Happy Stanislav Petrov Day! And this is a special Stanislav Petrov Day, because 2021, in addition to being the second plague year, is the Year of Lem, so in addition to apocalypses that are and might have been, we must also confront the untranslatable other.

A Lem story was recently published in English for the first time, “The Truth,” in a translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. I was reminded of Solaris by this passage:

Just before the explosion, the string of plasmatic flame, until now almost uniform, had narrowed at identical intervals like a plucked cord, and then, having broken down into a series of round grains, had ceased to exist as a whole. Each of these grains was growing and changing, the borders of these droplets of atomic heat became fluid, and projections began to come out of them, producing the next generation of droplets; then all these droplets converged toward the center and formed a flattened ball, which, contracting and inflating as if it were breathing, was at the same time sending out on reconnaissance something like fiery tentacles with quivering tips …

This short story was published three years after Solaris, and you can see the echoes of the one in the other. “I wonder what we could talk to the Sun about? What are the common issues, concepts, and problems that we share with it? … First communicate with the bacteria in your bodies, with the bushes in your gardens, with the bees and their flowers, and then you’ll be able to consider what methods to use for sharing information with the Sun.” Lem’s question is precisely not about the alien as the other, in fantastic literature’s all-too-easy (and racist) device of racialization, whether in elves or klingons, but about the alien as the incommensurable being: a response, perhaps, to the widespread failure of fantastical literature to imagine aliens that are not merely foreigners to be, in some fashion, conquered and tamed. The solar entities in “The Truth” are even more unknowable than the planet Solaris, which at least has the decency to haunt its intruders in their native guilts.

It’s easy to see why Lem was not fond of the cinematic adaptations of Solaris. The extended review of solaricist literature that takes up so much of the book is both masterful and unfilmable, because it is so very much a thing of text. Even the lovingly detailed descriptions of the transient formations of Solaris, the mimoids and the symmetriads and so on, are not about those visuals, for all that the images are stunning—rather, the book is about the different interpretations of what those phenomena mean, as advanced by generations of theorists of Solaris, and the dizzying effect of moving through these endless models and theories as we the reader mirror the history of futile attempts to make sense of something that is incomprehensible in any human frame of reference.

He was simply a pedantic classifier, one of those whose outer calm concealed an unflagging passion that consumed his whole life. As long as he was able, he relied exclusively on the language of description; when words failed him he managed by creating new words, often infelicitous ones that did not match the phenomena they were intended to describe […] “dendromountains,” its “extensors,” “megamushrooms,” “mimoids,” “symmetriads” and “asymmetriads,” its “vertebrids” and “rapidos” sound terribly artificial, but they do give some idea of Solaris even to those who’ve seen nothing but a few blurry photographs and poor quality films. Of course, even this conscientious classifier was guilty of rash moments. Humans are constantly coming up with hypotheses, even when they’re being cautious, and even though they’re quite unaware of it. Giese believed that extensors constituted a root form, and he compared them to greatly magnified and heightened versions of tidal waves in terrestrial oceans. Besides, anyone who’s immersed himself in the first edition of the work knows that he originally named them precisely “tides” led by a geocentrism that would be amusing if it weren’t for his helplessness.

Lem, Solaris

Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris makes a heroic attempt to adapt all this rampant textuality to video. Where in the book we read the text of Burton’s testimony, in the film we see a film of it. There is even a film within the film within the film, as the recorded younger Burton attempts (and fails) to show his tribunal what he has seen on Solaris—while the older Burton impatiently fast-forwards through chunks of his younger self’s testimony. Or Gibarian’s cryptic note to Kelvin, which in the film is a (somewhat less cryptic) video instead. All of this works quite well. What doesn’t work is that film adaptations seem compelled to insert massive doses of sentimentality absent in the novel. Tarkovsky, for instance, adds forty minutes of opening prologue set on Earth, attempting to ground Kelvin before he’s sent off to space. There is a father and a crying aunt. After forty minutes of this, the film finally catches up to the novel’s in media res opening.

Interestingly, this is not where Tarkovsky breaks up Part 1 and Part 2. Part 1 continues through Harey’s arrival, her dress without seams, their first conversation. It’s only when Kelvin takes her to the rocket that the film switches to Part 2, even though there is no significant gap in time and no break in setting. Even the theme of violence is not new by this point, because Kelvin reached for a gun (absent in the novel) as soon as Harey first arrived.

Other people’s ghosts are only eerie, perhaps, but our own are compelling. Kelvin, upon seeing again the woman he loved, who killed herself long ago, cannot help but respond to her with tenderness along with the terror and revulsion. “Don’t be afraid,” he tells the ghost haunting him. They are both afraid. How to tell the beloved dead that they are dead?

Neither Tarkovsky’s film nor the 2002 Soderbergh Solaris make any serious attempt to depict Solaris itself. At least in 1972, you could argue, maybe Tarkovsky didn’t have the technology to make a real go of it: he did what he could to suggest strange fluids and miasmas. The 2002 film is, unexpectedly, even worse on this front. There is no attempt to CGI up some mimoids. The planet is merely a vague blur in the distance while the focus is entirely on the romance between George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. “The book is called Solaris,” a caustic Lem observed on learning this: “Not Love in Outer Space.” Though this is true even of Tarkovsky’s film to some degree, or at least its marketing. All adaptations are, sooner or later, Love in Outer Space. But Solaris is not any recognizable human storyteller, and therefore not a romance novel author. The hauntings are not an opportunity for the guilty or grieving to make peace with their lost ones; it is not a neat device of closure or an attempt at communication. The hauntings are an epiphenomenon of human proximity to the truly alien: we only shatter along the faultlines that we bring with us.