We had just a delightful hangout with special guest Henry Lien, whose short fiction has been published in many venues including Interfictions and Asimov's. He has created the world of Pearl, which he describes as an Asian young adult world. He has published two novelettes in this world, and is working on a novel. The central city is called "Pearl" (perhaps no surprise), and the architecture there is entirely coated with the substance also called "pearl," which looks like ice but is warm and dry. The city is very white.
And you can skate on it!
As Henry described, the pearl is everywhere, and you can skate on anything, even railings and roofs. all humans and all cargo are transported "by blade." They also have kung fu on figure skates, which is incredibly awesome. He says he combines forms from martial arts with figure skating, because he enjoys the combination of the martial with the sense of performance.
When I asked him about his inspiration for this world, he said that he was determined to write "things only I could have written" with "everything I like in one place. That means:
Architecture. Kung Fu. Figure skating.
Henry called it a personal brainstorm, from which he had to retrofit reality and believability. He really enjoys the combination of incredibly noble and incredibly tacky and embarrassing, which he says is appropriate to his experience in the Taiwanese diaspora. He really enjoys negotiating the space between the noble and the tacky. The example he gave of this phenomenon in other contexts was "concubines flying around the room with swords."
He has strong feelings about his portrayal of female characters, because of his children's literature sensitivities, and noticing how women weren't portrayed well. He chose the sports he did in part to address the question of the "strong female character." He wants his worlds to be realistic, diverse, and respectful. Henry objects to the idea of strong female characters doing male things. That's why he picked a sport (figure skating) where he says men and women are equal but make different contributions. He mentioned specifically how Tara Lipinski was the first to do a quadruple jump. Women's competitions in skating have equal or greater support than men's. The sport capitalizes on feminine body qualities; small size is an asset. So is balance and flexibility.
I asked Henry who his favorite character was in the world of Pearl. He said his favorite character was in his novel, but that he couldn't talk about that yet! His favorite from the stories that are already out is Doi Liang, from the novelette "Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters." The story deals with a cram school/penal colony and he says he imagined it as a sort of female Fight Club. He wrote the story at the Clarion workshop with instructor Chuck Palahniuk. In contrast with Fight Club, which was a male-on-male scenario, he wanted a female-on-female scenario. Henry describes what he sees as a feminine desire to determine the nature of relationships quickly. Doi, however, resists any impulse to form relationships and defies typical female socialization.
I asked him how much of his world he felt was directly imported from China, and he said about 40%. He has done a lot of research and outlining, and made himself an encyclopedia of worldbuilding including back history and customs. Pearl mixes influences from Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese cultures. He is strict about not referring back to sources while he writes. This, he says, helps him to filter out unimportant detail, and also allows improvisation. He might remember something like "you aren't supposed to point at the moon" but not remember why, and so in the interest of keeping this aspect he will spin his own background of new folklore.
There are hidden Easter Eggs in the stories for people who speak Chinese, in the form of puns. He wants to make sure, though, that the stories are very accessible.
"If I wanted to write about China I would have called it China."
Interestingly, he says the mixture of cultures he has been using never gets objected to by natives of those cultures, but is occasionally criticized by outsiders. Henry emphasizes, "I am free to play with this." Playing, he explains, reflects the reality of many cultures, and no culture is monolithic.
While he might be tempted to use all the back history he has created, he says not all of it is needed. He has written songs, and knows a lot about food culture, which speaks both to values and to the relationship between people and nature, and people and medicine. He says it was important to make Pearl richly imagined in order to "take it out of the realm of the wacky."
Our attendee Sally Smith highly recommends the book "Cuisine and Empire" by Rachel Laudan, an analysis of food history.
Henry says that he likes to let readers do a lot of sleuthing to figure out the implications of the things he puts in his stories. He doesn't want to dumb it down. Connie Willis taught him that any new idea has to be mentioned three times if it is to stick in the reader's mind, but he says that when he had his work edited, those extra mentions were the things that typically got slashed. He worries sometimes about letting readers work, because he doesn't want to be a "bad host" in his world.
I asked Henry about food culture in Pearl. Henry says that he brings his special perspective as a Vegan to the way he discusses food culture. Taiwanese and Chinese cultures have a huge variety of foods and a fascination with exotic meats. As an example he cites pangolin, which tastes bad and is an endangered species, but still people are drawn to it. From this he picked up the idea of people exoticizing particular foods for novelty. In Pearl, there are both ancient and contemporary dishes. In the novel, he says, there is a tsunami that causes very little structural damage because of the properties of the coating of pearl on everything. One of the things the tsunami causes is a flood of people trying to pick up the rare sea creatures that have washed out of the ocean, so they can eat them before the scientists get to them. These are served at a banquet for foreign students, causing a very uncomfortable situation for the outsiders to this food culture.
Henry remarked that there are food practices, like the killing of dophins for food in Japan, that are reinforced because of the opposition that the practice has incurred from outsiders. He says, "we cling to traditions because we are tired of being attacked." He described the enormous cultural changes that had happened in Taiwan within his parents' lifetime, and said that his grandmother had bound feet. For military or other reasons, people can be forced to leap a century forward. Foot binding was discouraged after the cultural revolution, and thus not by a group of outsiders, but was nevertheless resisted by many. He says there is a similar dynamic of resistance to stopping the practice of female genital mutilation. In his own fiction, he says, he tries to keep these questions "fluffier" by focusing on things like eating weird stuff.
Glenda asked about what happens when you have multiple layers of conquest, and whether that adds richness to a culture. Henry responded that it's interesting when you have to negotiate your own culture relative to others. Identity is a choice to some extent. Collisions and stresses produce beautiful results.
I asked whether his novel dealt with questions of sexuality as well as gender, and he said yes, but would not elaborate due to spoilers! He said it these questions were important in every culture, as was the question, "how do people construct themselves?"
When asked what area he attacks first in worldbuilding, he said really it's more important to ask the last question, which is that of money. Money motivates and constructs so much of culture. Following the money therefore becomes very important for the cohesion and success of a world.
At the end of the hangout, Henry treated us to his own rendition of a new anthem he's creating for SFWA, called "Radio SFWA." He played piano and sang the chorus for us. It was awesome!
Thanks for appearing on the show, Henry, and hearty thanks to everyone who joined us for the hangout last week. This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Wednesday, September 23, and we'll talk about questions of neurotypicality, including autism and other differences in neural function. We'll have an expert on the topic with us, Lillian Csernica. I hope you can join us!
Here's the video: