Thursday, 31 May 2012

A Voyage to Arcturus

David Lindsay A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)
The greatest science-fiction novel ever written according to some, an incoherent pile of shit according to others, and a significant influence on the first two volumes of C.S. Lewis' Cosmic Trilogy. The most common complaint, if three minutes spent looking around on the internet are any indication, seems to be that A Voyage to Arcturus is  badly written, a complaint which I gather has gained such momentum over the years as to imprint the novel's cultural presence with a halo of testy defences. It's not very encouraging when even the back cover blurb quotes a review politely suggesting that its merits are conditional to sympathetic reading.

Typically, one summary nestled deep within the underpants of cyberspace and supplied by someone named Darius runs:

This really isn't a novel, and certainly not science-fiction. It is a bunch of parables, and parables that really make no sense. The book is mostly without any purpose. The only thing that kept me reading it was that I could not believe how bad it was, nor could I believe that anyone could recommend it or refer to it as a page-turner.

Followed immediately by:

Well, Darius, that just reveals the limited reach of your mind. Arcturus is a philosophical allegory, a post-Nietzschean Pilgrim's Progress. The inadequacy of successive perceptions is the point - all ultimately is illusion, facade and suffering. Twentieth century Gnosticism? A multidimensional Zen mandala? Probably both, and more.

This rebuttal, the work of someone named Schopenhauer, signs off with the suggestion that Darius should look elsewhere for phasers or lightsabers because clearly anyone picking up Lindsay's masterpiece and failing to recognise its genius would have been better off sticking with The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and yes, I am being sarcastic just in case that wasn't obvious.

Whilst Schopenhauer defeats his own argument by revealing himself to be a bit of a wanker, and by suggesting that A Voyage to Arcturus might not be so much a novel as a multidimensional Zen mandala (there's no such thing by the way); and whilst the views of Darius may be perhaps a tad harsh, the sad truth lies, as always, somewhere between the two poles.

A Voyage to Arcturus, paradoxically contrary to the protests of its defenders, really isn't that badly written. The prose tends towards a certain purple quality with tinges of melodrama, but no more so than, for example, H.P. Lovecraft or A.E. van Vogt, but it does little to suggest anything fumbled for want of literary ability. The problem is that it just isn't very engaging. The visionary narrative unfolds with the pacing and logic of a dream, building up a steady rhythm of pleasantly strange images and experiences which ultimately amount to very little. Its supposedly great philosophical insights are not well expressed, and nor do they seem particularly profound - excepting I suppose the views of cretins who might be impressed by phrases like multidimensional Zen mandala.

As a tale in which a man is fired into space by dubious methods in order to have philosophical experiences amongst strangely allegorical beings, A Voyage to Arcturus is not so much early science-fiction as one of the last in a long line of novels in the loose tradition of Cyrano de Bergerac's comical history. It's fine so far as it goes, although D.H. Lawrence achieved the same brooding insights to  greater and more lucid effect without firing men into orbit or writing anything too closely resembling a philosophical shopping list.  Neither awful nor brilliant, just...

No comments:

Post a Comment