S.L. Huang Interview: Returning to the World of Cas Russell

In July, S.L. Huang's follow-up to near-future thriller Zero Sum Game will be out. We talked to the author about Null Set...

In Zero Sum Game, debut author, mathematician, and Hollywood stuntwoman S.L. Huang introduced us to the character of Cas Russell, a a “supernaturally mathematical retrieval specialist” who uses her math and combative skills to get the job done. 

The very impressive Cas and the very impressive Huang are both back with Null Set, out in July, which follows Cas after the events of Zero Sum Game, as she continues to remember bits of her past, and works to keep her city safe following the fall of Pithica, an international conspiracy of telepathic murderers who had been keeping the world stable. 

You can check out an exclusive excerpt from Null Set here.

We chatted to Huang about continuing Cas’ journey, what it was like transitioning from the world of self-publishing to traditional publishing, and how Null Setwrites in the subversive spaces of the genres it falls into.

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Den of Geek: Can you talk a little about the journey of starting out self-published and moving into traditional publishing? I’m hoping Zero Sum Game being published through Tor gave you lots of new eyes on your work and more people in anticipation of a follow-up. What this the route you always intended to take?

S.L. Huang: Oh, gosh, no. I will tell this to anyone who will listen: do not ever self-publish if you want to get a traditional deal! It’s very, very hard. Publishers, as a general rule, don’t want to publish something that’s been published before.

The short version of my story is that I got extremely lucky. I’d always intended to keep the series self-published, but as it turns out I wasn’t as good as I had hoped at the publishing aspects and was quickly burning out. So though I think I learned a tremendous amount through the whole journey, I was absolutely thrilled when Tor wanted to bring their expertise and clout to the series.

But my journey to signing with them was a lot harder process than if I’d started out unpublished, and it took the talents of my high-powered agent, the enthusiasm and advocacy of my editor, and a lot of luck to make it happen. If you want a traditional deal, my advice is one hundred percent to go about it the regular way!

But yes, the new audience Tor has been able to bring to the series has been unbelievable. Their reach and distribution is considerably beyond anything I could have dreamed when going it alone, and it’s been quite a ride.

Plus, my publicists are incredible. I’ve heard it said by self-publishing advocates that publishers don’t bring anything to the process — in my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. The way Tor has leveled up my books has impressed me from beginning to end.

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You talked during our last interview about how you like to “write into the negative spaces” — a description I really loved. Did you plan in Null Set to expand upon that?

Oh, yes, for sure. My writing is reactive in so many ways — I love writing in the subversive spaces where we’re getting an interpretation or representation we don’t tend to see in media.

In Null Set, I think the main form this takes is in our exploration of some very painful things that have happened in Cas’s past — and were done to her by someone who professed to love her. We tend to see this narrative much more from the perspective of the person inflicting the harm, with the framing being that it’s so very painful for the hero to either be “forced” to inflict this pain on a love one or stand by while it’s inflicted.

read more: S.L. Huang on the Mathematicians Who Have Inspired Her

And so often this has a pretty bad gendered framing, in which we’re being asked to sympathize with men for being “forced” to hurt women (see: the Doctor and Donna Noble; Tyrion and Tysha; etc.).

Without giving too many spoilers, I’ve attempted to turn that narrative on its head in this book. Readers will have to tell me how well I’ve succeeded!

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Cas is pretty self-sufficient already, but now that she has a few friends and co-conspirators, how might this have challenged you to up the ante with this story?

Cas getting more allies gives her more resources, but it also gives her more liabilities. In other words, when she cares about people, they can be threatened.

And they also threaten her — if not physically, then certainly emotionally. Her (in)ability to juggle quite as many outside relationships as she’s developing is a major part of the book!

What can I say; emotionally stunted characters struggling to improve are kind of my catnip.

There’s a lot of effort to show the pros and cons of having a “for the greater good” approach — in Pithica’s plans, in Cas’s brain entrainment plan, in Rio’s whole philosophy of killing those he feels has sinned against God — Can you tell me why you went for this theme, and what you hope to show through it?

I think this is at the heart of a lot of the political discussions we have today, the ideas of where we draw the line in freedom versus safety, even how much control we allow partners and family to have in our lives. We all agree that some level of control and regulation and compromise is good, and that we need that for a civilized society. But how much, and how much do we give up for it?

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The more extreme “supernatural” solutions that go wrong in the Cas Russell books might be deemed by some or all of the characters to go too far, but there’s also no narrative endorsement for swinging to the other end of the spectrum and letting anarchy reign.

Basically, I try to present these moral dilemmas with the messiness I think they challenge us with in real life, as we try to draw boundaries and find solutions that preserve people’s individual autonomy while also choosing to make some sacrifices for the good of a better society.

My hope is that the books ask these questions without giving any easy or prescriptive answers.

Cas and her friends make a plan to “fix” the crime in LA. Was this an intentional parallel to the events in Zero Sum Game and Pithica’s grand schemes?

Yes, absolutely. As you mentioned, this is a theme in the series, this idea of “fighting crime” on a larger, more general scale and how doggone difficult that would actually be in reality.

Part of this is also my fond eye-rolling about the superhero genre, which I love dearly and because I love it dearly I also love to nitpick. I remember groaning hard at Superman when he would go up in the atmosphere and listen for several minutes until he would hear one single person crying or screaming and then he’d go and help, and . . . I was always gobsmacked that the writers didn’t seem to realize how big the world is, or how many people are in trouble at any one time, just by the laws of large numbers.

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So when my characters attempt to “fight crime,” they’re going to try it on a pretty large scale. Predictably, however, this means it can go even more wrong.

The friendship between Cas and her male cohorts is completely platonic, which is refreshing. Would you like to mention the benefits of not being bogged down in the seemingly expected romance angle?

I’m all for romance, but I’m also all for romance not being a requirement — especially for female characters. We need all types of stories!

I do think it becomes particularly nice to see a story with a female lead that either doesn’t go in romantic directions or treats romance in nontraditional ways, because I think there’s particular pressure on women to feel “incomplete” without a man. I want to see stories about women who think about romance in unexpected ways, or who are in poly or queer relationships, or who, like Cas, are single and completely unbothered by it.

And here’s your chance for shameless self promotion. Would you like to promote any other publications or projects you’re working on, share your Twitter and website, etc?

Sure! My website is www.slhuang.com and my Twitter is @sl_huang.

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You know about Zero Sum Game and Null Set, the first two books of the Cas Russell series. I’m also part of a multi-author space opera from Serial Box called The Vela, along with Yoon Ha Lee, Becky Chambers, and Rivers Solomon, which is an epic action-adventure series with some deep topical themes. Check it out!

I’ve mentioned before that I consider you a badass in real life (what with being a weapons expert and stunt woman who happens to wield a Math degree). Can you tell me how that might have helped you mold Cas’s character and expertise with guns? Do you have to clear your search history on a daily basis to stay off watch lists? (only kind of joking with that last one)

Ha! My experience with fights and weapons definitely informs my writing. I’d say that the biggest influence is in the way action interacts with story — since I come out of movies, where what we’re most concerned with is actually how the fight scene forwards the story and character arcs. How it links up with what comes before and after, and what the emotional stakes are. No fight is going to be interesting without that — and that translates directly to writing.

But I also use my experience to add a depth of texture. For example, most of the firearms in the series are guns I’ve actually used or taught to actors, so I know how they work, what their quirks are, and why a character might prefer one over the other!

What was your favorite thing to explore in this book? New characters, more murky morality choices, the story line with the trafficked kids, a jerky radio talk show host you want to punch through the page?

On the theme of gender, I’m really excited for readers to see the character of Pilar for the first time. Compared to Cas, she’s a more feminine and socially adept woman, and she starts from a much more “normal” place — i.e., an office job. But the more she gets dragged into Cas’s world of conspiracies and bullets, the more she learns, and it turns out she’s up for it.

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This is another example of writing against some of the lack I’ve seen in my favorite books and television shows: male characters often seem allowed to level up from “normal” to badass, whereas female characters seem to need to be supernatural, spy-trained, or brainwashed from a young age to join the ranks of a band of adventurers. I wanted to push back against that trend.

This isn’t the last time we’ll see Pilar, either. I want readers to watch her go from zero to holding her own, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!

Also, kudos to you for your all-inclusive criminal underworld. I love that the mafia boss is a woman, and I noticed in several other passengers where the henchpeople were a mix of men and women.

Thanks! I try to be really aware not to fall into stereotypes. In real life, in my observation most demographics are rarely as monolithic as they’re presented in fiction, and I like to represent that!

Null Set is available for pre-order now. Zero Sum Game can be purchased via Amazon or your local independent bookstore.

SL Huang is an Amazon-bestselling author whose debut novel, Zero Sum Game, is upcoming from Tor. Her short fiction has sold to Strange Horizons, Analog, and The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016. She is also an MIT graduate, stuntwoman, and firearms expert.

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Bridget LaMonica is a contributor at Den of GeekRead more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @BridgetLaMonica.