Revisiting Solaris : encountering otherness and the limits of representation

Title: Revisiting Solaris : encountering otherness and the limits of representation
Source document: Pro-Fil. 2021, vol. 22, iss. Special issue, pp. 78-91
  • ISSN
    1212-9097 (online)
Type: Article
One of the core themes of Stanisław Lem's 1961 novel Solaris is the encounter with radical otherness. The ocean planet being studied by scientists form earth is usually interpreted as a representation of radical otherness, which eludes human efforts of understanding. In this paper we argue that in Solaris Lem attempts to show not merely that the ocean is unknowable, but that the unknowability is itself impossible to adequately conceptualise and represent. However, we further argue that this impossibility is the subject of an experience in which the presence of otherness is made available. We focus on the images of chaos which Kelvin discovers on Solaris to show that Lem presents the epistemic situation of the main protagonist as radically unstable. Contrary to most interpretations, however, we argue that the discursive narration in the novel engages with the presence of otherness only superficially. Rather, we suggest that the encounter with otherness is shown as something that manifests itself in bodily emotions, and is, therefore, only possible to convey non-discursively. The fear and dread inspired by the vastness and strangeness of the ocean are always presented by appeal to sensuality and bodily experience. These emotive reactions to encounters with otherness subvert its conceptual representations. We suggest that in this way Lem attempts to convey what cannot be discursively described, or even depicted. He presents radical otherness as something impossible to represent conceptually but offers a vision of the possibility of an encounter with otherness through bodily emotions. On this interpretation Solaris is not only a novel about the encounter with otherness, but also about the very possibility of representing such an encounter.
  • This research was supported by the University of Oxford project 'New Horizons for Science and Religion in Central and Eastern Europe' funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in the publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the John Templeton Foundation.
[1] Csicsery-Ronay Jr., I. (1985): The Book Is the Alien: On Certain and Uncertain Readings of Lem's "Solaris", Science Fiction Studies, 12(1), 6–21, available at: < >.

[2] Geier, M. (1992): Stanislaw Lem's Fantastic Ocean: Toward a Semantic Interpretation of "Solaris", Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2, 192–218, available at: < >.

[3] Jarzębski, J. (undated): Lustro [online], [accessed 2021-09-12]. available at: < >.

[4] Ketterer, D. (1974): New Worlds for Old, Indiana University Press.

[5] Lem, S. (1981): Metafantasia: The Possibilities of Science Fiction, Science Fiction Studies, 8(1), 54–71, available at: < >.

[6] Lem, S. (2017): Solaris [e-book], Pro Auctore Wojciech Zemek.

[7] Lem, S. (2019): Tales of Pirx the pilot, Penguin Classics.

[8] Lem, S. (2016): The Star Diaries, Penguin Classics.

[9] Michałowski P. (2003): Babel XXI wieku, in Jarzębski, J. – Sulikowski, A. (eds.): Stanisław Lem: pisarz, myśliciel, człowiek, Wydawnictwo Literackie.

[10] Płaza, M. (2006): O poznaniu w twórczości Stanisława Lema, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego.

[11] Potts, S. J. (1979): Dialogues Concerning Human Understanding: Empirical Views of God from Locke to Lem, in Slusser, G. (ed.): Bridges to Science Fiction, Southern Illinois University Press.

[12] Rose, M. (1981): Alien Encounters, Harvard University Press.

[13] Skibińska, E. (2010): Kolory Solaris we francuskim przekładzie, in Skibińska, E. – Rzeszotnik, J. (eds.): Lem i tłumacze, Księgarnia Akademicka.

[14] Suvin, D. (1970): The Open-Ended Parables of Stanislaw Lem and "Solaris", in Lem, S.: Solaris, Berkley.