damnedest sort of screwy equations I’ve ever seen". Central to the story is "Kraut’s Law", a behavioral rule that is thought to apply to all humanoids, but the humans of Earth seem to defy "Kraut’s Law". The story in Homo Sol is silly and makes little sense, but it is of historical interest because when sold to Campbell for publication in Astounding, it helped pay for Asimov's first year in graduate school. Also, the use of equations to predict behavior foreshadows the later development of the mathematical science of "Psychohistory" as it soon appeared in Asimov's famous Foundation Saga.

Harey and Dr. Snout (1972)
"What damned freak alien made
her clothing with no zipper?"
I have no idea if Lem ever read Homo Sol, but I've never heard a good explanation for why Lem called the cybernetician in Solaris "Dr. Snout". Asimov's Homo Sol is one of the many egregious depictions of a galaxy full of humanoid aliens who all evolved on various planets and who all reached the same technological level within a few thousand years of each other. It is easy to imagine Lem, reading such stories and reacting against their silliness; he may have then created the non-humanoid life form of planet Solaris.

The Great Debate
And if Asimov could write about a psychologist named Porus violating "Kraut’s Law" in the run-up to the U.S.A. entering World War II, the why shouldn't Lem name the cybernetician in Solaris, "Snout"? The psychologist in Solaris was named Dr. Kelvin, which I can't help imagining was a name selected by Lem so as to be similar to Asimov's famous robopsychologist, Dr. Calvin.

Kelvin's wife was named "Harey". Why "Harey"? I suspect that Lem had read some of the Foundation stories and knew about Asimov's character "Hari" Seldon. Asimov attributed the creation of Psychohistory to the mathematician who he named Hari Seldon.

Why did Lem decide to call an exoplanet "Solaris"? I like to call the alien inhabitants of Solaris the "Solarians". In Homo Sol, Asimov calls we humans the "Solarians".

The dead hand of Hari Seldon. Interior art by Manuel Isip
Old Age
Sadly, Asimov's Foundation Saga has not aged very gracefully. Motivated by Asimov's reading about the fall of the Roman Empire, his account of the fall of a Galactic Empire reads like a a fictionalized version of politics in New York City of the 1930s.

Imagine that you live 50,000 years in our future, long after humans have spread from Earth to 25,000,000 other planets of the Galaxy. For 10,000 years all those worlds have lived together as part of a single political unit: the Galactic Empire.

cover art by Edward Valigursky
Now, imagine that you are put in charge of a project aimed at recording all human knowledge. Strangely, nobody has ever thought of doing this before! However, you dive into the project and spend 50 years collecting the vast amount of information (kept in "vast storehouses of reference films) that is available and you are now finally ready to start publishing the results, one volume at a time, just as encyclopedias were published back in the ancient era of Earth, before space flight. And there you sit at your desk, using a stylus to write "scrapingly" across sheets of paper. Such is the life of Lewis Pirenne as described by Asimov in his 1942 story, Foundation.

Here in 2019, when we increasingly avoid using money and often use electronic monetary transactions, we wonder if the day is not too far off when conventional money in the form of coins and paper bills will be abandoned.

Salvor Hardin and Rodric exchange ceremonial blasters.
Notice the Hi Tek spaceship.
And yet, in "Foundation", the political head of planet Terminus (Terminus is the home of Pirenne's great Encyclopedia Galactica project) pulls a metal coin out of his vest pocket and casually flips it into the air. Metal is on Salvor Hardin's mind because, like some ancient metal-poor nation of Earth, Terminus needs to import metal from distant sources in the Empire. As Mayor of Terminus City, population 1,000,000, Hardin must deal with Anselm haut Rodric, envoy from the nearby newly-independent province of Anacreon. To demonstrate good will, when Rodric lands at the Terminus spaceport, he and Hardin exchange "blasters".

It all reads like the kind of diplomatic saber-ratting that Asimov must have witnessed in the run-up to World War II. Picture neutral Switzerland dealing with an envoy from Nazi Germany. In the interior artwork by Manuel Isip, Rodric's spaceship looks like a World War II era bomber.

In 1942, it was hard to keep military topics out of science fiction. Campbell's May 1942 editorial in Astounding had nothing to do with Sci Fi, it was about the chemistry of explosives and shifting automobile gasoline consumption towards arms production.
cover art by Don Punchatz

City Councilman Slavor Hardin in 50,932.
Notice the Hi Tek transportation equipment
on the street in Terminus City.
After I read the "Foundation Trilogy" in the early 1970s, I threw away my copy of Foundation, but I kept my copies of Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. For me, the Foundation Saga did not really get going until the Mule walked on stage.

Few things bore me more than fictional politics, and there was plenty of it in Foundation. Also, I did not buy the whole "Church of Science" religion explanation for how Terminus was able to control the nearby Kingdoms of the Galactic Periphery.

Asimov had put himself in a difficult situation: he needed to tell 1,000 years of "future history" and he wanted to do so through the eyes of just a few major characters, the first being Mayor Hardin. The plot called for the near-instantaneous creation of a new religion by Hardin, which had to be accomplished within 30 years. That makes no sense, unless there is some unseen force at work, off stage. Eventually, Asimov realized that as originally constructed, his "future history" did not make sense and he later retro-fitted the Foundation Saga by telling readers that Daneel the telepathic robot and his army of robotic helpers was there, helping assure the survival of the Foundation.

April 1939
It would be interesting to know to what extent Asimov's "Church of Science" influenced the creation of the "Church of Scientology". Hubbard's stated goal of "A civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where man is free to rise to greater heights, are the aims of Scientology" sounds good, but achieving it by creating a new space opera-based religion seems like a story idea ripped right out of the pages of Astounding Science-Fiction magazine, or possibly a silly fantasy in the pages of Unknown.

Imagine looking at the table of contents for the May 1942 Astounding...
Which story would you read first?

interior artwork by
Charles Schneeman
Had I gazed upon these story blurbs (above), I suspect my last choice among the three listed novelettes would have been Asimov's "Foundation". Given my interest in the Fermi Paradox, that description of "Asylum" would leap out at me.

There are "Galactic Observers" in "Asylum", watching over Earth and guiding human civilization into the future. Sadly, "Asylum" should have been called "The Vampire Case" because two aliens, Merla and Jeel (the Dreeghs of Galactic Civilization) arrive on Earth, sneak past the Observers and start sucking the blood of unsuspecting Earthlings.

"Asylum" reads like a sequel to Asimov's own "Homo Sol". The Earthlings are on the brink of being given knowledge of the Galactic Civilization that they have long been prevented from knowing about. Unlike Asimov's alien humanoids in Homo Sol, A. E. van Vogt did not even bother giving the various humanoids of his Galactic Civilization different hair styles and ear shapes. However, A. E. van Vogt made a big deal out of the fact that different humanoids might have different IQs, with the poor humans of Earth at the bottom of the intelligence scale.

Merla and Jeel probe Leigh's mind,
making use of a "psychograph report"
created by a "mechanical psychologist".
"Asylum" has aged slightly better than "Foundation". For one thing, this story is only set a hundred years or so into Earth's space age, not 50,000. The ace reporter (Leigh) in "Asylum" who covers "The Vampire Case" has a Hi Tek Dick Tracy wrist radio that he uses to stay in touch with his editor.

Sadly, in this future Earth (where folks routinely travel to the planets and the moons of Jupiter) they still distribute Big News Stories to the masses by means of thousands of Newspaper Companies that distribute printed newspapers to everyone in the Solar System. One saving grace: A. E. van Vogt describes what seems to be a personal computer in Leigh's bedroom.

There is also an apparently computerized device called a "mechanical psychologist" that can (when used with "psycho-gas") be used to reveal a person's unconscious memories.

The Sting
Start of the Golden Age of Sci Fi?
July 1939, cover art by James Gladney
The low-IQ Earthlings remain ignorant of the fact that aliens secretly visit Earth. Good ole Professor Ungarn can spot a spaceship "18 light years out" and speeding towards Earth, but hearing of this raises no suspicion in Leigh. Readers learn that "Professor" Ungarn is actually the Galactic Observer who lives in the Solar System. "Asylum" is a rather confused; I suspect that Campbell ruthlessly edited out several sections of the story that offended him. In the end, we learn that the Galactic Observer, Ungarn, disguised himself as Leigh in order to trick a large group of renegade Dreeghs (they have been on the run for a million years) into visiting the Solar System where they could fall into a trap and be captured.

Much of the story is about the types of "mind control" exercised upon Leigh by aliens from the Galactic Civilization and it seems to fore-shadow Asimov's later account of Bail Channis and how he was used as an undercover agent by the Second Foundationers to defeat the Mule.

Mechanical Psychology
cover art by Attila Hejja
In A. E. van Vogt's future Earth, there is no more murder, theft, war or any unsocial perversions; all because of the universal application of good ole Professor Ungarn's "mechanical psychology". For the past 7,000 years, Galactic Observers have been gradually improving human civilization, getting Earthlings ready to join Galactic Civilization. Sadly, we readers learn little about this amazing gift from the Galactics, Ungarn's "mechanical psychology".

There is a big difference between A. E. van Vogt's style of Sci Fi and that deployed by Asimov. "Asylum" is based on the silly idea that there is an electrical "life force" that can be sucked out of people, in addition to their blood. As a science student and atheist, Asimov was never in such a hurry to include magical life forces in his science fiction stories.

Heinlein's imagined technology
that can reveal the future.
interior art by Pagsilang Isip
A. E. van Vogt had been writing for several years previously, but his first science fiction story was published in 1939. Asimov felt that it was the arrival of A. E. van Vogt and Robert A. Heinlein within the Sci Fi genre in 1939 that launched a Golden Age of science fiction.

It is fun to speculate about how Lem and Philip Dick were influenced by the science fiction stories of "Golden Age" writers like A. E. van Vogt and Isaac Asimov. Lem, with his medical school training, seems more likely to have been influenced by Asimov while it is easy to imagine why Dick would go more in the direction of A. E. van Vogt.

But even as "far out" as Dick got, he did not follow A. E. van Vogt into the magical land of Dianetics. Elron who?

Origin of Dianetics: The Men in White.
1975 advertisement in Galaxy
I love the idea that science fiction story tellers can borrow story ideas from each other and take them in new directions. Part of the fun of looking back at old stories like Homo Sol is imagining how they may have helped inspire famous works of science fiction and even Dianetics.

Related Reading: "Black Destroyer" and "The Man Trap"
See Also: "Cosmic Corkscrew" by Michael A. Burstein

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Sep 7, 2019


Clooney battles the lip-
eating creatures of Solaris.
This is the third in a series of blog posts about Stanisław Lem's science fiction novel Solaris and related films. In the first blog post of this series, I complained about the non-linear narration provided by Lem to readers of Solaris. Below, I provide my linearized synopsis of the story. In the second blog post of this series, I expressed my surprise at the ending of the 1972 movie that was based on Lem's novel. Here in this final blog post of the series, I comment on the 2002 film version of Solaris.

"The Book is the Alien"
George as Chris
In the novel, readers learn that Solaristics, the study of the mysterious planet Solaris, has fallen into disarray. In its golden era, Solaristics was a booming field of scientific investigation and teams with thousands of researchers actively worked to study the living ocean of planet Solaris. Solaris was a tough nut to crack.

Born after the boom years of Solaristics, Kris (Kris in 1961, Chris in 2002) Kelvin did research under the guidance of Dr. Gibarian. The two scientists (from different disciplines) collaborated after Gibarian learned of Kelvin's doctoral thesis which described similarities between human brain electrical activity and patterns of activity in the living ocean of Solaris.

Gibarian is dead.
At the beginning of the novel, Kelvin travels for 16 months across the interstellar depths to Solaris. Only three scientists remain at the research station: Gibarian, Snow and Sartorious. Arriving at the station, Kelvin discovers that Gibarian is dead, having been the first resident of the station to receive a "visitor", an artificial life form produced by the alien ocean and "gifted" to Gibarian. With time, all the residents of the station receive their own such "gift", including Kelvin.

-Berton 1972-
surgically removed
from the 2002
version of Solaris
Before he died, Gibarian left clues for Kelvin that lead him to read some old records concerning the experience of an earlier Solarist, Andre Berton. Berton saw what appeared to be an artificial humanoid figure on the surface of the ocean, apparently an early attempt by the Solarians to create an artificial human. Inexplicably, Berton's report was dismissed by most of his peers as an hallucination. However, there was evidence that this first artificial human was in fact a replica of the child of another Solarist who had fallen into the living ocean. Berton reported that the replica child was strangely large.

Soderbergh mutates Lem's large woman
into a small boy who pops up around the
station whenever he is needed
to advance confuse the plot.
Shortly after Gibarian's death and the arrival of Kelvin at the research station, Kelvin sees Gibarian's "visitor", an unusually large human-like artificial woman, an artificial life form who prefers to remain with Gibarian's dead body inside a freezer, but "her" body does not freeze. Baffled by what he has experienced in his first few hours at the station, Kelvin seriously conciders the idea that his brain has been attacked by "emanations from the ocean", causing him to hallucinate.

"the romance all but overpowers the sci-fi premise" (comment on the 2002 film)

Self vs Non-Self
Chris and Rheya (2002)
Kelvin tries to determine if his brain is still functioning normally and is under his own control; satisfied that he is still sane, he falls asleep. During his first night at the research station, Kelvin receives his own "gift", an artificial copy of his wife, Rheya, a young woman who died ten years previously. Kelvin uses a "neutron microscope" to examine a sample of Rheya's blood which has cells and molecules, but those structures are composed of collections of neutrinos. The artificial humanoids are essentially immortal, having the ability to spontaneously repair structural damage to their artificial bodies.

"Rheya, I have the results.
You are definitely pregnant!"
Dr. Sartorious was surgically removed
from the 2002 Solaris film.
He should be there as a member of the
station's staff, a clinic doctor who does
Rheya's pregnancy testing.
Even a sample of Rheya's blood in a test tube, when destroyed by acid, spontaneously regenerates itself! By the end of Lem's novel, Kelvin and Snow send a report to Earth describing the now-confirmed ability of the alien ocean to construct artificial humanoid life forms (Phi-Creatures). The Rheya character in the novel (who lives for several weeks on the station with Kelvin) is an artificial construct with a human-like mind that contains memories of Rheya taken from Kelvin's mind.

Readers of Lem's novel Solaris never see the visitors that Dr. Snow and Dr. Sartorious receive as "gifts" from the Solarians. However, Dr. Kelvin hears the footsteps of the visitor who is with Sartorious and imagines that his "guest" is small, like a human child or a dwarf. When the artificial Rheya first joins Kelvin at the station, she has a strange compulsion to always be near him. In one part of the book, Snow sits talking to Kelvin while he has his hand inside a cabinet, as if holding someone's hand, someone hidden inside the cabinet.

Dr. Snow (2002) Jeremy Davies
Original cover art by John Scott
I suspect that the artificial humans that Sartorious -and  possibly Snow- received as their "visitors" were unusually small artificial humans, at the other size extreme from the artificial humanoid seen by Berton and the one "gifted" to Gibarian. It took practice before the Solarians could make nearly perfect replicas of humans.

There is also the possibility that one or both of the "guests" for Dr. Snow and/or Sartorious was the replica of a robot. It could make some sense that the cybernetician (Dr. Snow) might be thinking obsessively about one of the station's robots. When Kelvin first meets Snow, he literally has blood on his hands. I prefer to think that Snow found Gibarian's dead body and while moving the body to the freezer, he had to deal with the giant 'woman' who was Gibarian's "guest". Most likey 'she' was the source of the blood on Snow's hands.

Snow's bot
Soderbergh's choice to depict one of the scientists at the Solaris research station as a woman raises the question: since Lem depicted the science of Solaristics as the exclusive domain of male scientists, then were those men simply forced to live for years without women while they worked at the Solaris research station? Lem did, occasionally, write about 'female' robots and even robots that could kill humans (see this), and I can't stop myself from imagining that Dr. Snow might have availed himself of the companionship of a 'female' robot. If the Solarians began duplicating the station's robots, then Snow may have been forced to put all of the robots into storage.

Kelvin, recipient of the final artificial humanoid, seems to have received a nearly perfect physical copy of his dead wife. I believe that the Solarians were gradually learning how to make better and better artificial humans. Sartorious works relentlessly to find a way to rid himself of his less-than-perfect "visitor", eventually devising a dis-integrator that can disrupt the artificial neutrino structures of the "guests". The artificial Rheya is so perfect that Kelvin falls in love with her.

finders keepers
However, after the artificial Rheya is destroyed by Sartorious, Kelvin reacts strangely. As if suddenly freed from his infatuation with the artificial Rheya, he suggests that the entire ocean of Solaris must be destroyed.

"The journalists pounced on my thesis, and in some newspapers my name was coupled with grotesque headlines- 'The Despairing Jelly', 'The Planet in Orgasm'." -Kris Kelvin

original cover art by Christopher Yates
I believe that Kelvin had been in some sort of telepathic linkage to the Solarians, possibly with the Solarians studying his reactions to the artificial copy of his wife. When Kelvin first realizes that he has been used by the aliens, he resents how he was manipulated by the Solarians.

It also seems possible that the Solarians were working to telepathically guide Kelvin, Snow and Sartorious towards "beaming" the recorded mind pattern of Kelvin's waking consciousness into the ocean. There are hints in the story that the Solarians can most efficiently access human thoughts while a person is asleep, but they may be baffled by human waking consciousness and human language.

brain structure (image source)
By the late 1950s, powerful microscopes were being used to reveal the structure of synapses in brain tissue. I wonder if Lem had seen electronmicroscopy images of brain tissue. Are the mimoids described by Lem as sprouting from the surface of Solaris his imagined equivalent of the complex microscopic structures within our own brains?

image source
At the end of his novel, Lem describes a visit by Kelvin to an old mimoid and we finally get to "see" the playful interaction of the alien ocean with Kelvin as he touched the ocean.

After Kelvin's mind pattern is sent into the ocean and the anti-Phi-Creature dis-integrator beam has at least temporarily cleared the research station of "visitors", Kelvin decides to stay at the research station, waiting to see if the Solarians will begin another round of their experiments, possibly re-uniting Kelvin with an even more perfect version of his wife.

Ocean #3
2002: a third depiction of
the Solaris ocean
Might the 2002 Solaris film be a better science fiction flick than the 1972 version? Apparently some fans of Solaris (and even Lem) were upset that the 2002 film put its focus on the relationship between Chris Kelvin and his wife, Rheya. I was disappointed that the huge budget for this movie did not include some CGI mimoids and symmetriads.

I don't mind science fiction stories that concern themselves with romantic relationships. I'm not offended by the idea of a Solaris movie about using an alien-produced artificial woman as a way to get a "second chance" in a failed relationship. I interpret Lem's novel as suggesting that the Solarians selected Kelvin because of his special pattern of brain activity, a pattern that may have contributed to his marital diffuculties with Rheya. When Kelvin reaches Solaris, he enters into a kind of psychotherapy at the "hands" of the Solarians (well, at least at the hands of Rheya).

"It's so refreshing to read a sci-fi script which isn't aimed at 12-year-olds!" (source)

In an online script (dated October 4, 2001), Steven Soderbergh makes a connection between Kelvin's lack of felicity with words and the fact that he was chosen to make contact with the Solarians. In the film, Gibarian invites Kelvin to Solaris, knowing that Kelvin will get a chance to "see his dead wife". Is it the Solarians, looking into Gibarian's mind, who select Kelvin as their tool for making Contact?

Wait... where am I?
Rheya and Chris (2002) Earth/Solaris
I like the idea that Kelvin may have had an unusual mind that made him particularly well suited for telepathic contact with the Solarians. Human language provides a way for human individuals to share information and guide how they interact socially. Lacking the human concept of "individuals", the telepathically-linked Solarians might struggle to understand human language and prefer to work within the domain of non-linguistic human thought. Kelvin's unusual brain might be particularly well-suited for study by the Solarians while they try to understand the humans who have arrived on Solaris.

a Solarian
That 2001 Solaris script adopts the same ending that was put into the 1972 movie. That ending is a logical projection of the ending that Lem gave to his novel, a kind of ending that probably suits many movie-goers. However, I would prefer an "ending" that is a new beginning. Rather than trap Kelvin in some kind of virtual reality simulation where his wish to be with fake-Rheya is fulfilled, I would prefer to see Kelvin interacting with an artificial Solarian: a communications device that has humanoid appearance, but which allows for verbal dialog between the Solarians and we humans.

Kelvin vs Rheya. Who is the puppet?
Soderbergh's imagined backstory for Kelvin and Rheya strikes me as being entirely foreign to Lem's novel, like a tumor grafted onto the story. Similarly, as a film project, Solaris (2002) seems like a tumor grafted onto Soderbergh's film-making career. Apparently Soderbergh "really loved" the 1972 film version of Solaris, but he had his own interpretation of Lem's book. I suppose Lem's Solaris is destined to be viewed differently by every reader of the story simply because of all the ambiguity that Lem wrote into it.

Solaris Cloonaris
I get the feeling that Soderbergh has little interest in science fiction and he was not trying to make a film "about" the planet Solaris, rather, he seemingly just wanted to play with the Kelvin-Rheya relationship. Not that there's anything wrong with that. In Lem's Solaris, he describes failed attempts by Solarists to remove samples of the Solaris ocean from that world and take them back to Earth for study... the samples simply disintegrated. Can we really expect anything more from an attempt to extract the Kelvin-Rheya relationship from Solaris and explore it in a Soderbergh film?

The Better Date Flick
George going topless
The Solaris nipples of the new millennium belong to George Clooney. 😞

Snow Job
I love the idea that we only see an artificial copy of Dr. Snow in the 2002 film version of Solaris. When Snow first walks on stage in Lem's novel, he acts like he is really messed up and not hitting on all his cognitive cylinders. However, by the end of the novel Solaris, Snow has regained his equilibrium; he is no longer haunted by his "guest" and he is a rational scientist once more.
2002 Solaris film - Roger's review

Is the alien entity in Solaris a conscious, thinking being or just some mindless automaton? Lem leaves that as an open question. Do the Solarians use telepathy? In his novel, I believe that Lem provided evidence to support the idea that the aliens of Solaris used a form of telepathy to communicate with the scientists on the research station. For some reason, the aliens could not make use of human language, but they could seemingly transmit ideas into the subconscious mind and dreams of Kelvin.

Kelvin has past experience using neutron micro nanoscopy
and he is the first person to look at a tissue sample
(some of Rheya's blood) from a Phi-Creature.
Based on what he observes by nanoscopy, he concludes
that the Phi-Creature are made of neutrinos, not atoms.
After a few days on the station, in the chapter called "The Monsters", suddenly Kelvin knows things about Dr. Sartorius that he should not know. In particular, he believes that Sartorius is going down an erroneous path in creating the device that will disintegrate the "gifts". Kelvin also knows that he would not be able to convince Sartorius that he is using a mistaken theory of neutrino physics, so he recruits Dr. Snow to try to change the mind of Sartorius. I must conclude that the Solarians are telepathically providing Kelvin with information about the inner thoughts of Sartorius.

The Neutrino Physics of Solaris
Kelvin is a psychologist, so how does he suddenly know physics as well as does Sartorius, a man who has had training in that discipline? In the novel, Lem has made clear that the Solarians know a vast amount about physics. I must conclude that the Solarians have telepathically provided Kelvin with his understanding of neutrino physics. Why? So as to divert Sartorius from creating a too powerful version of the neutrino field dis-integrator and interfering with the experiments being performed by the Solarians? So that Sartorius will instead work on a method for beaming Kelvin's thought pattern (that of his waking consciousness) into the ocean? Sadly, Lem made no effort to be clear about any of this in the story, so Soderbergh is free to ignore these deeper questions. 😞

How do the "guests" arrive inside the research station? Teleportation? Again, Lem could not be bothered to say. 😞

meeting of minds
True to the novel, Soderbergh's film version of Solaris has a scene with discussion of God. However, that scene comes earlier in the film (it is in the last chapter of the book). Soderbergh moved the whole issue of god up and adds in some updated "future physics" that converts the "organic ocean" into a higher-dimensional entity that viewers can equate to a god. However, I feel that both Lem's original Solaris and Soderbergh's film are about people, not gods. At the end of the novel, Kelvin is waiting for more interaction with "gifts" from the Solaris ocean. At the end of Soderbergh's film, Kelvin takes the opportunity to further his "relationship" with the sentient ocean; he does not run away and return to Earth, he dives in. This is the true spirit of science fiction: pursuit of the unknown, searching for information and human understanding of our world.

seductive ocean
Soderbergh claims to have been impressed by the feeling of "psychological claustrophobia" when he read Lem's novel. I agree that Lem created a sense of "isolation" for characters like Kelvin, which may have been due to Lem throwing Kelvin into contact with an artificial life form that does not really understand anything about human social behavior. Kelvin was able to withstand the disruptive effects of that contact with the alien ocean and even sit down and work out a theory for how to neutralize neutrinos: this might be the ultimate therapy for an autistic child: the living ocean of Solaris.

Rheya and Chris collaborate
to make a baby; Solaris version 4.0
in the Ekcolir Reality
An important issue is: do the "guests" evolve? Is the ocean learning from its experiments? The truly romantic interpretation is that Kelvin is summoned from Earth, the one person who can take the true measure of Solaris. Kelvin's scale extends far enough 'down' to allow measurement of the nature of this autistic ocean. And Kelvin gets his reward: a chance to start over again with Rheya. For we humans, if you want to study the molecular neurobiology of memory in a research lab, then the mouse running in its maze must get a reward at the end of the experiment, even if it is only a sip of sugar water.

Soderbergh put a child on screen as one of the alien-created human replicas. Maybe the "guest" who can best adapt and learn is one in the form of a human child. It would have been fun to allow Kelvin and the artificial Rheya to produce a baby that would grow into the tool for efficient communication between the Solarians and the humans.

Weird Science
Clooneris - the wonders of marketing
Neutrinos were discovered in 1956. Lem started writing Solaris in 1958. The Phi-Creatures (copied humans) are made of neutrinos and Lem's neutron microscope inexplicably uses magnets. I blame writers such as Isaac Asimov (positronics) and Lem (neutrinos) for my own use of hierions and sedrons as imaginary particles. I can make my imaginary particles of Future Science do whatever the plot calls for without worrying that I am violating the physical properties of an actual particle that is already known to physicists.

art by Tim Flattery
Soderbergh took the opportunity to write mysterious Higgs anti-bosons and The Incredible Growing Planet into his version of the story.

"Solaris started taking on mass exponentially." -artificial Snow in Solaris, 2002

It is important that science fiction stories be updated in this way, making them new and approachable for each generation. Soderbergh's silly science is no worse than Lem's original imaginary science.

ice house
silly but ptetty
I'm willing to accept the weird science that Lem wrote into Solaris, but in a 1972 review of the novel (download the 30th issue of the fanzine Speculation here), Tony Sudbery forcefully criticized several elements of the "future science" in Lem's story, particularly his idea that you could make an artificial humanoid out of neutrinos. Sudbery made the point that building things out of neutrinos by using magnetic fields to hold the neutrinos in place (as claimed by Lem) is "a trick roughly equivalent to building a house out of bricks consisting of water held together by safety pins." Sudbery's complaints ultimately boil down to the fact that Lem was not a scientist and so some readers of science fiction are going to be disappointment by Lem's fake (imaginary) science and illogical story elements. However, film makers such as Soderbergh and most movie goers are not likely to be concerned about such deficiencies. We can still ask, was Soderbergh's film true to Lem's original science fiction story? I believe that it was, but I'd call it a kind of "Lem Lite". Lem mentioned robots and then never developed that thread in Solaris... Soderbergh mentions the "AI system" at the Solaris research station and then does nothing interesting with it. 😥

"...cybernetics lies at the heart of all Lem's work and thought." -Michael Kandel

Lem had an early interest in robots and artificial life, but his aborted medical career and work in a maternity ward also influenced his story telling. Some elements of the story that we see in Solaris were also found in Lem's 1946 story "The Man From Mars". In that story (Lem's first published Sci Fi), there is unsuccessful "first contact" with a telepathic alien that seems to be some strange type of artificial life form.

image source
Before there was a Solaris movie, there was 1963 film “Ikarie XB-1” which has the robot (see the image to the right on this page) that I had hoped to see in a Solaris film. Also in Lem's story about travel to Alpha Centauri, we get to deal with pregnancy in space. This film was based on Lem's 1955 novel The Megellanic Cloud. In his story, a couple hundred Earthlings set off to Alpha Centauri and eventually make "first contact" with aliens who live in that star system.

Summa Technologie
Artificial Life
Why Kelvin? Lord Kelvin was one of the last "scientific" opponents of the idea that the human species slowly evolved over the course of billions of years. By applying physical science concepts and making simplistic assumptions, he estimated that the Earth was only about 40 million years old. Lem seemed to suggest that the alien life form of planet Solaris had arisen by some sort of spontaneous generation. "It is therefore not just a humanoid robot or an electronic brain but also a hypothetical gaseous–magnetic system, with which we can have a chat, that belongs to a class of systems endowed with consciousness…" (source).

Paul Lehr cover art
Lem (or anyone else) makes a major error by assuming that consciousness can exist in a liquid or a gas -or a non-material soul- without firm 3D material structures. Consciousness must be embodied in complex physical systems where stable structures hold memories.

Księga Robotów (1961)
How did Solaris come to exist? There are useful insights in the essay ("The Open-Ended Parables of Stanislaw Lem and 'Solaris'") by Darko Suvin that was published as an Afterword in the early English language editions of the book. In that essay, Suvin mentions other works of science fiction that had previously been published by Lem, including short stories that were compiled as The Book of Robots.

interior art by Paul Orban
for Asimov's "Runaround" (1942)
Suvin tells us that Lem had read some of the work of Isaac Asimov, but it is not clear how strongly Lem was influenced by Asimov's stories about positronic robots.

Reading Solaris, I could not understand 1) why there is a chapter in Solaris called "The Monsters" or 2) why the robots at the research station had to be inactivated or 3) why Dr. Snow is described as being a "cybernetician". It is easy for me to imagine that Solaris started out as a story about the robotic helpers at a space station and what happens when they are "duplicated" by an alien force.

"Lem’s works are parables speaking about ourselves through startling situations in other worlds." -Darko Suvin

A Parable
"Two Monsters" 1964
In 1964, Lem's short story  "Two Monsters" was included in an English-language  collection of stories. In this short parable, a Metallic Monster appears on a planet (seemingly arising spontaneously from the ancient magnetic wreckage of a destroyed city). The Great Cybernator, the Dynamicizer and the Physicker all attempt to deal with the Monster by constructing "electroknights" (see the image to the right), one of which (named 'Antimatt', the one made by the Physicker) is made of a special form of matter that can slip between the atoms of ordinary matter. The electroknights made by the Cybernator and the Dynamicizer are helpless against the Monster. The Antimatt can destroy the Monster, but then a duplicate Monster is quickly created to replace it. To make a long story short, it is revealed that everyone we have met in the story so far is an artificial life form, descended from robots that were made long ago by humans. The humans have now found these descendants of runaway robots and proceed to destroy them (the first step towards that goal was creating the "Metallic Monster").

1956: the robot in
Forbidden Planet
It is fun to imagine that maybe there was an original (and now lost) story about how the Solarians duplicated robots inside the Solaris research station. We can imagine that the duplicated robots had only partial memories (programming) which led to chaos. Maybe the human staff had to defend themselves by means of an anti-Phi-Creature shield made by Sartorius? If such an aborted story existed, it might have been a Sci Fi tale with Lem's version of Forbidden Planet's robot and protective force-shields. In a 1971 review of Solaris by Peter Miller, he compares Solaris to Forbidden Planet in terms of the problems that can arise by turning memories into "living" forms.

Monster from the id (Forbidden Planet)
The Monster can't get through the
anti-neutrino electrical shield.
Maybe the planet Solaris was a metal-poor world where the biologically-evolved residents never developed space travel. With time, they developed advanced nanotechnology and transformed themselves and the entire planet into one all-absorbing artificial life form. For humans, the distinction between self and "non-self" is fundamental. We use our big brains to predict each-others behavior. We have a sophisticated body surface barrier and a complex immune system for defense against non-self organisms, but the solipsistic Solaris ocean is quite different.

successful alien contact (video)
The self-suficient life form of Solaris can entertain itself while it waits quietly through the long eons for creatures like we humans to visit their world. Still, I prefer to think that with time, meaningful contact and communication would be possible between the Solarians and we humans. In the end, is Kelvin together with his beloved Rheya or with the mysterious Solarian(s)? Soderbergh allows us to decide for ourselves, but when making First Contact, what would we want an alien being to know about we humans?
Retro-SIHA 2002
The Search for Interesting Aliens

This is a Test
Maybe it is a good First Contact if the Solarians can come to see that a man like Kelvin would do anything, take any wild chance that came his way to correct his error, to recover the love of his life.

Retro-SIHA: 2009, Knowing
Related Reading: the 2018 film Annihilation
See Also: The Portable Star, short story by Isaac Asimov
Next: return to 1939

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