Solaris.

I just got back from the Amherst Cinema showing of Solaris in its Tarkovsky retrospective, and my reaction surprised me. Last Sunday I saw Andrei Rublev, which I had seen several times before and always liked, and liked even more now that I understood everything that was going on (having done some intensive reading). For Solaris I prepared by finally reading the Stanisław Lem novel it was based on; I’d been avoiding it both because the English translation (from French, not the original Polish) isn’t supposed to be very good and because I hadn’t liked any of the Lem I’d dipped into — it all seemed to be the kind of heavily ironical social satire that does nothing for me. I solved the first problem by reading Bruskin’s Russian translation, and I found myself enjoying it tremendously; Lem goes on a bit too long sometimes with his detailed descriptions of the phenomena created by the Solaris ocean, but otherwise it’s a well-thought-out and traditional sf novel, with both suspense and philosophical interest. Thanks to my reading, I finally understood all the bits of the movie that had confused me on previous viewings, but I also understood Lem’s irritation with the result: Tarkovsky’s vision (humanistic, emphasizing the vital importance of love and culture, with lots of Bach and Brueghel plus the occasional horse) is irreconcilable with Lem’s (scientific, emphasizing the importance of not succumbing to sentiment in trying to understand the universe). There’s nothing wrong with humanism, of course, but the attempt to impose it on refractory material renders it incoherent here, so I actually enjoyed the movie less than I had on previous viewings. The final scene is still spectacular and spine-chilling, though.

A linguistic note: the subtitles on the print shown were generally good, but when a drunk Snaut tells Kelvin they should open the manholes in the floor and holler down at the ocean, his “Вдруг услышит” (‘Maybe it will hear’ or ‘What if it hears?’) is rendered “It will suddenly hear.” The subtitler didn’t realize that вдруг ‘suddenly’ can also be used for hypothetical suppositions.

Comments

  1. Trond Engen says:

    Subtitles, not subtleties.

  2. Hat: Since you enjoyed Solaris, I must, as a die-hard Lem fan, list his most Solaris-like writings: HIS MASTER’S VOICE, THE INVINCIBLE, and FIASCO among the novels (the first being more cerebral than the third, with the second being the least cerebral of the three) and all his short stories involving Pirx the pilot (a character who, I suspect, is very much modeled after Lem himself).

  3. Thanks, I’ll definitely investigate further!

  4. Solaris and His Master’s Voice are, in my opinion, Lem’s best novels—and I have only read them in the English translations, which seemed to be quite acceptable for the material. His Master’s Voice is possibly the best SF novel ever written about working scientists; it captures the nature of a large scientific project quite accurately, in my view.

    Solaris, incidentally, was actually begun with no conception of what it was going to be about. Lem just decided he needed to get writing, and so the arrival scene at the beginning was composed without any idea of what kind of planet the protagonist had just arrived on. I doubt that he made it the whole way through the writing process, just making up everything as he went along; the narrative is too strategically structured for that. However, I would be interested to know when and how he came up with the central idea of the story though—the living sea, trying to communicate with the humans somehow, but probably too utterly alien for it to ever work.

  5. AJP Crown says:

    the central idea: the living sea, trying to communicate with the humans somehow, [is] probably too utterly alien for it to ever work

    Isn’t this a kind of anthropomorphism for which there are myth precedents?

  6. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    for which there are myth precedents

    Precedents for communication, or for inability to communicate? Everything seems to go round talking to each other in some stories!

  7. Normally in myth and fable, a vast impersonal force will be anthropomorphized to make it less alien and horrible. However, when the Solaris entity takes on human aspects, it is so inscrutable that it only makes things worse.

  8. Solaris and His Master’s Voice are, in my opinion, Lem’s best novels […] His Master’s Voice is possibly the best SF novel ever written about working scientists

    OK, I’m adding Глас Господа to my reading list. I very much appreciate these suggestions and descriptions.

    the living sea, trying to communicate with the humans somehow, but probably too utterly alien for it to ever work

    What it immediately reminded me of was Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys (published in 1960, so almost contemporaneous with Solaris). There the mysterious alien artifact is equally incomprehensible, but it routinely kills those who try to investigate it, which makes it more like the Zone in the Strugatskys’ Пикник на обочине [Roadside Picnic, filmed as Stalker], which (as it happens) I am currently reading and enjoying.

  9. John Cowan says:

    Mutual non-recognition and corresponding cross-incomprehension is actually a trope in Greek tragedy, not to mention the Odyssey.

  10. ktschwarz says:

    Iphigenia: Swear by the gods to deliver this letter to my brother Orestes.
    Pylades: Easiest oath ever! (Hands letter to Orestes, who’s standing right there.)

    When I saw that I thought it had to be a comedy trope, but I couldn’t find it on TV Tropes.

  11. AJP Crown says:

    for which there are myth precedents

    Jen in Edinburgh: Precedents for communication, or for inability to communicate?
    I really meant the former. And non-objectlike states such as the weather (thunder, wind) having human characteristics like eyesight and speech.

  12. I found the English translation of Solaris to be fine, but I do wish I had a good enough command of another language to avoid such an indirect version of his work. Most of the dozen or so Lems I’ve read fall under the “heavily ironical social satire” you’d rather avoid, but I second the recommendation of Fiasco and will add The Chain of Chance.

    There’s a dedicated Lemopedia, because of course there is:
    https://lem.pl/lemopedia/The_Lem_Encyclopedia

  13. Unrelated:
    […] the new Imperial era will be named Reiwa […]
    […] the name was formulated based on the introduction to a set of poems from “Manyoshu,” the oldest existing compilation of Japanese poetry. The first character represents “good fortune,” while the second can be translated as “peace” or “harmony.”

    https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/04/01/national/politics-diplomacy/japan-readies-announce-name-new-era/

  14. The Reiwa period (Japanese: 令和時代 Hepburn: Reiwa jidai) will be the next era of Japan.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reiwa_period

  15. Etienne says:

    Hat: I second Brett’s description of HIS MASTER’S VOICE: As you may have noticed in SOLARIS (with the history of “Solaristics” and the overview of the interactions between different schools of Solaristics, it is not at all difficult to suspend disbelief), Lem does not just understand the methodology of science, he also understands the sociology of science (which is why his made-up science of the future feels very real).

    And while I can understand your preferring to read SOLARIS in Russian translation (rather than using an English translation of a French translation), it is unclear to me whether Глас Господа is a better/more faithful translation than HIS MASTER’S VOICE (Can any hatter give an informed opinion on this?).

  16. I second the recommendation of Fiasco and will add The Chain of Chance.

    Thanks!

  17. January First-of-May says:

    and because I hadn’t liked any of the Lem I’d dipped into — it all seemed to be the kind of heavily ironical social satire that does nothing for me

    I wonder what kind of Lem you might have possibly dipped into, because I can’t think of particularly many of his works that I would call “heavily ironical social satire”. Observation on the Spot, I guess, and to a lesser extent most of the rest of the Ijon Tichy and Tarantoga series?

    If I had to recommend a Lem work that is (almost) definitely not “heavily ironical social satire”, I would probably say A Perfect Vacuum. But my opinion is that The Cyberiad in particular, satire or otherwise it may be, is easily a great work on its own merits.

  18. Solaris was translated directly from Polish into English in 2011 by Bill Johnston, a professor at Indiana University. However, this translation is only available in Kindle and audiobook versions, for legal reasons.

  19. The Cyberiad is my favorite, but I did read it as a teenager, so some of my fondness for it may just be nostalgia. I read it in English, so given the amount of wordplay I’m not sure how much was Lem and how much was Michael Kandel.

  20. I struggled to stay awake during this film but a piece of criticism I read much later gave me an appreciation for the endless driving scene near the beginning. It is a depiction of space flight. I think that still works well as a metaphor now but the endless highway must have seemed even more futuristic to the Soviet viewer of the early 70’s. And it’s a brilliant way of using the means at your disposal rather than going for special effects.

    Personally I find it better to experience the derivative work first and then go to the original. Saves me from disappointment of it not measuring up.

  21. I struggled to stay awake during this film but a piece of criticism I read much later gave me an appreciation for the endless driving scene near the beginning.

    I have to admit I took a bathroom break during that scene. It’s great, but it does go on a bit long…

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