It’s ironic that I’ve published a Christmas book because… I don’t like Christmas. Or at least, I didn’t. For years, I would put my head down and suffer through the season, every festive jingle from retail speakers triggering negative associations. A few years ago, I worked through the roots of that negativity, some of which came from my own life, and some from generational trauma that has trickled down from my grandparents. I decided the best remedy would be to overwrite those negative memories with positive ones. To develop new traditions, rather than hold onto old ones I did not feel connected to.
One of those new traditions, for me, has been The Nutcracker. If I saw it as a child, I have no memory of it, but my husband did, and he wants to see it every year. Our compromise was this: I would go with him every year, but we needed to see a different production each year, so the repetition wouldn’t become boring. We’ve seen some creative interpretations, including Nutcracker in the Land of Enchantment, which places the story in New Mexico and replaces the “Spanish Chocolate” ballet segment with authentic Flamenco dancers, and Nutcracker on the Rocks, which retells the story in a modern setting with rock music and hip-hop dance.
It was during one of the more traditional shows, though, that I was struck with the idea for Steel Tree. When the inventor Drosselmeyer arrives at the Stahlbaum’s party, he first brings two life-sized dolls that dance stiffly before being carried off-stage. They’re robots, I realized! Or rather, automata, those windup predecessors from the 19th century, like from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” which I had read in grad school. As it turns out, the original story of The Nutcracker and Mouse King was also written by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and it is far more bizarre than the (already pretty weird) ballet. I searched for any versions which portrayed the Nutcracker as a robot who awakens to sentience. I found stories like Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, about a cyborg Cinderella, and Claire Legrand’s Winterspell, a dark steampunk take on The Nutcracker, but nothing that quite fit the story that I sketched out after that performance, which I unceremoniously titled “Nutcracker in Space.”
Most of the positive memories I have of Christmas take place in Hawai’i. My grandparents lived there, and I was lucky enough to spend several winter breaks trading in a snowsuit for a swimsuit, and decorated pine trees for light-strung palm trees. The last time I visited before my grandmother passed, we toured of several coffee plantations. One of them had a huge processing factory, and the guide explained that smaller farms in the area brought their coffee beans there, and they all got mixed together and packaged under the larger farm’s label. This dynamic struck me as a good conflict for a story, and I held onto it, the way writers collect moments and images and names in a mental drawer like spare buttons.
It was a couple of years later that I decided to put these two concepts together. What if instead of coffee, it was nuts, and in addition to the modern factory equipment, the farm had an agricultural android they called a “nutcracker”? The final piece that brought this story to life was Elon Musk’s absurd plan to offer “loans” to people who can’t afford to go to Mars, which would be worked off once they were on the red planet—a system that is indentured servitude in everything but name. These three ideas coalesced to become Steel Tree.
Klara is one of those indentured servants—not on Mars, but on a pair of fictional double planets: Eta (named after E.T.A. Hoffmann, of course), and Petipa (named after Marius Petipa, the choreographer who first adapted The Nutcracker into a ballet). Klara runs the factory where the farmers bring their harvest, and the nutcracker androids package everything to be sent from Eta to Petipa—an arrangement that some think privileges Klara’s family over the rest of the farmers. In the ballet, her brother Fritz accidentally breaks the Nutcracker by playing too rough; in my version, her neighbor Fritz sabotages one of the nutcracker androids, accidentally causing the robot to “wake up” and gain self-awareness.
I placed each of the familiar elements into this science fictional setting, borrowing from the structure of both the ballet and Hoffmann’s original, adding plenty of embellishments of my own. I hope that, whether you love or loathe the holidays, Steel Tree can bring a fresh perspective to an old tradition.
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