Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel
by Paul Scheerbart
Wakefield Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012
280 pp., 16 illus., b/w. Trade, $15.95
Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver
An interesting first approach to Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel is to acknowledge its influence on prominent early Twentieth Century thinkers and artists. Its author, Paul Scheerbart (1863-1915), was a novelist, playwright, poet, newspaper critic, draughtsman, visionary, proponent of glass architecture, and would-be inventor of perpetual motion. His ideas inspired avant-garde art and architectural circles, especially the so-called Glass Chain movement, a group that included architects Walter Gropius, Bruno Taut, and Hans Scharoun. His ideas also influenced the mystical and Romantic strains of early Expressionism, Futurism, Bauhaus, German Dada, and German science fiction literature. Gershom Scholem presented a copy of Lesabéndio to philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin as a wedding present, who, in a glowing review, lauds Scheerbart’s serene vision and calls him a humorist who never forgets that Earth is a heavenly body.
For Benjamin, technology sped up the process of turning its artifacts into commodities, along with the workers who produced them, thus alienating people from each other and the fruit of their labor. Says Benjamin, instead of accumulating experiences or wisdom, societies so affected by technology spend all their time filtering continuous, discrete bits of disconnected information, distracted in their reaction to rapidly changing social structures.
In Lesabéndio, however, the inhabitants of the imaginary star Pallus, make no rigid dichotomy between technology and nature, between themselves and technology, or between themselves and the surrounding natural world. Rather, they follow two preconditions Benjamin thought essential for humans on Earth: disregard of the belief that it is our task to exploit the forces of nature, and belief that technology, by liberating human beings, will liberate the whole of creation.
The star Pallas is a rugged, mountainous topography overlaid with an urban metropolis highlighted by many lighthouses. Moving beltways provide transportation between the northern and southern halves of Pallas. A glowing cobweb-cloud surrounds the planet and provides its light source.
Pallasians are organic parts of their home star. They have one rubber-like leg, with a suction cup at its end, convenient for attaching themselves to any surface. They expand and shrink various parts of their bodies in order to see at a distance, shelter themselves at night, or propel themselves via a method of high speed bouncing. They smoke bubble weed in mushroom meadows until they fall asleep under violet skies and green stars.
And, thus, we have another way to conceptualize the novel: as an ecological science fiction story. Lesabéndio, the hero of the novel, persuades all Pallasians to build a 44-mile high tower, utilizing newly discovered Kaddimohn steel in order to connect the two halves of their double star. An unintended effect is that the height of the tower alters Pallas’ center of gravity, which in turn changes the Pallasians’ internal nature as well as the form and function of the star on which they live. As a result, Lesabéndio achieves a nearly unimaginable level of consciousness, sensory perception, and communication abilities heretofore only experienced by astronomical entities like stars, asteroids, and the Central Sun of his local galaxy.
Lesabéndio, the novel, was ecological before ecology was a discipline, and science fiction before it was a literary genre. But, the novel may also be read as a political parable about the dangers and necessities of conflict. For example, Peka, an artist who believes in art for art’s sake, wants to decorate the tower. Lesabéndio, on the other hand, wants to use the tower to aid and transform Pallas. Peka loses to Lesabéndio, who absorbs Peka through his pores, nonviolently making Peka a part of himself. This highlights Scheerbart’s idea that technology must be integrated into the natural world and subordinated to values greater than itself in order for humans to live in a world that is at once harmonious and worthwhile. Rather than a tool for altering and reconfiguring both nature and the surface of Pallas, technology alters its users and their ecological and cosmic niche.
But, far from programmatic, Scheerbart is unsettling, quirky, and ironic in his humor and parody. The fact that pain and injuries are so rare on Pallas that they are remembered by only the oldest living beings, might be an echo of Neo-Darwinist understanding of nature not so brutally based on one species exterminating another. The mystical union Lesabéndio undergoes with the star Pallas might echo Nietzsche’s superman. The cooperative consensus among Pallasians might echo thoughts of applied art, where art and technology should serve the spiritual needs of the people. Finally, the novel might be read as a pastiche of scientific texts, even while questioning the ability of such texts to summarize and objectify knowledge.
And so, yet another way to approach Lesabéndio: as part science, part art, part humor. Scheerbart’s odd humor, with its ability to estrange so much of our usual experience, makes the novel Lesabéndio both a challenge and delight to read, wrecking havoc as it does with assumptions about fiction and expectations about physical reality. This is, however, offset by the double star (two stars orbiting around a common center of mass) nature of the novel. The other, equally offsetting yet attractive result is that Lesabéndio becomes a novel about the future that we can read in the present. The dangers of ecological crisis and the opportunity for planetary transformative renewal portrayed in the novel are very much real today. A reconfiguration of one’s relationship with the planet one inhabits and its relation to other stars, as portrayed in the novel, speaks to the strand of current/future posthumanism celebrating disembodied information. In the end, Lesabéndio provides a surprising look at future alternative visions that is as fresh today as it was in the past when originally written.
Lesabéndio is often considered Scheerbart’s master work---his other works include The Development of Aerial Militarism and The Perpetual Motion Machine---but, published in German, in 1913, on the eve of World War I, its ability to wield wider influence was, arguably, cut short. This first English translation by Christina Svendsen and publication is especially welcome.