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Three Visions of Science: Lem's, Tarkovsky's, and Soderbergh's Solaris

Gerald R. Lucas

According to Muntius, Solaristics is the space era’s equivalent of religion:

faith disguised as science. . . . Solaristics is a revival of long-vanished

myths, the expression of mythical nostalgias which men are unwilling to

confess openly. The cornerstone is deeply entrenched in the foundations of

the edifice: it is the hope of Redemption. (Lem Solaris 172, 173).

Unlike either Tarkovsky’s or Soderbergh's film versions, both of whom seem to

have taken Muntius’ interpretation of Solaris to heart, Lem’s 1961 novel suggests that

Solaris is truly alien, something that humanity’s cataloging and ordering cannot explain.

The great ocean, despite the efforts of the greatest scientific minds, remains essentially

mute and inexplicable, unable to be coded by scientific reason, explained through em-

piricism, or contacted through poetry. Lem seems to suggest, in the aftermath of science

fiction’s Golden Age, that science is not the pinnacle of evolution and striving: it, like re-

ligion, is a faith-based language unique to the creatures that invented it; i.e., humans.

Lem’s vision seems introspective — it turns a mirror on a species that used science to

create the possibility of annihilation by splitting the atom and mocks our pretenses to

transcend our own human follies. While contact with the other may not be possible in

Lem’s vision, perhaps the universe does contain wonders if we can just see past our own

desires. Yet, in order to speak to larger audiences, Tarkovsky and especially Soderbergh

mirror many of Lem's concerns in their respective film adaptations of his novel, but

their visions reflect revised views of science and technology's influence on humanity.
Lem’s novel is about Kris Kelvin’s exploration of his own psyche. A trained Solar-

ist and psychologist, Kelvin is sent to Solaris to see what has become of the crew, but

unknown to Kelvin, he is traveling light years to encounter not the strangeness of the

alien sea, but his — and possibly humanity's — own troubled existence. When Kelvin en-

counters the crew, first Snow, the corpse of the suicide Gibarian, then Sartorius, he be-

gins to see what is going on, but his scientifically trained mind cannot accept whet his

senses tell him. Each of the crew has a “visitor,” ostensibly produced by Solaris for an

unknown purpose. While we never discover just who the other scientists' visitors are,

Kelvin's is his dead wife Rheya. Just who are these visitors? Kelvin tries to answer this

question for the rest of the novel. Snow speculates that they are meant to show “our own

monstrous ugliness, our folly, our shame!” (73). He posits that the ocean probed their

brains and penetrated their unconscious minds: the visitors are “a genetic substance . . .

a plasma which ‘remembers.’ The ocean has ‘read’ us by this means, registering the

minutest details, with the result that . . . well, you know the result” (74). Snow believes

that he understands the how, but he does not know the why. The scientists cannot rid

themselves of the visitors; they appear when the scientists have slept; they regenerate

when hurt; they seem immortal, and, as Sartorius opines, “They are not autonomous in-

dividuals, nor copies of actual persons. They are merely projections materializing from

our brains, based on a given individual” (102). As scientists, they arrive at the conclu-

sion that they themselves may be the subjects of an alien experiment (103).

Experiment or not, the visitors begin to learn after they arrive. Snow later specu-

lates that: “When it arrives, the visitor is almost blank — only a ghost made up of some

memories and vague images dredged out of its . . . source. The longer it stays with you,
the more human it becomes. It also becomes more independent, up to a certain point”

(150-151). After that time of adjustment, Snow suggests, they become almost human,

now a part of the life on the station. They learn from their surroundings, and begin to

question their existence; Snow states: “In a certain subjective sense, they are human.

They know nothing whatsoever about their origins. You must have noticed that?” (74).

While in one sense the visitors mirror the scientists’ memories, in another they are also

as questioning, answer-less, and alone as existentially as humans.

At a point science begins to falter, offering no answers, but only guesses as to

what might be happening. Kelvin begins to accept his visitor, his dead wife Rheya. Early

on, Kelvin confesses that her suicide is his fault: he left her in a psychological fragile

state with enough drugs to do away with herself. After her suicide, something that he

thought she was too weak to actually attempt, he carried the blame with him for a dec-

ade. Yet, when Rheya appears to him on Solaris, the scientist in him dismisses her as er-

satz, a simulacrum undeserving of the status of human. He launches her into orbit, but

she is soon replaced by another, one that he begins to grow attached to, despite the fact

that she is not Rheya and was born out of an alien ocean. Yet, he longs to have another

chance to redeem his mistake with Rheya and begins to think of this Rheya as human,

someone to be cared for and loved; he finally acquiesces to her caring presence: “It was

Rheya, the real Rheya, the one and only Rheya” (93). However, as much as wishes to be-

lieve that, this Rheya learns that she is a product of Solaris and cannot accept that fact

herself.

At one point, Snow offers his view of humanity’s travels into the cosmos:
We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship,

for exhaustion, death. . . . We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply

want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. . . .

We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don’t want to enslave other races,

we simply want the bequeath them our values and take over their heritage

in exchange. . . . We are only seeking Man. We have no need for other

worlds. We need mirrors. . . . We are searching for an ideal image of our

own world. (72)

Yet Solaris presents them with the opposite: their own fears and shortcomings, and they

have difficulty accepting that. They consider that they are mad, but when madness can-

not be justified, they ask why Solaris is doing what it’s doing. Their science cannot an-

swer why, it can only answer how. The Rheya simulacrum falls into this trap as well: a

reflection of Kelvin’s mind, she cannot accept her own alien-ness, and like the real

Rheya, finds a way to kill herself with the assistance of Sartorius. Perhaps this is what

humanity is, then: an exclusive club that seeks to conquer and not necessarily to under-

stand.

Lem’s novel seems to call into question the very notion of human science. Like a

religious faith, science was upheld in Golden Age science fiction as an endeavor that

could solve any puzzle. It is a rational discipline that stands upon human reason and

knowledge, not fear and superstition. However, science itself is only a human belief sys-

tem, something that may hold true in our remote corner of the universe, but Lem's novel

suggests that it cannot allow us to make contact or examine the complexities of the uni-

verse or even our own minds. While science might tell us how the human mind oper-
ates, it cannot disclose the implications of its operation. Perhaps Solaris suggests that

having too much faith in science can destroy our own humanity, making us more like

machines than beings who are capable of looking beyond our own beliefs and preju-

dices. Perhaps the word “human” is in need of re-articulation if it cannot encompass dif-

ference.

At the end of the novel, Kelvin decides to visit the ocean on Solaris. He lands his

craft on a “mimoid,” a seemingly random structure spawned by the sea. As he considers

his experiences on Solaris, he ponders his existence and that of the planet. Despite the

trouble and pain of this trip, he thinks “We all know that we are material creatures, sub-

ject to the laws of physiology and physics, and not even the power of all our feelings

combined can defeat those laws. All we can do is detest them” (204). He seems to shrug

his shoulders at the ocean, at the defeat of humanity to make contact, to break out of its

own arrogant little shell. Yet, his final thoughts might be the beginning of a new life: “I

knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past”

(204). However cruel his experience, at least Solaris represented something outside the

sphere of humanity. Perhaps this thought is comfort enough when our experiments fail

us.

Tarkovsky's 1972 film version of Solaris also portrays humanity’s attempt to un-

derstand that which is beyond the scope of our creation. The characters make contact

with the truly alien and try to conceive of this presence in terms dictated by their science

and rational understanding, but fail miserably. Tarkovsky's Solaris addresses the futility

of our technology in the face of something that cannot be translated or incorporated into

the body of our knowledge, but humanity’s arrogance and faith in its own paucity of
knowledge and understanding drives the characters to code and codify a being that is

truly alien. Solaris asks if “reality” can truly be measured scientifically through the sub-

jective perceptions of humanity. It seems to suggest that it cannot, and bids us be happy

with the small comfort that we can give each other away from the crippling effects of sci-

ence and technology.

Tarkovsky’s poetically composed Solaris begins with his trademark views of na-

ture on the land of Chris Kelvin’s father where Kelvin prepares to leave for Solaris to

break the impasse that surrounds Solaristics; he will measure the “facts” against the

passions of the “hearts” of those that have been there. Like a Dostoyevsky novel, the

mood of the entire film is one of foreboding and uncertainty. Human understanding and

technology seem at best conditional above the swirling mass of cerebral consciousness

that is the Solaris ocean. Images of flowing and swirling water emphasize the uncer-

tainty as Kelvin seems to be slowly traveling deeper into his own subconscious full of

pain and repressed grief for the loss of the innocence he once possessed: his unclear re-

lationship with his “mama,” his current professional responsibilities, and the suicide of

his wife ten years previously.

His encounters with the living and the dead precipitate Kelvin’s own journey in-

ward: the dead Dr. Gibarian on a video tape, Dr. Snow who warns him not to trust any-

thing he sees that contradicts the facts, Dr. Sartorius who has a hardline scientific ap-

proach to problems, and finally his dead wife Khari (Rheya in the Lem and Soderbegh)

brought back to life inexplicably. A scientist himself, Kelvin soon looses confidence in

science’s ability to explain what his senses tell him is real, but his mind tells him cannot

be. Reality, Dr. Snow tries to warn him, does not work here the same way it does on
earth; it’s something like “insanity” that prods and pokes at conscience, much like sci-

ence does to its subjects. Indeed, they only began having trouble when Gibarian began

bombarding the ocean with x-rays. Perhaps in retaliation, the alien sea/entity seems to

be able to plumb the depths of the scientists’ minds and manifest physically what it finds

there for them to deal with, in an irony straight from Lem’s novel.

Tarkovsky’s film attacks notions of scientific difference and our certainty in them,

like sleep and consciousness, simulation and reality, and even our ability to perceive

color. The film will suddenly switch from brilliant and sharp color to an almost murky

black and white without any obvious reason. It also conflates video with reality, so

sounds, dialogue, and time become uncertain, ostensibly interacting so that both the

audience and even the characters themselves become confused: was that sound on the

video or coming from outside the room? Many scenes of sleep and delirium are juxta-

posed with those of philosophical discourse; images of idyllic landscapes with those of

bristling cityscapes; and sounds from childhood with unearthly scrapings and crashes.

The flow of the images in the film come like those of a lucid dream, seemingly connected

in our dreamscape, but utter nonsense against morning coffee and the daily news.

Tarkovsly's film suggests that science cannot encompass the cosmos or our own

evolution as humans. Indeed, as Snow says above, we are not really interested in discov-

ering that which is beyond us, but only endeavor to change the other, the alien, to fit our

definitions of it. Science itself changes that which is studied: if it does not do what we

want it to do, then science can change it to make it fit a mold, a meaning, and a classifi-

cation. The Solarists are at an impasse about just what the Solaris ocean is, but that does

not stop them from imposing their desires on that which is utterly alien. Science does
not accept that there might be things which are beyond science — more things in heaven

and earth, Horatio.

What is reality if it is not of our own making? The “visitors" are part of the scien-

tists’ own perceptions of reality. Khari is not “real” in the sense that she has had her own

life experiences as an autonomous human being, but is a physical representation or

simulacrum of how Kelvin perceives her — his flawed and subjective memories of his

dead wife. This determines the pseudo-Khari’s actions: since Khari killed herself in Kel-

vin’s past, that’s how he determines the simulacrum’s future. She must kill herself over

and over again. However, like Lem's text, the more time she spends with Kelvin, the

more human she becomes. That is, the more of her own experiences she is able to have

and the more she begins to understand Kelvin’s own troubled reality. At one point she

even says “I am becoming a human being,” suggesting her own free will even though her

inexplicable creation comes from the mind of another.

Human needs human seems to be what the film is finally saying, even though it

gives no clear suggestion as to what that ultimately means. Indeed, if we don’t under-

stand ourselves, what hope can we have of knowing the cosmos? The why of things ul-

timately gives way to the now of things. We cannot know the why, the film suggests, but

we can know the now, the here, the immediate. Here is where love exists; here is where

happiness resides. Snow posits at one point:

When man is happy, the meaning of life and other themes of eternity

rarely interest him. These questions should be asked at the end of one’s

life. . . . The happiest people are those who never bother asking those
cursed questions. . . . To think about it is to know the day of one’s death.

Not knowing that date makes us practically immortal.

As a result, Snow becomes anti-science, a humanist foil to that of Sartorius. The latter

seems inhuman as he refers to Khari as a thing, something to be experimented upon, to

be dissected, to be studied, and eventually to be destroyed. Kelvin remains in the mid-

dle: “We don’t know when our life will end, that’s why we’re in a hurry. . . . We question

life to seek out meaning. Yet to preserve all the simple human truths we need mysteries.

The mystery of happiness, death, love” — these mysteries might be the "cruel miracles"

of Lem's novel.

By the end of the film, Kelvin has ceased his questioning, desiring instead to re-

turn to a state of naive innocence, like a child at his mother’s breast. He only wants to

love Khari, even though he knows that love means the death of all that has given his life

meaning and drive up until that point. He wants to cleanse his memory of these ques-

tions, and retreats home where we found him at the beginning of the film. Yet his home,

too, becomes a literal island of memory on the surface of Solaris. The final scene has

him kneeling before his father as if begging the latter for forgiveness, guidance, accep-

tance. As the camera pulls up and away, we see his father’s home has been recreated on

Solaris, and the soundtrack suggests a defeat, rather than solace we might have ex-

pected. Has Solaris won, or has Kelvin finally returned home? Perhaps the two are not

so far removed.

Tarkovsky will not supply any answers, as if there could be any. This ending

seems like a Luddite retreat away from science and technology to a simpler life in na-

ture. We seem to be part of both our own technology and that from which we evolved;
could we repudiate one for the other and still remain human? The cosmos is perhaps

unknowable in our current state of evolution, but does that mean we should slink back

to our mamas, never to venture into that which might make us question who we are and

why we’re here? Kelvin has been defeated, losing his sense of the cosmos by isolating

himself in a reality of his own construction, materialized of course by Solaris. Perhaps

his solution is a caution to us: continue to move forward through science and technol-

ogy, but never get complacent or arrogant so as to forget to notice our brothers or the

natural world from which we evolved.

Soderbergh’s Solaris seems to pay homage to Tarkovsky's love of flow in its im-

ages, transitions, and intricate flashbacks. Soderbergh's film also mirrors Tarkovsky's in

other ways, like the large video monitors on which the dead seemed to communicate

with the living, the dreary cityscape on earth, and several key pieces of dialogue. Soder-

bergh seems to use the motif of mirrors, something that he borrows both from Lem and

Tarkovsky, to present a Solaris made for the digital age.

When Kelvin first arrives on the station, he quickly learns of Gibarian’s death,

meets with the remaining crew members — the jittery Snow and the measured and

paranoid Gordon (Sartorius in the Lem and Tarkovsky) — and begins his investigation

into just what is happening. In an early scene, Kelvin watches a video journal of the dead

Gibarian that echoes Tarkovsky’s: “we don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors.” Gor-

don echoes this sentiment later when she and Kelvin discuss the reality of the “visitors,”

particularly the Rheya simulacrum:

GORDON: It is a mistake to become emotionally engaged with one of

them. You’re being manipulated. If she were ugly, you would not
want her around. That’s why she’s not ugly. She’s a mirror that re-

flects part of your mind. You provide the formula.

KELVIN: She’s alive.

GORDON: She is not human! Try to understand that if you can under-

stand anything.

KELVIN: What about your visitor, the one you’r soe ready to destroy with-

out hesitation. Who is it? What is it? Can it feel? Can it touch? Does

it speak?

GORDON: We are in a situation that is beyond morality. Your wife is dead.

KELVIN: How do you know that? How can you be so definitive about a

construct that you do not understand?

GORDON: She’s a copy. A facsilime. And she’s seducing you all over again.

You’re sick!

The distinction is ambiguous, calling into question what is human. Both react according

to how they interpret human and their own desires. Also, human seems to be a product,

not only of culture, but of environment. How could something that appears to come

from an alien ocean planet, constructed from a particular person’s memories, and mani-

fested physically by an alien thing be “human”? Gordon, as an empirical scientist cannot

buy it; Kelvin, a psychologist, remains dubious. Yet, we cannot so easily discount his de-

sires and the morality — a human invention — of calling the obviously alien construct

“human.” The visitors are a fact; there’s no doubting that physically. However, since sci-

ence cannot explain their appearance, the question then enters the realm of metaphys-

ics.
The pivotal scene in Soderbergh's film comes when Gibarian visits Kelvin in a

dream — again the “dream” part is ambiguous. The latter accuses him of not being hu-

man, a mere puppet, but Gibarian returns: “Maybe you’re my puppet, but like all pup-

pets, you think you’re actually human. Hence the puppet’s dream: being human.” Kelvin

questions him about his son — another visitor to the station — but Gibarian answers

that his son is back on earth. He continues: “And that’s not your wife. They are part of

Solaris. Remember that.” Kelvin continues to probe, asking what Solaris wants. Gibarian

answers: “Why do you think it has to want something? This is why you have to leave. If

you keep thinking there’s a solution, you’ll die here.” Yet, Kelvin cannot leave her, re-

membering the guilt of leaving her the first time on earth, an action that precipitated her

suicide. Kelvin must find the answers; he must understand Solaris so that he can cleanse

his guilt and remorse. Gibarian says finally: “Do you understand what I’m trying to tell

you: there are no answers, only choices.” Yet Kelvin, like the western conception of the

rational human, believes that he can find the answers to the puzzles that Solaris pre-

sents.

Sodergergh’s Solaris reflects humanity’s quest for place where we can be most

ourselves. This seems a vain and solipsistic longing to make the world a reflection of our

inner perceptions that gives meaning and order to the universe, but simultaneously ob-

jectifies external realities and recreates them in our own image. We want to be like gods,

whose creating words become manifest in the physical world. This brings security and

comfort, like we might find at home, or that a filmmaker might find in his vision of a

novel.
Indeed, the final scene vindicates this quest: in a scene that mirrors an earlier one

in the film, Kelvin is again at home; he again is slicing vegetables for dinner and again

cuts his finger as before, but this time he is able to wash away the cut, to erase it with

water as easily one might erase a mistake on a computer screen. The scene cuts back to

Kelvin deciding to remain on the station as Solaris expands to encompass it: he will not

return to earth, a place now that is alien to him, where he would have to relearn to be

human. Cutting back to the apartment, Rheya appears calling his name, and he asks if

he is alive or dead. She, with an expression that is mirrored through the film, replies that

“We don’t have to think like that anymore. We’re together now. Everything we’ve done is

forgiven. Everything.” Their final embrace suggests his acceptance of this reality that

seems to be the reflection of Kelvin’s greatest desire made manifest by Solaris. Kelvin

has ostensibly found his place. He is now trapped in a reality of his own making.

Like Tarkovsky’s ending, Soderbergh’s seeks to find a repentance, an idea of

heaven born from our greatest desires — a reflection of forgiveness and solace, a chance

to right our greatest mistakes. Yet, again like Tarkovsky’s, this ending is also a trap, one

from which Kelvin will not escape. He is now trapped in his own mind, having suc-

ceeded in making it his reality. His forgiveness is not external, but internal: he has for-

given himself his trespasses and now feels he deserves peace in the familiar. What is

love other than a reflection of ourselves, a place to feel the most comfortable and secure?

While we can live in this place, it also traps us, making the real world of human interac-

tion less bearable and ultimately impossible.

While Lem's close seems to suggest we are better off experiencing life's miracles

without questioning them, and Tarkovsky’s answer seems to be a return to nature, away
form the alienating concrete and steel of the city, Soderbergh’s ending seems to suggest

that technology might provide these moments of connection, but at a price. Like our

family and friends, the technology that we surround ourselves with reflects our desires

and provides us with spaces where we can be most ourselves, where transgressions are

quickly erased and leave no scars. The digital world mirrors how we perceive ourselves,

how we wish to be perceived, and how we perceive others. It’s a haven of security on one

hand, and a place to interact on the other. Yet, even though we might chat, browse, or

email, we are still physically sitting alone in our own rooms looking at a monitor that, if

we look closely, reflects our hopeful faces in its glass. Solaris seems to be an effort to

come to terms with our anxieties about what it means to be human in an increasing age

of digital technology. What will happen when the digital becomes manifest in the prod-

ucts of nanotechnology, genetics, and robotics. What happens when we become Solaris?