Maskull, a man longing for adventures, accepts an invitation from Krag, an acquaintance of his friend Nightspore, to travel to Tormance after a seance. The three set off in a crystal ship from an abandoned observatory in Scotland but Maskull awakens to find himself alone on Tormance. In every land he passes through he usually meets only one or two persons; these meetings often (though not always) end in the death of those he meets, either at his own hand or by that of another. He learns of his own impending death, meets Krag again, and dies shortly after learning that he is in fact Nightspore himself. The book concludes with a final revelation from Krag (who claims to be known on Earth as "Pain") to Nightspore about the origin of the Universe. The author turns out to support a variation of the doctrine of the Demiurge, somewhat similar to that propounded by some Gnostics.
All of the characters and lands are types used to convey the author's critique of several philosophical systems. On Tormance, most such viewpoints or ways of life are accompanied by corresponding new bodily sense organs or modifications of the same, thus each distinct Weltanschauung landscape has its corresponding sensorium.Chapter 1 – The Seance
A seance is organised in Hampstead to which Maskull and Nightspore are invited; their late arrival is marked by a supernatural noise. The medium causes a smiling man to materialise. Krag arrives uninvited, kills the apparition by breaking its neck, and summarily calls Maskull and Nightspore (with whom he was acquainted) out to the street.
Chapter 2 – In the Street
Krag invites Maskull and Nightspore to come to Tormance, a planet orbiting Arcturus, whence the apparition comes. Maskull initially treats the proposal as a joke, but accepts it when Krag shows him, with a small but strangely heavy and potent lens, that Arcturus consists of two suns. Upon questioning from Nightspore, Krag says that Surtur (unknown to Maskull) has gone ahead and that they must follow him.
Chapter 3 – Starkness
Maskull and Nightspore arrive on foot (after travelling by train) at the Scottish observatory of Starkness, where Krag was to meet them, only to find the observatory abandoned. Two bottles are found with "Solar back rays" and "Arcturian back rays". The first, when accidentally unfastened, flies back to the sun because of the light rays trapped within.
Chapter 4 – The Voice
Nightspore leads Maskull to a spot on the shore some miles off, where a sort of drumbeat is heard, and tells him that if he hears it again he is to "try always to hear it more and more distinctly." Maskull attempts to climb the observatory tower but is unable to go beyond the first of the seven stories because of the heavy gravity. From the first magnifying window he sees Arcturus again. He hears a voice saying that he is but an instrument and that although he will go on the voyage, only Nightspore will return.
Chapter 5 – The Night of Departure
Nightspore says the gravity in the tower is Tormance's and that Maskull will find death on Tormance. Krag arrives, enables Maskull and Nightspore to resist Tormance's gravity by spitting on a cut in their arms, and the three climb the tower, whose windows no longer magnify. They depart naked in a 'torpedo of crystal' propelled by Arcturian back rays. During the 19-hour voyage, Maskull sleeps.
Chapter 6 – Joiwind
Maskull awakes alone in a desert on Tormance and finds that he has new organs in his body, such as a tentacle (known as a magn) stemming from the heart and protuberances on his neck. A woman comes to him and exchanges blood with him (making it easier for him to live on Tormance, and harder for her), and says: that she is called Joiwind, her husband Panawe, and both live to the North in Poolingdred; that she understands his speech thanks to a forehead organ, the breve, that reads minds; that Surtur is called Shaping, or Crystalman, and created everything (she also implicitly says that he is God); that they do not eat, out of respect for living things, but drink gnawl water; and that the chest tentacle is used to increase love for other creatures. While journeying home they worship Shaping in a shrine, and meet Panawe upon arrival.
Chapter 7 – Panawe
Panawe suggests that Maskull may be "a man [...] who stole something from the Maker of the universe, in order to ennoble his fellow creatures," a reference to the myth of Prometheus. He says that life on Tormance has many different forms because the planet is still new, that human beings resemble earthlings because "all creatures that resemble Shaping must of necessity resemble one another," and that Alppain is visible only to the North. Panawe tells his story to Maskull; he travelled in the Wombflash forest (from where he saw Swaylone's island), Ifdawn Marest, and Poolingdred.
Chapter 8 – The Lusion Plain
Maskull sets out to further explore Tormance and gets to the Lusion Plain, where he meets a man.
"Maskull, look well at me. Who am I?"
"I think you are Shaping."
"I am Surtur."
Surtur asserts the beauty of his world, claims Maskull is there to serve him, and disappears. Maskull continues his journey and meets a woman, Oceaxe, from Ifdawn, who instead of a tentacle has a third arm. Although she is peremptory and rude, she shows interest in having him as lover, and gives him a red-glowing stone to convert his magn into a third arm.
Chapter 9 – Oceaxe
When Maskull wakes up he finds his chest tentacle or magn has been transformed into the third arm, which causes lust for what is touched. He travels through the volatile and Nietzschean landscape of Ifdawn with Oceaxe, who wants him to kill one of her husbands, Crimtyphon, and take his place. Maskull is revolted at the idea, but does kill Crimtyphon when he sees him using his will to force a man into becoming a tree.
Chapter 10 – Tydomin
Tydomin, another wife of Crimtyphon's, shows up and uses her will to force Oceaxe to commit suicide by walking off a cliff and Maskull to follow her to her home in Disscourn, where she will take possession of his body. On the way they find Joiwind's brother Digrung who says he will tell her everything; to prevent this, and encouraged by Tydomin, Maskull absorbs Digrung, leaving his empty body behind. At Tydomin's cave, he goes out of his body to, anachronistically, become the apparition of the seance where he met Krag, but when he is killed he goes back to his body before Tydomin can possess it, whereupon he awakens free of her mental power.
Chapter 11 – On Disscourn
Maskull takes Tydomin to Sant, to kill her. In Sant no women are allowed, but only men, who go there to follow Hator's doctrine. On the way Maskull and Tydomin meet Spadevil, who proposes to reform Sant by amending Hator's teaching with the notion of duty. He turns Maskull and Tydomin into his disciples by modifying their two forehead organs or breves.
Chapter 12 – Spadevil
Catice, the guardian of Hator's doctrine in Sant, who has only one forehead organ, cuts off one of Maskull's to test Spadevil's arguments. Maskull accepts Hator's ideas and kills Spadevil and Tydomin. Catice says he will leave Sant to meditate on Spadevil's arguments, claims that Shaping is not Surtur, and sends Maskull away to the Wombflash Forest, in search of Muspel, their home.
Chapter 13 – The Wombflash Forest
Maskull awakes in the dense Wombflash Forest with a third eye as his only foreign organ, hears the drumbeat, follows it, and meets Dreamsinter, who tells him that it was Nightspore whom Surtur brought to Tormance and that he, Maskull, is wanted to steal Muspel-light. Maskull then sees a vision in which Krag kills him while Nightspore follows a light, and faints.
Chapter 14 – Polecrab
Maskull reawakes and proceeds to the shore of the Sinking Sea, from which Swaylone's Island can be seen. There he meets Polecrab, a simple fisherman, who is married to Gleameil.
Chapter 15 – Swaylone's Island
Maskull goes to Swaylone's Island, where Earthrid plays a musical instrument called Irontick (actually a lake) by night, and from where no one who heard it ever returned. Maskull is accompanied by Gleameil, who has left her family because of the attraction of the music. Earthrid warns Gleameil that the music he plays may kill her, but she stays and promptly dies. Maskull then forcibly plays Irontick, whereupon Earthrid dies, violently dismembered, and Swaylone's Island is destroyed.
Chapter 16 – Leehallfae
Maskull crosses the sea by maneuvering a many-eyed, heliotropic tree and reaches Matterplay, where much to his amazement a plethora of life-forms alongside a magical creek materialize and vanish before his eyes. He goes upstream and meets Leehallfae, an immensely old being ("phaen") who is neither man nor woman, but of a third sex, who has been seeking the underground country of Threal for eons, where ae [sic] believes a god called Faceny (which may be another name for Shaping) is to be found.
Chapter 17 – Corpang
They reach Threal by entering a cave. Leehallfae promptly falls ill and dies. Corpang appears and says this is because Threal is not Faceny's world, but Thire's. Faceny, Amfuse, and Thire are the creators of three worlds of existence, relation, and feeling. Corpang has come to Threal to follow Thire, and leads Maskull to three statues of these divinities. There Maskull has a vision of their power, and hears a voice saying he is to die in a few hours, after which the statues are seen with faces like a corpse's, showing that they are merely disguises for Shaping/Crystalman. Realising that he has been worshipping false gods, Corpang follows Maskull to Lichstorm, where they hear the drumbeats.
Chapter 18 – Haunte
Maskull and Corpang meet Haunte, a hunter who travels in a boat that flies thanks to masculine stones which repel earth's femininity. Haunte takes them to Sullenbode, a faceless woman who acquires his facial features, killing him in the process.
Chapter 19 – Sullenbode
Maskull desires Sullenbode and she desires him, thereby becoming alive permanently (without killing him) as long as he loves her. Maskull, Sullenbode and Corpang proceed in a direction to which someone looking for Muspel once went, but Corpang goes eagerly ahead whereas Maskull stops when he has a vision of Muspel-light. Since he has thus lost interest in Sullenbode for a moment, she promptly dies.
Chapter 20 – Barey
Maskull proceeds to Barey where he meets Krag again, and then Gangnet, who defends Shaping and his creation. Since Gangnet is unable to send the abusive Krag away, they travel together to the ocean and then take to the sea on a raft. When the sun Alppain rises, Maskull sees in a vision Krag causing the drum beat by beating his heart, and Gangnet, who is Shaping, dying in torment enveloped by Muspel-fire. Back on the raft, Krag tells Maskull that he is Nightspore, whereupon Maskull promptly dies.
Chapter 21 – Muspel
Krag and Nightspore arrive at Muspel, where there is a tower similar to that in Starkness (the observatory in Scotland). From the windows of its several stories Nightspore sees that Shaping (the Gnostic demiurge) uses what comes from Muspel to create the world for his sole pleasure, thus preventing that Muspel matter from going back to its source as it would, and thereby causing suffering. Krag acknowledges that he is Surtur and is known on Earth as pain. Nightspore goes back with him to reincarnate and spread knowledge about Surtur, Shaping, and Muspel.
There is no systematic description of the geography of Tormance; Maskull simply travels from South to North (with a somewhat eastward excursion to the Sant levels). The direction is symbolic: the light of the second sun, Alppain, is seen to the north; the southern countries are illuminated only by Branchspell, the first sun, which is a sun whose colors are like those of Sol, Earth's sun. Maskull travels always in the direction that puts behind him earthly sights and things, seeking the other world illuminated by Alppain.
The name "Surtur" is taken from Surtr, the lord of Múspellsheimr (the world of fire) in Norse mythology. Múspellsheimr also gives its name to "Muspel."
The "sorbing" (aggressive absorption of another's personality into one's own, fatal to the other person) was mentioned by C.S. Lewis as an influence on the writing of his book The Screwtape Letters (1942).
Another widely-striking feature of the book has been the two new primary colors of the sun Alppain, "ulfire" and "jale":"Just as blue is delicate and mysterious, yellow clear and unsubtle, and red sanguine and passionate, so he felt ulfire to be wild and painful [and] jale [to be] dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous."
The author coined a new gender-specific pronoun series, ae, aer, and aerself:"...this person, although clearly a human being, was neither man nor woman, nor anything between the two, but was unmistakably of a third positive sex, which was remarkable to behold and difficult to understand. In order to translate into words the sexual impression produced in Maskull's mind by the stranger's physical aspect, it is necessary to coin a new pronoun, for none in earthly use would be applicable. Instead of "he," "she," or "it," therefore "ae" will be used...the lover aerself was the eternal child. Further, ae sought like a man, but received like a woman."
Methuen agreed to publish the novel, but only if Lindsay agreed to cut 15,000 words, which he did. These passages are assumed lost forever. Methuen also insisted on a change of title, from Lindsay's original (Nightspore in Tormance), as it was considered too obscure. But out of an original press run of 1430 copies, no more than 596 were sold in total. A Voyage to Arcturus was made widely available in paperback form when published as one of the precursor volumes to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in 1968, featuring a cover by illustrator Bob Pepper. Lindsay's choice of title (and therefore the setting of Arcturus) may have been influenced by the nonfictional A Voyage to the Arctic in the Whaler Aurora (1911), published by his namesake, David Moore Lindsay.
The book has been translated into French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Bulgarian, Russian, Japanese, Catalan, Romanian and Turkish.Critic Harold Bloom, in his only attempt at fiction writing, wrote a critiqued and flawed sequel to this novel, entitled The Flight to Lucifer. Bloom has since critiqued the book as a poor continuation of the narrative.
William J. Holloway, then a student at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio created a 71-minute film adaptation of the novel in 1970. The film, unavailable for many years, was independently restored, re-edited and color-enhanced, to be redistributed on DVD-R in 2005.
In 1985, a three-hour play by David Wolpe based on the novel was staged in Los Angeles.
Paul Corfield Godfrey wrote an operatic setting based on the novel to a libretto by Richard Charles Rose and this was performed at the Sherman Theatre Cardiff in 1983. A review by Kenneth Loveland was published in Opera magazine.
Jazz composer Ron Thomas recorded a concept album inspired by the novel in 2001 entitled Scenes from A Voyage to Arcturus. Music from the album is featured in the 2005 restoration of the 1970 student film.
The novel The Bull's Hour by Ivan Yefremov also features a planet called Tormance.
Ukrainian house producer Vakula, real name Mikhaylo Vityk, released an imaginary soundtrack called A Voyage To Arcturus as a triple LP in 2015.