Three Visions of Science

From Gerald R. Lucas
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Lem’s, Tarkovsky’s, and Soderbergh’s Solaris.[1]


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.[2]

Unlike either Tarkovsky’s or Soderbergh’s film versions, both of whom seem to have taken Muntius’ perspective of Solaris to heart, Lem’s 1961[3] 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 empiricism, 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 religion, 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 follows Kris Kelvin’s exploration of his own psyche. A trained Solarist 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 encounters the crew, first Snow, the corpse of the suicide Gibarian, then Sartorius, he begins 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!”[4] 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.”[5] 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 individuals, nor copies of actual persons. They are merely projections materializing from our brains, based on a given individual.”[6] As scientists, they arrive at the conclusion that they themselves may be the subjects of an alien experiment.[7]

Experiment or not, the visitors begin to learn after they arrive. Snow later speculates 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.”[8] 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?”[5] 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 decade. Yet, when Rheya appears to him on Solaris, the scientist in him dismisses her as ersatz, 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.”[9] However, as much as wishes to believe 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.[10]

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 cannot be justified, they ask why Solaris is doing what it’s doing. Their science cannot answer 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 understand.

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 system, 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 universe or even our own minds. While science might tell us how the human mind operates, 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 prejudices. Perhaps the word “human” is in need of re-articulation if it cannot encompass difference.

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, subject 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.”[11] 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.”[11] 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.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film version of Solaris also portrays humanity’s attempt to understand 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 subjective 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 science and technology.

Tarkovsky’s poetically composed film begins with his trademark views of nature 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 uncertainty 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 relationship 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 inward: the dead Dr. Gibarian on a video tape, Dr. Snow who warns him not to trust anything he sees that contradicts the facts, Dr. Sartorius who has a hardline scientific approach 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 science 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.

Solaris 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 juxtaposed 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 discovering 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 classification. 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 scientists’ 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 Kelvin’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 understand ourselves, what hope can we have of knowing the cosmos? The why of things ultimately 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 middle: “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 return 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 questions, 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, acceptance. 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 expected. 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 nature. 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 technology, but never get complacent or arrogant so as to forget to notice our brothers or the natural world from which we evolved.

Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 Solaris seems to pay homage to Tarkovsky’s love of flow in its images, 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. Soderbergh 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.” Gordon 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 reflects part of your mind. You provide the formula.
Kelvin: She’s alive.
Gordon: She is not human! Try to understand that if you can understand anything.
Kelvin: What about your visitor, the one you’re so ready to destroy without 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 facsimile. 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 manifested 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 desires 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 science cannot explain their appearance, the question then enters the realm of metaphysics.

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 human, a mere puppet, but Gibarian returns: “Maybe you’re my puppet, but like all puppets, 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, remembering 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 presents.

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 objectifies 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 succeeded in making it his reality. His forgiveness is not external, but internal: he has forgiven 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 interaction 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 products of nanotechnology, genetics, and robotics. What happens when we become Solaris?


  1. Originally written for the FSU Literature and Film Conference, 2004, and then published in Ragnatela Magazine 3, 2004.
  2. Lem, Stanislaw (2002) [1970]. Solaris. New York: Mariner. pp. 172, 173.
  3. 1970 in English.
  4. Lem 2002, p. 73.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Lem 2002, p. 74.
  6. Lem 2002, p. 102.
  7. Lem 2002, p. 103.
  8. Lem 2002, pp. 150-151.
  9. Lem 2002, p. 93.
  10. Lem 2002, p. 72.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Lem 2002, p. 204.