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What can aliens mean in SF texts? 

 

Learning episode 9:  

 

Purpose and use of this learning episode: Solaris and the unknowable alien

 

The notes, below, were given to secondary students as their ninth learning episode in the 'enemy within' theme area. The film version of Solaris was accessed in electronic form as allowed through local Copyright laws.

 

The learning episode starts with the film given out on CD-ROM to those studying as flexible learning (compliant with Copyright guidelines) and shown in the classroom using a computer and overhead projector for others. The discussion occurred in the myclasses Forum area and some images and links from the original have been changed for the changed copyright guidelines for this space, outside the government school intranet, as noted in the page 'about the mySF Project'.

 

Image of alien for learning episode nine of the enemy within theme areaIndex

Forum topics for discussion

Notes for Sodhberg's 'Solaris'

Lem comments on Sodhbergh's 'Solaris'
Western views on Lem and Solaris
The Solaris Ocean and an Unknowable God
In-class or online essay topic for the 'enemy within' theme area

Resource List

Readings and Links

Ongoing readings and links

 

The points at the start of these notes are to be discussed in the Forum area. You are asked to jump to the Forum area, using the link here and making a comment in the appropriate Forum thread. Please remember, your participation in discussions is expected in this study, as part of your overall participation.

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Forum topics for discussion:

 

 

In Solaris the viewer meets an unknowable alien, the Ocean of the Planet Solaris. How satisfactory is this alien in comparison to others in SF?

 

Some critics say that Solaris presents a moral parable. What moral parable is presented to you by the film and what do you think is the message or meaning of this parable?

 

What should be humanity's response to the Planet Solaris? Should scientists continue to study it, or should they now abandon all attempts to communicate with it and simply leave it alone?

 

How does the depiction of the Solaris Ocean relate to a discussion of an unknowable God? Is the text about the religious experience?

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Notes for Sodhberg's 'Solaris'

 

Solaris (Soderbergh, 2002) based on the novel by the same name by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, was first filmed in 1972 by Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky. The film was celebrated around the world and in 2002 it was remade by Stephen Soderbergh, starring George Clooney. This is the version watched for the 'Enemy Within' theme area.

 

Wikipedia (2006) calls the 2002 version of Solaris a 'slow, meditative psychodrama set almost entirely on a space station'. It is presented in the 'Enemy Within' theme area continuing from the short story by David Rade, 'The Ticket Whisperer' as a text where the alien entity is almost unknowable.

 

SF critic Roberts (2000) reminds students that central to many SF texts is the representation with difference. This difference is the SF novum or new idea. The difference is "Otherness, alterity" (Roberts, 2000:25). Solaris shows this Otherness very readily,

 "…in its strangeness and unpredictability, denies this devouring urge to transmute all alterity into versions of sameness, and that is why the scientists cannot cope with it. The perfectly judged tone of uncanny uncertainty in Lem's novel, the way it consistently refuses the straightforward explanation of the characters' situation, precisely captures the way encountering the Other forces us to encounter ourselves, the way it can reveal things about ourselves which are intensely uncomfortable." (Roberts, 2000:27)

 

As Roberts notes, even the great SF scientist adventurer is lost before this unknowable alien. The scientist hero that we are familiar with in earlier encounters with aliens confronts not a mini T-Rex as in 'Arena'  the alien Otherness is found in an entire planet. This Otherness is so very different that human sanity itself is threatened, as in Knight's 'Stranger Station'.

Nicholls and Clute (2000) writes that Solaris is like only a few other SF texts (amongst them Mann's The Eye of the Queen (1982) and Hoyle's The Black Cloud (1957)) where there is no common intellectual or emotional ground between human and alien. "Faith in the universality of reason and hence in the fundamental similarity of all intelligent beings" (Nicholls & Clute, 2000) is not possible in Solaris.

 

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Lem comments on Solaris:

 

Author of the Solaris novel, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, reviewed the Soderbergh Solaris in December of 2002, only two years before his death in his eighties. When he wrote his review he had not seen the American adaptation of his novel. Lem enjoyed a poor relationship with America and most Western Science Fiction and refused to take part in SF conventions, meetings and discussions. He considered most American SF to be rubbish made for money and was happy to stay very separate from the great attention given to SF writers in the West, even though his novels, such as Solaris had brought him international acclaim.

 

Lem noted that a review of Soderbergh's Solaris in the New York Times claimed that it was a love story, "a romance set in outer space" (Lem, 2002). He noted with some irony that, "to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space..." (Lem, 2002). Lem says the book 'poured out of him' without any previous planning "and I even had difficulties with the ending" (Lem, 2002).

 

Lem dismissed the love theme and agrees that his book was about the alien, saying, "in Solaris I attempted to present the problem of an encounter in Space with a form of being that is neither human nor humanoid" (Lem, 2002). He goes on to say that,

"Science fiction almost always assumed the aliens we meet play some kind of game with us the rules of which we sooner or later may understand (in most cases the "game" was the strategy of warfare). However I wanted to cut all threads leading to the personification of the Creature, i.e. the Solarian Ocean, so that the contact could not follow the human, interpersonal pattern - although it did take place in some strange manner. The method I used in the novel to demonstrate this was the particular outcome of the interest of people, who for over one hundred years have been studying the planet Solaris and the ocean covering its surface" (Lem, 2002).

 

Lem argues that the great Ocean of Solaris is neither thinking or non-thinking. It was capable of "doing things which were entirely alien to the human domain" (Lem, 2002). It claimed the attention of the humans on the Solaris Station above the Ocean by entering into the minds of the people and revealing "what was deeply hidden in each of them: a reprehensible guilt, a tragic event from the past suppressed by the memory, a secret and shameful desire" (Lem, 2002). The revealing of these hidden feelings, memories and desires are quite stubborn, they are hard to get rid of "even those sent into space come back... Kelvin initially tried to kill Harey; later he accepted her presence and tried to play the role he had to abandon on Earth - of her beloved man" (Lem, 2002).

 

Lem says that the vision of the Planet Solaris in his novel was very important to him. The "Solarian globe was not just any sphere surrounded by some jelly - it was an active being (although a non-human one). It neither built nor created anything translatable into our language that could have been 'explained in translation'" (Lem, 2002)

 

Lem makes fun of Western SF in his comments noting that the Soderbergh Solaris is one of the more ambitious SF films, because it was not star wars, "nor space-werewolfs nor Schwarzenegger's Terminators" (Lem, 2002) Lem notes that the end of the American version of Solaris has a happy ending and this would be "a concession to the stereotypes of American thinking regarding science fiction" (Lem, 2002).

 

Lem believes the West wants either a happy ending or a "space catastrophe" and he believed this was why some reviewers did not like the film - "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, 2002).

 

Lem sums up his notes by saying that " as Solaris' author I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled Solaris and not Love in Outer Space" (Lem, 2002).

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Western views on Lem and Solaris:

 

In the Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (2001), Aldiss and Wingrove argue that Lem has been over-rated and that his satires on the West are "ponderous and dated". However, they say his writing is "often genuinely inventive - a skillful writer with his own peculiar visions of how things function" (Aldiss & Wingrove, 2001: 440). They note that "Lem's work seems to fall into two distinct categories: intellectual puzzle and moral fable or parable." Solaris lies at the intersection of the intellectual puzzle and the moral fable, they argue. It is "wittily written and intriguing stories with a strange, unnamable power" (Aldiss & Wingrove, 2001: 441).

However, Aldiss and Wingrove go on to criticise Lem's novel Solaris saying that there is,

"a coldness of intent, a weakness in characterization, and an overall inability to engage the whole of what we are, which makes Lem's writing much less significant than it ought to be. Lem's intellect may be vast. It is also cool and unsympathetic." (Aldiss & Wingrove, 2001: 440-441).

 

The Soderbergh Solaris does not seem to this writer to be cool and unsympathetic, but some of the images, such as Kelvin locking his dead wife into the shuttle pod and sending her off to die of asphyxiation in space, are certainly disturbing.

 

Discussion of the 2002 version of Solaris, as seen in the Forum topics, above, will look at the way this unknowable alien is used in the film and ask if an unknowable alien can ever be a satisfactory plot device. Also, if the great Ocean of Solaris is part of a moral parable, what does this parable mean?

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The Solaris Ocean and an Unknowable God:

 

As seen in Lem's comments noted above, there seems little in Solaris to indicate the the alien Other of the Solaris Ocean is analogous to any belief in a supreme deity or God. However, what a writer says about their book, or what a director says about their film does not necessarily relate to what a viewer or reader finds in their text.

 

The Solaris Ocean is a vast, creative force. It sees into the minds and memories of humans at a vast distance and can create life. The life it creates is human, to all extents and purposes. Like Eve created from the rib of Adam in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, the Solaris creations come from a part of experience or imaginings of those in the Solaris Station, hovering over the waters in space, above.

 

Seen in this light, the Solaris Ocean can be analogous to ideas of God in Judeo-Christian beliefs. Just how can a person know the mind of God? Just how can a human know the mind of the Solaris Ocean? Is the Solaris Ocean another way of thinking about God? Is this text then an analogy of the Unknowable, Transcendent Other - God?


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In-class or online essay

 

In-class literary-critical essay task

 

Please respond to the following topic for discussion:

 

1) SF critic Alsford has noted, "...alien beings need not necessarily represent something obviously distinct from ourselves, rather they may reflect back at us, aspects of ourselves, things we either admire or even fear in our own character" (Alsford, 2001:52)

 

Discuss with reference to at least two short stories and one other text (short story or film) studied for the mySF Project.

 

Please submit your final draft only. You may use either paper and pen or the myclasses system but remember to save and backup your work. If you are working in class you must submit the final draft for assessment at the end of the class. If you studying flexibly, online, you can submit your response to the topic before 9am the following day of the text.

 

Please check the rubric for the task to see the assessment scheme.

 

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Resource List:

 

Aldiss, B. & Wingrove, D. (2001). Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. New York: House of Stratos.

 

Lem, S.    (2002). 'The Solaris Station'. Stanislaw Lem Website. Article dated 8 December, 2002. Retrieved 22 June, 2006 from http://www.lem.pl/cyberiadinfo/english/kiosk/kiosk.htm#solstation

Nicholls, P., & Clute, J., (Eds.)     (1995). Grolier Science Fiction: the multimedia encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Danbury, Danbury, CT: Grolier Electronic Publishing.

 

Roberts, A.    (2000). Science Fiction: the new critical idiom. Routledge: London.

 

Soderbergh, S. (Director). (2002). Solaris. Written by Soderbergh, S.. Based on the novel by Lem, S. DVD Version. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2005.

 

Wikipedia  (2006). 'Solaris (2002 film)'. Wikipedia. Retrieved 2 June, 2006 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solaris_%282002_film%29

 

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Readings and links:

 

 

Wikipedia page on writer Stanislaw Lem, author of 'Solaris'. An interesting biography, including Lem's famous dislike of Western SF

 

Wikipedia page on the Soviet, 1972 version of 'Solaris'. The differences between this and the recent Clooney film are made apparent.

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Ongoing readings and links:

 

 

Electronic text of 'The Father Thing' by Phillip K Dick

 

Electronic text of Damon Knight's 'Stranger Station'

 

Electronic text of Octavia Butler's 'Bloodchild'

  Electronic text of David Rade's 'The Ticket Whisperer'

 

Podcast 1 of overview of Aliens in SF, 5M mp3 file for download and playing

  Podcast II of overview of Aliens in SF, 4M mp3 file for downloading and playing

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