Lovecraft Country

Matt Ruff


Right there’s your problem. This teleporter isn’t plugged in!

—Orithyia Blue

Jupiter was up. Hippolyta squatted in a snow-covered pasture, distracting herself from the cold by picking out the bright dot between the constellations of Cancer and Gemini. Mars was up too, she knew, in Aquarius near the western horizon, though hidden from her by the wooded hillside at her back. Just as well: She wouldn’t want the Martians to see her like this.

Back in the car, she sat with the heater running and flipped through issue #11 of The Interplanetary Adventures of Orithyia Blue. Horace had created the comic after Hippolyta suggested that it might be nice to read a science-fiction story about a woman for a change. Orithyia Blue, graduate of the Howard Astrotechnical College class of 2001 and the solar system’s best troubleshooter, zipped from planet to planet in her trusty Buick Spacewagon. Called in to repair faulty telescopes or malfunctioning computers, she inevitably found bigger problems: unrest between the fire and shadow tribes of Mercury; political intrigue on the moons of Saturn; a cousin of the Loch Ness monster rampaging in Mars’s Grand Canal.

In this latest issue Orithyia, headed home to Earth for the holidays, decided to stop at the Marshall Field’s on Ceres to do some last-minute Christmas shopping for her son. But Megajoule, the Robot Overlord of Titan, still smarting from the defeat Orithyia had dealt him in issue #7, sent his minions to ambush her. A wild chase through the asteroid belt ensued, in which the question was not “Will Orithyia survive?” (she was a crack space pilot skilled at thinking in three dimensions, while Megajoule’s robots could scarcely tell left from right) but “Will she get to the store before the toy department closes?” Hippolyta had a good chuckle over one page devoted entirely to a close-up of Orithyia’s shopping list. Whatever else might change in the future, the tastes of twelve-year-old boys were seemingly immutable. Who’d have guessed they’d still have Matchbox cars in the twenty-first century?

Well, she thought, Horace had been good this year, and she still had a few days to make his Christmas wishes come true.

Hers first, though. Setting the comic aside, she picked up the other book from the passenger seat, this one titled A Survey of Astronomical Observatories of North America. Hippolyta had found it during her last visit to the Winthrop House. She’d been in the orrery room, about to flip the switch that started the planets turning, when a hidden drawer in the orrery’s base had sprung open.

Most of the observatories in the Survey were familiar to her. But at the back of the book Hippolyta discovered a handwritten addendum:



Underneath this was a set of sixty-four three-digit numbers, neatly arrayed in eight rows of eight. Beneath that was the legend “T. Hiram.”

In addition to the Survey, the hidden drawer contained a pair of keys. One looked like a typical house key, but the other was rod-shaped, about six inches long with a loop at one end—coincidentally, a lot like the key Orithyia Blue used in the ignition of her Spacewagon.

Hippolyta showed the book and the keys to Letitia and asked if she could take them.

“You planning on driving out to Wisconsin?” Letitia said.

“I’m going to Minneapolis next week,” said Hippolyta. “But I could make a detour on my way back.”

Letitia cocked her head to one side and appeared to think it over. Hippolyta heard a knock under the floor.

“Yeah, OK,” Letitia said. “But you be careful,” she added. “It might have been Mr. Winthrop’s observatory when they built it, but God knows who they’ve got running it now.”

“I’ll be careful,” Hippolyta promised.

Her father had introduced her to astronomy. He hadn’t meant to. When he’d brought home the telescope in December of 1928, a Christmas present to himself, he’d justified the expense by claiming it was really for Hippolyta’s brother, Apollo, to get him excited about science and boost his poor grades. But Apollo’s only interest in the sky was that balls sometimes fell out of it.

Nine-year-old Hippolyta stepped up. She started following her father to the roof of their Harlem apartment building and accompanying him on longer expeditions to the countryside. The latter took place about once a month: He’d borrow a car from a friend and they’d drive fifty miles upstate to a small farm owned by another friend, Mr. Hill, a Negro so light-skinned he was practically white. Arriving at the farmhouse after dark, they’d say hello to Mr. Hill and his wife, Gretchen, and then after a brief chat and maybe some pie, the Hills would go to bed and Hippolyta and her father would go out into the fields.

There, away from the city’s lights, she got her first look at the true night sky. Her father would aim the telescope while Hippolyta consulted an ephemeris, calling out directions to whatever celestial object they had chosen as their quarry.

Mars was her father’s favorite. He told her about Percival Lowell, a white man from Boston who’d become convinced that the lines he saw on Mars’s surface were canals. Lowell’s fellow astronomers had been skeptical, but he’d inspired more than a few science-fiction writers, and Hippolyta’s father’s sympathies lay with the writers. Unfortunately their little two-inch-aperture telescope wasn’t powerful enough for him to see the canals for himself. He’d stare at the featureless red disk it showed him and try to make lines appear through sheer force of will (which was maybe not so different from what Lowell had done), all the while speculating aloud about Martian stargazers who might be looking back at him.

Hippolyta was more intrigued by Lowell’s other astronomical obsession. Mysterious disturbances in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune had led astronomers to posit the existence of a “trans-Neptunian body.” Lowell had searched for the so-called Planet X until his death, but it remained undiscovered.

Hippolyta decided that she would find Planet X. Her father indulged her, letting her aim the telescope at random patches of sky like a fisherman casting for a minnow in a vast ocean. It was hopeless, of course. As she learned at the library, planet-hunting required specialized equipment: To track down Planet X, she’d need not just a bigger telescope, but one that could take photographs; and another device, called a blink comparator, that could flip between photos of the same star field taken on different nights, to reveal whether anything moved. Lacking the money to buy these things or the wherewithal to build them, Hippolyta’s only recourse was to become a professional astronomer, which she assumed was a reasonable goal. Compared to her brother’s intention to be the first Negro pitcher for the Yankees, it wasn’t even all that ambitious.

In October the stock market crashed; by December her father’s friend had lost his job and sold his car, ending their trips upstate. Hippolyta continued to stargaze from the roof, but she often did so alone. Her father was having his own job troubles and had to hustle extra hours to make ends meet.

And then, on March 14, 1930, the morning paper brought word that Clyde Tombaugh, a junior astronomer at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, had found Planet X. Hippolyta was torn between excitement and disappointment, but as the news sank in, the latter emotion predominated.

Her father did what he could to console her. “Paper says they don’t have a name for it yet,” he pointed out. “I bet they’d be open to suggestions.”

Hippolyta’s mother, making oatmeal at the stove, perked up at this. Never much given to flights of fancy, since the stock-market crash she’d been trying extra hard to inculcate a more practical outlook in her children. “Bernard,” she warned.

Her husband ignored her. “You could write a letter to the observatory,” he told Hippolyta.

Like any would-be discoverer, Hippolyta had of course given plenty of thought to what her planet’s name should be. In keeping with convention, it should be drawn from classical mythology; and it should connote darkness, and cold, and remoteness. After much consideration, she’d narrowed it down to two possibilities: Pluto, god of the underworld, and Persephone, his queen. She wanted to choose Persephone, because it seemed unfair that Venus should be the only girl planet. But the name was less suitable, otherwise. Persephone, born a nature goddess, had lived in warmth and light until Pluto raptured her down into Hades, and even then she spent only part of each year in the underworld. Whereas Pluto, like Planet X, resided always in darkness, and always had.

Pluto, then. Pluto was the name.

Lovecraft Country