Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Martian Chronicles and Solaris

I have been a fan of science fiction since I was a teenager, probably from the time I first read The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. I also read Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451, and enjoyed them all. Bradbury is a thought-provoking and outstanding sci-fi writer (90 years old and still with us), and his books have a haunting quality about them. You don’t forget them easily. I don’t recall all of the stories in The Martian Chronicles in detail, just that there were certain parts that were quite scary in that what was suggested was considerably terrifying. You just knew that something terrible was going to happen to some of the earthlings who made it to Mars, and it did (the third expedition was liquidated by the Martians who posed as dead family members such that the deluded (and lonely) crew ended up just giving in to the delusions). The following passage from the chapter ‘April 2000: The Third Expedition’ is an example of the type of terror Bradbury could instill in his readers: “And wouldn’t it be horrible and terrifying to discover that all of this was part of some great clever plan by the Martians to divide and conquer us, and kill us? Sometime during the night, perhaps my brother here on this bed will change form, melt, shift and become another thing, a terrible thing, a Martian. It would be very simple for him to just turn over in bed and put a knife into my heart……..His hands were shaking under the covers. His body was cold. Suddenly it was not a theory. Suddenly he was very afraid……..Carefully he lifted the covers, rolled them back. He slipped from bed and was walking softly across the room when his brother’s voice said, ‘Where are you going?’…...’For a drink of water’. ‘But you’re not thirsty’. ‘Yes, yes, I am’. ‘No, you’re not’. Captain John Black broke and ran across the room. He screamed. He screamed twice. He never reached the door”.

This was all Bradbury wrote about the actual murder of Captain John Black and the massacres of the crew of the third expedition. You knew that murders were occurring in the rest of the Martian houses who had crew members staying with them because they were the ‘families’ of these crew members, but Bradbury didn’t have to elaborate at all about them, because it was left to our imaginations to figure out what was happening to them all. Superb sci-fi horror in a category all its own.

I was reminded of Bradbury recently because I just finished the sci-fi novel Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. It too deals with the theme of aliens who 'present' themselves to a space crew by taking on the forms of people familiar to them. In this case, the crew is living in a space station that orbits the planet Solaris. However, these aliens do not kill the crew members. The book was first published in 1961 (eleven years after The Martian Chronicles) but has a very modern feel to it, mostly because Lem’s writing is timeless and wonderful. Like Bradbury, he is a terrific storyteller. But Lem goes one step further—some of his descriptions of the ocean and the planet Solaris are pure poetry—beautiful and colorful and suggestive of eternity, melancholy, emptiness and loneliness. It is as though Lem tried to describe the eternal using a very crude language—English—and found that it was just not possible to completely convey all that he wanted to communicate. And when reading his descriptions of the planet, you know that he hit a linguistic wall of sorts. There have been at least two movies made based upon the book (I have written about the one I have seen—Solaris from 2002 directed by Steven Soderbergh—in an earlier post); neither of them as far as I understand attempted in any way to present the planet as  Lem described. Why, I don’t know. It would have been fascinating to have seen some CGI effects depicting the mimoids, symmetriads and asymmetriads. The book’s description of these Solaris creations is mesmerizing. A living planet/ocean, and a space station that was not able to communicate with this ocean in any way that made sense to the humans onboard. And yet, Solaris was able to probe their minds, ‘read’ each of them and provide them with ‘visitors’—alien creatures that resembled people in their past lives about which the scientists on board the space station harbored secret feelings of guilt. For the main character, Kris Kelvin, the alien creature who ‘visits’ him is his wife Rheya, who committed suicide early on in their marriage after he had walked out on her. In a rather complicated twist, the aliens themselves do not understand why they have been ‘sent’ to the crew members, who feel guilty both about wanting to be free of them and about wanting to be with them, at least in Kelvin’s case. Once Rheya understands what she is now and who she was to Kelvin in his past (real) life, she wants to free him via her destruction. It is not a happy book, rather a very thought-provoking one, not only because of the interactions between Kris and his visitor Rheya, but also because of the attempts to explain the nature of the ocean surrounding Solaris and the attempts to communicate with it. Lem seems to have wanted to insert his view of God at that time into the narrative as well. Kris asks the other crew member, Snow, whether he believes in God. Kris explains “It isn’t that simple. I don’t mean the traditional God of Earth religion……----do you happen to know if there was ever a belief in an imperfect god?……..I’m not thinking of a god whose imperfection arises out of the candor of his human creatures, but one whose imperfection represents his essential characteristic: a god limited in his omniscience and power, fallible, incapable of foreseeing the consequences of his acts, and creating things that lead to horror. He is a sick god, whose ambitions exceed his powers and who does not realize it at first……And he has created eternity, which was to have measured his power, and which measures his unending defeat……This god has no existence outside of matter. He would like to free himself from matter, but he cannot…….That is the only god I could imagine believing in, a god whose passion is not redemption, who saves nothing, fulfils no purpose---a god who simply is”.

It is an amazing and haunting book, in the same way as The Martian Chronicles, and well worth reading. I was sorry to finish it, because it left me wanting more. That is the mark of an excellent storyteller. 

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