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The title refers to a distant planet, which is covered with an ocean of plasma. More than a century before the events of the novel, Earth scientists discovered, that the entire ocean is one, living, intelligent organism; however, every attempt to establish communication with it was futile.
At the beginning of the novel, psychologist Kris Kelvin (the narrator of the story) arrives to Station Solaris, a scientific research station hovering near the surface of the planet. He discovers that the leader of the research team, Gibarian killed himself, and the other two members, Snow (Snaut in Polish) and Sartorius are acting strangely. He soon realizes why, when a Doppelganger of his dead wife, Rheya (Harey in Polish) appears in his room. Turns out, that the ocean sent such replicas (called "visitors") to every member of the team, for unknown reasons. Those "visitors" presumably represent their greatest failures; Rheya killed herself when Kelvin left her, and he still feels guilty about that. Kelvin first lures the Rheya visitor in a shuttle, and launches it into outer space, but she soon reappears, with no memory of the incident. A conflict appears between the members of the team; Kelvin wants to live with Rheya, while Snow and Sartorius want to get rid of the visitors for good.
The novel was adapted to film twice, by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, and by Steven Soderbergh in 2002. The first film is considered a classic. Lem disliked both versions, claiming that they focus on the humans too much, and miss the actual theme of his novel.
Solaris contains examples of the following tropes:
- Alien Geometries: The symmetrids, and asymmetrids, are giant formations consisting of a bizarre keratin-like substance. They appear from the black ocean, exist for a period of time, and then collapse back into the sea. Symmetrids are perfectly symmetrical down to the molecule, and asymmetrids are chaotic, unstable and only exist for a fraction of the time of the former. They're described as performing some sort of computer-like calculation process within their own machine-like bio-structure, but towards no understandable or observable purpose.
- Cosmic Horror: One possible interpretation of the planet, though it's important to note that we can't know if it is malicious or simply so alien in its workings that it becomes terrifying. It's sentient, but its thoughts and motives are beyond comprehension, as are its physics: somehow, it can affect the workings of the universe on an astronomical scale, but no one knows how. At the time of the novel, humanity has been studying Solaris for a century with barely any progress, and many attempts to communicate directly with Solaris have... unpleasant results.
- Driven to Suicide: The original Rheya and Gibarian. The second replica of Rheya also tries to kill herself, by drinking liquid oxygen, when she learns what she is, but she survives due to her healing factor. Eventually, Sartorius and Snow destroy her with a device that disrupts her sub-atomic structure at her request.
- Genius Loci: The planet.
- God Is Inept: At the end, Kelvin theorizes about a god "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." Snow suggests that the ocean might be the first phase of such a god.
- Healing Factor: The visitors have it; it's impossible to kill them, their wounds heal in moments.
- Humanoid Abomination: Of a sort, in the form of a giant baby.
- Jerkass: Sartorius.
- Last-Name Basis: The members of the research team. When Snow once calls Kelvin on his first name, he feels grateful for it.
- Living Memory: Rheya's replica.
- Minimalist Cast: The only characters in the novel are Kelvin, Snow, Sartorius and Rheya... and she isn't a real person. Though she appears twice; does that count as two characters? Kelvin also briefly sees Gibarian's visitor, a large black woman.
- My Greatest Failure: Kelvin regards his failure to stop Rheya's suicide as this; that's why she appears for him. Probably.
- No Name Given: The first names of Snow and Sartorius, the last name of Rheya.
- Offscreen Teleportation: How the visitors appear.
- Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: When Kris asks Snow if he believes in God, he responds: "Who still believes nowadays..."
- Pinch Me: When Kelvin first sees Rheya, he thinks he's dreaming. When he wants it to end, he stabs his leg with a spindle. But it's not a dream.
- Riddle for the Ages: Why did the ocean sent the visitors? And why did it stop? Was it a test? Was it torture? Was it a misguided attempt of a good deed? The point of the novel is that we can never know.
- It's strongly hinted that it has something to do with one of the strange formations seen on the surface (the "symmetriad")--that the ocean was trying to understand humans in terms of one, and the "ghosts" were the ocean trying to generate the individual humans' "missing" counterparts.
- Also, what visitors did Snow and Sartorius get? They're probably manifestations of sexual fantasies, but it's never made clear.
- Starfish Aliens: An entire ocean of sentient plasma.
- Despite looking human, the visitors might also qualify, since their subatomic structure is completely alien.
- Super Strength: The visitors have it, as Kelvin soon learns.
- Uncanny Valley: The visitors definitely count, such as the protagonist's girlfriend's dress having buttons but lacking any seams or even a way for it to be put on or removed. There are also biological formations out in the ocean, made out of a calcified substance, that mimic the appearance any number of things from human-looking buildings and trees to people and dogs. They don't last long and are eventually reabsorbed into the "water."
- Not to mention the description of the giant baby which does not act in any way baby-like, but instead systematically tests out its body, to the horror of the witness.
- Writing by the Seat of Your Pants: when Lem started the book describing Kelvin arriving to the station, he had no idea what's this book going to be about and had no plan whatsoever.
The 1972 film contains examples of the following tropes:
- Arc Words
- Bus Crash: Hari dies/goes away/something off camera.
- Casual Interstellar Travel
- Contemplate Our Navels: There's a scene on the DVD called "The Meaning of Life" for god's sake...
- The entire film is this.
- Despair Event Horizon: Hari, although it's a blink and you'll miss it sort of thing. She goes from being mildly unsure of her identity to drinking liquid oxygen.
- Driven to Suicide: Hari again, although it happens almost completely out of the blue.
- Dull Surprise: To say that this movie is emotionally flat would be drastically overstating the amount of energy displayed by the actors.
- Driven to Suicide: Hari, also Gilbarian.
- Eldritch Abomination: Solaris.
- Fetus Terrible: One idea about Solaris.
- Futuristic Superhighway: Sort of subverted. The highways Burton drives through are actually the completely undisguised central expressways of contemporary Tokyo, filmed to make up for the missed opportunity to film something more futuristic that Akira Kurosawa had been hoping to set Tarkovsky's crew up with. But it still works even if you know what it is ... and just imagine what it might have looked like to Soviet audiences at the time, who had almost no such roads to drive (if they had cars, that is).
- Gainax Ending: Whoa boy, big time. Pretty much everything is Left Hanging and the main character decide to return home. We think he's on Earth, but then the camera pans up and it is revealed that he is on an island on Solaris. Or he did leave, and this is just a copy of him and his home that Solaris made.
- Genius Loci: Solaris, or at least its ocean could very well be a massive intelligent organism.
- Humanoid Abomination: The visitors. They look just like ordinary people, but they are unimaginably strong and they are pretty much impossible to kill.
- Idiot Ball: Too many examples to name.
- Jerkass: Sartorius
- Killed Off for Real: Gibarian, Hari
- Leave Behind a Pistol: Gilbarian did this literally.
- Leave the Camera Running: Welcome to Andrei Tarkovsky, and this is one of his more kinetic movies.
- Made of Iron: The Visitors. According to what we're told by Snow, they can survive being shot, overdosed on narcotics, and other injuries which humans would find painful is not mortal.
- Mind Screw: All the freaking time, especially the Gainax Ending.
- Mysterious Waif: Subverted with Hari. The main character knows her as his ex wife who kills herself, but nobody knows why or how she shows up.
- Nietzsche Wannabe: Sartorius talks about existentialism, the lack of greater meaning, and the ultimate futility of life.
- Not So Above It All: Satorius
- Oddly Small Organization: For such a prestigious and open field of science, the fact that they only had a space station crew of three is rather odd.
- Overly Long Scream
- Please Don't Leave Me: Hari to Chris. Later on, Chris to Hari.
- Quest for Identity
- Reality Is Unrealistic: Becomes An Aesop of all things.
- Sanity Slippage: Possibly everyone, even the audience
- Smash Cut: A particularly brutal one cutting from the "30 seconds of weightlessness" to Hari's attempted suicide by liquid oxygen
- Starfish Aliens: The ocean is supposed to be some sort of alien, as are the visitors such as Hari.
- Super Strength: The Visitors
- The Stinger: The very last scene.
- Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Kris and Hari. Kris is a sweaty, balding middle age man while Hari is defintiely very beautiful and looks about nineteen.
- Unusual Euphemism: The Visitors are people conjured out of peoples' memories.
- Vanishing Village: Overlaps with Mind Screw and Gecko Ending.
- "Well Done, Son" Guy: Implicated at the end that this is one of the things Kris wanted all along
- What Do You Mean Its Not Symbolic?
- What Is This Thing You Call Love??
- Used Future
- Yandere: Ultimtately Hari.
- Zeerust: Most of the facility save for the obviously industrial areas.
The 2002 adaptation
Chris : Am I alive, or dead?
Rheya : We don't have to think like that any more. We're together now. Everything we've done is forgiven. Everything.
Snaut: We don't want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don't want other worlds. We want a mirror.
Chris Kelvin is a future psychiatrist on Earth, where he is eking out an existence after the death of his significant other, Rheya. Out of the blue he gets a call from an old friend/coworker of his, Gibarian. The crew of the station Solaris doesn't seem to want to come home, and they have lost contact with the security team they sent. Gibarian puts a good word in for Chris with the crew, and the latter goes to Solaris to try and fix things. Weirdness ensues.
The remake contains examples of the following tropes:
- All Just a Dream: Towards the end of the film, a sequence occurs with Chris that is revealed as this, then reverts to the original position in time.
- Driven to Suicide: Rheya and Gibarian.
- Rheya several times.
- Gender Flip / Race Lift: Sartorius is replaced by a completely different character, a black woman named Gordon.
- Genius Loci: The planet orbited by Solaris is actually a single, living being--or at least the ocean that covers it is. It also responds to the memories of humans.
- Jerkass: Gordon, though she comes off a lot more sympathetically than her counterpart in the 1972 movie, Sartorius.
- Ironic Echo: "And death shall have no dominion."
- Living Emotional Crutch: Rheya needs Chris as one of these.
- Soulless Shell: An interesting case. Rheya's manifestation claims that that's all she is. Gordon agrees. Kevin thinks so at first, but as the film goes on he seems to reject this hypothesis. copy Snow acts like he agrees with Gordon, but is one of these manifestations himself.
- Spell My Name with an "S": In the original film, Chris is "Kris", Rheya's name is "Hari", Snow is "Snaut" and Gordon is "Sartorius". Translations of the novel seem to cycle through the two sets, but "Sartorius" remains fairly consistently NOT Gordon.
- Starts with a Suicide: Though it's intimated in the flashbacks instead of at the beginning.
- Why Don't Ya Just Shoot Him: Discussed, with respect to the manifestations aboard the Station. Gordon does construct a machine that does the job. Chris objects at the idea of using it on Rheya.