Why do you think it has to want something?
if you think that there is a solution, you’ll die here
…our enthusiasm’s a sham. We don’t want other worlds; we want mirrors
I remembered her wrong
Recently I have been reading Stanislaw Lem, I just finished his short novel The Invincible, and then the critical writings by Frederic Jamieson about Lem in his collection Archaeologies of the Future. I won’t comment on Jamieson, as I found writing about critics dangerous territory. Lem, on the other hand, I’m much more comfortable writing about. He is a man whose value and intelligence as an author and commentator are often overstated, but deservedly so. Though he wrote science fiction, I don’t believe Lem should be condemned just for that, any more then any science fiction writers: a cliche, yes, but his thought and importance and influence range beyond the science fiction he came to disown and vilify. He resented the narrow provincialism and parochialism of the science fiction practised in America (as if that in Poland was any better; remember, the major difference between capitalist and communist junk writing is that the capitalist junk writer exports his work and expects to be rewarded for it). Lem wrote about subjects like alien contact that were purely speculative, with an intelligence and commitment to ideas, science and philosophy, and an often unwilling ability to capture the fragility of the human and the frustrating mysteries of our existence (or so he claims).
And that brings me to the lines above, quotes from Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s most famous work, Solaris. That I would use quotes from the second time that book was made into a movie has undoubtably set Lem’s carcass writhing about in his grave…may he rest in peace..: like any self-respecting reclusive intellectual author, Lem hated other people’s interpretations of his work: Tarkovsky’s and Soderbergh’s Solaris are not his. Deservingly so.
SPOILERS AHEAD…SO BE PREPARED…
Soderbergh’s movie alters considerably the original focus of the novel: the eponymous alien being Solaris is a backdrop to the emotional and romantic relationship at the film’s core between the scientist Klein and his wife Rheya. In Lem’s novel, Solaris, and its alien nature and purpose, the difficulties of first contact and communication with a completely unhuman life, are the entire raison d’etre for the book, including a brilliant, long and very non-novelistic section detailing the (fictional) history of the scientific study of Solaris (all the while repeating how little any of this science of Solaris is actually based on hard data, and more on theorems with only scraps of physical evidence). The refocusing of the film unto Chris Klein’s troubled relationship with his wife allows merely shifts the difficulty of understanding and communication outward rather then inward: Rheya becomes the ‘alien’ rather then Solaris.
The quotes above therefore express ideas that are relevant to both the idea of First Contact, that perilous and so far impossible moment when an alien being is made aware of mankind. I doubt such a thing will ever happen in my lifetime, or for millenia; perhaps it never will. These quotes from Solaris, however, have just as much relevance when discussing the internal affairs of human beings, or at least in Soderbergh’s movie those about Rheya specifically are inflated well beyond their fragmentary nature in the original book.
Either way, I’m not going to indulge in theory to describe the situation: the Other is a thousand dollar psychologial and socilogical concept, popular in literary studies, none more famous than Said’s excellent Orientalism, heads and tails above its many imitators (I would know; I’ve been one!). Buzz word though it may be, the Other sums up well the relationship that we, as individuals, or collectively as a society, have with other beings. Often, the Other is used negatively to refer to something that is fundamentally not to be understood or is otherwise a force objective and beyond the individuals or the group intimate conception. It is part of a binary (or dialectic…but we won’t get into that now) in relationship to the We or Me, and one in which comparison is made explicitly with a negative viewpoint, or at least one in which the Other exerts an influence over us. Lacan and Jung used the Other to describe subconscious and psychological forces that act on us out of our control though they be purely mental: Edward Said used the Other to describe the ways in which a society constructs ideas of other civilizations that can tell you more about the We then the Other itself (specifically, fantasies of something inherently oppositinal and negative, corrupt, effeminate, indolent, in the Muslim East, alien to rational and liberal Europe); and the sense in which I am going to use it today, used (not always explicitly) by Jean Paul Sartre and existentialists, that the Other, all other humans beings, are essentially unknowable, and our desire to understand and grasp these Others drives us on.
…our enthusiasm’s a sham. We don’t want other worlds; we want mirrors
If we apply the concept of the Other to the Alien, (hardly a leap, I know, and not a relevation, but keep in mind, I wrote this essay for a radio show listened to by people, presumably, who may have never set foot in a University or heard such terms bandied about)… then most science fiction fails the acid test for truly creating an Alien or Other that is actually beyond or different from a basic human understanding.
Imaginations may be high, but the majority of science fiction, especially pop sci fi does not seem to seriously consider alien life as something truly alien. Not that it always needs to after all, because often the aliens are just there for window dressings. I don’t fully expect someone making a joke, as with Douglas Adams, or making a point, like Iain M. Banks, to always hue to a believable or nuanced portrayal of the Alien (though both have done a fine job so far).
However, much of science fiction, and even popular culture as a whole, has not handled the alien very well. As Sam Lundwall traces in his 1977 book The Illustrated History of Science Fiction, the alien monster, marauding and horrible, jibbering, jabbering, be-tentacled, is an descendant of the old Gothic tale, and though Wells created his bloodthirsty Martians as a commentary on British imperialism, something was lost in the translation. The bowdlerised versions of Orson Welles and Amazing Stories removed even that limited criticism, and made the Alien nothing but a mindless terror. The Alien, I noted in the post on Iain M. Banks’ The Algebraist, was cast as a villain, rehashing old Horse Opera and WW2 action adventure tropes in which the brave, square jawed hero face off against the Indian/Jerry/Jap/Alien menace that threatens Our Way of Life and lusts after our women folk (presumably because their women are inferior too…) It is a fantasy shared by many comic books and movies, in which the Good Guy, because he is Good without question and his opponents Evil without remorse, can massacre at his leisure (ie, the recent Batman movies or the truly awful X-Men 3).
The Alien, or the Other, that which we do not understand, is an Enemy, to be destroyed unless they comply to our culture and understanding. Even Star Trek, lauded by fans as being tolerant and multicultural, was really not, as evidenced by the constant jabs against Vulcans and the thinly veiled role of the Klingons as bloodthirsty Red Warriors (honestly…I think the fans are more tolerant and openminded then many episodes ever demonstrated).
This is what the Other in the eyes of post-colonial, queer or cultural criticims is: the creation of stereotypes and myths, sometimes based on facts but gone long beyond anything concrete. The Orientalist myths so well destroyed by Edward Said, demonstrated to be partly the creation of Westernners who projected unto an Other characteristics it did not uniformly share; in our case, that all Aliens are inimical to human life, or worse still, that all aliens were somehow similar to mankind.
That is the another fallacy of modern science fiction: aliens are just funny looking humans, again, chiefly promulgated by Star Trek chiefly. Nothing wrong with that sometimes: Star Trek is cheeky fun much of the time, but it also beggars the imagination that such a limited concept occurs, and soon the aliens just become another way of looking at humanity rather then at something really alien. Again, nothing particularly wrong with that, but it isn’t as stimulating to the imagination as one would necessarily like. That is why I treasure the truly Alien, the truly Other, something that is so different it cannot be fully grasped or understood. Olaf Stapleton’s 1937 book Star Maker only hints at the true nature of its title, since the nature of the eponymous alien being can never be completely understood or grasped, so far beyond us is it. As Lundwall wrote of Star Maker: “Truly the description of a god, or the works of a god, and as such is surely one of the best expressions of the truly alien, the strange and the incomprehensible.”
Other novels like Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke and Grendel by John Gardner do the same thing, as does Wayne Barlowe’s wonderful artbook Expedition, which chronicles a naturalist’s survey of a bizarre planet of aliens, whose mysteries are impossible to deduce and whose appearances are only outlandish because we fail to understand from our own limited vantage (one that, unfortunately, we can’t really do much about).
For me, Stanislaw Lem’s four main alien contact novels, Eden, The Invinsible, Fiasco and naturally Solaris, epitomise the very best of this sense of unknown. The alien Solaris is a sentient liquid ocean coating an entire planet, capable of manifesting patterns, energies, protrusions and forms on its surface and reach into the minds of the human visitors to create constructs in the forms of their human memories. It is a profoundly alien mind, so far different from conceivable common ground (not even sentience, because Solaris’ mind clearly works very different from our own). The novel is essentially about the attempts, and the numerous failures, of the human astronauts and scientists in orbit to contact it. Like in Eden and Fiasco, all of humanity’s empirical sciences and mathematics, and all our value-laden ideas of proper conduct, methodoly and social organisation prove to be useless: they provide no groundwork for communication. Solaris’ equally clumsy attempts to communicate fail miserably, but then again, as the doctor Giberian, a major character says to Kelvin, the protagonist: Why do you think it has to want something? We don’t even know if it wanted to communicate.
Solaris is alien, Other; it has no purpose we can understand, no desires we know, no language we speak. IT is a lost language with no Rosetta stone and Lem does a wonderful job in maintaining this mystery right to the end. Though we are left with more data, and even as Jamieson points out, a potentional gesture of true greeting and solidarity from Solaris (one, however, that occurs in the context of nothing has really been learned or discovered about the Alien, whose liquid depths remain unplumbed; it is uncompromising and refuses human classification. The novel makes a mockery of human attempts to impose order and sense upon a world that does not heed our desires.
Why do you think it has to want something?
Solaris constantly fills the sky of the space station in Soderbergh’s film, and yet it is discussed more often then not in a fashion peripheral to the main action. Though the characters understand that the planet is sentient in some manner and is responsible for the ‘visitors’ that haunt the crew, the nature of Solaris is never explicitly explained. The film, somewhat like the novel, makes the situation of alien contact very unnerving and disorienting, by explaining nothing, by hiding everything, while shying away from using Solaris as the strangeness. There is no direct explaining. It is all elusive, as in a dinner table talk about “higher forms of intelligence” (God, in this case) being beyond our understanding, Gibarian’s discussion with Kelvin on the space station, as well as Dr. Gordon’s constant and very stereotypical ‘us vs. them’ rhetoric. These scenes reveal very little about the alien nature of Solaris, but much more about humanity.
On one side are those who seek to impose on Solaris a semblance of humanity. The government, for instance, wants Klein to “negotiate the safe return” of the space station crew, as if Solaris were just another terrorist group or something. Dr. Gordon sees Solaris as sadistically human and belligerent, inherently hostile, despite the fact that the humans seem far more violent and the alien has done little of anything. Contrast this to the words of Gibarian who poses the deeper questions; his ghostly construct asks Klein of Solaris, “Why do you think it has to want something?”, and later, states, “if you think that there is a solution, you’ll die here.”
As said before, however, the focus of the film is not on Solaris, but mostly on the troubled relationship between Chris Klein and his dead wife, Rheya. She is brought back to life as a construct when Klein arrives at Solaris, understandably upsetting and unbalancing both of them. The theme of the Other, so important when dealing with an alien as obscure as Solaris, is parallelled in their relationship, and thus the science fiction elements serve to shed light on a difficult aspect of the human condition. The movie is concerned about the failure to communicate, to understand: there is Solaris, alien and incomprehensible, with whom conversation and understanding appears impossible, and there is Klein’s and Rheya’s relationship, marred by their mutual inability to grasp their ‘natures’ as they overlap. Their child is aborted because of misunderstanding, and Rheya kills herself for similar reasons; Klein cannot understand Rheya, and even with his new construct forces drugs upon her ‘to control anxiety’ and lies about his murder of her first incarnation. Klein is even more troubled by Rheya’s confession, as a construct, that she is imperfect, made from his memories, rather then a real, authentic autonomous human. Klein confides near the end of the film that he is troubled because he “remembered her wrong.”
The alienated human out of touch with all others because they are Other is a very existentialist criticism, but it certainly seems valid, at least from a simplistic angle. What, for instance, makes us feel this way: is it inevitably human to feel isolated, and seperated from our fellow man? Is misunderstanding always behind conflict (a behauviourist would argue differently, as spates between rivals for territory are common in all primates and most animals.) Is it the mode and means of production in industrial, capitalist society that sets us to think of our brethren as enemies and competitors? (I concur with that interpretation at least in part, straw man-ish as it may be) As far as Soderbergh seems to have decided, other human beings are as alien in their inner mysteries as is Solaris, and we constantly read our emotions and expectations onto the conception of other people.
There is a line in Solaris, spoken by Gibarian, the real Gibarian, that summarises well the film. He tells Klein about human exploration, human existence, saying that “…our enthusiasm’s a sham. We don’t want other worlds; we want mirrors.” Solaris is a being of profound mystery, precisely because it is alien; Rheya is a being of that same mystery, precisely because she is human. The crew of the space station orbiting Solaris try to see the alien in human terms, and fail, and yet, Klein can no better connect with his wife, who he ends up seeing only in his own terms, changed by his memories. What he wants is not a stranger, but something familiar and controllable…both in the Rheya of Solaris, but in the woman he ‘loved’. This is a pessimist’s argument, but in the end, both novel and movie Solaris end with a hint of hope; in the movie, one of a certain, strange, desperate kind, the other, in the novel, something of a sell-out. Humans are easy to understand…sentient oceans, not so much.