I must admit I am not the biggest sci-fi fan, but Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris” was one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. The idea of this novel might be pretty simple and natural – humans cannot understand extraterrestrial life and are unable to make a connection with other forms of intelligence. This is the most probable outcome of a potential human-alien interaction, but the degree of loneliness I felt reading this book has more to say about humans.
What I understood from this novel was that we, humans, are small, hopeless and lonely. This dark and hostile kind of universe depicted by Lem isn’t seen just in the outside world, as the action takes place on a faraway planet, entirely covered by a living ocean. The interior universe of each character is just as cold as their surroundings and once again, these people get to suffer and become psychologically traumatized because of their own mistakes and aggressiveness towards a life form that had caused them no harm. Their incapability of communicating, in any way, with the ocean is frustrating enough to determine them to make unauthorized experiments on this “ignorant” creature (as far as we are aware).
We soon realize that the ocean has certain capacities we could have never thought of. However, the purpose of the book is definitely not to talk about an extraterrestrial being, but to make us see our own limitations. There is such a long way to a potential meeting with aliens. Consider Fermi’s paradox, which basically states that the universe is so big, that there is a high possibility of intelligent life out there, and yet there’s no sign of any extraterrestrial civilization. There are 100 billion galaxies, each with 100 to 1000 billion stars in the observable universe, and planets are common too, but we will never reach out to any other living organism. And the explanation is just disappointing. It’s simply because by the time we will have the necessary technology for interstellar transportation, the universe would have expanded so much that we’ll only see the emptiness of a still, almost dead cosmos. So yup, we are doomed to be forever alone.
Ok now, hypothetically considering the encounter with aliens, there are almost no chances of us making a real connection with them. The highest chance is that they are not even intelligent creatures, just some unicellular organisms. In case they are some kind of ancient civilization, presumably as intelligent as we are, what are the odds of them understanding our language, or even using a so-called language? But again, let’s go further and pretend they are intelligent, they have a language and they can comprehend our actions to some extent – which is the case in “Solaris”. Here, chances are (as Lem shows us) we will be the ones not understanding them. And even if the people studying Lem’s living ocean were to understand it, at a certain point in the distant future, such interactions are now still impossible for them, because there is something else standing in the way, something nobody considered – the incompatibility of age. As it turns out, this ocean is just an individual who hasn’t reached its maturity yet. It has the mind of an infant.
Let’s go further, though, and pretend we could make the communication happen. Even then, as we see in “Solaris”, the mental issues and suffering of humans will stand in the way of a proper connection, as the characters in the book tend to look more inwards than to the outside reality, which they do not comprehend.