Book Review: Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang

coverI started reading S.L. Huang’s Zero Sum Game for two reasons.

First, and most importantly, the premise had not one but two brilliant “high concept” elements, either one of which would have been enough to make me want to read it, but together made it a must-read for me. “High concept” is a now-dated screenwriting term that can be defined a number of ways, one of which is: an exciting premise that can be stated in 25 words or less.

Huang’s double-barrelled high concept is that her protagonist sees the world as math (I’m oversimplifying a bit), and that whoever or whatever her antagonist is, it gets inside the protagonist’s head and can edit, delete, and plant new thoughts. So the protagonist has to figure out how to beat someone who is very literally inside her head.

I mean, damn. Right there, you should want to run out and read this book, knowing nothing else about it. (And if you don’t, the failure is mine in communicating it, I promise.)

The second reason you might say is almost out of guilt. If you follow me at all, you know that I’m an advocate of the Creative Commons. My own work goes out under CC licenses, and I share all kinds of music I find in the commons that I think is worth telling people about.

But I haven’t really done much regarding CC-licensed books. Part of that is that the ones of much quality that I came across were from big(-ish) names that published through major publishing houses. If you read SF and F much, you’ve probably at least heard of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, e.g. And the few I’ve read that were totally indie were… not “bad”, but each had idiosyncracies and self-indulgences that rubbed me wrong, and as an advocate, I want to share The Good Stuff, not rag on authors with different tastes than mine.

So when I came across the summary of Zero Sum Game at Unglue.It, I instantly downloaded it and put it into my (terrifyingly lengthy) to-read list.

And now I’ve read it.

Holy crap is it good!

S.L. Huang has, in her very first novel, completely mastered the craft of writing a thriller. On a chapter-by-chapter basis, it is a joy to read. The laying of hooks, the timing of twists, the deft handling of exposition that also reveals character. She is, first novel, indie published, absolutely professional.

Cas Russell is the narrator and protagonist, and we meet her in the middle of doing her job — she’s a retrieval specialist, and on the first page of chapter one, she’s retrieving a young lady from a drug cartel’s compound. In fact, we first meet Cas as she’s punching in the face the only person in the world whom she trusts.

She hadn’t realized when taking the job that this man was in fact undercover with the cartel on his own mission, but it makes sense to her, since he was the one who gave her name to her client.

Except, as it turns out a bit later on, he’s never heard of her client and didn’t give her name to anybody recently.

Again, I’m just completely in love with Huang’s skill at putting this all together. The story starts off in the middle of an elaborate action scene, and only gets more tense once the action lets up.

I don’t want to go into the plot much more than that, but there are several observations I must make.

Cas Russell’s gift/curse of seeing everything as math essentially gives her superpowers. She sees, instantly and automatically, tiny little windows of probability, and how to use them, which (believably, within the story) gets her to such astonishing acts as breaking into a barred third-story window without any means of support or leverage, and figuring out a sniper’s precise location and taking him out with a pistol.

The “telepathy” in the story is not anything “psionic” or magical. It’s more like charisma at it’s most extreme degree, something done purely through vocal and physical presence and interaction. I’ve never seen it handled this way before, and it was terribly interesting, had restrictions I hadn’t encountered before because of its unique nature, and was made believable in part by the reader’s buying into Cas’s own gifts.

Huang is a fan of Firefly and the movie that followed it, Serenity. There is a character very much inspired by The Operative from Serenity, and this is acknowledged within the story by a nice reference, only once but enough to let the reader know that the influence was neither unconscious nor accidental.

If I have a quibble, it is incredibly minor and it is this: Zero Sum Game is the first book of a series, and does (excellent) spadework in establishing characters and relationships that are clearly going to play out over many stories. However, the nature of the story it tells feels, to me, like a story that should have occurred in an already-going series. For instance, the way that Cas is made to realize that some of her thoughts are not her own is dependent on a pre-existing relationship. As presented in the story, it’s set up expertly and is effective. But, it would have worked better if the relationship had already been going, in the reader’s head, for a book or several books already. There are a few other little details like this throughout the story. It’s not that they don’t work, because they do. It’s that they would have worked better if the series already had backstory in the reader’s mind. Again, this is an incredibly minor quibble, but I felt I should note it.

Finally, before going off on the political tangent, I’ll note that the resolution is open-ended and some readers might find it less than totally satisfying. As will become clear by implication below, I do not consider this a flaw, but a necessary and intentional consequence of how Huang approached the thematic issues she’s handling in the story. I won’t say I found the way things end up in the story unsatisfying, I enjoyed the whole book right up to the very end. But I do hope, at some future point, that she returns to the situation at the end of this story and explores further the conflict between different, incompatible ideals that she seems to hold.

Political stuff: You may or may not know it, but I am a member of the supposedly-evil, supposedly-racist, supposedly-misogynist Sad Puppies campaign that led to so much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the media in the past few months, and exposed the folks behind the Hugo Awards to be the whiny, glory-grabbing twits that we always said that they were.

I didn’t know it when I began the book, and only learned it inadvertently while reading, but S.L. Huang aligns with the “social justice warriors” of science fiction, the putative heroes saving the world from all the evils there are, especially racistsexistmisogynist Sad Puppies and other troglodytes. As far as I know, Ms. Huang was not involved in this past year’s Hugo kerfuffle at all, but her sympathies are indisputably at odds with mine, and others on her side of things would say that I’m more interested in pushing minorities out of the genre than anything else.

Which is exactly why I wrote this ecstatic, laudatory, five-star review. Obviously.

Snark aside, there is a point in the story where Huang’s social justice ideology comes up. The phrase “social justice” even gets used. And it’s not an aside or a throw-away; it’s inextricably tied into the theme of the book, to the point that the discussion gives the book its title.

If I were what the SJWs portrayed all the Sad Puppies as being (again, not Huang in particular, as I don’t think she got much involved in the controversy this year), then I would denounce this intrusion of the author’s axe-grinding into the story.

And if it did harm to the actual story, I would denounce it.

But it does not.

Huang grapples, in the story, with some of the negative consequences of her beliefs. Cas Russell is faced with a moral dilemma, and both possible outcomes offend her, in different ways. She has a choice (broadly and vaguely speaking) between enacting “social justice”, explicitly stated to be what she considers a good, or defending individual free will, and thus permitting individual people to do evil and commit social injustices.

This is presented honestly and fairly, without the author putting her thumb on the scales or magically making her pet ideas work where they wouldn’t and haven’t in the real world. She explores the conundrum she sets in good faith.

And I can’t help but think that she has problems with the choice her heroine makes. It’s certainly not an easy choice for Cas, and one that sits uncomfortably with her after she makes it.

I applaud this. I can do nothing else.

(As a minor note, of course I think she gets things wrong, because she’s proceeding from a false premise, but that’s beside the point. She’s dealing fairly, doesn’t cheat, and it makes the story a richer and more interesting experience. One can hardly ask for more than that from anybody.)

Buy Zero Sum Game by SL Huang from Amazon.

Download it for free under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License from Unglue.It (where you can also send money the author’s direction as a way of saying “thanks” for releasing it to the Creative Commons).