Friday, March 4, 2016

#35: Solaris, #132: Nova


"We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is."
"The fate of a single man can be rich with significance, that of a few hundred less so, but the history of thousands and millions of men does not mean anything at all, in any adequate sense of the word.
"We all know that we are material creatures, subject to the laws of physiology and physics, and not even the power of all our feelings combined can defeat those laws. All we can do is detest them."
I have read a staggering amount of science fiction over the years, so I am always excited to dive into an SF work that is like nothing I have ever read before. The experience of reading Solaris was, for me, exciting in this way --but it is also an excellent novel in its own right. Indeed, I have a feeling that even if Solaris was a more run-of-the-mill space opera (which it certainly is not), Lem's erudition and intelligence would have elevated it into the SF pantheon regardless.
The originality of Solaris's central plot device is impressive and essentially unlike anything I've read thus far in SF. On a distant planet, far from Earth, there is a mystery entity that is like nothing mankind has ever encountered. The simplest way to define it would be to call it a "sentient ocean", but this term does not fully capture the weirdness or mystery of the strange living force covering much of the planet Solaris. Even calling it a single "living" thing might be misleading. The ocean certainly displays puzzling phenomena, indicative of some sort of purposiveness...but just what kind of purpose are we talking about? The scientists of Earth have been trying to answer this question for decades, producing no definitive answers. Likewise, they have been unable to establish any sort of meaningful contact with the intelligence inherent in the ocean --it is clear that this being is a completely different sort of "creature" when compared to anything of Earth. As one character states, "The preconceptions of Earth offer no assistance in unraveling the mysteries of Solaris".
In the action of the novel, Kris Kelvin, our narrator and protagonist, is sent to a space station above Solaris. After decades of discovery and enthusiasm, study of Solaris has dried up, simply because the ocean has been so hard to penetrate; so unwilling to give up her secrets. The research station is populated by only a handful of scientists, and it would seem to be a relatively quiet, boring affair. But Kelvin soon finds out that this is not the case. Mysterious, eerie goings-on creep into the narrative. One of the scientists onboard has committed suicide, just before Kelvin arrives. The other two researchers on board are extremely reticent, cautious, and paranoid. They speak with frustrating mysticism, and all we (and Kelvin) are able to discern is that something is very wrong on board the station.
Kelvin gets a dose of this himself when he wakes up one morning to find an uninvited visitor in his room --an ex-lover who committed suicide on Earth many years ago. Shockingly, she seems to be there, in flesh and blood, on the station. As Kelvin and his fellow crew members struggle with similar apparitions, the audience too, must wonder just what exactly is going on. Is the ocean taking painful memories from the crew and resurrecting them in physical form? If so, why? And how will they deal with these new "people," who hold so much significance in their lives, suddenly springing up out of nowhere, exactly as exist in memory? The plot of this short novel revolves mostly around this struggle, with the occasional digression into the field of "Solarist Studies", as Kelvin describes old experiments and expeditions conducted in the early days of the exploration of Solaris. Lem certainly plays with the minds of his characters (and audience!) throughout the novel in a jarring way that seemed almost Philip K. Dick-esque at times.
Solaris is much more a psychological novel than an action-adventure novel, but this never discouraged me --an admitted fan of action in novels, but also a lover of rich, deep, meaningful dialogue. Solaris manages to be page-turning, yet profound, and for me, this is the highest praise. It's thought-provoking to the point of brilliance, while also being thoroughly unpredictable on the level of plot action (which kept me turning the pages). Two-thirds of the way through the novel, I had absolutely no idea how things would conclude.
I also enjoyed the way Lem mixed traditional space-exploration SF with shades of Poe-like horror, suspense, and fantasy. It made for a novel that, especially in its beginning chapters, was haunting in a way that few SF works are. In addition to embracing multiple genres, Solaris also deals with many academic disciplines, both implicitly and explicitly. Fans of hard science, phenomenology, philosophy, psychology (and many more disciplines): there is plenty of material to sink your teeth into here.
Solaris deserves its place in the upper echelon of SF novels, and I might venture that it is slightly underrated. It certainly blows some established classics of exploration (here, I'm thinking of Ringworld) out of the water. The one gripe that I've heard about the novel that might have some merit is the fact that there are some overlong "technical" bits on Solaris Studies --I (not a big Hard SF fan, mind you), found these parts interesting enough, but some may not). Overall, though, this is an excellent, mind-boggling read, with a weighty message at its core: There are some things that Man cannot, and will not, ever understand.


"Real's the start of a million journeys...with your feet stuck in the same place."
"It's something everyone has envisioned --making the rude and thoughtless pay for their thoughtlessness for the rest of their lives. Well, I just happen to have been born powerful enough to do it. I assure you, it feels exactly as good as you might ever have imagined."
"We are drifting, Mouse, you and I, the twins, Tyy and Sebastian, good people all of us --but aimless. Then an obsessed man snatches us up and carries us out here to the edge of everything. And we arrive to find his obsession has imposed order on our aimlessness --or perhaps a more meaningful chaos. What worries me is that I'm so thankful to him. I should be rebelling, trying to assert my own order. But I'm not. I want him to win his infernal race. I want him to win, and until he wins or loses, I can't seriously want anything else for myself."
There's no doubt about it --space opera is a huge hit amongst sci-fi fans, maybe the biggest subgenre in all of science fiction, thanks in part to mega-hits like Star Wars and Star Trek. But my own personal preference slants towards more "grounded", soft SF that deals with characters, planets, and societies in smaller numbers, but with a more penetrating gaze. Luckily for me, Samuel Delany's Nova, long considered a classic of the space opera sub-genre, manages to merge some of soft SF's stress on character study with space opera's trademark feeling of vastness and emphasis on impressive settings.
Nova mostly focuses on the story of Captain Lorq Von Ray, a wealthy, grizzled pilot with connections to the highest political and economic powers in the galaxy. Early on, we follow him in the early days of his rivalry with Prince and Ruby Red from Red Shift, Ltd, a company whose interests have begun to clash with those of his own powerful family's corporation. Prince, especially, is a suitably nasty villain, and Delany establishes this quite well with these early scenes.
Later, in the main story arc, we see Von Ray lead a diverse cast of characters in a race against Prince and Ruby to win a motherlode of illyrion, a mysterious element that helps run their interstellar society (it fuels everything from terraforming projects to the sensory syrynx, a music instrument that uses not only sound, but also smells and light to create a truly multi-sensory symphony). Whoever gets to this motherlode first will certainly put the other group's company out of business. The only catch? Getting to this treasure trove of illyrion means flying one's spacecraft directly into an imploding star! Von Ray has determined, through earlier trials, that a ship can be sucked into a sun's core once nova has commenced, and be trapped in a relative safe zone where illyrion can be harvested. The Reds are hot on his tail, but even they do not realize the full scale of his mission --they are only aware of the prize at its conclusion, and are determined to prevent Lorq from devastating their company with such a prize.
 Von Ray's unmistakable charisma helps him win over several recruits for this dangerous mission: the Mouse, a gypsy wanderer and master musician; Katin, a condescending, but brilliant intellectual who can never seem to stop extrapolating, explaining, or wondering out loud; Lynceos and Idas, a strange pair of twins, one black, and one white; Sebastian, with his strange way of speaking and his vulture-like pets; and Tyy, a Tarot-card reader and skilled pilot. Each has their own story, their own quirks. I might go so far as to say that this colorful cast of characters is Nova's premier strength.
Another strength is the way Delany promulgates a distinct sense of adventure from the novel's inception. Although I thought the plot as a whole could have used more action, this sense of adventure saves Nova from ever really dragging too much. With that said, there were a few sections that could have been trimmed down a bit --at times I found myself becoming quite engaged with the plot and building up momentum in my reading pace, only for that momentum to be halted by an overly long visit to another planet. Being that the novel is only 240 pages, these slower stretches never become overwhelming, but I did feel Delany could have maintained a great sense of excitement throughout the entire novel by cutting them down just a bit.
I also enjoyed how Delany blended fantasy and SF in the scene where Lorq has Tyy do a Tarot reading for him. It managed a kind of mystical tone that you'd expect from Lord of the Rings, rather than a space opera. Another highlight is a revelation at the end. The novel's very last sentence is a great "a-ha" moment, and a wonderfully creative touch on Delany's part.
While space opera is an excellent venue for Delany's fertile imagination (as evidenced by the great scenes featuring the net riders, among others), I still think I enjoyed this novel less than I would have if it featured a similar cast of characters on a single planet, on some other quest. Constant shifts in planetary setting can get a bit too jarring, as it seems not enough time is devoted to fully flesh out and enliven a locale. If a space-opera with shades of Moby-Dick (with the obsessive Von Ray playing Ahab nicely, and his dying star, the white whale) sounds interesting to you, give Nova a look. As for me, with my ambivalence towards space opera, I must conclude that it is a solid, well-written yarn that can be a bit hard to fully get into.