Exclusive Interview: Zero Sum Game Author S.L. Huang
Usually when a writer has one of their books released in the U.S. after it’s already been available elsewhere for a while, the new version is usualy the same as the original. But in the following email interview, writer S.L. Huang talks about how the new version of her 1984 mathematic sci-fi thriller Zero Sum Game (paperback, Kindle) — the first novel in her Cas Russell series — is definitely an improvement on the original.
Let’s start with an overview of the plot. What is the Cas Russell series about, and more specifically, what is Zero Sum Game about?
The Cas Russell series is being billed by my publisher as “the geek’s Jack Reacher,” and it’s a science fiction thriller about an antiheroine who can do math really, really fast. She uses it to kill a lot of people.
Zero Sum Game is the first book in which we meet Cas Russell, my snarky math genius mercenary. At the beginning, she only cares about cash and guns…oh, and her serial killer best friend. But as she’s dragged into fighting a global conspiracy, she starts forming relationships with the rest of my ragtag ensemble cast, all while dodging snipers and explosions.
Where did you get the idea for Zero Sum Game and how different is the finished novel from that original concept?
I’ve had this idea in some form probably since I was in middle school. I’ve always been a huge math nerd, and I always wished I could use my own computational skills to be some sort of amazing gymnast or superhero.
Since I’ve been kicking around this concept since I was twelve or so, it’s slipped through a lot of different angles in my head, most of which were more of an ensemble story of superpowered young people. But it was only when I had the brainstorm to write it focused on my mathematical hero that the idea really came together and I started writing.
And when that first coalesced for me, my immediate assumption was that I’d make my main character a dude. Then I thought: Why? We don’t have enough snarky antiheroines who are women, let alone women of color. Cas Russell took shape shortly after that.
As you said, Zero Sum Game is a sci-fi thriller. But are there any another genres, or combinations of them, at work on this story as well?
Tor is marketing the series as both science fiction and thriller, which I think definitely fits. Personally, when I was writing it, I was seeing it as being on the science fiction side, if only because that’s my genre and that’s what I grew up on. But the type of speculative fiction I write has always tended toward grounded, near-future realism, and I’m thrilled — pun intended — that I also wrote something for thriller fans.
Before I got the opinion of actual marketing people at my publisher, I was terrible at describing it. I’d say something like, “Contemporary science fiction…but sort of noir superhero…and with the feel of urban fantasy?” Which I think is straight-up confusing.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Zero Sum Game but not on your other books?
Oh, the “not on any of your other books” part of this question makes it hard.
What I read growing up definitely impacted Zero Sum Game — though more the general archetypes and tropes than specific stories or writers — but I think those influences come out in my writing across the board.
I’m a writer who tends to repeat themes in different incarnations. To be perfectly honest, anyone who reads all my books and short stories will start to get an embarrassingly good idea of the themes I like to chew on most…
How about such non-literary influences; did any movies, TV shows, or video games have a big impact on Zero Sum Game?
Hmmm, like with the question about books, I think the influence has been more general. One of the archetypes with a big influence on the books does tend to show up more in TV, though, and that’s the “snarky antihero who’s kind of a jerk but really is a good person deep down.” I absolutely love these characters, but nearly all of the ones I’ve seen in movies and television have been male.
And pushing back against that was part of my reason for saying to myself, well, what if I write a female protagonist with those characteristics I love so much?
And this is my last question about influences, I swear. You graduated from MIT with a degree in mathematics. How, if at all, did your math degree help you write Zero Sum Game? Or did you ignore what you know about math, but felt bad about it?
Oh, I certainly did not ignore it. In fact, I couldn’t have written this book without it. Not because I used it to write the mathy bits — in fact, much of the math Cas uses in the books is different from the much more theoretical math I studied, and I had to do a lot of looking things up — but because of the feelof how she thinks. I don’t think I could have written about a gun-toting mathematician soldier of fortune without also having regularly hung out with people who use “orthogonal” and “monotonic” in conversation.
Now, the original version of Zero Sum Game came out in 2014. Is there anything different about this new version? Because on your website is says, “they will be EVEN BETTER than before!”
There are definitely edits. I’m working with a great editor at Tor, Diana Gill, and she has an incredibly sharp eye. I was very proud of the original version of Zero Sum Game, but Diana’s experience and perspicacity has pulled out ways to make the climax of the book significantly more exciting. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to rework the books with such a skilled editor, and also after having grown as a writer for four years. We’re working on even deeper edits on the sequels.
Speaking of which, is the plan for Tor to publish the other three books as well?
So far, only the second book has been announced: Null Set, which is coming in 2019. This is a reworked version of[the fourth book] Plastic Smile, which is now being released as book two.
But yes, all the prior books will be out eventually, in a new form and new order…and probably mostly new titles. There will be a chart on my website later to guide people who read parts of the self-published series. I’m trying to make it as easy on my readers as possible, no matter when they’re stepping into the books.
So are these books four parts of a quadrilogy or four stand-alone stories?
Neither. The series is planned to be long-running and open-ended, in the vein of urban fantasy series. I do plan to wrap up storylines and start new ones, however. And even though the overarching larger conflicts arc through multiple books, my editor is working closely with me to make each one stand-alone well, so that new readers can pick up a later book in the series and not feel lost.
And will there be more books after the four reworked reissues?
My contract with Tor is for five books, so there’ll definitely be a fifth one. And I hope there’ll be more.
There might come a point where I’ve wrapped up current storylines and have found a graceful place to step away from the series for a while, but I imagine even then I would occasionally keep coming back.
Finally, if someone enjoys Zero Sum Game, which of your other novels would you each suggest they read while waiting for Null Set to come out?
If they’re particularly looking for something that’s stylistically like Zero Sum Game,I would point them toward a Serial Box collaboration I have coming out in 2019, with fellow authors Yoon Ha Lee, Rivers Solomon, and Becky Chambers. I can’t say much about it yet, but if readers like action-packed speculative fiction, I have a suspicion they’re really going to dig what we’ve put together.
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