Stanislaw Lem: Solaristics – The Scientific Religion of the Space Age

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Solaristics, wrote Muntius, is a substitute for religion in the space age. It is faith wrapped in the cloak of science; contact, the goal for which we are striving, is as vague and obscure as communion with the saints or the coming of the Messiah. Exploration is a liturgy couched in methodological formulas; the humble work of researchers is the expectation of consummation, of Annunciation, for there are not nor can there be any bridges between Solaris and Earth. This obvious fact, like many others—the absence of shared experiences, the absence of conveyable concepts—was rejected by solaricists, the same way the faithful reject arguments that would subvert the underpinnings of their faith. Besides, what do people expect, what can they want from “informational communication” with thinking seas? A recording of experiences of a being that endures through time, and is so old it probably cannot remember its own beginning? A description of the desires, passions, hopes and sufferings, that are released in the instantaneous birth of living mountains, the transformation of mathematics into existence, of loneliness and resignation into plenitude? Yet all this constitutes uncommunicable knowledge, and if one attempts to translate it into any terrestrial language, all those sought-after values and significations are lost, they remain on the far side. Besides, it isn’t these sorts of revelations, more worthy of poetry than science, that are hoped for by the “believers,” oh no; though they themselves are unaware of it, what they are waiting for is a Revelation that would explain to them the meaning of humankind itself! Solaristics, then, is the posthumous child of long-dead myths, the final flower of mystical yearnings that people no longer have the courage to utter aloud; while the cornerstone hidden deep in the foundations of this edifice is the hope of Redemption…1

Lem’s parable of an unknowable alien intelligence the size of a planet, one that generations of humans have devoted their lives and intellects in hopes of making contact with only to discover that no communication is forthcoming till the blank life of self-generated objects that incarnate the memories of three of the last scientists on Solaris suddenly awakens in these men strange dreams. Here, just here, we follow them as they seek the last vestiges of communicative truth from an alien planetoid.  Kelvin himself is caught up in this inhuman drama in which his ex lover who committed suicide is incarnated out of his own mind. A creature without a past who is as fragile and perplexed as Kelvin. Yet, this creature cannot die. Impervious to any form of destruction it is bound to him like a silent reminder of his own dark heritage. I want spoil the story but Lem seems bent on uncovering the motives of science and scientists in this satiric work on humanities inability to deal with the unknown.

Solaris becomes the ultimate project confronting human kind. Also one that is finally almost abandoned as hopeless. As if this great planetoid being might confirm our lives, our meaning; give us once and for all an answer to the question Why? Why are we here? What is our purpose? All the usual religious needs of a needy species. Lem hits the nail on the head about our metaphysical neediness and hope for Redemption. And his apt portrayal of science itself as a religious project that carries on where religion left off. Yet, what is striking in Solaris is the fact that no meaning is forthcoming, no grand deliverance or message of salvation, no communication at all… just the inexplicable memories that awaken from the unconscious hopes and fears of the scientists themselves as 3D models of their own psyche’s half-life and mistakes. Isn’t this what you seek, Lem says, an answer to the meaning of life and the universe, when in truth there is none? No god in the burning bush, no philosopher, no mathematical equation, nothing… no message out of the great silence of the stars… just a vast and lonely void without end. A universe that is slowly running down, in which every star sooner or later will turn its lights off and the only thing that will reign is endless night – an oblivion without recourse or denial.


  1. Lem, Stanislaw (2014-11-22). Solaris (Kindle Locations 2854-2867). Pro Auctore Wojciech Zemek. Kindle Edition.

5 thoughts on “Stanislaw Lem: Solaristics – The Scientific Religion of the Space Age

  1. I always seemed to me that plasmoid ocean of Solaris was human unconsciousness externalized into a planetoid by literary device. The impossibility of contact with this alien being is the imposibility of accessing flows of unconsciousness (and ultimately, Universe) with conscious metareflection. Zizek’s interpretation of Hegel’s Night of the World in Ticklish Subject is a different take on this feeling of dread: consciousness emerges out of dark unconscious matter as a spectre, illusion.

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    • “human unconsciousness externalized into a planetoid by literary device” what would be the characteristics/qualities of a lit-device (or any other) that would mark it as being of the unconscious?

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      • Obviously its a metaphor and representation of it rather than it… art can never actually access such things figurally? They can only like a zen master point to the moon, not force the truth between the reference and the thing to come about. The thing about the unconscious is that it is ‘unconcious’… so anything we might say in words would never be that thing itself. Paradox. Yet, we’ve built up these machines that seem to visualize processes we take to be unconscious since our conscious minds have no self-reflective access internally to such visual cues. Yet, our machines are doing what our conscious mind cannot: access the processes of the brain… is this access to the unconscious as psychologists and philosophers speak of this term? I’m sure they would debate the issue of what neuroimaging is actually accessing, while scientists would argue form other points. Would there be an end to such disputes? Probably not. The only difference will be sciences ability to make ‘use’ of this information it is gaining. But my question is to what ‘use’ will they put this information they gain?

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  2. ‘I always seemed to me that plasmoid ocean of Solaris was human unconsciousness externalized into a planetoid by literary device. The impossibility of contact with this alien being is the imposibility of accessing flows of unconsciousness.’

    No.

    I’m not Lem. But I’ve read him a lot and I would bet that, if he was still around to be asked, he would tell you that defaultingm to the comfy notion that a sentient, planet-sized ocean must necessarily be a metaphor for the unconscious is just one more instance of anthropomorphosizing ‘solaristics.’

    Yes, you can read it like that, if you want. But Lem was a real science-fiction writer and in real science fiction — in the same way that in Clarke’s RENDEZVOUZ WITH RAMA the ten-mile long alien spaceship primarily represents a ten-mile long alien spaceship (though it may also niftily represent the Unknown or the Limits of Technology)– in SOLARIS Lem really did want to consider what a sentient, planet-sized ocean might be like and how it would work and how ineffable it would be to our kinds of consciousness.

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    • I think the key here was not unconscious, but brain. The ocean tapped into the sleeping scientists brain centers and memories and was able to unlock the specific protein carrying memories that held the data by which it replicated the human like creatures each of the scientists saw the next day in their rooms.

      Lem makes a point that the ocean only did this while the scientists were asleep. My question is why only in their sleep was it able to tap into this? Because of the interference patterns of consciousness? Too much noise disrupting it’s ability to scan memories while they were awake?

      Our own neuroscientists are only now tapping into these processes with neuroimaging and other techniques. Some have even been able of late to watch the actual molecules of memory traveling in mice: http://www.einstein.yu.edu/news/releases/968/watching-molecules-morph-into-memories/

      As for ‘unconscious’ it’s just a metaphor for the brain’s own processes. Lem understood this. I agree that Lem actually describes a real alien scenario rather than some projection of the human unconscious in some anthropomorphic externalization. That would defeat the whole point of the book: which was first contact and our inability to actually perform such a task with this being. It’s about our limits and failure of expectations rather than the contact itself. We seem to want contact on our terms, for it to be sensible and according to our expectations of reason and mind. Rather contact was made, just that it was the alien planetary ocean who was doing it and we could not understand the meaning of its message if there even was one. It could have been many things. That was the point of Lem’s satire of all the myriad of foolish books in the stations library concerning all the fantastic literature on the planet.

      If anything Lem was satirizing just how illogical and unscientific many scientific notions are in the sense that they are grounding in certain erroneous expectations and belief systems. A satire on the misuse of science rather than science itself.

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