Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Book Review: A Voyage to Arcturus

© 1920 by David Lindsay

Note 1: This “review” will fail to do this book justice.

Note 2: But I just gotta write something about it.

Imagine you’re a visitor from another world who just woke up in the Sahara desert, vaguely aware that you’re here to chase something called Yeshua. Is Yeshua a Christ-like figure, the Creator of all, or merely a good and holy man? Or, perhaps, something entirely unexpected? Over the next four days you’ll have conversations and encounters with a hippie, a sadist, a fisherman, a musician, and a half-dozen propounders of various worldviews: a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Taoist, and some pagan Greek philosophy types. All of whom have opinions on this being. Oh, and two-thirds of the people you chat with will die, half of them directly at your hands. But just before you die (your death had been prophesied early in your arrival), or maybe just after, the riddle of existence is solved for you. Maybe.

Now, flip it. The protagonist of A Voyage to Arcturus, a blank slate named Maskull, wakes up on Tormance, the sole planet encircling a double-star system 35 light-years away. With him you’ll travel this strange world (often with strange new appendages to your body that can do strange new things) to converse with prophets and madmen, men and women, a complete third sexed being, and, perhaps, something akin to Yeshua in the prior paragraph. Although in Arcturus he’s known by such names as Surtur, Shaping, Crystalman, Faceny. Why is Maskull brought to this world? What is beyond the veil concealing existence? What is the meaning of life?

This somewhat obscure recipe for Lindsay’s “science fiction” novel should be flavored, I think, with my experience of it. First off, it’s weird. Really, really weird. And talky. Which is a good thing for a book like this. It’s an idea book, but it’s also a visual one. While reading it, the images most often flooding my brain were of the 1973 animated French flick, La Planete Sauvage (Fantastic Planet). If you’re unfamiliar with this movie, or want some examples of the imagery, do a Google image search of the movie, or just click here.

The novel’s philosophic and meta-religious themes also brought to mind the colorful art prevalent in Hindu mythology. Multiple-armed deities seemed akin to the appendages and arms and third eyes Maskull sometimes grows and sometimes loses as he traverses the deserts and forests of Tormance. Color is an essential feature here, as sand is red, water is bright green, skins are ever-changing tone poems and we’re even introduced to two new hues, jale and ulfire. All this completely alienizes this place of pilgrimage.

I finished A Voyage to Arcturus eight days ago and haven’t found a way to write about it. Normally I drool in anticipation reviewing something I’ve just read, sometimes starting an hour or two after turning the final page. But not this one. I practically re-read it over the weekend, taking notes, compiling a timeline, a glossary, and a road-map of Maskull’s travels. The only thing left is to document and genome-type the major gist of the book: the multivariabled beliefs these aliens hold, often to the death. I think yet another careful re-reading to analyze this aspect is necessary before adding it in my little guidebook to Arcturus. Then, I’ll do a separate post on all that.

I first read A Voyage to Arcturus exactly ten years ago, Halloween of 2007. I did not review it back then (it predated this blog) nor did I “grade” it the way I “grade” my reads over the past seven or eight years. But it immediately struck me as something different. Something weird. And to me, that’s something good. I filed it away as something to re-read at some future point. This second read was much more involving and I enjoyed it twice as much, despite finishing it in half the time.

Question: Should you read this book, this super-secret century-old cult phenomenon, this ‘major “underground” novel of the 20th century’ as Wikipedia calls it?

Yes, if –

[   ]  You’re not a stickler for the “science” in “science fiction”

[   ]  Different religions and philosophies fascinate you

[   ]  Your top-ten all-time reads contain shocking unforeseen revelations in the final pages

[   ]  You have a good working relationship with allegory and metaphor

[   ]  Loose-ends and knots-left-knotted won’t keep you up at night

[   ]  The question “What is Reality?” is something you ponder three or four times a week

If you checked at least 5 boxes, then go online, purchase a paperback (it’s a respectable but easy 280 pages), and trod the sands where Maskull lived, loved, questioned, killed, and died. What’s holding you back?

Grade: A+

Note 3: David Lindsay (1876-1945) died from an infected tooth, though he was injured in World War II bombing, the first bombing of the city he lived in. For the longest time, either based on misinformation or misinterpretation, I’ve gone around telling people that he was the first man killed in World War I. Obviously, based on the publication date of this book, that’s wrong (unless it was published posthumously, which it wasn’t). Mea culpa.

Note 4: A Voyage to Arcturus, like so, so many great works of literature, was not a success when it was first published. It only sold 600 copies on its first run, and Lindsay found it difficult to get his later work in print.

Note 5: Both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien read and were intrigued by the work. It is, in fact, said to be the inspiration for Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy (of which I loved the first two books but despised the third).

Note 6: Only for the initiated! In 1971 the book was filmed, I believe, by college students, and was the first film to be funded by the NEA. It can be found on youtube – but do not watch it until you’ve at least read the book once, preferably twice. While the dialogue is taken almost verbatim from the book, the acting is tremendously, epically, bad and prototypically 70s. It will turn you off to the book forever if this is your first contact with A Voyage to Arcturus.

Forthcoming: Hopper’s detailed guidebook to A Voyage to Arcturus …

No comments: