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Stuntwoman, armorer, and author S.L. Huang talks Zero Sum Game and the power of math

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Oct 23, 2018

S.L. Huang has had quite the varied career, and in many ways, it seems like she’s just getting started. She’s a stuntwoman and firearms expert who’s been on shows like Battlestar Galactica. She even has the proud distinction of being murdered onscreen by Nathan Fillion.

But Huang’s skills don’t stop there. She was Hollywood’s first female professional armorer, which meant she both provided arms and ensured that these weapons — from guns to swords to knives — were used correctly and safely on set. You can just call her the Weapons Master. After all, she’s an experienced sword fighter as well.

With such a full, varied life, it’s amazing that Huang has room for even more. Yet, the list above doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of this complicated and fascinating woman. Huang recently authored her debut novel called Zero Sum Game, which is an intriguing blend of crime fiction and sci-fi centering around a main character named Cas Russell. Cas’s superpower? She’s amazing at math.

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And it turns out that Cas isn’t the only one with an affinity for math. Huang graduated from MIT with a math degree before moving west to pursue her stunt/armorer career. “I get true delight from understanding a new mathematical concept,” Huang told FANGRRLS. “Something like an endorphin rush, when everything fits together and makes sense, and I’m filled with glee from the bottoms of my toes up.”

Huang describes Zero Sum Game as “a fantasy of my own id,” wishing she could apply the equations she does so well in her own head to the world around her. “Throughout my life, I’ve often thought about just how cool it would be if I could translate what I knew of mathematics into physical reality," she explained. “I could do backflips! Hit home runs! Always be able to hang picture frames straight on the first try! It never seemed fair that I could do the exact equations necessary to figure out the right force or angles but couldn’t actually make any of it happen. And thus began the genesis of a SF novel. If a person could make her reality match calculation, what kind of powers would that give her?”

That joy and love for math are everpresent throughout Zero Sum Game as Cas utilizes numbers to calculate impossible odds and angles in her head at lightning speeds. It’s why she’s so good at her job as a sort of extractor meets bounty hunter. When she’s hired to retrieve a young woman, it seems like just another job. But Cas finds herself in the midst of a conspiracy, one with far-reaching consequences that are hard for her to believe.

The novel has the feel of a dark thriller, and Huang takes readers on a wild ride as Cas tries to figure out what exactly is going on around her and comes to the startling realization that there are others out there with much more insidious and dangerous superpowers than her own. It’s a fun read, but it’s also packed to the brim with character development. Huang never allows the structure or features of the novel to outshine its center: the anti-social, morally gray, reluctant hero who learns how to trust others over the course of the book.

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She’s not your typical female hero, and that was purposeful on Huang’s part. “Characters are more interesting with conflict and personal growth — not to mention that I want people to be able to keep rooting for Cas,” she explained. “But don’t expect her ever to become a saint! She’s the two-steps-forward, one-and-a-half-steps-back kind of gal, and I never want to fully lose all the chewy, morally questionable bits that I think make antiheroes so fascinating.”

It’s important to Huang that people recognize that women and people of color— both characters like Cas and the readers who will see themselves in her — belong in science fiction. “You know, there’s an ongoing debate in SFF about fiction that’s a good escapist story versus fiction that has some sort of ‘message,’” Huang mused. “I think that’s a false dichotomy. Of course, I’ve tried to bake thought-provoking plot and character threads into the book—one of the most delightful reactions I’ve gotten to Zero Sum Game is that not everyone agrees my protagonists made the right decision at the climax, and I LOVE that. I want people to disagree about the book and argue about it and find it makes them think. I also purposely have a very diverse cast, which I feel reflects my reality, and that’s certainly a message too: we’re here, we exist, we have badass adventures just like the white boys.”

In many ways, Cas is the STEM antihero we need right now. As more and more young women are being discouraged from STEM paths due to lack of support over the course of their education and careers, Cas stands out. “I would be over the moon if people started looking to Cas as an example of a pop culture mathematician,” Huang exclaimed. “I used to tutor high school students, and one of the things that made me hopping mad was hearing some of the disrespect my female students got from their math teachers — their teachers! — or how they were blatantly discouraged. It’s no wonder a lot of women don’t feel welcome in mathematics, let alone look to it as a place that’s exciting and unexplored.”

“Writing a book starring a woman who can own everyone else at mathematics might be a small thing in the grand scheme of it all,” she continued. “But it was definitely intentional on my part. Because I so, so want to live in a world where the culture shows young women math can be cool and accessible and for them.”

That doesn’t mean that Zero Sum Game is only for people who like math, though. “Of course, I didn’t want Zero Sum Game to be a book only for math geeks — I strove to make it fully accessible to math people and non-math people alike, and folks tell me I succeeded,” she said. “But I definitely want people who read the book to feel just how much fun I was having with the idea of a mathematical superhero. That joyful giddiness is at the core of what I love about math, and I want to share it!”

You can pick up Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang, now out from Tor Books. Its sequel will be released in 2019.

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