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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Amber Chen! She’s the author of the contemporary webnovel The Cutting Edge, which was adapted for television as an eight-episode miniseries released in 2021, as well as the fantasy story “Hugging the Buddha’s Feet” in Wilted Pages: An Anthology of Dark Academia. Of Jade and Dragons, her young adult novel coming out on June 18, is described as “silkpunk fantasy about a girl who must disguise herself as a boy and enter the famed and dangerous Engineer’s Guild trials to unravel the mystery of her father’s murder.” I’m thrilled she’s here today to discuss one of its themes in “Using Fiction to Empower Girls in STEM.”

Of Jade and Dragons by Amber Chen Book Cover

Using Fiction to Empower Girls in STEM
by Amber Chen

Few may know that I am, in fact, a scientist. I graduated with a degree in Biochemistry, and I’ve been a science student my entire life, so sometimes I wonder how in the world I ended up writing fantasy novels. I suppose my own inclination toward STEM was what led me to shape the silkpunk world in Of Jade and Dragons, my debut YA fantasy, because to me, science has always been the equivalent of magic. As a child, I remember being fascinated with finding out what made the world tick—whether it was the microscopic structure of a living cell or the macroscopic nature of the universe—and that sort of curiosity and hunger for knowledge is a trait that I have, for better or worse, passed on to the protagonist of my novel, Ying.

When I first wrote Of Jade and Dragons, I crafted a tech-infused fantasy world that closely mirrored the societal structure of Qing dynasty China in the 1600s, one that was steeped in patriarchy and where roles were strictly delineated along gender lines. A girl living in those times would have been expected to abide by those societal expectations, and to dream of stepping out of those boundaries would be unthinkable. That is the world that Ying lives in, and what she has to stand up against in order to achieve her dream of becoming an engineer.

The idea of empowering girls to not only take on but also excel in traditionally masculine fields, like engineering, is an important theme in Of Jade and Dragons, and a theme that is particularly close to my heart. I count myself lucky to live in a time and place where many of these restrictions that were once placed upon women have been lifted, to have been given the opportunity to pursue my interest in science to the highest level, and to have my voice heard in traditionally male-dominated spaces. That said, I realise that this privilege is not uniformly accorded across all parts of the world, and there is still much work to be done to truly level the playing field. The deeply entrenched patriarchy and its accompanying misogynistic attitudes and casual sexism still exist in the realms of science and tech, even in countries that are considered “progressive”, and sometimes when I reflect on the state of our world as it is today, I wonder if we’ve truly moved on from those Qing dynasty days, or if the supposed progress is merely a façade.

Regardless, I believe that fiction is an incredibly powerful tool that we can and should tap on to effect real change in the world, because fiction allows us to show possibilities. To remove the blinkers that we may not realise we have. I would very much like a reader to pick up Of Jade and Dragons and think “hey, maybe a girl like me can build airships and mechanical beasts one day” and then go on to do it the way Ying has—because why not?

Cover of Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta Cover of Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao Cover of The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei

Some readers have told me how much they appreciate the representation of women in STEM in Of Jade and Dragons, and it always makes me so happy to hear that. This goes to show that there’s still plenty of room for more of such stories and protagonists to fill the shelves! To round off, here are some of my book recommendations for those who are interested in stories featuring girls in STEM or girls generally wreaking havoc in male-dominated worlds (as they should):

  • Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta follows the journey of Eris Shindanai, a Gearbreaker who specializes in taking down Windups, the giant mechanised weapons wielded by a tyrannical regime, from the inside. When she ends up in prison after a mission goes awry, Eris meets Sona Steelcrest, a cybernetically enhanced Windup pilot who has infiltrated the Windup programme so that she can bring down the regime from within, and the both of them must work together to achieve their common goal.
  • Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao follows 18-year-old Zetian, who volunteers as a concubine-pilot for the Chrysalises, giant robots that are used to fight aliens that threaten humanity, so that she can assassinate the male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. When her psychic abilities prove far stronger than anyone expected, she attempts to use them to undo the misogynistic pilot system in order to prevent more girls from being sacrificed.
  • The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei follows Asuka, the last member of a space crew picked to leave Earth when it is on the verge of environmental collapse, in order to save humanity. On their journey to a livable planet, an unexpected bomb knocks their vessel off course and Asuka must find the culprit before humanity’s last chance of survival is thwarted for good.
Photo of Amber Chen Amber Chen is a Singaporean-Chinese author of SFF and contemporary fiction. She holds a BA and MSci from the University of Cambridge and also has a diploma in screenwriting.

Amber spends much of her free time living within Chinese fantasy novels and dramas, and also drinks one too many cups of bubble tea. Her debut silkpunk fantasy novel, Of Jade and Dragons, is forthcoming from Penguin Teen in Summer 2024, and her work has also been published in Wilted Pages: An Anthology of Dark Academia. One of her webnovels, The Cutting Edge, has been adapted for television.