The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

“And I must of course acknowledge Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I first read it 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.” — Kij Johnson

In the Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Johnson turns much of Lovecraft’s novel of a dreamworld on its head. The main characters live in the dreaming world, which is as real to them as Earth is to its inhabitants. Almost all of the characters are women; men play but fleeting roles in the quest.

Vellitt Boe, the protagonist, has settled down from a life of far-traveling to become a professor of mathematics at the Women’s College of the University of Ulthar. At the story’s opening, one of her most promising students has fallen for a man from the waking world and followed him there. The University is a very old-fashioned place, and such a defection could confirm the doubts that the powers-that-be have about educating women. Worse, the missing student is the daughter of a high official. His wrath could close the College just the same. Vellitt (Johnson generally uses the character’s personal name) resolves to retrieve the student from the waking world and save the College.

The opening scenes riff on cloistered educational institutions throughout fantasy — from Hogwarts to Pullman’s Jordan College and onward — and they are a fun mixture of social observation and speedy action. Soon, Vellitt is out the gates of Ulthar in pursuit of the wayward student and her man.

From that point, Dream-Quest becomes two different things: a character study of Vellitt, as she recalls her younger wanderings and makes her way back into the world, and a reprise of the journeys in Lovecraft’s book, seen, after a fashion, from the other side. Vellitt is an interesting companion. She is capable and experienced, and the University has provided her with funds to cover her journey, so much of the ordinary worries of a traveler are taken care of at the start. The story starts out as one of hot pursuit, but shifts, as a dream will do, into a different mode.

I read Kadath when I was a bit older than Johnson was that first time, and I have retained only the dimmest recollection of its contents. Quick research, however, shows me that Vellitt revisits many of the same locations where Lovecraft’s protagonist, Randolph Carter, journeyed. Vellitt and Carter even traveled together for a while, at least in Johnson’s telling.

On the whole it’s interesting. People in the dream world have but 97 stars, and they cannot believe that Earth’s sky is just plain blue. Theirs is much more interesting. They might prefer to have distances that do not change, but on the whole they have lived with the way their world works. I found myself skimming a bit toward the end, as Johnson’s tale banged up against one of the structural difficulties of quests: one damn thing after another. Fortunately, that part did not last long, and the conclusion is both satisfying in itself, and how it addresses questions implicit in Lovecraft’s narrative and setting.

This is the second Hugo finalist I have read this year, but the first that I have written about. It was nominated in the category of novella. The winner will be announced at Worldcon 75, August 2017 in Helsinki.

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