Friday, November 6, 2015

A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

Pioneering, profound, and perplexing
A Voyage to Arcturus, a novel by Scottish author David Lindsay, was originally published in 1920. Given the time frame, I was expecting something along the lines of an Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure, but what I got was something far more surprising and profound. Lindsay’s novel is decades ahead of its time and presages the later philosophical sci-fi of writers like Frank Herbert or Philip K. Dick.

The book opens with a scene at a séance. Maskull, one of the guests at that event, is then invited by a couple of mysterious characters to take an interstellar voyage. They travel to the planet of Tormance, in the star system of Arcturus. After falling unconscious during the voyage, Maskull wakes up alone in an alien body. He then proceeds on a spiritual quest, wandering through various regions of Tormance seeking the meaning of life, death, and love. Along the way he encounters a variety of unique characters, each of whom imparts a valuable and/or cryptic lesson.

The first half of the book is classic sci-fi, loaded with ingenious ideas and impressive imagery. The voyagers’ space ship is powered by “back rays,” a form of stellar light that pulls toward a star rather than emanating outward from it. Arcturus is a binary system with two different colored stars that produce all the colors in our spectrum as well as two new colors, ulfire and jale, that have never been seen before by human eyes. Later in the book, Mazkull rides an aquatic tree with optical membranes that navigate it toward light. These are just a few examples of Lindsay’s amazing visions. Some of the book’s early scenes lead me to believe that it may have influenced James Cameron’s film Avatar. The book’s later half, on the other hand, is more philosophical and mythological, with a bizarre pantheon of characters reminiscent of a Jack Kirby comic book.

A Voyage to Arcturus is saturated with Lindsay’s unorthodox ideas on religion, drawn heavily from the Gnostics with a smattering of Norse mythology. Tormance is governed by a god with at least four names—Shaping, Crystalman, Surtur, and Faceny—who in turn is part of a more complex trinity. Like Plato proposed a couple millennia ago, Lindsay sees the “real” world of our senses as a lie and an illusion behind which true reality is concealed. The novel is the epic saga of Maskull’s journey to uncover that hidden truth. I don’t know anything about Lindsay’s sexual preference, but there’s enough gender-bending sexual transformation going on in this book to occupy an LGBT Studies course for an entire semester. Given the novel’s overwhelmingly pessimistic and melancholic tone, one also wonders if Lindsay might have been suicidal.

I’ll have to confess that there are more than a few chapters in this book where I didn’t know what the heck was going on. There is some weird, wacky stuff at play in this world. However, it’s not a senseless weird-for-weird’s-sake fantasy novel like William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, nor does it ever descend to the so-strange-it’s-fun kitsch of an Ed Wood movie. It can be frustratingly obscure, but there is an incredible earnestness to the novel that demands admiration and respect. One could read and analyze this book ten times over and make unexpected discoveries with each reading. The best way to approach it is to think of it like a surrealist painting. Let the imagery soak into your head, and see what connections develop. This trippy voyage may just blow your mind.
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