Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: "Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters"

"Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters"
Henry Lien
Asimov's: December 2013
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Novelette

I am called familial name Jiang, personal name Suki, although I prefer to be referred to as Her Grace, Radiant Goddess Princess Suki, and I think this is the stupidest essay ever assigned and I think that Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters is the stupidest place under Heaven.

You wish us to to write this essay about what we have done and learned during our sentence here at Pearl Colony. You have "Wicked Girls Return as Good" carved over the entrance gate. You think that girls can be humiliated into excellence. You think that we can be shamed into preparing for the examination for the Pearl Opera Academy next year by making us say that we are lazy and ungrateful. Think whatever you want.

That's the opening to Henry Lien's Nebula nominated story, and it is definitely a statement opening that causes the reader to pay attention.  Is this story about to be the full essay of an entitled young woman ranting her way through what she has learned during her forced time at the Pearl Colony?  It is difficult to tell, because shortly after that first passage, the tone shifts from the forceful first person perspective of the essay into a more standard first person perspective of "just" a story.  Which begs the question, is the meat of the story part of the essay Suki has written or is the story telling of Suki's time self narrated but more of an interlude?

I'm not quite sure how much it matters, either to me or at all.  The way I choose to read the main narrative is that it is part of Suki's essay and that at the very end, when the tone shifts back to what we see in those first paragraphs and Suki reveals what she has learned, it is coming out of her revealing what her perspective on her experience at Pearl Colony was.  The only trouble with this reading is that there is a significant tonal shift.  While the entire story is full of Suki's personality ("Normally, girls get kicked out for smoking sinkweed or violating curfew or getting caught with boys in their rooms, but this one is so uptight she probably wipes her ass with lace scarves") and her exclamations ("Piss me off to death"), I was surprised when the story moved into a more traditional storytelling style and away from the informal essay style of the opening paragraphs. 

That shift likely allows "Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters" to be a much more successful story than it would have been if it had retained the informal essay format of those first paragraphs. Suki details, from her perspective, the horrible treatment all of the ungrateful daughters have received, beginning with the first day where the students start with three hours of a toe kicking drill without bathroom breaks, followed by six hours of jumping drills.  The question here, of course, is whether Suki can be considered a reliable narrator.  If this is her essay, is she exaggerating her experiences? Does her obvious anger at having to go to this "school" influence how we read the character and her relative honesty in telling her story?

The final thing I want to mention is that in this story, there is something called Wu-Liu.  Wu-Liu is this odd melding of ice skating (except that the skating is a surface made of pearl) and kung-fu.  It is baffling and completely awesome. Even more awesome, Henry Lien has a forthcoming novel (The Taming of the Pearl) which is a sequel to this story.  I can't wait to see more from Lien.  This was a fantastic story and one of my favorites, so far, of my Nebula reading.

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