The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
With the title, you figure out pretty quickly that 2016’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson, is a Lovecraft pastiche, modeled on The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. If you’re like me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find out that the beginning at least is a gentle send-up — or, to be polite, a “nod” — to academic novels.
Vellitt Boe, the book’s protagonist, is a professor at the Women’s College in the University in Ulthar. In the opening pages, she wakes from a strange and powerful dream to the news that a star student, whose father is on the Board of Regents, has run away from the College and the town with a “dreamer.” The Women’s College, we quickly learn, is precarious already, as this society frowns on educating women. This scandal may bring the place down, literally. In the early chapters, as Boe readies herself to pursue the student and persuade her to return, we see many familiar places and expressions. The university in the dreaming lands, a place filled with monsters and an ever-shifting sky, looks a lot like Oxford.
Boe is a refreshing protagonist. She’s in her fifties, and would rather be back in her room reading mathematical texts then heading out on an adventure like the ones from her youth. Her old skills come back to her, though, and she is the right woman for the job.
Johnson evokes Lovecraft beautifully and normalizes this society in ways I really liked — mostly by comparing the waking lands to it. Dreamers appear often enough, it seems, that they aren’t completely strange. Boe knew one, a long time ago. She muses as she travels that the sky of the waking lands is “empty” except for stars, and their moon follows a predictable course that has actually been charted. (Later, a character tells her that mathematical equations in the Waking Lands don’t change at random.)
At the beginning, Boe’s journey is slow. The descriptions make up for it; Johnson’s depictions of a vast city under the ocean, for instance, is a thing of beauty. There is some slow-burn plot tension when Boe realizes some of the gods from Kadath have sent human minions to stop her at any cost, but the story doesn’t really get moving until Boe re-encounters an old lover — Randolph Carter.
Two small problems with the story make me give it 4.5 stars instead of 5. The slow-burn pacing didn’t quite work for me, although this is a novella, and some problems with pacing seem endemic to that form. Secondly, I was captivated by the dreaming lands, but momentarily lost the suspension of disbelief when Boe came through the portal into the waking lands. When Boe arrives there (the waking lands are our world) she suddenly experiences a kind of download, and knows everything she needs to know, like how to drive a car and what a smartphone is. While I didn’t believe this, there were moments I loved — like the phone, which Johnson foreshadows much earlier in the book. And I loved how she gets the Buick that becomes her ride. Since I haven’t read the original Lovecraft work, I can only assume that this magical awareness is a borrowing from Lovecraft and explains the relationship between the waking lands and the dreaming lands. It was still a tiny bit disappointing.
If you’re searching for feminist takes on Lovecraft, you’ll like this. If you love lush, beautiful prose and a slightly cynical narrative voice — and cats — you’ll enjoy this too. At 165 pages, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe repays the time investment with interest.
This sounds wonderful! Thanks for the review, Marion.