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Feminist take on Lovecraft novella winning raves

Monday, May 22, 2017

LAWRENCE — Accolades continue rolling in for Kij Johnson’s latest novella, “The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe” (Tor.com, 2016).

It's a finalist for this year’s two top awards in the science fiction field: the 2016 Nebula Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the 2017 Hugo Award, to be presented at the 75th World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki in August.

In April, during National Library Week, it was listed by the staff of the New York Public Library as one of “The 8 books librarians can’t stop talking about right now.”

It’s a feminist riff on H.P. Lovecraft’s novella “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” (Arkham House, 1943). The titular protagonist is a middle-aged college professor, not unlike Johnson herself.

A University of Kansas assistant professor of English, Johnson is also the associate director of KU’s Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction, named for her colleague, Professor Emeritus James Gunn.

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about classics that excluded people,” Johnson said. “It got me to thinking about what books mattered to me when I was young and what accommodations I had to do in order to enjoy them. So, for instance, in ‘Lord of the Rings' there were only three women in it. They were an elf princess, and I knew I wasn’t one of those, and a half-elf princess, and I knew I wasn’t one of those, and a human girl who was a princess, which I knew I wasn’t, but whose primary motivation for all of her actions was that she had a crush on Aragorn. And that was really disappointing when I was 10 years old, because I didn’t want to have crushes on anybody.

“So I would imagine that Merry, who is one of the hobbits who goes on the quest, was a girl, because the name Merry was pretty close to Mary, and Merry didn’t have to be a boy to have adventure."

As an adult coming back to thinking about whether there are places for women in a lot of these books, Johnson said she found that there really weren’t.

“The first thing I did was write a story set in the same world as Kenneth Graham’s ‘The Wind in the Willows,’ which is a classic children’s book from the early 20th century, because there are no females in that, and I was curious about what would happen if you did think about females in that world. That became a novel for adults, ‘The River Bank,’ that’s coming out in September on Small Beer Press.

“And after that, Jonathan Strahan, an editor at Tor.com, contacted me and asked me if I wanted to write a novella for him. I had been thinking a little bit about what was wrong with Lovecraft, so I said ‘Is there any way to write a Lovecraft story without being racist – because he’s terribly racist – and sexist?’ And that was the initial impetus for this.

“‘The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath’ was one of the stories that I liked the best; that I went back to repeatedly as an adult, and that’s why I decided to write about that. How do I write a story set in that world in a way that I’m OK with?”

Johnson’s desire to write a novella with a somewhat older protagonist seems to have struck a chord with readers and critics.

“I was really tired of reading about young protagonists. I’m really tired of the assumptions made about women of my age,” Johnson said. “I started rock climbing at 46. At that point, everybody assumed that women my age were going to be a certain kind of person and do certain kinds of things, like be parents and maybe on their second marriage, but they were not going to be rock climbers and going out and having adventures, and that really annoyed me. Why are there not role models for 55-year-olds? Why don’t we get to have adventures? And the answer is because people just don’t talk about it. People don’t let us. People don’t write about it.”

In her review on the NPR books blog, Amal El-Mohtar praised Johnson’s heroine:

“It's rare to find questing adventure fantasy with an older woman as hero — rare to find books that allow women a glimpse of life after romances and happy endings,” El-Mohtar wrote. “That Vellitt finds herself growing old, and reflects on it; that she looks in a mirror ... and thinks about how she has aged without it being tragic, or a wicked spell to be reversed by story's end; that she wakes every morning with pain in her back and joints but goes on an adventure anyway; all these were nourishing gifts."

Johnson’s previous Nebula Award winners are:

·      “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” Best Novella, 2011 (Also won Hugo Award, 2012)

·      “Ponies,” Best Short Story, 2010

·      “Spar,” Best Short Story, 2009