The Lavinia Whateley was a Boojum, a deep-space swimmer, but her kind had evolved in the high tempestuous envelopes of gas giants, and their offspring still spent their infancies there, in cloud-nurseries over eternal storms.
—Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, “Boojum” in The Book of Cthulhu II 237
Sometimes, “Cthulhu Mythos” seems like an inadequate label for a story. “Boojum” is one of those. Bear & Monette’s tale is space opera for the 21st century, tightly written and gloriously imaginative. The Mythos elements themselves are both essential and yet subdued: the spice of the story, but not the meat of it. This isn’t a pastiche of Lovecraft among the stars. It’s a pirate story, in some distant future. Space pirates in a living ship, cracking open freighters; dealing stolen cargo with the Mi-Go.
For literary ancestry, “Boojum” has two notable forebears: “In the Walls of Eryx” (1939) by H. P. Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling, which is essentially Lovecraft’s version of a 1930s interplanetary tale, and Richard Lupoff’s “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977), which brought Lovecraft’s Mythos to the New Wave of science fiction. The better part of four decades between when those two stories were published—and in that time a space race was ran and won and lost. Another three decades between “Ghooric Zone” and “Boojum”—and what changed?
Attitude, certainly. Bear & Monette’s future is dirty, cramped, blue-collar, more Alien than Star Trek. A Lovecraftian future that feels lived in; realistic but not exactly bleak. There are stark choices and bad options when the only thing between you and hard vacuum is the skin of a giant extraterrestrial entity that you live inside like a space ship, when you live under constant threat that the captain might notice and make an example out of you. When you have to watch your oxygen levels, and it’s rational to choose between living as a brain in a canister or getting eaten by a diamond-toothed monster.
Why call the ship the Lavinia Whateley? In part, this is a signal to the readers of what this story is going to be. We never get a sense of why that name was applied within the context of the setting, except that the other ships like the Marie Curie and the Josephine Baker were also great women. The protagonist Black Alice Bradley swears by “Jesus and the cold fishy gods”; she lived in a world where Gillies from Providence Station are recognizable, where sunstones are mined on Venus, and the Fungi from Yuggoth move through space like the boojum themselves. This is a future which acknowledges Lovecraft, that riffs off his creations, but approaches the material from a contemporary point of view. Not too behooven to the man from Providence.
A good interplanetary story must have realistic human characters; not the stock scientist, villainous assistants, invincible heroes, and lovely scientist’s-daughter heroines of the usual trash sort. Indeed, there is no reason why there should be any “villain”, “hero”, or “heroine” at all. […] No stock romance is wanted.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction” in Collected Essays 2.180
Lovecraft wrote his assertions against romance during the heyday of the scientific romance, when John Carter would travel to Mars and seduce the alien princess Dejah Thoris, decades before Captain Kirk would leave a trail of broken hearts across the galaxy. While certain elements of his advice have aged well, others are less applicable.
In “Boojum,” Black Alice Bradley loves the Lavinia Whateley. Not sexually, though there is a certain intimacy throughout the story: Black Alice and the rest of the crew lives within the Boojum. To Black Alice, the “ship” is Vinnie, and though Black Alice is one of the lowest members of the crew, a self-taught engineer far down in the hierarchy, her sense of wonder and awe at being in the stars is focused on a single individual, a single relationship—we get no sense that Black Alice has any other real friends or lovers among the crew. In a real sense, Vinnie is all Black Alice cares about—and the revelation of the story, which Lovecraft might have at least begrudgingly recognized as something other than a “stock romance,” is that as a living being Vinnie cares about Black Alice.
“Boojum” first appeared in Fast Ships, Black Sails (2008), and was subsequently reprinted in Year’s Best SF 14, The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection, The Mammoth Book of Best New Science Fiction: 22nd Annual Collection (all 2009), The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2009 Edition (2010), Lightspeed (Sep 2012), The Book of Cthulhu II (2012), Space Opera (2014), and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (2014). It was adapted to audiobook by the Drabblecast in 2011. Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette have collaborated on two follow-ups, “Mongoose” (2009) and “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” (2012).
Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)