Solaris (novel)

Solaris is a 1961 philosophical science fiction novel by Polish writer Stanisław Lem. Its central theme is the complete failure of human beings to understand an extraterrestrial intelligence.

Cover of the first edition
AuthorStanisław Lem
Cover artistK.M. Sopoćko
GenreScience fiction
PublisherMON, Walker (US)[1]
Publication date
Published in English
Media typePrint (hardcover and paperback)
891.8/537 19
LC ClassPG7158.L392 Z53 1985


A team of human scientists is probing and examining the oceanic surface of the planet Solaris from a hovering research station. Solaris manifests an ability to cast their secret, guilty concerns into a material form for each scientist to personally confront. All human efforts to make sense of Solaris' activities ultimately prove futile. As Lem wrote, "The peculiarity of those phenomena seems to suggest that we observe a kind of rational activity, but the meaning of this seemingly rational activity of the Solarian Ocean is beyond the reach of human beings".[2] He also wrote that he deliberately chose the ocean as a sentient alien to avoid any personification and the pitfalls of anthropomorphism in depicting first contact.[3]

The novel was first published in Warsaw in 1961. The 1970 Polish-to-French-to-English translation of Solaris is the best-known of Lem's English-translated works.[4] It has been adapted for the screen in 1968, 1972, and 2002.

Plot summary

Solaris chronicles the ultimate futility of attempted communications with the extraterrestrial life inhabiting a distant alien planet named Solaris. The planet is almost completely covered with an ocean of gel that is revealed to be a single, planet-encompassing entity. Terran scientists conjecture it is a living and a sentient being, and attempt to communicate with it.

Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, arrives aboard Solaris Station, a scientific research station hovering near the oceanic surface of Solaris. The scientists there have studied the planet and its ocean for many decades, mostly in vain. A scientific discipline known as Solaristics has degenerated over the years to simply observing, recording and categorizing the complex phenomena that occur upon the surface of the ocean. Thus far, the scientists have only compiled an elaborate nomenclature of the phenomena, and do not yet understand what such activities really mean. Shortly before Kelvin's arrival, the crew exposed the ocean to a more aggressive and unauthorized experimentation with a high-energy X-ray bombardment. Their experimentation gives unexpected results and becomes psychologically traumatic for them as individually flawed humans.

The ocean's response to this intrusion exposes the deeper, hidden aspects of the personalities of the human scientists, while revealing nothing of the ocean's nature itself. It does this by materializing physical simulacra, including human ones; Kelvin confronts memories of his dead lover and guilt about her suicide. The "guests" of the other researchers are only alluded to.


  • The protagonist, Dr. Kris Kelvin, is a psychologist recently arrived from Earth to the space station studying the planet Solaris. He had previously been cohabiting with Harey ("Rheya" in the Kilmartin–Cox translation), who committed suicide when he abandoned their relationship. Her exact double is his visitor aboard the space station and becomes an important character.
  • Snaut ("Snow" in the Kilmartin–Cox translation) is the first person Kelvin meets aboard the station, and his visitor is not shown.
  • Gibarian, who had been an instructor of Kelvin's at university, commits suicide just hours before Kelvin arrives at the station. Gibarian's visitor was a "giant Negress" who twice appears to Kelvin; first in a hallway soon after his arrival, and then while he is examining Gibarian's cadaver. She seems to be unaware of the other humans she meets, or she simply chooses to ignore them.
  • The last inhabitant Kelvin meets is Sartorius, the most reclusive member of the crew. He shows up only intermittently and is always suspicious of the other crew members. His visitor remains anonymous; Kelvin only gets a glimpse of a straw hat.
  • Harey ("Rheya" in the Kilmartin–Cox translation, an anagram of Harey), who killed herself with a lethal injection after quarreling with Kelvin, returns as his visitor. Overwhelmed with conflicting emotions after confronting her, Kelvin lures the first Harey visitor into a shuttle and launches it into outer space to be rid of her. Her fate is unknown to the other scientists. Snaut suggests hailing Harey's shuttle to learn her condition, but Kelvin objects. Harey soon reappears but with no memory of the shuttle incident. Moreover, the second Harey becomes aware of her transient nature and is haunted by being Solaris' means-to-an-end, affecting Kelvin in unknown ways. After listening to a tape recording by Gibarian, and so learning her true nature, she attempts suicide by drinking liquid oxygen. This fails because her body is made of neutrinos, stabilized by some unknown force field, and has both incredible strength and the ability to quickly regenerate from all injuries. She subsequently convinces Snaut to destroy her with a device developed by Sartorius that disrupts the subatomic structure of the visitors.

Criticism and interpretations

In an interview, Lem said that the novel "has always been a juicy prey for critics", with interpretations ranging from that of Freudism to anticommunism, the latter stating that the Ocean represents the USSR and the people on the space station represent the Soviet satellites. He also commented on the absurdity of the book cover blurb for the 1976 edition, which said the novel "expressed the humanistic beliefs of the author about high moral qualities of the human".[5] Lem noted that the critic who promulgated the Freudian idea actually blundered by basing his psychoanalysis on dialogue from the English translation, whereas his diagnosis would fail on the idioms in the original Polish text.[6]

English translation

Both the original Polish version of the novel (published in 1961) and its English translation are titled Solaris. Jean-Michel Jasiensko published his French translation in 1964 and that version was the basis of Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox's English translation in 1970[7] (published by Walker & Co., and republished many times since).

Lem, who read English fluently, repeatedly voiced his disappointment with the Kilmartin–Cox version, and it has generally been considered second-rate. In 2011 Bill Johnston completed an English translation. Lem's wife and son reviewed this version more favorably: “We are very content with Professor Johnston's work, that seems to have captured the spirit of the original.”[8] It was released as an audio book and later in an Amazon Kindle edition (2014, ISBN 978-83-63471-41-5). Legal issues have prevented this translation from appearing in print.[8]


  • ISBN 0-8027-5526-7 (1970)
  • ISBN 0-15-683750-1 (1987)
  • ISBN 0-15-602760-7 (2002)
  • ISBN 0-571-21972-1 (2003)



  • In 2007, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a two-hour dramatized version of the novel.[9]
  • Also in 2007, an audio play was released in Russia on a CD-MP3 disc (226 minutes, 14 tracks).[10]
  • On 7 June 2011, released the first direct Polish-to-English translation as an audiobook download narrated by Alessandro Juliani.[11] The original Polish text was translated into English by Bill Johnston, with the approval of Lem's estate.[12] An e-book edition (ISBN 978-1-937624-66-8) of the Johnston translation followed.[13]




Solaris has been filmed three times:

Lem himself observed that none of the film versions depict much of the extraordinary physical and psychological "alienness" of the Solaris ocean. Responding to film reviews of Soderbergh's version, Lem, noting that he did not see the film, wrote:

Cultural allusions and works based on Solaris

  • Musician Isao Tomita's 1977 album Kosmos, specifically the track The Sea Named "Solaris", is based on music by Bach featured in Tarkovsky's film. Tomita was inspired by the film and even sent his recording to Tarkovsky.[20]
  • Hungarian rock band Solaris named themselves after the novel.
  • The 1990 Russian ballet Solaris by Sergey Zhukov (Dnepropetrovsk Opera and Ballet Theatre).[21]
  • The 1990 Russian drama Solaris. Дознание.
  • The song "Solaris", composed by Ken Andrews, from space rock band Failure's 1996 album Fantastic Planet, summarizes some events from the novel.
  • At the conclusion of the 1997 film Funny Games by Michael Haneke, Peter discusses with Paul the philosophical implications of Solaris.
  • The song "Solaris" from musician Photek's 2000 album Solaris.
  • The Macedonian multimedia project Solaris (Соларис) by Zlatko Slavenski (2007).[22]
  • The 2017 song "Solaris" by Australian post-rock band Fierce Mild.[23]

See also

  • Fiasco  A science fiction novel by Polish author Stanisław Lem
  • His Master's Voice  1968 science fiction novel by Stanisław Lem
  • The Invincible  1964 science fiction novel by Polish writer Stanisław Lem
  • Ocean planet  Type of planet with a surface completely covered by an ocean of water


  1. "Solaris". Solaris. Retrieved 2010-11-17.
  2. Stanisław Lem, Fantastyka i Futuriologia, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1989, vol. 2, p. 365
  3. Lem, Stanisław (December 8, 2002). "The Solaris Station". Stanislaw Lem. Retrieved July 13, 2013.
  4. Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, fourth edition (1996), p. 590.
  5. Lem's FAQ
  6. Lem's commentary on Solaris. Retrieved on 2017-03-02 from
  7. Kellman, Steven G., "Alien autographs: how translators make their marks", in Neohelicon (2010) 37:15 (online).
  8. Alison Flood, "First ever direct English translation of Solaris published", “The Guardian”, 15 June 2011
  9. Solaris: The Classic Serial
  10. Лем Станислав - Радиоспектакль Солярис
  11. Flood, Alison (June 15, 2011). "First ever direct English translation of Solaris published". The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-07-13.
  12. Solaris: The Definitive Edition audiobook
  13. Lem, Stanislaw (November 22, 2014). "Solaris [Kindle Edition] - Bill Johnston (translator)". Retrieved 2016-02-08.
  14. "Solaris.Raport"
  15. "Ofiary umowności", Agnieszka Rataj, Życie Warszawy, October 4, 2009
  16. Devdariani, Dimitry (2012). "Solaris Play". Dimitry Devdariani. Retrieved July 13, 2013.
  17. "Solaris - Royal Lyceum Theatre". Retrieved 15 September 2019.
  18. "Solaris - Malthouse Theatre". Retrieved 5 July 2019.
  19. "Stefano Tempia: Incursioni contemporanee, Omaggio a Berio e Correggia, 16-17 giugno 2013 Torino", News Spectaccolo, June 14, 2013
  20. "TATYANA EGOROVA: "EDWARD ARTEMIEV: HE HAS BEEN AND WILL ALWAYS REMAIN A CREATOR..."" - An interview with Eduard Artemyev the author of the music to Tarkovsky's film. Originally published by Muzykalnaya Zhizn ("Musical Life"), No.17, 1988
  21. Размышления после премьеры, at ballet author's website
  22. Le monde du théâtre: édition 2008: un compte-rendu des saison théâtrales 2005-2006 et 2006-2007 dans le monde, 2008, ISBN 9052014582, p.309
  23. "Single of the Day: Fierce Mild "Solaris" (2017) – the AU review". the AU review. Retrieved 2017-02-15.
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