Friday, June 28, 2013

Classic Radio Sci-Fi: Solaris - AudioReview

Article author: Alwyn Ash

When the mind is probed and its deepest memories brought to life...

Just imagine that heartbreaking moment when your wife dies, suicide. You have regret, and guilt, and the painful memories that will stay with you for the rest of your life. But what if you were confronted by those memories, what if something delved deep into your thoughts and conjured up a manifestation of the past, a physical entity? This is precisely what happens to psychologist Kris Kelvin when he arrives at a scientific research station high above the oceanic surface of Solaris. What he discovers will change how he sees the Universe forever.

Written by Polish author Stanislaw Lem and published in 1961 (Polish version), "Solaris" chronicled the first contact with extraterrestrial life on a planet whose ocean is discovered to be "alive". Using anti-gravity generators, the Terran-built station becomes the scene of psychological purgatory after the scientists, prior to Kris's visit, engage in unauthorized experimentation by bombarding the ocean lifeform with high-energy X-ray. The ocean's reaction? The creation of mysterious physical entities who have been plucked from the minds of the scientists, confronting them with their most inner painful thoughts.

Though we see little of the torment suffered by crew members Snow (Snaut in Polish) and Sartorius, through Kris we learn much as is relationship with the physical human *simulacrum of his wife, Rheya, develops. We learn that there had been a third scientist, Gibarian. His fate - suicide. The two other scientists are being plagued by manifestations that are gradually causing dangerous paranoia and deep emotional distress.

*which means "likeness, similarity"; late 16th century: from Latin, from simulare

And so to the full cast audio adaptation by BBC Audiobooks. Having known nothing much of this beautiful tale except for Steven Soderbergh's cinematic vision in 2002 (starring George Clooney as Chris Kelvin and Natascha McElhone as Rheya, though honestly I just hadn't taken to the story at that time), it was a delight to be given an opportunity to purchase "Solaris" on double CD. As this was an unknown for me, there was the chance that this story would not be to my liking - I didn't even realise that Joanne Froggatt was involved in the project until unwrapping the package and reading the details.

And so, with the knowledge that the role of Rheya would be handled with the right balance of emotion (anyone who has seen Froggatt perform - think Anna Smith in British period drama "Downton Abbey" - will know the versatility of this young and talented actor), I began listening to "Solaris". And what pure delight it was, from beginning to end!

One cannot help but be drawn firmly in with the direction, music and atmosphere, all handled exceptionally well by everyone involved. The haunting music by composer Alice Trueman certainly has an out-of-this-world feel while at the same time staying grounded enough to give a warmth needed for the gentler moments in the tale; I would almost have believed Gustav Holst to have composed the music, simply breathtaking. Steve Brooke's sound design cannot be faltered at all either, everything sharp, perfectly balanced and true to the piece. With the sound production in quite capable hands, now to the story...

Upon arriving at Solaris from Earth, Kris (played by Ron Cook) encounters the first of the scientists, Snow (Tim McMullan), who seems somewhat distant as their conversation fails to give much away except for the revelation that one of the other men, Doctor Gibarian, is dead. Even the second scientist, Sartorius (Stuart Richman), has locked himself in his laboratory. Something strange has overtaken the crew of the station: fear.

This is a ghost story that isn't about ghosts at all, but the embodiment of regret and guilt. For the most part Kris's only companions are Snow, who is less reclusive than Sartorius, and Rheya. Certainly, the scenes between Kris and his "dead wife" are the most touching and sensitive of all, especially as the former comes to love this simulacrum, developing true feelings for her. Of course, his initial encounter - and response - is somewhat heartbreaking and terrifying at the same time. But that is "Rheya's first visit, and Kris learns that he has been given a second chance. Or perhaps a third, for isn't this an opportunity to be reunited with his beloved, and make amends for a past that has haunted him ever since?

Beautifully dramatised from Lem's original work by Hattie Naylor, and directed by Polly Thomas, I have finally fallen in love with a story that had remained under my radar for far too many years. BBC Audio has produced many excellent titles, however "Solaris" is one that I will treasure for many years to come...

Purchase Solaris from the Starfoyer Enterprise Store:
Audio CD / Book.