When I'm in a foreign place I like to visit bookshops and ask a bookseller what he or she would recommend to me. A little based on my preferences (I like many things anyway) but mostly based on the bookseller's. In Cluj-Napoca I came upon a science fiction fan. A young guy, probably a student in that city, who spoke good english. After checking out some of their literary fiction we quickly ended up in front of their science fiction section. I wanted a stand-alone book, so Frank Herbert's Dune series was discarded (although that would, in other circumstances, have been a candidate). In the end, a tie between Philip K. Dick's Ubik and Stanislaw Lem's Solaris. Both philosophical science fiction novels; more about ideas than stereotypical plots. Ubik's first page was unreadable so Solaris it had to be (also because in doubt I go for Eastern European). The bookseller was pretty enthusiastic about Solaris. An intellectual puzzle ánd the basis for a cult movie by Andrei Tarkovsky. Perhaps that movie is better. Perhaps Solaris was too different after The art of fielding. Perhaps George Clooney on the cover doesn't help (he stars in the Steven Soderbergh movie version, not the Tarkovsky one). I certainly devoted many hours to reading it. Maybe not as many as reading the Art, but it felt as much; and that for a 200 page book. But I didn't get it, I didn't get it at all. Some online reviews mentioned that the English translation I read is a secondary one, first Polish to French, then French to English. That could explain why it read so hard. Despite the translation, almost half of the book is unreadable scientific talk about past research on the enigmatic planet Solaris. I liked some of the bits about the main character (I kept seeing George Clooney in my head), stuck in the research center on the planet. His two fellow scientists are already mostly crazy and he's quickly losing his mind too. Solarisplays with people's minds. That's interesting enough. Just the lack of a driving plot, the boring scientific passages; it didn't seem to go anywhere. Perhaps this is one of those books I should put away without finishing, spend my time on a book I actually like. But then again, I almost never do.
5 October 2012
Faber and Faber, 2003
Original title Solaris, 1961
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox