Hugo Nominee: “Shoggoths in Bloom”

The story. The comment:

Rich Horton:

“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.

Karen Burnham:

… 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.

Russ Allbery:

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.

Ian Sales:

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.

The Fix:

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.

Abigail Nussbaum:

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.

12 thoughts on “Hugo Nominee: “Shoggoths in Bloom”

  1. I’d just like to add that I think the other comments here bear out my impression that the story has more resonance for readers familiar with Lovecraft, which I don’t think is true for “Pride and Prometheus” (but then, I would say that, being as I am familiar with the source material for that story).

  2. On the other hand, at the risk of shocking Adam and Graham again, I haven’t read Lovecraft (well, I think I’ve read a couple of stories, years ago, but couldn’t give you titles or any significant details), and I thought this was streets better than “Pride and Prometheus”; I’d be quite happy for it to win, though I’d prefer “The Gambler”. I think the difference, for me, is that Bear is picking up elements and, to a lesser extent, themes from Lovecraft, where Kessel is taking whole characters and plots. “Shoggoths” feels “inspired by”, and productively so; “Pride and Prometheus” feels like an exercise in cleverness.

    It’s true that I like the first half of the story more than the second. I would have been quite happy had the Shoggoths remained purely as an inscrutable presence in the background of the story, giving shading to the character study, because that’s where I think the story is strongest; I thought the scenes in the Inn were very nicely done, several different themes shifting under the surface of the conversations. There’s something slightly ersatz to Bear’s setting — for no particular reason that I could put my finger on I was reminded of Indiana Jones, of all things, though obviously the tone of the story is a long way from those films — but to the extent that this is a smooth, professional genre story, riffing on the work and life of a famous genre writer, that seemed appropriate, too.

    I thought the understatedness of the whole worked, because that (as I understand it) is the whole Lovecraftian schtick: the horror lurking beneath the surface of the world. Named horror, here, not nameless, but lurking nonetheless. The present tense was an interesting choice, not necessarily the obvious one; it’s perhaps slightly distancing, but perhaps also makes the lurking-ness more immediately threatening.

    Anyway, my ballot, I think, will look like this:

    1. “The Gambler”
    2. “Shoggoths in Bloom”
    3. “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story”
    4. “Pride and Prometheus”
    5. No Award
    6. “Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders”

    … though I did consider having No Award one or even two places higher.

  3. My opinions on this shortlist have been well enough displayed … I have only a couple of comments.

    One is on No Award theory. I think there are three schools of thought. Some people never vote No Award, they just rank the stories in the order they liked them. Others are very strict – any story they think unworthy of a Hugo Award gets put behind No Award. My view is a sort of compromise — only stories I think are poor stories get put behind No Award. A decent piece of work that I still think unworthy of a Hugo will just get placed lower on my ballot. I can respect the “strict” position, certainly … I suppose I just a) shy away a bit from being too harsh on work I found respectable; and b) from a voting strategy viewpoint, I figure I ought to maintain a preference ordering.

    (I note that it is proper not to put any stories at all behind No Award on your ballot — if I understand the vote reordering algorithm, ranking stories behind No Award ends up being almost the same as not putting No Award on the ballot at all.)

    At any rate, Niall, it seems that the difference in your prospective ballot between what you posted and between your thoughts beneath it (that you considered moving up NA a spot or two) might represent the difference between philosophy 2 and 3 above.

    My second point — it’s clear from the commentary that this was not an entirely satisfactory ballot for many people. They never are, after all, though for me this was better than many novelette ballots in the past, though not idea. The question is, really, what other stories should have been on the ballot before any stories we leave off this one?

    My list: Richard Bowes’s “If Angels Fight”, Ted Kosmatka’s “The Art of Alchemy”, Beth Bernobich’s “The Golden Octopus”, Meghan McCarron’s “The Magician’s House” and Robert Reed’s “Five Thrillers”. In my actual nominating ballot I included the first three of those plus the eventually nominated stories from Bear and Gardner.

  4. I’ve never read any Lovecraft, only pastiches of same. As others have said, it strikes me, based on my very limited knowledge, that the Lovecraftian quality here lies in a) the shoggoths themselves, b) the glimpses of a deep past that is resolutely non-human, and c) the sense of lurking horror on the coast. Perhaps also the exceptionally polite, educated protagonist who can’t be nearly as detached as he believes?

    The way the shoggoths are used, and more importantly the way they aren’t, makes the story’s point very nicely; as Karen put it, If you want horror, she seems to say, skip the stories and go straight to the documentaries. Here the lurking monsters are humans; they’re not literally underground (or undersea), but beneath the surface of the story instead. They are also beneath the lives, beneath the notice, of most of the characters the narrator encounters: whether that’s because these monsters are far away and visible only in newspapers, or because class/race/gender privilege allows these characters to *not* see what is in their own history, or their own present.

    I particularly liked the way Bear anchored her Lovecraft and her story in the context of 1930s America, making it simultaneously a character piece and (through the narrator’s experiences as a black academic) a broader social portrait. A good story, well told.

  5. Like Niall I saw this as a story of two halves. As with others I’ve never read Lovecraft – why would I? – but I liked the treatment of shoggoths as subjects for naturalism. I was much less convinced by the second half, particularly the revelation fo the shoggoths nature and the rushed examination of slavery.

    I also agree with Niall about the key difference between this and ‘Pride & Promethesus’ but beyond that I think Kessel is much more successful in terms of voice (even if this is a poor pastiche of Austen’s).

    My ranking:

    1) ‘The Gambler’ by Paolo Bacigalupi
    2) ‘Pride and Prometheus’ by John Kessel
    3) ‘Shoggoths in Bloom’ by Elizabeth Bear
    4) ‘The Ray-Gun: A Love Story’ by James Alan Gardner
    5) ‘Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders’ by Mike Resnick

    If I was to include No Award I would rank that fourth.

  6. Rich:

    I note that it is proper not to put any stories at all behind No Award on your ballot

    Thanks, I hadn’t realized that. I will probably leave NA where it is in the above ranking, because I think Resnick’s story is the only one I would feel embarrassed to see winning.

    what other stories should have been on the ballot before any stories we leave off this one?

    I didn’t read as much short fiction last year as in the previous few years, so my answer here is somewhat limited. I haven’t read the Bowes, Kostmatka or Bernobich that you mention; I wasn’t particularly impressed by “Five Thrillers”; wouldn’t have minded “The Magician’s House”, though.

    The other stories I actually nominated were Baxter’s “The Ice War”, Daryl Gregory’s “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm”, Maureen McHugh’s “Special Economics”, and Justina Robson’s “Legolas does the Dishes”. I still feel bad about not having found the time to read Ryman’s “Days of Wonder”.


    Here the lurking monsters are humans; they’re not literally underground (or undersea), but beneath the surface of the story instead.

    Yes, exactly — and as you say, this wouldn’t work without the setting being well-realized.


    why would I?

    I gather he’s influential, or something.

    beyond that I think Kessel is much more successful in terms of voice

    Tricky; Kessel’s voice is more distinctive, but as you say that’s because it’s a partial imitation of a very distinctive voice. Bear’s voice is, I think, not one that I would recognize blind-reading a manuscript with no name attached, but it strikes me as agile and precise, which are both things I value.

  7. On reflection, ‘Shoggoths in Bloom’ strikes me as another example of a specific “type” of story – written in the present tense, with a fantastical monster at centre stage as an elephant-in-the-room type metaphor for something monstrous in the life of the protagonist. It’s almost a template.

  8. I thought I replied to this comment but looks to have got lost: I liked the story despite not having read any Lovecraft, which is interesting as “Sonny Liston Takes the Fall”, another of Bear’s stories, doesn’t work for me at all because the background is so unfamiliar.

    My ranking of the novelettes:
    1) ‘The Gambler’ by Paolo Bacigalupi
    2) ‘Shoggoths in Bloom’ by Elizabeth Bear
    3) ‘Pride and Prometheus’ by John Kessel
    4) ‘The Ray-Gun: A Love Story’ by James Alan Gardner
    5) ‘Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders’ by Mike Resnick
    although on my actual ballot No Award will be sitting in position 5.

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