Sunday, March 22, 2015


A few years ago I got it in my head that I wanted to do an opera based on Solaris. I reread the book a few times, a book about the impossibility of connecting with an alien intelligence or, for that matter, even knowing if one is confronting an alien intelligence, as well as the psychic shock of such a confrontation and its attendant uncertainties.

There have been at least three films adapting this book, two better-known versions, one by Andrei Tarkovsky and one by Steven Soderbergh, the latter even more than the former concentrating in its Hollywood way on the romantic relationship between the main character and his deceased wife. Lem himself was skeptical of both these adaptations, writing that "the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space." No, the book is about the Solarian ocean, its incomprehensibility and its reaction, possibly intelligent or possibly automatic, like one's skin pushing out a splinter, to the human ants crawling in space above it. As my lovely wife the Empress Rutter has pointed out, films which adapt a book make choices out of the necessity of time, somewhat like operas that adapt a book, but the power of films lies in their reach to the masses, and a film's point of view often becomes the book's point of view, even if the film's point of view has little to do with what the book is about.

I agree with the book - the book unsullied by the movie biz - and its contrarian attitude as to aliens, that they aren't attractive human-like creatures more-or-less like people around us now but wearing less clothing, nor monsters which do not yield to reason nor emotional appeal, but just love to cut through us like knives cutting through cubes of warmed butter ready to be spread on cinnamon toast. I have always been amazed at the naïveté of Voyager's Golden Record, of the SETI project and the Drake equation, of the notion that humans are the pinnacles of evolution, and that supposed scientists fall for this kind of religous thinking, wanting to believe that we are special, that we still are at the center of some aspect of our little universe, that other beings are even beings, that we will all get together on a Sunday afternoon and, after we deal with a few small impediments about their different language, which will be more-or-less like ours but have different words for iPhone and cupcake, they will want to chat with us about mathematics and physics and home economics. In the common scientific world, the Copernican revolution upended only the weakest notion of the religion that came before, the foolishness that we are sitting still while the suns and planets whiz about us, but retaining the foolishness that our particular whims and fancies are at the center of it all anyway.

It's difficult enough to understand the person who sleeps in the same bed with you, or who lives next door, or people that live in another country, those who line up and shoot others who minutely differ from them theologically, and almost impossible to understand people who lived at a different time. All of these people are really quite different from you and me, and you are quite different from me. We try to explain ourselves across this gap, even here in this essay, but the lack of understanding is unbreachable, its nature unknowable. In Certitude and Joy, the chasm between the protagonists, living in the same time and place, is wide, even though one desperately wants the worldview held by the other.

But, like most project ideas, it will probably never happen, and this may be made even more so by my recent discovery that one of my composer friends is also toying with an adaptation of the book, someone who once before informed me that another of my vague projects was being done by someone else, in that case Steven Mackey's Ravenshead, which adapted the Donald Crowhurst story. I suppose I could just do it anyway, and maybe that would be an asshole move, or maybe we could have a mini-festival of Solaris operas, followed by a dance where, late into the drunken and darkened night, we would find ourselves trying to reach that ultimate connection, that miniature death where ego disappears and two or three or more are one.

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