23-year-old Chinese Canadian author Xiran Jay Zhao (who prefers they/them pronouns) was one of the top 30 international bestselling authors for the week of Sept. 25. Their highly anticipated, science fiction book Iron Widow is not only an homage to their love of fantasy, but also to Chinese history and culture.
Iron Widow is a reimagined twist on China’s first woman emperor, Wu Zetian. On Goodreads, Zhao described the book as a story set in a “totally different sci-fi world with characters who are only inspired by historical figures from across Chinese history (not just the Tang dynasty).”
The plot centers around youth who control giant transforming robots through a psychic link. Through these robots, these human pilots battle mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. At the heart of the conflict is the uncannily high mortality rates for female pilots.
Zhao immigrated to Canada from China when they were only a teen. In an interview with RADII, Zhao recalled, “I was never really proud of my heritage, but it was then that I realized just how rich it was. Where there’s typical Chinese culture that seems to paint everything as being about Confucianism, obedience, and sticking within your designated social roles, there has also always been a counterculture that rebelled against that. That spirit is just as Chinese.”
They added, “I do think there’s much misunderstanding about Chinese culture from Western points of view, so I’ve made it my life’s mission to demystify it by spreading the stories I love.”
She recently tweeted about her passion.
“Why is science fiction so white?”
In 1980, critically acclaimed science fiction writer Octavia Butler asked, “Why is science fiction so White?”
This issue remains true of the 21st century. Of the 2,039 short stories published in 2015, only 28 were published by Black authors. BBC faced sexist backlash from incensed fans when the thirteenth Doctor from Doctor Who was revealed to be a woman. Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Tran was forced to leave social media after months of online harassment for her race and gender.
In an essay for Garage, Octavia Butler wrote, “Back when Star Wars was new, a familiar excuse for ignoring minorities went something like this: ‘Science fiction is escapist literature. Its readers/viewers don’t want to be weighted down with real problems.’ War, okay. Planet-wide destruction, okay. Kidnapping, okay. But the sight of a minority person? Too heavy. Too real.”
Iron Widow expands what science fiction can be
Subsequently, Zhao’s Iron Widow is a win for those looking for both cultural and LGBTQ+ representation.
In an interview with The Nerd Daily, Zhao said, “The biggest highlight is definitely discovering how fun it is to write polyamory. You have three people making independent decisions, their feelings playing off each other, without a mandate of how it must end in a two-person het relationship!”
Zhao is currently working on the sequel to Iron Widow.
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