Humans Can’t Handle Space: Reading Solaris

Solaris, a timeless SF classic by acclaimed writer Stanislaw Lem, examines the struggle of humankind to deal with alien life when ultimately confronted with it. Two scientists observe a planet below from a space station, but the newest arrival, Kelvin, soon finds that there is some darkness lurking on the ship.

Somehow, the scientists’ presence over the planet below is causing supernatural appearances of dead loved ones, as the planet torments the scientists with physical manifestations of their emotional trauma. For Kelvin, it is the reanimation of his dead wife Rheya. In so doing, Solaris is a story of how space can challenge the mind and human sanity. But more deeply, the events in Solaris boil down to Lem’s assertion that humanity will never understand space – once you see it this way, you’ll read it in every line.

In the planet below Solaris (the space station), Lem endows the environment of this book with the agency to resist humanity’s pursuit of knowledge and understanding. The planet seems culpable to the supernatural events on the station, as if defending itself to their scientific instruments. Kelvin asks how man can ever hope to advance in pursuits of science and space, “without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers […] which he himself has sealed”. This speaks volumes of how human history shows our tendency to blindly endeavour into natural spaces we don’t fully understand, until we’ve ruined them.

For the Solarists, the Ocean is in many ways a mirror, and as Kelvin says “[we] need no other worlds. We need mirrors. We do not know what to do with other worlds… We want to find our own idealised image” . Humans aren’t prepared for space and alien life in other worlds, because we cannot abandon our preconceived notions of what we’ll find, or even our established understandings of science. The Solarists find themselves psychologically strung out to dry in this story – the mirrors acting at such a deep internal level that the experience of space for them is impossible to comprehend. Instead, they see their own emotional turmoil and pain.

Ultimately, Kelvin claims humans aren’t ready for what they find in Solaris, in both what they fail to learn of the planet and its sentience, and of themselves:

I’m talking about what we all wanted:  contact with another civilisation. Now we’ve got it! And we can observe, through a microscope our own monstrous ugliness, our folly, our shame!

Alone in space. Isolated in the universe. Tormented by a living superplanet. Ultimately though, humans encounter only human problems in space. Anything more is too much for them. Because the discovery of this animated planet is not the scientific pursuit these humans expected, it is not one in which they are prepared to triumph.

Arguably then, humans may never triumph in space – as we are destined to misunderstand it, because we have not yet mastered an understanding of ourselves.

By Rory McNeill.