Deep as an Ocean, Bright as a Star

Boaz Cohen
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Boaz Cohen

"Solaris" by Stanislaw Lem, translated into Hebrew from Polish by Aharon Hauptmann, Keter, 236 pages, NIS 79, translated into English by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, Harcourt, 204 pages, $13

Let it be said immediately: This great book by Stanislaw Lem should be on the shelf of the masterpieces of the 20th century. Lem's place is alongside Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges, because "Solaris" - and not only in the opinion of the writer of these lines - is the most important science fiction novel that has ever been written; a magical, wise and imaginative book. The heart flutters at the descriptions of the enchanted landscape, which is both threatening and attractive, of the planet Solaris; at the same time, Lem relates sarcastically to the connection between the exact sciences and "the truth" and the facts. And above all, he succeeds in bridging the gap, which still exists, between science fiction and "serious literature."

"Solaris" is a book about metaphysics, life and fear; about the twilight zone of the soul, the unplumbed realm of the unknown. The questions that Stanislaw Lem asks are as deep as the waters of Solaris, a planet that is an ocean which is a live organism, an enormous brain, sometimes understood but fascinating all the time. The republication in Hebrew of "Solaris," in a translation by Aharon Hauptmann and edited by Shimon Adaf and Ornit Cohen-Barak, 22 years after it was published by the Ma'ariv readers club, is, without exaggerating, one of the most important literary events of the year.

This event is taking place almost simultaneously with a truly tragic event that has to do with the relationship between human beings and space: the crash of the Columbia space shuttle, which beyond the loss of human life that it involved, has truncated the sending of manned spacecraft into space. Stanislaw Lem, incidentally, published a statement after September 11 in which he noted: "The attack is a terrible lesson that shows us how dangerous it is to cut ourselves off from the planet and dream of space satellites and lasers for defense against missiles, when the threat of death lurks at a far lower level."

It could be said that in 2003 - with the terror that is threatening the world and the dreadful failure of the Columbia mission - reading "Solaris" takes on additional significance that did not exist in 1961. When the book was first published, Neil Armstrong had not even walked on the moon.

I was a high-school student in 1981, when I read "Solaris" for the first time. I remember well how the book enchanted me - the intellectual brilliance and the emotional power woven by a Polish master artist into the plot that takes place far from the boundaries of Earth, but most of all deals with the hidden powers that operate within us ourselves. Two days after I finished reading it for the first time, I began to read it again. This has happened to me very few times in my life. This week I read it for the third time; even after 22 years it hypnotized me, and I discovered new dimensions I had not found as a teenager.

Solaris is a planet that revolves around a pair of suns, the one red and the other blue, deep in outer space beyond our solar system. Phenomena that have been discovered on the surface of the planet completely undermine the human knowledge that has been acquired thus far by the sciences of physics, biology and psychology. Above Solaris hovers a space station in which three scientists live, who are trying to understand the secrets of a planet that is an ocean: a planet that is all water, but also an organic creature that reacts to stimuli, a kind of gigantic brain.

And then something strange happens on the spaceship where the researchers live. Figures appear and vanish; someone goes insane, another commits suicide. Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, scientist and astronaut, is sent from Earth to find out what has happened in the space station. Are the figures that are seen there from time to time real? Are they imagined by the researchers, who have gone mad for some reason? Is Solaris, that strange and elusive essence of a star, trying to communicate with humans? Is it all part of a grotesque joke or experiment? Who, in fact, is studying whom - are the three researchers studying Solaris or is the highly intelligent star studying the three human beings in the spaceship hovering above it? All this is spread out over the 230 wonderful pages of the book.

Tragic fable

Researcher Avraham Yosef of Bar-Ilan University has written a 200-page study of Lem's work, and has also published a paper that deals with "Solaris" in the British publication "Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction" (No. 46, autumn, 1989). Among other things, the communication between two cultures is examined there: the culture of the planet Earth and the culture of Solaris. Yosef sees this work by Stanislaw Lem as a kind of fable of tragic dimensions. He noted that Solaris is a planet that revolves around two suns and is covered by a colloidal ocean that functions like a huge brain. Humankind does not succeed in initiating communications with this brain; perhaps these two cultures have nothing to say to each other. The ocean continues to function as usual; that is, it creates worlds from itself and destroys them. It does not ignore the presence of man nearby: Sometimes it builds of itself caricatures of human objects, sometimes it swallows up individual researchers or entire crews, but in all this, notes Avraham, there is not even the beginning of communication.

Here, then, is another perspective on the masterpiece "Solaris": The communication (that does not exist) between the humans on the spaceship and the planet they are studying, and even the lack of communication between the individual - whose soul is disturbed and whose mind betrays him - and himself, deceives him, until he cannot distinguish between reality and imagination.

Stanislaw Lem was born in 1921 to a Jewish family in the city of Lvov and was a medical student when the Germans occupied his country. He went into hiding and wandered from place to place during the war years, and survived thanks to forged papers he managed to obtain. Immediately after the liberation of Poland from the Nazis, he settled in Cracow, where he completed university studies. He published his first story in 1964. Since then he has written and published many books (eight of which have been translated into Hebrew). The most important of them are "Eden," "Star Diaries," "The Cyberiad" - a grotesque tale of the relations between robots and humans - and, of course, "Solaris," which, since its publication in 1961, has been translated into 40 languages and sold in millions of copies. There are also many sites on the Internet devoted to this work (among them It is mainly thanks to this work that Lem is considered an author superstar. In 1987, Lem announced in a live broadcast that he was retiring from writing, and during the past 15 years he has been living far from the media and has written very little - a few literary reviews, articles and short stories.

Defying definition

Even though he is catalogued as a science fiction writer, Lem hates this definition and is hostile to the entire genre (he has also managed to quarrel with writers like Philip Jose Farmer, who admires his work, and with the science fiction associations in America and France). In sharp articles he has written and in aggressive interviews he has given over the years, Lem has evinced extreme hatred for Western science fiction and most of the science fiction writers in the world, including the Russians. In his opinion, this is inferior literature, commercialized and of no value. His profound scorn has led the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to condemn him officially.

But Lem did not get upset, and he continues to argue to this day that science fiction is simply another branch of popular, meaningless literature that is intended to be just another consumer product that is measured by the number of copies of it that are sold. "Most of the science fiction writers of the past hundred years," said Lem, "are mediocre, one-dimensional writers who produce garbage." He excludes from this some of the work of Isaac Asimov, whom he admired very much, H.G. Wells, whom he loves, and the only writer whose work he really adores, Philip K. Dick ("Ubik," "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep [Blade Runner]").

And, indeed, it is complicated to define Lem, because his writing ranges among genres and styles - a kind of unbelievable mix of social satire, fantasy, mythological elements, travel and adventure stories, folktales, fables, thrillers and more. For example, "Tales of Pirx the Pilot" (which was published by Schocken in a Hebrew translation by Ori Orlev in 1982) is considered a children's book in Poland, while "The Invincible" (Schocken, 1981) is hard-core sci-fi.

Lem is the writer who asks, an artist who studies mankind. His works regularly deal with musings about existence, religion and divinity, morality, societies, the soul, the regime and politics and art. The terrible loneliness in the story of the robot who is abandoned on a destroyed spaceship in "Tales of Pirx the Pilot" also prevails in "Solaris." Human suffering and distress are present in the books whether their characters are robots, an ocean-planet or extraterrestrial beings. This is because for Lem, technology and futurism are just means of examining human matters: love, passion, memory. Outer space and the spaceship are just background to the more interesting events, the ones in the characters' souls.

Lem despises advanced technology in his personal life as well. He says that every innovative invention is perverted by the public that begins to use it. "People will always find ways to pervert progress for their own needs," he said in one of the most recent interviews he has given. "The Internet, for example, is a network that was originally intended for the exchange of scientific information. In fact, it has become a tool in the service of terror, pornography and the ills that mankind loves so much."

"Solaris" has been filmed twice, 30 years apart, in Russia and in the United States. In 1972, it was directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, the brilliant Russian director, who has made stunning science fiction films like "Stalker" (based on the novel "The Roadside Picnic" by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky) and "The Victim." "Solaris" was directed for the second time in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh ("sex, lies and videotape"), starring George Clooney. The sworn fans of the book were furious at the trailers for the film, which described "Solaris" as "a love story in outer space," which is about like defining "Crime and Punishment" as "a thriller about a student who murders an old woman in Russia in the 19th century."

However, impossible love does serve as an important anchor in "Solaris." The painful love for Rheya (and we will not reveal additional details, so as not to spoil things for anyone who has not yet read it) is a significant level that brings up questions and is very moving. This is Lem's most emotional book, which also succeeds in being very moving - one of those works that leave their impressions for decades after you have read the last page and closed the book.

And a final comment: Though Aharon Hauptmann has translated the book from the Polish original, when he tried to consult the English translation, he was shocked to discover, he says, "a frighteningly careless translation." In many cases, entire sentences or paragraphs have been omitted (which were indeed difficult to translate). It turns out that the book had been translated into English not from the Polish original, but rather from the French version, which was also choppy and far from perfect. According to him, Prof. Jerzy Jarzebski, a well-known Polish researcher of Lem's works to whom the changes in the versions were presented, has confirmed that the Polish translation is the closest to the original.

Thus, in the case of Solaris, if you aren't fluent in Polish, it is apparently worth reading the Hebrew version.

Boaz Cohen edits and presents the daily program "The Eighth Traveler" on Radio 88 FM.