2015 Reading Journey: A Voyage to Arcturus

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A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay (1920)

This is one of those stories where you’re frequently wondering what the author was smoking while he wrote. And the editor for that matter. And the publisher. And, really, pretty much anyone involved in getting this book to print.

We begin with a séance, not the best way to open a SF novel, but then, this isn’t a SF novel, regardless of the fact that it mostly takes place on an imaginary planet circling a real star. But before we meet the three primary characters, Krag, Maskull, and Nightspore (First names? Last names? No idea.), we spend quite a lot of wordage with the throwaway characters at the event, including the medium, who gets the most screen time, only to never see any of them again.

Krag, Maskull, and Nightspore get to Tormance (the name of the planet) via a strange crystalline space ship, at which point Maskull wakes up to become the sole focus for the rest of the book.

I don’t think I’m going to try to describe the rest of the book on anything more than a high level. It was a difficult, irritating, infuriating read. I went into this story expecting, as per most of the reviews I read while choosing it, an intellectual, spiritual, and philosophical journey of some kind. What I got was the wandering of the main character through a series of unthinking enslavements to bizarre ideologies and philosophies. In each, he thinks he’s entering freely, but is always shocked when he comes out the other side, or not shocked when he switches to something else mid-stream. He’s not even really a passenger, more or less doing as he’s told by anyone he comes across or, in rare cases, the exact opposite of what he’s told because that fits with the ideology of the moment.

Every land he passes through has its own version of reality, and every one of them seems to require a different set of sensory organs which Maskull is required to grow on demand. Easy, since it’s an alien world and he’s adapted his body to it. Nearly everyone he meets dies, sometimes at his hands and sometimes just because he was there. Whether he murders them or not, it’s always his fault.

I come to the conclusion that the individual lands are clear criticisms of various religious and philosophical belief systems or concepts. Some are easy to identify: religion, spirituality, duty, love. A couple are a little more esoteric or just odd: art, willpower, and another round of spirituality (I think). But they’re only criticisms and basically on the order of “look how stupid you are if you follow this path.

Just for a little extra mindbleepery, at the end of the book, we discover that Maskull is actually Nightspore, and has been all along. Then we get one last journey through a bizarre construct of a world, at the end of which we learn nothing and understand nothing other than maybe that the author believes life to be a harsh struggle that you’re just as well to ignore or be rid of when it’s over.

Overall rating: 1 star. This was the toughest slog of a book I’ve ever had the strength to finish. It’s a grim, confusing, obnoxious journey from nowhere to nothing, filled with characters that aren’t and oblique criticisms of just about everything that made up the author’s society at the time.

But one quote does leap out at me. It defines the head in the sand mindset that seems so typical of zealots, both religious and political, today: “Then, since you’re right in this, I must believe all that you’ve been telling me.” The line still makes me shudder, even as I see it in the real world all around me.

Be well, everyone.

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