a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

Home All New Browse Search About

Zero Sum Game (2018)
S.L. Huang
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

Cas Russell is violent and amoral. She is also really good at math. Her understanding of physics and quick work with vectors allows her to do things like ricochet a tossed cell phone just right to knock someone out, position herself so as to listen to the echo of a conversation she wants to overhear, or use a combination of gunshots and leverage to remove the bars from a window high above street level. In addition, her knowledge of Bayesian statistics and Markov chains helps her analyze data as evidence, and she can also quickly come up with a plan for taking down a company after looking at its financial records. All of this proves very useful when she and her equally amoral associate Rio partner with a more ethical PI and a paraplegic IT genius to fight a shadowy organization called Pithica which has access to nuclear weapons and psychics.

There is a lot about this book that is cool. It is cool that the protagonist/narrator is a powerful young, woman of color (see note * below). And it is cool that her powers are attributed to her mathematical ability. And, I suppose it is cool that it is never quite clear if our "heroes" are ethically superior to the "bad guys" they are fighting (although that is such a common theme in superhero fiction these days that it is becoming an annoying cliche).

That's probably why it has received praise from authors whose works appear on this site such as Ken Liu who said "The smartest and thrillingest book you'll read all year" and Yoon Ha Lee who said "Intense, vivid, and insanely clever, with a great heroine - I couldn't put it down. If only more authors with math degrees used them like this!"

I also enjoyed reading the book, but I'm afraid I cannot be quite so positive about it. To me, the conclusion of a novel is very important and this one was unsatisfying (as if often the case when the authors care more about setting up a sequel than they do about wrapping up any of the loose threads they created). But, that is not my main complaint.

My main complaint about the book is that mathematical terminology is tossed around without any explanation or even very much thought. Of course, it is plausible that someone good at math could figure out the best way to punch someone or quickly decipher computer code, but we're not given any details as to how that would work in any of the situations. As a result, it is little more than the sort of "techno-babble" explanation one gets in science fiction where a reference to anti-matter or higher dimensions justifies whatever it is the author wanted to include.

I guess what I'm saying is that the math seemed gratuitous. Perhaps it is nice that an author thought math was interesting enough to be included in a work of fiction in the same way sex and violence sometimes are, and even nicer that a publisher agreed. However, I would have preferred it had the math and violence been used more sparingly but also more deeply. (Perhaps I'm misremembering, but I don't think there was any sex in the book. Is that right?)

BTW Despite the title of the book, there really isn't any game theory in it. The only place that "zero sum games" come up in the book is when one of her partners suggests that their battle against Pithica is a zero sum game, a claim that Cas quickly rejects.

Thanks to Allan Goldberg for bringing this book to my attention.

* When I first read the book I mistakenly pictured the character of Cas as African-American. Perhaps this was not so silly of me since the book does describe her as a "woman of color", her last name is Russell, and she lives in Los Angeles. However, if I am interpreting it correctly, the second book in the series suggests that she is actually of Southeast Asian descent.

Contributed by Carl Genest

Math is present, but vectors only. Not what I call a math fiction.

Contributed by Gregory Cherlin

The entries for S. L. Huang don't quite reflect her full publication history in the series listed as the books were initially self-published, then were retitled and significantly rearranged when she got a Tor contract.

See here or here.

More information about this work can be found at
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to Zero Sum Game
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Null Set by S.L. Huang
  2. White Rabbit, Red Wolf [This Story is a Lie] by Tom Pollock
  3. A Calculated Man by Paul Tobin (writer) / Alberto Alburquerque (artist)
  4. The Adventures of Topology Man by Alex Kasman
  5. The Givenchy Code by Julie Kenner
  6. Equations of Life by Simon Morden
  7. Critical Point by S.L. Huang
  8. Probabilitea by John Chu
  9. The Fear Index by Robert Harris
  10. The Anomaly [L'Anomalie] by Hervé Le Tellier
Ratings for Zero Sum Game:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3.33/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (3 votes)

GenreScience Fiction, Adventure/Espionage,
MotifFemale Mathematicians, Math as Beautiful/Exciting/Useful,
TopicMathematical Physics, Mathematical Finance, Probability/Statistics,

Home All New Browse Search About

Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)