Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Philosophy Swirling Around an Exotic Sun

Voyage to Arcturus (1920) is completely different from anything else I've read during my journey through the genre’s classic history. It feels allegorical, but it’s rather more subtle than, say, Pilgrim's Progress. It shares its structure with Utopian literature in that it takes a man of (approximately) our times and places him in a strange world where other people have to explain things to him. In Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, this involves the explication of an single comprehensive political/social/economic system. In Arcturus, things are more complex: the protagonist Maskull travels to Tormance, a planet orbiting Arcturus. He doesn't just talk with one set of people there, he talks with many. As he travels through the landscape he meets different people with diverse philosophies and physiologies. His own form changes several times, growing and losing new sense organs with a(n alarming) rapidity that he takes calmly in stride. In its depiction of a man wandering through diverse encounters, it puts you in mind of Gulliver's Travels. But Maskull's encounters are not directly satirical—neither are they straight-forward allegory. The names of people and objects are faintly evocative, though only enough to produce a shade of meaning in the mind. There are no well-marked sign posts for the philosophical positions that the figures represent, and I’m afraid most of the references went soaring off over my head.

To me the most interesting thing about this piece is how it shows off the potential that science fiction would grow into. Maskull travels (via handwavium) to a distant planet. He meets people that he doesn’t immediately try to kill. He learns from them and changes (both literally and metaphorically) through these encounters. The planet on which he lands has people of alien biology (tentacle arms and different sense organs) and alien physics (new colors, a technique that Lovecraft would also use to indicate alienness), but no monolithic culture. As Maskull travels he meets people living their lives in diverse ways according to different principles. The philosophical areas touched on by the story are wide ranging; I only caught a fraction of what is there. The issues raised include: good vs. evil, men vs. women, free will vs. nature, creator gods and destroyer gods, as well as many subtler points.

The story’s structure is in one way straightforward, with Maskull traveling between regions and talking to the different people he meets. In another way it is complex: in each new place Maskull unlearns things he learned before so that he can move forward. In the end he unlearns even his own identity. Thus the story wraps an interesting loop with itself, tying its ending back to its beginning in an intriguing way.

I like this book quite a bit. It is readable even at its oddest moments, and the descriptions are particularly vivid. I did not find Maskull’s reactions to events to be particularly believable, but he is not meant to be an Everyman character. While much of the characters’ oblique dialog went over my head, even just skimming the surface indicated the depth below. This is another book that I want to re-read in a few years. I had the same feeling after finishing Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. Since then I’ve laid my hands on a edition annotated by the incomparable Martin Gardner. Gary K. Wolfe has written a (short) volume on David Lindsay, so perhaps I will try Arcturus again after tracking down a copy.

No comments: