The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe with my feminist science fiction book club, and it's the first book I've read that made me really love being in a book club. I'm not very good at book clubs because I don't like reading books because I have to read them. But feminist science fiction is a pretty great space, so it's not hard to get excited about reading for each meeting. Also, the women in the club are so cool.
Anyway, onto the book! I really enjoyed The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe when I read it, but it was only after our book club meeting that I realized on just how many levels it is fantastically feminist. For such a slim volume (about 165 pages), it really packs a punch. Especially when you compare it to its inspiration, HP Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which I tried to read prior to reading this one, and just could NOT get through.
If I had read the entirety of Lovecraft's book, I probably would have even more thoroughly appreciated Johnson's version of it. But I would say I read enough of Lovecraft to know that I didn't want to read any more. Where Lovecraft seems to have no real focus except in introducing as many bizarre characters and species as possible, Johnson gives readers a more internal focus on Vellitt Boe herself. While she is not particularly introspective, we learn enough about her to want to know even more about her.
Vellitt Boe is a professor at a women's college in a dream-world. One of her students has run away with someone from "the real world," and Vellitt must go bring her student back. She embarks (with zero drama) on this quest on her own, knowing that it could take a very long time and will probably be super-dangerous. But Vellitt is someone who does what's right, and so she hops to it.
This is a short book, so I don't want to give a lot away on the plot points. But a few things were really great and came up in our book club and really made me appreciate the story even more:
1. Vellitt is middle-aged. She's a middle-aged adventure heroine! You do not find those around very often at all, and I just love that making Vellitt middle-aged and female is in itself a completely feminist way of setting up this story. She is aware that she used to be super-attractive and that she used her charms to get her way and that, being female, her attractiveness lessens with age. But she doesn't really miss her past, she is happy with who she is. There's also this whole interplay with a former lover who does not look like he's aged at all, and the way they look at each other and how Vellitt reflects upon him and their past relationship is just brilliant.
2. Vellitt is "ethnic." Ok, ok, I admit I TOTALLY did not catch this when I was reading the book. Ironically, the two POC in the book club defaulted to thinking Vellitt was white, whereas everyone in the book club who was white was really quick to catch onto the fact that Vellitt had skin "the color of mud" and hair she wore in braids. Oops. I don't think the race component in this book is as strong as it could have been, considering the author pointed out at the end that she wrote it partially to counteract the racism in Lovecraft's book. I feel like if I missed it, it was pretty subtle, but maybe I am just not as attentive a reader as I thought. ALSO, I would say that, based on that description, the cover of this book feels a little white-washed. Maybe that is gray hair, but it's definitely not in braids.
3. The girl who ran away from school is amazing. She doesn't play a huge part, and, seeing as she's a beautiful college student who ran away with a boy, you'd think she'd be pretty flighty and lame. But she is not. She's strong and straight-forward and everything that is great.
4. The setting. Vellitt Boe's world is capricious and mercurial and does not obey the laws of physics. We don't get a ton of detail about the world because, well, the book is 165 pages long. But what we do get is fascinating. For example, the sky is never the same color, it seems to roil and boil all the time. There are exactly 79 stars in the sky. There are gods, and the gods are not very nice. While trying to make my way through Lovecraft's book, I felt like he just kept going ON AND ON with no point at all. While reading Johnson's book, I felt none of that. I am not sure why because really, many of the plot points are the same and Vellitt goes on essentially the same journey as was laid out previously. But I think a lot of it has to do with the way Johnson describes the setting and gives us a little background on the characters that Vellitt encounters.
So, this book! It's great! It's not even very long but so great! I am not sure if it is a great first foray into fantasy and science fiction as it is very dream-like and many characters that show up seem to disappear and then not matter at all to the plot. But if you are ok with that and want to read something that is awesomely feminist but subtly so, then I highly recommend it. And it won't take too long to read, either :-)