There are those who think that Lovecraft’s Dreamlands Cycle are his best works. Certainly the Dreamlands are much more of a coherent fantasy universe than his stories set in the real world. On the other hand, Lovecraft’s attempts to write longer form fiction cruelly expose his failings as an author. My suspicion is that if The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath were to be written today it would not get out of anyone’s slush pile, for all that it is full of interesting ideas.
Kij Johnson read the book as a kid, possibly on the strength of its cutesey, cat-festooned cover. She never forgot it, and has now returned to the Dreamlands to interrogate the setting.
Lovecraft, of course, is hopelessly racist in the original. People of color appear in the dreamlands either as slaves or as villains. But Kij noticed that the book is also almost completely devoid of women. Well it would be, obviously. What, then, would a world be like if it were created, at least in part, by the dreams of misogynist men such as Lovecraft? And what sort of lives would women have in such a world? The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is her answer to those questions.
The hero of our story is Vellitt Boe, professor of mathematics at the Women’s College of the University of Ulthar. Naturally the college is stuck in the 1920s, with women barely permitted to take part in academic life. When one of Professor Boe’s students goes missing, having eloped with a Dreamer, the very future of the college is at stake. Perhaps educating women is a foolish and dangerous enterprise after all.
Fortunately Vellitt is up to the task of saving the day. In her youth she was quite the adventurer, traveling all over the Dreamlands with her gay best friend, Reon Atescre. She even made the acquaintance of the occasional Dreamer. She knows her way around, and is smart enough to avoid the obvious dangers such as the black triremes with their mysterious, turbaned masters.
To find Clarie Jurat, however, Vellitt must travel to the waking world. She must find a way out of the Dreamlands, and journey to a place where she may be no more real than a phantasm.
Much of the story is simply Johnson revisiting well-known landmarks and characters of the Dreamlands, and putting her own interpretation on them. However, there is a distinct feminist edge to the narrative. Professor Boe, just like any other intelligent woman, knows how the world works, and is not above the occasional snide remark. Here she remembers asking a Dreamer why such visitors from the waking world are always male.
“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.
It goes without saying that in Johnson’s hands the settings and characters of the Dreamlands are far more vivid than Lovecraft ever made them. Fortunately the Dreamlands are interesting. As I said above, the setting is full of ideas. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe shows how much better Lovecraft could be, and makes some great feminist points along the way.
Lovecraft aficionados will doubtless hate it.
For more information about Kij Johnson, see the SF Encyclopedia.
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