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David Lindsay: A Voyage to Arcturus

This book did not sell particularly well on first release but, over the years, it has acquired a cult reputation and has been praised by many critics, despite the fact that people are unsure as to whether to classify it as science fiction or fantasy or something in-between. The story starts with a séance. The regular participants arrive, including Mrs. Trent. She announces that she has invited two of the most extraordinary individuals you ever saw to join them. These are Maskull and Nightspore. However, the séance starts before they arrive and is just starting when they are announced. As they arrive, there is a loud crash, for which there is no explanation, though Nightspore explains that is supernatural. The séance starts and the body of a man with a peculiar smile is conjured up. Suddenly a stranger enters the room and proceeds to twist the neck of the apparition, causing it to disappear. The stranger, Krag, then summons Maskull and Nightspore, whom he seems to know, out into the street with him. He ask them to come with him to Tormance, a planet that orbits Arcturus and from where the apparition apparently comes. The two agree and head up to the Starkness Observatory in Scotland, where their journey will start from. Starkness is a ruin and strange things happen there, including the noise of a drumbeat and Maskull finding it almost impossible to climb the stairs of the tower, till Krag arrives and cuts a wound in Maskull’s arm and spits in it. They then climb the tower, find a strange craft and enter it. The effect is to put Maskull to sleep.

Maskull wakes up on Tormance, alone in a desert, with new organs, including a tentacle protruding from his heart and a protuberance on his forehead. He meets a woman called Joiwind and her husband, Panawe, who help him. He has a series of adventures, meeting strange creatures whose form reflects their inner nature. He is warned of the god Surtur but looks for him as Krag had suggested he do so. He leaves Joiwind and Panawe and goes to another part of the planet, where his organs change again, after meeting Oceaxe. He kills her lover but her other lover kills her and tries to occupy Maskull’s body, whereby he reappears on Earth as the apparition he had seen at the séance. Back on Tormance he visits a variety of lands, which seem to have their own individual moral nature. He is still trying to find the true reality and avoid disillusionment but as the mask indicated by his name, the conscious man, he can go only so far. He dies and is replaced by Nightspore, who is revealed as part of the same person. Nightspore is now joined by Krag and they continue the fight against Crystalman, who is revealed to be pleasure or the Devil while Krag turns out to be pain. Nightspore and Krag must continue the fight against Crystalman, a figure whose victims can be recognised by their grin.

The plot is very convoluted and this summary cannot do it justice. Lindsay is, of course, putting forward a philosophical position. It can be summed up by saying that appearance and reality are not the same thing; that we (humans) cannot rely on one philosophy alone; and that there is not one being – a god, if you will – on whom we can rely but that it is in ourselves that we must find the courage to fight the good fight. Lindsay’s novel definitely requires more than one reading to grasp what he is saying but it is a brilliant work, well ahead of its time, and one that influenced many famous writers of this genre. At the time of its publication, it was definitely too far ahead of its time for the British public.

Publishing history

First published 1920 by Methuen