Short Story Review: “Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear

(Cover by Tomasz Maronski. Asimov’s, March 2008.)

Who Goes There?

Elizabeth Bear is one of the bright stars in recent SFF, having made her debut in 2003 and being nominated for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer twice, winning the second time. Unusually prolific as both a novelist and short story writer, Bear arguably anticipated the resurgance of magazine SFF in the 2010s, being associated with Asimov’s Science Fiction and more recently with Lightspeed and Uncanny Magazine. Her 2007 short story “Tideline” won the Hugo and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and it still reads like one of the great modern fables of SFF. Only a year after winning her first Hugo, she would win another one with the subject of today’s review, “Shoggoths in Bloom,” and if that title alone doesn’t radiate enough Lovecraft energy for ya…

She’s very much active on Twitter, in case you’re wondering. She really speaks for herself, and so does her work. On top of her award-winning novels and short works, she also won multiple Hugos as a co-host for SF Squeecast, which sadly is no longer active. Her latest novel, The Origin of Storms, was released by Tor earlier this year.

Placing Coordinates

“Shoggoths in Bloom” is pretty easy to find; for one, it was first published in the March 2008 issue of Asimov’s, which you can find free on the Archive. It’s also been reprinted in two major best-of anthologies, those being The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Three by Jonathan Strahan and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2009 by Rich Horton. A more niche but certainly just as appropriate anthology would be New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, edited by Paula Guran, which, as you can expect, tackles weird fiction (not necessarily horror fiction, though a lot of it would be). If you’re a fan of Elizabeth Bear and/or wanna play this reprint game on Hard Mode then may I suggest The Best of Elizabeth Bear? It’s a fat fucking book collecting Bear’s greatest short works, being a fancy hardcover from Subterranean Press—and yes, it’s a limited edition, which means you’re looking at a thick price point on eBay. Is it worth it? Perhaps.

Enhancing Image

Paul Harding is a black professor from a historically black college. The year is 1938. November. It gets cold, especially in New England, where Harding is now—in Maine, to be more exact, the land of Stephen King, and a land of the shoggoths. The story takes place in an alternate timeline (which, as we’ll see, is mostly the same as ours) where shoggoths are real; not just real, but biologically plausible, seen, studied like other animals. Now you may be wondering, if you’re not familiar with Lovecraft or the Cthulhu mythos: What the hell is a shoggoth? It’s not an overpowering cosmic lord like the Old Ones, but rather it’s an esoteric lifeform that seems harmless, unless you make the mistake of getting in its way. A shoggoth, physically, is like a massive jellyfish, or a man o’ war without the stingy bits. Huge blobs that seem to spend all day submerged or basking in water, and Harding arrives in time to catch the shoggoths “mating,” which is of course inaccurate because the shoggoths don’t seem to copulate.

Harding is in Maine to study the shoggoths.

We’re not given the date of November 1938 at first, but we quickly get the impression that the story takes place sometime between the two World Wars, with Harding himself being a World War I veteran. There are basically two threads weaved through this story, and I have to admit I think one was more convincingly executed than the other, though I may be biased. The first is the nature of the shoggoths, which, despite being technically prehistoric (they’ve been on Earth for millions of years, as shown through the scant fossil record), may as well be aliens—but well-characterized aliens, not the bug-eyed monsters of yore. The second is the rather odd game Bear plays with the fact that this story is recursive; it’s a story published in 2008, set in 1938, and sort of written like it could’ve been published in the late ’30s or early ’40s if not for a couple things. I’m reminded of Brian Aldiss’s equally recursive novella “The Saliva Tree,” which also takes some cues from Lovecraft but instead combines them with late 19th century Wellsian SF, even being written like a late Victorian SF tale.

I’m not sure how much the second thread works, but I’ll elaborate on that in a moment; for now we have some on-the-nose dramatic irony to deal with. See, we’re at a point where we’re not quite a year away from the Nazi invasion of Poland, and even at the time the potential Nazi threat was no secret, though many Americans (some well-meaning, some not) wanted no part in it. Even so, Harding really wants to remind us that war is coming absolutely 100% for sure no doubt about it, and it can be a touch grating. Take this passage, for instance, which does a fine job at giving us some of Harding’s backstory but which also insists on this point; keep also in mind that this is not directly Harding telling us, but rather info being filtered through the all-seeing third-person narrator:

Harding catches his breath. It’s beautiful. And deceptively still, for whatever the weather may be, beyond the calm of the bay, across the splintered gray Atlantic, farther than Harding—or anyone—can see, a storm is rising in Europe.

Harding’s an educated man, well-read, and he’s the grandson of Nathan Harding, the buffalo soldier. An African-born ex-slave who fought on both sides of the Civil War, when Grampa Harding was sent to serve in his master’s place, he deserted, and bed, and stayed on with the Union army after.

Like his grandfather, Harding was a soldier. He’s not a historian, but you don’t have to be to see the signs of war.

There has to be some kind of way to integrate the two more seamlessly. Indeed, regarding Harding’s own position as a black man in ’30s America, even in a more “civilized” place like New England, Bear does a better job I think. There are only two characters who really matter in this story, those being Harding and a local fisherman named Burt. Burt, we find out after the opening scene, is a bit of a racist; he’s not exactly hostile towards Harding, but his discomfort is very unsubtle, though ultimately he comes off as far more pitiful than monstrous. Come to think of it, this is a rare case of a short story that could possibly benefit from a larger cast, since for much of it Harding is stuck by himself, with his own thoughts about the impending war and the mystery of the shoggoths. Maybe not even enlarge the cast to make Harding less lonely, but change the mode of narration to first-person so that we get a more intimate relationship with our protagonist. Telling the story in the historical present tense makes sense from a certain angle, as it’s like we’re being transported back to an ongoing but slightly different 1938, but it also creates a sense of detachment with regards to Harding, who’s supposed to be a character we’re to empathize with.

Sorry I’m getting caught up in this. Let me switch back to what the story does best, which is with the shoggoths. Now, I wasn’t sure going into it if it was going to be horror-tinged (not new territory for Bear by any means) or if it was gonna be something else, and to my pleasant surprise it was the latter. The shoggoths, despite their elusive nature and possible threat (they’re said to be able to devour a man whole), are not treated by Harding or Bear as movie monsters; they’re treated like animals, even if they’re weird animals; they’re written as being hardly less natural than a giant squid or the many deep-sea creatures which strike us as totally alien. Speaking of totally alien, the fossil record for shoggoths is so scant because shoggoths seem incapable of dying, or at least they seem to be extraordinarily long-lived.

Like the Maine lobster to whose fisheries they return to breed, shoggoths do not die of old age. It’s unlikely that they would leave fossils, with their gelatinous bodies, but Harding does find it fascinating that to the best of his knowledge, no one has ever seen a dead shoggoth.

Whereas Lovecraft writes about the shoggoths and other such creatures with digust to the point of hysterics, Bear takes genuine interest in them. Aside from being readable, unlike Lovecraft (who too often strikes me as borderline unreadable), Bear’s prose is snappy, disciplined in its vocabulary, and not at all concerned with giving the reader the thorough impression of something that supposedly can’t be comprehended. The shoggoths, with their mysterious “mating” rituals and their pseudo-eggs (Harding collects a few of those, and why not), can possibly (if improbably) be understood, and that’s what Harding tries to do. Despite echoing Lovecraft with just its title, “Shoggoths in Bloom” does not read like Lovecraft at all; rather it reads far more like a different kind of pulp narrative from the last ’30s, by someone who maybe doesn’t have a thesaurus on their nightstand but who is not prone to manhandling the English language like Lovecraft is; it reads in parts, actually, a good deal like A. E. van Vogt.

Van Vogt is not a household name anymore—not even among the hardcore SFF readership, and this is tragic for reasons I’ll get to at a later date, but for now I’ll say that Bear’s briskness and economy of description—most importantly her flirting with the endless world of the subconscious—remind me of van Vogt. “Shoggoths in Bloom” reads partly like one of those dreams you have that you wouldn’t describe as a nightmare but which you would also hesitate to describe as pleasant; it’s the kind of dream that makes you feel a certain strange way as you start your morning routine and the faint etchings of that dream have not totally left your mind. Van Vogt was a master at conveying such a dream, or what Joseph Conrad called “the dream sensation,” by way of science fictional imagery, and Bear does such a thing here as well. The heart of the conflict has to do with Harding’s mind, his case of conscience, his psyche, and it’s another reason why I feel an opportunity was lost by not making the narration first-person.

You may be wondering: What do the shoggoths have to do with the impending war in Europe? Hell, what do the shoggoths have to do with Harding’s own background as a man who’s had to deal with persecution all his life? These are certainly disparate elements, especially for a story that only goes on for 15 pages. And that’s where we get to spoilers, and also where we get to the climax of the story, where I’d say the story shines brightest and Bear’s thesis comes through most clearly.

There Be Spoilers Here

The shoggoths turn out to be even weirder than first suspected. Harding not only finds that these creatures are effectively immortal, but that they don’t mate at all; they don’t even reproduce in any normal sense. The shoggoth is revealed to be a self-perpetuating animal, being able to live for centuries via mutation, and unless killed is apparently incapable of dying. The shoggoth acts as its own parents, encompassing whole generations on its own, and sure, that sounds possibly a little nightmarish, but the shoggoth is not a nightmarish creature; no, it is, like Burt, mostly a creature of pity. Whereas in most cases a creature like the shoggoth would become a thing of horror, something that would be nigh-impossible to kill and which is theoretically capable of taking over the planet, here the shoggoth is pitiful because it has no choice—quite literally. An accident while on the water leads Harding to come face to face with death, only to be saved by shoggoths, in a way he could not have possibly expected.

Harding finds that the shoggoths are capable of at least mimicing humanlike intelligence; they speak to him, telepathically, in his own language. The shoggoths are prehistoric, true, but they were not the only esoteric beings to roam the earth, as they are in fact an artificial race, created by a much more intelligent, much more advanced race, one which has left no trace of itself but which was apparently unable to adapt to Earth’s changing climate. The shoggoths project images into Harding’s mind and somehow he’s able to understand, or at least is able to make an educated guess about the shoggoths’ incredibly long history. The shoggoths are a slave race without a master (indeed the creator race are called the Masters), their programming so perfect that they literally have no choice but to take orders; in that way they’re like organic robots.

The shoggoths were engineered. And their creators had not permitted them to think, except for at their bidding. The basest slave may be free inside his own mind—but not so the shoggoths. They had been laborers, construction equipment, shock troops. They had been dread weapons in their own selves, obedient chattel. Immortal, changing to suit the task of the moment.

This selfsame shoggoth, long before the reign of the dinosaurs, had built structures and struck down enemies that Harding did not even have names for. But a coming of the ice had ended the civilization of the Masters, and left the shoggoths to retreat to the fathomless sea while warmblooded mammals overran the earth. There, they were free to converse, to explore, to philosophize and build a culture. They only returned to the surface, vulnerable, to bloom.

I’m not saying Bear actively took inspiration from van Vogt (she told me she had not read van Vogt in a long time), but I have to admit that this whole climax reminds me strongly of van Vogt. Not just the telepathy, which is a given, but how Harding finds a kindred spirit in the shoggoths, not unlike the human protagonist pitying the shape-shifting and misshapen creature in van Vogt’s “The Vault of the Beast.” But whereas van Vogt’s alien dies lamenting that it only wanted to become more human, Bear’s shoggoths come close to humanity in a different way—being ordered, or rather taught, how to be closer to mankind. Harding, being a surrogate master, orders the shoggoths (who are perfectly obedient) to think for themselves, and to tell other shoggoths about their supposed newfound freedom of choice. Normally I would object to the paradoxical notion of conditioning someone to think for themselves (I gave Heinlein shit for this in my review of If This Goes On—), it feels more justified with a non-human being that was made explicitly to take orders.

Also bringing things full circle is for Harding to make his own choice with regards to the war he sees coming in plain sight. Harding is not in love with his own country, and his experiences from World War I left him bitter, but he wants to fight the Nazis, to the stop the violent persecution of European Jews and other minorities. Rather than wait for the US to come out of its neutral stance and to fight in a segregated military anyway, Harding resigns from his post and leaves the country to join the French Foreign Legion. He considers, briefly, ordering the shoggoths to fight the Nazis for him, but he also comes to the (correct, in my opinion) conclusion that it wouldn’t be right to keep a race of intelligent beings in servitude, even if it’s for a noble cause. Darkness is about to engulf Europe, but there’s at least hope on a personal level, with Harding seemingly having resolved his own moral hangup and a small number of shoggoths maybe going out spreading the word to their brethren—the wonderful word that they no longer be slaves.

Admittedly I was not fond of the ending at first. The dilemma with the shoggoths and their mental slavery seemed too easily resolved, and the very end came on quick, with Harding (who is not exactly a young man anymore) heading off to take up the gun once again. I do think, however, that the ending becomes more textured and nuanced upon further inspection. Sure, there’s the dramatic irony of Harding going to fight for the French, a power that would crumble under the boot of the Nazis in a matter of weeks (never mind the French fascist collaborators that would help hold the country hostage for four years), but there’s also another kind of irony here. While he got to achieve a sort of moral victory by combatting the Nazis as quickly and directly as he could manage, Harding will ultimately also serve a power which is imperalist and at times murderous; that France was still very much a colonial power in 1938, arguably more so than the US, did not bother him too much apparently.

It’s possible that Bear is saying the fight against fascism is a he-who-fights-monsters scenario where we have to, out of horrible necessity, support a lesser evil; it’s also possible I’m completely bullshitting here.

A Step Farther Out

The best negative criticism you can give something is that you wish there was more of it. I liked “Shoggoths in Bloom” a fair bit, and I wish there was more of it. It won the Hugo for Best Novelette, which feels weird to me because it barely qualifies as novelette-length; lacking a raw word count, I have to assume it barely makes it past 7,500 words. Really it could’ve been 17,500 words and I don’t think anyone would complain, as Bear packs a good deal of meat into this package, to the point where the package is about to burst. Still, there’s a tenderness and a dreaminess about it, and despite my reservations about the mode of narration, Harding is a perfectly fine lead character whose personal issues end up aligning with his research on the shoggoths. Like any good recursive story, Bear comments on the time period about which she is writing, and she does this in a style that also harks back to the days of Heinlein and van Vogt. I at first thought about putting a much more recent story of Bear’s, “She Still Loves the Dragon,” on my review plate instead of “Shoggoths in Bloom,” but maybe the latter serves better as an introduction. It may take six months or six years, but I’ll be reviewing more Bear… eventually.

See you next time.


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