Audiobook Review: Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

4 04 2012

Solaris: The Definitive Edition by Stanislaw Lem

Translated by Bill Johnston

Read by Allesandro Juliani

Audible Frontiers

Length; 7 Hrs 42 Mins

Genre: Science Fiction

Quick Thoughts: Lem achieves his goal of exploring something well beyond our concepts of what life is, and creates some true moments of psychological suspense, but despite the brilliant conceptual framework the novels seemingly endless exposition had me wanting to skim ahead to when things actually begin to happen. I wanted to like Solaris, and can understand why it’s considered a classic, but in the end, I found little entertainment value in the experience.

Grade: C

Solaris is nominated for a 2012 Audie Award in the Science Fiction Category.

Years ago, when I was just a wee little boy, I was watching a movie over my father’s house with my younger brother and older sister. I am not sure what the movie was, or even remember much about it, beyond one scene. The movie took place on some sort of space craft or space station. This wasn’t some futuristic Trekian space going habitat but a nuts and bolts type that NASA may throw together eventually. In the scene that I remember, a few of the astronauts get stuck in vacuum without any protection. They died a horrible death gasping for air, with blood flowing out of their eyes. Why I remember this is that it traumatized my sister. My sister was so bothered by the gruesome deaths of the astronauts that she made me and my brother promise right there that we would never become astronauts. I think this was a pinnacle moment in my development as a fan of science fiction. Anything that could evoke such a visceral reaction from my sister, must be awesome. Although I gave her my pledge that day, ever since I have been fascinated by primitive space travel and colonization tales. Books that present the true dangerous situations that we will face when we try to expand past our planet, whether we encounter new life, or not.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem is a classic novel in this milieu. Solaris was first published in 1961 and has been made into movies twice. I have been told that it is high concept hard science fiction at it’s best. It takes place on a station hovering above the planet Solaris, where earth has encountered it’s first sentient species. Yet, this species in nothing like we’d imagine. Solaris is a large planet with a small land mast, and a vast ocean, only this ocean is alive. Years of attempting to make contact with this sentient ocean has ended in failure. After a series of strange events, psychologist Kris Kelvin is called to the station to investigate. When he arrives he finds that the crew had been conducting more aggressive experiments, and now one scientist is dead, and the others are experience what may be hallucinations. Yet, when Rheya, Kelvin’s long dead wife appears to him in the flesh, he begins to realize that something much weirder is taking place. I found Solaris to be brilliant, but unfortunately not in a very entertaining way. Solaris in essence is about the futility of making contact with a nonhuman species. Its main story, about Kelvin encountering his wife is interesting. but it is wrapped up in hours of exposition that is akin to listening to a slanted textbook of scientific philosophies and failures. It’s not a shock that the movie versions of Solaris have focuses on the Kelvin/Rheya story and skimmed past the essence of the novel, because it would have been like sitting for hours in a not particularly interesting lecture. There are a lot of interesting concepts and Len creates a very precise future scientific history, but it is told to us through scientific journal entries and Kelvin’s rambling thoughts, and we never really get to experience them with the characters. Lem achieves his goal of exploring something well beyond our concepts of what life is, and creates some true moments of psychological suspense, but despite the brilliant conceptual framework the novels seemingly endless exposition had me wanting to skim ahead to when things actually begin to happen. I wanted to like Solaris, and can understand why it’s considered a classic, but in the end, I found little entertainment value in the experience.

I think if I had been reading this novel instead of listening to the audiobook I may have enjoyed it more. Reading actually gives you more flexibility. As a reader, I could have skimmed parts of this novel, yet with the audiobook I felt like I was trapped in a car with some bloated windbag trying to prove how brilliant he is. I was trapped, and I just had to listen, or zone out. The narrator, Battlestar Galactica alumn, Alessandro Juliani had a nice voice, and handled the characters well, but read the seemingly endless exposition in a sort of rapid fire, let’s get through this as quickly as possible style. He would start each segment slowly, as almost with a sigh, then rush the rest out with an exhalation. I don’t really blame Juliani, his narration was really fine, I think a large part of it was my inability to connect with the text. I actually found myself taking as few breaks from listening as possible, so I could get through the audiobook in one day. I feel that Solaris was nominated for its Audie more as respect to a classic and the fact that Audible actually commissioned a new direct from Polish translation of the novel then anything that made it stand out as an exceptional audiobook production. While I didn’t like it, I am sure fans of the novel will appreciate the new translation and the performance of the narrator.

 

For another perspective check out these reviews:

RichBurns.me

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7 responses

4 04 2012
Redhead

I’ve read a few Lem titles over the years, and yes, I know Solaris is supposed to be his masterpiece, but it so far it has only proven to be the one title of his that bored me to tears, in fact I don’t even think I finished it. I had a similar experience that you had, by the time the physical action began my brain was so fried by the philosophical slowness that I just didn’t care.

Lem’s “the Investigation” is pretty good, if you happen to run across it.

4 04 2012
Grace

I’ve been curious about this one ever since watching an adaptation of it in a Russian film class in undergrad. It seems like it would be conceptually interesting, but from your review it definitely seems like it would work a lot better as a physical book than an audiobook.

5 04 2012
Squeak (@AkChocoholic)

Trapped in a car with a wind bag … LoL Good thing you took that break to listen to something you wanted to hear before you got to this one.

Dorothy – The Alaskan Bookie – Squeak
Blog ~ http://alaskanbookie.blogspot.com/
Twitter ~ http://twitter.com/AkChocoholic

8 04 2012
DevourerofBooks (@DevourerofBooks)

I HATE getting stuck with an audio that really needs the ability to skim. Sorry this didn’t work better for you.

25 04 2012
Armchair Audies Recap ~ 4/24/2012

[…] Guilded Earlobe reviewed Solaris and The Automatic […]

29 05 2012
19 08 2014
Josef

Yeah I just don’t think an audio book really was the best way to go about reading this novel, too bad due to copyright issues this may be the only edition we get for a long time. I do have a feeling I would much rather enjoy this in its text form than an audio one – one of the primary reasons it that I also didn’t feel convinced by the reading of the narrator as well as the voices he’d make out for the other characters (Hari especially). I would rather revisit this novel in text than in audio.

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