Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Chicago Nerds- The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe

For the November meeting of the Chicago Nerd Social Club, we discussed The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (2016) by Kij Johnson.

The short novel takes place within one of H.P. Lovecraft's worlds, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927, pub. 1943), and includes some crossover characters. Possible spoilers below:

We had a mix of folks who weren't familiar with HPL and those who were, so we spent a bit of time talking about how Lovecraft works. The original Kadath described as a character kind of nonsensically wandering "but like spookily". And we noted some stylistic nods to Lovecraft that Johnson nonetheless turned down a few notches to improve the story—the long descriptive passages, the love for unusual adjectives, the relative scarcity of dialog.

On the whole, we really liked the weird mix of homage and response that this feels like. Obviously, being set in the world and featuring some of the characters from the original, but with a protagonist who might resemble the author a bit, it feels a bit like fanfic—but it's also engaging a bit with the racism and sexism so prevalent in Lovecraft. The idea of a woman's college in this world is wonderfully subversive to begin with, and then to add a competent female protagonist, who's not just a sex object, who comments on the problems in the text/world—was really satisfying.

I have this poorly-fleshed out theory that Johnson is actually drawing a connection between the in-world gods (mad, dangerous, out of date) and writers like HPL (and some of his readers), who casually erased or negatively stereotyped women and people of color. This seemed particularly strong when Vellitt is in the waking world, comparing it to her origins—astonished that there seems to be equal number of women, for instance.

It's also fascinating to read this novel as part of a kind of mini-genre or trend, of writers overtly engaging with Lovecraft as a "problematic fave" maybe one of the biggest and most problematic influences on modern genre fiction. There's Nick Mamatas' I Am Providence, Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country, and Victor LaValle's The Ballad of Black Tom (which was the November discussion for Think Galactic; notes forthcoming). All, like The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, published in 2016, and all dealing with the impact and importance of Lovecraft, but also his overwhelming racism and other problems.

We also talked for a bit about HPL's general influence on the genre—the Elder gods conception etc., the adoption of the Cthulhu mythos into many other works (Mignola's Hellboy as a prime example), and stylistic/worldbuilding influence. Gaiman's Graveyard Book (2008) brought up as similar in its crossing-between-worlds mechanic. We pointed out some stylistic similarities between Tolkien & Lovecraft, who between them shape a rather large percentage of the fantasy world—a fixation on a fully-built, map-reliant secondary worlds, a rich history that is gestured at rather than systematically explored, and the presence of side-characters who hint at complex pasts without revealing too much. Glorfindel Syndrome, perhaps.

We are also curious if Randolph Carter, the protagonist of Lovecraft's story who appears here as a former lover of Vellitt's, has any relation to John Carter (of Mars, that is), Edgar Rice Burrough's creation. They have some similarities. Apparently, Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen claims that Randolph is a great-nephew of John's.

We really liked Vellitt as a protagonist, competent but not hyper-competent, and appreciated the realistic but non-tragic portrayal of a mature, aging character. We also dug the optimism, pragmatism, and sense of purpose that motivates "the Ulthar women", especially as contrasted to the general nihilism of the Lovecraft-verse, and would have loved to see some more of the college.

We liked the cat! Also, the gug-as-Buick-Riviera. Noted that Johnson is known for portraying animals very well (The Fox Woman, her collection At The Mouth of the River of Bees), and we also praised her writing style generally in Vellitt Boe. It's poetic, simple, the language flowing well and studded with striking images. It feels like a passion project: it's a strange concept, doesn't easily fit into standard molds, and novellas aren't typically the route to go for sales. We contrasted this with Kowal's Ghost Talkers, which we read last month and very much enjoyed, but is very different in its approach—you can kind of watch it feeling out whether or not it's a commercially viable series, something Kowal actually talked to us about.

Also, talking about Johnson as a poet and teacher as well as a novelist: it's really worth your time to listen to the Coode Street Podcast wherein Johnson & Michael Swanwick, with commentary from Gary Wolfe & Jonathan Strahan, do a close reading of Tiptree's The Women Men Don't See. (I was lucky enough to catch this live at Worldcon.) If you're not familiar, it's one of the more amazing (and, I would argue, important) SF short stories, an astonishingly deft dissection of sexism. Johnson & Swanwick have a really fascinating discussion about it, bringing a lot of insight into their respective creative processes as they do so. Listen to it!

A fun discussion! We also had a good pre-discussion about Arrival, the film adaption of Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life, and a post-discussion on Greg Egan, as we are wont to do. But! Next time, for December, we will be reading Leviathan Wakes, the first entry in James S.A. Corey's "Expanse" series. Keep up with the Chicago Nerds on their website & Facebook group for more info & events.

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