Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris was originally published in 1961 in Polish. Apparently the English translations have been poor until Bill Johnston issued his e-book only version in 2013.
Solaris is part of the “alien contact” theme that is prominent in science fiction. In terms of my interest, the novel explores what happens when intelligences (human and alien) try to understand each other. What literacy practice will they use?
This post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.
Alien encounters are really only of interest to me when they reveal something about a post-literate future. And Solaris does this in a very interesting and compelling way.
The alien in question is a vast ocean on a remote planet. A sentient “plasmic machine” that communicates (thinks) in physical manifestations of itself. The attempts throughout the book for each to understand the other (alien to human; human to alien) are complete failures.
What if we meet an advanced society, but we have nothing to talk about. Or at least no way to talk about it.
One of the possibilities for post-literacy (and I know it’s weird, stay with me), is that it will be brought to us by advanced societies (i.e. aliens). Solaris provides us with that encounter but it leaves us with the profound conclusion that neither party will understand the other. To the frustration of both, communications will fail, misunderstandings will occur, and the opportunity to connect will be squandered.
Unlike the standard sci-fi trope that humans can’t understand the aliens, it is quite clear in Solaris that the alien doesn’t understand humans. The ocean makes all sorts of stumbles in its attempt to make intelligent contact. And this is especially surprising since it can probe our minds.
The “language” of the ocean is comprised of many physical transformations (“mimoids”, “G-formations”, “extensors”, and others) forming an extensive physical vocabulary and grammar. A language that represent ideas, statements …. something (because frankly we don’t know what it really means). The ocean is “a geometric symphony, but if this is the case, we are its unhearing audience” (location 1964).
Making ideas physical (corporal/embodied) is most dramatic when the narrator’s wife, who committed suicide some years earlier, appears on the station and interactions (somewhat successful) with the narrator (Kelvin; interestingly, an allusion to unit of measure with a connection to water). The dead wife has been “incorporated” by the ocean by probing Kelvin’s mind. Things do not go well.
Both parties make attempts normal to their own intelligence and literacy practices; both parties fail miserably and, in some cases, tragically. As Kelvin says “Contact means an exchange of experiences, concepts, or at least results, conditions. But what if there’s nothing to exchange?” (location 2414)
Advanced intelligence is not a linear capacity; we don’t simply evolve along some continuum. Intelligence is constructed within a specific context; a context that may simply be unavailable to the other.
If some of us acquired a post-literate capacity or capability (i.e. sufficient to displace or replace alphabetic literacy) it may be that those with this ability would be incomprehensible to those without it.
Stanislaw Lem. Solaris. Translated by Bill Johnston. Krakow: 2013. Originally published in 1961.