Narcissus in space

A character in Stanislaw Lem’s novel ‘Solaris’ comments:

‘We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of the earth to the frontiers of the cosmos… we have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors.’

‘Solaris’ is about an encounter with the truly alien;  a planet sized ocean that is apparently alive, but that is authentically incomprehensible. The human characters in the book experience the alien either through baffling, oceanic activities, or through human-like emanations; key figures in their past, created by the ocean to engage with them.

These emanations are fascinating, a very direct image for our quest for a cosmic mirror. Talking to the alien, we meet either the incomprehensible or our own, most deeply ingrained obsessions. We can see nothing else. Lem’s pessimism about humanity’s inability to step out of the confines of the self is a key driver for the book.

And that pessimism is reflected in a key plot point. Humanity notices that the Solaris ocean *lives* because the Solaris planet has an irregular orbit, designed to help it maintain an even climate as it orbits two binary stars. Such an orbit has to be a sign of a designing, controlling intelligence; and thus the quest to understand the Solaris ocean begins.

But such a drive to control is a very human trait. From the start, the Solaris ocean is tagged as something motivated by a very basic human driver – the need to thrive through environmental manipulation. At a base level, its actions can be read in entirely human terms.

But without that basic human behaviour there would be no book; the Solaris ocean would have gone unnoticed. In Lem’s terms, any attempt to show the fully alien is a contradiction in terms. Cosmic Narcissi, we’d never look up from the pool and see it.

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