I don’t keep up with science fiction anymore, so I don’t know what the genre is like today. I do own about a dozen novels that are now considered sci-fi classics. Today I’d like to recommend two that share a similar theme.
My all-time favorite is Solaris (1961) by Stanislaw Lem. It’s about a planet that has frustrated Earth scientists for generations. The planet is an ocean that appears to be a living, intelligent entity. But the scientists have been unable to communicate with it. An experimental attempt to do so results in personalized traumas that the scientists call “visitors.” Apparently, the planet recreates these visitors from the scientists’ repressed memories.
Solaris is less about science and more about the question of how we can communicate with an alien life form when it is so radically different from ourselves. Are the “visitors” the planet’s way of saying hello? Are they some sort of defense mechanism? How do you have a conversation with an ocean, even an intelligent one, when you have no common language? It’s one of the most intriguing and haunting stories I’ve ever read.
The other novel, similar in theme, is Roadside Picnic (1972) by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. It begins thirteen years after aliens have visited Earth. They made no contact with humans, but upon departure they left behind danger-packed regions called Zones. Scientists employ bands of hardy mavericks, known as stalkers, to venture into the Zones and bring back artifacts for study.
The items range from mysterious pins that talk and glow when squeezed, to perpetual fuel units, to a deadly slime. Within the Zones are invisible environmental hazards ready to vaporize or cripple human intruders, create genetic mutations in children, or cause corpses to rise from their graves. Again, scientists struggle to discover why the aliens left these things behind. One theory compares the Zones to an abandoned picnic area. The birds and animals have no idea what to make of our empty soda cups and sandwich wrappers. Some things they find useful; others are fatal to their species.
Both books revive an old theme suggested by Ray Bradbury in The Martian Chronicles (1950). How can we hope to understand alien life forms, when we have so much trouble getting along with each another?
Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) was born in Poland and survived the Nazi occupation to write many books, short stories and essays about science fiction and other subjects. He struggled against censorship throughout most of his career during the Soviet era.
The brothers Arkady Strugatsky (1925-1991) and Boris Strugatsky (1933-2012) were Russia natives who survived World War II to collaborate on other novels, notably those set in the “World of Noon” that reflects the influence of the Communist culture in which they lived.
Both these sci-fi classics have been made into films, with Roadside Picnic renamed Stalker. There are three adaptations of Solaris. I have seen none of them; I was afraid they would spoil the novels for me. Be advised that Roadside Picnic contains some foul language.
Both books are available in paperback, Kindle or audiobook. Check your favorite website. Unless you’re a collector, I wouldn’t advise wasting your time searching for hardback copies. They are very pricey. And unless you’re fluent in Russian, make sure your purchase is the English translation.
If you’re familiar with other works of Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, please share your impressions with me. I’m always looking for something good to read.