It’s not often that I write about novels that I think are just plain bad; life is short and there are so many other things I could be writing about. But I’ve been thinking a lot about Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris lately, and the book I’m going to discuss is part of the literary hinterland.
I taught Solaris this term, as a result of which I not only read it again after many years (both translations) but also finally got around to watching the Tarkovsky film and overcame my dislike of George Clooney sufficiently to watch the Soderbergh remake as well, and indeed to enjoy it, despite George Clooney.
It was while I was in the middle of this minor Solaris jag that I came across Sharon Lynn Fisher’s Ghost Planet (Tor, 2012). According to her article on SF Signal Fisher was inspired first by seeing the Soderbergh film, which in turn sent her back to Lem’s novel. And it just so happened she had a title – Ghost Planet, a rather banal title if we are honest – in need of a story. You can probably see where this is heading.
In truth, I knew my engagement with this novel wasn’t going to end well when I read ‘Where Lem pretty much left it up to the reader to decide on the true nature of the alien intelligence, I wanted to explore and flesh out this concept.’ Because, though I may have misunderstood Lem in this, I had rather thought the point was that hitherto it had been absolutely impossible for the human scientists to comprehend the ‘alien intelligence’. Indeed, the entire novel was based on a double inability to communicate and comprehend; as the scientists experiment with Solaris, so it is experimenting with them, and has chosen to do so through making material the fragments of thought and ideas that weigh most heavily on its ‘subjects’: in Kelvin’s case this happens to be his dead wife, Rheya/Harey
Fisher goes on to say ‘I stuck with the idea that the nature of the ghosts was obscured (in my story, due to the fact they were created by a symbiotic planetary ecosystem without consciousness). But I wanted their true nature to be at least somewhat discoverable and accessible.’ Which is surely not only having one’s cake but also eating it. And, as it turns out, first smothering it in marshmallow fluff before consuming it and then sliding into a sugar-induced orgasm.
Let’s go back to the beginning. The story is simple. The first-person narrator, is Elizabeth Cole, a psychology postgraduate on the run from a failed relationship, who has managed to get herself a posting on Ardagh 1, ‘more commonly referred to as “the ghost planet” by people on Earth’, just in case we’re in any doubt as to what is likely to be going on here (and what an ugly piece of writing that is – it’s the sort of thing that overly precocious teenagers write before they learn better). The point is that new arrivals on New Seattle very quickly acquire a companion, a companion somehow created by the planet itself. Usually it’s a dead lover, spouse or relation to whom they’ve been close, though in certain circumstances, it can be someone else with whom the new arrival has formed a bond of some sort along the way. Garvey, for example, made a drunken pass at a young woman who turned out to be a lesbian (though in this instance, they’ve formed a strong if prickly companionate bond, so that’s ok, isn’t it?). With Elizabeth, it turns out that Grayson Murphy, who would have been her supervisor on Ardagh 1, was also once her tour guide somewhere in Ireland, and for some reason, she has apparently stuck in his mind. To say this is convenient is to be even more disingenuous than the novel turns out to be.
To begin with, no one, certainly not Elizabeth, realises that she has become a ‘ghost’, not until she fails to pass through a security scanner, almost simultaneously with the arrival of the news of her death. This discovery initiates a complete volte-face in Grayson Murphy’s behaviour as he initiates the Ghost Protocol, designed to cope with the ghosts by ignoring them completely, in the hope they will go away (although it is also clear that some humans and ghosts maintain relationships away from the public gaze) and treating them harshly. By all accounts, this is not working too well but it is seen as rather better than what happened previously, with settlers being sent back to earth as shattered wrecks. For the ghosts, their material wants are provided for by ghost depots which carry second-hand clothes and poor food. (I think we may be expected to draw all sorts of political parallels from this but the colonial subtext is hand-wavingly crude.) Hitherto, the ghosts have mostly complied meekly with this but, given the story is narrated by Elizabeth herself, we can guess that it’s not going to happen this time, otherwise what would be the point of having the whole novel? Thus, Elizabeth easily tramples through the protocol to find out what she needs to know. Because Something needs to be done about this, not least because she can’t bear the thought of losing Murphy.
Those familiar with the various versions of Solaris will see how this situation has arisen but whereas we see Kelvin and Harey/Rheya struggling to make sense of her existence and the ways in which she is transformed by her new relationship with him, and he in turn being forced to literally face his guilt about Rheya/Harey’s suicide, Fisher manages to reduce this to a script that more or less goes ‘oh, he’s so handsome, I couldn’t bear to lose him, how dare he ignore me, we must overcome this Ghost Protocol and live happily ever after’. That might also be an interesting story if it could rise above the basic tropes of the romance novel, which seem to be ‘flirty flirty, no, I can’t possibly go to bed with you, oh dear, that was a mistake, we mustn’t do that again but you know we can’t keep our hands off each other’ and so forth.
It is, though, very difficult to believe in either Murphy or Elizabeth as high-flying postgraduate scholars. Yes, of course, Murphy has staked his career on devising the Ghost Protocol, which Elizabeth is now trying to undermine, but the tension between them, such as it is, is more about how well and how often their bodies can fit together (remarkably well, it seems, and as often as the plot demands; the term ‘ghost’ is quite definitely a misnomer and ‘when in doubt, fuck’ is very much the order of the day.
By this time, the story needs some sort of conspiracy to keep it going, and along with the revelation that it is in fact possible for humans and ghosts to become detached from one another comes the mysterious private facility to which Elizabeth is taken after she is kidnapped. One starts here to think of Philip Pullman’s General Oblation Board in His Dark Materials, and the separation of children and their daemons. Indeed, the ‘evil’ scientist Mitchell has a very interesting plan to separate humans and ghosts and use the ghosts as slave labour which, fortunately, is stymied at the last minute. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Murphy, reunited, are rescued from imprisonment and join a group of renegade ghosts, who practise the Ghost Protocol on their humans. I know, what an about-face that is.
Throughout all this, Elizabeth and various others have been working towards a notion that the relationship between the ghosts and the humans is meant to be symbiotic rather than based on rejection, and that the human refusal to engage is destablising the planet. Where the protocol is ignored, relationships are fertile – literally, as plants start springing up out of cracks in the ground and so on. Oh, and of course, thanks to the devilish Mitchell, Elizabeth is now pregnant by Murphy (echoing Rheya’s pregnancy and abortion in the Soderbergh film), which is a bit of a problem when her ex-lover, Peter, turns up. Luckily, with his being a journalist, he is equipped to help them expose what is happening on Ardagh 1 and to ensure that everyone lives happily ever after, because of course this is a romance.
So, is this what should have happened to Kelvin and Rheya/Harey? In a world in which Kelvin is played by George Clooney, inevitably. There is a sense that this novel is for those who didn’t get the ending of the Soderbergh film, an ending which is rather more sophisticated than the rest of the film would initially suggest, but I can see that the ‘well, did they, did they not live happily ever after, dead or alive’ ending would not satisfy those who like certainties. And Ghost Planet is undoubtedly a novel concerned with certainties. From the moment one starts reading, it’s clear that this novel can end in only one way, and for all the intermittent obfuscation along the way , the blood and tears and bruising and death are always temporary. It is a win-slightly painful win situation.
In the end, Ghost Planet is novel as frightfully efficient storytelling machine, with all its plot points lined up neatly, its characters popped out of their moulds and trimmed, its language oiled and functional, the whole thing so overworked as to be stripped totally of absolutely anything that might make it interesting. It’s not terribly good science fiction, and it’s definitely a dull and predictable romance. There are occasional flashes of something that might have been but that’s all.
I imagine Stanislaw Lem spinning in his grave.