A Voyage to Arcturus

David Lindsay was another writer affected by the First World War. Prior to the war he was an insurance clerk with Lloyd’s of London, after being unable to take up a scholarship to university, but afterwards he moved to Cornwall with his family to write. A Voyage to Arcturus, published in 1920, was his first novel, famously unsuccessful though influential (on, for example, C S Lewis). He continued to write throughout the twenties, including two novels (The Violet Apple and The Witch) which were not published until thirty years after his death, in the seventies. Despite this, A Voyage to Arcturus has rarely fallen out of print and is frequently included in lists of important science fiction or fantasy novels.

A Voyage to Arcturus begins with a séance (also popular in the aftermath of World War One) but unusually almost all the characters introduced in this conventional opening are irrelevant to the novel. Only three, all strangely named and uninvited, will be seen again: Maskull, Nightspore and Krag. Maskull and Nightspore appear together, though we are told nothing of their relationship:

“The two strangers remained standing by the door, which was closed quietly behind them. They seemed to be waiting for the mild sensation caused by their appearance to subside before advancing into the room.”

Krag appears (“the door burst open violently”) after the séance has begun and a “phantom body” has appeared:

“Before anyone realised what he was doing he encircled the soft white neck of the materialised shape with his hairy hands and, with a double turn, twisted it completely round. A faint unearthly shriek sounded, and the body fell in a heap to the floor.”

Such sudden and inexplicable acts of violence, so shocking here, are commonplace throughout the novel which, from this point, challenges conventional notions of morality. Afterwards Krag claims that the apparition came from Tormance, the one inhabited planet orbiting Arcturus, and tells Maskull that he can take him there. Maskull and Nightspore arrange to meet Krag at his observatory in the north of Scotland, at Starkness, where they will undertake the trip from the top of a tower. If this sounds unlikely that is because Lindsay is not interested in the science of space travel; instead we have a bottle labelled ‘Arcturian Back Rays’ and a tower which, the further you climb, the more intense the gravity. The journey itself is covered only briefly:

“The torpedo glided gently from its platform, and passed rather slowly away from the tower seaward… Krag then released the speed valve, and the car sped on its way with a velocity more nearly approaching that of thought than of light.”

The idea of travelling at the speed of thought indicates that, for Lindsay, this is a journey of the mind.

When Maskull awakes he is alone, and, again, Lindsay is happy to drop characters from the narrative as it suits him. This will be a repeated pattern as Maskull travels across Tormance where he will meet an inhabitant who, once Lindsay has exhausted their philosophical potential, will disappear or die, sometimes at Maskull’s hands. Also typically, Maskull finds he has physically changed on arrival:

“He felt something hard on his forehead. Putting his hand up, he discovered there a fleshy protuberance, the size of a small plum, having a cavity on the middle, of which he could not feel the bottom. Then he also became aware of a large knob on each side of his neck, an inch below the ear. From the region of his heart, a tentacle had budded.”

This is one aspect of the great originality of the novel: not only do the different characters of Tormance display different physical attributes, but Maskull adopts these too. These extra organs are often related to communication, as is the case with the first person he meets, Joiwind, who speaks in “an inaudible language”:

“This time he discovered that the sense of what she said was received by his brain through the organ on his forehead.”

Joiwind is the most peaceful and harmless person he meets on his travels, drinking only water as, “We don’t eat living things. The thought is horrible to us.” However not all of Tormance is so gentle, the next person he meets, Oceaxe, telling him:

“…animals were made to be eaten, and simple natures made to be absorbed.”

Thus he will encounter the philosophies of those he meets, not unlike Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, albeit there is no overriding dogma to create a clear sense of revelation. Maskull’s meeting with Oceaxe is also the first indication of Lindsay’s preoccupation with gender, with the suggestion that Maskull’s new organs make him more female than male.

And so the novel continues in this vein, no doubt becoming tiresome for some readers who look for more in the way of plot and character. Its great strength is its originality, both in terms of the worlds which Lindsay creates and in his uncompromising attitude to his readership – at times it feels more like a vision than a fiction. While this means it is unlikely ever to be best seller, for the same reason it will continue to make an impression on those who read it.


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10 Responses to “A Voyage to Arcturus”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Great choice, Grant! I’ve often considered reading this. It sounds very inventive and thought-provoking, if flawed – putting your vision into a book only tends to make it a great one if you clothe it in a narrative that keeps readers involved! 😀

  2. Amateur Reader (Tom) Says:

    Crazy, crazy book. Quite a book. I do think there is an overriding dogma, though, some kind of Schopenhauerish gnosticism. I should read Lindsay’s followup, which also sounds insane, and see if his ideas develop.

    • 1streading Says:

      I’ve read The Haunted Woman which is a bit tamer (i.e. more grounded in reality), as I believe his his other books are. I do have a copy of The Violet Apple – once hard to find, but now all his novels are available as ebooks.

  3. Reese Warner Says:

    I’ve long been interested in this but never read it. Sounds strange but fascinating. Thanks!

  4. Simon T Says:

    I’m really glad someone covered this, because I read it this week and didn’t have a clue what to say about it, so didn’t! It wasn’t for me, though its originality is stunning, especially for the period. I’ve done quite a lot of research in The Haunted Woman, which is more my level, and I’ve even read Sphinx. For me, his originality works better when tethered a bit more to the ground.

    • 1streading Says:

      I think you’re probably right. I also found it very hard to describe, and I certainly didn’t want to go through each and every other character he meets! It’s a book you feel you understand as you read it, but less so when finished!

  5. Lory Says:

    I have read this and it was just so weird! Not Simon’s type of book at all … it was interesting to read considering its influence on later writers, but in itself, just too strange for me to enjoy personally.

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