[Originally appearing on Asimovs.com Oct 2013, text reprinted with permission, pictures no longer available, alas]
Hail, Friends of Pearl.
I’m Henry Lien. I’m the author of the story “Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters,” appearing in the December 2013 issue of Asimov’s. Here’s a picture of me. (PICTURE 1) This is my first published story and my first blog entry anywhere ever, so go easy on me, friends.
Q. TELL US ABOUT THE WORLD OF “PEARL REHABILITATIVE COLONY FOR UNGRATEFUL DAUGHTERS.”
A. Can we agree to just refer to the story as “Pearl Colony” from here on? “Pearl Colony” is part of a series of YA Asian speculative fiction stories and novels that I am working on. There are two completed stories and one first draft of a novel so far.
The world of Pearl is defined by two things: the pearl and Wu Liu. The pearl is the substance that the entire city of Pearl is built of. It looks like ice, except it is warm and dry, instead of cold and wet. You can skate across any surface in the city, any rooftop, handrail, balustrade, or balcony. The city kind of looks like the Harbin Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival in Northeastern China, like at this link: http://0.tqn.com/d/gochina/1/0/g/8/-/-/IMG_1353.JPG
A sport developed in pearl called Wu Liu, which is a combination of kung fu and figure skating. An art form developed around Wu Liu called Pearlian Opera, which is a lavish athletic/theatrical production that has everything that regular opera has except that it replaces singing with Wu Liu. Well, I say opera, but in my mind, it’s more like Bollywood musical numbers except with combat.
I hate describing things using those lazy, Hollywood, “Eeny-Meeny Meets Miney-Moe” shorthand descriptions, but more than one person has described the book and stories as “Harry Potter Meets Crouching Tiger”.
Q. TELL US WHERE YOU GOT THE IDEA.
A. The idea for the world of Pearl started as a sort of very personal brain scan. I wanted to create something that incorporated everything that I love in one world, the one book that I wanted to read most but couldn’t find on any shelf.
Because I’m a geek, it has echoes of video games (especially Sega’s joyous “Jet Set Radio” games), kung fu movies (especially art-house martial arts films like “Crouching Tiger,” “Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers” and anything choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping), Asian fantasy (“The Tales of the Otori,” “The Journey to the West,” “Bridge of Birds”) and science fantasy (especially “Star Wars”, especially the prequel movies, especially “Phantom Menace”. Please don’t look at me like that).
Because I’m from Taiwan, I wanted to look to Taiwanese, Chinese, and Japanese history for inspiration (especially the history of wars around substances such as silk, tea, and opium). In fact, the Pearl stories can be read as alternate universe stories of East Asia, tripped onto a parallel historical track due to the discovery and development of this remarkable substance called the pearl. Throughout history, wars seem to be motivated by many things, but if you follow the money, often you come down to just one rare natural resource that people fight over.
It also incorporates figure skating (especially the skating of Oksana Baiul), architecture, design, dance, vicious girl-on-girl cat fights (especially Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan), and teen romance. You know. Macho stuff.
Q. AND THEN WHAT DID YOU DO WITH THE IDEA?
So I came up with the idea for the world of Pearl in 2005. I was a lawyer back then with little time to write. Then, my partner died of cancer and I ended up taking over the art gallery he founded, to continue his legacy. Next thing I knew, it was eight years later, and I had made exactly zero progress on the stories set in this world that I wanted to write.
Thus, in February 2012, at the age of 42, I said to myself, “Hey, guy, you’re not getting any younger and you don’t believe in reincarnation, so if you want to be a writer, you’d better step it up. One life. That’s all you get.” I quickly did some research about the kind of writing I liked (speculative fiction), researched my favorite speculative fiction writer (Ted Chiang), saw how he started his writing career (Clarion, whatever that was), and looked up Clarion and Clarion West (workshops, whose deadlines were like two weeks away). I quickly put together a couple of sample chapters from the first Pearl novel and submitted them.
I attended Clarion West and it changed everything. I studied under Mary Rosenblum, Stephen Graham Jones, George R.R. Martin, Connie Willis, Kelly Link, Gavin Grant, and Chuck Palahniuk. It was the happiest, most deeply meaningful six weeks of my life. It was our Starfleet Academy, our Hogwarts, our Camelot.
The final week of Clarion West was taught by Chuck Palahniuk. I worshipped Chuck, so I wanted to write something really ambitious for him, even if I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, and just hoped that it made a big splash, not a big splatter. I knew I wanted to do a Pearl story for him. I had some fragments and part of a story in mind featuring lots of girl-on-girl combat, and I decided to turn that into a sort of female “Fight Club.” Just like “Fight Club” examined some primal dynamics of male-on-male interrelations, I wanted to do something that focused on girl-on-girl dynamics. Specifically, I wanted to look at how some girls cannot resist making quick and extreme decisions regarding what relationship they have with each other. Suki Gang is clearly that kind of girl, who finds it unbearable to simply exist in the same space with other girls without deciding who is going to be her new best friend, her long lost sister, her bitter rival, her protégée, etc. Doi Niu is clearly not that kind of girl, and just wants to be left to do her work.
Also, I specifically wanted to do something told in a teenage girl voice because I wanted to push my powers of ventroliquism into a character that was as far from me as I could imagine. I also am fascinated by the intensity of feeling that teenage girls experience. I look at the girls sobbing in hysterics over the Beatles over the stars of “Twilight”, and I say, “Hey, not a whole lot of the world’s population ever experiences that depth of ecstasy. There’s something there.”
Finally, I specifically wanted to do it from the POV of the Mean Girl because I loved Nellie Oleson from “Little House on the Prairie,” “Black Swan,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” etc.
Oh, and I had just read Amy Chua’s highly controversial memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” It started out as propaganda about how strict Chinese parenting is superior to degenerate Western parenting and then goes off to become one of the most caustically honest and hilarious portraits of family dynamics that I’ve ever seen. That’s in “Pearl Colony” too, in the character of Sensei Madame Tong.
So I wrote “Pearl Colony” during the harrowing final week of Clarion West. When your story’s turn to be critiqued comes up, your seventeen classmates go around in a circle and share their crits of the story and the instructor goes last. The author of the story is not allowed to speak until the end of the crit gauntlet. The story was well-received by my classmates. My classmate and fellow Asimov’s writer Indra Das drew this doodle on his copy of my story during class. (PICTURE 2) As you’ll notice, I later changed the title because it wasn’t macho enough, and I’m all about macho.
When it came Chuck’s turn to comment, I tried to go into Matrix bullet-time and be all Zen and said to myself, “Okay, just be cool, it’s just Chuck giving his thoughts, it’s just, holy frock, Chuck Palahniuk’s about to tell me what he thinks about my writing.”
He picked up his hard-copy of the story. Dramatic pause and breath.
Then he said, “I thought this story completely Kicked. Ass.”
So that’s how “Pearl Colony” was born.
Q. WHAT HAPPENED BEFORE THE EVENTS OF “PEARL COLONY”?
I’m so glad you asked that because it’s really interesting, I think. “Pearl Colony” is only a very small part of the very latest history of the city of Pearl. The history starts hundreds of years earlier.
The city of Pearl is the capital of the island of Pearl. The island of Pearl is a renegade province of the greater Shin Imperium, which occupies the mainland. The relationship between Shin and Pearl has always been that of parent and willful child. Shinian culture spawned Pearlian culture, but Pearl chafed under Shinian rule. Pearl saw Shin as despotic and decrepit.
Then came the events of “The Great Leap of Shin.” This was a story I wrote at Clarion West for George R.R. Martin. Shin was regularly rocked by terrible earthquakes. Because Shin was so densely populated, hundreds of thousands of people died in every earthquake. However, a brilliant eunuch serving in the Court of the Vermillion Emperor in Shin realized that it was not earthquakes that killed people. It was not even buildings collapsing during earthquakes that killed people. It was not knowing when the earthquakes would strike. He devised an epic engineering project so that Shin could schedule its earthquakes and the population could know when they should be outdoors so that they would not be crushed in debris.
The eunuch looked at the great weakness of Shin (its obscene overpopulation) and realized that that was also its great strength. He commissioned experiments in sound to map the plates that formed the great faultline that would slip every thousand years and produce Shin’s most devastating earthquakes.
He then organized 200 million men to gather along the edge of the faultline and jump in unison at a perfectly calculated rate so that the frequency of their jumps would stack and multiply, like a child jouncing in time on a branch until it broke. The jumps would eventually create enough billions of tons of explosive power to trigger the faultline to rupture and the great earthquake to occur, when the population could be forewarned to be outdoors. Then, Shin could live in peace for another thousand years.
The problem was that the triggering of the great earthquake would cause a devastating tsunami to overwhelm the island of Pearl. Thus, the governor of the city of Pearl sent his young son with a few companions to beg the eunuch not to go forward with the Great Leap of Shin and to spare their culture. In order to convince the eunuch, they brought a cask of this substance that their city had recently discovered called the pearl that they were slowly rebuilding their city with. The children then begged to perform this native folk dance of skating on the pearl to show the eunuch the beauty of the culture he would be destroying.
Or so it seemed. In fact, the Pearlians had already developed this form of skating into a deadly martial art. The eunuch’s guards allowed the children near the eunuch because they did not realize that the children needed no weapons. Their skates were weapons.
The boy and the eunuch then took each other hostage in a mutual stand-off during which they faced the fact that both of them might have to kill a good and brilliant person. Both of them were heroes, but both of them had to kill a hero.
I don’t want to say how everything resolves, but here’s something. [SPOIILERS AHOY] The Great Leap of Shin goes forward. The earthquake is triggered. The tsunami wipes out the city of Pearl. The earthquake triggers devastating floods that decimate the empire of Shin. The city of Pearl quickly rebuilds, realizing that having their city washed clean was an extraordinary hidden gift. The city could thus rebuild entirely in a new image, made entirely of the pearl, without having to deal with the cost of destroying existing buildings and fighting eminent domain claims from displaced citizens. The city of Pearl recovers quickly and surges forward and the empire of Shin drowns in its own burst lakes and rivers. [EXEUNT SPOILERS]
Two hundred years later, the city of Pearl is a jewel and a force and it does not see any reason why it owes obedience to its decrepit and still decimated forbearer, the empire of Shin. Suki Gang’s disobedience against her parents and against all authority is very much the history of Pearl and Shin staged in miniature.
Q. WHAT HAPPENS AFTER “PEARL COLONY?”
The story picks up right after the events of “Pearl Colony” in “Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword”, the first of the Pearl novels. Okay, I just finished writing the first draft of this novel, so I’m too close to it and I’m not sure how much I want to give away, so my description is going to suck. It’s like “Harry Potter Meets Crouching Tiger”, okay?
In “Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword,” Doi and Suki both get into Pearl Opera Academy (renamed Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword for the novels). No heart attacks from surprise there.
However, the viewpoint character shifts from Suki Gang to a girl from the Shin mainland named Peasprout Chen. Peasprout has come to Pearl Opera Academy on a scholarship. She assumes that nothing is going to stop her from finishing first in class ranking because she was Wu Liu champion for all of Yu-Shan Province five times since the age of seven. She skates in and finds herself in the middle of this raging rivalry from a prior school between two ruthless and brilliant girls. That’s when things get interesting. Three is an inherently unstable number politically, because it is ripe with possibilities for alliances, ganging up on one person, reversals, and betrayals.
But then the complications start piling up. First, there is Cricket, Peasprout’s embarrassing brother who is also here on scholarship. He is so nervous and neurotic that he is allergic even to his own saliva. A real liability for an ambitious girl with plans for glory.
And there is Dioshi, Doi Niu’s brother who seems to have gotten all the charm and warmth and openness of spirit that Doi lacks. There is some secret between Doi and Dioshi that neither of them will talk about but that makes it unbearable for them to even be in the same room with each other.
Then, the meltings begin. Some great and terrible thing begins to melt the structures of the Academy while the students are sleeping. Strangely, no one but Peasprout seems all that interested in discovering what is causing the meltings. However, Peasprout Chen is not one to sit by and do nothing.
As she carves deeper into the mystery of what is destroying the structures of the Academy, she cuts closer to the secret of Doi’s and Dioshi’s family and ultimately to the question that unshrouds the whole of this world: “What is the pearl made of?”
The book is the first of a three or four novel story arc (depending on whether I decide to bump off one of the main characters).
Q. WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE PAINTING?
A. I work as a fine art dealer as my principal day job. I work with a very talented painter named Alexandra Manukyan. Here’s a picture of Alexandra and me. (PICTURE 4, Photograph courtesy Julie Klima Photography) She marries outstanding classical, figurative technique with an outsider sensibility and a strong narrative thrust in her work. Check out her website www.alexandramanukyan.com.
I pitched her work to Asimov’s and Asimov’s said right away that they were going with her. Asimov’s and Alexandra kindly allowed me to totally micromanage and helicopter art direct the cover painting that would accompany my story. I can’t tell you how deeply satisfying it was for a writer to command these kinds of resources to basically produce a photograph from his own inner dream world. Here are some of the sketches that Alexandra came up with for various poses, and the final sketch that I came up with. (PICTURES 5 – 9)
Alexandra and I worked together on the poses, the architecture, the outfits, the models, the lighting, etc., while working within the parameters of what Asimov’s needed for its cover layout. The girl in the background who modeled for Suki Gang is my step sister Wendy, who is Taiwanese but has dyed blonde hair in real life, so she totally looks like an Anime Robot Princess. The girl in the foreground is her friend Lena, who is an amazing athlete and came to the photo shoot straight from running a half marathon.
The girls were great sports. Neither of them had done kung fu or figure skating but they endured hours of jumping around with swords and stiletto heels. Here are a couple shots from the photo shoot as well as the final Photoshop mockup that we used to lock down the composition. (PICTURES 10 – 12)
Alexandra created the high heel skates in Photoshop, since they didn’t really exist. At first, I wanted the girls to be on regular skates balanced on their tippy toes, like Oksana Baiul’s classic ballerina pose for her “Swan Lake” routine. However, Alexandra convinced me that high heel skates would nuke people’s brains and also would require outstanding skill to negotiate. And you know what, Alexandra? You were right. The high heel skates deeply rawk. Here is an image from my author website of me on Alexandra’s high heel skates as Sensei Hiroshiro, one of the instructors at Pearl Opera Academy in “Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword.” (PICTURE 13)
Well, I’ve gone on long enough. Thank you, friends, for taking an interest in “Pearl Colony” and the world of Pearl. If you’d like to follow what I’m doing as I produce more stories, please check out my new website www.henrylien.com.
In the city of Pearl, goodbye is expressed as a pair of blessings, shared by both sides of the departure. Here is how we say it.
You: “May we meet here in the New Year.”
Me: “May we meet here in Pearl.”
– Henry Lien, Hollywood, California 10.11.13