More than ever before, badass female protagonists populate book and screen. From Lara Croft, to Black Widow, to Katniss Everdeen, they kick butt. In America, the message seems to be that true power is only gained by brute force and coercion, so women can only be powerful if they are young, beautiful, and fight like a man.
Kij Johnson’s poetic The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe shows female power in a refreshingly different way. It’s not every day that you read a sci-fi adventure novel with a sixty-something-year-old female protagonist. Vellitt Boe is quiet, careful, and wise—and her body aches after a long hike. Nevertheless, her goal is achieved, and her strength is expressed in her mentorship of a younger woman. That which has been stereotyped as feminine weakness is revealed in this novella as revolutionary power.
In the mystery genre, there is slim precedence for elderly protagonists whose only weapon in the apprehension of criminals is intelligence. Take Murder, She Wrote on TV and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series. However, I can’t think of a single elderly female protagonist out for adventure in science fiction. Let me know if you can.
Johnson, who was born in 1950 and is a professor at the University of Kansas, explains in an interview for The Geeks Guide to the Galaxy that this novella was written in response to H. P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which has no women in it at all. She asked herself, “What happens to [the male fictional] world if I put females in it? Does it break it?”
Some of my students didn’t want to read the book, fearing an angry feminist critique of Lovecraft and all men, but what we found, instead, was a gentle assertion of female-centered conflict and a main character who uses other forms of power: intelligence, kindness, and patience.
The premise of the novella is that a gifted female college student in Dreamland has thrown away her future to run off with a man to the waking world. Because the education of women is threatened in this male-dominated world, her teacher Vellitt Boe and her Dean determine she must be retrieved before it causes a scandal and the college is shut down. When the Dean proposes to send a man who has the advantage of being both young and—well—a man, Vellitt Boe convinces the Dean that her own knowledge and her power of persuasion are more important to the success of the mission than physical prowess: “We need her to listen, to understand what is at risk…”
The plot thickens when Vellitt discovers that the girl is the granddaughter of a god. The gods in this Lovecraft’s Dreamland are cruel, petty, and beyond random. If he discovers she is gone, he might raze the entire city in which the college resides.
Though she has to use a machete once or twice, it is primarily the power of patience, wit, clear sight, and compassion that save Vellitt from the murderous shantak birds and ghasts. In a feat reminiscent of the Greek myth of Psyche with the ants helping to complete her insurmountable tasks, Vellitt’s tears when she is trapped are tracked abroad by millipedes, and this draws to her rescue a monster gug whom she saved when it was an infant. Thus, Velitt’s compassion in the past bears fruit in the form of an enormous life-saving gug.
If great power comes in subtle forms, so does great danger. In the climax before she breaks into the waking world, Vellitt’s greatest obstacle is not Dreamland’s violence, but doubt, which arrives in the form of a violet-eyed god who tells her that her city, Ulthar, has already been destroyed and her quest failed. Again, Vellitt’s power is not brutal strength, but strength of character as well as reason: “You cannot stop me,” she tells the god. “If you could, I would be dead already…and if Ulthar were truly destroyed, you would have brought me visions and shown me relics. You are just a shadow here. You have no power”.
Turning yet another stereotype on its head, Clarie Jurat, the object of Vellitt’s quest, has already fallen out of love with the man she followed to the waking world by the time Vellitt catches up to her. Clarie has discovered on her own that she really didn’t crave the man’s love but rather the expansive world to which he belongs. Women have historically been associated with the unconscious and intuitive – i.e. the Dreamworld, whereas men represent the active, external world, so Clarie’s realization of her own true intent – her desire to leave the interior realm of the unconscious and live abroad in the active realm shows a woman in true possession of her power.
Johnson continues to highlight a subtler form of power in the last turn of the plot. Vellitt convinces Clarie to return not by forceful argument but by providing Clarie with the facts and then just…waiting. Awfully passive for a heroine. However, her waiting is really trust of her student’s higher nature. Rather than coercing, she respects the independence and intelligence of her student. This form of power is based on mutual respect, and has a revolutionary effect.
When Clarie realizes that the fate of an entire city rests on her decision, she vows to return. Not just another woman sacrificing herself for others, Clarie vows she will change Dreamland and fight the capricious cruelty of the gods: “I have seen a world without gods, and it’s better…I will return and fix our world…I am one of them. I can do it.” “Do you doubt me?” she asks Vellitt. “No,” Vellitt says. “No.” Transcendently, Clarie laughs and “for a moment it seemed as though the little house was filled with thunder and the earth beneath them shuddered”.
Thus, Kij Johnson’s feminist approach doesn’t tear down Lovecraft’s world, but augments it by adding women to it. While she points to how women are ignored and disapproved of in a man’s world, her protagonist shows how women are powerful on their own terms.
“Interview: Kij Johnson.” Geeks Guide to the Galaxy with David Barr Kirtley. Lightspeed Magazine. January 2017 (Issue 80). http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/authors/geeks-guide-to-the-galaxy/
Johnson, Kij. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. A Tor.com Book Published by Tom Dhoerty Associates, LLC. 2016.