Solaris: Planet as Alien Character in Science Fiction

Kelvin (played by George Clooney) arrives on Solaris

Some time ago, I participated in an inquiry to name my choice of “Best Alien in Science Fiction,” posed by John DeNardo at SF Signal. “Aliens are a classic trope dating back to the earliest days of science fiction,” John said. They are the quintessential “other” archetype in science fiction.

From conquering warlords (War of the Worlds) to instructing sages (The Day the Earth Stood Still) to victimized pacifists (Martian Chronicles), how the “other” is portrayed and how humanity interacts with it, has been explored throughout science fiction since it began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Of course, in science fiction—a metaphoric literature of grand scope—these ‘others’ / aliens make representation through archetype. So, the aliens of War of the Worlds represent a conquering nation; Klaatu of The Day the Earth Stood Still may represent a benevolent dictator; the Martians of Martian Chronicles represent our indigenous peoples under the yoke of settler colonialism and an exploitive resource-extraction mindset; and the monster of Frankenstein exemplifies the disabled/deformed unsavory departure from our ‘perfect’ self-image. Author Brian Ott tells us that “it is a profound mistake to interpret the genre [of science fiction] literally.” He reminds us that it is not what the aliens are but what they represent that matters (except when, in some cases, they are one in the same). Science fiction is both “the great modern literature of metaphor” and “pre-eminently the modern literature not of physics but of metaphysics,” adds Peter Nicholls, Australian scholar and critic.

Steven Spielberg’s film of H.G. Wells’s book “War of the Worlds”

In a previous article entitled “Dreams and Perceptions And ‘the Other” I described an experience with the unfamiliar. Have you ever done the same? Looked backward while driving through a familiar scene to gain a different perspective? And just felt different for a moment? Like you’d entered a different dimension and briefly glimpsed ‘the other.’

What is it like to meet ‘the other’?

In story, characters are defined through their experience and their approach to the unfamiliar. A new relationship. A stranger in town. A different culture. An alien encounter… How does the character react? Is it with fear? Wonder? Curiosity? A mixture of these? By describing “the other” science fiction writers describe “us”, given that it is through our own eyes that the other is viewed and described.

By describing “the other,” science fiction writers describe “us.” In his book Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient Edward W. Said contended that for there to be an ‘us’, there has to be a ‘not-us.’ According to Patricia Kerslake of Central Queensland University, this arises from a postcolonial notion of ‘the Other’, through a mutual process of exclusion. This exclusion inspires the very idea of ‘alien’ by imposing expectation on perception. Kerslake argues that: “When one culture imposes its perceptions on another, in that it begins to see the Other not as they are but as, in Said’s words, ‘they ought to be’, then the process of representation becomes inevitable: a choice is made to see a ‘preferred’ real.”

Klaatu greets humanity in “The Day the Earth Stood Still”

In her 1975 article “American SF and the Other,” Ursula K. LeGuin unequivocally scolded the Western SF genre for representing and promoting colonialism and androcratic motives by “othering” or making inconsequential the poor, the uneducated, the marginalized and women.

…The question involved here is the question of The Other—the being who is different from yourself. This being can be different from you in its sex; or in its annual income; or in its way of speaking and dressing and doing things; or in the color of its skin; or the number of its legs and heads. In other words, there is the sexual Alien, and the social Alien, and the cultural Alien, and finally the racial Alien…

The people in SF are not people. They are masses, existing for one purpose to be led by their superiors…

If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself–as men have done wo women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation–you may hate it, or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality, and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship. And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality.

You have, in fact, alienated yourself.

Ursula K. LeGuin

Written 45 years ago, Le Guin’s scathing article may have accurately represented the North American science fiction community of writers of that time. Today, despite the remnants of a strong old guard that still promotes a patriarchal colonialist hegemony, the science fiction genre has matured and grown beyond this self-limiting view. This is partly because current authors—many who are women and many who are representatives of minority or marginalized groups—have given SF a new face and voice that promises to include equality, inclusion, and a fresh look at exploration and ‘the other.’ In most cases it is ‘the other’ whose voice—for so long missing—is now being expressed.

The genre of science fiction has diversified and matured to embrace “mundane science fiction,” literary fiction, speculative fiction, climate fiction, cli-fi, eco-fiction, indigenous futurisms and more. Each of these genres provide new opportunities that give voice to ‘the other’ from women (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and N.K. Jemison’s The Broken Earth series) to disabled people (Mishell Baker’s Borderline) to the indigenous human (Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves) to the non-human (Costi Gurgu’s RecipeArium) and the environment such as water (Emmi Itäranta’s The Memory of Water and my own A Diary in the Age of Water).

My Choice for ‘Best’ Alien Character: Solaris

The most memorable aliens for me have been those that helped illuminate our history and our very humanity, whether they played the archetype of simple antagonist or misunderstood as “commentator” on human prejudice, insecurities, greed, heroism, compassion and honor. I can think of several aliens who have provided excellent examples of this: the victimized ” prawns” of Peter Jackson’s District 9 comes to mind. Each provided a platform for the exploration and exposition of human’s strengths and weaknesses. How we handle or even recognize “the other” is very compelling and illuminating.

The planet Solaris

My choice for alien character is the ‘self-aware’ planet in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris: see my film review of Steven Soderbergh’s film interpretation of Stanislaw Lem’s book Solaris in a previous article on this site. What follows is a brief summary:

In response to his friend’s plea, a depressed psychologist with the ironic name of Kris Kelvin (George Clooney), sets out on a mission to bring home the dysfunctional crew of a research space station orbiting the distant planet, Solaris. Kelvin arrives at the space station, Prometheus, to find his friend, Gibarian, dead by suicide and a paranoid and disturbed crew obviously withholding a terrible secret from him. It is not long before he learns the secret first-hand: some unknown power (apparently the planet itself) taps into his mind and produces a solid corporeal version of his tortured longing: his beloved wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone) who years ago had committed suicide herself. Faced with a solid reminder, Kelvin yearns to reconcile with his guilt in his wife’s death and struggles to understand the alien force manifested in the form of his wife. He learns that the other crew are equally influenced by Solaris and have been grappling, each in their own way, with their “demons,” psychologically trapping them there.

Crew onboard the Prometheus orbiting Solaris: Snow (Jeremy Davies), Rheya (Natascha McElhone), Kelvin (George Clooney) and Gordon (Viola Davis)

Ironically, our hero’s epic journey of great distance has only led him back to himself. The alien force defies Kelvin’s efforts to understand its motives; whether it is benign, hostile, or even sentient. Kelvin has no common frame of reference to judge and therefore to react. This leaves him with what he thinks he does understand: that Rheya is a product of his own mind, his memories of her, and therefore a mirror of his deepest guilt—but perhaps also an opportunity to redeem himself.

Kelvin and his ‘dead’ wife Rheya onboard the Prometheus orbiting Solaris

Solaris is the epitome of the “other”, a force and entity unrecognizable and unfathomable. Lem’s existentialist portrayal of “the other”—and by extension of humanity—serves as excellent commentary on what is important to us and our identity. Unlike the familiar human-like figures of a Spock, Zhaan or the fremen, Solaris accomplishes its ‘other’ role through arcane manipulation of the human characters’ dreams and yearnings. We never understand its motivations or intelligence, yet we are drawn to its force and reflective mirror of our souls. It is its very incomprehensibility that attracts us, as to an abstract artwork, and challenges our very identities. Solaris shows neither judgment nor morality. It exists through the lens of paradox. Both there and not there. Fluid but enduring. Fractured yet whole. Like water. 

All lead to the ultimate question asked of science fiction: who are we and why are we here?

Kelvin arrives at the space station orbiting Solaris

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Dreams and Perceptions…And ‘The Other’

Credit Riv path in snow

path along Credit River (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It was a while ago, as I was driving home from a friend’s place in the sultry dark of night that I noticed the change…

Perhaps it was the rain and the winding road that nudged my psyche to wander into that other realm. Or was it the surrealistic motion picture The Fountain that I’d seen the evening before? Or had it more to do with the fact that I’d been, for various reasons, without sleep for over forty hours that I glimpsed the ordinary in an extra-ordinary light?

Light had everything to do with it…Amber traffic lights at a construction site pulsed like living things. Smoky back-lit clouds billowed over an inky sky. A garish screen of trees, caught in the beams of my car lights as I turned a corner, flashed. Nature recast. A half-built apartment building loomed up like some dark tower in Lord of the Rings. I was reminded of a scene early on in The Fountain where the viewer is disoriented initially by a busy street at night because it was shot upside down. Ironically, the picture was filmed in my hometown of Montreal and I didn’t even recognize it.

Have you ever done that? Looked backward while driving through a familiar scene to gain a different perspective? And felt different for just a moment? Like you’d briefly entered a different dimension and glimpsed “the other”?

What is it like to meet “the other”?

What is it like to approach the unfamiliar? A new landscape. A stranger in town. A different culture. An “alien” encounter. How do we react? Is it with wonder? Curiosity? Fear? Hatred? A mixture of these?

The genre of science fiction vividly explores our humanity through our reactions to “the other.” It does this by looking at both perspectives. By describing “the other,” science fiction writers describe “us.” In his book Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient Edward W. Said contended that for there to be an ‘us’, there has to be a ‘not-us.’ According to Patricia Kerslake of Central Queensland University, this arises from a postcolonial notion of ‘the Other’, through a mutual process of exclusion. This exclusion inspires the very idea of ‘alien’ by imposing expectation on perception. Kerslake argues that: “When one culture imposes its perceptions on another, in that it begins to see the Other not as they are but as, in Said’s words, ‘they ought to be’, then the process of representation becomes inevitable: a choice is made to see a ‘preferred’ real.”

Ursula K LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuin

In her 1975 article “American SF and the Other,” Ursula K. LeGuin unequivocally scolded the Western SF genre for representing and promoting colonialism and androcratic motives.

One of the great early socialists said that the status of women in a society is a pretty reliable index of the degree of civilization of that society. If this is true, then the very low status of women in SF should make us ponder about whether SF is civilized at all.

The women’s movement has made most of us conscious of the fact that SF has either totally ignored women, or presented them as squeaking dolls subject to instant rape by monsters—or old-maid scientists de-sexed by hypertrophy of the intellectual organs—or, at best, loyal little wives or mistresses of accomplished heroes. Male elitism has run rampant in SF. But is it only male elitism? Isn’t the “subjection of women” in SF merely a symptom of a whole which is authoritarian, power-worshiping, and intensely parochial?

The question involved here is the question of The Other—the being who is different from yourself. This being can be different from you in its sex; or in its annual income; or in its way of speaking and dressing and doing things; or in the color of its skin, or the number of its legs and heads. In other words, there is the sexual Alien, and the social Alien, and the cultural Alien, and finally the racial Alien.

Well, how about the social Alien in SF? How about, in Marxist terms, “the proletariat”? Where are they in SF? Where are the poor, the people who work hard and go to bed hungry? Are they ever persons, in SF? No. They appear as vast anonymous masses fleeing from giant slime-globules from the Chicago sewers, or dying off by the billion from pollution or radiation, or as faceless armies being led to battle by generals and statesmen. In sword and sorcery they behave like the walk-on parts in a high school performance of The Chocolate Prince. Now and then there’s a busty lass amongst them who is honored by the attentions of the Captain of the Supreme Terran Command, or in a space-ship crew there’s a quaint old cook, with a Scots or Swedish accent, representing the Wisdom of the Common Folk.

The people, in SF, are not people. They are masses, existing for one purpose: to be led by their superiors…

…What about the cultural and the racial Other? This is the Alien everybody recognizes as alien, supposed to be the special concern of SF. Well, in the old pulp SF, it’s very simple. The only good alien is a dead alien—whether he is an Aldebaranian Mantis-Man, or a German dentist. And this tradition still flourishes: witness Larry Niven’s story “Inconstant Moon” (in All the Myriad Ways, 1941) which has a happy ending—consisting of the fact that America, including Los Angeles, was not hurt by a solar flare. Of course a few million Europeans and Asians were fried, but that doesn’t matter, it just makes the world a little safer for democracy, in fact. (It is interesting that the female character in the same story is quite brainless; her only function is to say Oh? and Ooooh! to the clever and resourceful hero.)

If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself—as men have done to women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation—you may hate it, or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality, and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship. And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality.

You have, in fact, alienated yourself.

Diary Water cover finalWritten 45 years ago, Le Guin’s scathing article may have accurately represented the North American science fiction community of writers of that time. Today, despite the remnants of a strong old guard that still promotes a patriarchal colonialist hegemony, the science fiction genre has matured and grown beyond this self-limiting view. This is partly because current authors—many who are women and many who are representatives of minority or marginalized groups—have given SF a new face and voice that promises to include equality, inclusion, and a fresh look at exploration and ‘the other.’

The genre of science fiction has matured by diversifying to embrace “mundane science fiction,” literary fiction, speculative fiction, climate fiction, cli-fi, eco-fiction, indigenous futurisms and more.

memoryofwaterScience fiction that leans toward “mundane”(everyday life) and literary fiction include the works of Paulo Bacigalupi (Windup Girl), Margaret Atwood (Year of the Flood), and Kim Stanley Robinson (New York 2140). Literary fiction overlaps with science fiction through eco-fiction and climate fiction which address oppression, jingoism and neoliberalism often through dystopian themes—and often through the voice of women writers—such as Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth series, Emmi Itäranta’s The Memory of Water, Nina Munteanu’s A Diary in the Age of Water, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, and Richard Power’s Overstory.

CliFi Tales of ClimateChangeIn 2017, several publications addressed different aspects of society through speculative fiction.  Laksa Media published Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, which explores issues of mental health. Exile Editions published Cli-Fi: Tales of Climate Change with stories on personal experience with climate change. Reality Skimming Press published Water, for which I was editor, which explored optimism in the face of climate change.

In Ann Leckie’s 2014 Ancillary Justice, the main character is a space ship. The Gethenians in Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness are humanoids with fluid gender, adapted to environment. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312,  humans have abandoned the gender binary for an intersex existence based on proven longevity.

Borderline mishell bakerNovels and anthologies of short stories that feature disabled characters are also growing. Examples include Borderline by Mishell Baker, We Who Are About To… by Joanna Russ, Murderbot series by Martha Wells, and Uncanny: Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction (edited by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, Dominik Parisien et al.) among many others.

Indigenous futurisms, speculative writings on issues of colonialism, identity, AI, and climate change include Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones, Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson, Take Us to Your Chief, by Drew Hayden Taylor, The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, Walking the Clouds Anthology edited by Grace L. Dillon, and Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich.

Trail of LightningIn an introduction to seven Indigenous Futurism books, Barnes and Noble writes:

So many stories, well intentioned and not-so-well-intentioned, have fixated on the dark pasts of Indigenous people, assuming that colonization stole from them any future not involving slow decline and assimilation. Though there’s plenty of tragedy to be recounted, Indigenous history didn’t end there, and a wave of modern authors are exploring Indigenous cultures as living, vibrant, and firmly fixed in both the modern and furute worlds—sovereign nations with as much claim to an endless array of possible futures as any other culture. So much of what we call classic science fiction involves tropes that look very different to colonized peoples: the heroic space explorers who travel the stars visiting (and often conquering) alien worlds look very different to people whose histories are so strongly marked by the scars of colonization.

Of Indigenous Futurisms, the Seattle Public Library writes:

Indigenous Futurisms confront many of the norms of speculative fiction by challenging, subverting, or refusing to engage with colonial, racist, and otherwise oppressive genre tropes. Indigenous Futurism draws on the strength of Indigenous knowledge systems, worldviews, stories, languages, and traditions to reimagine the past, present, and future of this world and others. Yet it is not necessarily utopic or optimistic. Many authors writing within the Indigenous Futurisms genre engage with the realities of ongoing colonialism around the world, and the apocalyptic nature of the present for many Indigenous communities. However, characters struggle despite the circumstances for a better future.

 

Credit River first snow

First snow on the Credit River (photo by Nina Munteanu)

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.