Solaris: aliens and a theory of mind

I’ve just finished reading Lem Stanislaw’s Solaris. Which is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it, although not if you’re having a rough day or are in an empty house, because parts of it are depressing and scary. But still, a beautiful book.

Stanislaw does a lot of excellent in writing in creating a context, a history (a little clunky at times), and a set of questions that baffle us. And I’m particularly impressed, given that I’ve just discovered the original English version was not only double translated (Polish to French to English), but is also apparently an abridgement, although apparently the current Kindle version is the full one (translated by Johnson). CC some restrictions Image from Bill Saturno, some rights reserved

But what I’m interested in at the moment is how it deals with the human/alien interface, or ‘contact’. One of the underlying themes to Solaris is the difficulty of human to alien contact; how frustratingly incomprehensible the encounter might be for humans. One way that happens [SPOILER ALERT: from here on out it centres on a plot point that doesn’t happen till half-way in. You’ve been warned] is through human replicas, created by this vast, oceanic intelligence the explorers are unable to communicate with.

These replicas are fully functioning humans – beating hearts and warm bodies – yet the soles of their feet aren’t worn and calloused the way a normal adult’s are. They’re drawn from the minds of the explorers – they are the fragments of memory that have been locked away in the minds, the subconscious minds, of their ‘Adams’ (this book fails deeply at gender equity, doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, and in fact has no real female characters). So these replicas (plural, although we only meet one, and see shadows of others) are deeply emotional experiences for their Adams, replicas of people who are enormously significant to them. They start with out much memory, although they do seem to have some factual information that’s imbedded in their Adams’ minds. From there they grow, and change, and develop; albeit with some limitations, they are effectively human beings, and making autonomous decisions and functioning independently.

But one of the novel’s central ideas is that this enormous, alive ocean that is clearly deeply intelligent (it creates structures that are the solutions in three dimensional geometry to enormously difficult mathematical problems) fundamentally can’t communicate with the humans.

Now, I suppose there are a few ways to take this. One is that the ocean is far more intelligent than humans could begin to grasp – it’s light years ahead, and thinking in dimensions and ways that humans can’t process. Which is fine – I think that’s an interesting story, as far as it goes, and it’s a useful counterpoint to a lot of reflexively anthropomorphic science fiction. But another central idea in the novel is that the ocean can’t understand humans. Which, on its own, could be true too – it’s easy enough, at some level, to imagine an enormous planetary slime mould that was super-powered, but couldn’t understand minuscule humans walking on its surface.

And what I couldn’t get my head around was the idea of this planetary intelligence being smart enough to somehow extract from a human’s mind, the set of ideas they carry around about a long lost loved one, yet not smart enough to understand what a human is.

I flipped through my copy of The Intentional Stance trying to find a quote that would support the argument, but there’s nothing that quite cuts to the heart of it, so I’ll have a go myself:

A) The replicas created are drawn from the memories in their Adams’ minds. Effectively, their existence depends on the ability of this oceanic intelligence to interpret how information is encoded at a neuronal level, and extract it in an incredibly effective way.

B) The physical creation of the replicas depends on the ability of the oceanic intelligence to create something that physically resembles humans down to the molecular level (there’s more detail in the novel, but take that as a given).

C) The oceanic intelligence, at least according to one interpretation of the novel, simply can’t comprehend human beings.

I think that the kind of intelligence needed for A) (and partially for B, although that’s less crucial) is fundamentally incompatible with C – an ocean that can’t comprehend humans. I know there’s a point where you’re just poking holes at what is just a novel, and a very beautiful one at that – but this bothered me. Perhaps it’s part of the mystery of it, but I think it was also partially a reification on Stanislaw’s part of how memory and information work, that elides key points about how information is processed, accessed, and used.

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