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 or on Twitter as @sl_huang.