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A Voyage to Arcturus
David Lindsay
Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, 274 pages

A Voyage to Arcturus
David Lindsay
David Lindsay was born in Blackheath, London in 1876. In 1894, he began work in an insurance office, remaining in this job for over twenty years. He married in 1916 and moved from London to the country. His first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, was published in 1920, but sold fewer than 600 copies. Lindsay's second novel, The Haunted Woman (1922), also a fantasy but with a terrestrial setting. He had published three more novels and left two others, The Violet Apple and The Witch, in manuscript form. He died in Hove on 16th July 1945.

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A review by Steven H Silver

David Lindsay's seminal work of science fiction, A Voyage to Arcturus, originally published in 1920, begins with a séance which sets the story in motion. Following the strange séance, Maskull finds himself led by his friend Nightspore and the mysterious Krag to a deserted observatory in Scotland. Krag and Nightspore give Maskull a cock-and-bull story about the planet Tormance, which orbits the star Arcturus. By the time Maskull climbs the tower, he finds himself living on Tormance and beginning a pilgrimage to find the legendary Surtur.

Lindsay's novel fails to include several basic ingredients for a novel. There is little plot, little characterization, and no real motivation for any of the characters' actions. Maskull and Nightspore are introduced almost as supernumeraries at the séance and the characters Lindsay began the novel with simply disappear. Similarly, the individuals who meet and guide Maskull on Tormance appear to be placed along his path for no other reason than to interact with him. Their lives before and after they interact with Maskull are blank, only populated by whatever information Maskull needs to know.

Nevertheless, A Voyage to Arcturus contains many reasons for the reader to dive into its relatively short length (the edition under current discussion is under 280 pages, including afterword by Loren Eisely). The strength of Lindsay's book is his presentation of philosophical musings on the state of humans. Given the initial publication of A Voyage to Arcturus in the aftermath of the Great War, it is not surprising that Lindsay is not particularly optimistic about humanity's ethics.

On Tormance, Maskull encounters numerous people from the time of his appearance to his final reunion with Krag and Nightspore. Each presents him with a manner of living, trying to bring him into their own particular mores. Although Maskull appears to credulously accept each presented philosophy and embrace it whole-heartedly, he also allows each to be superceded by the next value system to come along. He manages to form a cohesive belief system based on his own (unrelated) experiences on Earth as well as what he witnesses and accomplishes on Tormance.

Despite the philosophical leanings of the novel, Lindsay attempts to maintain a level of activity throughout. Maskull's journey is punctuated by his meetings with various inhabitants of Tormance, moments of extreme (although not necessarily explained) violence, and encounters with the protohuman phaens and the draconian shrowks.

The reader who approaches A Voyage to Arcturus expecting to read something for the golden age of science fiction will come away from the experience dissatisfied. Lindsay has more in common with the nineteenth century writings of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, although with neither authors' prose skills. The novel appears to be a mixture of philosophy and the sort of adventure tales which Edgar Rice Burroughs had begun to popularize a few years earlier, although just as Lindsay's writing is not on par with Wells, neither is his action on a level with Burroughs.

Copyright © 2002 Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is a four-time Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer and the editor of the anthologies Wondrous Beginnings, Magical Beginnings, and Horrible Beginnings (DAW Books, January, February and March, 2003). In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is heavily involved in convention running and publishes the fanzine Argentus.

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