SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES, VIII #24 (July 1981): 121-142.

Mark Rose

Filling the Void: Verne, Wells, and Lem

Concerned with the human in relation to the non-human, SF could only emerge in the context of a culture that articulates crucial aspects of its experience in those terms. Moreover, because it represents a secular transformation of religious concerns, SF could only emerge in a context in which the claims of traditional religion were still felt but in which belief was at best problematic. A story such as H.G. Wells’s “The Star” (1897), with its vision of the vast emptiness of interstellar space, is dependent upon a sense of God’s withdrawal from the cosmos and upon a radical sense of alienation, of unbridgeable difference between the human and the non-human worlds. At one time, we know, this sense of alienation from the natural world did not exist. Then the cosmos itself was a sacrament, a manifestation of immanent deity linked to the human world by love, by the great chain of the plenitude of the created universe, and by the multitude of correspondences between the human and the natural spheres, both participating in the magic of the divine logos. The societies of Dante or of Ariosto or even of Kepler might have their stories of passages through the weightless center of the Earth or of journeys to an inhabited moon, but such stories could not be SF in the same sense as Wells’s fable.

It is commonplace that the 17th century is the epoch in which man discovers his isolation from the world of things, the period in which human thought distinguishes itself from nature in order to examine it and in this act disengages itself from the object of its study.1 In treating motion mathematically and thus draining nature of such Aristotelian anthropomorphisms as “will” and “desire,” Galileo founded modern science. But the shift from a sacramental to an alienated sense of the cosmos did not come into being until long after Galileo. The Copernican revolution in astronomy is often employed by modern writers as the symbol of man’s displacement from the central position in the world, but the Copernican universe was still very much a sacramental one, and the revolution was not at first felt as a demotion of human importance. For Copernicus himself the solar system was a temple and the sun a magical sign of God:

In the middle of all sits the Sun on his throne. In this loveliest of temples, could we place the luminary in any more appropriate place so that he may light the whole simultaneously. Rightly is he called the Lamp the Mind, the Ruler of the Universe: Hermes Trismegistus entitles him the God Visible. Sophocles’ Electra names him the All-seeing. Thus does the Sun sit as upon a royal dais ruling his children the planets which circle about him.2

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Copernicus’s universe was of course finite. The 17th-century comprehension of the infinite void of cosmic space resulted in a profound philosophical disorientation. Pascal’s vertigo is perhaps the locus classicus for the new sense of infinite immensity, but Pascal himself is probably not to be simply identified with this terror of the void; and we should remember, too, that the infinite universe as conceived by Newton was still a cosmos charged with immanent deity, one in which gravity itself might be understood as the moment by moment manifestation of God in the world. “Does it not appear from Phaenomena,” Newton wrote in the Queries appended to the Latin translation of his Opticks, “that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent, who in infinite Space, as it were in his Sensory, sees the things themselves intimately, and thoroughly perceives them, and comprehends them wholly by their immediate presence to himself.”3

The sense of alienation that informs SF is inseparable from the modern scientific world view, but one cannot say simply that the rise of science “caused” the sense of alienation. Indeed, in matters of cultural history the very idea of causation may be misleading. Transformations of culture occur, but not on the model of physical causation, and perhaps the best that the cultural historian can do is to observe the kinds of metamorphoses and reinterpretations of the world that have occurred. In any case, the kind of alienation from the natural world that SF presupposes really only comes into being in the 19th century and it is intimately associated both with industrialization and urbanization and with the Victorian crisis of faith, with the disappearance of God that marks the beginning of the modern sense of radical disconnection. Seen from this point of view, the Romantic poets’ struggle to preserve the connection with nature can be understood as an expression of the moment of separation. Later in the century, however, the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of the Sea of Faith left exposed the naked shingles of the world, revealing a desert, or, worse, a monstrous battleground in which individuals and species fought for survival in a world empty of comfort or meaning. Looking at the universe in the absence of God, the Victorians felt the Pascalian vertigo in a new key. What is human life? “What is it all,” Tennyson asked, “but a trouble in the gleam of a million million of suns?”4

The Victorian situation of urban man disconnected from God, cut off from nature, separated from other men, is of course our own; it is in the 19th century that the modern age of alienation begins. SF can be understood in the context of 19th and 20th-century spiritual loneliness as a manifestation of our culture’s longing to escape the prison-house of the merely human. It might be considered as an attempt to reestablish, in some way that will sustain conviction even in our technological and post-Christian culture, the channels of communication with the non-human world. Thus we get the many fables in which through the marvels of science the marvels of the natural world are explored, and thus too the many fables of contact with extraterrestrial beings. It does not matter very much whether the non-human is portrayed as diabolic, as in “The Star,” or as divine, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). What is important is the attempt to replenish the void, to fill the immense absence with meaning, even if this is accomplished by turning emptiness itself into an antagonist that can be confronted in human terms.

1. Jules Verne’s subject is nature. The voyages extraordinaires explore worlds known and unknown: the interior of Africa, the interior of the Earth, the deeps of the sea, the deeps of space. Characteristically, Verne’s voyagers travel in

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vehicles that are themselves closed worlds—his imagination projects itself in terms of “inside” and “outside”—from which the immensity of nature can be appreciated in upholstered comfort. The Nautilus is the most familiar of these comfortable, mobile worlds; inside all is cozy elegance, the epitome of the civilized and human, while outside the oceans gleam or rage in inhuman beauty or mystery. Roland Barthes finds the principle at the heart of Verne’s fictions to be the “ceaseless action of secluding oneself.” The known and enclosed space, the comfortable cave, is safe while “outside the storm, that is, the infinite, rages in vain.” The basic activity in Verne is the construction of closed and safe spaces, the enslavement and appropriation of nature to make a place for man to live in comfort. “The enjoyment of being enclosed reaches its paroxysm when, from the bosom of this unbroken inwardness, it is possible to watch, through a large window-pane, the outside vagueness of the waters, and thus define, in a single act, the inside by means of its opposite.”5

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) is just such an exploration of “insideness,” except that here the interior world is the non-human world, a realm of subterranean galleries, caverns, and seas, and here rather than being the place of enclosed safety the interior world becomes an immensity, a fearful abyss. Abysses dominate the novel. Even before Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew, Axel, begin their journey into the interior, Axel, the story’s narrator, has nightmares in which he finds himself “hurtling into bottomless abysses with the increasing velocity of bodies dropping through space.”6 The idea of the abyss is continually kept before us, and always the danger is as much psychic as physical. Standing on the edge of the first real chasm, Axel speaks of the “fascination of the void” taking hold of him: “I felt my centre of gravity moving, and vertigo rising to my head like intoxication. There is nothing more overwhelming than this attraction of the abyss” (17:104). The danger, evidently, is of losing one’s sense of self and of disappearing, intoxicated, into the infinite void.

The abyss in this novel is a version of the cosmic void, but the geometry of the earthly chasm differs from that of the astronomical infinity, for the Earth is round and therefore has both poles and a center. Poles and center are magical loci, the three still places on the turning globe. When the Earth is conceived as a bounded world located in unbounded space, the poles are extremities, the furthest points on the globe. Indeed, imagined in this way, the poles are magical precisely because they are the Earth’s boundaries and thus partake of the numinous power associated with any boundary zone. They are the icy, uninhabitable regions in which human space—the habitable world—meets the non-human space of the infinite. To reach and explore the poles is to achieve the completion of the human sphere by defining the Earth in its entirety. (This is the meaning that seems to generate the 19th and early 20th-century obsession with polar exploration.) To reach the center of the globe also means to achieve completion, except that now the Earth itself has become the imagined immensity and the attainment of the center means the penetration of the essence, the achievement of the heart of the mystery. The liminal poles are frigid; the mystical center is generally imagined as hot, as the fluid, living core of the globe. The earthly chasm thus opens onto a different kind of imaginative space from the astronomical void; at the bottom of the bottomless abyss is the region not of transcendence but of immanence, the locus in which all knowledge, all being, all power are immediately present. To attain the center of the Earth, then, means to penetrate the heart of nature, to possess nature absolutely. This is the object of Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel’s quest.

Extremes meet and magical opposites are always, in a sense, identical. At the time Verne was writing Journey to the Center of the Earth, he was also

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writing Captain Hatteras (1866), in which an obsessed adventurer reaches the North Pole. The pole itself turns out to be an erupting volcano—magical heat in the center of the regions of cold—and standing on the lip of the polar crater, the margin of the space in which heat and cold, life and death, inside and outside, immanence and transcendence interpenetrate, Hatteras goes mad.7 Significantly, in Journey to the Center of the Earth Lidenbrock and Axel gain access to the interior by travelling north to the cold and barren arctic limits of the habitable world, Iceland, where they enter the subterranean regions through the cone of the extinct volcano Sneffels.

In travelling to Iceland Lidenbrock and Axel are following the directions given in a runic cryptogram that the professor has discovered in an ancient book: “Descend into the crater of Sneffels Yokul, over which the shadow of Scartaris falls before the kalends of July, bold traveller, and you will reach the centre of the earth. I have done this. Arne Saknussemm” (6:32). Arne Saknussemm, Lidenbrock knows, was a 16th-century Icelandic alchemist. The deciphering of his coded message is the novel’s first narrative concern and this initial action provides the paradigm for the fiction as a whole, for nature itself is conceived here as a kind of cryptogram to be decoded. The key to Saknussemm’s message is that it must be read backwards. Likewise, in their descent Lidenbrock and Axel must in effect read nature backwards as they pass through the strata of successively earlier and earlier periods of natural history, eventually finding themselves in a marvelous underground world filled with plants from the era of the giant ferns. Here, too, they discover long extinct animals and in one of the well-known Vernian set-pieces witness a mortal battle between an Ichthyosaurus and a Plesiosaurus. Finally, they have a brief glimpse of a giant prehistoric man guarding a herd of mastodons:

Immanis pecoris custos, immanior ipse... Yes, indeed, the shepherd was bigger than his flock . . . He was over twelve feet tall. His head, which was as big as a buffalo’s, was half hidden in the tangled growth of his unkempt hair—a positive mane, like that of the primitive elephant. In his hand he was brandishing an enormous bough, a crook worthy of this antediluvian shepherd. (19:218)

This journey to the Earth’s center is thus also a journey into the abyss of evolutionary time, and the fusion of the spatial and temporal modes is one of the novel’s sources of power. Temporally projected, the quest for the center, the heart of the mystery, becomes the pursuit of origins, the quest for an ultimate moment of beginning. Understanding this fusion of modes helps to explain why the prehistoric giant is presented in the language of pastoral, a language which activates a literary code of origin that is simultaneously spatial and temporal in mode, both “there” and “then.” Understanding this also helps to explain why Lidenbrock and Axel’s journey is presented as a repetition of Arne Saknussemm’s journey, as a recovery of an original knowledge once possessed by science in its primeval past. The professor and his nephew in following the mysterious alchemist’s footsteps are in effect restoring science to its center and origin.

The process of decoding, of learning to read nature, is in this fiction essentially an action of naming. Like many of Verne’s protagonists—think, for instance, of Aronnax and Conseil in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870)—Lidenbrock and Axel are obsessive categorizers concerned to find the exact name for each geological stratum, the exact botanical and zoological classification for each underground species of plant or animal. As they descend they are concerned, too, with being able to name their precise position in relation to the surface, the exact number of vertical and lateral feet that they have travelled at each point. Moreover, since they are penetrating an unknown

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world, Lidenbrock and Axel are obliged not only to discover but at times to create names: the “Hansback”for the underground stream that guides them part of their way, “Port Grauben,” “Axel Island,” “Cape Saknussemm.” The imposition of human names on the non-human world is obviously an act of appropriation and conquest, for to be able to decipher and read nature is here to possess it, to drain it of its mysterious otherness and make it part of the human world. In a characteristic moment Axel describes coming upon a dense subterranean forest composed of weird umbrella-like trees:
I quickened my step, anxious to put a name to these strange objects. Were they outside the 200,000 species of vegetables already known, and had they to be accorded a special place among the lacustrian flora? No; when we arrived under their shade, my surprise turned to admiration. I found myself, in fact, confronted with products of the earth, but on a gigantic scale. My uncle promptly called them by their name.

‘It’s just a forest of mushrooms,’ he said.

And he was right. It may be imagined how big these plants which love heat and moisture had grown. I knew that the Lycopodon giganteum, according to Bulliard, attains a circumference of eight or nine feet, but here there were white mushrooms thirty or forty feet high, with heads of an equal diameter. There were thousands of them; the light could not manage to penetrate between them, and complete darkness reigned between those domes, crowded together as closely as the rounded roofs of an African city. (30:166 67)

Notice how this passage enacts a conquest, an annexation of alien territory. It begins in tension with Axel unable to name the “strange objects.” As the passage develops the objects become “just” mushrooms. Next they are associated with the “Lycopodon giganteum”—that is, with a scientific or exact name. Finally they are transformed metaphorically into “the rounded roofs of an African city,” so that we are now viewing a primitive but specifically human landscape.

Appropriately, it is Professor Lidenbrock rather than Axel who in this passage first names the “strange objects.” From the beginning, Lidenbrock is a figure of heroic will engaged in mortal combat with the non-human world. Arriving at the base of Sneffels, he is described as “gesticulating as if he were challenging” the volcano. “So that is the giant I am going to defeat!” (13:85) he announces in a phrase that sustains this aspect of the fiction. Nothing daunts the professor. Obsessively, he presses forward through every difficulty that lies in the way of the total conquest of nature. “The elements are in league against me!” he cries at a moment when the battle becomes particularly furious: “Air, fire, and water combine to block my way! Well, they are going to find out just how strong-willed I am! I won’t give in, I won’t move back in inch, and we shall see whether man or Nature will get the upper hand!” (37:206).

The narrative establishes the professor’s significance in part by placing him in opposition to Hans, the phlegmatic Icelandic peasant who acts as guide. By trade an eiderdown hunter—an occupation that significantly involves no struggle with nature since the “hunter” merely collects the feathers from the eider’s readily accessible nest—Hans is clever and resourceful but utterly without will. Indeed, Axel calls him “that man of the far West endowed with the fatalistic resignation of the East” (42:236). The principal thing that Hans cares about is his salary; he insists upon having three rix-dollars doled out to him each Saturday evening no matter what the exploring party’s situation or location. This mechanical action becomes a comic leitmotif in the novel, but it also suggests the peasant’s absolute unconcern about his surroundings, his obliviousness to nature’s marvels. Curiously, Hans and Professor Lidenbrock, while in most respects opposed figures, are at one point seen as similar. Sailing across a

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magnificent underground sea, the professor expresses irritation that they are making no progress toward the center. Axel is delighted with the beautiful views, but Lidenbrock cuts his rapture short:
‘I don’t give a damn for views. I set myself an object, and I mean to attain it. So don’t talk to me about magnificent views...’

I took him at his word, and left the Professor to bite his lips with impatience. At six in the evening, Hans claimed his wages, and three rix-dollars were counted out to him. (33:183)

Each imprisoned in his own form of obsession, Lidenbrock and Hans are equally blind to the magic of their surroundings. Paradoxically, the aggressive, passionately involved, Western attitude toward nature can isolate one from nature no less effectively than the passive unconcern of the East.

Both Hans’ passivity and Lidenbrock’s will to conquer nature are opposed to Axel’s romanticism. In a characteristic exchange, the professor and his nephew discuss the fact that the subterranean sea has tides like those on the surface. Axel is amazed and delighted; his uncle, however, finds nothing marvelous in the discovery, pointing out that a subterranean sea will be as subject to the Sun and Moon’s gravitation as any other.

‘You are right,’ I cried. ‘The tide is beginning to rise.’

‘Yes, Axel, and judging by the ridges of foam I estimate that the sea will rise about ten feet.’

‘That’s wonderful!’

‘No, it’s perfectly natural.’

‘You may say what you like, Uncle, but it all seems extraordinary to me, and I can scarcely believe my eyes. Who would ever have imagined that inside the earth’s crust there was a real ocean, with ebbing and flowing tides, winds and storms?’ (3l:l70-7l)

Axel and his uncle live in different mental universes, Axel embodying the spiritualistic response to the non-human (“That’s wonderful!”), Lidenbrock embodying bourgeois materialism (“No, it’s perfectly natural”). Not surprisingly, each at various points in the story believes that the other has gone mad.

Near the end of the novel, however, Axel undergoes a conversion. Confronted with what appears to be an insurmountable obstacle to further descent—a huge boulder has sealed the gallery through which they must pass—the youth is suddenly seized by his uncle’s demon of heroic conquest. Now it is Axel who is impatient with delay and who insists that they must immediately blow up the rock with explosive gun-cotton.“The Professor’s soul had passed straight into me, and the spirit of discovery inspired me. I forgot the past and scorned the future” (40:226). Nothing matters for him now except the imperative of penetration to the center. Daemonically possessed, Axel has become like his uncle a “hero.” His journey, then, has become an initiation into the bourgeois-heroic attitude toward nature, a “going in” in a social as well as a physical sense, and the story ultimately ratifies his new status as an adult male by granting him the hand of the professor’s beautiful goddaughter, Grauben. Nevertheless, as the comic ironies persistently directed against Professor Lidenbrock’s limited vision suggest, in the youth’s passage something has been lost as well as gained. Caring neither for past nor future, imprisoned in the narrow cage of his own will to dominate, Axel can no longer confront nature except as an antagonist, something utterly apart from himself.

Axel and his uncle never do reach the Earth’s mysterious center. The gun-cotton explosion triggers a volcanic eruption and, like an animal defending itself against an intrusion into its body, nature expels the explorers, vomits them

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out along a great volcanic shaft back into the air. Perhaps physical achievement of the center is impossible’! Or perhaps reaching that magical locus would mean going mad like Captain Hatteras on the crater of the polar volcano’, In any case, the point of furthest penetration, the journey’s true climax, is reached, significantly, not by the professor but by his romantic nephew and not in literal reality but in a vision.

Before his conversion, Axel, reflecting upon “the wonderful hypotheses of paleontology,” has an extended daydream in which, first, he supposes the subterranean world filling with long extinct creatures: antediluvian tortoises, great early mammals, Pterodactyls and other primeval birds. “The whole of this fossil world came to life again in my imagination” As his dream continues. however. the great animals disappear, the Earth grows steadily warmer, and he finds himself in a still earlier age, the period of gigantic vegetation Even here the dream does not end. Sweeping backward into the abyss of time in quest of the center, the point of origin, Axel finds the heat becoming more and more intense until the Earth’s granite liquifies and finally the planet itself dissolves into its original white-hot gaseous mass: “In the centre of his nebula, which was fourteen hundred thousand times as large as the globe it would one day form, I was carried through interplanetary space. My body was volatilized in its turn and mingled like an imponderable atom with these vast vapours tracing their flaming orbits through infinity” (33:179-80). Climactically. Axel himself disappears. becoming part of the cosmic infinity. At the ecstatic center, the boundary between man and nature, the human and the non-human, melts and the explorer merges with the world being explored.

Axel’s dream represents, of course, both a romantic alternative to the professor’s treatment of nature as an antagonist to be conquered and a fusion of spiritualistic and materialistic world views.8 Moreover. in Axel’s dream, the text calls attention to its own status as a fiction. an imaginary voyage. This kind of fictive self-consciousness was perhaps implicit in such earlier passages as Axel’s rhetorical question, “Who could ever have imagined that inside the earth’s crust there was a real ocean, with ebbing and flowing tides, winds and storms?” Now. however, in the description of the fossil world coming to life in Axel’s imagination— these events are shortly to occur in the narrative proper as the explorers begin to encounter extinct animals and plants—the text’s play with its own fictionality is particularly emphatic and we can hardly miss seeing Axel as momentarily a version of Verne.

Expelled from the interior. the explorers emerge in an eruption of Mt. Stromboli in Sicily:

We had gone in by one volcano and come out by another. and this other was more than three thousand miles from Sneffels. from that barren country of Iceland at the far limits of the inhabited world! The chances of our expedition had carried us into the heart of the most beautiful part of the world! we had exchanged the region of perpetual snow for that of infinite verdure. and the gray fog of the icy north for the blue skies of Sicily! (44:249)
Like the interior, the surface is a realm of infinities. but here the “infinity” is one of welcoming, protective vegetation. Since. in this novel, the interior space has become the void, the exterior world becomes the known and safe space. In reaching Sicily. Lidenbrock and Axel have, ironically. reached the Earths center, the pimitive heart not of nature but of the human sphere. “We were in the middle of the Mediterranean.” says Axel. “in the heart of the Aeolian archipelago of mythological memory, in that ancient Strongyle where Aeolus kept the winds and storms on a chain” (44:249). Warm and nourishing in contrast

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with the icy polar verge, the Sicilian landscape is a paradise of olives, pomegranates, and vines hung with delicious fruit, a landscape that recalls and fulfills the brief evocation of pastoral in the subterranean encounter with primeval man.

With the arrival in Sicily the narrative proper is over; in substituting one code of “centrality” for another, the text has achieved narrative closure. Nevertheless, a further detail remains to be treated in a coda. On the shore of the subterranean sea, after a fierce electrical storm, the explorers’ compass seemed to indicate that they had been travelling for nearly 1500 miles in the wrong direction. Had they really been going north when they thought they were going south? The mystery of the compass remains an unexplained phenomenon and a torment to Professor Lidenbrock, since “for a scientist an unexplained phenomenon is a torture for the mind” (45:253). One day, however, back in Hamburg, Axel notices that the compass needle points south instead of north and he realizes that the electrical storm in the Earth’s interior must have reversed the instrument’s poles. The final mystery is explained, the puzzle is complete, and, in a version of the “lived-happily-ever-after” formula, Axel tells us that “from that day onward, my uncle was the happiest of scientists” (45:254).

This coda affirms the materialistic faith that the book of nature is readable to the last word, that nature is merely a cryptogram to be decoded, or, as Axel puts it, that “however great the wonders of Nature may be, they can always be explained by physical laws” (37:208). And yet, despite this explicit positivistic affirmation, the narrative’s romance structure suggests a more problematic view. Here “explaining nature” is represented by the idea of reaching the center, which of course the explorers never do attain. Did Arne Saknussemm ever in fact reach the center? Throughout the story, Axel and Lidenbrock debate the question of the Earth’s internal temperature. Is the Earth’s core molten or even gaseous with a temperature perhaps over two million degrees as Axel, the romantic, maintains? Or, as the positivistic Lidenbrock supposes, does the rise in temperature experienced as one descends into the Earth reach a limit at a certain depth, leaving a core that can be explored by human beings? So far as the explorers descend the temperature remains comfortable, but the ultimate issue of whether the center itself is transcendently hot is never resolved, and in the narrative this debate becomes equivalent to the question of how nature can be known. Is the center literally reachable, as Lidenbrock passionately believes” Or, as Axel’s dream implies, is it in fact a magical place attainable only in dream or in vision or in fiction?

2. Journey to the Center of the Earth can be taken as representative of all those narratives in which the non-human is projected as existing “out there.” Sometimes the non-human is an inanimate object such as Wells’s intruding planet or a physical locale—the interior of the Earth, the surface of the Moon, the farthest reaches of the galaxy—and sometimes it is animate, an “alien” such as Wells’s Martians. There is a logical continuity between stories of natural exploration and stories of alien contact. Frequently explorers will encounter animated embodiments of the alien landscape such as, say, the deadly sunflowers in Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970). Sometimes, too, an inanimate landscape will come alive, as in, for example, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1973), where a mysteriously empty spaceship that the human protagonists are investigating suddenly begins to produce “biological robots.” But even when the non-human remains more or less strictly inanimate, the romance form, which requires an antagonist, will nearly always result in some degree of metaphorical animation, as when the Earth vomits Verne’s explorers from its body. Understanding how narratives of natural exploration pass by degrees into narratives of alien contact

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helps to define the logical position of such stories as Olaf Stapledon’s StarMaker (1937), Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud (1957), or Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund’s If the Stars are Gods (1977), in which nebulae, stars, and other features of the cosmic landscape turn out to be alive and sentient. The possibility of a class of stories such as these, a class that might be said to be located exactly midway between fictions of inanimate nature such as Journey to the Center of the Earth and alien-contact fictions such as The War of the Worlds (1898), is implicit in the structure of the genre.

The narrative activity in fictions conceived primarily in the spatial category will generally be one of two kinds. Sometimes, as in Journey to the Center of the Earth, man penetrates the non-human sphere, but equally often, as in “The Star,” it is the non-human that is the active force, thrusting itself disruptively into the human sphere. Whether humanity is presented as active or as passive is obviously important in shaping the fiction’s view of man’s position in the world—Verne characteristically conceives man as heroic and active, Wells as vulnerable and passive—but, whatever the conceptual content, the general area of fictional concern remains the same. Moreover, underlying nearly all SF in which the non-human is projected spatially, we normally find some version of the Pascalian vertigo, either the terror of the void or exaltation in the contemplation of the freedom of infinite space.

The War of the Worlds, which is the best known and most influential of all alien-contact stories, is a Darwinian fable, depicting an interplanetary struggle for survival. Wells chooses as his narrator a philosophical writer who is at work on a series of papers prophesying the development of moral ideas as civilization progresses. The Martian invasion interrupts the narrator’s work in mid-sentence, evidently just as he was about to sketch an advanced and humane future; instead of a version of utopia, the narrator is compelled to portray the collapse of society and the reduction of men to anonymous creatures, scrabbling like animals to remain alive. Wells’s theme here, as in The Time Machine and many of his early stories, is the terrible fragility of civilization, of all that we consider humane, when seen in the larger context of such brutal natural forces as the evolutionary process.

The Pascalian terror of the void, however, is no less important in The War of the Worlds than is the idea of evolution. Observing Mars through a telescope, Wells’s narrator describes the planet as a tiny warm light:

It seemed such a little thing, so bright and small and still, faintly marked with transverse stripes, and slightly flattened from the perfect round. But so little it was, so silvery warm—a pin’s head of light! It was as if it quivered, but really this was the telescope vibrating with the activity of the clockwork that kept the planet in view.9
The narrator goes on to remind us of “the immensity of vacancy in which the dust of the material universe swims” and to invoke the “unfathomable darkness” of space: “You know how that blackness looks on a frosty starlight night. In a telescope it seems far profounder” (I: 1:312). The contrast drawn here between light and darkness, warmth and cold, quivering movement and vacancy, is ultimately a contrast between life and death: the “unfathomable darkness” of space is also the mystery of non-being, and the passage as a whole suggests the preciousness and the fragility of life in a universe that is mostly empty.

Life and death are the terms in conflict in The War of the Worlds. Despite its vital appearance in the telescope, Mars is a dying planet. Older than the Earth, its oceans are evaporating, its atmosphere is dissipating, and the entire planet is cooling, moving towards the chill of death. Observing the Earth, the Martians see a planet teeming with life, a “warmer planet, green with vegetation

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and grey with water, with a cloudy atmosphere eloquent of fertility” (I:1:310). To preserve themselves they undertake to invade Earth.

From one point of view, Mars and the Martians are a precious speck of life in the universe. From another, however, they are the agents of death. The novel opens with a description of the Martians studying mankind from across the gulf of space even as a man with a microscope might study the miniscule creatures in a drop of water. “With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs,” while millions of miles away on Mars, “minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us” (I:1:309). The contrast between the greatness of the Martian intelligence and the littleness of mankind that dominates the novel’s opening recalls the familiar contrast between the greatness of the cosmos and human littleness. Indeed, what Wells has done is to transfer the usual attributes of the physical cosmos—vastness, coldness, indifference—to the Martians. Significantly, the Martians in their fighting machines dwarf men physically, even as their great brains dwarf ours intellectually. Their weapons—the heat ray, the poison gas—are depersonalizing instruments of mass slaughter, and attempts to communicate with them are as fruitless as if they were literally a force of nature. The Martians have consciousness and will, but they are not unlike the intruding planetoid in “The Star” in their absolute unconcern for mankind.

Wells’s Martians thus fuse the Darwinian and the Pascalian themes, and the conception of the black void of space informs the whole narrative. Much of the fable’s power, however, derives from the richness with which Wells develops the Martians as fairy-tale-like figures of death. Physically feeble as a result both of their extreme evolution and the unaccustomed gravity of Earth, the Martians move painfully and slowly like dying creatures. Only their eyes. the signs of their intelligence. are intense and vital. Their strength comes from their elaborate machines, mechanisms which are. like themselves, grotesque images of life in death. At one point the narrator describes these machines in detail, emphasizing the way in which they seem more alive than their masters:

It is remarkable that the long leverages of their machines are in most cases actuated by a sort of sham musculature of disks in an elastic sheath: these disks become polarised and drawn closely and powerfully together when traversed by a current of electricity. In this way the curious parallelism to animal motions, which was so striking and disturbing to the human beholder. was attained. Such quasi-muscles abounded in the crab-like handling-machine which. on my first peeping out of the slit. I watched unpacking the cylinder. It seemed infinitely more alive than the actual Martians lying beyond it in the sunset light. panting. stirring ineffectual tentacles. and moving feebly after their vast journey across space. (11:2:412)
But not only are the Martians and their machines figures of living death; the Martians are also vampires, maintaining their feeble existence by draining other creatures’ blood. Moreover, the color red with which they are repeatedly associated—Mars is of course the red planet, the Martian vegetation that takes hold on the Earth is red’ end the heat ray turns everything it touches lurid red with flame—hints of the diabolic. Metaphorically, the Martians are fiends. and such passages as the description of the alien outpost lit by the “vivid red glare” of flames against which the Martians appear in silhouette as huge black shapes. grotesque and strange (1:11:345) suggest the way they transform the English countryside into the landscape of hell.
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The diabolic red—often the color is “blood red”—is related to the evolutionary theme, suggesting the bloody competition in which one species is another’s food. Through the heat ray and its fires, the color is also associated with the pattern of references to temperature—both extremes of temperature are deadly: the Earth is neither hot nor cold but benevolently warm—and thus with the cosmic theme, reminding us of the narrow range of conditions in which life is possible. In the novel’s striking color pattern, red is opposed both to black, the color of the void and of death, and to green and grey or blue, the colors of the living Earth and by extension of life generally.10 Appropriately, given the characterization of the Martian machines as a form of sham life, the falling cylinders appear in the sky as greenish streaks and the digging and refining machines produce flickering green fire and puffs of green smoke.

The narrative of the Martian invasion, the story of the apparently inevitable triumph of death over life, reaches a climax in the chapter titled “Dead London,” in which the narrator, having survived his imprisonment in the ruined house and met and parted from the artilleryman, arrives in a desolate urban landscape of black dust and corpses, a “city of the dead” lying in “its black shroud” (II:8:441). In South Kensington he hears the sound of a Martian howling, “Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,” and soon discovers that the invaders have succumbed to earthly bacteria, antagonists for which they were wholly unprepared. The Martians’ sudden overthrow is anticipated by a number of earlier references to bacteria, but above all we are reminded of the novel’s opening and the image there of the Martians studying us from a distance “as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water” (I:1:309). The teeming microbes, flashing through their minimal existences, signify the ultimate units of life; in effect they stand for the vital principle itself.11 By employing them to defeat the Martians the text not only emphasizes human insignificance but also reaffirms that all along it has been concerned with an opposition broader and more encompassing than the particular struggle between the Martians and ourselves. Related to this reaffirmation of the broader concerns is the shift in the perception of the invaders that occurs when the narrator hears the “sobbing alternation” of the dying Martian’s cry. “It was,” he says, “as if that mighty desert of houses had found a voice for its fear and solitude” (II:8:441). When the cry ceases the narrator states directly that the wailing represented a kind of companionship: “By virtue of it London had still seemed alive, and the sense of life about me had upheld me” (II:8:443). What Wells has done, as a recent commentator shrewdly notes, is to transpose the developing tragedy of the human race into a tragedy of the Martians.12 The transposition is both aesthetically satisfying—closure is achieved through the surprising fulfillment of our expectations of tragedy—and significant. Once again, as at the opening, the Martians are aligned with life rather than death, are seen as precious fragments of sentience in a universe of hostile vacancy.

The ending thus hints at a kind of tragic fraternity between men and Martians. Nevertheless, the text suggests that we must be cautious about how completely we share the narrator’s moment of identification with the aliens. The narrator hears the final howl as a kind of sobbing and he speaks of the Martian dying “even as it had been crying to its companions” (11:8:445). But earlier we have been told that the Martians are probably telepathic and that their sounds are in no way connected with communication. Moreover, the repeated characterization of the Martians as emotionless figures of cold intellect should make us realize that here the narrator is projecting his own feelings onto the aliens, attributing human characteristics to creatures fundamentally different from ourselves. After the death of the Martians, the narrator also lapses into what is

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for him an unusual rush of religious emotion, evoking God’s wisdom and the story of Jehovah’s decimation of King Sennacherib’s army in order to protect the chosen people, and finally extending his hands to the sky in gratitude to the Lord. Oddly, at this moment the narrator sounds almost like the provincial curate whose inability to transcend his inappropriate religious conceptions results in madness. All through the novel Wells has been concerned with the difficulty of achieving and sustaining an adequate conception of the Martians and of the threat that they pose. The curate is the most obvious example of Wells’s concern with this issue, but the artilleryman, too, as the novel gradually reveals, is as much driven by self-aggrandizing fantasies and by petty class resentments—“There won’t be any more Royal Academy of Arts, and no nice little feeds at restaurants” (II:7:432)—as by a genuine grasp of the situation, and, despite his fine talk, he finally lapses into self-indulgence and inaction. We are all, the novel suggests, limited in our understanding of things by the pettiness of our lives, and we all find it difficult to come to grips with a truly indifferent universe, one neither arranged on a human model nor constructed on a human scale.

The Martians are by far the most interesting figures in Wells’s novel, and the conception of them is central to the fiction in a way that the particular conception of the narrator of the artilleryman is not. At one level the Martians are signs that stand for the idea of alienness, the idea of the incomprehensible otherness of the universe in which man lives. At another level, however, they stand for ourselves. In the evolutionary fable, for example, the Martians with their hypertrophied brains and atrophied bodies suggest a possible human future. Alluding to Wells’s own popular essay on future evolution, “The Man of the Year Million” (1893), the narrator mentions that, long before the Martian invasion, a quasi-scientific writer suggested that man might evolve into just such creatures as the Martians. The narrator goes on to remark that “without the body the brain would, of course, become a mere selfish intelligence, without any of the emotional substratum of the human being” (II:2:410), and thus he makes explicit another dimension of metaphorical significance, this time a specifically moral one in which the Martians represent the eternal danger of cold reason divorced from humane feeling.

The Martians also have political significance and once again the narrator makes this dimension explicit, comparing the Martian colonization of the Earth to the European extermination of the Tasmanians. We can perhaps read an even more fundamental, though less explicit, political meaning in the fiction if we consider the Martians as a metaphorical projection of the capitalistic industrial system of the late 19th century, here conceived as a social machine created by a ruthless economic reason that sucks the lifeblood out of human beings. Such a reading would emphasize the Martians’ inaccessibility, their failure to respond to human attempts at communication, and their reduction of mankind to degraded and anonymous masses. It would find new and ironic meaning in the image of the machines as seemingly more alive than the actual Martians. And it would emphasize, too, the artilleryman’s description of the petty clerks, fearful of being dismissed from jobs in businesses they did not understand, fearful of their wives and of criminals in the back streets, concerned principally with securing a little bit of money to make for safety in “their one little miserable skeddadle through the world” (II:7:433). Such already dead souls, the artilleryman suggests, would be delighted to be the Martians’ cattle: after a while they would even wonder how people survived before there were Martians to take care of them.

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3. Wells’s Martians raise fundamental questions about the portrayal of aliens— and, indeed, of the non-human generally—in literature. Is it possible to avoid projecting human characteristics onto the alien? Is it possible, in other words, to portray a truly alien creature, one wholly different from ourselves?

If alien creatures are ever encountered, the problem of how to comprehend them will be a matter for science. Fiction, however, is not an instrument of inquiry of the same order as physics or biology. The question here is not one of knowledge—can we know the non-human?—but one of representation. As Patrick Parrinder suggests, it is not possible to imagine something utterly alien but only to conceive of something as alien by contrast or analogy with something already known. Thus we may imagine flying pigs or ambulatory brains or even intelligent stars, but we cannot imagine something that bears no relationship at all to what we already know. Since the literary alien must always be constructed on some principle of analogy or contrast with our worlds, it follows that the truly alien can never be actualized in a text. The alien can be gestured towards—the, text can provide signs that represent the idea of alienness—but the alien itself in its radical otherness cannot be directly portrayed. Moreover, the choice of alien features is always significant. Through his aliens, an SF writer is inevitably, at least in part, writing about his own world, and it is precisely this that makes the aliens in SF fascinating. As Parrinder indicates, and as the case of Wells’s Martians affirms, aliens in SF always possess a metaphorical dimension.13

Perhaps we can regard the problem faced by the SF writer attempting to write about the non-human as analogous to that of the religious writer attempting to portray the divine. Like those medieval playwrights who bring even God the Father on stage in the person of an actor, the SF writer may choose to suppress the fact that his aliens are projections of the human world. Alternatively, the writer may in some fashion acknowlege the inevitable limitation inherent in the literary form, as Milton does in Paradise Lost when he describes the struggle between God and Satan as an epic battle.

H.G. Wells’s self-conscious gesture toward his own “The Man of the Year Million” implicitly acknowledges the metaphorical nature of his Martians; indeed, it is because Wells allows the metaphorical dimensions of his aliens to develop freely that The War of the Worlds is so rich a fiction. Other texts acknowledge and thus, in a sense, free themselves from their limitations through humor. In Robert Sheckley’s fine “Specialist” (1953), for instance, the aliens who land on Earth constitute an organic starship that functions through a collaboration of representatives of many species, each of which has a specialized role such as Engine, Thinker, Feeder, or Eye. The starship’s immediate purpose is to enlist a human being to fill the role of Pusher, the agent that accelerates the vessel to faster-than-light speeds. “Pushing,” it turns out, is mankind’s true vocation, the one for which we are biologically specialized, and all human unhappiness and aggression derive ultimately from our frustration at not being able to perform our proper function in the cosmic society of specialized races. Sheckley employs the point of view of the aliens, presenting them and their adventures in a broad parody of a deep-sea yarn. Thus Feeder is a “youngster” on his first voyage and the Walls are described as “fine workers and good shipmates, but happy-go-lucky fellows at best.”14 This conspicuous and comic anthropomorphizing enables Sheckley to avoid the pitfalls of any solemn attempt at a direct portrayal of the alien and insures that the text will be read as a parable rather than as a jejune description of the true nature of the universe. From Edgar Rice Burroughs to Larry Niven, however, the majority of popular SF writers have pretended to present “genuine” portrayals of the alien. This is not necessarily to say that all such fictions are ineffective. Some of them—Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet

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Masters (1951), for example—have an authentic, if primitive, power that derives in part precisely from the suppression of fairly obvious connections with our world. But, compared to The War of the Worlds or to “Specialist,” such fictions generally seem somewhat naive.

The characteristic treatment of the alien in secondary SF—that is, the body of writing that can take the existence of the SF genre for granted—is not particularly self-conscious. In fact, most of these texts are less self-conscious than Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which confirms that literary sophistication, as such, is not simply a function of the process of generic development. The “secondariness” of these texts characteristically manifests itself in their reaction against the pulp stereotype of the hostile alien, a stereotype that of course derives ultimately from Wells’s Martians. Thus we get fictions such as Arthur C. Clarke’s interesting Childhood’s End (1953), in which the aliens are beneficent even though they look like devils, and a whole host of lesser fables in which salvation comes to mankind in the form of aliens from outer space. Other stories react against the primitive SF monsters by portraying aliens that are neither “good” nor “bad” but conspicuously like ourselves. The best known of these is Murray Leinster’s “First Contact” (1945), in which human and alien starships meeting in deep space consider the problem of how each is to return home without revealing the location of its home planet to a potential enemy. The solution is to exchange ships, with each crew making sure that its own ship has no capacity to trace the other. The story reaffirms its basic point about the aliens when it concludes with the human communications officer revealing that he spent the time while the ships were being prepared for exchange in conversation with his alien counterpart swapping dirty jokes.

The logic of generic development leads to interiorization and to emphatic metaphorization in which spiritual or psychological correlatives replace simple external action. Ursula K. Le Guin’s rightly celebrated The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is just such a “late” treatment of the alien-contact theme. Here the theme becomes quite explicitly a metaphor for any contact between people of different cultures or of different sexes or, indeed, for any kind of human contact at all. In fact, Le Guin’s aliens, the “Gethenians,” are not true aliens at all, but only an exotic branch of the human race. However, even as the alien contact theme in the foreground is humanized and made figurative, the literally non-human reappears in the background, de-animated and displaced onto the setting, the inhospitably frigid planet Gethen or Winter, which represents a version of the same cold and uncaring universe that Wells animated in the form of his Martians. What Le Guin has done, in effect, is to shift the focus of the story that Wells presents in both “The Star” and The War of the Worlds from the non-human to the human. But the general area of concern remains the same, and, in Le Guin as in Wells, the importance of human brotherhood when seen against the background of the void is self-evident.

4. The most radical “late” treatment of the alien-contact theme—and for my purposes, the most interesting—is Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961). Like Le Guin, Lem shifts the focus from the non-human to the human. He does so, however, not so much by making the whole situation of contact metaphorical as by forming his narrative precisely around the problem of anthropomorphization, the problem of coming to grips with or even conceiving something truly nonhuman. In Lem’s hands, cosmology, the traditional concern of SF in the space category, yields to epistemology, an exploration of the limitations inherent in any human frame of reference. His strategy is to turn the SF genre with its

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usually unexamined romantic-heroic and religious structures back upon itself. The result is a highly self-conscious fiction that is as much a work of generic criticism—in the sense that, say, As You Like It or Hamlet are metadramatic works of generic criticism—as it is a new text in the genre.

Most SF narratives follow Wells in employing as their signs of the nonhuman figures that are clearly recognizable as versions of ourselves. Lem’s initial move in Solaris is to choose as problematic a sign of the non-human as possible. Thus the mysterious ocean that dominates the novel is a figure precisely located on the border between inanimate nature and animate creature. On the one hand, the ocean is an unusual extra-terrestrial landscape, a colloidal sea covering an entire planet. But, on the other, it appears able to manipulate such fundamental physical properties as gravity and to respond to stimuli in remarkable ways. Does the ocean think? Does it have desires or emotions? Is it, in other words, merely an extraordinary natural phenomenon or a living creature?

By making Solaris itself unyieldingly problematic, Lem shifts the narrative emphasis from the object to the process of inquiry. For nearly a century the ocean has been the subject of intensive study, and an entirely new field of knowledge, Solaristics, has developed in the attempt to answer fundamental questions about the planet. But, although a massive library of scholarship has been generated, little if any real progress has been made. Large sections of the novel consist of detailed and often funny accounts of the various theories that have been proposed about the planet. Do the huge and fantastic forms that the ocean continually generates—Giese, an early student of Solaris, gave these formations such names as “mimoids,” “symmetriads,” and “asymmetriads”— represent the physical basis of unimaginably advanced and complex thought? Or are they the anarchic death throes of a dying creature? Has the ocean failed to respond to human overtures because it is serenely contemptuous of mankind? Or, being such a gargantuan creature, has it simply failed to notice men at all?

As the novel proceeds, the inquiry turns more and more emphatically into an analysis of the human motives behind the whole Solarist enterprise, and thus, implicitly, also into an analysis of SF and its analogous concern with the non-human. “We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact,” says Snow, one of the scientists stationed on the planet. But such heroic notions are inappropriate, for mankind actually has no interest in the non-human: “We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds.”15 And late in the novel we hear about the scholar Muntius, who regards the Solarist enterprise as “the space era’s equivalent of religion: faith disguised as science.” After all, what kind of contact could there be with anything so alien as the ocean? According to Muntius, “Solaristics is a revival of long-vanished myths, the expression of mystical nostalgias which men are unwilling to confess openly. The cornerstone is deeply entrenched in the foundations of the edifice: it is the hope of Redemption” (11:180).

Lem attempts to keep his sign of the non-human as empty, as nonreferential, as possible, and thus he prevents the metaphorical dimensions of his alien from developing freely in the manner of Wells. Nevertheless, because he must employ some sign, must portray the non-human as “this” rather than “that,” not even Lem can entirely avoid metaphor. In selecting the sea as a sign, Lem employs a familiar image of the non-human, one already invested by ancient usage from Homer and Shakespeare to Melville and Verne with the idea of the infinite. Moreover, instead of suppressing the sea’s traditional attributes of mysteriousness and vastness, Lem insists upon them repeatedly, as, for example, when we are told that, precisely because of its unimaginably vast complexity, the pattern of a symmetriad is incomprehensible:

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We observe a fraction of the process, like hearing the vibration of a single string in an orchestra of supergiants. We know, but cannot grasp, that above and below, beyond the limits of perception or imagination, thousands and millions of simultaneous transformations are at work. (8:129 30)
Like the abysses in Journey to the Center of the Earth or the Martians in The War of the Worlds, the enigmatic Solaris ocean can be understood as a version of the infinite void, a metaphor for the vast and unknown universe.

Interestingly, Lem’s protagonist, Kris Kelvin, twice has dreams reminiscent of Axel’s crucial daydream in which, sweeping backward into the abyss of time, he finally loses himself in infinity. Axel’s dream is an esctatic vision. Kelvin’s dreams, however, are nightmares, brutal embodiments of the Pascalian terror and the basic fear of the disintegration of the self which that terror reflects:

I seemed to be growing smaller, and the invisible sky, horizonless, the formless immensity of space, without clouds, without stars, receded, extended and grew bigger all round me. I tried to crawl out of bed, but there was no bed; beneath the cover of darkness there was a void. I pressed my hands to my face. I no longer had any fingers or any hands. I wanted to scream. . . (7.99)
The later dream, part of a series of powerful visions that Kelvin suspects may have been directly influenced by the ocean, is more complex. Presented in terms that distantly echo Genesis, it incorporates a vision first of the creation of a self out of formless substance in “the heart of vastness,” then of the making of a companion for the self, and finally of a dissolution back into the void during which the consciousness remains horrifyingly intact, howling soundlessly, “begging for death and for an end” (12:186-88).

Understanding the Pascalian terror that informs the narrative helps to explain the various protective enclosures, similar in significance to the closed and safe spaces characteristic of Verne’s fictions, that are so prominent in Solaris. The novel begins, for example, with Kelvin’s being sealed first in the pneumatic envelope of a space suit and then in a small metal capsule for the faster-than-light journey through “the pale reddish glow of infinity” to Solaris ( 1:8). The goal of his journey is another enclosure, the Solaris station, hovering safely, like Swift’s Laputa, above the ocean’s surface. And the station itself is a nest of further enclosures—cabins, laboratory, cold storage chamber—each a special and bounded territory marked by a door, often a locked door. Many of the chambers have windows through which at times the mysterious ocean can be viewed. As in Verne, the window upon the infinite defines insideness and enclosure by opposition; but here windows, lights, spectacles, and other instruments related to seeing also suggest the novel’s epistemological concern: how can we truly “see” the non-human? Whenever the brighter of Solaris’s two suns rises the men must don dark glasses until automatic metal shutters seal the windows closed. Moreover, located in the heart of the station, the library that is the repository of accumulated Solarist scholarship is significantly windowless. As the image of the library suggests, intellectual structures also can be a form of enclosure, and the huge monument of scholarly effort encapsulated in the station’s center clearly functions as much to separate mankind from the ocean as to open a window onto its mystery.

In Verne the feeling of enclosure is enjoyable. To sit in the coziness of the Nautilus’s saloon and gaze out into the mystery of the ocean is a sign of the triumph of human endeavor and a delight. In Solaris, however, where there is little sense of joy, the complex of protective barriers and enclosures seems rather to be an expression of agoraphobia, the fear of open places. Not until the

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novel’s end, when Kelvin steps onto the surface of the old mimoid, do any of the men venture out of the station. Usually, in fact, they do not even venture out of their chambers, each remaining imprisoned in a private psychological drama. Enclosures may protect man from the infinite; but they also effectively sequester him in the limited world of the human, or, in the case of more personal enclosures, in the still more limited world of the self. As the narrative continues, the intellectual, psychological, and physical enclosures in which the men live come to seem more and more oppressive, and the feeling conveyed by the novel as a whole becomes emphatically claustrophobic.

Solaris has two distinct components, the material concerned with Solaristics the long history of attempts to understand and contact the ocean, and the more particular story of Kelvin’s relations with Rheya, his dead wife. The material concerned with Solaristics is broad in sweep and coolly intellectual in style. This aspect of the novel might be characterized as a philosophical fantasia on the central S-F theme. The story of Kelvin and Rheya—or, rather, of the simulacrum of Rheya, a “visitor” that the ocean generates from Kelvin’s memories—is intense and emotional. Logically, the broader story of the attempt to make contact with the ocean constitutes the novel’s main plot and the story of Kelvin and Rheya constitutes the subplot, but Lem makes the broader story the background for the story of the visitors. The Solaristics material is rooted in satire: it recalls, for example. certain parts of A Tale of a Tub (1704). The novel’s foreground. however, is an S-F version of a ghost story, and it is the source of most of the book’s narrative power.

The Rheya plot is tied to the broader story of Solaris by having the ocean produce her and the other visitors in response to the latest attempt to achieve contact, this time by bombarding the sea with x-rays. (What the ocean’s purposes might be in sending the visitors naturally remains a mystery.) More important, the story of Rheya is a systematic development from the novel’s broader concern with the human in relation to the non-human, for the crucial point about Rheya and the other visitors is that they are neither human nor non-human. In appearance the visitors seem human, and, indeed, down to the level of the molecule their bodies are indistinguishable from human bodies. Nevertheless, they are composed of a fundamentally different kind of matter from ourselves, conglomerations of neutrinos rather than atoms. They require neither food nor sleep, their tissues almost instantaneously regenerate if they are injured, and under some circumstances they possess astonishing physical strength. Most disturbing, however, they are neither monsters nor puppets, but fully conscious creatures capable of free will who have at first no idea that they are anything but the human beings they resemble. What Lem has done in introducing the visitors is to allow the human versus non-human opposition to generate a third term on the boundary between the two categories. And by introducing this third term he has rendered problematic the fundamental opposition that enables his fiction—and the SF genre in general—to exist.

Faced with the utterly alien ocean, an object neither clearly animate nor clearly inanimate, human categories of thought break down. Giese, the first great student of Solaris. was a scholarly classifier. But, although he tried to remain scrupulously objective in his descriptions, Giese’s taxonomy of Solarian forms was, as Kelvin remarks, inevitably shot through with geocentric thinking, with inappropriate extensions of the familiar world. Likewise, faced with the visitors, the men stationed on Solaris must confront an impossible problem in definition and classification. one hopelessly complicated by the fact that the visitors are erotic figures drawn from the deepest realms of the scientists’ emotional beings. In Kelvin’s case, Rheya, who committed suicide when Kelvin

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abandoned her, is a figure of intense guilt as well as love. Dealing with the visitors is thus always an emotional matter, and, since the visitors are conscious beings who regard themselves as human, the question of how to deal with them is also always a problem with a moral dimension.

When Kelvin arrives on Solaris the visitors have already been appearing for some time. One of the men on the station, Gibarian, has committed suicide, and the other two, Snow and Sartorius, have retreated in various ways into isolation. Suggestively, Gibarian’s body has been stored in a freezer. As we have seen both in Journey to the Center of the Earth and in The War of the Worlds temperature is often significant in SF. Patterns of heat and cold generally refer in some way to the modern, alienated sense of the narrow range of physical conditions in which human life is possible and thus to the cosmic theme of the indifferent universe. In Solaris, however, the temperature motif has become metaphorical. Kelvin, whose name evokes the Kelvin scale for measuring temperature, repeatedly complains that the station is stifling; but evidently the problem is not simply physical, for here the feeling of oppressive heat and the associated appearances of Solaris’s glowing red sun correspond to increases in the temperature of the novel’s emotional climate. Nevertheless, life and death are still very much the issue, and the body in the freezer implies that Gibarian chose the cold of death rather than continuing to try to bear the heat of a situation beyond the range of human endurance. Snow is also in a sense dead, having lapsed into cynicism and slovenly inactivity. Sartorius, on the other hand, like the man who dresses for dinner in the heat of the jungle, responds to extreme situations by clinging rigidly to normality, attempting to eliminate anything that intrudes upon his orderly world. Formal and pedantic, he refuses to acknowledge any personal or emotional involvement with the visitors—indeed, he refuses to acknowledge the whole personal side of life—and he is energetically at work upon a device to destroy them.

Gibarian, Snow, and Sartorius represent an anatomy of manifestly inadequate responses to the visitors. What would an adequate response be? When Rheya appears, Kelvin initially reacts somewhat in the manner of Sartorius, insistently reminding himself that this is not the real Rheya and finally trapping the visitor aboard a space capsule and launching it into orbit. If eliminated, new versions of the visitors return as if nothing had happened, and when a duplicate Rheya appears, Kelvin, now behaving somewhat like Snow, cynically welcomes her as his wife. But what begins as a charade becomes reality as Kelvin falls in love with Rheya all over again, accepting her as if she were indeed a human being and his wife. Eventually Rheya discovers what she is. Horrified by the knowledge but even more appalled at the pain her presence is causing Kelvin, she attempts to commit suicide. Lem has thus driven the story into an excruciating moral and philosophical paradox. Rheya is not human; she is an emanation of the ocean and her presence is indeed torture to Kelvin. Nevertheless, she truly loves him and means to kill herself for his sake. Can such love be anything but human?

Kelvin allowed the real Rheya to kill herself; this time he does everything he can to keep Rheya from self-destruction. But is his heroic love appropriate? Is he not, as Snow in an important conversation maintains, naive in believing that he will be a traitor if he lets Rheya destroy herself and a good man if he keeps her? Is he not projecting moral categories into a context in which human morality does not apply, falling prey to the same kind of error that has impeded Giese and the other Solarists in their study of the ocean? “What if it is not possible, here, to be anything but a traitor?” Snow asks. Kelvin protests that he loves Rheya, this Rheya who has proved her love by trying to kill herself. “She is

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willing to give her life,” Snow replies coldly. “So are you. It’s touching, it’s magnificent, anything you like, but it’s out of place here—it’s the wrong setting” (10:161-62). Snow, the cool cynic, is an unsympathetic figure compared to Kelvin, the romantic lover. Yet we should realize that Lem has employed the sentimental codes of the literary love story and thus encouraged us to sympathize with Kelvin’s passion only to lead us into a trap that illustrates how difficult it is to avoid inappropriate patterns of thought. Snow is correct. In embracing Rheya as completely human, Kelvin has adopted a position no more adequate than that of Sartorius, who merely wishes to obliterate the visitors.

Eventually Rheya does destroy herself. Kelvin is grief-stricken, but out of his grief emerges a new understanding of the fallacy of his former romanticism. Like mankind in general in its romantic and heroic attitude toward the cosmos— appropriately, the spaceships in Solaris bear such names as Prometheus or Ulysses—so Kelvin has regarded himself as a figure in a heroic story. With unreflective Quixotism, mankind has characteristically pursued such visionary goals as that of the conquest of nature through the triumphant expansion of the human race throughout space or, in the case of Solaris, of achieving some form of ultimate “contact” with the ocean. Moreover, these goals have carried the force of the absolute, of divine commands, requiring if necessary total immolation in their pursuit. Kelvin, too, has been a Knight of the Holy Contact, and likewise, partially in expiation of his former lack of chivalry toward her, Rheya’s own true champion and protector. But now, meditating upon his future without Rheya, Kelvin realizes that, although he will develop new interests and occupations, he will not give himself completely to them. Indeed, he discovers that he will never again give himself completely to anything or anybody. “And this future Kelvin,” he insists, “will be no less worthy a man than the Kelvin of the past, who was prepared for anything in the name of an ambitious enterprise called Contact” (14:203).

Having renounced romantic absolutes in his own life, Kelvin attempts to extend the implications of his new understanding into the realm of cosmology, or, more accurately, into theology. A universe in which absolute goals make sense must contain a god to authenticate those goals, and mankind has indeed behaved as if such an absolute god exists. But what kind of universe can ratify his new understanding of the contingency of all commitments? As an answer, Kelvin develops and explains to Snow his hypothesis of an imperfect god, a limited and evolving god who develops in the course of time. “Man does not create gods, in spite of appearances,” Kelvin says: “The times, the age, impose them on him” (14:205)—by which he means that the idea of a particular kind of god is not derived from an uncircumscribed act of wish-fulfillment, but is the product of an age’s understanding of things. Given his disillusionment, his renunciation of romantic absolutes, the only kind of god that Kelvin can even imagine believing in is one that is limited in omniscience and power, “a god whose passion is not a redemption, who saves nothing, fulfills no purpose—a god who simply is” (14:206).

Kelvin’s theological conversation with Snow is to be read less as direct religious speculation than as an indirect restatement of his new freedom from heroic illusions. The conversation ends abruptly with the sighting of a very old mimoid and Kelvin’s decision to venture outside the station and explore it. “When I get back to Earth,” he explains, “I don’t want to have to confess that I’m a Solarist who has never set foot on Solaris!” (14:206). Kelvin’s act of going outside is of course suggestive, as is the image of the old and already fragmenting mimoid which perhaps reflects the disintegrating model of reality that has dominated both mankind’s heroic age of exploration and conquest and Kelvin’s

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romantic youth. Once outside, Kelvin realizes that he is not really interested in the mimoid; his purpose is to acquaint himself with the ocean. Walking to the edge of the sea, he extends his gloved hand toward a wave and experiences a phenomenon noted a century earlier: “the wave hesitated, recoiled, enveloped my hand without touching it, so that a thin covering of ‘air’ separated my glove inside a cavity which had been fluid a moment previously, and now had a fleshly consistency.” When he raises his hand the enveloping substance rises with it, forming a kind of flower. Stretched beyond a certain limit, however, the flower trembles and falls back into the main body of the waiting wave. Kelvin repeats the game several times until the ocean, “as if bored with a too familiar sensation,” ceases to respond. Then he sits down, disturbed by the phenomenon, but feeling “somehow changed” by the “experience as I had lived it” (14:209-10).

The game that Kelvin plays with the ocean recapitulates the transforming experience that he has had in the novel. Delicately, the flower-like extension that molds itself to Kelvin’s hand recalls Rheya, who also retreated back into the wave when stretched beyond her limit. The game is thus a retrospective image and, as such, contributes to the achievement of narrative closure. But it also serves as a confirmation that the non-human really exists. that beyond ourselves is something that is not ourselves, and as a reminder of the problematic nature of any interaction with the genuinely alien. Sitting on the “beach, sign of the boundary between the two modes of existence, the human and the non-human. Kelvin decides not to return to Earth after all but to remain on Solaris. The renunciation of heroics, Lem is suggesting, need not mean the loss of purpose. Kelvin has no idea what kind of interactions with the ocean may occur in the future and no hope for Rheya’s return. Nevertheless. he knows that the ocean is real and he is willing to commit himself to whatever the future may bring. I knew nothing,” he says in his final words, “and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past” (14:211).


  1. See, for example, George Poulet, Studies in Human Time. trans. Elliott Coleman (Baltimore, MD: 1956), p. 13 (paraphrased here). Among the classic studies dealing with the disintegration of the “Elizabethan World Picture” are A.O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge, MA: 1936); Marjorie Hope Nicholson, The Breaking of the Circle (NY:1960 [rev. ed.]); and Alexandre Koyré. From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (Baltimore, MD: 1957).
  2. Quoted by Charles Coulston Gillispie, The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas (Princeton, NJ: 1960). p. 26.
  3. Quoted by Koyré (note 1), pp. 20809. Koyré’s study emphasizes Newtons religious belief and his indebtedness to the mystic Henry More.
  4. “Vastness.” On the Victorian crisis of faith and sense of loneliness and alienation see Walter Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind (New Haven. CT: 1957) esp. pp. 27-180: and J. Hillis Miller, The Disappearance of God (Cambridge, MA: 1963). Miller’s opening chapter beautifully evokes the whole situation and also comments in passing on the inapplicability of the model of physical change to cultural history.
  5. “The Nautilus and the Drunken Boat,” in Mythologies. trans. Annette Lavers (NY,1972) pp.65-67. In England and America, Verne still tends to be dismissed as a writer of adventure stories for boys. In France, however, he has lately been the subject of considerable critical attention and is becoming recognized as a major 19th-century writer. For an excellent general essay on Verne see Michel Butor, “Le Point Supreme et l’Age d’Or: A Travers Quelques Oeuvres de Jules Verne,” in Répertoire (Paris 1960), pp. 130-62. Marc Angenot surveys recent French studies in two articles both titled “Jules Verne and French Literary Criticism.” SFS 1 (1973):33-37 and SFS 3 (1976):46-49.

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  6. Journey to the Centre of the Earth, trans. Robert Baldick (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1965), 7:47. Further citations are given in parentheses in the text. English translations of Verne being notoriously unreliable, I have checked the relevant passages in Baldick against the original in Le Grand Jules Verne published by the Librairie Hachette.
  7. In supposing the pole to be marked by a volcano opening into the Earth’s interior, Verne was employing the notions of the early 19th-century American proponent of the hollow earth theory, John Cleves Symmes. Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, in which the seas become warm as the explorers approach the South Pole, was probably also influenced by Symmes and was, of course, a major influence on Verne; see The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, ed. Sidney Kaplan (NY: Hill & Wang, 1960), pp. xii-xiv.
  8. Kenneth Allott calls Axel’s dream “Verne’s one poem: the complete marriage of romantic poetry and nineteenth century science”: see Jules Verne (Port Washington, NY: 1970; reissue of 1954 US ed.), p. 103. Allott’s biography is an excellent study of Verne’s relationship to the 19th-century context.
  9. Seven Science Fiction Novels of H.G. Wells (NY: Dover, n.d.),1:1:312. Further citations are given by book:chapter:page number in parentheses in the text.
  10. Understanding that green and blue are in a sense synonymous in the novel’s structure of meaning perhaps helps to gloss the often-noted inconsistency in the description of the Martian poison gas. At 1:15:377 the narrator mentions that spectrum analysis of the remains of the gas indicated “an unknown element giving a group of four lines in the blue of the spectrum.” Later, at 11:10:451, the lines are said to be in the green. One can readily see how Wells may have made the accidental substitution of green for blue.
  11. Samuel L. Hynes and Frank D. McConnell make a similar point about the bacteria in “The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds: Parable and Possibility in H.G. Wells,” in The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds: A Critical Edition, ed. Frank D. McConnell (NY: Oxford UP, 1977), pp. 345-66. McConnell’s edition also reprints a number of standard discussions of Wells, including a selection from Bernard Bergonzi’s important The Early H.G. Wells (Manchester, UK: 1961), the study which remains the point of departure for criticism of Wells’s SF. Valuable discussions of Wells’s SF can also be found in H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Bernard Bergonzi, Twentieth Century Views (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1976) and in H.G. Wells and Modern Science Fiction, ed. Darko Suvin and Robert Philmus (Lewisburg, PA: 1977).
  12. See John Huntington’s excellent “The Science Fiction of H.G. Wells,” in Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, ed. Patrick Parrinder (London, 1979), pp. 34-50.
  13. See “The Alien Encounter: Or, Ms Brown and Mrs Le Guin,” SFS,6 (1979):46-58.
  14. The Mirror of Infinity, ed. Robert Silverberg (NY: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 142.
  15. Solaris, trans. from the French by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox (NY: Berkley, 1971), 81. Further citations are given in parentheses in the text. The Kilmartin and Cox translation, at two removes from the original Polish, is somewhat untrustworthy, and therefore I have tried to avoid arguments that depend upon a particular verbal formulation. In the Polish original, the character “Rheya” is evidently named “Harey” and “Snow” is “Snaut.” See Edward Balcerzan’s fine “Language and Ethics in Solaris,” SFS, 2 (1975):152-56. Among the other useful critical discussions of Lem are Darko Suvin’s suggestive “The Open-Ended Parables of Stanislaw Lem and Solaris.” printed as an afterword to the text in the Berkley edition; David Ketterer’s “Solaris and the Illegitimate Suns of Science Fiction,” in his New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature (Bloomington, IN: 1974). pp. 182-202: and Jerzy Jarzebski’s “Stanislaw Lem, Rationalist and Visionary,” SFS 4 (1977): 110-26.

Copyright © Zvi Har’El
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