Stanisław Lem, Solaris
Information on the Writer | Questions for Reading

photo of Lem with some futuristic toys

Stanisław Lem (1921-2006) was born in Lwów, Poland (which after WWII became Lviv, Ukraine), but after the Second World War his family settled in Kraków. He studied medicine and developed a strong interest in mathematics and other sciences. Although his early novels were rather traditional science fiction, his individual style and philosophy were in full bloom by the 1960s. Lem is extremely various in his styles and genres, and towards the end of his life he even objected to being classified as a science fiction writer - though he really had gotten to be a cranky old man by the end of his life. His work often stresses the disharmony between technological possibility and human intentions. He attracted some bad press because of (carelessly? justifiably?) critical remarks about the quality of North American science fiction, which one might discuss in the context of the different roles of the genre in East and West over the past many years. Lem was both well-respected and a popular and widely-read writer — note the large number of his books in translation, and their relatively reasonable prices! (Back when the Web was new, Lem had more hits than almost any author, because so many of his fans were math and science geeks who knew how to create web pages.)

As someone who gets to teach Lem from time to time, I appreciate both his popularity (how cool to know that his books will be in print when I want to order them!) and his variety: if you've read other things by Lem, but not Solaris, this one might surprise you. (It was also made into two movies - see the questions below.) His Takes of Pirx the Pilot and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot are aimed at young adult readers and were added to the required curriculum for Polish junior-high school students after the Change in the 1990s. Solaris was the first of Lem's books to be translated into English (via French, a linguistic triangulation that is not always a good idea), but since then the English translations have mostly been made from Polish, and by some extremely good translators too.

Several books by Lem, many of them available in Tripod:

Questions for reading:

  1. You'll immediately note the "speaking" names of characters and spaceships - Kelvin, Prometheus, Rheya. What mighgt be the implications of the names? What does it suggest about humans and the universe that they - and Lem among them - name new characters and places for old ones, so we are constantly reminded of what we have known before?
  2. How do the first few pages prepare us for the very strange things to come? Besides reading the blurb on the back of the book, how and when does the reader figure out what's going on?
  3. Since we'll be reading two more books by Lem this semester, note the style of this one and how it works with the themes of the book - to compare it to the others later.
  4. Another note on names: what is the effect of all the double-barreled names of scientists' discoveries or hypotheses? What kind of scientific activity and community does this book imagine?
  5. Page 20: how wuold you define the terms in the biological description of the ocean of Solaris?
  6. For those of you who know the work of French Surrealist André Breton (1896-1966, what associations does he lend to the testimony of the helicopter pilot André Berton?
  7. What kind of crew is on the station? What are the national, age, professional, and gender relations?
  8. Here as elsewhere, how are scientists presented, and how to they handle things in the story itself?
  9. What is the effect of the departures into long quasi-scientific discourses? (LIke the historico-philosophical bits of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace?) How does Lem make it plausible that so much information of this kind is introduced into the narrative?
  10. This book is not especially devoted to dissident narratives, but do note Sartorius the thought-censor on pages 160-161: "These are the themes that might properly occupy your awareness."
  11. What kind of protagonist is Kelvin? What do we learn about him from his relationship(s) with Rheya?
  12. Is this story a romance, or an anti-romance?
  13. As you come to the end of the book: What mysteries remain in the story, what curiosity unsatisfied? Chekhov once famously said that there shouldn't be a pistol on stage unless it will be shot later in the play: what is the effect of the bits of information or hints (the straw hat) that turn out not to lead anywhere?
  14. To what extend are the Phi-creatures human? What do we know about them, and what can we infer from that?
  15. How does the idea or ideal of Contact, as discussed here, relate to humans' treatment of and eventual relationship with the Newts in Čapek's novel?

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