It was Lindsay who first gave me the idea that the "scientifiction" appeal could be combined with the "supernatural" appeal—suggested the "cross" (in biological sense). His own spiritual outlook is detestable, almost diabolist I think, and his style is crude: but he showed me what a bang you cd get from mixing these two elements.
—C. S. Lewis
Critic Harold Bloom, in his only attempt at fiction writing, wrote a sequel to this novel, entitled The Flight to Lucifer, but has since disowned the book and will not associate his name with the novel.
The voyage to Arcturus on which David Lindsay takes his readers is a voyage worth taking. The book is interesting for the sequence of events that transpires, for the creatures one meets on the way, and for the places that are described for the enjoyment of the traveler. From the beginning, the situations are compelling, and the events that follow have a logic quite ingenious. As you progress you realize that the voyage is a voyage into the human being itself, to a place created to depict the human soul and in which philosophies become living creatures. Even if your heart is not knit to the characters, it would be a failure of intelligence or perhaps of simple curiosity for anybody to lack a fascination with the strange, impulsive, confused, willful, dogmatic, and desperate creatures Lindsay conjures up. And what are you doing reading science fiction if you are not interested in other strange places described in insanely memorable vivid imagery?
The story begins with a mysterious seance which concludes with the brutal murder of what appears to be an extraterrestrial. Into these circumstances the protagonist, Maskull, enters with his own indescribable intensity (it is never described, but always suggested) and soon finds himself alone on a planet in the Arcturus constellation. Maskull has been lured to Arcturus by two sinister characters, Krag and Nightshade, both of whom are invested with great significance and then disappear for the whole middle of the story. The reader searches the planet with Maskull for these two characters, meeting in turn some hypersensitive hyper-vegans (they only consume mineral water), ruthless carnivores, gnaw-off-your-own-leg stoics, and others who represent similar extreme philosophical positions (one of the book's attractions for me is how it out-Romanticizes the most wild Romanticism). Maskull grapples with each bizarre situation, comes to terms with, and then rejects each view until the final decisive meeting with Krag and Nightshade.
The attractiveness of an extreme philosophical position is developed by the plot so that in the end the reader is presented with the consideration, not of a rejection of extremes, but of finding the correct extreme position. There is some monotony occasioned by Linsday's insensitivity toward the rhythm of narration (he can't make his emphases ebb and flow to clue the reader in), but still the plot is compelling. It is perhaps because the situations are so fraught and dramatic that Lindsay thought he didn't need to signal the changes by using conventional literary indications of transition, but it results in a bit of anticlimax from time to time.
It does not take long for it to begin to dawn upon the reader that Voyage to Arcturus bears a sort of kinship to Pilgrim's Progress in that the author is using people and landscape to signify other things. What Voyage to Arcturus does not become, however, is an allegory. Somehow the connection between things is much closer than in an allegory, or perhaps it would be better to say that one does not get the sense that the ideas are propping up the set and characters but that these have attained a life of their own without abandoning the ideas behind them. (In Pilgrim's Progress, a work that is valuable and above all useful, one does not get the idea that the characters and situations are all that compelling without the ideas behind them: in other words it is not interesting at the mere level of the story, which is why a true Puritan only feels slightly uneasy about reading something like it, and why some of us find it not at all enjoyable but still valuable and worthwhile in the way of instruction and illustration.) Whatever the literary merits of the work (at first I thought the trouble with people complaining about the style was that they failed to read the book with a thick Scottish brogue, but when I tried to do it, I lapsed out of it and fell into a sort of reading that plainly showed the deficiencies of Lindsay's style—it reads like pretty cheap science fiction; though I should point out that mine is probably not the best affected thick Scottish brogue), Lindsay has still managed to produce a certain inextricability of work and idea which probably accounts for the compelling nature of a book that has managed to stay before the view of the public since 1920.
One of the best things about the book is how the main character undergoes a series of physical changes, and especially how indifferent he is to them. Does it at all concern him that he has suddenly developed six eyes on his forehead, beside the regular two under his eyebrows? Not at all, and soon he is able to discern their valuable use. If I were to write of a character who developed such physical anomalies, I would have a hard time honestly excluding all the spiritual anguish that must come on a person suddenly reduced to the status of a freak, even if it is while sojourning in the freak show itself. The result of Lindsay's treatment is not actually comical—although one can readily discern the comic possibilities of such developments. It is precisely because he has serious purposes for the developments which his protagonist undergoes that Lindsay keeps the developments, however bizarre, from being also distracting and comical. It suggests to me that there is a certain aptness occasioned by intensity of purpose in the crudities of style and of conception that Lindsay exhibits. It suggests to me that whatever objections may be raised to his style, these objections have to take into consideration his purposes, and that when these purposes are considered they show a certain affinity for his rough style. Consider that the vindicated character is brutally and characteristically named Krag.
As to the philosophy of the story and what Lindsay wishes to show, that discovery is the voyage to Acturus. In the end we understand that Lindsay was confused, that he pitted will against pleasure, that he believed pleasure to be a deception and pain to be the way of liberty, autonomy, and truth as it wars against the deception of pleasure. I think Lindsay's confusion in fact accounts for some of the compelling power of the novel. He is working things out for himself, but the real questions that draw on him, and the unsatisfactory answers that he has, give the story its tension. He is haunted by an inability to resolve what he believes into any absolute clarity and manages to communicate that in the characters and situations of his novel more clearly than anything else. Maskull's quest (the heart of the story) is the incarnation of Lindsay's honesty in facing what troubles him, and it is no accident that we know from the start, though we may waver on the certainty of it (ha!), that Maskull is doomed. Here is why Lewis ventures to call Lindsay a diabolist: God is the great deceiver, living only to suck pleasure out of his creatures, deceiving them into the illusion of pleasure for his own parasitic ends, and against it the individual must fight his way, forsaking the quest for pleasure, the quest of duty, and charging against all creation in single, noble, naked pride and autonomy. No wonder the novel ends with these apt words: "Krag pushed off, and they proceeded into the darkness."
It is amazing that with everything it has to count against it, it is still a satisfying work. One relishes it, and I want to go back and read sections, especially his exotic descriptions, in order to reflect more carefully on it. This book is an ingenious book.
Joel Zartman is an English teacher in Bogota, Colombia. Besides teaching, he writes and likes to travel in a country fertile with ideas for science fiction.