No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

2017/11: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe -- Kij Johnson

She had never met a woman from the waking world. Once she asked Carter about it. "Women don't dream large dreams," he had said, dismissively. "It is all babies and housework. Tiny dreams." Men said stupid things all the time, and it was perhaps no surprise that men of the waking world might do so as well, yet she was disappointed in Carter. [loc. 604]
Professor Vellitt Boe teaches at the Women's College of Ulthar University. Clarie Jurat, daughter of one of the College's trustees, is one of her best students: when Clarie elopes with her lover -- a dreamer from the waking world -- Vellitt Boe realises that Clarie's disappearance might mean the closure of the College, and so she sets out to find Clarie.

It gradually becomes apparent, though, that Clarie's family is rather more influential than Vellitt could have suspected: much more is at risk than the Women's College. Vellitt, who spent much of her life travelling before settling at the University, embarks on an epic journey through the Dreamlands, and begins to reevaluate the choices that led her to her sedentary life in the College.

Disclaimer: I am not that familiar with Lovecraft, and though the title rang a vague bell I didn't recognise that what it echoed was Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Forgotten Kadath. Certainly my unfamiliarity with this source text didn't impede my enjoyment in any way. (Johnson's afterword: "I first read it [The Dream-Quest of Forgotten Kadath] at ten, thrilled and terrified, and uncomfortable with the racism but not yet aware that the total absence of women was also problematic. This story is my adult self returning to a thing I loved as a child and seeing whether I could make adult sense of it." [loc. 1527]) However, reading the Lovecraft story and then rereading The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe gave me more insight into the transformative art of Johnson's novella. Instead of a man from 'the waking world' (our own), the protagonist is a native of the Dreamlands; instead of a hero in his prime (Randolph Carter), a middle-aged academic. She accepts some aspects of her world, questions others, and displays a mild contempt for Randolph Carter's sexism.

There is a joyfulness to this novella: Vellitt Boe is open-minded, aware of the dangers of her world (ravenous ghouls, mad gods, shifting geographies, terrors in the deep) yet still able to appreciate its beauty and strangeness, and very ready to embark upon new journeys. I finished reading with a huge smile on my face, for Vellitt and Clarie and for Kij Johnson's reimagining of Lovecraft's original.

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