Inalienable Rites

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

It's pretty hard not to notice that just about every space movie - what's known as science fiction - involves war or violence of some sort. This fusion of genres may stem from the straightforward understanding that every journey entails violence. Crossing a boundary necessarily means the disruption of another existing order. The journeys in sci-fi films take place in an ultimate realm, and the disruption they cause is, accordingly, of vast proportions. The genre of science fiction always has at its center the question of communication: that is, the question of the other reality in relation to the reality with which we are familiar.

In the majority of Hollywood films, the otherness of the alien beings is no more than a fairly minor distortion of the human. In Hollywood terms, Arnold Schwarzenegger can be an authentic cyborg only because he is unusually muscular and his English is tinged with an Austrian accent. The creatures in George Lucas' "Star Wars" are supposed to represent the select members of other civilizations, but what we see time and again is the collapse of the otherness, revealing nothing more than a distorted picture of the human. It's typical that most of the creatures speak English. For the most part, the "otherness" will take the form of a strange accent or a minor foulup of grammar, such as the reversal of the order of the words in a sentence. That's all.

Yet there is something in the sci-fi genre, in its intelligent renderings, that exposes precisely the profound otherness that literature makes possible. In a 1981 letter, the renowned science fiction writer Philip K. Dick ("Blade Runner") described the constituting principle of the genre as "dislocation," a distortion that is fundamental to the genre and not merely coincidental. According to Dick, the genre must strike the reader with the shock of "non-recognition," whose source derives from the knowledge that the world being described is necessarily of a different order of place and time from any historical example known to mankind. It is exactly at this point that the Hollywood film industry goes wrong: after a momentary shock of non-recognition, it turns out that the otherness consists of no more than a set, which is usually achieved by taking well-known earthly myths and transplanting them to other worlds, which are not truly other. The Jedi knights are technology-intensive Knights of the Round Table.

The nonchalance with which Keter Publishing House removed Stanislaw Lem's "Solaris" (1961) from the reductionist genre categorization of science fiction and consolidated it as full-fledged "high literature" is commendable. At the same time, even though "Solaris" is one of the peaks of the genre, its description in the blurb as "one of the great books of the 20th century" is not supportable, if only because of the poor, one-dimensional treatment of the characters and the subjugation of the entire text to the central idea, even if it is fascinating in itself. In any event, "Solaris" is above all the antithesis of the Hollywood conception of science fiction.

The essence of "otherness" in the novel, which is not some human-type creature but the planet Solaris itself, is truly other, and remains utterly other throughout the book, until the end. Indeed, any theoretical attempt to understand is depicted as ridiculous in the novel, and Lem takes obvious pleasure in his description of "Solaristics," a science of ongoing failure, mainly because it involves a vast project of anthropomorphism, which in this case is a basic error: efforts spanning entire decades and hundreds of connections in an attempt to understand the essence of Solaris as something like a thinking planet, a sentient ocean, a kind of gigantic brain, and so forth. However, these theories are rejected, and the accumulation of knowledge leads to a diminishing of understanding. Solaris is the incomprehensible, the true other, the place where human consciousness can no longer operate and is compelled to become silent, or to go on mumbling insubstantial inanities, or to use violence in the face of the speech that cannot be understood, in order to silence it by force and annul it.

Solaris "speaks": it presents "mathematical" models to the researchers, it sends them living realizations of characters that it extracts from the edges of their consciousness, "guests" such as a dead beloved that is created from the memories of Kelvin, the protagonist, which is sent to him by Solaris, perhaps as a gift, or possibly as a guardian, perhaps as a scientist who conducts an experiment on him, or possibly as an essence without meaning. Solaris presents a structure of meaning, but without a meaning of content. Solaris creates spectacular forms on the ocean, but no one can decipher them; sends emissaries to the researchers, but the emissaries themselves do not understand their mission, and in fact bear no message beyond the very fact of their being. Hence the terror: the postman knocks on your door and delivers a letter but refuses to let you open the envelope. You open the door to him, he shows a thick, sealed envelope and escapes down the stairs. Such are the messages of Solaris. The scientists in the book try over and over to read the letter, even though the postman is already moving along the street again, and the envelope in his hand is sealed.

It follows that this text is also an attempt of creative consciousness (the author, the protagonist researchers) to understand another creative consciousness (that of Solaris) and, indirectly, to understand itself. What does "creating a character" in a literary work mean, for example? How is it possible to describe a person who never existed? Or to describe a person who existed and died? Solaris creates such living-dead characters and sends them to the researchers; one such character is described as being merely a mirror in which part of the recipient's brain is reflected.

What is the meaning of "creating a plot" or a "literary structure"? Even as Solaris "writes" such structures and characters while the flabbergasted researchers watch, the reader of "Solaris" looks at the writing of Stanislaw Lem and imagines that he "understands" the characters, "understands" the structure, "understands" the story. But anyone who reads the book will not be able to escape understanding mainly his non-understanding. In this book, understanding the non-understanding is the acute "non-recognition" to which Dick referred, and hence the sense of fear that arises in the reader during the first half of the book, in which the non-recognition, the dislocation - of the psychologist hero and the reader alike - is built up.

Can anyone truly understand how a human brain (Lem's) conceives a planet that controls its fate and navigates its orbit - a planet that thinks? Can we understand how a human brain invents a world that a human eye has never seen - in other words, that thinks the impossible? What happens, then, is that the reader of "Solaris" is condemned to understand that his situation as a person who is "hovering" above the pages of this book is wholly identical to the situation of the space researchers who are hovering about the ocean of Solaris: he, like them, may perceive phenomena but not the thing itself; may propose an interpretation of a work of literature and identify its workings but not truly understand what literature is, why it exists at all. In the final analysis, the non-recognition may become a marvel here, a pleasurable indulging in the nullity of our consciousness. The only sure thing we know as readers of "Solaris" (and here, too, our situation is identical to that of the book's protagonist) is that, as we read on the last page, the time of the marvels of fear has not yet passed, that the time of literature has not yet passed.