During their final semesters at SFU, Bachelor of Sciences alumnus Xiran Jay Zhao authored Iron Widow, a now #1 New York Times bestselling sci-fi/fantasy, young adult novel.

FHS alumnus writes #1 New York Times bestselling book

December 15, 2021

By: Geron Malbas 

With a love for disease research, and a goal to pursue a Masters in Biochemistry, Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) Bachelor of Sciences alumnus Xiran Jay Zhao was ready to tackle the world as a public health scholar. However, throughout their last few semesters at SFU, Zhao had been writing books in their spare time following a long-standing dream to become a published author.

“Writing became almost an award for studying or finishing something, so I used it as a reward mechanism,” they explained. “If I do well in my academics, then I’d write this book that I was dying to write.”

In 2019, Zhao got into a prestigious writing contest called Pitch Wars, where aspiring authors are chosen to be mentored by established authors. Zhao had submitted a story that got picked by Rebecca Kim Wells, author of Shatter the Sky.

“The manuscript I had submitted was for a book called The Sapphire Age, which is about humans genetically engineering themselves to go into the oceans – like sci-fi mermaids,” they explained. “While the book itself didn’t sell in that form, it helped me find my current literary agent.”

Finishing their last semester at SFU in Fall 2019 during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were locked down at home after completing their studies. With time on their hands, Zhao saw the opportunity to dive into writing the book that would become Iron Widow.

 Zhao re-imagines the history of China’s only female emperor Wu Zetian, incorporating giant robot mechs working to defend against alien attacks. The mechs require a pair of boy and girl pilots to operate; the process of doing so disproportionately kills girls, who are considered expendable, while the boy pilots live and go onto fame and glory. Zetian is labeled the “Iron Widow” after killing her paired male pilot that is responsible for her sister’s death, becoming a much-feared female pilot who fights to discover why the pilot system is structured to sacrifice girls.

“The book is very much a message of aggressive feminism; women should not be pressured into putting others above themselves and their own needs,” Zhao says. “Guilt and shame are used as oppression to keep them down, and this is all about breaking out of that.”

The book was initially rejected by American publishers, with Zhao being told that young adult sci-fi does not sell. It was only when Canadian publisher Penguin Random House took a risk to publish their book that it reached the wider market. Early reader reactions and word of mouth helped the book debut at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list.

“It was well received with advance reader reactions,” they explained, “and the viral success of my TikTok and YouTube videos helped promote it even further.”

Even though Iron Widow is set in fantasy, Zhao incorporated some of their health sciences knowledge into the book.

“The pilots in the book control these giant mechs that can crush mountains and topple buildings, but in the backstory of the world, the most powerful pilot got taken down by a virus, something so small you can’t even see it,” they explain.

“My epidemiological studies in FHS showed me the consequences of not being prepared, especially in the case of pandemics and not taking viruses seriously. However, it shows how the human condition is special when treasuring the lives of others, and coming together to achieve amazing things.”

Zhao is currently working on a sequel to Iron Widow, and has sold another novel that is scheduled for a May 2022 release. Additionally, they plan on re-working their original The Sapphire Age sci-fi mermaid story as a future publication.