Ben Schwartz / May 9, 2018
David Lindsay’s masterpiece A Voyage to Arcturus was first published in London in 1920 by Methuen & Co. It came dressed in a simple red cloth cover; no dust jacket, just the title and author’s name debossed into the front. This first printing sold less than 600 copies, and so Arcturus didn’t come to the US until Macmillan brought it out in 1964. In 1968, Ballantine picked it up after the massive success of the publisher’s Lord of the Rings paperbacks, and, for the first time ever, the cover featured bespoke art, painted by Bob Pepper. The printing predated Ballantine’s influential Adult Fantasy series, edited by Lin Carter, but was eventually given honorary membership, with later printings carrying the unicorn stamp and benefiting from the cachet the series possessed.
With the late-1960s Lord of the Rings phenomenon leading the charge, speculative fiction, and Arcturus with it, rode into the public consciousness on about as high a tide as it has ever had. Lindsay’s biographer Bernard Sellin notes that Ballantine’s edition “[had]… overtaken all the accumulated efforts of forty years” in terms of circulating Lindsay’s first novel. But he’s quick to point out that Lindsay’s audience is still limited, and that “The average, sensual reader is in serious danger of being disappointed in Lindsay.” Sellin wrote this in 1981 and, with a weird choice of words, envisions a “‘superior race’ of readers, anxious to go beyond the plot” of Arcturus and grasp what it’s really about. Today, in 2018, Lindsay’s potential audience, superior or otherwise, struggles against a vanishing text.
In the UK, Gollancz brought out an Arcturus reissue in the ’40s (the “novel… is regarded by some of those who have read it as a work of genius,” the cover read), which was subsequently routed into its “Rare Works of Imaginative Fiction” reissues in the early ’60s. The label’s “Fantasy Masterworks” version is still readily available. A high quality limited edition from Savoy Books was the high point of its publication history, but that small batch is fifteen years gone now.
In the states, the novel languishes in Print on Demand Hell. Most readily available copies are ill-starred editions from nebulous outfits bearing names like CreateSpace and Wilder Publications, featuring non sequitur cover images that look like refugees from a Windows ME screensaver folder: a field of wheat, a macro of autumn leaves, an anonymous, slightly-out-of-focus Roman ruin. Even outside of PoD territory there are some seriously janky efforts, leprous with typos: the first printing of Arcturus from Bison Press misspelled the word “Commemorative” on its own cover, and newer printings still contain fistfuls of errors.
And this is a book that counts Clive Barker, Alan Moore, Michael Moorcock, and Jeff Vandermeer among its admirers. C.S. Lewis called it the “real father” of his Space Trilogy. Pathological anti-genre lit critic Harold Bloom’s sole piece of published fiction—ever—is a pseudo-sequel to Arcturus called The Flight to Lucifer. Colin Wilson, who became a literary sensation with publication of his The Outsider in 1956, put it in his curriculum while teaching and wrote multiple essays about Lindsay. These and other enthusiasts have tended the flame over the years, keeping the book visible to the small cadre of readers that are likely to respond to it. But will Arcturus ever grow beyond that niche audience?
It may be helpful to explain what readers find when they pick up the novel. On a superficial level, A Voyage to Arcturus is a spacefaring adventure of a strong, competent hero, same as you’d find in any number of time-yellowed pulp paperbacks. After a few strange chapters spent on earth, our hero, Maskull, and his two companions, Nightspore and Krag, journey to Tormance, a planet orbiting Arcturus, which in the book is a binary star with two suns, Branchspell and Alppain. Maskull wakes alone in a fantastical desert on Tormance, and quickly becomes embroiled in this new world. There are rocket ships, tentacle arms, dreamlike landscapes—Tormance is prodigious when it comes to landscapes: like Ifdawn Marest, a place of crags and mountains that are constantly sinking and shooting up in fatal, vertiginous thousand-foot shifts; or Matterplay, a valley so replete with life energy that new beings literally pop into existence, fully formed; or the Sinking Sea, whose water varies in density from place to place and which Maskull navigates by riding a giant, semi-living treelike creature. The evocative names of places and people have a distinctly Amazing Stories vibe: Disscourn, Panawe, Corpang, the Lusion Plain.
Maskull sets out ostensibly looking for Nightspore and Krag. But as he proceeds, it becomes clear that his purpose on Tormance is tied to that of a being called Surtur, who draws Maskull northward with a slow, insistent drumbeat that only he can hear. Every chapter sees Maskull enter a new region of Tormance, each with its own particular landscape and specific philosophical culture—a sort of Gulliver’s Travels recast as a troubling, darkly symbolic dream. Ifdawn Marest lives violently, crudely, simply—its residents engage in contests of mind control to dominate, torture, and kill one another. The land of Sant houses vain ascetics who have renounced all the physical pleasures of the world. In Matterplay, Maskull encounters the last of the phaen, an ancient people composed not of men or women but a third, primordial gender. Names of other supreme beings are revealed: some mention Muspel, but many talk of Crystalman, possibly another god, or maybe just another name for Surtur—the Tormancians’ accounts vary. But when people die on Tormance, their faces twist into a nauseating smile known as Crystalman’s grin. The precise cosmology always remains just out of focus, however, and this refusal to resolve comes to drive Maskull forward more than the thought of finding his companions. And through this driving impetus, Maskull finds each place, each philosophy, exposed as limited, false, incomplete. This falseness usually results in an explosion of ugly violence, and Maskull, often as not, is perpetrating it.
And so the book proceeds, like some dark, cosmic picaresque, until Maskull reaches Surtur’s Ocean, the northernmost ocean of Tormance. He reunites with Krag, who seems to be expecting him. Krag takes the physically failing Maskull on a raft out to sea, on a journey to Muspel, which Maskull learns is the name of the “true world,” the world outside the corruption of illusory things. As they sail along, Maskull, exhausted and spent, dies, which somehow releases Nightspore back into being. Then Krag lets Nightspore off at a lone edifice in the sea. As he ascends through it, Nightspore stops at a succession of windows that show him the nature of reality: there is Muspel, Surtur’s world, the impartial, pure, true world that most are prevented from seeing by the illusory world of Crystalman, who is not an aspect of Surtur but an embodiment of deceit and distraction. Violence, art, love, talk, work, play—all of these are tools Crystalman uses to ensnare the spark of Muspel contained in each living thing, preventing that life from returning to the world it came from. All the inhabitants of Tormance and their multifarious philosophies were blinded to this truth by Crystalman—and that’s why, when they died, their faces contorted into Crystalman’s Grin, the signature of his triumph over their souls.
Arcturus ends with the resurrected/transmogrified/newborn Nightspore descending the tower and meeting up with Krag again, who reveals that he is Surtur, and that his name on earth is Pain. Nightspore steps back onto the raft and the two sail away into the darkness, presumably to continue their struggle against Crystalman, on earth or elsewhere. It’s a powerful, striking, triumphless ending—a metaphysical cliffhanger that opens up long avenues of thought.
Anybody reading with their internal aerial up and receiving would have noticed something going on with Arcturus before the final chapters, but they are only the biggest among many clues that make it clear the novel is more than a weightless adventure yarn. Maskull is an off-putting protagonist. He’s animated less by personality and more by some psychic decree outside of his control (authorial or otherwise). He’s got the wrong proportions for a standard hero: Lindsay describes him as “a kind of giant, but of broader and more robust physique than most giants,” with a full beard, short bristling hair, and features that are “thick and heavy, coarsely modeled, like those of a wooden carving”—and yet with eyes sparkling with “intelligence and audacity.” He’s impulsive, driven, and violent—and key to the dark energy that propels Arcturus away from genre pulp into deeper, thornier territory.
Much early speculative fiction created vistas of longing; they showed better worlds, nobler peoples, purer ways of living. The Lord of the Rings set the standard in this regard but it was hardly alone, and not the first. The Worm Ouroboros, Lud-in-the-Mist, Time and the Gods are others—all committed to beauty and magic and bravery as antidotes to our own world. They didn’t deny their correlation to accepted reality, but they actively opposed aspects of that reality by showing us better versions. Arcturus, rather than look outward over the hills of faerie, turns inward, drills down until it exposes its fundamental vision of existence, and that vision is a searing one. Its aspect is fire, and whereas most speculative fiction is aspirational, Arcturus is agonized; reality is, like the unearthly wound Maskull receives from Krag, “one long discomfort,” a galaxy of damnation:
Millions of grotesque, vulgar, ridiculous, sweetened individuals – once Spirit – were calling out from their degradation and agony for salvation from Muspel…
Arcturus the planet isn’t meant to be “real” like Minas Tirith or Lud-in-the-Mist or Witchland are meant to be real. Instead of creating another world, Lindsay showed us our own; refracted through the alien metaphors of Tormance, yes, but nevertheless recognizable. As anthropologist Loren Eiseley notes in his introduction to the Ballantine edition, Arcturus is really “a long earth journey.” There’s a dystopia in Lindsay’s novel, though the dystopia is not political or societal, but metaphysical. It’s not a nightmare city, but a nightmare world; not a corrupt government, but a corrupt soul. Maskull’s vicious, driving nature allows him to open that final door for readers.
Naturally, this dark, anguished, philosophical heart impacted Arcturus’ initial sales. In 1920, science fiction seemed impossibly far from literary “respectability.” There was a strong undercurrent of literary speculative fiction at the time, but it wasn’t universally popular and certainly not accepted by the establishment. Arcturus came blazing fully-formed into the world, subverting tropes that had barely been established. And you can imagine potential readers either avoiding Arcturus because of those tropes, or dropping it because it didn’t thoroughly conform to nascent genre conventions. Arcturus did itself no commercial favors by tapping SF in the name of art. It made itself a black sheep among black sheep.
Sellin ends his ’81 overview of Linday’s life and work as all essays on Arcturus and Lindsay end: with hope for a wider readership in the future. But I predict Arcturus will continue to be preserved by a small but vocal readership—no more. I think it has already assumed the strange, somewhat sour mantle of an “influential” classic, one whose most visible legacy will always be the way it presaged so much that came after. Once you read Arcturus, you’re always finding chunks of it here and there, like burning fragments of an exploded spaceship smoldering in a field. Its Mariana Trench pessimism turns up in Harlan Ellison and, with a paranoiac twist, in Philip K. Dick. Its deep exploration of reality through violence and sexuality bring to mind A Clockwork Orange, Dhalgren; and Maskull’s surrender into a metaphysical system vaster than himself hits on core conceits in much of Pynchon. And most obviously, science fiction as metaphor for our own world, our own souls, was a shocking and (to some) ugly experiment in Arcturus—but today it’s as common as grass.
I think the novel’s admirers want recognition for Arcturus because Lindsay’s life is always painted as one of frustration, where recognition for his accomplishments was continually withheld. And that’s true. But he also created a masterwork, and it seems weird to quibble with immortality, no matter how it comes. Even today, Lindsay’s first novel stands out in any literary landscape, casting a long shadow: an architecture phased in from a parallel dimension both alien and familiar.
Ben Schwartz is a freelance writer working out of Ohio.