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Literature / A Voyage to Arcturus

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A Voyage to Arcturus is a visionary Science Fantasy novel by David Lindsay. On its first publication in 1920, it sold fewer than 600 copies. It has since become recognised as a great work of fantasy fiction. Writers as influential as J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Alan Moore, Philip Pullman, Michael Moorcock, Clive Barker and prominent literary critic Harold Bloom have all praised it and cited it as an influence. At least two professional writers have set out to write sequels. Bloom published his as The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy (1979). Another, the British sf writer Ian Watson had his attempt discouraged by Lindsay's estate. (How Bloom got away with it, we don't know.)

The begins with its protagonist Maskull, who attends a séance in Hampstead, England. After witnessing bizarre events, Maskull is invited by an acquaintance to journey to Tormance, a planet orbiting the double star system of Arcturus. After traveling there in a crystal spaceship, Maskull awakes to find himself alone in an utterly alien world. Wishing to learn more, he embarks on a journey which takes him through bizarre lands and encounters with beings unparalleled by any on Earth.

A Voyage to Arcturus is a treatise on philosophy, religion and morality in novel form. Each land, and the people it holds, represent a different philosophy or idea. Moreover, as Maskull makes his way across Tormance, he becomes subject to physical changes that grant him new sensory organs. With these organs, he is able to perceive life differently, in accordance with the prevailing ideal of the land. His journey takes him through these different philosophies, ultimately becoming a quest to discover the meaning of life. The more the story progresses, the more of a Mind Screw it becomes...


  • Alien Sea: People can subsist entirely on gnawl water; the reflective lake Irontick is used as a sort of musical instrument; and life forms spontaneously in a certain stream.
  • Aliens Speaking English: Justified. The inhabitants of Tormance have extra sensory organs that allow them to communicate with outsiders.
  • All Planets Are Earthlike: Completely averted. Much space is given to describing the bizarre geography and biosphere of Tormance. Twin suns, floating trees and pillars of static lightning are the least of it.
  • Ambiguously Human: The Tormance natives.
  • The Assimilator: What "sorbing" entails. C. S. Lewis found this especially disturbing and worked the idea into The Screwtape Letters, though not by that name.
  • Binary Suns: Tormance orbits Arcturus, a twin star composed of Branchspell and Alppain.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: Nearly every inhabitant of Tormance seems to have extra sensory organs, based on which land they are a citizen of. They are also able to grow and replace these organs based on circumstance. Maskull himself develops quite a few. See below.
  • Bizarre Alien Locomotion: One of the native animals is tripodal and moves by spinning around, and the shrowk is a flying creature with ten finner limbs that act as wings.
  • Bizarre Alien Sexes: The phaen are a humanoid species who precipitate directly from thin air and are oriented towards their god. Their pronouns are ae/aer/aerself. There's also Panawe, who was born with an ambiguous gender and later chose to be male (technically, his female self chose to sacrifice herself so he could become entirely male).
  • Bio-Augmentation: As the story progresses, Maskull's body develops a chest tentacle, a third arm, an extra eye, six extra eyes, and a forehead protrusion that allows him some degree of telepathy, among others. These mutations are generally replaced as and when the story demands. They also allow Maskull insight into the predominant philosophy of whatever land he is in. Needless to say, it gets pretty weird...
  • Body Snatcher: Tydomin, who attempts to trick Maskull into giving her his body to repay his murder of Crimtyphon.
  • Born as an Adult: Leehallfae, like all phaens.
  • Cool Airship: Haunte's boat, which uses "male stones" that push against the female elements in the earth giving an antigravity effect.
  • Dying Race: The phaens. Leehallfae is probably the last one.
  • Eating Optional: The people of Poolingdred subsist entirely on gnawl water, because they can't bear committing violence even against a leaf.
  • Editorial Synaesthesia: Used to describe ulfire and jale, the two extra primary colors found in the light of Alppain. The three primary colors of Earth are described via the emotions they conjure in people, then ulfire and jale are contrasted.
    "Just as blue is delicate and mysterious, yellow clear and unsubtle, and red sanguine and passionate, so [Maskull] felt ulfire to be wild and painful, and jale dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous."
  • Emergent Human: Sullenbode, who normally only briefly attains sentience when in the presence of a suitor and is otherwise a vaguely humanoid blob of pure lust. Maskull's kiss is what finally lets her keep her sentient human form permanently.
  • Face–Monster Turn: Although she killed men by reflex action, once Sullenbode attains permanent human form she's quite likeable.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Used in the story via the rather novel means of 'back rays'. In effect, using a form of reverse-light to travel to a light source faster than the speed of light.
  • Fantastic Drug: Polecrab's sap drink, which excites the intellect rather than the emotions.
  • Fantastic Light Source: Oceaxe's drude stone, which is also handy for cooking fish and a mutagenic.
  • Fantasy Pantheon: Maskull encounters several different interpretations of the local god. Sorting out truth from falsehood is an important plot element.
  • Fictional Colour: Ulfire and jale, two primary colors that exist on Torrance but not on Earth.
  • Fisher Kingdom: In every new land Maskull travels to, he develops new sensory organs.
  • God and Satan Are Both Jerks: Crystalman/God's world is based on pleasure, which in fact destroys souls to feed himself. Krag/Satan is Pain, so you're screwed either way.
  • I Have Many Names: Surter. Also known as Crystalman, Shaping, and Gangnet.
  • Interplanetary Voyage
  • Meaningful Name: Maskull.
  • Mind Screw: The entire world of Tormance. The setting functions not as a fully fleshed, internally consistent world, but as a place where different ideas can be explored by the author.
  • Mysterious Past: We never learn anything about the history of Maskull/Nightspore.
  • Rubber-Forehead Aliens: The inhabitants of Tormance look generally similar to humans, but with extra appendages, and wildly different skin/hair colours.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Judicially used by Lindsay.
  • Scenery Porn
  • Tomato in the Mirror: You are Nightspore.