After many years, I reread Solaris.
It’s hard to say what makes Lem so good. The prose, at least in translation, is good, but not stunning. The idea of Solaris–a planet covering, perhaps intelligent ocean–is not completely novel to SF. But somehow the final effect is that here is science fiction at its very best. Science fiction as we writers should all envy and long to write it.
Lem of course does not predict the future with compelling accuracy. For example, on the Solaris station there are paper books but no recordings–the idea that the dead could reappear and you have to type a report about it, and not just film it all, every second of it, from a hundred angles–is quaint. But there is something so mature, so human and also so… scientific in Lem’s vision, that it truly is in the end not only compelling and authentic, but also beautiful and moving.
There are notable differences with mainstream SF. In the trade, we call it an “info dump” when someone explains a phenomenon. The term is (obviously) disparaging. By this standard, a good quarter of Solaris is info dumps. But the term shows a deep problem with contemporary SF, one that Lem diagnosed and scoffed at. For him, science fiction is about the human being in a world transformed and understood by science. In Solaris, the discussions of the scientific literature on the mysterious ocean are not info dumps, they are the very fabric of attempted scientific understanding. Lem is fearless in this: he portrays not a world of space opera adventure. He portrays a world of human beings trying to understand themselves, and the absurdity of existence, and, yes, a huge thinking ocean, via science and also via their own culture and purposes.
All this, and I haven’t even mentioned his brilliant, unique explorations of form–his book of introductions to non-existent books, his book written by an AI, the inexhaustible joy and brilliance of The Cyberiad. He out-Calvinos Calvino, he makes Borgesian leaps over Borges.
It is a great failure of the Nobel Committee, to have passed him over. But what do we care? We can read him, and spread the word. Long live Lem!