A Voyage To Arcturus is a book written in 1920 by David Lindsay. Spoilers ahead, though really this book isn’t about events, it’s about the journey between them.

Though apparently sci-fic, really A Voyage To Arcturus is much closer to metaphysical fiction with a healthy dose of Psychedelic literature (think Philip K. Dick meets Carlos Castaneda and you’ll be quite near the mark). It’s written in quite a naive style – very dreamlike, and not particularly analytical.

One might think that being very early sci-fic, the book would have some charming and erroneous technological predictions. But this isn’t true at all – technology isn’t an aspect of the book at all, except in the very brief initial voyage to Arcturus, though the means of travel seems allegorical rather than literal.

A whole host of beings, mortal and immortal, throng the world of Tormance (the sole planet of Arcturus) on which most of the novel is set. Lindsay invents a whole vocabulary to describe these dramatis personae, as well as his very complicated geography, using Norse roots for both.

The book, to my mind, has two main foci. The first is describing the indescribable – Lindsay invents a range of new colours (describing their associations), a third gender (for whom he uses the pronoun ‘ae’), as well as a whole host of other mind-bending and bafflingly original ideas. Impossible landscapes feature prominently among these. Regularly while reading I had to stop to try (sometimes successfully and sometimes not) to visualise what I’d just read described. I’ve never read such a daring and yet understated attempt to go beyond normal description.

The second is exploration of metaphysical ideas. Though it may seem at first that the protagonist is merely exploring, this quickly becomes a specifically epistemic odyssey. On Arcturus, everyone has a variety of different organs, which wither and grow according to the environment and mindset of the individual. These include such things as a chest mounted tentacle which causes incredible feelings of love and empathy, a third eye which causes one to see things according to their relevance to one’s own situation, a chest mounted hand which causes painful feelings of lust for whatever is touched, and so on.

Since these organs greatly alter the weltanschauung of the possessor, the main character, Maskull, goes through a wide range of belief-systems as his organs change. To synopsise very crudely, these range from the very harsh and Nietzschean, through peace, love, and respect for all beings, denial of the physical world and embrace of pain as escape from it, and so forth.

The book’s metaphysical influences are too numerous to list, and a decent treatment of the subject would entail a much longer node, but it strikes me (at least in its conclusions) as being particularly Gnostic and Buddhist, though, as mentioned above, Nietzsche gets a look in, as does Schopenhauer. Great debts, too, are very obviously owed by Lindsay to Milton and Blake.

The climax of the book, in which what are apparently Lindsay’s own metaphysical ideas are expounded, reminds me very powerfully of Philip K. Dick, particularly his VALIS trilogy (though obviously predating those books by almost sixty years). The last two chapters are heart-stoppingly profound, and left me wholly at a loss for what to do or think.

An internet version is available at http://www.litrix.com/arcturus/arctu001.htm, but I’d recommend buying a copy online – it’s definitely worth it, and given that the book can get a little bit hard going at times, it’s nice to have a physical copy to maintain your attention.