Friday, April 18, 2008
"Shoggoths in Bloom" by Elizabeth Bear
Elizabeth Bear continues to bring the awesome. This year her short story "Tideline" is nominated for the Hugo Award (and of the three nominees I've read so far is my clear favorite), and this novelette may end up making my nomination lists for next year.
As one might expect, "Shoggoths" is a Lovecraftian story. It's set in cold windy New England, in the 1930s with WWII looming on the horizon. It deals with alien and eldritch creatures. However, instead of being a Lovecraft homage or pastiche, this is a rather pointed critique.
The main important change that Bear has made to the Lovecraft formula is that the protagonist, Dr. Harding, is black. Everything else really stems from that. He is a professor coming in to do field research on these shoggoths and their life cycle. They are huge gelatinous creatures, usually inhabiting the deep sea, except for times when they roost on the rocky New England shoreline. They appear to be immortal, but not much else is known about them.
Dr. Harding doesn't encounter any overt racism from the locals, and the fisherman who takes him out to the shoggoths is as friendly as a taciturn Maine native can be. Bear's points are much more subtle. When Lovecraft's protagonists go looking for knowledge, they are usually driven insane by coming face-to-face with the unknowable, horrible eldritch. Instead of recoiling in unthinking horror, Harding reaches for understanding instead, and achieves it. He embraces their alien, Other nature. It makes sense, given his alienation as an outsider in America.
Likewise, by firmly grounding this story in a time when almost unthinkable horrors were about to be unleashed, Bear seems to be dismissing Lovecraft's "horrors" altogether. If you want horror, she seems to say, skip the stories and go straight to the documentaries.
Once more, like all the best stories with a point, in this tale the polemics never dominate the story itself. Bear is a great story-teller, and this one has some good humor and some in-jokes for the Lovecraft fans. Even on its own, without any background in Lovecraftian fiction, I think this story would stand up well. The message and the critique are embedded nicely within an enjoyable tale, just the way they should be.