Cas Russell is a badass.
“The dudes below me, however, did not know I breathed superhuman knowledge of velocities and forces. They only saw me fire a shot that would have killed a man if it had been an inch over—and all a foot from my own backup like a goddamned maniac.”
The lead character in Russell, the science-fiction fantasy series by S. L. Huang, is a crime fighter (and sometimes-criminal), math genius, and weapons expert who was first introduced in Zero Sum Game. And she’s about to continue her story in Null Set, coming in July from Tor Books.
Even though Huang (a self-described genderqueer author who’s not picky about her pronouns) is also a Massachusetts Institute of Technology math graduate, a former stuntwoman, and armorer, Russell is not her alter ego.
“I hope I’m nicer than she is!” laughs Huang. “I hope I don’t kill as many people as she does. She’s angrier than I am, and more violent. Sometimes I struggle with her voice.” While Russell is dark, Huang can best be described as bubbly. Huang also doesn’t cuss as much as her character, whose use of ‘f–k’ is rivaled only by her use of bullets.
Huang, who is half Chinese, grew up in New Jersey “when it was The Sopranos-cool,” she says, “not like Jersey Shores.” She prefers to remain “a person of mystery” when it comes to her age, but readily admits she was a geek growing up as a kid. She loved school, always had her nose in a book, and delighted at solving math problems. She took algebra in the sixth grade, if that tells you anything (and it should).
“The pure mathematics is what I love,” Huang says, before admitting she can’t figure out the tip at a restaurant. “Don’t ask me!” Her passion was useless theoretical math—the kind of advanced studies that could only lead to graduate school and teaching.
“So, like anyone else who graduates from an engineering school,” she says with a twinkle in her voice, “I headed to Hollywood to become a stuntwoman.”
Granted, she did have a minor degree in theater arts from MIT and had always studied martial arts, but it was still a drastic career move. Luckily she found work as a stuntwoman on Battlestar Galactica, the “nerd nirvana” of sci-fi shows.
“They said they hired me because I was still using my MIT e-mail, so they thought that I must be smart and would show up on time,” she says. She did—for ten years as a stuntwoman and gun expert (shooting being another hobby that she turned into a career). Writing fantasy stories was also a pastime that panned out, although she says the first novel she wrote at 19 will never see the light of day. She finished the first Cas Russell book, Zero Sum Game, while working on set.
“People would ask me what the book was about, and I’d say ‘guns and math,’” says Huang. Other books followed, which she self-published. When she beat cancer, she decided to take her publishing money and move to Tokyo for several years to study Japanese and continue writing. That was where she decided, two years ago, that she was genderqueer.
“I guess, on some level, I always knew,” she says, “but I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe it before.” Like a Facebook relationship post, she says her love life is “complicated.” She recently moved back to the U.S. to live outside of Chicago. Since Tor Books picked up her Russell series, she’s been writing full-time and promoting the books. As for the titles, yes, they are math terms.
“A null set is an empty set in math,” she says. “At the end of Zero Sum Game, we find Cas is missing her identity, so her identity is a null set.” In the new book, Cas struggles to find out who she really is while trying to stop a Los Angeles crime wave that she herself set in motion.
“As a sci-fi/fantasy geek, I grew up reading everything, and the idea of memory loss was tossed around casually,” she says. “But I think it’s horrifying! So I wanted to explore that in this book—how awful it is to have your memory taken away.”
And what about gender identity?
“In my head, Cas isn’t really woke,” Huang says. “While [another character named] Arthur is definitely gay, Cas is ‘gray ace.’ She doesn’t really care about others—not even her friends, really. In future books, her asexuality will be explored more.”
This article appears in the October 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.