Lesabendio: An Asteroid Novel
US: Nov 2012
Well, this is a strange book indeed, a kind of proto-science fiction that has more in common with the surreal dreamscapes of Yves Tanguy and René Magritte than the technological imaginings of fantasists like Jules Verne and HG Wells. Lesabendio was first published in Germany in 1913, and author Paul Scheerbart had little interest in the mechanical trappings and scientific veneer of what would soon become a recognizable genre. His focus lay elsewhere, rendering Lesabendio a dreamlike fantasia that dispenses with character and plot in all but the most rudimentary ways. The author strives to replace these with an otherworldly setting, an endless array of fantastical surprises, and—possibly—a slyly satiric take on human motivations and foibles. These elements are all interesting enough, but contemporary readers are nonetheless likely to find this a disorienting read, and possibly a laborious one.
Lesabendio takes place on the asteroid Pallas—referred to as a “star” throughout the book—which is barrel-shaped, with an interior shaped like two funnels, oriented north and south, which face one another so the narrow ends join in the middle. This unlikely celestial object measures 40 miles across and is populated by an even more unlikely array of creatures, of whom the titular Lesabendio is one. Our introduction to him in the very first paragraphs of the novel make clear just how strikingly different this world, and its attendant species, is going to be: “Lesabendio made his suction-foot very wide and stuck it firmly against the jagged stone cliff… He then stretched his body, which consisted of nothing but a rubbery tube-leg with a suction-cup foot at one end, more than fifty meters high into the violet atmosphere.”
Moments later, “Lesabendio’s head rose into the air [and] the rubbery skin of his head began to unfurl like an umbrella. Then it slowly shut itself up again, hiding his face, and his scalp began to turn into a pipe, open at the front. His face appeared on its back-surface, from which two long telescopic eyes protruded, eyes which Lesabendio could use to effortlessly gaze at the green stars, just as if he were near them.”
Clearly we’re in fantasy territory here, which is fine—Scheerbart writes about stars and planets and satellites, but he might as well be writing of fairies and unicorns and talking trees. Confusion strikes the reader at times, as the characters converse and interact; they all have one-word names like Biba and Peka, Manesi and Dex, and they all tend to be characterized in the broadest possible terms. This one is obsessed with crystalline structure, that one performs endless experiments in his laboratory, this one wants to build an enormous tower into the heavens, and so forth.
In fact it is the building of this tower that lends the novel whatever narrative drive it has—not that it has a great deal, as the author spends much time on detours concerning such topics as reproduction, death, sleep, and food production on the planet Pallas. Some of these meanderings are engaging enough, and many are suitably imaginative, clever, and droll, but inevitably they break up the story’s forward momentum, which is tenuous to begin with.
Regardless, the tower’s construction—as well as the factors which inhibit it—lies at the heart of the story. The tower is Lesbendio’s obsession, and he dreams of a structure ten miles high that will pierce the permanent shrouds of mist that obscures the sky above Pallas’s northern end. To this end, he enlists the aid of various other characters, some of whom are more enthusiastic than others, and he also causes the population of the planet to increase fivefold. (It’s not what you’re thinking.) This leads to issues concerning the food supply, which require more effort to solve…
Lesabendio also engages in a little off-world excursion, journeying (by accident) with his friend Biba to a nearby planet and befriending a species of tiny, whimsical alien creatures whose assistance proves vital to his plans with the tower. It’s not too terribly much of a spoiler to reveal that the tower’s construction carries with it an array of spectacular and unforeseen consequences.
Scheerbert excels at description, but the writing here isn’t always smooth. At times he into the trap of overexplaining, as if losing track of what is tuly alien and is, in fact, common sense. Concerning the production of a much-needed healing balm, we are told, “He needed three days and three nights of continuous work by one hundred thousand Pallasians for the process.” Then we are told: “Making the salve took a great deal of effort.” Well, obviously. That second sentence is unnecessary.
Ultimately, despite a fine and fluid translation by Christina Svendsen, this book is a curiosity more than anything else. It holds interest as a view of the cosmos from a hundred years ago, a kind of whimsical snapshot reflecting the general public’s growing awareness of extraterrestrial worlds and the possibility of life upon them. As a droll but serious-minded warning concerning the effects of industrialization, technological advancement, and resource depletion, it may well have been prophetic. As a satisfying piece of storytelling, though, it’s more problematic. Modern readers tend to look for stories that engage their heart as well as their intellect. There is little of that to be found under the violet skies of Pallas.