Two grandes dames of the Gilded Age battle for position in Newport society by planting increasingly outrageous and environmentally devastating theme gardens.
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This story appears in the June 2015 issue of Asimov’s. It was a finalist for the Nebula award. It was re-printed in Chinese in Science Fiction World Magazine and in Croatian in Sirius-B Magazine. I chose this story to write under Connie Willis at Clarion West Writers’ Workshop because I love Connie’s use of humor. I chose to write it in this stitched-up mock 19th century prose style because I enjoy how uncomfortable the language is and I love the coldness of Jane Austen’s observations about human pettiness. I also wanted to write something about the excesses of the Gilded Age because in my work as an art dealer, I learned that many of the most beloved collections of art made available to the public and many of our most important cultural institutions were funded with fortunes in industries that had devastating environmental and social impacts or that exploited powerless peoples and animals. Finally, I wrote this story because I just love gaping at rich people behaving badly.
Here is some critical reaction to the story.
“The strongest piece for me was “The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society” by Henry Lien – a seemingly light story with a sense of humor about the intense rivalry between two women for their standing in Newport polite society at the turn of the last century. The escalation of events reaches a dramatic high point that forever alters the course of human history. . . . I’m quite satisfied with everything Lien did here. Lien’s writing is vibrant, energetic and self-assured in its use of a faux-Austen style, which imbues the acts of sabotage and undermining with electricity and tension. It helps that each polite altercation is announced as if the two ladies are fighters in a boxing
match.“ – SFSignal, Haralambi Markov
Tangent Online, Jerard Bretts
SFRevu, Sam Tomaino
Here is some reader reaction to the story.
“Henry Lien’s ‘The [Ladies’] Aquatic Gardening Society’ is note-perfect in its evocation of the starched manners of high nineteenth century society. . . [A]lthough it doesn’t become immediately clear until rather late in the story – it is science fiction, of a sort, and this tit-for-tat game eventually has (literally) world-changing consequences. If I’ve complained in previous reviews of a certain sameness of voice in many of these stories, that’s not an issue here – the evocation of a certain ghastly social set is excellently done and sustained without a slip.“ – Alastair Reynolds
“What a hoot! Lien made me laugh at least four or five times as much as I’d dared to hope. . . . This funny, accurate take on Gilded Age life contains a serious warning to the inattentive majority about the consequences of meddling with the natural world. . . . Lien uses that as a launching pad for a denoument that will leave you gasping . . . from laughter heavily shadowed by horror. A delightful hour’s read.“ – Expendable Mudge
“Jane Austen meets HP Lovecraft with a side of Dreiser FTW. Witty, erudite, incisive.“ – Anatoly Belilovsky
“When I was about mid-way through The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society, I remarked to a passerby that I was reading ‘a f**kin masterpiece.’ ” – James Northcutt
Artist Caroline Sirounian and I collaborated to create this original oil painting inspired by the story, which is a Surrealist makeover of John Singer Sargent’s “The Wyndham Sisters”.
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