Saturday, 4 August 2001

David Lindsay: A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)

Edition: Canongate, 1998
Review number: 894

A Voyage to Arcturus is one of the great eccentric novels which helped influence the development of science fiction without becoming part of its mainstream. (Other examples include The Worm Ouroboros and, more like Lindsay's writing, The House on the Borderland.)

The title alone would lead one to expect a story about space travel, like those written by Jules Verne, say, but the novel is not about the journey to Acturan planet Tormance at all. Instead, the subject of the novel is a psychological journey made by the central character Maskull, something which could be described as a post-Freudian Pilgrim's Progress, although it is much looser in structure than Bunyan's allegory.

The idea that travel towards the sound of the drums of Muspell is like a journey to the source of life is clearly present, but many of the encounters on the journey seem to be more or less arbitrary fantasy on Lindsay's part, even if the events are inspired by his ideas about the mind, particularly the battle between duty (and the pain which accompanies it) and pleasure (which brings guilt).

It is the strength of the descriptions which grips the reader, Lindsay conveying the complete otherness of Tormance vividly. It is a newly created world, with everything still in the process of developing towards the fixed forms equivalent to Earthly scenery (so that we have new colours, animals appearing out of thin air, Maskull developing new limbs and sense organs appropriate for each experience). Lindsay's writing is a tour de force of the imagination, a benchmark to aspire to for any would-be describer of the alien.

The novel was a flop when first published, but later picked up admirers including C.S. Lewis. His science fiction, which is rather more mainstream, is clearly influenced by A Voyage to Arcturus; both Out of the Silent Planet and, even more so, Perelandra bear clear traces of Lindsay. Maskull lacks the morality Lewis gave to Ransome, and so his actions are harsher - he kills a fair number of people in the novel, for a variety of reasons. It is hard to think of anyone else who has been directly or obviously influenced as much as Lewis, though any fantasy novelist able to create vivid descriptions would be a possibility.

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