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).

“One-Eyed Dragon” by Cedar Sanderson

One-Eyed Dragon coverAs “One-Eyed Dragon” is a short-ish story, I don’t want to say too much about it.

It takes place in an unnamed Japanese village at an indefinite point in the past. We follow a tattoo artist who has lived there a short time, and is all but shunned by the villagers for reasons only ever hinted at. A small, mysterious lady comes into his shop and asks for an unusual tattoo. And that’s about all I can say without detracting from the delight that this story offers.

Sanderson’s writing is quiet, and she sets up all the elements of her story with perfect subtlety, all but effortlessly (to the eye of the reader, that is), so well that it makes this particular writer just a little jealous.

The other point that stood out for me is how well she evokes historical Japan. It’s not overt, just implied through detail and character interaction, but it is very effective and came off believably, though I’m not an expert in Japanese history. The only possible quibble is a reference to an artist with an obviously Chinese name (a real historical figure, as it happens, though Sanderson has distanced her story just a tiny bit by altering the spelling of the name), yet no mention is made by the character mentioning him that he is Chinese rather than Japanese. That an educated Japanese man would know about Chinese art does not a surprise, but that he would not make a distinction between the two cultures felt wrong to me. But again, I’m not an expert in Japanese culture or history, and the quibble is excruciatingly minor.

Even including that, I can’t recommend this story highly enough. It is lovely, just lovely.

Creative Commons License
This review of “One-Eyed Dragon” by D. Jason Fleming is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

“This was a Golden Age… but nobody thought so.”


This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living and hard dying… but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice… but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks… but nobody loved it.

— Alfred Bester, The Stars, My Destination

Over at the Mad Genius Club yesterday, Dave Freer asked about the Golden Age:

Inevitably, when the subject of the Golden Age of SF comes up, we have a chorus of ‘Heinlein’….

Or we could try something completely different.

We could say ‘and who else’?

His list is almost nothing like mine. Except that this cannot possibly be repeated loudly or often enough:

If you haven’t read Poul Anderson and are trying to write sf/fantasy… you’re doing it wrong.

Just so. I consider Poul Anderson to be my greatest teacher, though I never corresponded with him, let alone met him. Every book, every story, everything I read by him teaches me something. (And most of them are also really damn good, to boot.)

As I understand his challenge (when I read it yesterday, the post could have stood a little proofing), what Freer wants is the golden age writers who most influenced you. Well, me, but really, I can’t imagine many people give a fig what I think. (Last weekend’s giveaway of Spring that never came made that clear.)

And as he noted, the Heinlein is obvious. Past RAH and Asimov, though, I didn’t read a whole bunch of golden age stuff when I was at the golden age. I was 14 in the ’80s, when a lot of classics were simply not in print. (As I noted to a friend last week, I could read dozens and dozens of Conan books if I wanted, but none of the original Robert E. Howard stories was available. It was a bit of a messed up time. Which is why I’m only just reading them now, in fact. But that’s another post.)

But I can scrounge a list of a few golden age names, sure.

Ray Bradbury. I’ll come clean and admit that I never much liked Bradbury. I first read Fahrenheit 451 in fourth grade (Yes, I was precocious), and while it was well-written, as is just about everything Bradbury published, I knew even from very early on that this writer hated technology, hated progress, and just always came off as a grouchy curmudgeon to me. Truly, he had a way with words. And a number of his books are certainly worth reading. And he wrote possibly the sharpest, most brutal story of school days’ humiliation avenged ever (“The Utterly Perfect Murder”). But when I first read him, he struck me as a joyless grump, and as I followed him at a distance over the years, I came to think he was, actually, a joyful grump. But I’m quite grumpy enough myself to need an infusion of it beyond that. So you could say he had an effect on me, even if it was negative, and I am not someone who thinks early 20th Century midwestern small town life is the epitome of human existence, because I happened to grow up in a midwestern small town, and no thank you, I’ll take vanilla.

Philip José Farmer. Farmer was, in style, pretty much a pure pulp writer. Reading any one of his books, you can’t help but believe that he was making it up as he went along, pulling ideas out of… the air just as fast as he was typing, and rarely going back to revise and include things like foreshadowing, scene-setting, and logical through-lines. Slam-bang all the way through, and no time to catch your breath. I started with some of his good stuff (Riverworld), then got into some of his mediocre stuff (Riverworld), then came across some really bad stuff (Dayworld). It was Dayworld Rebel that flipped the switch in my teenage brain: “It’s like he’s just writing down every ‘cool’ thing that pops into his head and then building action scenes and cliffhangers around it. This sucks. I bet I could do this!” To this day, I have that love/hate relationship to his work. When he was good, he was grand. And when he wasn’t… oy.

Alfred Bester. Quoted above. The Stars My Destination blew my mind at age 13, thanks to a yard sale and Tony Boucher’s A Treasury of Great Science Fiction two-volume set. Couple years later I chanced into a ’70s paperback of The Demolished Man (Soon A Major Motion Picture!) [Yeah, um… not so much.] and loved it very nearly as much.

Arthur C. Clarke. Inhaled a lot of his books at a certain age. Loved the worlds he created — or, rather, the way he created whole worlds, and clearly thought them the hell through — always thought he people were lacking (with a very few exceptions).

Frederick Pohl. Again, his influence on me was largely negative, as his fascination with incompetence and buffonery held no interest for me. That said, Gateway was a damn well-written book, and Man-Plus had one of the best-carried-off twists I read at the time, where it completely caught me off guard at the same time I saw immediately how it had been set up from the beginning.

Murray Leinster. This one is cheating, because I only started reading Leinster recently. But he was (unlike one or two others on my list here) inarguably a golden age writer, and what I’ve been reading has been hitting my buttons just right, taking an economic view of how future societies might work, and working through that logic of things.

How about you? Which golden age authors (loosely defined) molded you as a writer or reader?

Publication Day!

Spring That Never Came cover

When you’ve lost everything,
sometimes all you can do —
is save the world.

Today is the day I officially announce publication of my newest novella.

Spring That Never Came is an urban fantasy with dashes of Lovecraftian horror (squicky other-worldly beings, but not a lot of gore) that takes place in 1979 Los Angeles (and a few other dimensions).

Here’s my official synopsis:

Tammy Kirsch has had her shot at fame. She came to Hollywood with stars in her eyes and lint in her pockets and looks that would open any door in town just to try to get her onto the casting couch. After several guest roles in TV shows, one starring role in a movie that nobody saw, inadvertently dodging the mid-70s porno chic moment and keeping her dignity and reputation intact, her career sputtered to a halt.

Then she lost her daughter in a custody case, and what was left of her world came crashing down around her ears. When the crazy homeless man tried to talk to her incoherently as she was leaving the court building, that only seemed to be the cherry on top of the layered dessert of her misery. In fact, it was just the first step on her path, a path that would end with her defending the entire world from an invasion of other-dimensional eldritch horrors.

This is the work that consumed my brain through the end of April and most of May. I’m really pretty proud of it. When you read it, you’ll see why.

And it’s not just me, your humble author, who thinks it’s pretty spiffy:

“You’ll think you know where it’s going, you don’t, it’s a ride, remember to buy the photos when you stumble off.”

Stryder Dancewolffe

As of today, and through early September, it is available exclusively through Amazon.

Buy it (or if you’re an Amazon Prime customer, borrow it for free!), then leave a review, either on Amazon, at GoodReads, or both.

(And never fear: as with any and all of my work, it does have a Creative Commons license attached. Also? No DRM.)

100. News from Nowhere by William Morris

coverA meeting takes place of some unnamed individuals, barely described, and hinted to be a meeting of socialists. After two leave the meeting, one laments to the other that if he could just see a glimpse of the future they are working toward, it would make his life much easier.

He goes home, falls asleep, and wakes up somewhere between a hundred and twenty and a hundred and fifty years later. (The book is vague and occasionally contradictory on timeframe. At any rate, events seem to be post-AD 2000.)

The entirety of the book, absent the opening chapter, is then this character’s Utopian Tour, seeing just how gosh-darn nifty socialist anarchism will be in post-2000 Great Britain, and being reminded over and over (and over and over and over and over) that people in Tha Future! do not use “money”.

In the end, he meets a pretty girl who figures out when he is from, seems to fall in love a bit, then vanishes back into the past.

I started this book blind, because I wanted to jump into the 1898 Top 100 Project, and I didn’t want to prejudice myself against a book I’d never heard of.

Didn’t make a difference. Though reasonably well-written, News from Nowhere is stupid.

The first chapter is written in a difficult style, to no obvious purpose.

Our friend says that from that sleep he awoke once more, and afterwards went through such surprising adventures that he thinks that they should be told to our comrades, and indeed the public in general, and therefore proposes to tell them now. But, says he, I think it would be better if I told them in the first person, as if it were myself who had gone through them; which, indeed, will be the easier and more natural to me, since I understand the feelings and desires of the comrade of whom I am telling better than any one else in the world does.

The viewpoint shenanigans serve no obvious purpose.

Thankfully, the rest of the book is narrated in straight first-person, and the prose is reasonably readable and clear (considering that it’s a Victorian novel, I find it quite remarkable).

However, that is (almost) all that can be kindly said about the book. There are no characters, merely the author’s various mouthpieces explaining why socialist anarchy is the way to go, and sooooo much better than any other system, plus the narrator, who forgets new information so quickly and so frequently that the reader cannot help but wonder if he is meant to be a moron.

The Message is never, ever subtle.

In order to throw off suspicions about his origins, the narrator (briefly making a big deal about adopting the name “William Guest”, then basically dropping the idea for most of the rest of the book) lets his hosts believe that he has been abroad for a long time. They have no trouble believing this, because he is middle aged and wrinkled and gray, and so must have lived in “the unhappy lands”. That is, lands where socialist anarchy is not yet in place.

He spends chapters and chapters and chapters discussing “history” with one character who specializes in it. One chapter is even written in the style of a Socratic dialogue. I couldn’t work out whether this was the author attempting to show off, or simply that he got tired of writing out quotation marks for a chapter.

And the economics of it. Oy. I don’t even know where to start. Factories in the 1800s, you are told repeatedly, made things that nobody wanted, on top of destroying workers’ lives and polluting the nation. How were they able to stay in business, making things that nobody paid for? Don’t bother to ask, it’s never answered.

The ideal life for people, the author holds out, is to live an agrarian life, get transported by horses and carriages or rowboats (trains have been abolished because they were stinky and ugly), and work on whatever you want whenever you want, and otherwise not. Few people read, because that puts ideas into people’s heads and makes them unhappy. And so on and so on.

The entire society isn’t even remotely workable, even in some flight of fantasy way.

(It was unfair of me, because the author could not know what the twentieth century would hold, nor how communism would be put into practice in fact, but I could not read quickly, because I kept imagining all the mass graves the characters must be walking over or past or sitting on top of or near.)

And yet, this was the book that was just five books below Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment on that 1898 top 100 novels list.

This project might be far more painful than I had anticipated.

News from Nowhere by William Morris can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg and many other sites.