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Rust, robots, and romance: The UW undergrad’s upcoming novel that has people talking

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UW student releases novel, "Gearbreakers"

Courtesy of Zoe Mikuta

It was UW student Zoe Hana Mikuta’s senior year of high school, and she knew what she wanted from literature: women of color who save the world and fall in love, preferably in the sand-swept ruins of the apocalyptic future. By the end of that year, her debut novel, “Gearbreakers,” was born. Now, as Mikuta closes out her third year at the UW, the book is hitting shelves June 29.

“Gearbreakers” tells the story of Eris and Sona, two teenage girls who are part of the fight against 200-foot mechanical deities and the tyrannical regime that controls them. Although the relationship begins in opposition, their cooperation soon blooms into partnership and, later, romance. In short, it’s all of Mikuta’s favorite things in one thrilling read.

A genuine love for the genre — which Mikuta has dubbed as “dustpunk,” cyberpunk’s more desolate cousin characterized by crumbling landscapes and decrepit wastelands — isn’t the only thing that makes the novel so personal to her. The protagonists, Eris and Sona, are both queer, half-Korean women.

Mikuta, who is half-Korean herself, set the novel in the distant future, when the cultural borders that exist today have largely broken down. Still, it was important to her that Eris and Sona demonstrate their mixed heritage through subtle nods to the culture throughout the novel.

Mikuta inserted facets of her own identity into the story with the goal of creating representations accurate to her own experiences. The protagonists’ heritage underlies their daily lives in what she calls “a given.”

“It’s a given for them and a given for me,” Mikuta said. “The given of it is where I can place genuine representation, from my one perspective — just existing is kind of representation in itself.”

Along with her focus on writing the kinds of characters she wants to see, Mikuta knows that this representation will have real-world benefits. Growing up, it was difficult for her to find mixed-Asian representation; although she didn’t seek out bisexual media until much later, the available literature was sparse enough that it was never something she stumbled across.

“The story is what I really like, but I also have the ability to put diversity in it, so of course, that’s what I’m going to do,” Mikuta said. “The business side of my brain is like, ‘This is going to be diffused, how can I use this to help?’ The characters can be any sexuality, any race, but it would be nice to make people feel seen. I like feeling seen.”

If the buzz surrounding the “Gearbreakers” launch is anything to go by, the queer and mixed-race representation — and the fantastical setting in which the story takes place — has certainly struck a chord with a number of people. From attention on TikTok to frequent Twitter mentions to a feature in a Buzzfeed article, the virtual sphere has latched onto the premise of “Gearbreakers,” transforming the project of a passionate high school senior into a highly anticipated release.

It still baffles Mikuta how this online attention has accumulated, but she chalks it up to booksellers who actively promote the works of queer and PoC authors, as well as the value of social media in allowing her to market the book.

“My brother called me and told me his distant friend called him and asked him if his sister is publishing a book, because he heard about it somewhere,” Mikuta said. “I have no idea where people are getting this information. Bigger institutions at work. It’s wonderful, and I still don’t understand it.”

Meanwhile, the film rights for “Gearbreakers” have been auctioned off and different studios are workshopping concepts for a screen adaptation — a concept Mikuta can’t even consider balancing with her current course workload.

With all the online hype and questions surrounding next steps with “Gearbreakers,” arguably the most exciting development is that Mikuta is currently polishing the sequel and working on a third project that she’s enjoying just as much.

“I can feel that I’ve grown so much in my art; I’ve really leaned into the style of my writing in a way that I’m very proud of,” Mikuta said. “It’s about comfort. There’s a lot of comfort in my art.”

Reach writer Ariana Sutherland at Twitter: @aristhrlnd

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