Tuesday, September 20, 2016


I hadn't known how much I wanted to explore the world of H.P. Lovecraft's "Dream Cycle" alongside a middle-aged woman and an intrepid cat until I found myself doing so in Kij Johnson's absolutely delightful The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.

H.P. Lovecraft's famously weird (and unpublished in his lifetime, because not regarded by him as finished or even worth passing around to his friends) "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" has long been one of my favorite of his works, both for its underlying message that what most of us are discontentedly seeking beyond the everyday things of ordinary life, is actually that very same ordinary life properly understood and appreciated, and for its crazy imagery, its monsters, its perils, and its madcap, deadly armies of ghouls and Moon-beasts and kitty cats, who are fearless and fearsome in battle, the cats, and then, once the battle is over, instantly resume their more amusing pursuits of chasing leaves. And I'm really not much of a cat person, yo.

But so, Vellitt Boe. Right away she is a most un-Lovecraftian protagonist, for all that she is a Scholar (perhaps his very favorite profession): a professor of mathematics and science in the Women's College at the great, the ancient, the venerated University of Ulthar, a position she holds only with the greatest determination and discipline, for in Lovecraft's Dreamlands, of course, the idea of a female academic, of a female anything except for a witchy figurant, is unheard-of and absurd. In our world, a woman has to be twice as good to get half the respect a man does; in hers, those figures are blown right out of the water, both ways. But she's held on, and helped hold her little school together, creating a place where it's okay to be a smart, capable woman in Lovecraft's men-only imaginary world (which, because it's Lovecraft's Dream World, is also chock full of petty, capricious, moronic and devastatingly powerful gods that mess with things with such abandon that even, say, mathematical constants, to say nothing of things like physical measurements like distants, are subject to ridiculous variation and contstant change, making it extra hard for anyone, let alone a Lady Professor, to teach anything like math or science, really).

Until, until, a Dreamer comes along. Dreamers are, of course, people from our world, who visit Vellitt's in dreams, where they wield unbelievable power, radiate unbelievable charisma, frequently rise to the status of kings, if not godlings. And said Dreamer attracts the romantic interest of one of Vellitt's best students, and convinces her to run away with him to our, "real" world.

For reasons that aren't totally clear but that I immediately bought into because Dream Logic as well as Feminist Critique, the student's eloping with a Dreamer would spell disaster for the very existence of the Women's College (perhaps because it would reveal that even supposedly scholarly women are really, deep down, just looking for a husband to do all that hard thinking and planning and deciding for them and expose the whole idea of educating women as a wasteful scam?), so even before some Big Secrets are revealed, it becomes clear that the student must be retrieved and persuaded against her lover at all costs.

So off goes Professor Boe, who, before she settled down and got educated and became a professor, was a long-distance traveler and explorer, and also happens to be an ex of one Randolph Carter (hero of the Lovecraft story that inspired this tale), who once tried to pin her down as his forever "love" but whose love for her didn't actually respect her personhood or existence as anything apart from a placeholding figment of his dreams. Did I mention feminist critique? This is feminist critique, you guys.

But it's also a cracking good story, and a lovely one. Johnson's fondness for Lovecraft's amazingly detailed and thoroughly imagined Dreamlands quite possibly exceed my own, and she makes of Vellitt Boe's journey through them in quest of a way into the Waking World an absolute delight to read. A lot of familiar creatures and places are encountered along the way without ever feeling like retreads, and the refreshing character of Vellitt herself is one I'd read any number of stories to share.

I'm not someone who spends a lot of time or energy worrying too much about Representation in literature. I'm just in it for the fun stories and the writing. But even so, it sure is nice to see someone like me, a middle aged single, childless woman whom society is constantly questioning the worth of, at center stage in an adventure/quest story. Even if she isn't kicking ass (but here, she does. Oh yes, she does. Lady is pretty deadly with a sharpened piece of obsidian).

More, please.

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