It Takes Two: Mind Bending Maths

Thanks to Renay and Ana at Fangirl Happy Hour podcast for reminding me how awesome one of the books I’m going to talk about today is!  I’ve been listening to back episodes of this podcast–you should check them out, you don’t have to start at the beginning like I did–and they were reviewing Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, the first book in what is going to be a trilogy of the kind of science fiction I love: specifically, the kind with science you don’t have to understand completely, you just have to believe in the story really hard and let the characters move you along.

The second book, which is also part of a series, is Zero Sum Game, by S.L. Huang, which is also the first book in a series, this one called Russell’s Attic, named for the main character in the series, Cass Russell.  Both Lee and Huang are very smart people and the SF field is incredibly lucky to have them contributing to the canon right now.

These two books/series are not just about math and how it is used by them main characters to accomplish their goals.  They are about memory and coming to terms with the past in unique ways.  In Ninefox Gambit, Kel Cheris has a troubled history with her chosen faction, the militarized Kel who use a brainwashing technique called formation instinct to extract strict obedience from their members, and ends up with the revenant of a disgraced, and possibly insane, 400 year old general inhabiting her head in order to defeat a faction of heretics who are threatening her alt-universe civilization.

Cass Russell, by contrast, is a retrieval specialist working out of contemporary Los Angeles, who uses her brilliant ability with math and physics to perform what appear to be death-defying and all-bu-impossible feats in order to deliver on her assignments.  The problem is, though, that Cass Russell has a blank spot in her memory as big as most of her life, and issues with morality that she can’t quite explain.  She also has some questionable friends and finds it difficult to trust new people or maintain personal relationships.

Besides the deep mysteries of both series, their other strength lies in the diversity of characterization that both authors employ.  Neither series falls into the trap of scarcity or homogeneity that often troubles big complex works in the science fiction genre.  Cass’s world is full of people of color, diverse genders, and people with disabilities.  The world of Kel Cheris’ hexarchate empire is necessarily diverse, being comprised of possibly thousands of worlds and having been around for countless generations.  We meet people of diverse genders, orientations, and appearances, and women and men share equally in roles of power–perhaps the most important aspect, as power is the name of the game in the hexarchate.

What I love the most about these novels is how heartfelt and genuine they are.  Both Lee an Huang are Asian American, writing the kinds of worlds they want to see (minus, one presumes, the murder and brainwashing), using their strengths as scientists to come up with characters and stories we haven’t seen before, and really just writing plots that consume the reader from beginning to end.  These are the kinds of books I want to see in my science fiction canon.


Zero Sum Game, by S.L. Huang

people need a job done, they call Cass Russell.  In Los Angeles, she’s know for doing the impossible, which
is why Dawna Polk begs Cass to rescue her sister Courtney from a drug cartel
compound, where Courtney had inexplicably gotten herself imprisoned.  And then Cass’s day got even weirder.

and down the parking-lot-freeways of L.A., Cass and her tentative allies chase
one shadowy group of people after another, trying to solve the mystery of
Courtney Polk.  Zero Sum Game is near non-stop action,
fueled by Cass’s uncanny abilities with complex mathematics, the kind that
makes her look like Spiderman, Batman, and Ironman all rolled into one, with a
little Joker thrown in around the edges. 
Because Cass Russell is not afraid to kill.  Life is a zero sum game, and when someone has a gun pointed
at you, the only way to win is to kill first and ask questions later.

writing is dialog-driven, full of action and complicated mathematical
calculations.  Cass is a mystery,
the story told from her point of view, pulling the reader along one plot twist
after another until the final reveal. 
With rumors of a group of people who not only can read but control
minds, Cass and her allies never know who to trust, and Huang is skilled at
setting up plots that continue to unravel unexpectedly and give the reader
plenty to chew over.  

who enjoy stories full of moral ambiguity, with no clear heroes, will breath a
sigh of relief at the brash, matter-of-fact way Cass approaches the world, and
the people she comes up against. 
Those who enjoy science fiction that relies heavily on higher
mathematical or scientific principles will find themselves joy-riding with Cass
as she leaps tall buildings and effortlessly defies the laws of L.A.
traffic.  Anyone looking for their
next superhero should definitely check out Zero
Sum Game
and the rest of the Russell’s Attic series.