Solaris as Metacommentary: Meta-Science Fiction and Mata-Science-Fiction

By Klapcsik, Sandor | Extrapolation, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Solaris as Metacommentary: Meta-Science Fiction and Mata-Science-Fiction


Klapcsik, Sandor, Extrapolation


Istvan Csicsery-Ronay describes Stanislaw Lem's fiction as "metacommentary," indicating the significance of human cultural constructions such as science, myth, literature, religion, and so on, in his novels. These constructions, which intend to explain the universe, diffuse into various, contradictory theories and create a flux of ideas without final resolution or reconciliation. Csicsery-Ronay argues that "[s]ince neither Lem's protagonists nor his readers ever arrive at an Archimedean point outside the totality they are trying to understand, no one system of commentary is ever sufficient. It is the play of commentary that creates Lem's universe" ("How not to" 387, emphasis in original). (1) In Foucaldian terms, the texts indicate the multiplicity of discourses, "discontinuous practices, which cross each other, are sometimes juxtaposed with one another, but can just as well exclude or be unaware of each other" ("The Order" 67). (2) Based on Csicsery-Ronay's analysis and utilizing Michel Foucault's and Friedrich Nietzsche's theories, I interpret Lem's Solaris (1961) as meta-science fiction and meta-science-fiction. (3)

The validity and "truth" of scientific explanations depend on the discipline or paradigm that created them. Foucault's disciplines open the discourse, but also confine it with a prescribed "set of methods, a corpus of propositions considered to be true, a play of rules and definitions of techniques and instruments" ("The Order" 59). Thomas S. Kuhn's paradigms follow and contradict each other, providing theories with certain freedom, but also constraining the scientific perspective: "one of the things a scientific community acquires with a paradigm is a criterion for choosing problems that, while the paradigm is taken for granted, can be assumed to have solutions. To a great extent these are the only problems that the community will admit as scientific or encourage its members to undertake" (Kuhn 37). Strict conditions given by paradigms prove to the postmodern reader that "scientific revolutions," the substitution or succession of paradigms do not necessarily mean progress, but draw attention to problems in the history of science. As Kuhn argues, "[w]hen it repudiates a past paradigm, a scientific community simultaneously renounces, as a fit subject for professional scrutiny, most of the books and articles in which that paradigm has been embodied ... the member of a mature scientific community is, [therefore], like the typical character of Orwell's 1984, the victim of a history rewritten by the powers that be" (166).

The planet Solaris with its unapproachable, giant alien life form demonstrates that earthly and anthropomorphic human science cannot provide accurate descriptions of an alien phenomenon (see Csicsery-Ronay, "The Book is" 7 and Freedman 108). Solaris resembles The Science of Discworld (1999), which illustrates that the sciences (or at least our notions of them) and the narrative logic ("narrative imperative") of stories are not entirely different. "When you live in a complex world, you have to simplify it in order to understand it" (Pratchett 42)--it may be fruitful to analyze these simplifications, explanatory stories and lies-to-children both in the sciences and in the humanities.

It is virtually a truism that science fiction (sf) describes the relationship of self and the Other. Gary K. Wolfe's "icons" are mediating devices between order and chaos, self and the Other, natural and artificial, human and alien; they are mythical images "of the barrier between known and unknown" (Wolfe xiv). Lem's Solaris and Return from the Stars (1961) evoke these dichotomies and make them problematic; as Mark Rose argues, Solaris is "a highly selfconscious fiction that is as much a work of generic criticism as it is a new text in the genre" (82). When Lem's novels use "icons" of sf, such as the space ship, space travel, exploration, and so on, they also criticize them, comparing them to crusades, colonialism, and mirrors. …

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