The four wanderers were seated around it in a crude diamond. One window cast tinted light across the sparsely furnished room and the travelers themselves, who seemed more intent on the objects than they were on each other, as if living things appeared to one another as smoke and echoes while the cup… Well, the cup appeared quite solid indeed. And the water quite liquid.
Beretrude regarded it blankly, wondering what the big deal was. The cup looked mass produced and flimsy and she didn’t understand why anyone would want to drink something as easily contaminated as water when there was surely wine or beer on tap, and besides, where was the court taster? She came from a long and storied line of women who had risen through the system by carefully applied powders and drops of tasteless liquid, even if these mysterious deaths had ever been tied to her, her mother, or her beloved grandmother the late Basilinna Ingunde IX of the Sigerucic Dynasty. The Basilinna had had quite enough of her husband’s slavish devotion to the obstinate, anti-technological, heavily patriarchal temple and taken it upon herself to lose him to sickness quite young and spearhead a massive schism that saw the kingdom – sorry, queendom – rise from crude gunpowder to zeppelins and steam vessels in barely a generation and a half under a heavily renovated leadership. Beretrude tamped down the immediate instinct to complain about the beverage choice and instead waited to see what happened to whoever took the first sip.
Nissil al-Roteq the desert warden was astonished that any host could be so decadent, so utterly careless as to gather all of the household water in one place, and in a receptacle so easy to steal from. He ran fingers through his oiled and heavily knotted beard as his eyes danced around the chamber, wondering what bizarre ethical test he had been entered into. His mind raced through the traditions of a dozen dozen tribal gatherings and how each chieftain might have approached this. His djellabaya beaded with sweat as he weighed his options; for the Sharabin people to offer drink to a stranger was to invite alliance and partaking was entering into a kind of temporary defensive pact, while two dune seas south of them the al-Masadil caravans might have placed so much wealth in a central location as a display of their power and prestige rather than an earnest desire to share it to the gathered guests. And then there was the Duwasid Confederation, itself beholden to an intricate water-based religious rites that originated in the oasis spirit king that gave the alliance its name.
In the spot furthest from the windows sat Musheziusi of the Vast Dark, who did not feel particularly concerned about the cup of water but who was incredibly interested in the material that the table had been built out of it. It was harder than any of the woven mushroom fibers that the builders of the Imperial Triumvirate had used, and the lacquer dyed it a rich brown shade that did not exist anywhere in the caverns. She ran a fingertip discretely over the smooth surface and felt the absence of burrs or spore pockets like she would expect to find in any piece of furniture. She was also astonished that two of the three people around her were clad in only cloth, instead of reptile hides or something sturdier to ward off stings or bites. They weren’t even wearing pheromone bladders on their boots; like they had no reason to fear the depredations of moldramblers or shattercaps. The arrogance was overwhelming, but a niggling sensation in the back of her mind made her wonder if they were possible more powerful than those juggernauts, and that was almost as worrying.
Finally, chChlnK the silicone-based lifeform was attempting to process the event through its own lens. It had encountered carbon beings in its travels before, albeit typically in the form of small prey animals, and it was unsure of the significance of the ceremony taking place. The closest it could figure was some sort of allusion to the great abiogenesis myth, perhaps a debased form of the flood transferal protocols its own brood had carried on for countless generations in their monotone ways, making up for their inherent lack of organic versatility with a sturdy, ageless weight to their every action. It made no sense for carbons to mimic the holy ways, unless they were perhaps trying to impress it with their crude and cultish behavior. Perhaps they recognized chChlnK for the Grand Originator title it had held for countless generations at the center of the broodcluster before it had been dispatched to search for potential grafting material in an attempt to increase diversity in the face of oncoming catastrophe? On some level of its machinelike brain it recognized that the probability of this was incredibly low, but perhaps not low enough to be dismissed outright, and in any case it needed one of the carbons to begin interactions before it could analyze and attempt to match them in kind.
If any of the travelers had shared a common tongue, they might have agreed how intriguing it is that one could show so much about a character and their world through how they view a cup of water on a table.
The Dream Quest of Vellitt-Boe by Kij Johnson is exactly what we need more of in the modern mythos, if we refuse to break off our collective SF/F affair with Lovecraft. It isn’t an attempt to whitewash or ignore the most problematic aspects of the original stories at all, it is simply taking the setting and presenting it through fresh eyes. It’s similar to The Ballad of Black Tom in a way, where we are shown that the prior narrator (or narrators) of the place are very flawed and writing their biases in as factual. It’s a story taking place in the exact same world as Unkown Kadath but with the twist that those dreamers who recorded it before are largely from a male-dominated and regressive society where women and other races are ignored in favor of the white New England male viewpoint, because obviously he feels that he is the only one who matters. Basically treating all of Lovecraft’s most egregious stuff as if the characters hold Lovecraft’s views and his own bigotry informs how they record the world, rather than how the world is set up. In this case we’re treated to dreamlands through the eyes of a mathematics teacher at the Ulthar Women’s College, trying to track down one of her wayward students who may have run off with a Dreamer, one of the men who occasionally break through from “our” side of the dream veil and mess around on holiday, screwing things up for everyone except themselves. It’s definitely a feminist novel but not particularly in your face about it, which makes me think it may be a little more palatable to some of the more… shall we say entrenched mythos fanbase, something you might be able to lure people away from the same-old-same-old with. And that’s excellent.
On a personal note I love the Dreamlands, they’re one of my favorite aspects of the mythos and I consider them incredibly underused, and while Cthulhu and kin have been done to death I will always at least try a story that explores the fever dream madness of the Lands. Few images captured my youthful imagination quite like the descriptions of Dylath-Leen and the harbors full of black galleys, crewed by the satyrlike Men of Leng in their long turbans, who would ferry their cargo to and from the moon at the behest of their rubbery and shapeless masters. To say nothing of Sarnath, host to one of the few stories where the “barbaric” natives get the last laugh over the decadent European colonists in the end, and Ulthar itself where cats are almost as powerful as they are here on the internet.