Just four years ago I was sitting here sending off queries to publishers,” Zoe Hana Mikuta says from across the table at Trident Cafe.
Mikuta was just 17 then, a senior at Fairview High School with a dream of seeing her young adult sci-fi find a wider audience. Now she’s 21, a student at University of Washington giving interviews about her debut novel, Gearbreakers (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, June 2021).
“It’s very weird that it’s out now,” Mikuta says over a matcha latte. “I’m definitely working on new stuff right now. So it’s a little nerve wracking; my writing style has changed a lot.”
For Mikuta, Gearbreakers was as much an exploration of herself as it was a high-energy dystopian tale of teenagers fighting a rogue government and the goliath machines—Windups—it created to spread tyranny (“My kids-hunting-down-200-foot-mecha-dieties-in-the-desert book,” Mikuta encapsulates on Instagram). The lifeblood of the story is the relationship that forms between seeming enemies: Eris Shindanai, a Gearbreaker trained to tear down Windups from the inside, and Sona Steelcrest, a cybernetically enhanced Windup pilot.
“It was definitely a thing in high school where I was writing the book and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m straight and I’m fetishizing these sapphic relationships,’” Mikuta says with a laugh. “I’m definitely supported by my family, but they just recently found out I’m bisexual. It was a big thing for me (to come out) for some reason. I was just thinking, ‘I don’t have to come out. My brother didn’t have to come out and he’s straight.’ So I was just waiting for Gearbreakers to drop.”
Wrapped inside Mikuta’s story of fantastical machines in the distant future is a narrative we see unfolding before our eyes today: a world ravaged by fear and greed, crippled by extremism and limited resources.
“It makes sense that, when the times were desperate enough, when the people were frenzied enough, at a certain point we went past praying to deities and started to build them instead,” Sona narrates as she wakes up to find her body artificially enhanced, ready to merge with the machines that killed her family years before.
It’s not difficult to see Mikuta’s sand-blown world of Godolia as a symbol of climate change, her feral group of teenage soldiers a representation of the very real children who will inherit the mess we currently refuse to clean. It’s easy to imagine Windups as F-16s, machines built solely to kill, and Godolia as an endless war of ideology.
But Gearbreakers buoys itself in the hope of human relationships. While violence is necessary in Godolia, it’s love that drives Mikuta’s characters, a sense of found family that makes daily bloodshed in a hellscape worth it—there’s a sense that there’s still something worth saving.
“I think my writing reflects what I’m working through at that time, or what I’m trying to understand about the world,” Mikuta says. “There’s a lot about morality and humanity in Gearbreakers, and how we’re kind of assigned these stations in life. It’s really easy to grow up othering people because it creates a very black and white world. But people are messy and complicated, and I really wanted to bridge that gap in Gearbreakers.”
A lot of Gearbreakers was dreamed up in the Fairview library. Assigned to a lunch period with none of her friends, Mikuta would hole up with her laptop in front of a picture window opening onto the Flatirons. Looking back, Mikuta says the goal wasn’t publication, just the comfort of routine, the joy of telling herself a story.
Still, as high school came to an end and college drew near, she reached out to publication houses to see if anyone else might want to follow her steampunk-meets-Hunger-Games narrative.
A week before she started at UW, Macmillan made Mikuta an offer. Her parents had no idea.
“I didn’t tell them I was doing anything along the way,” Mikuta says. “And then I was signing contracts—I was 18. And they’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, let’s be careful.”
Now Mikuta’s apartment in Seattle is stuffed with copies of Gearbreakers, she’s got a sequel, Godslayers, set for publication next year, and her debut novel has been optioned for a possible film. She’ll head back to UW in late September to finish up her studies in creative writing and history of religion.
But she’s still dreaming up new worlds for the sheer pleasure of telling herself a story.
“I’m writing about kids illegally brawling homemade robots in the abandoned underground of Seattle,” she wrote on Instagram, “and it’s literally my job.”
On the shelf: Zoe Hana Mikuta
‘Sadie,’ by Courtney Summers
Sadie’s been dealt a tough hand: forced to raise her younger sister Mattie on her own. When Mattie is found dead, Sadie feels like her own life is over. A mismanaged police investigation sends Sadie on the hunt to find her sister’s killer. But Sadie’s not the only one searching for answers: Radio personality West McCray has become obsessed with finding the missing girl, devoting a podcast to tracking Sadie’s vigilante journey. Built around shifting points-of-view, Mikuta says Sadie’s conclusion will linger with you long after you’ve closed the book. She left it on a shelf at Flatirons Coffee at the corner of Arapahoe and 28th, so someone else could happen upon it.
More Local Sci-Fi
Stephen Graham Jones—‘My Heart Is a Chainsaw.’
CU Boulder English professor Stephen Graham Jones has been churning out literary horror and experimental fiction since the ’90s, publishing more than 20 novels in the last 20 years. His newest work, My Heart is a Chainsaw, follows Jade Daniels, an angry Indian outcast with an abusive father, an absent mother, and an entire town that wants nothing to do with her. She lives in her own world, in which protection comes from an unusual source: horror movies. As Jade drags the reader into her dark fever dream, a surprising and intimate portrait emerges: One of a scared and traumatized little girl beneath the Jason Voorhees mask—a girl who easily cries, fiercely loves and desperately wants a home. Jones will speak about My Heart is a Chainsaw at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, September 2, at Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl Street, Boulder. Tickets are $5.