Tuesday, November 08, 2011

A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

I have no critical expertise with regard to science fiction, and don’t count myself as a particular fan of the genre, but no such expertise is necessary in making the assertion that A Voyage to Arcturus is a seminal novel with far reaching influence in the realms of science fiction and fantasy. Published in 1920 in the aftermath of the Great War, Lindsay’s novel represents a quest for a utopia, a philosophical search for the ideal condition to which man must aspire, but doomed to end in the pessimism which was the enduring legacy of that war. Tweedy ol’ Professor Lewis found in this book inspiration for his own Space Trilogy, and recommended it highly to Professor Tolkien. Decades later, Harold Bloom praised the novel enthusiastically, and, picking up on the many Gnostic elements in the tale, attempted a sequel, a Gnostic fantasy entitled The Flight to Lucifer.

There are certainly others who have made a touchstone of this novel. It is a classic of science fiction, but not the comparatively mundane sci-fi of Verne and Wells, but rather a whole different breed. There is little in the way of hardware or mechanics of space travel: there are no ray-guns or esoteric technologies (the means by which the protagonist, Maskull reaches the Arcturian planet Tormance is almost laughable: the flimsy spacecraft is projected back to Arcturus by means of some “reverse rays”, kept corked in a bottle, which travel back to their source), but one can easily imagine the producers of a film like “Avatar” seeking inspiration in the exotic and dynamic life forms of Tormance.

The hero Maskull, who is himself a bit of an odd duck on planet Earth, witnesses a strange physical manifestation during a séance in an English country house. He is approached by a stranger, the demonic Krag, who proposes that he and a companion meet at an abandoned observatory in order to partake in a particular adventure – travel to the region of Arcturus, a distant binary star system. The scenes in the observatory are weird enough, for the structure is clearly a portal through time and space, but once on Tormance, the magical mystery tour begins in earnest. I won’t catalogue the personalities Maskull encounters in the strange realms of this distant world. His adventures are rather episodic, with each encounter exemplifying a particular lifestyle seen by its adherents as ideal, and while there are various ethical and moral viewpoints presented, Lindsay most definitely has some perspectives on sexuality that were ahead of their time.

Once on Tormance, Maskull finds he has the peculiar ability to sprout (and lose) extra limbs and manifest new sense organs as necessitated by the situation. This seems to be entirely appropriate to the planet, which in itself seems to be in a constant state of dynamic change. There are strange life forms and landscapes that seem to mutate constantly, and new colors occasioned by the fact that each of the two suns around which the planet revolves emit an idiosyncratic spectrum of light. One can detect some Buddhist concepts floating around in this novel, none perhaps so obvious as the Buddha’s admonition that “change is inherent in all things”: on Tormance, change appears to be fast and constant. Lindsay invents some remarkable descriptions for the planet, and they are one of the beauties of this well-imagined novel.

Another peculiarity of Tormance is that it appears to be a sort of ghost world. The entities that Maskull encounters are almost all solitary, or at least live in solitary surroundings. Again, there is no indication of “civilization”, and no evidence of advanced technologies. The higher powers, which must be imagined as dieties, seem to be specific to the planet, and do not seem to possess omnipotence, another mark of the Gnostic demiurge. It almost seems to be a planet of anchorites, each integrated into a unique landscape, or perhaps into its own private heaven or hell.

Maskull was invited to Tormance with the full understanding that his death would be inevitable. The few days’ time in which the narrative takes place form a quest, a quest for a Gnostic demiurge known variously as Shaping, Surtur, and Crystalman (the latter being known primarily through the sardonic death mask which reshapes the face of the deceased immediately after death - a remembrance, perhaps, of the war dead Lindsay had seen in the trenches). One must also mention that Maskull has the odd and disturbing compulsion to murder just about every sentient being that crosses his path on this alien world, either through anger, self defense, or simple misadventure. Maskull is quite the fickle soul, making an earnest promise to the first ethereal space sylph he meets to abstain from eating any living thing during his sojourn (the intoxicating water should suffice), but abandoning the vow at the first whiff of some extraterrestrial barbecue. In fact, for all his avowed independence, Maskull seems to be putty in the hands of every alien he meets, coming round to each of their unique philosophical points of view with alarming facility. The downside of this (for the alien, that is) is that he doesn’t need much persuasion to bash one alien’s head in with a handy rock so that he can move on to the next chapter of his intergalactic pilgrim’s progress, for Maskull is heading for a revelation, and he ain’t got time to waste.

Fascinating as it is in places, A Voyage to Arcturus has, through much of its narrative a rather tedious quality for the 21st century reader. It is one of those influential novels the daring of which has become blunted with time and imitations, but which was close to inaccessible for its contemporaries. It is certainly a necessary read for anyone interested in the roots of modern fantasy and science fiction. It is available as a volume in Gollancz’s excellent “Fantasy Masterworks” series, and in an edition of Bison’s equally worthwhile “Frontiers of Imagination” series.

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