I Made A Thing!

Cover of Invisible 3
I’m incredibly honored to have an essay included in Invisible 3: Personal Essays and Poems on Representation in SF/F, an anthology edited by Jim C. Hines and Mary Ann Mohanraj.

One reason I’m so pleased to be part of this project is that all proceeds go towards Con or Bust, a non-profit that helps people of color attend science fiction and fantasy conventions:

Con or Bust, Inc., is a tax-exempt not-for-profit organization (EIN: 81-2141738) that helps people of color/non-white people attend SFF conventions. Con or Bust isn’t a scholarship and isn’t limited to the United States, to particular types of con-goers, or to specific cons; its goal is simply to help fans of color go to SFF cons and be their own awesome selves. It is funded through donations and an online auction held annually.

Invisible 3 is available digitally from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, Kobo, Smashwords, and Google Play. Here’s the table of contents:

  • Introduction by K. Tempest Bradford
  • Heroes and Monsters, by T. S. Bazelli
  • Notes from the Meat Cage, by Fran Wilde
  • What Color Are My Heroes? by Mari Kurisato
  • The Zeroth Law Of Sex in Science Fiction, by Jennifer Cross
  • Our Hyperdimensional Mesh of Identities, by Alliah
  • Erasing Athena, Effacing Hestia, by Alex Conall
  • Not So Divergent After All, by Alyssa Hillary
  • Skins, by Chelsea Alejandro
  • The Doctor and I, by Benjamin Rosenbaum
  • My Family Isn’t Built By Blood, by Jaime O. Mayer
  • Lost in Space: A Messy Voyage Through Fictional Universes, by Carrie Sessarego
  • Decolonise The Future, by Brandon O’Brien
  • Natives in Space, by Rebecca Roanhorse
  • I Would Fly With Dragons, by Sean Robinson
  • Adventures in Online Dating, by Jeremy Sim
  • Of Asian-Americans and Bellydancing Wookiees, by Dawn Xiana Moon
  • Shard of a Mirage, by MT O’Shaughnessy
  • Unseen, Unheard, by Jo Gerrard



Math as SuperPower: An Interview with SL Huang

cover of Invisible 2This post is part of a series of interviews and guest posts from contributors to Invisible 2, edited by Jim C. Hines. You can find our review here. In this post,SL Huang talks about math as superpower, and the advantages to the writer of including diverse characters in a story.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Russell’s Attic series?

It’s about an antihero protagonist whose superpower is mathematics — being able to do math really, really fast.  Which basically lets her do almost anything.

But I’ve been reliably informed by my readers that the books aren’t really about math.  They’re action/adventure stories about friendship and found family and sticky moral situations and trying to make the right decisions while not really being sure of anything.  They’re about nerdiness and snark and superpowers, and gun fights and car chases and close escapes.

More than anything, I hope they’re about being entertaining!

In other words, you don’t need any math knowledge to read the books.  But if you like the idea of a heroine who thinks she’s in a Hausdorff space while drugged up on painkillers, this might be the series for you.

I love the idea of math as a superpower? How did you choose that superpower, and how does Cas use it?

I’ve had this idea of math as a superpower ever since I was a kid, because . . . I always wished I had it!  I’d be doing something like learning softball and think, “But I can calculate exactly where the ball will be!  WHY CAN’T I HIT IT???”

I gradually realized that math would be the best superpower ever, because what couldn’t you do with it?  I’ve actually had to put some limits on Cas’s powers (for instance, the fact that she doesn’t have a perfect memory means she can’t use her math ability to analyze past events) to avoid her becoming TOO powerful.  But she can calculate anything in the moment, which makes her an incredible sharpshooter and fighter, as well as giving her subtler skills like the abilities to become effectively invisible or listen in on conversations just by doing the right calculations.  Economics, computer science, and physics are all her playground, and she can do everything from detecting AI to piloting a helicopter.

She’d make a fortune on Wall Street if she were ever interested, but she’s kind of allergic to a nine-to-five job . . . or, you know, joining society.

In your essay for Invisible 2, you talk about no longer being afraid to write characters who represent a variety of demographics (non-white, female, non-binary, disabled, non-neurotypical, non-Western). Can you tell us about a few of your characters? Did you find that having a diverse cast of characters enriched your story?

Oh, I have definitely found a diverse cast enriching.  The characters’ backgrounds inform how they interact with the world, so greater diversity means they push or pull the plot in a greater number of different directions.  If all my characters were the same, they’d give me a pretty homogeneous set of possibilities.  But the more differences they have, the more plot and character arc opportunities I have, and that includes not just differences of personality and opinion, but differences in background, gender, sexual orientation, race, and more.

That all sounds terribly selfish, doesn’t it?  Richer writing opportunities is certainly not the main reason I write diversely!  But I kinda DO wish it were talked about more.  Including diverse characters is instead always referred to as this onus, this thing that we should do but is hard work — so much research and (horrors!) THOUGHT that needs to be involved, etc., etc..  People never talk about how there are so many ways having diverse characters is beneficial to the writer.  If we’re going to be self-centered about things, I’ve come to realize it’s a natural conclusion to write diverse characters.

Most of the ways my characters’ differences end up pushing the plot are subtle ones.  For instance, in Book 3 (out this fall!), which features two new nonwhite, female mathematicians, one of them has her assumed anonymity turn on the use of a pronoun.  In book 2, an African-American character points out my protagonist can pass using another woman’s ID because they’re both nonwhite.  The non-USA-ian background of my protagonist will become a clue to her past in book 4.  In both books 1 and 2, giving a character with a physical disability the proper accessibility created way more plot and character possibilities than it limited.  And on and on — character backgrounds, relationships, reactions, and conflicts are all enriched by the characters’ diversity.

I don’t plan these things.  I make my characters first, and let them drive the plot.  But the more diverse they are — either by being different from the hegemonic majority in their world, or just different from each other in all sorts of ways — the more it opens all sorts of avenues I otherwise wouldn’t have.

Why should we care about representation in fiction?

1) Allowing for the possibility of diversity improves storytelling.  I recently saw an interview with George Miller, the creator and director of Mad Max: Fury Road, which has been lauded for being an ensemble action movie that dared to have a mostly-female team of heroes.  Miller said he didn’t intend any shattering feminism with the movie — he was just trying to tell a good story, and that was where the brainstorming took him.

Which is amazing to me.  I want that.  I want that in our world, that people’s brainstorming will take them to a team of female heroes for an action movie just as often as it will populate an action movie almost entirely with men.  It’s ridiculous to me that we can look at this movie that grew out of a normal brainstorming process with no overt feminist design and think, “Wow, how on earth did they get a movie with that many women in it greenlit?!”

But all Miller did was allow for the possibility, and we got an incredible story.  I love Mad Max because it’s a great movie, full stop.

2) It’s a matter of honesty.  When I look around my life in LA, the amount of diversity is staggering.  I’ll look around at a party and realize that half the people are nonwhite or half the people are queer, not by any intentional selection process, just because they are.  Once I worked on a string of three films in a row that had almost no white people on the cast and crew — they were an African-American Western, a Colombian music video, and a Japanese commercial.  The group I used to watch Doctor Who with only had one guy and one white person (not the same person).  None of this is by design; it’s just the world I live in.

When we write fictional worlds in which this sort diversity is purposely excised — and, yes, purposely, no matter how non-maliciously, because writing non-diversely is a choice as much as writing diversely is — it’s dishonest.  It’s taking reality and altering it for no good reason whatsoever.  And it’s not only dishonest, it’s dishonest in a way that is hurtful to members of the audience.  The feeling that “people like me” are erased from fictional realities is not a pleasant one . . . and after a while, it becomes exhausting.

3) Media impacts the way we interact with other humans in reality.  We all have subconscious biases in thousands of ways; that’s just the way our brains work.  It’s illogical to think media representations (or non-representations) of diversity don’t affect how we perceive the world, or that the biases in media don’t have a cheerful give-and-take with real-world systemic prejudice.  Characters in fiction can affect how we see others and how we see ourselves.

Unconscious institutional bias is one of the hardest types of bias to combat.  The more good representation in fiction can push back against that, the better a place the world will be.

4) If you want a selfish reason: It opens up more plot and character opportunities, as above.

5) Also partially selfishly: I’ll add that writing people with backgrounds vastly different from mine is constantly improving my own empathy and humanity.  Most of the research I do is to go and read and listen.  And if I’m listening well enough to help me write a character, it’s impossible for me not to become a more understanding human.  This is especially true considering that (obviously) people from any one demographic are not a monolith, so there’s no limit to the nuance of human experience I can learn from.

What book (other than your own) should we stick in a beach bag this summer, should we be lucky enough to have a beach visit in our future?

I’m going to diverge a little from my usual here and recommend a graphic novel. I don’t read a lot of graphic novels because I tend to get eyestrain from them (sadness!), but this one is TOTALLY WORTH IT.

It’s called “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage,” by Sydney Padua.  And it’s about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in a steampunk alternate universe, one where she doesn’t die young and he actually finishes his inventions and they team up to FIGHT CRIME.

For those who don’t know, Charles Babbage is often credited with inventing the computer, and Ada Lovelace — a brilliant mathematician — is credited with being the first computer programmer, as she wrote a program for the machine Babbage had invented but not yet built.  Yes, you read that right — she wrote a computer program for a computer that hadn’t been built, and she did it before programming had been invented.  The two were, in fact, good friends in reality, but both had lives (a short life, in Lovelace’s case) punctuated by tragedy and personal demons.

Anyway, I have been head over heels for Padua’s work since it debuted as a webcomic.  The wit!  The humor!  The art!  Ada Lovelace debugging a giant Difference Engine by climbing inside and hitting things with a crowbar!  Oh, and the FOOTNOTES!  Padua includes a whole mess of historical footnotes, some even funnier than the comic, and some that read along the lines of, “Yes, believe it or not, Charles Babbage said this for real. It’s in his autobiography.”

This is one of those books I can’t stop trying to get people to read, because it’s just too good.  Definitely pop it in your beach bag!

SL Huang justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction, starting with her debut novel, Zero Sum Game. In real life, you can usually find her hanging upside down from the ceiling or stabbing people with swords. Online, she’s unhealthily opinionated at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter as @sl_huang.

Book Review: Invisible 2: Personal Essays on Representation in SF/F

cover of Invisible 2Invisible 2 is the second anthology of essays about representation in science fiction and fantasy edited by Jim C. Hines. When Invisible (the first collection) came out I had the honor of interviewing several contributors to the anthology as well as editor Jim C. Hines (disclosure: if he has a cult, please consider me to be in it as I think he’s swell). Over the next couple of months, I’ll be running interviews and guest posts by contributors to Invisible 2.

Invisible 2 has a broad range of essays, dealing with issues including migration, sexuality, physical appearance, and disability. The introduction is by the amazing author Aliette De Bodard. There’s also a recommended reading list at the back of the book that is just fantastic and should keep me busy for a long, long time.

Overall, I felt that this collection was not as strong as the first collection, but it’s still a must-read for anyone interested in the issue of diverse representation (and if you aren’t interested, you will be after you read this anthology). The inclusion of an essay by a straight, white, cis man and an afterword by Jim c. Hines (who also fits the description) is an interesting choice that I felt enhanced the anthology without co-opting the conversation. Both authors talked about why diverse representation is important for them.  I thought that was an excellent move – I didn’t feel that they took too much space away from other authors and it gave the issue a context that this is everyone’s problem. We ALL need diverse books (and television shows, and movies, etc). We are all enriched by a diverse media and deprived by one that limits itself to only a few voices.

Another stand out include an essay by Diana M. Pho called “Breaking Mirrors”, in which she says this:

In reality, representation is more like constructing your fancy glass houses, then letting everyone else smash them apart and pick up bits to take home. Your art can easily cut others deeply, resulting in infection and scars. People may step around the broken fragments to protect themselves, or gather them carefully with padded gloves. And, on occasion, someone may pick out a shard from the dirt because it had sparkled like a jewel in their hand.

Gorgeous! I can’t wait to share some interviews and guest posts with you – in the meantime be sure to check this anthology out.

An Interview With Mark Oshiro: Part II

Mark OshiroWelcome to the second part of my interview with Mark Oshiro, of “Mark Reads”, “Mark Watches”, and “Mark Plays”.     Last week Mark talked about how he started “Mark Reads” with his series “Mark Reads Twilight”.  In this interview, we talk about his thoughts on diversity and his essay, “Parched”, that he wrote for Invisible, an anthology about the importance of diverse representation in fiction.

In “Parched”, you talk about not feeling represented in science fiction and fantasy.  Do you still feel drawn to those genres, and if so, why?

I always was interested in those genres as a kid, long before I knew there was a fandom.  I knew there was a fandom for The X-Files because I was super into the X-Files.  I didn’t know there was a larger fandom for the general genre.  I didn’t go to my first convention until I was in my twenties.

In terms of the general genre – the books and movies – I always had an interest in the supernatural, so I liked The X-Files and the Twilight Zone.  I liked fantasy because it was such a huge escape for me.  I grew up in a super conservative part of Southern California.  Even if I didn’t see myself in the genre, it was still fun to imagine that I could go on adventures.  Part of the problem I had growing up was that I lived in a bubble.  My parents were extremely strict, so they didn’t let me go out of the house, I wasn’t allowed to have friends over, I wasn’t allowed to go to other people’s houses.  So fantasy and sic-fi was my chance to imagine what adventures I would go on if I could leave the house.

YA [Young Adult] was particularly important to me because the characters were close to my age range.  It was a lot easier to project myself into something like that than to project myself into something like Stephen King or Heinlein, because those characters were a bit older.  I was always more Sci-Fi than Fantasy.  I like the idea of using our world to explain another one and using things we’ve learned about our world in order to invent other ones.  It’s always been easy for me to write science fiction.

If you could adapt any book into a film, and you have total control over the script and the casting, what would you adapt into film and who would you cast?

My initial answer with no hesitation is to remake His Dark Materials because The Golden Compass was a disaster, and hearing how much the studio changed everything that Chris Weitz wanted to do is very frustrating.  That trilogy is my favorite thing I’ve ever read for “Mark Reads” hands down.

I’d love to do Tamora Pierce’s Tricksters Series, because that series is almost entirely compassed of people of color.  And it has such a great story.  And it’s uncomfortable.  Casting?  Oh My God.  I have no idea!

Can you talk a little bit more about the gap you refer to in your essay between the white dystopian future and the dystopian present that you already experience?

There’s a writer whose name I can’t remember who was talking about the omission of people of color from dystopias.  They stated that there’s a problem when you don’t write people of color in dystopias novels because you are implying that these people are not in the future.  Someone made this point about The Handmaid’s Tale, which I enjoyed as much as you can enjoy something that is one of the most disturbing stories ever written.  And yeah I was like twenty pages in and I went, “Everyone’s white!  Where are all these other people!  And there are vague hints that there’s this other place.  But when you don’t explain that, and you don’t include any other parts of the world – when I read that, all I can think is that you’ve killed them all off!  If they were all killed, then not having that addressed in the text becomes distracting.  It becomes like the controversy around The Thirteenth Child  by Patricia Wrede.

cover of The Thirteenth Child

Basically Patricia Wrede wrote The Thirteenth Child as a fantasy set in a version of the United States in which megafauna still exist.  I don’t know her intentions, but in the book none of the native peoples of America exist.  They’re all written out.  They never happened.  It’s very creepy.  I understand that it’s challenging to write about something that you’re not.  But to approach it as “They’re just gone” – there’s too much history in our country of wiping people out and not including them.  I think with dystopian fiction the problem is more glaring because you’re talking about a vision of the future in which things are awful.  But if your vision of the future is not addressing something that is very real and is already happening, it feels disingenuous to me.

This whole concept is actually playing a humongous part in the novel that I’m working on right now, which is essentially a pre-dystopian trilogy.  Because I wanted to address this idea that people of color have to deal with systemic issues that – well, it’s not that our lives are awful as marginalized people.  We all find ways to find joy and enjoy ourselves.  But when you face systemic issues you feel like you are living in these awful alternate futures that are described in these books.  I wanted to write a book that not only openly addressed that but also featured all of these characters.  Of course there’s a larger question of diversity in general, which is why the community in general should be asking themselves why so many of these books are purposely skewed towards one demographic.  It’s an uncomfortable question, and it has uncomfortable answers, but I don’t think that’s a reason why we shouldn’t ask it.  From that uncomfortableness so many things can be born of it.

On how including diverse characters makes for better writing:

I think the thing that bothers me the most about it is that it’s not like we’re talking about policy.  We’re talking about people who are creative, who are writers, who create worlds, who are constantly faced with  roadblocks in their own writing, where they hit plot holes or they get stuck or they get writer’s block.  Writers constantly have to adapt to those things. So I don’t understand how, when you’re faced with issues of representation and diversity, writers don’t see them as the same thing.  This is a challenge.  This is a way for me to write better, to fix problems. Instead it’s viewed as censorship.  But would you say that writing a plot hole and having someone tell you need to fix it is censorship?  No!  It’s not!  Also, usually, people who say sort of thing don’t understand what censorship is.  I think authors need to see this as a challenge to make your work better, to make your world better.

If you’re  complaining about how hard it is – well, how hard is good world building?  How hard is doing research to capture a historical event?  These are things that incredibly difficult, and it doesn’t make sense to me to suddenly say, “Oh, this one thing is so incredibly difficult, I’m not touching it”.  Why?  Why that one thing?  That, to me, seems less of “It’s difficult” and more of “I don’t want to do it”.

Whenever I talk about race or sexuality in my reviews, I always get a response of “Well, what do you want people to do?  Do you want everyone in the story to be a queer person?  Do you want everyone to be a person of color?”  And you’re not asking the reverse question, which is “Why is everyone straight?  why is everyone white?”  Also, what’s the problem with having everyone be a person of color?  Then I get a response of “More diversity would be unrealistic” and my response is, “Where are you going in the world where that’s not happening?”

I’ve been reading a series on YouTube called Rivers of London.  The books are super diverse.  It’s great.  I get comments all the time, “Oh, he just added that character in to be diverse”.  And I’m all, “No, that person is affecting the story – and also, Hey!  Have you not been to London lately?”  Honestly, it shocked me when I went to London for the first time last year, and maybe one out of every five people was white.  I said, “This is not the London I see on television”.  Same thing when I went to Toronto.  There are immigrants everywhere!  How are you creating these world, whether in books or on television, that don’t include these people?

London crowd

Busy Boxing Day Sales Shopping Crowd in London

An Interview with Ada Hoffmann, contributor to “Invisible”

Invisible-FullThis summer we are featuring a series of interviews with contributors to Invisible.  Invisible is a collection of essays about the importance of diverse representation in science fiction and fantasy.  Ada Hoffmann’s essay, “Autism, Representation, Success” talks about how autistic characters are represented in fiction.  We are so happy that she was available to do an email interview with us.  My questions are in bold type and her responses are in normal type.

You talk in your essay about the enormous pressure people with autism face to be “successful”.  What would a middle ground look like to you?  And are there terms we can use that would be less limiting than “successful” or “high functioning” and “un-successful” or “low-functioning”?
I’m not sure if a middle ground is actually what I’m looking for. Instead I think I’d like to see more variety. People who speak fluently and at length, people who don’t speak aloud, people who can speak aloud a little or people who lose their language at certain times. Wealthy geniuses, people who never manage to hold a job, people who slip in and out of employment, people who work at an ordinary job and have an ordinary life despite their non-ordinary minds. Those aren’t the only two metrics, and being at the “high” or “low” end of one metric doesn’t mean you’ll be in the same place on another. Rather than having only two diametrically-opposed options for what autistic people can be, I’d rather see a wide pool of diverse individuals with diverse lives – because that’s what we have IRL.
In your bio you describe yourself as having Aspergers’ Syndrome.  Do you think that the change to the DSM V that eliminates “Aspergers'” as a diagnosis will have a positive or negative effect on how people who don’t have autism perceive people who are on the spectrum?
When the DSM V announced they were eliminating Asperger’s, my supervisor at school said, “Congratulations! You’re cured!” He meant it in fun, and didn’t know enough about autism to know why that was an offensive thing to say.

Joking aside, though, I’m not sure it’s making that much difference. At the time the change happened, I suspected that it would make it harder for Aspies to be taken seriously, and reduce the availability of diagnoses, since the new criteria are in some ways more stringent. But terms like “Aspie” have saturated public consciousness and the diagnosis rate continues to rise. I’m not sure that most people are even paying attention to the DSM, frankly.

What draws you to science fiction and fantasy?

One answer: I grew up with it. My parents are geeks who have huge shelves of science fiction at fantasy at home. Sharing and passing down their geekdom was a major family-bonding activity. I feel comfortable with genre fiction, not because it is necessarily written with my comfort in mind, but because it’s where I come from.

Another answer, equally true: Life is weird, people are weird, and imagination is more fundamental to life and consciousness than most of us realize. “Realistic” fiction has its place, but there are parts of the human condition we simply cannot discuss unless we’re willing to talk about myth, magic, and the future.

As someone with a love/hate relationship with “The Big Bang Theory”, I love the way you write about Sheldon.  Do you have a favorite Sheldon moment?
An obvious one is the Christmas episode, when he hugged Penny. I’m also rather fond of Amy Farrah Fowler. I think she’s just as autistic as Sheldon, but I rarely see her come up in these discussions except as “Sheldon’s girlfriend”. I love the way Amy keeps Sheldon’s more obnoxious tendencies in line when no one else can – like when they dissected brains together and he turned out not to know anything about it. Amy gets Sheldon, and knows what type of input he will and won’t respond to, in ways that completely escape the NT characters. That’s pretty adorable to me.


Ada Hoffmann blogs at ada-hoffmann.livejournal.com.  Invisible is available at: