Today we’re joined by S.L. Huang, author of the Cas Russell books—superhero stories in where the main character is less of a hero than the protagonist of batshit pulp noir. Huang’s novels are independently published, and I for one find them an awful lot of fun. Explosions, mysteries, mathematics, and compelling characters: it’s a good mix.
She’s agreed to answer a few questions for us, so without further ado—
LB: Let me start rather generally, as usual, by asking your opinion of how women—whether as authors, as characters, or as fans and commenters—are received within the SFF genre community. What has been your experience?
SLH: My answers here are at opposite ends of the spectrum depending on whether I’m talking about myself or women in general.
For women in general: We still have so much work to do. Sometimes I feel like I can’t turn around without bumping into another example of either overt or institutional sexism. It’s like a constant, unhappy chittering background noise, and I see it happen to authors, characters, and fannish voices all over, all the time.
But it turns out SFF is also full of amazing people—people who are smart and funny and kind and wonderful and great conversationalists, and who say or write things that make me think—a critical mass of whom AREN’T sexist jerks, and who in fact make every effort to discuss and combat the institutional sexism they see around them. And there are enough of these people for me to have built my own personal online experience out of them like they’re my Magical Internet Castle, which has made my personal experience in SFF delightful.
I feel lucky that there’s a corner of fandom in which I can tuck up my feet and pull up the drawbridge and feel comfortable, feel acknowledged as a whole person and an equal voice. There are some professions where even that’s still not possible. But even though I’d never underrate the importance of having a supportive community, being able to surround myself with thoughtful and respectful voices doesn’t make the wider problems in the field go away. And these aren’t problems we can just ignore and stay in our happy little corners, either, because all the wider commentary collides with who gets published and marketed and recognized and welcomed and reviewed and read, and thus has a push and pull with which voices end up being heard at all.
So I speak, and I listen, and I surround myself with good people, and I hope that together we can make a difference.
LB: You chose a non-traditional route to publication for the Russell books. Tell us a little bit about what brought you to this decision?
SLH: I had a lot of good reasons for self-publishing—like that I wanted to publish under Creative Commons, or that I wanted to make absolutely sure my covers wouldn’t get whitewashed or sexualized. Or that I knew this was going to be a long-running series, making it well-suited for self-publishing.
These are all good reasons. They’re even true reasons! But the rawest truth is: underneath all that, I just really wanted to. I think publishers are awesome, and I have had some excellent experiences myself—I have some short fiction ebooks out now with The Book Smugglers, and they’ve been nothing short of amazing to work with. I’m also working on other novel-length projects I intend to take to commercial publishers. But for the Russell’s Attic series, taking on the publisher aspects as well… it just very much appealed to me.
Being my own publisher has been both more work and more fun than I anticipated. It’s a wild, rewarding ride, and I’m so glad I did it.
LB: So, Cas Russell isn’t your average superhero. For one thing, she doesn’t start out in a very heroic frame of mind. And for another, her superpower’s basically being implausibly good at applied mathematics. What lies behind this character? And why maths?
SLH: The math superpower is thanks to plain ol’ author wish fulfillment. I’ve always thought math would be the coolest superpower ever, because what COULDN’T you do? (Also, I felt cheated my math skills didn’t make me better at softball.)
Framing Cas as an antihero has the more interesting answer, I think. I love, love, love superhero stories, but when I tilt my head, so many superheroes don’t feel very heroic at all. The Avengers save the planet from aliens, but they destroy massive swathes of New York City. Professor X likes regular humans but mindwipes them with impunity. Superman uses his super hearing to notice one woman about to crash her car, and he saves her, but the world is so much more enormous than that, and how many people does he ignore? How does he choose?
Like a number of other creators, I find the negative spaces in superhero stories fascinating. They’re the shadowy places that make me itch until I explore them.
LB: Next question! Do you consider yourself as having any particular influences as a writer? Who—or what—might they be?
SLH: Nothing and everything! There’s nobody in particular I would point to, but at the same time I feel like some unwieldy amoeba creature who’s absorbed all manner of ideas and opinions—and, of course, all those indigestible bits of media I end up wanting to react against.
I do think I couldn’t have written the Cas Russell books in particular if I hadn’t hared off after college to work in movies, though.
Los Angeles’s film industry can be a bit of a no man’s land. One production I was on paid off the local gang to be our security; another hired ACTUAL GANGSTERS to play gangsters in the film. I’ve had a project strand us in the middle of the desert without water, another pay us in traveler’s checks, a third end up stormed by the cops because of a permitting mistake. I’ve had to refuse to work until I got paid, or wrangle directors and producers who were drunk or high, or drive out to the docks or a dilapidated little house in East LA at four in the morning hoping these people are actually who they say they are because if I always insisted on seeing everyone’s paperwork before arriving I wouldn’t come close to making a living. Oh, and I’m pretty sure one film literally paid me in drug money (and it was a legit movie! They had cops on set!).
But it’s been very interesting for me, as someone who always does things by the book, to have such an immersive experience with an entire industry that… doesn’t. My friends in corporate jobs goggle at me when I tell the wildest stories (things I won’t repeat on the Internet!) and wonder that anything can actually work that way. I sit and watch this whole world that has a good chunk of itself sitting in the murky wash between legitimacy and question, where all I can really do is make sure my own paperwork is dotted and crossed, and on one level it’s horrifying but on another it’s fascinating. And I try to steal the sense of that reality for my books.
I also cannibalize filming locations for Cas like there’s no tomorrow. Pretty much every location in the books is based on somewhere I’ve filmed, from the big mansion on the side of a mountain in book 2 to the factory filled with razor-sharp sheet metal in book 4.
LB: Book 4? How many Cas Russell books do you have planned?
SLH: As many as I feel like writing! I’m halfway through book 5, and the current mytharc will continue cropping up through book 8. I have vague plans for about 17 (though we all know what they say about the best laid plans…).
There are a few points built in where I could gracefully conclude things, if I think the magic isn’t there anymore. But I conceived the series to be open-ended, so I hope to keep writing it as long as I think it’s both fun to write and fun to read!
LB: Speaking of things that are fun to read—what (or who) do you prefer to read yourself? Do you have anything you’d particularly recommend?
SLH: My tastes are eclectic. I’m drawn mostly to speculative fiction, but I love it if I love it!
These questions are always hard for me because I’m absolutely sure I’m missing 90 percent of what I’d want to recommend. So I’ll just throw out some titles I’ve especially enjoyed from my previous year of reading: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, Trade Me by Courtney Milan, Persona by Genevieve Valentine, Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh… and lately I’ve been enjoying the nonfiction books Physics of the Impossible and Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku, which I started for research but which are as exciting as fiction. As you can see, I love a pretty wide range of awesome.
I am also a huge short fiction reader. I devour everything from hard or mathematical science fiction (“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang, “The Magician and Laplace’s Demon” by Tom Crosshill), to lovely and whimsical (“Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer, “Monkey King, Faerie Queen” by Zen Cho), to deep and wrenching (“Never the Same” by Polenth Blake, “Die, Sophie, Die” by Susan Jane Bigelow), to off the wall and funny (“The Merger” by Sunil Patel, “I am Graalnak of the Vroon Empire, Destroyer of Galaxies, Supreme Overlord of the Planet Earth. Ask Me Anything.” by Laura Pearlman). Again, these are all shorts I’ve read pretty recently—there is so much incredible short fiction out there; I highly recommend people check some of it out!
Oh dear, I’m already thinking of more wonderful titles to recommend so I’d better leave it there before I fill the rest of this Q&A with links.
LB: If you had to choose only one, what recent development (writer, trend, story, novel, conversation) in SFF do you find find most interesting? Or exciting?
SLH: Ooo, hard to pick one! But I think I’d go with the normalization of queer narratives.
We’re still not there yet, of course. But there are so many books and stories and authors emerging that are working to make this a reality—and there are so many places in the real world where that is so far from the case. The fact that there are ever more books where I see queer people appear as whole characters with their own goals, where I can trust the author not to punch me in the face halfway through—the fact that there are so many conversations happening in which I can be wholly myself and speak my mind and feel absolutely normal, rather than being an oddity who gets told to “respect other people’s values” simply as a reaction to who I am…
I’ve been very lucky not to have faced much overt prejudice for my queerness. But normalization is something else entirely, and being able to find ever more pockets of SFF where that is happening is like an elephant stopped sitting on my chest and I can take a deep breath again.
LB: Do you have a current favourite story with a queer narrative (or queer narratives)?
SLH: I hope it’s not a cop out to say I don’t want to choose just one—because what I’m digging so much is that there isn’t just one (or just a handful) anymore. There’s so much less pressure on that one story to do everything; I don’t have to say “I love this book but it didn’t do X and I want to see X,” because the next book is doing X. I’m seeing queerness starting to become just… normal, and that’s the part I’m loving most.
The short fiction scene is particularly amazing: I’d estimate about half the shorts I read have queer characters in them, and I love that. And novels are getting there too—it’s so fantastic to see books like Corinne Duyvis’ Otherbound or Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer series, which are action-adventure SFF and have queer characters both in the central relationships and also among the secondary characters in the fabric of society.
We’re even starting to see this creep to big media—Hollywood is always a bit behind, but shows like Torchwood and Legend of Korra are providing the bizarre feeling of rooting for two characters of the same sex to get together and then seeing it actually happen outside of slash fanfiction. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention webcomics such as Questionable Content and Nimona, which have given me the same feeling of delighted freefall when I realize queer relationships haven’t been preemptively ruled out, and will be allowed to happen.
I didn’t realize how sad and pessimistic I was about such things being possible in media until I started seeing them. It’s rather wonderful.
LB: Last question! What are you working on at the moment, and what should we expect to see from you in the near-to-medium future?
SLH: I’m editing the fourth Cas Russell book, titled Plastic Smile—out next spring!—and as mentioned above, I’m about halfway through writing the fifth, Golden Mean. I’m also starting to write more short fiction—I have several shorts out already with The Book Smugglers and Strange Horizons, and I’ll be in at least one anthology release next year.
As I’m able to spend more time writing, I’m also hoping to start publishing non-Cas Russell novels in parallel with the Russell’s Attic series. I’m about a third of the way through a (very) rough draft of a project with the working title “Little Old Ladies IN SPAAACE,” which is exactly what it says on the tin.