The story. The comment:
“Shoggoths in Bloom” [is] a thoughtful (and quite straight-faced, despite the title) piece about a black scientist in the late ‘30s, investigating the reproductive habits of shoggoths off the coast of Maine. He learns a bit more than be expected — about shoggoths, their nature, their temptations — all of which is nicely put in the context of the times — his own heritage, as a black man; and the state of the world as Hitler threatens. I thought this quite intriguing in its speculations about shoggoths — for all they are obviously rather silly creations in the original, Bear does not betray Lovecraft’s vision (as far as I can tell) but riffs nicely on it. And then she constructs a morally serious character piece around the central idea, with some historical heft. A very strong story, surely one of the best of the year.
… 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.
I think the best part about this story is how it gives you the impression it’s about one thing and then shifts to another, and then another. As advertised in the title, it’s clearly aimed at H.P. Lovecraft territory; it follows a black naturalist in the days just before World War II who is investigating shoggoths on the New England coast. Shoggoths, in this universe, are known creatures, blobs of living jelly, although no one really knows what they are or how they work. He’s trying to find out. From there, the story moves into a bit of the horror and revelation angle that one might expect, but not before race also enters the story mingled with the politics of World War II. And then the horror turns out to not be that horrific after all, just very weird, and the conclusion of the story turns to ethics. The flow from topic to topic is very well-done and kept me engrossed the whole way, and while the ending is reasonably obvious, I still liked it a great deal. Recommended.
I wanted to dislike this story. There seemed to be too much in it – 1930s race relations, Nazi persecution of Jews, WWI, and a sudden swerve towards slavery at the end – and I couldn’t decide if the central conceit, the shoggoths, was cleverly done or mishandled. I’m still not sure. But the story grew on me, and by the end of it I did think it was quite good. Not as good as the Kessel or the Bacigalupi, but better than the Gardner.
Bear depicts her setting with authenticity, tackling issues of race and social class in addition to Harding’s quest to understand the shoggoth lifecycle. The histories of Harding and of the shoggoth race meld together in a short, powerful climax that wraps this novelette up perfectly.
It’s a nicely atmospheric piece, and does a good job tying together the protagonist’s investigation of the shoggoths and his dark musings about racial prejudice–which is expressed genteelly in the behavior of the local fishermen and violently in the Kristallnacht riots, which take place shortly after the story’s beginning–most particularly in the choice the protagonist faces in the story’s end, between the freedom of one persecuted minority and another. I liked “Shoggoths in Bloom,” but unlike other Lovecraft pastiches such as Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” or Charles Stross’s “A Colder War,” I also can’t help but feel that my never having read Lovecraft is a barrier to fully appreciating it. For example, I assume that the story’s emphasis on racism is supposed to be intensified by knowledge of Lovecraft’s own well-document racism, and I’m wondering if there are other nuances that have gone over my head because I lack the proper grounding. I’m not sure how fair a criticism this is–and maybe the distance I feel from the story has nothing to do with Lovecraft and everything to do with the story itself–but the bottom line is that “Shoggoths in Bloom” leaves me somewhat cold, impressed by Bear’s technical achievement in creating her pastiche and grafting it to the real world, but not genuinely moved.
And now … over to you.