This study guide is in conversation with Professor Paul Brians’ excellent study Guide for Solaris.

Stanislaw Lem writes about the recent film version of his novel: "One of the reviewers admitted he would prefer to see Tarkovski's Solaris one more time. Others speculated that while the producer won't make a lot of money and there will be no crowd at the box office, the film belongs to the genre of a more ambitious science fiction--since no one got murdered and neither star wars, nor space-werewolfs nor Schwarzenegger's Terminators were present. In the US an atmosphere filled with very concrete expectations usually accompanies the release of every new film. I found it interesting that although my book is quite old-- almost half a century means a lot in present times--someone wanted to take the risk despite the fact that the plot did not meet the abovementioned expectations. (Along the way he might have gotten scared a bit, but the latter is a pure speculation on my part.)

The book ends in a romantic-tragic way; the girl herself wished to be annihilated, not wanting to be an instrument with the help of which the one she truly loves is being studied by some unknown power. Her annihilation takes place unbeknownst to Kelvin - with the help of one of Space Stations' residents. The Soderbergh movie supposedly has a different, more optimistic finale. If this were the case this would signify a concession to the stereotypes of American thinking regarding science fiction. It seems that these deep, concrete ruts of thinking cannot be avoided: either there is a happy ending or a space catastrophe. This may have been the reason for the touch of disappointment in some of the critics' reviews - they expected the girl created by the ocean to turn into a fury, a witch or a sorceress who would devour the main character, while worms and other filth would crawl out of her intestines."

Lem's commentary gives us an interesting take on American character and the way we, as a culture, transform the unfamiliar (Solaris) into familiar psychological neighborhoods, into a love story with a futuristic happy ending where love conquers all, even alien encounters. Of course there is irony here in that this is thematically the problem Lem identifies in the novel; Lem suggests that we don't really want new worlds--we are always searching for "an ideal image of our own world" (72). So whenever we encounter something that is indeed foreign, our first tendency is to recast the experience into a narrative of our own making. For instance, Snow's speech on page 72 of Lem's novel is famous and also a plausible description of imperialism.

Chapter 1: The Arrival

Throughout antiquity, storytellers from every culture have utilized narrative patterns known as the heroic cycle--one aspect, the crossing of boundaries, pitches the protagonist into a foreign and strange world; in this case the capsule transports Kris Kelvin to Solaris Station. The station is called Prometheus in the recent Soderbergh film, but this name refers to the metal colossus spaceship (another is named the Ulysses, page 196) that travels the distance between Earth and Solaris. The crossing involves a movement from a comprehensible into an incomprehensible world. However in traditional stories, the hero often "makes sense" of this new world and undergoes a transformation of consciousness and thus arrives at a newly defined and less pathological version of self. Lem's Solaris is rebellious or at the least resists archetypal resolutions, in that the writer by design is going to initiate classic and other motifs--such as the ghost story--just so he can expose them as facades placed in motion by confrontations with the what is alien--this is the big think philosophy of the story.

In the end, the novel will achieve resolution or it will not; a quest for peace will be achieved or lost--this will be one of the final questions we will ask. Does Kelvin in the end change for the better, in the tradition of heroic transformation? Or does Lem thwart all our engrained narrative expectations, even in the final chapters?

Chapter 2: Solarists

The word “man” scribbled on the wall is an allusion to Oedipus the King--Sophocles’ character answers the Sphinx’s riddle with the word "Man." Oedipus represents the rational and logical man as investigator and yet he does not realize the degree of his own involvement of his own inquiry, a problem that is present in the study of the planet Solaris. And like Oedipus, Kelvin earnestly begins his investigation the mysterious situation on Solaris Station without realizing how his past will come to haunt him.

Paul Brians suggests that the novel is a satire of the process of scientific research. What evidence in Chapter 2, if any, supports such a claim?

The second chapter is among other things the study of argument in an ill-structured problem. There is no clear right answer to “the Solaris Mystery” (19): one enigma replaces another. “It is impossible to obtain a repetition of any previously observed phenomenon” (21).


Well-structured problem: A problem with a right answer. Often well-structured problems can be solved algorithmically through calculations using the right formulae. Most quantitative homework sets are based on well-structured problems. Kelvin's experiment to determine if he is mad is an example of a well-developed problem.

Ill-structured problem: An open-ended question that does not have a clear right answer and therefore must be responded to with a proposition justified by reasons and evidence. Often it is difficult to determine which information is relevant to a solution and which isn't. Ill-structured problems require the highest level of critical thinking. “In critical thinking, all assumptions are open to question, divergent views are aggressively sought, and the inquiry is not biased in favor of a particular outcome” (Kurfiss, p. 2).

For Kurfiss, critical thinking involves three elements: (1) An open-ended (ill-defined, ill-structured) problem; (2) a proposed solution; (3) an argument justifying the solution.

[From Critical Thinking: Theory, Research, Practice, and Possibilities by Joanne Kurfiss (Gainen), ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 2. Washington, D.C.: Association for the Study of Higher Education, 1988]

Chapter 3: The Visitors

Chapter 4: Sartorius

Professor Brians points out that the name Andre Berton is a pun on the name Andre Breton, the famous father of surrealism. What is surrealism? See Power Point surrealism.ppt

Kelvin invents a sophisticated method for checking if he is mad. It’s the “See if I am mad” experiment. In the context of problem types, Kelvin develops a kind of puzzle, solved algorithmically through calculations using the right formulae. It is a well-structured problem by definition (above) and in reality the kind of human thinking that is the antithesis of Solaris.

“ I was not mad. The last ray of hope was extinguished” (51). What does Kelvin mean?

Chapter 5 Rheya

Kris Kelvin has his own visitor, which among other things changes the dynamics of his conversations with Snow in the next chapter. But first we learn something about Rheya. How did she die? Does Kelvin feel responsible? Why? Yet Kelvin, through a kind of ruse, incarcerates Rheya in a space capsule and launches her ito orbit around Solaris. Snow will later smugly comment on how fast Kelvin was able to get rid of her. Why does Kelvin trick his visitor and lock her in the space capsule? Why does he launch her into orbit around the planet?

Chapter 6: "The Little Apocrypha"

" The Little Apocrypha" is the missing book which Gibarian mentions in the "note" to Kelvin.

Snow's famous well-quoted speech begins on page 72. What is significant about Snow's speech on space exploration? What is the main problem Snow identifies? Where have we seen something similar in the other texts we have read?

On page 88, Kris Kelvin says that he is no longer afraid of the night; in fact he says he is not afraid of anything. This will turn out to be false.

Chapter 7: The Conference

Chapter 8: The Monsters

As professor Brians suggests, Lem intentionally, it seems, obfuscates the content of this chapter for the purpose of confusing us, rather than clarifying the mystery of this planet. The chapter works like a mirror in that the body of scientific pontification on the nature of Solaris has really provided little to zero insight, a point that Snow makes later in a drunken proclamation in chapter twelve. "Down the road we go, all in good faith, and see where it gets us . . . you sit there like a baby in a slaughterhouse, and you let your beard grow" (185).

Lem is asking a question about the way language helps us hide our psychological intentions: Project Liberation or Operation Slaughterhouse? What is this about? What is the meaning of the title of this chapter?

Chapter 9: The Liquid Oxygen

The new Gibarian tells Kelvin that Rheya will remain the same age, twenty years old. Phi-creatures are not immortal; they just don't age. This certainly has implications given that Kelvin, it appears, has an agenda different from the "divorce" desires of Snow and the cryptic plans of Sartorius to build the X-ray beamer to cover for constructing a magnetic field disruptor. Gibarian warns Kelvin that he is being betrayed, but again the reliability of anything is suspect.

"You are not Gibarian."
"No? Then who am I? A dream?"
"No, you are only a puppet. But you don't realize that you are."
"And how do you know what you are?"

This conversation between this mysterious new Gibarian and Kris Kelvin perhaps delves into an archetypal question about how we achieve true awareness. This question has become the theme for more palpable Hollywood versions of science fiction--palpable defined in the way that Lem speaks of in the quote at the top of this page--films like The Matrix. In other words the matrix may have any of us and of course we may never even know it. Plato identified the same human incapacity or blindness, and what needs to occur to overcome it, in his Allegory of the Cave. It is an ancient question with ongoing relevance to the individual and his or her involvement in the sometimes seductive displays of reality in media, government, and (in this case) science.

Chapter 10: Conversation

Chapter 11: The Thinkers

How is science like religion?

Chapter 12: The Dreams

Professor Brians' questions on this chapter are excellent. I add the following quote from the chapter: Snow says, "If man had more of a sense of humor, things might have turned out differently" (184). What does Snow mean? How is humor significant in the context of blood-stained angels, calculus, troubles, and terror?

Chapter 13: The Victory

In this chapter, the second paragraph describes the Hollywood ending of the recent Soderbergh movie Solaris; the film has a different, more optimistic finale than the novel, a victory, so to speak, but not the kind of "victory" that takes place in Lem's final chapters. So the film and the novel part ways here at this exact moment. We can perhaps understand Soderbergh's motives--even Lem understands that "Along the way he might have gotten scared a bit (see above)." What exactly was Soderbergh scared of in the last two chapters of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris? What is gained and what is lost in Soderbergh's decision to end the movie this way?

Chapter 14: The Old Mimoid

Kelvin asks Snow if he ever believed in an imperfect god. Snow is versed in his history and gives the summary of the biblical and Greek gods, all with digressions and expressions of imperfection. Kelvin's description of an imperfect god shows, according to Brians, the influence of other writers on Lem's writing here. Interestingly Kelvin describes the behavior of this imperfect god as child-like: "Everything is explicable in the terms of the behavior of a small child" (199).

See Brians' final questions.