A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS
by David Lindsay
272pp/$13.95/2002 (originally published in 1920)
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
David Lindsay's classic "science fiction" novel A Voyage to Arcturus firmly belongs to an early age of speculative writing. Readers who approach the novel looking for stories reminiscent of early Jack Williamson or L. Sprague de Camp, or even Edgar Rice Burroughs will find themselves perplexed at the longevity of Lindsay's novel. The key to reading the book is to enter it with the expectations of reading a philosophical book from another era which uses some of the tropes which eventually found their way into the science fiction genre.
The novel opens at a sťance at the home of Montague Faull. Although it appears that Faull will be the novel's protagonist, he is quickly supplanted by the mysterious Maskull. This sets a theme for the entire novel as Maskull's fate and philosophy are driven by the sudden appearances and disappearances of characters whose entire raison d'etre is to guide him on his quest. Following the advice of the equally mysterious Nightspore and Krag, Maskull finds himself in a deserted Scottish observatory from whence he arrives on Tormance, a strange planet in the Arcturus star system.
Maskull's wanderings across Tormance are theoretically occasioned by his quest for Krag or Surtur, but in fact he seems to simply wander the countryside wherever his various guides and fortune take him. Along the way, he is introduced to a succession of higher beings who inhabit Tormance, each informing him that theirs is the proper way to live. Maskull readily adopts each of these principles, although he begins to formulate a composite philosophy which he pays lip service to, but does not really try to abide by,
The action is lost amongst the various philosophical meanderings, but just because Maskull is open to thoughtful discussions doesn't mean he shies from physical action. He has no compunction about getting into fights (when the philosophy du jour calls for it) and has run ins with strange creatures inhabiting Tormance.
On Tormance, philosophical enlightenment is linked to a creature's physical appearance and abilities, and as Maskull embraces new philosophies, his body alters to indicate his changes. As with so much in A Voyage to Arcturus, Lindsay does not provide any rationale for these physical changes, just notes them for the reader to accept.
Throughout the novel, Maskull and Lindsay both show little faith in human beings, perhaps due to the novel being written in the aftermath of the Great War. This cynicism, however, does not translate well into the opening years of the twenty-first century, even with some of the horrors which have been perpetrated. Similarly, Lindsay's eventual revelation to Maskull seems dated and trite.
While those interested in the history of science fiction or the influences on C.S. Lewis will find much in A Voyage to Arcturus to recommend it, most modern science fiction readers, more familiar with the writings of Heinlein and Sawyer, will find the book tedious and dated in a way that many of Lindsay's contemporaries or predecessors are not.
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