Even in science fiction, pure math doesn’t get as much play as robotics or cosmology or genetic engineering. So the promise of a math savant as a protagonist with a title like Zero Sum Game was enough to get me excited for SL Huang’s debut novel. I was expecting something a bit more in the vein of Neal Stephenson or Ryan North, with explorations of mathematical concepts woven into the story. What I did not know is that Huang has a background both in mathematics and stunt performing, so her protagonist is an action hero who uses her gifts at computation to dodge bullets and break bones. So I didn’t get quite what I expected from Zero Sum Game, but I was better prepared to appreciate the sequel, Null Set. What the book may lack in mathematical depth, it makes up for in exploration of the problem of evil.
Cas Russell, the lead of Null Set, is a flesh-and-blood Laplace’s demon. She can calculate at superspeed and apply the results to time evasive jumps perfectly or apply the precise amount of pressure to injure or to make laser-accurate gunshots without looking. That premise teeters on the verge of superhero territory, and then we meet characters who are so empathic and charismatic they are functionally telepathic, pushing fully over the edge. Within the conflicts between the two arise many of the questions associated with God and the problem of evil. Although strictly human, both Cas and her antagonists embody different conceptions of divinity and sovereignty. The telepaths are pure will; whatever they want to happen, happens. Cas has no overt influence over others, but her knowledge of her environment and cause & effect is so complete that she can engineer seemingly any physical outcome. In their own ways, both sides want to use their power for good–not just personal gain but also benefits to others. And yet, a great deal of harm can be directly traced to their actions as well. So why, with all of that power and good intentions, do they still let good things happen to bad people?
The series is ongoing (as is the millenia-long philosophical and theological conversation), so there’s no answers yet. Nevertheless, the titles hint at the perspective thus far. Zero Sum Game implies that for any good to come into the world, something bad must also happen. Null Set suggests there are no good solutions; we have to choose the least objectionable of the bad ones. By way of apology for the resulting evil, we get references to free will and complexity. Does giving others genuine freedom to make choices for themselves represent a type of good that can counterbalance the possibility (inevitability?) that some of those choices will bring harm either to the chooser or someone else? Cas initially came down in favor, but over time her confidence has wavered.
The questions of complexity resonated particularly strongly with me, in light of the challenges presented by climate change, systemic racism, public health, international conflicts, and more. On the one hand, causal chains run so deep and effects can be nonlinear, making it both very difficult to anticipate every consequence of our actions and very likely those consequences will impact many. On the other hand, systemic problems don’t feel very amenable to individual contributions. Null Set isn’t breaking new ground with these observations about modern life. But the specific abilities given to the characters invite a slightly different slant, less about what would I do and more about what God would, or should, or could do. That’s not to say Cas Russell is a god or a Christ figure, even by the fairly broad standards for one of Hollywood actions stories. Rather, it is to suggest that scientifically minded readers might appreciate the opportunity to reflect on long-standing questions with the distance fiction provides and a mathematical framing.
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