Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Writings from Solaris

High quality science fiction is not always easy to find. On occasion, I will pick up a book that looks intriguing, only to find that it includes the same tropes in all other sci-fi stories. It must be hard to generate innovative science fiction that doesn’t rely on the same story pitting humans against aliens, or something like that1. Films and video games have the same problem--as if humans fighting aliens is the only concept left to explore in the scope of science fiction2.

Eventually, you have to look to classic science fiction to fulfill this need for original stories. After some recommendation, I came across the brief, but impactful novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris. It was really an astounding read, set around a confounding planet that has futuristic scientists of Earth baffled, featuring an astronaut more or less trapped in orbit of the planet. Described as a philosophical science fiction novel, the reader experiences similar emotions to the astronaut--at times, he is comfortable with his surroundings despite only having studied and read about it; at other times, he is horrified with the effects the planet is having on himself and his fellow scientists.

Solaris (1961 novel) The novel is about an astronaut and psychologist named Kelvin who is sent to a distant planet after some disturbing and unclear messages are transmitted about bizarre happenings on the surrounding space station. It becomes apparent quickly, however, that the story is not about the characters, but the planet itself. Even after being studied for generations, very little is known about the planet. Specialized scientists, called Solarists, have come to the general agreement that the planet is not an object, but more of a conscious being. Being mostly liquid or plasma, the planet appears to respond to external influences, namely the attempts of the scientists to establish contact. Throughout the events, the planet does not come across as hostile; it is merely reactionary.

What the novel does well, among other things, is by giving a fair amount of description to the science surrounding the planet. The science does not feel invented or self-serving to the story. Instead it feels like the branch of study has been established and evolved over generations. The descriptions of the capabilities of the planet are feasible and realistic.

Shortly after arriving to the space station, Kelvin begins receiving a visitor from his past, who it becomes clear, is a creation by the planet based on his consciousness. The other scientists on the ship are dealing with similar apparitions; it has driven one man to suicide. The book chronicles how Kelvin along with his visitor grow together. It approaches a natural point where the two are questioning their own humanity, obviously a conundrum for a human and his apparition.

After finishing the novel, I knew I wanted to track down both film adaptations to see how they compared.

Solaris (1972 film) This is an excellent rendition of the original source material. Directed by the Russian visionary, Andrei Tarkovsky, the film is as much an art film as it is science fiction. It is long (almost three hours) and very sparse, with several scenes of Kelvin, solitary, taking in his natural surroundings. Garnering a Criterion Collection release, there are very few shots wasted, including a striking sequence where a car drives into Tokyo with the sound effects of a shuttle taking off. Interestingly, the author of the novel, Stanislaw Lem, was not pleased with the outcome of the film, as it took too many liberties from the novel. Tarkovsky plays with the effect of having little to no sound at times to demonstrate the isolation Kelvin sometimes feels both on Earth and on the space station. The film definitely does not rely on special effects (this was five years before Star Wars innovated upon flashy effects), but the depictions of the planet are no less striking. And while I do not want to give too much away, I will say the ending, the slow pan-out, must be seen to be believed.

Solaris (2002 film) The 2002 remake of the earlier film is not as good, though it is far from disappointing. It does accomplish much of the original message of the book, but there are some details added that detract from the story. Reported, James Cameron had wanted to make a new version of the film for some time, and he was able to produce it with the direction of Steven Soderbergh. Together these two filmmaking icons obviously brought their own styles to the story. The external shots of the planet are breathtaking--expect nothing less from a Cameron production. My issues with the film concern the extended sequences of George Clooney’s reminiscence of his time on Earth. Much shorter than the 1972 film, this version uses a lot of valuable screen time away from the space station. There was also an added twist to the story that seemed more akin to the modern, generic sci-fi tropes I mentioned earlier. It did little to add to the suspense and certainly was not necessary here. And the ending, while it attempted to recapture the classic film, personally did not have the same striking success.

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Probably the most powerful message from any of the versions is that the scientists are disrupting a planet that they truly do not understand. The planet is so incomprehensible that its “motives” could be almost anything. It could be trying to establish benevolent contact by providing an image of loved ones; or it could be attempting to drive the scientists to madness, and thus away from continually studying it. Again, while there is never a sense of hostility from the planet, there is almost always a sense of unease. We know there is something wrong with the “visitors” but, like Kelvin, we feel strangely comfortable with it. The dangers in the story do not feel as if they are caused by the environment, but rather at a psychological level. And all three tellings of the story capture this sense, in different ways. Essentially, however you go about this story, in whichever order, it is an enjoyable and thought-provoking experience.

1 This is not to say this type of story always fails. War of the Worlds is a classic novel, and Aliens is one of my favorite movies.
2 Substitute dragons and orcs for aliens, and the same holds true for fantasy. Simply having epic wars of mythical beings is not the key to quality fantasy. Finding good fantasy is often difficult, as well.