the Straight Agenda strikes again.
my punishment for skipping out on the Mariner books copy of Stanislaw Lem’s SOLARIS is enduring George Clooney’s ugly mug and having this repulsive heterosexuality thrust in my face. Lem’s disappointment with both the Tarkovsky and Soderbergh film versions is well documented, but the latter has extra salt, reducing a complex sci-fi concept into a metaphor for a troubled marriage and heterotopia. granted, the love story in SOLARIS was really compelling and had a lot of pathos at the end. but ill get the shit out of the way first.
there must be a sub-genre of the novel of ideas in which a woman (or a mechanical reproduction of a woman) is destroyed for the man to actualize himself. THOMAS THE OBSCURE belongs where this circle and the Existentialist Male Sociopath circle overlap.
so here we join Kris Kelvin who travels so many light years to encounter Solaris and its surface-spanning ocean; a planet size white whale, something categorically beyond human imagination. the ocean is also coded as a woman. the ocean probes Kelvin’s memories and constructs a simulacrum of his dead wife who committed suicide (Kelvin feels responsible). the other chauvinist scientists on board have lady friends too: the late Gibrarian was visited by a “primitive Negress” and she has every Orientalist/colonialist visual cliche.
moreover, the ocean itself embodies female characteristics. it creates spaces, holes, openings, accommodating the aircraft that fly through it; it kills an expedition of scientists by engulfing them, as opposed to the masculine act of penetration and rupture.
The reproduction of Rheya has no memories or volition other than what Kelvin’s memories construct her to have, but womanly instincts are beyond such things. in the library which holds a century plus of Solaristics and probably has your standard liberal arts catalog, she goes for the cookbook, and is happy to clear the table and do the dishes while the male scientists sit around, being crazy slobs, ruminating out loud about that damn ocean. what does she want?!
and then when Rheya Prime is finally granted agency, she kills herself. whomp.
but ill be kinder to this 60s sci-fi now. after all, the given in the story is that Solaris and the ocean are beyond patriarchy, beyond the gender binary, beyond language, beyond analogy, beyond everything!
there are long discussions about the ocean and the structures it builds. they’re my favorite parts. (an ocean of text to match the mysteries of the ocean; the imperialist impulse within literature cropping up once again.)
It is almost certain that the unlikely descriptions are unverifiable, since the ocean seldom repeats itself. The freakish character and gigantic scale of these phenomena go too far outside the experience of man to be grasped by anybody observing them for the first time, and who would consider analogous occurrences as ‘sports of nature,’ accidental manifestations of blind forces, if he saw them on a reduced scale, say in a mud-volcano on Earth. (111)
these structures, which sprout up and out of the ocean like a solar prominence, but are also intricate in their architecture like Gothic cathedrals, serve no purpose that the scientists can figure out. (notice the inadequate analogies i resort to.) they dont have any apparent instrumental value. the scientists cant even be sure they’re meant to communicate anything at all. they are a-semiotic.
not that a lack of instrumental value is a bad thing (though the notion might be more and more unpalatable to a neoliberal culture run by a STEM and managerial mindset). the first time i tripped on mushrooms is still my favorite psychedelic experience because it was the strongest and also because i had no intentions of “getting anything” out of it. my mind was simply there, you know? it was a transitory and glorious moment of experience untainted by meaning.
but the narrative also suggests the ocean is just as helpless in understanding humans as they are of it. the interrogation of Berton, which Tarkovsky moved to the beginning, brings up this point. while flying over the ocean he sees a giant baby, another one of the ocean’s structures:
The movements I saw were…er…yes, that’s it, they were methodical movements. They were performed one after another, like a series of exercises; as though someone had wanted to make a study of what this child was capable of doing with its hands, its torso, its mouth. (82)
Kris’s station mate Snow brings up another point, which im paraphrasing because i didnt note it down because im a good reader: that if the ocean is just one ocean, it doesnt have a conception of the Other which burdens humankind. it doesnt understand limits, and so freely penetrates the minds of the human scientists who just as freely drop nukes on it.
a final note on something i cant “read” into significance: along with the other dualisms in the novel is the fact that Solaris orbits a binary star system: a red giant and a blue giant. i dunno how it fits, or if the red days and blue days make a pattern. but the descriptions of the different lighting were beautiful, and a third adaptation of SOLARIS should do something with that.