Voyage to Arcturus, A

by David Lindsay


This book is far from perfect.  The writing is clumsy, the character development is implausible and often non-existent (leading to confusion over their motives and occasional disinterest), and the character and place names are ridiculous to the point of distraction.  That said, the story is so utterly inventive and unique (especially considering that it was written post-WWI), and the ending so powerful that it will remain with me for a long time.  Lindsay crafted what on first glance appears to be a straightforward Fantasy/SciFi novel but is really a metaphysical/mystical treatise on the nature of reality and the path to salvation.  It recalls Dick’s VALIS in this respect, in that it is an important mystical statement masquerading as cheap fiction.

Update 3/2/14:

I just finished this for the second time and God. DAMN.  My mind has been blown.  The last 5-6 pages were one jaw-dropping revelation after another, each one more magnified than the previous until the very last page when, despite maybe the best closing dialogue ever, my jaw couldn’t drop any lower because it was already on the goddamned floor.

I was recently called to this, and that’s really the best way to describe the feeling the book gives you, it “calls” you back eventually.  I didn’t think about it for years after reading it the first time, but someone mentioned it offhand and I began thinking about it.  And it worked on me, and worked, until I decided to read it again.  It’s a good example of the hidden power this book contains.  It is small but extremely dense, like that lens that Krag gives Maskull at the beginning, an object the size of an egg that weighs over twenty pounds and contains the key to deciphering the universe.

My original review above still stands, but I wanted to add some thoughts.  It is definitely more religious treatise than sci-fi/fantasy (with that glorious, sublime, gut-punching payoff).  It is definitely flawed, with episodes that tend to run together after awhile, an over-emphasis on setting which bogs down the narrative, and non-existent characterizations — Krag and maybe Nightspore actually end up being the only somewhat solid characters with real motivations.  But if you read it as a parable it is exceptionally powerful, and Lindsay’s creativity qualifies as “genius.”

More than a parable, the entire novel feels like a transcribed dream.  Even on Earth, Maskull’s motivations are fundamentally absent; he has no reason to behave how he does, yet he does, and you allow it because it feels inexorable (like a dream).  Everything follows a dream-logic, which is to say no recognizable logic at all, but one that nevertheless begins to feel internally consistent.

For instance, It doesn’t make sense how he can discard both people and convictions the way he does, except the moment demands it, just as in a dream you forget what you needed to do one minute ago because there is a new obstacle in your present.  Nothing follows from the immediate past.  New things continually present themselves from nowhere, or better yet from places that we can’t fathom because they’re buried too deep within us.

At one point I even began to wonder if all of the typos, a ridiculous amount really, were intentionally added in service to this disturbing, surreal, “off” feel that the book exudes from the very beginning.  There are misplaced commas galore, even a mistaken paragraph indentation at one point, and “graveyard” is misspelled “grayeyard,” a curious typo since the two keys are not that close to one another and the “y” coincidentally resembles the “v.”

And this dreamy, inexorable feel makes sense thematically because it’s Lindsay’s whole point: not only are we stuck in this false dream-world of pleasure, but we are struggling eternally and inevitably toward the Muspel.  Perhaps the spiritual theory is not the most original — both Buddhism and Hinduism have similar ideas — but I guarantee that you’ve never seen it depicted as Lindsay does here.  His vision of this well-worn spiritual path is unique.

In conclusion, whereas I was intrigued on my first reading, I love it after my second.  It’s not perfect so I can’t reasonably give it 5 stars, but it’s definitely one of my all-time favorites.  I recommend it to any sci-fi/fantasy aficionados, plus any deep thinkers who can sympathize with spiritual questing.  I also recommend that you read it in as close to one sitting as possible, in order to fully appreciate the dreamy shroud that Lindsay weaves around you.

I also heartily recommend the book that recommended me this one: the brilliant Colin Wilson‘s The Books in My Life, a warm, educational and fascinating description of many famous and obscure great works.


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