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1/2 idea No. 31: Solaris short

By Jon Agar, on 11 August 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

I really dislike the film adaptations of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris.

It’s not just the interminable scenes of lapping water in Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), nor the missed opportunity of Steven Soderburgh’s version starring George Clooney of 2002. Neither really engages with Lem’s question: if we encounter something truly alien can we ever know it? All attempts by the visiting cosmonaut-scientists to make contact with the apparently intelligent ocean of Solaris are futile. Hollywood especially cannot resist turning this classic sci-fi conundrum into a metaphor for human-human communication – see the dreadful run of recent films each of which turns the cosmic into the personal and parochial: Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), Ad Astra (2019), and so on. (Although I have a soft spot for Arrival.)

There’s plenty of critical interpretation of Lem’s Solaris, some of which predictably read it as a Cold War commentary or dissent. Others are better, and Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.’s ‘The Book Is the Alien: On Certain and Uncertain Readings of Lem’s “Solaris”‘ is good example.

But there’s two parts of Solaris I would like to see done right.

The chapter I most enjoy in Lem’s Solaris, as a historian of science, is ‘The solarists’. In it Lem gives us the history of Solaris studies, as scientist after scientist propose new hypotheses for understanding the ocean. Each one falls. It is partly a parody of scientific debate, but it also contains a deeper point. Science, as Kuhn told us, makes sense of a subject once a paradigm is established. If a paradigm doesn’t form, then all there is is a churn of failed interpretations. Lem’s Solaris was published in 1961, Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions the following year.

The ‘Solarists’ chapter has never been filmed. I think that is a shame, and would make an entertaining short. Historians of science could act the roles of Solarist scientists.

Second, I would bookend it with colourised footage of Earth’s clouds as seen from an airliner. It is clear to me that Lem’s descriptions of the wondrous forms taken by the Solaris ocean take inspiration from such a view.

I have no film-making skills.

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