A Science Fiction Mini-Module: Boojum

“Boojum” by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette has pirates, tentacled aliens, brains in jars, and a crew member who really loves her ship. It’s a good read. It was published in an online science fiction magazine called Lightspeed. You can read it here. A warning: the text uses the F-word a couple of times. It sounds natural in the context, though it is probably unnecessary.

I started reading science fiction when I was in grammar school. I think it was what made me really, really interested in reading. At one point, I had read every single science fiction book in the public library. I ran out. I think that science fiction and fantasy can still make high school students interested in reading. However, some people have trouble getting into a science fictional world because it is so different from what they are used to. Here are some pre-reading questions that may help get them engaged:

 Pre-reading Questions

These are questions to think about before you begin reading “Boojum.” Briefly write down your answers. Your instructor may ask you to discuss your answers in a small group, which may change your views. If so, write down any additional insights you gained from the discussion. Save this paper because you will be asked to look at it again after you have read the story.

1. If you were offered a choice between death and joining a pirate crew, which would you choose? Why?

2. If you were offered a choice between death and being a disembodied but living brain in a jar, which would you choose? Why?

3. Do you think a human could learn to love an alien being? Why or why not?

These questions preview some of the ethical and moral questions the story raises, but in a context that is not quite science fictional, but closer to ideas that students may have thought about.

Reading Questions

I found these questions on my hard drive from the last time I taught this story as part of my science fiction course. They were designed to help students notice certain features of the text and then later serve as discussion prompts in class. This was with college students, but even so, it would have been better to design some sort of pre-reading activity such as I have above. Here is a sampling of the questions. You can see more of them in the linked mini-module.

1. What is the difference between a “steelship” and a “boojum”?

2. What is Black Alice’s greatest ambition?

3. How did Black Alice come to be on the Lavinia Whateley?

4. What do Black Alice and Dogcollar find in the hold of the Josephine Baker? Why is Black Alice upset about it?

5. What happens to the Josephine Baker when the pirates are finished with it?

6. What is wrong with Vinnie?

7. What happens to Black Alice? Does she achieve her ambition?

Notice that these are questions that the reader cannot answer or even understand without reading the story. These might be seen as old-fashioned “comprehension” questions. However, I see them as “noticing” questions. I want them to attend to certain features of the story.

Event-Motive-Theme

Back when I used to teach American literature to non-native speakers, I developed a three-level questioning pattern. Here’s a chart:

Event-Motive-Theme-cropped

My international students were acquiring English as they tried to read the stories. They were sometimes confused about the events of the story. They were also confused about the motivations of the characters because they came from cultures that were quite different from the U.S. In their countries, the characters would behave quite differently due to social expectations, parental pressure, religious beliefs, and other factors. I found that I had to move up and down these levels to keep everyone in the discussion. If a student was confused, it might be that they did not actually know what had happened in the story. We had to clarify this first.

The discussions about motives were very interesting because of all the different interpretations based on different cultural perspectives. We often never got to the thematic level. I developed this way of thinking for international students, but I later realized that it was applicable to all teaching of literature. Don’t start with theme. Work your way up.

Anyway, these questions are mostly on the event level. They are designed to make sure that everyone knows what is going on.

Post-reading Questions

These questions operate on the motive and thematic levels. They get into choices and principles. The last question revisits the pre-reading questions so that students can notice how their opinions might have changed.

1. Do you agree with the choices that Black Alice makes? Would you have done the same things if you were in her situation? Why or why not?

2. The Mi-Go say to Captain Song, “We do not bargain with thieves.” Are the Mi-Go justified in what they do to the crew of the Lavinia Whately? Why or why not?

3. In this story, who are the good guys and who are the bad? Why?

4. Look at your answers to the pre-reading questions. Did your views change?

Post-reading Activities

These activities are designed to help broaden the context of the story and give some insight into what the authors were thinking about when they wrote it.

1. Black Alice’s ship is called the “Lavinia Whateley.” Lavinia Whateley is a character in a story by H.P. Lovecraft called “The Dunwich Horror.” Working in teams and using internet searches, look up the personages represented by the names of the other ships mentioned in this story. Do these names have any significance, or are the authors simply having fun? Each team can report what they found to the class.

2. In Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark” the Baker (who only knows how to make wedding cake) begins to describe how to recognize a snark when you see one. He cautions, however,

But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!

In this poem, a “boojum” is a particularly dangerous type of snark. Is this a good name for the kind of creature Vinnie is? Does this reference have any other significance for this story? You may want to look at the rest of the poem. Note: Lewis Carroll also wrote Alice in Wonderland.

Writing Task

I tried to make the writing prompt as accessible as possible. The theme here is about character and the substance is about events and motives. The danger of this prompt is that a student might simple write a summary of the story, so I added a warning. Some students will still write summaries. Let’s hope they will be summaries with a focus on Alice and some supporting detail.

In some ways, this story is a character study of Black Alice. Try to think of one or two words that you believe characterize Black Alice. What kind of person is she? Then write an essay in which you describe her situation, her actions, and her motives for acting. Use details from the story to support your view of Alice and what we can learn from her.

Note: This is not a summary of the story. Keep the focus on Black Alice’s character and how her actions and motives reflect her principles.

Another possible prompt might be about trust. Black Alice survives among very disreputable characters and at the end she has to trust the “ship” “Vinnie,” to “save” her. I still might develop that one. The module can be downloaded in .doc form. Here is the link again.

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