SL Huang

Vacation Reading: Huang and Bernobich

One of the nice things about vacation was getting the chance to catch up on a little reading.

The Time Roads - CoverI started with Beth Bernobich’s novel The Time Roads [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], a collection of four novellas (or novelettes?) telling the story of an alternate Ireland at the start of the twentieth century. Part one, “The Golden Octopus,” introduces us to Queen Áine, the young ruler of the empire of Éire, and the scientist Dr. Breandan Ó Cuilinn, a pioneer in the science of time fractures. As a result of said time fractures, each novella reflects a slightly changed reality, with characters struggling to reconcile conflicting memories and events.

One of the four stories, “A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange,” made the preliminary Nebula Award ballot after being published as a standalone in Asimov’s. I remember reading it then and very much enjoying it, and it was wonderful to get the broader context of the surrounding stories.

It was particularly nice to see things start to come together in the final part of the book, which returns to Áine’s perspective as she struggles to deal with enemies who’ve learned to weaponize the time fractures. It raised the stakes and the pacing, and worked well to bring everything home.

It’s not a traditionally structured novel, which may throw some folks off. But the steampunk/fantasy/time travel/alternate history mix made for an enjoyable read.

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Half Life coverNext up was S.L. Huang’s Half Life, [Amazon | B&N], the sequel to Zero Sum Game, which I enjoyed and reviewed a while back. Mathematical genius and morally grey action hero Cas Russell is back, and this time she’s trying to track down a man’s missing daughter (who may or may not exist), fight off the mob, and track down some plutonium in her free time.

If you liked the first book, you’ll probably enjoy this one as well. It has a lot of the same fast-paced action and non-stop plot. We get more of Chester and Arthur, who balance Cas out in good ways. It’s just plain fun reading.

What we don’t get is much more about Cas’ background and origin story, though I imagine more of that mystery will be revealed in future books.

I had some of the same nitpicks about using math to calculate things human bodies and reflexes simply aren’t fast enough for, but it was easier this time to let that go as part of our protagonist’s mysterious enhancements and backstory. I also thought the ending went a little over-the-top.

I particularly enjoyed how Huang wrote about lifelike robots, and the way different characters responded to them. It explored a number of angles and ideas, and brought up some great ethical conflicts, not to mention tripping Cas up with logic vs. emotional instinct.

It was a fun read, one I zipped through it in about two days, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for book three!

Nobody’s Sidekick: Intersectionality in Protagonists – S. L. Huang

Thank you to everyone for the supportive comments and response to this first week of guest posts. I’m especially grateful to the writers for sharing such powerful, personal, and important stories. My plan is to take a week off, then come back with the next round of posts, just to break things up a little.

S. L. Huang addresses a common problem of representation: the idea that straying from the mainstream by more than one axis is too much, too implausible…especially for a protagonist. You can’t be too “different,” because you’ll knock readers out of the story.

Thank you, S. L. Huang, for dismantling that argument so well.


I’m a tangled intersection of underrepresented (female, nonwhite, queer, among others). Even before I had the vocabulary to express it, even before I had the self-awareness to acknowledge it, I remember always looking for people “like me” in media.

That’s not too surprising, is it?

It’s that same twinge of relating one feels when, say, seeing a nerd character who gets to be awesome in a story. I was always looking for those. But I also related to people who matched my identity in other ways—women, Asians, children of immigrants, people who struggled with their own inherited culture. And the older I got, and the more I gravitated toward science fiction and fantasy, the more it happened that the characters I related most to were always the side characters. The support. The ones who never got enough time for their own stories … or whose stories flat-out weren’t told.

I used to think this was just a product of my own preferences being off-beat. But over time I began to realize that the more dimensions of my identity a character matched, the further she was relegated from being a main character. From being important, a hero who would take the helm and drive the story into its own world’s legend.

It started to feel wrong, a piece of reality that kept wobbling like a busted chair leg.

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I sometimes call intersectionality “the problem of Star Trek captains.” We’ve had five series-leading captains: Kirk (white, male, American), Picard (white, male, European), Sisko (black, male, American), Janeway (white, female, American), and Archer (white, male, American). Not a single one differs in more than a single category from white, male, American.

When I was a teenager, I wrote a piece of Star Trek fanfiction with a captain who was female, half-human-Chinese-from-China, and half-Trill. And I wondered, as my teenaged self, why a series about a globalized Earth—one known for challenging barriers, no less—hadn’t had a similar one. The question made me itch under my skin in a way I couldn’t articulate at the time.

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“Nobody is a sidekick in their own life,” the saying goes, and growing up I’d never felt like one. In high school, I was bright, precocious, super excited about learning absolutely anything, and excessively opinionated. I never doubted I deserved a seat at the table.

Until I grew up. Gradually, the juxtaposition of my accomplishments with my intersectionality have begun giving me frissons of unreality, as if I’m a monkey playing the piano. I imagine I’m in a book or a movie seeing the moment my character is established: The only girl in the math seminar … who is also nonwhite and queer and will save the world!  The woman who outshoots all the men … who is also the Asian-American daughter of an immigrant and will be our Chosen Protagonist!  And I’m jolted out of the scene, the bulwark of traditional culture whispering “unrealistic” in my ear.

And I’m not the only one who’s been the girl in the math seminar, or the woman who can outshoot all the men. Not even close. My best mathematician friend is a woman who’s smarter than I am, and the last time I taught shooting the most advanced marksman was a markswoman who’d moved to the U.S. from Japan. There are lots of us, and we all kick more than enough ass to lead our own stories. The lack of fictional counterparts in SFFdom … it’s frustrating, and it sometimes makes me feel desperately lonely.

And angry.

And lonely.

Over and over, I’m constantly reminded that the mere fact of my existence is too brash and unusual and radical to be believable as a hero. In SFF worlds, where it seems every lead character is Extraordinary and Chosen and Destined … simply being born on more than one real-life minority axis is a bridge too far.

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“I’ll be your ethnic sidekick,” I said to my white friend, when she and I were planning to put together a webseries. I said it with a laugh and an eyeroll, in the way one does when one wants to mock something but is still too hesitant to challenge it. Serious-not-serious, funny-not-funny.

“Nah, nobody’s a sidekick,” my friend said. “We’re both too awesome.”

I will always love her for that.

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Zero Sum GameWhen I started the brainstorming process for what would eventually become my debut novel, I initially assumed I’d write my mathematically-superpowered lead character as a man. Probably a white man. Because … well, because. Something-something-mumble-blah about me being a nonwhite woman, and if I wrote my first lead as a nonwhite woman, no matter how different she was from me, wouldn’t that feel too contrived?

Because people from more than one underrepresented demographic are contrived.

Choosing to make my protagonist not only a woman, but a woman of color, felt … daring. Dangerous. Like people would find fault in her just for that. Not for any failures in writing or character, but for daring to exist, as a nonwhite woman leading her own story.

For existing.

I’m sitting here reading the history of my own thoughts and starting to cry. Because how many times have I looked at the television, or books, or movies, and wanted to scream, “I exist!”

I am the protagonist in my own life, in my own story. I am not anybody’s sidekick.

Neither are my characters. Neither are they.

I have now, thankfully, gotten over the knee-jerk reaction that every axis I assign to a character off the straight white able-bodied American male (etc) is somehow an additional layer of disbelief I’m asking my audience to suspend. That I must justify these choices. If I ever feel that urge, I remind myself I am a perfectly realistic person, someone whose birth needed no special reason.

And I do not need anyone’s permission to be a hero.

So I’m going to continue writing my main characters as nonwhite and female and queer and disabled and nonbinary and non-neurotypical and non-Western as I want, and cross these demographics with each other as much as I want, and make my characters drive their own stories just as much as I drive mine. Because we exist.

We exist.


SL “Lisa” Huang uses her MIT degree to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction, starting with her debut novel, Zero Sum Game. Her short stories have sold to The Book Smugglers and Strange Horizons. In real life, you can usually find her hanging upside down from the ceiling or stabbing people with swords, and online she’s unhealthily opinionated at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter.

SL Huang

Zero Sum Game, by SL Huang

I very rarely read books electronically. I know, I know … but I don’t own an e-reader, and I spend way too much time staring at screens already. But I was stuck on the plane Sunday evening with nothing to read, so I pulled up my copy of Zero Sum Game [Amazon | B&N | Kobo], by SL Huang.

I finished it two days later.

Here’s the official description:

Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good.

The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight. She can take any job for the right price and shoot anyone who gets in her way.

As far as she knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower … but then Cas discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master.

Someone who’s already warped Cas’s thoughts once before, with her none the wiser.

Cas should run. Going up against a psychic with a god complex isn’t exactly a rational move, and saving the world from a power-hungry telepath isn’t her responsibility. But she isn’t about to let anyone get away with violating her brain — and besides, she’s got a small arsenal and some deadly mathematics on her side. There’s only one problem…

She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.

This is a fast-paced thriller with lots of action and fighting and a diverse cast and secret organizations and subterfuge and general sneakiness and ass-kicking. Cas is cold and efficient, but with just enough humanity to keep her somewhat sympathetic. Her two companions bookend her nature quite well: Rio is basically a serial killer channeling his violence toward the bad guys, while PI Arthur is the heart and morality of the group. The conflict between them is very well done, particularly Arthur’s horror when he realizes who Cas’ friend is.

I’m also quite fond of computer guru Chester, a wheelchair-using geek who reminds me of Oracle. (With the caveat that I haven’t read Oracle in the comics; I’m just familiar with her character from talking to my fellow geeks.)

The overall conflict is perhaps familiar, but still engaging: a group with mental superpowers is manipulating the world to make it better, even if that means brainwashing and killing those who get in the way. It presents some good ethical dilemmas, since the antagonists have set things up in such a way that hurting them could actually help other villains.

The one problem I kept stumbling over was Cas’ powers. I can buy that she’s a math supergenius, but instinctively seeing and understanding the math of the world around you is one thing. Being able to apply that math to put every bullet exactly where you want, to hit a kid with a tennis ball after three ricochets, to weave a motorcycle through traffic at insane speeds, these things kept snapping my suspension of disbelief. The physical aspect is a whole other superpowered skillset, one that’s never mentioned.

On the other hand, her superpower is math. How cool is that?

We do get hints about Cas’ backstory toward the end, but we’ll have to wait until at least book two for the details. Overall, the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped, but again, I suspect that’s because Huang is setting the groundwork for future books.

Nitpicks aside, I devoured this book, and I’m very much looking forward to the sequel, Half Life, which should be out in January.

Jim C. Hines