The Dream-Quest of Velitt Boe, by Kij Johnson

To William Shakespeare, death was another country, an undiscovered country, from which no traveler could return.  For Velitt Boe, sleep is literally another country, her country, her world, to which dreamers occasionally come, dazzling the world with their brilliance, until they once again wake.  I know this novella was based on a Lovecraft story called “The Dream-Quest of  Unknown Kadath,” though I will never read it and so can say little about how much was borrowed, how much Johnson’s original creation.  I’d like to think the dark and ugly parts are all that is left of Lovecraft, because the storytelling, the character of Velitt, and feel of a hot summer afternoon buzzing with flies that I felt when Velitt woke up in the real, waking world, were all brilliant, and I attribute all of that to Johnson herself.

World building works best when the conceits of said world are built in, in which the characters speak of reality as though it just is, not in which things have to be explained, and “The Dream-Quest of Velitt Boe” is a startling piece of world building.  Told through the eyes of Velitt herself, a middle aged woman who has earned her place as a math teacher at a women’s college through years of traveling, gathering wisdom, and formal education.  Velitt takes little for granted, and so she is the perfect person to go on a quest to bring back one of her students, who has run off with a waking world man.  The reader discovers just how different the dream world is from the waking world through Velitt’s experiences, her conversations with other characters, and through her rigorous mental preparations to go into a different world in a quest to save her own.

Though Johnson’s descriptions of Velitt’s tumultuous journey border on tales of a descent into madness, it is an effective lead up to her entrance into the mundanity of the waking world, a world of automobiles and jobs and coffee and threadbare rented apartments.  And it makes one feel that they could go to that world, the dreaming world of finite stars and a moon that could be reached by a tall enough tower and childish gods who would burn entire cities at the hint of a slight, and that they could, too, be like those dazzling dreamers who set the world alight.  In this novella in which time is relative, the pages flow by like the drip, drip, drip of water in caverns that will never see the light of day, and dreams go on to make new countries of their own.

The waking world, the normal world, is all the more eerie being the other side of the coin that is a dream world where Velitt is the rarity, the women’s college she teaches at under threat of being shut down at the merest hint of scandal, of women being simply outnumbered by men, not to mention having less autonomy.  This metafictional element is all the more compelling when one is aware of the inspiration for this novella–a Lovecraftian creation sorely lacking in women, powerful or otherwise.  “The Dream-Quest of Velitt Boe” is balm to the soul of any woman making her way in an imperfect world.

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