by Jennifer Bryce
In 1962, Stanislaw Lem wrote his masterful science fiction classic, Solaris. It was the year after Russia had sent the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space.
Lem’s story takes place on a space station that is orbiting a planet Solaris – there is lack of progress – why? Scientist/ psychologist Kelvin is sent to find out what is going on. He finds a crew haunted by ghosts of figures from their pasts. And this soon befalls him when he is ‘visited’ by his dead wife.
The planet Solaris is surrounded by a mysterious ocean that disturbingly probes the deepest recesses of the human mind. This ocean may be a massive brain that creates these incarnate memories, though its purpose in doing so is not apparent. Can the scientists understand the universe without first understanding what lies within their hearts? As Lem says, ‘Man has gone out to explore other worlds … without having explored his own’ [page 164].
A play, based on Lem’s book, written by David Greig, was staged at the Malthouse Theatre earlier this year. The main ingredients of Lem’s novel are retained, although scientist Kelvin is a woman. Greig says of the experience of Gagarin’s historic flight, ‘It was as if, after 100,000 years of human existence, we were suddenly offered a mirror. It was a strange and disorienting experience.’ (Malthouse Theatre program notes) The realisation that we may not be alone is strangely disorienting, and, in the play and the book, the characters are confronted with the question, do we or don’t we attempt to make contact?
A film has been made of Solaris, and I have not yet seen it. Film may be a more successful medium because it can be more versatile. The stage provides an excellent opportunity for conveying people confined in a space station — and this was portrayed with alarming reality. But the sea, which for me was central to the story — a constant, looming presence – could not be conveyed successfully on stage. The sea was shown by film, but the way it was done, between the many deftly executed scene changes, inevitably emphasised the psychology of the claustrophobic space station more than the powers of the manipulating and mysterious sea. Nevertheless, the central message of Solaris comes across: that humankind has ventured into other worlds without thoroughly examining its own.