Zero Sum Game by S. L. Huang

Zero Sum Game

I trusted one person in the entire world.

He was currently punching me in the face.

Overlapping numbers scuttled across Rio’s fist as it rocketed toward me, their values scrambling madly, the calculations doing themselves before my eyes. He wasn’t pulling his punch at all, the bastard. I saw exactly how it would hit and that the force would fracture my jaw.

Well. If I allowed it to.

Angles and forces. Vector sums. Easy. I pressed myself back against the chair I was tied to, bracing my wrists against the ropes, and tilted my head a hair less than the distance I needed to turn the punch into a love tap. Instead of letting Rio break my jaw, I let him split my lip open.

Cas Russell has superhuman mathematical abilities, experiencing the world as a swirling mass of vectors and equations. Combined with a decent level of fitness and a lot of practice, this makes her virtually invulnerable: she can dodge a bullet, triangulate the position of the gun, and hit back at the enemy with the absolute certainty of Newtonian physics supporting her every move.

I was initially drawn to this book by the concept of a maths-powered ninja saving the world in typical action-hero style. But although it is a fast-paced, action-packed thriller, Zero Sum Game is actually much more than that. Ethical questions run throughout the narrative. Cas doesn’t consider herself a hero — in fact, her work often takes her deep into the criminal underworld, and she’s more comfortable hotwiring a car than hailing a cab. Morality within the novel is commensurately greyscale. When she finds herself going up against a shadowy organisation with apparent abilities in mind-reading and brainwashing, though, she’s fairly sure that for once she’s in the right. At least, she hopes so.

Cas is brilliant with numbers, but she doesn’t take naturally to people, viewing human interaction for the most part as an obstacle to overcome. Rio, the closest thing she has to a friend, is a murderous psychopath with a strong religious streak, and (in an almost self-refuting action) keeps reminding her that he doesn’t actually care about her. Cas doesn’t mind: Rio’s unusual combination of psychopathy and black-and-white morality makes him predictable, and for a mathematical genius, that’s a bonus that makes him easier to understand.

In the course of her investigations, though, circumstances conspire to introduce Cas to Arthur Tresting, a PI working on a related case. Although their initial meeting is at gunpoint, it doesn’t take long for the two to realise they could both benefit from working together. A warm, friendly soul who’s really too gentle for the business he’s in, Arthur is almost the polar opposite of Cas, but he’s determined to give her the benefit of the doubt. As they learn to get along, Arthur’s placid insistence on treating Cas as a friend starts to get to her, and she even starts to question her shoot-first approach to self defence. It’s hard to imagine anything short of the end of the world could make Arthur work with the cold-blooded Rio, but along with Arthur’s friend Checker, they must form a team if they’re to solve the mystery that is Pithica.

I found Cas very relatable, despite her superhuman skills and social limitations: I suspect many geeky introverts will find the differences more quantitative than qualitative. Arthur’s presence adds a certain softness to proceedings, Rio adds gore, but it’s Checker — a computer whizz with a wheelchair — who I really wanted to see more of. The group dynamics of this mismatched crew add a degree of humour to what could otherwise be a very grim scenario, giving a clear illustration of how life goes on at the human scale, even when facing up to a potentially global crisis.

I’m sure that having an appreciation of the maths and computing increased my enjoyment, but I’m also confident that this book could be enjoyed on its own merits by someone without that background.

Half Life, the (equally awesome) sequel to Zero Sum Game, is released this week. It has robots, the Mafia, and a bona fide evil genius. In a rather different vein, Joanna recently reviewed Huang’s stand-alone fairytale short, Hunting Monsters.

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