By David Lindsay
Gollancz, 288p, 2003
Everyman Searching for a Creator
In his introduction to The Mind Parasites, Colin Wilson refers to David Lindsay’s 1920 SF novel, A Voyage to Arcturus as “the greatest novel of the 20th century.” Such a statement coming from a writer of well over 100 books including well-regarded books on philosophy and science fiction, makes one sit up and take notice. A Voyage to Arcturus has been in print continuously since 1920 thanks to a cult following. Originally it sold less than 600 copies, and is now largely unread among mainstream science fiction readers.
A Voyage to Arcturus is not the book most SF editors would pick up today. It is short, about 288 pages, not part of a series, has no military element, is written in an awkward style, a plot reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and has cardboard, two-dimensional characters. Actually, there’s only one main character, Maskull, a man lost on the planet, Tormance, wandering from one race to another, murdering well meaning people who cross his path, sprouting extra hands and organs, and generally befuddled as to why he’s there. Not your appealing superhero. The book seems hardly a candidate for “the greatest novel of the twentieth century.” Recent online reviews are mixed to indifferent.
I suggest that A Voyage to Arcturus is a great novel, despite the above shortcomings because of the profound vision behind the book, and the clarity with which it is conveyed. After spending time with the book, you, the reader, may find yourself changed. If not changed then at least questioning your assumptions about life. Only a great book can accomplish that.
Maskull is Everyman, and you soon identify with him. Bored with an ordinary life, he accepts an invitation to see the planet Tormance. His host is a small, ugly and cynical man named Krag. Left alone on Tormance, Maskull encounters various races most of who worship a god named Crystalman and regard Krag as the devil. If figuring out the truth weren’t challenging enough, Maskull inexplicably sprouts new limbs or organs, so as to blend in with the locals, and finds that those organs affect his thought patterns and his perception of reality. His confusion is all too reminiscent of life in a human body on planet Earth.
Like us, Maskull wants to know what’s going on. He follows a set of drumbeats, never seeing the drummer, but suspecting it is a being named Surtur who can reveal the mystery. Many people identify Surtur with Crystalman, a deity who created the world, a good world filled with pleasure and beauty. Others say that Crystalman’s identification with Surtur is Crystalman’s greatest lie.
Maskull meets spiritual people who see the world as entirely good. Rejecting the notion of taking any life, they subsist on water and minerals alone. Their neighbors are people with an eye in the middle of the forehead — the organ for the will. For those, only the exercise of will makes life worth living. Other people reject both pain and pleasure, view duty as the only worthwhile pursuit. One man, in rejecting pleasure and Crystalman, finds solace in self-torture.
Angry and confused, Maskull kills people who cross his path, often out of revenge or because their beliefs make them appear cruel. He cannot help killing others, in self defense or accidentally. Each victim, upon dying, acquires a mask like grin, called the face of Crystalman. Seeing the suffering and confused people, Maskull soon doubts the universal assumption of Crystalman’s goodness. He realizes that his presence on Tormance is no accident.
“What am I doing on Tormance?” he asks one man who appears wiser than others.
“You came to steal Muspel fire, to give a deeper life to men — never doubting if your soul could endure that burning.”
“Muspel” is the name for a mysterious world that alone seems real, but which no one has seen. His guide describes Tormance as a copy of Muspel, made by Crystalman.
Maskull’s moment of revelation comes when he is brought to a sublime temple containing statues that represent the ultimate deity. The mysterious light of Muspel shines on the faces and reveals the ugly mask of Crystalman. What people considered to be the most sublime is shown to be a human construct, tainted with human conditioning. Maskull realizes that no one can help him. Everyone is conditioned by a belief system, their specific biology, or their environment.
At the edge of the world Maskull encounters Krag, and realizes he represents everything that Crystalman is not. In a world that worships pleasure, Krag is the devil, not an evil figure but one who seeks to awaken human beings from the sleep in which they unwittingly wallow, to their spiritual destiny.
Unlike much science fiction written today, A Voyage to Arcturus does provide plausible answers to the mystery of life: why the world exists and what are we doing in it. At the end of the novel, the reader ascends thetower ofMuspel, and sees the world from a standpoint uncontaminated by human conditioning. No more about what is seen from the tower, lest this review spoil the book for the reader.
Enough to say that there are answers. They are not easy and they demand much, almost too much from the average reader. One is left to accept either the illusory world of Crystalman or the stark vision of Muspel.
Science Fiction has a unique ability to ask big questions in fantastic settings that can pack a bigger punch than mainstream fiction. To the extent that this is done well, we have a novel that may be read for a hundred years or more. Brave New World, The Time Machine, Stranger in a Strange Land are all candidates for greatness. I would also add, A Voyage to Arcturus.