The astronaut arrives at a space station above an ocean that almost entirely covers a planet called Solaris. The ocean, which was discovered 100 years before, might be one giant organism that has some form of consciousness, and the space station that orbits it houses three scientists.
The arriving astronaut is Kris Kelvin, a psychologist. His journey from Earth to So laris took 16 months. He needs a shower. But the space station is a mess, and one of the researchers, his mentor Dr. Gibarian, committed suicide just hours before he docked. One of the remaining two scientists, Snaut, appears to have gone mad; the other, Sartorius, is locked up in his cabin. A window provides a view of the extraterrestrial sea.
The novel, Solaris, is by Stanisław Lem, a Polish science fiction writer who lived long enough to express an opinion of Steven Soderbergh’s Hollywood 2002 adaptation of it. He did not like the movie, nor did he much care for the 1972 Soviet, but art-house, version by Andrei Tarkovsky. (He called the greatest director of the 20th century a durak—idiot.) It seems both directors missed what the author thought to be the deepest point of the novel. For the majority of the novel’s professional commentators it’s expressed in this exchange between Snaut and Kelvin, whose mind has been sent spinning by the presence of his dead wife, Hari (or Harey), on the space station—she died young on Earth; she committed suicide because Kelvin no longer loved her:
We head out into space, ready for anything, which is to say, for solitude, arduous work, self-sacrifice, and death. Out of modesty we don’t say it aloud, but from time to time we think about how magnificent we are. In the meantime—in the meantime, we’re not trying to conquer the universe; all we want is to expand Earth to its limits. Some planets are said to be as hot and dry as the Sahara, others as icy as the poles or tropical as the Brazilian jungle. We’re humanitarian and noble, we’ve no intention of subjugating other races, we only want to impart our values to them and in return, to appropriate their heritage. We see ourselves as Knights of the Holy Contact. That’s another falsity. We’re not searching for anything except people. We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors.
The ocean—or whatever that living, turning, rising, and falling thing is—is unknowable because all humans can really know is a human universe. We do not explore the stars. We can explore only ourselves. We did not land on the moon; we landed on our words, dreams, and passions. And our belief that mathematics is the language of the universe is nothing but foolish. Newton or Einstein or Hawking didn’t have access to a form of knowledge that’s nonhuman, that’s truly out there, that will continue to be true long after the sun expands and sterilizes earth.
Numbers—like language, like the passions—don’t transcend the limits of our form or manner of thinking, which, as the German philosopher Kant pointed out long ago, is shaped by the way the human (and animal) mind is fixed to order events in space and time. Solaris’s living sea appears to have a mathematical system (if it can be called that) that humans, who have been visiting and writing about the strange planet for generations, cannot crack.
This is the standard reading of Solaris, and aspects of it can be found in both movies, which represent the sea as mysterious. Are humans experimenting on the alien, or is it the other way around? Why do the dead among the scientists appear on the ship? Tarkovsky certainly goes as far to see the space station’s specters (or “guests”) as projections of human memories. In this way, he returns to a key theme in his most important work, Zerkalo (Mirror). Soderbergh’s version emphasizes the beloved Holly wood trope of the broken family (think Close Encounters of the Third Kind). His Solaris is about the sea mysteriously reuniting Kelvin with Hari—and he grants them a child, but all of this in an alien form (think A.I. Artificial Intelligence).
But the heart of Lem’s novel is not found in the famous declaration, “We don’t need other worlds,” but in the elucidation (or clarification) of the passage it concludes, which is the description of the first “guest” who Kelvin sees in the space station.
I stood rooted to the ground. From the far end of the side passage, a huge Black woman was coming toward me with an unhurried waddling gait. I saw the whites of her eyes glinting, and at almost exactly the same moment, I heard the soft slap of her bare feet. She had nothing on but a skirt that glistened yellow, as if it were made of straw.
She had massive pendulous breasts, and her black arms were as thick as a normal person’s thighs. She passed three feet from me without so much as a glance and walked off, her elephantine rump swaying like one of those steatopygic Stone Age sculptures found in anthropological museums. At the place where the corridor curved, she turned to the side and disappeared into Gibarian’s cabin.
This Black woman does not appear in Tarkovsky’s movie (she is replaced by a young and white woman in a dainty night- ie) or in Soderbergh’s, though the latter does have a Black woman on the space station (she is played by Viola Davis; she is a scientist, Dr. Gordon). The Black woman in the novel has two appearances: the one in the passage, and one next to the corpse of her host, Kelvin’s mentor Gibarian. Very little is written about this striking figure, the steatopygic Black African. Most scholars, like the directors, want nothing to do with her. But without her, the novel and mirror passage (which is really not about mirrors) makes little sense. All meaning is found in her sudden and brief appearance.
What she makes clear is the guests on the station are not tied to their hosts romantically or directly. Gibarian has certainly never had a romance with the kind of woman exhibited in anthropological museums. Some have speculated that she is Gibarian’s dark sexual fantasy. The old white scientist really wants to fuck a large Black woman, the ur-female. Another interpretation reads her as a spook—meaning the function of her largeness and Blackness and distinct un-Europeaness is to give white readers a jolt of fear. But these interpretations miss the mark. Lem was not, on both accounts, so vulgar; his goal as an artist was to create works that stood high above pulp science fiction. Reread the mirror passage carefully and fit it with the first description of the Black guest and this becomes clear: the novel is about the science of colonialism.
What do humans really want on Solaris? Is it something as metaphysical as mirroring human Dasein or even to do with God, who Kelvin goes on and on about when his reason finally collapses? No. The scientists are there because their discipline is not about accumulating knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
Another aspect of the novel missing from both movies (though it is hinted at in Soderbergh’s) is the cost of the station and the endless experiments on Solaris. Indeed, humans are losing interest in the planet because it’s busting the budgets of several space agencies. This connection of colonization with scientific research is indeed the subject of a 1979 book, Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens, by Lucile Brockway. As I have written before, Britain’s Kew Gardens wasn’t just about the accumulation of knowledge; it was, at its core, about “the commodification of the powers and properties of plants.” To better understand steatopygic Black women, one should not turn to the stars or look in mirrors but instead read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Kelvin is that novella’s Captain Marlow, and Gibarian is its Kurtz, the ivory trader whose mistress is, significantly, a nameless “savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent” Black woman.
And this finally gets me to the point of the article. Will Book-It Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of Solaris, written by David Greig, follow the films and exclude Gibarian’s Black woman and focus on the metaphysical mirrors mumbo jumbo? Or will it be true to the real-word substance of the novel, the colonization of space, and the imperialism of science? I do not want to find out until the curtains open.