Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

I never really noticed there were no women in Lovecraft's Dreamlands. In my defense, it's often difficult to notice things that aren't there: the dog that didn't bark, the people who aren't represented. But if you're the one left out, you will notice.

Kij Johnson noticed.

And what good writers do about things they notice is to rewrite it their way: to do a better version, to incorporate their own lives and experiences and thoughts, and show the world what they can do. (And then they also leave some things out, deliberately or not, because no book contains all human experience or ever could -- so someone else, sometime later, may feel that same urge to do it better once again.)

The result was her 2016 novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which is Lovecraftian in its own way but definitely has more women in it, and cares much more about the thoughts and fears and lives of women, than Lovecraft's original Dream-Quest. (It may care more about women than all of Lovecraft's stories put together, frankly.)

The title signposts that, quietly. Lovecraft's original was a Dream-quest to a place; Johnson's is a dream-quest of a person. Boe is a middle-aged professor at the relatively new and still fragile Women's College of Ulthar University, having settled down after a more exciting and adventure-filled youth. She's awoken late one night: her student Clarie Jurat has run away with a man.

That would be bad enough in the only-vaguely-modern society of Ulthar; it could be enough to have the Trustees shut down the whole Women's College and give up education for women as a bad idea. But it gets worse: that man is a dreamer, from the waking world, and may be taking Clarie there, never to return. And Clarie is the granddaughter of an Elder God from the cold wastes of Kadath, who sired a daughter years ago during a brief time in human form. That god, like all of the Dreamland's gods, is small and petty and cruel, insane and unfettered and massively powerful, jealous and possessive and punitive, detached and dreaming and liable to destroy cities on a whim.

So Vellitt sets off to intercept Clarie and bring her back. Not for Clarie's own sake: the waking world might well be better for her. Not even for the College. But because Clarie leaving the Dreamlands will most likely result in a god's Doom utterly destroying all of Ulthar, as so many other places in the Dreamlands have been randomly destroyed by other gods for reasons even lesser.

It's a long journey, as it must be: episodic and extended, across as much of the breadth of the Dreamlands as Johnson can manage. She races first to the closest gate to the waking world, and finds an unlikely old friend there but no passage through. And then she has to cross the world as quickly as possibly to find another old friend -- one with a name Lovecraft readers will recognize -- while hoping that Clarie's grandfather has not awakened, or been awakened by other scheming gods, to see what has happened.

Johnson writes evocatively, with a few echoes of Lovecraft's language but more often plain descriptive words: gugs are "like elephants" rather than some elaborately Latinate word that means the same thing. But she does touch on the places and creatures and societies that Lovecraft did: that's one of the main purposes of this novella. She's rewriting this world, to give it space for women and their stories.

This story, in particular. Vellitt Boe is no one's Everywoman: she's particular and gnarled and skilled and thoughtful, a woman with a lot of life behind her, full of choices she believed in at the time and still understands now. And her Dream-Quest is more than just an answer to Lovecraft; it's a full story in its own right, a parallax view on the Dreamlands and its people, full of thoughts on things Lovecraft may have implied or left unspoken or not even thought about.

The world needs more Dream-Quests; I'm glad we got this one. I hope to see more soon.

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