The New Abyss

Translated from German by Daniel Ableev and Sarah Kassem

This summer at Weird Fiction Review, we’re featuring weird science fiction stories that we uncovered while doing research for The Big Book of Science Fiction. To kick off this series, we’re featuring a story by early-20th-century German writer Paul Scheerbart. Another one of Scheerbart’s stories, “The New Overworld,” appears in The Big Book of Science Fiction.

Illustration by Helmut Glatz

Illustration by Helmut Glatz

“How is it possible,” said Mr. Töpfer, “to bear so quietly all the transformations that are allotted to us here on earth! Great innovations happen every day. Our culture develops at such a rapid pace that elderly people just can’t keep up anymore.”

“Take comfort in reading,” said Mrs. Malwine Pate, “we all must try to comfort ourselves by reading. Why else are so many books written and printed? That’s because we are supposed to read them. Forget the newspapers – read books.”

And so the conversation went between two old people in the great Andean hotel on the summit of Chimborazo, in the spring of the year 3300. Outside the snow was meters high, but in the guest room of the hotel a pleasant warmth prevailed. The morning sun glittered on the frost patterns of the big mirror windows, and Mrs. Malwine Pate asked Mr. Töpfer if she should read something to him.

“Yes,” said Mr. Töpfer, “do read. It helps to forget Europe and America. We are not obliged to always think about the transformations we witness on the surface of the earth. It doesn’t make anything better.”

“On other stars,” said Mrs. Pate, “you will find even greater transformations. I’m going to read a chapter to you which tells about such a transformation.” And Mrs. Pate read the following:

A Spoke In the Wheel

Klips looked like a round loaf of bread. And at the center of the star the Long-Legged Ones wanted to build a great palace. They began by ramming huge, long poles through the center, but that didn’t work out too well, because the poles sank into the ground too easily and went deeper and deeper – and found no support below. All efforts to prevent the sinking of the poles failed – the entire ground gave way and the Long-Legged Ones were forced to withdraw to the outer rim of the star. The builders got a spoke in their wheels: They were forced to give up constructing a palace in the middle of their star. Right there, a large, wide hole formed – a new abyss. And this abyss grew deeper day by day, and on the other side of the star, a huge mountain emerged. The mountain grew higher and higher, while the abyss became deeper and deeper. As the Long-Legged Ones were forced to live on the outer rim of the star, all of their life habits underwent a sudden change. They couldn’t climb the mountain that had formed on the other side, because the mountain grew hotter every day. Soon, the star looked like a pointy hat, and the Long-Legged Ones strolled along their new abyss and looked down into the opening. And they couldn’t enter the abyss, because it was very hot as well. Every inhabitant of the star had six long legs, which made it was impossible to walk much on the rim, because the rim became narrower and narrower. The worst thing was that many residences on both sides of the star were destroyed by the emergence of the mountain and the abyss. They had no idea where to stay. Everybody settled very closely to each other on the rim, and the Long-Legged Ones started to erect very high houses with hundreds of storeys. Then the Klipsians looked out of their windows into the new abyss, and they had no idea what it would lead to. One day, there was a horrible bang at the bottom of the abyss. And the abyss was torn apart deep inside, so that a huge hole was formed, through which one could see other stars in space. No one could explain the cause for this stellar transformation. But all the Six-Legged Ones lived now closely together and got to know each other – in the past everybody would have avoided everybody else as much as possible.

***

“Ah!” said Mr. Töpfer, “so the star has transformed only to bring the long-legged gentlemen closer to one another.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Malwine, “this seems to be the cause for the transformation. When something is transformed here on earth, then there is surely a good reason for that as well. We just can’t figure it out fast enough.” In the meantime, the frost patterns on the mirrors had thawed, and they looked out into the magnificent mountainscape. But when their eyes started hurting from the sheer brightness of all the snow, Mrs. Pate asked if she may read another chapter from her “Klips” novel. Mr. Töpfer agreed, and Mrs. Malwine read the following:

The Telescope

The view into the new abyss was very interesting for the Long-Legged Ones; they didn’t get tired at all of looking downwards, for it was very busy down there. Bubbles constantly rose up – and then a glassy mass took shape and gradually formed into a lens. And one day the Long-Legged Ones saw all the stars below greatly enlarged: A natural telescope had formed down there. Now everybody on the star Klips felt blissful, for the sight of the great stars was far more magnificent than everything else they had experienced until now. One could also see comets – just as if they were nearby. And there one could see distinctly that the comets were colossal light serpents with diamond heads – yes, it was quite visible that the heads sparkled like diamonds. And the strangest beams emanated from those diamond heads – in manifoldly arched curves. And then one saw in close proximity a multitude of little stars of all possible forms and shapes. Klips’ entire environment suddenly seemed to liven up. Some of the Long-Legged Ones were now climbing down into the great cauldron, and they realized that its walls were getting cooler bit by bit. And then there was much more to be seen down there; the whole world suddenly came alive for the Long-Legged Ones. Now they started building chain bridges which then connected both sides of the funnel. That’s how they discovered the locations/spots with the best view through the natural glass lens. And then so many bridges were built that all the Klipsians could settle in the center of the great crater. And there, right in the middle of it, they lived even closer together. But this transformation of the star was still not the last one in a long series of transformations. Single parts of the crust from the lower big mountain cone came off like pieces of skin. Slowly, they bent upwards and over the rim, so that on the rim of the planet high walls were formed behind those 100-storey-high houses; this finally rendered the entire star a colossal tube. And afterwards other natural glass lenses formed on top of one another in the lower part of the crater so that the Long-Legged Ones had to detach their chain bridges from the inner walls of the funnel. One had to constantly mount the chain bridges at much higher positions, which allowed an even better view through the ever-enlarging lenses. And as once again more and more lenses formed in the higher parts of the abyss, one had to go higher and higher inside the huge tube, until finally the peaks of the new walls were connected by chain bridges. This natural telescope improved more and more, and one could see better and better through the lenses. And one saw more and more – and more. And the Long-Legged Ones exclaimed in awe: “Who built us this telescope? Is our star so kind that it transformed into a telescope in order to please us?” And they didn’t know what to think of it. But they had no doubt anymore that their star, which they had called Klips, was an almighty, living giant; only they weren’t quite able to explain how it came about that a giant could transform into a telescope. But then they gazed even more closely through their star telescope and discovered now in many other stars so many more transformations that the transformation of their home star seemed perfectly natural. In order to honor their star, they called it from now on “The Great One” – and spoke of it with great adoration.

***

“That,” said Mr. Töpfer after Mrs. Pate had closed her book, “is quite a comforting story. If such transformations with those kinds of results take place on other stars, we actually don’t need to worry much anymore about the transformations our earth’s surface is destined to suffer.”

“Yes,” Mrs. Malwine replied, “the new swimming islands that have formed in the Great Ocean are likely to make our life only richer in the end.”

“And the great plateau in North Asia,” said Mr. Töpfer, “is probably also going to create something wholly new.”

At this very moment, the landlord entered the guest room and exclaimed breathlessly: “Ladies and gentlemen, just now I’ve received a telegram which says that rift formations appeared in the North Asian plateau. And out of these rifts brand-new, fire-red dragons came flying. And these dragons are very intelligent creatures; they claim that they’ve lived inside the earth for many millennia – and that they are glad to finally see the great sunlight.”

“That certainly sounds like a fairy tale!” said Mrs. Pate, but she read the telegram and threw her hands up in despair.

“How are we,” said Mr. Töpfer, “to endure all these transformations?”

“But,” exclaimed the landlord, “that’s no disaster! Now we don’t need to socialize only with humans anymore. I’m inviting the red dragon people over to stay a few years in my Andean hotel. That way I’ll always have a full house.”

And eight days later there already were two dragon people in the Andean hotel – and the landlord was beside himself with delight – and Mr. Töpfer, too – and Mrs. Malwine Pate – as well –

Paul Scheerbart (1863–1915) was a multitalented German author and artist of fantasy and science fiction (under his own name and the pseudonym “Kuno Küfer”). In addition to his art, fiction, and poetry, Scheerbart envisioned vast idealistic engineering and architectural projects aimed at creating a better world, and he also tried to create a perpetual-motion machine. Blurring the lines between fact and fancy, Scheerbart incorporated all his interests into both his fiction and his nonfiction. An alcoholic who spent most of his life in poverty before he died in World War I, Scheerbart founded the Verlag Deutscher Phantasten (Publishers of German Fantasists) in 1892. In 1914, Scheerbart published the work best-known during his lifetime, Glasarchitektur (Glass Architecture), which, shamefully, was not published in English until 1972. These fantastical essays and poems about glass architecture influenced noted theorist and philosopher Walter Benjamin on his Arcades Project, an impressionistic glimpse in fragments of the streets of Paris. None of Scheerbart’s other work had been published in English prior to Glass Architecture, and even today he remains little known in the English-language world, despite a sumptuous retrospective and several translations that have appeared since 2001.

Originally from Novosibirsk, Russia, Daniel Ableev is a certified strangeologist living in Bonn, Germany. He has studied law and comparative literature. His work has been published in German and English online at The Dream People and elsewhere, and he is the author of the novel Alu. Ableev is the coeditor of Die Novelle—Zeitschrift für Experimentelles.

Sarah Kassem lives in Bonn, Germany. She is the author of the tetralogy Betula Pendula and coeditor of Die Novelle—Zeitschrift für Experimentelles.

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