Adam Roberts is Solaris

Solaris 1

Born in 1965, Adam Roberts was educated at ‘a rundown’ state school in Kent and the ancient University of Aberdeen. While teaching English Literature and Creative Writing (at Royal Holloway, University of London) he set about eschewing the traditional path of a science fiction novelist – constructing 10 volumes of the one epic story written over a large number of years – and instead challenged himself to invent something new and original with every book. With that as his motto he has penned, among other things, a steampunk fantasy, where Swift’s Lilliputians are enslaved by the British Empire (Swiftly), a Soviet-era paranoid conspiracy theory novel (Yellow Blue Tibia), and an imagined second English Civil War where hackers and tech heads take power from the Establishment (New Model Army). His latest novel, Bete (Gollancz), concerns the nature of intelligence, artificial intelligence and talking cats. Eithne Farry

If I were offered the chance to be any film character, I would like to be Solaris. I’m talking, of course, about the films made from Stanislaw Lem’s great science fiction novel Solaris (first published in Polish in 1961; first English translation 1970). The first movie was made by the peerless Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky and was released in 1972. The second – Soderbergh’s 2002 film – suffers from not being by Tarkovsky; but I’ve always liked it. It has a very different feel, and lacks some of the potently rebarbative strangeness and slowness of Tarkovsky’s film; but it’s closer to the novel and achieves an eerie beauty just this side of the real-deal uncanny.

‘So,’ I hear you ask, ‘which character in either – or both – of these films would you like to be?’ But you misunderstand. I’ve already explained who I’d like to be. I would like to be Solaris. That is, I’d like to be the sentient planet around which the human characters are in orbit, and which interferes in their lives by (for instance) recreating a material, living-breathing-thinking version of Hari (renamed ‘Rheya’ in the 2002 film), the main character Kelvin’s dead wife, out of his memories. If this choice looks as though I have delusions of grandeur, then permit me to explain myself. We watch these movies and naturally identify with the situation of the human characters, because we are human ourselves. I choose to read them differently. Lem famously objected to Tarkovsky’s version of his book, saying that he had taken a story about the alienating nature of man’s encounter with the radical otherness of the cosmos and turned it into Crime and Punishment. But it has always seemed to me that Solaris, the entity, is a proxy for The Writer (‘So: Lem is… ‘). At a pinch, it could stand in for the film director – for Tarkovsky, or Soderbergh.

As a writer myself, this interpretation resonates with me. Writers and directors create characters, summon them into life from nothing, out of the neutral nothingness of metaphorical neutrinos. We do so for our own reasons. Solaris is a book, and two films, that situate this act of creation on (as it were) the receiving end. It is Euripides’ Alcestis recast not only as science fiction, but as the disturbing fable of the arbitrary power of art to embody on any terms. Just as Euripides the writer – as mysteriously distant and alien to his created world as the planet in Lem’s novel – takes a widower and forces him to meet again with the simulacrum of his dead wife; so Solaris gets to the heart of how unnerving that power is. And, what is more, it understands how sometimes a piece of characterisation can look perfect from the outside, and yet be strangely and unsettlingly wrong and alien. So I’d like to be Solaris, not because I crave the godlike powers of a planet-sized being, but because I recognise in it – him? her? – a fellow worker in the unforgiving field of ‘making characters’.

Adam Roberts