Exclusive Interview: Critical Point Author S.L. Huang


On The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon often wore a t-shirt with The Flash’s logo on it, and even twice dressed as The Flash. So it’s hard not to imagine that he’d be a fan of S.L. Huang’s Cas Russell series, about a math-powered superhero. In the following email interview, Huang discusses the newest book in this series, Critical Point (hardcover, Kindle), as well as her upcoming (and unconnected) novella, Burning Roses (hardcover, Kindle).

S.L. Huang Critical Point Cas Russell Zero Sum Game Null Set

For people who didn’t read the previous books, Zero Sum Game and Null Set, what is the Cas Russell series about, and when and where is it set?

The Cas Russell series is about a superheroine — an antiheroine — whose superpower is being able to do math really, really fast. And she uses it to kill more people than is strictly polite. The books are fast-paced, snappy, and snarky, with lots of action and a very diverse cast.

I say these books are set “one step into the future” — so very near our present day (although obviously there’s no mention of the current pandemic, as it hadn’t happened when I wrote them). I set them in the Los Angeles underground, based on my work in all the seedier places in the city thanks to my job in movies and television. As with urban fantasy, I like to think of L.A. itself as almost a character in the books!

And for people who have read the first two books, what is Critical Point about, and how does it connect to the previous book, Null Set?

I like to say Critical Point is all about explosions and found family. We get a lot of character development in this one. And explosions. So, so many explosions.

My editor and I try to make the books stand alone as much as possible, so while the plot is separate from Null Set, it does use a lot of pieces of the same mytharc we see in the first two books. We learn more about the world of the books along with the characters, and about the new threats that might be out there facing them…

Zero Sum Game and Null Set were sci-fi thrillers. Is that how you’d describe Critical Point as well?

All the books are sort of a genre mix. “Sci-fi thriller” gets closest, I think, but all the books also have elements of superhero, urban fantasy, noir, mainstream thriller, and contemporary science fiction — and, of course, mathematical fiction. I get compared to Jim Butcher and Lee Child a lot, even though my books are technically science fiction and theirs aren’t, but the tonality of what we write is similar.

Basically, I’m a huge nerd and I’m writing a blend I’d love to read — but it’s a bit hard to describe. And yes, Critical Point is the same genre blend as the first two.

Now, this version of Critical Point is the latest in a series of reissues that Tor Publishing are doing of your Cas Russell series, which was previously self-published. But in the previous interview we did for Zero Sum Game [which you can read here], you said that the second book, Null Set, was actually a reworked version of Plastic Smile, which was originally the fourth book. Did reworking Plastic Smile into Null Set cause you to make any changes to Critical Point?

Critical Point is a brand new book. But when revising it, I was definitely keeping in mind some of the changes we made to the series as a whole. For instance, we compressed the timeline a bit and in general we’re making an effort to allow the books to stand alone more. But as for the overall premise and plot I’d had in mind for this book before getting picked up by Tor, that’s all pretty much what I’d always planned it to be.

So what does that mean for the other books that Tor hasn’t put out yet?

Critical Point was what I had in mind for what was going to be the fifth book when I was self-publishing, so when we reworked the fourth book to become the second, this idea became the third book. For now we’ve entirely skipped books two and three (readers can watch for those to come out later as side adventures).

And do those plans include compiling a collection of Cas Russell short stories like the ones you have free on your website: “Rio Adopts A Puppy” and “Ladies’ Day Out”?

Those short stories are already also available on retailers as short eBooks, but yes, I have vague plans to try for a compilation at some point, especially if I write more (which I do want to). Readers can follow along with any announcements of things like this by joining my mailing list [which you can do by clicking here].

Moving on to the always popular questions about influences, are there any writers or specific stories that were a big influence on Critical Point but not on Zero Sum Game and Null Set?

Oh, that’s an interesting spin on the question…

Thank you. I am a professional.

…and I’m afraid I have a very boring answer. I honestly can’t think of an author who influenced me on the third book but not the first two. That does happen sometimes if an influence is very specific, but in general, the influences all sort of mash together and form a big blend I’m writing from. It’s one reason answering general questions about influences is so hard for me — there are so many, and they’re all mixed together, like a big stew of childhood and popular culture that is tinting everything I write in lots of different tiny ways all the time.

But thanks for a new kind of question that made me think.

You’re welcome. What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games? Did any of those have a big impact on Critical Point?

My work in movies certainly did! I mentioned there were a lot of explosions in Critical Point, right? Well, as a stuntwoman and weapons expert for movies, I’ve worked with a lot of special effects folks…

So I guess movies and television were an influence, but more getting a front row seat at the larger-than-life explosiveness that makes action movies so fun.

Now, along with Critical Point, you also have a novella coming out September 29th called Burning Roses. What is it about and is it part of the Cas Russell series?

Nope, this is my first non-Cas Russell book. It is set in an entirely different universe and even an entirely different genre — it’s a fantasy fairy tale retelling.

Burning Roses is the story of Little Red Riding Hood and Hou Yi the archer from Chinese mythology — as two queer middle-aged ladies who have adventures while shooting at things and angsting about their families. It also features Goldilocks as an abusive con artist and Beauty And The Beast as a human trafficking story… Oh, did I mention it’s a dark fairy tale retelling?

S.L. Huang Critical Point Cas Russell Zero Sum Game Null Set

Finally, if someone enjoys Critical Point and the rest of the Cas Russell series, what sci-fi thriller series of someone else’s would you suggest they check out next?

I actually wouldn’t classify the following books as sci-fi thrillers, but if people like my books and are looking for others with some common elements, here’s what I’d recommend.

Trail Of Lightning and its sequels by Rebecca Roanhorse are fantastic. And if people like the Cas books because they have a take-no-prisoners bordering-on-antiheroine female protagonist, they will be all in for Roanhorse’s Maggie Hoskie.

If people like my books because of the diverse cast with page-turning action, check out P. Djèlí Clark’s books A Dead Djinn In Cairo and The Haunting Of Tram Car 015. They are fast-paced Egyptian steampunk adventures, and you won’t stop turning the pages till you’re done.

Or how about mathematical fiction? If it’s the math elements you dig, try Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries Of Empire series — starting with Ninefox Gambit — or anything in Rudy Rucker’s oeuvre. Both are very different in tone and style from my books, but they’re all in for mathematical speculative fiction.

And honestly, all of these authors also do a lot of other amazing things in their work that my books don’t do at all. So there’s everything to love in their books — go check them out



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