Stanislaw Lem, Bill Johnston – translator – Solaris

At last, one of the worlds greatest works of science fiction is available – just as author Stanislaw Lem intended it.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Solaris, Audible, in cooperation with the Lem Estate, has commissioned a brand-new translation – complete for the first time, and the first ever directly from the original Polish to English. Beautifully narrated by Alessandro Juliani (Battlestar Galactica), Lems provocative novel comes alive for a new generation.

In Solaris, Kris Kelvin arrives on an orbiting research station to study the remarkable ocean that covers the planets surface. But his fellow scientists appear to be losing their grip on reality, plagued by physical manifestations of their repressed memories. When Kelvins long-dead wife suddenly reappears, he is forced to confront the pain of his past – while living a future that never was. Can Kelvin unlock the mystery of Solaris? Does he even want to?

Author: Stanislaw Lem, Bill Johnston – translator
Narrator: Alessandro Juliani
Duration: 7 hours 42 minutes
Released: 11 Jul 2006
Publisher: Audible Studios
Language: English

User Review:

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I watched the film adaptation with George Clooney a few years ago, but wasnt overly impressed. I probably would have skipped the book, but Luke at the Science Fiction Book Review Podcast recently convinced me it was worth reading (listening to), and Im glad I did.

Forget the movie — the original novel has more dimensions and more subtlety. Its a work of science fiction at its most cerebral, full of challenging questions about the nature of higher order beings, mind, consciousness, morality, and meaning.

Compared to Lems vision, most novels about contact with aliens are downright pedestrian. Here, the living ocean that covers the world called Solaris is entirely incomprehensible, despite years of study by scientists. All anyone really knows about it is that its beyond human understanding, and defies all human expectations of how an advanced being might behave. Is it a conscious creature? A physical process too complex to understand? Something godlike?

Lem leads us into these questions through the planets interactions with a scientist who travels to a research station there. Not long after arrival, he finds himself haunted by an apparition of his dead wife, who seems to have been generated from his own memories, and understands little about herself (the gender dynamics are a bit dated, but whatever). Is she human? Alien? A conscious attempt at contact by Solaris, or an unconscious projection of the scientists own psyche?

The plot has a sparsity that puts the primary focus on the protagonists inner voice. There are other characters on the station, but they spend a lot of time withdrawn into dealing with their own apparitions, and are present in the story only enough to suggest actions and add a layer of madness (and/or clarity) to Kelvin’s psychological drama. In fact, we learn more about the physics of the weird structures that form out of the ocean than we do about these companions (though I found that part strangely fascinating).

I can see why this book has remained so influential — it explores some profound questions at a depth few other science fiction writers have come close to, even fifty years later. Lem leaves his answers tantalizingly ambiguous, allowing readers to find their own subtexts. Depending on how you read it, this could be a work about the idea of contact with aliens, or it could be about contact with others, period. It could be about guilt and regret. It could be about existential loneliness, mans search for God, or the limitations of our ability to understand the universe, or even ourselves. There are many intertwining themes.

Obviously, a novel this philosophical isnt for everyone, but if you appreciate science fiction that gets you to ponder, its not a long read, and I think its worth your time.

The definitive audiobook production is excellent. The actor Alessandro Juliani, who played Lt. Gaeta in the most recent Battlestar Galactica series, has a soft-spoken but firm voice that suits the text very well.