Saturday, February 27, 2016

2015 Nebula Award Finalist: Novelette THE LADIES' AQUATIC GARDENING SOCIETY

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Henry Lien
Online free read

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Plot Synopsis: In an alternate Gilded Age, two outsiders clinging desperately to their places in Newport society, as controlled by Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt. The competition between Mrs. Howland-Thorpe, Boston born and bred, and Mrs. Fleming, née Contessa Contarini, is fought in the form of gardening triumphs. Each lady tries to outdo the other with more and more exotic types of garden until the Law of Unintended Results takes calamitous hold.

My Review: What a hoot! Lien made me laugh at least four or five times as much as I'd dared to hope. The title, after reading the tale, rings a tocsin instead of a laugh. 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. Humans as a species have been altering and destroying wide swaths of the planet, often simply for our own gratification, often simply through ignorance of the consequences our actions have. Look at the Monte Carlo aquarium's generation-long release of a seemingly harmless kind of underwater grass: It resulted in a very large part of the northern Mediterranean Sea losing all of its native flora and fauna. All because there was no awareness of what a non-native species would do in a new environment, so no precautions were taken to confine it.

The American South is gradually being eaten alive by a Japanese plant, kudzu, as the heat and humidity of the place seems to be kudzu's idea of Paradise. Then there's Australia's rabbit apocalypse. Central Texas's juniper bush debacle. Florida's hydrilla emergency. All caused by inattentiveness or ignorance of what happens when something is taken away from its native place.

Lien's funny take on the sad, sad tale also has a second axe-blade aimed at the reader: The relegation of women to a position of uselessness. The strenuous efforts of each of these women to outdo the other in garden beauty is the sole acceptable outlet for their considerable talents and intelligence. Mrs. Fleming even says:
I have not spent my time here in meaningful endeavor. But there is so little of seriousness that women are suffered to do with their lives. I thought it would be different in this country. We should be urging each other towards useful works. Women can do Great things together.
Sadly, her call to sisterhood in action is unheeded. Happily, 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. Go investigate, step outside your normal reading habits!

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