Zero Sum Game

“I wasn’t worried about crashing. Cars are only forces in motion.”

SL Huang

I was lucky enough to win a proof copy of Zero Sum Game (complete with signed bookplate) from a giveaway at the Book Smugglers, a few weeks ago, which is very cool because a) signed proof copy and b) SL Huang wrote a really, really awesome take on “Red Riding Hood”, “Hunting Monsters”, which you can also find on the Book Smugglers website should you be interested (you should). So I was kind of intrigued and excited to read Zero Sum Game, because, doesn’t it look awesome?

Essentially, it’s a superhero story, and the superpower in question is maths (or math, if you’re American). Cas Russell can do calculus super fast in her head; she can calculate angles, forces, lines of fire quick enough to jump through second floor windows, knock someone out with a stick from twenty metres, and even dodge bullets. Basically, she’s a female version of Neo from The Matrix. The rest of the plot is pretty standard superhero fare: shadowy multinational organisation trying to Take Over the World, Cas and a bunch of Plucky Outsiders trying to stop them.

Of course, as Douglas Adams, Maths Friend and the Circumlocutor all observed, most people can do calculus in their heads, quite fast: it’s how you catch a tennis ball, if indeed you do catch a tennis ball instead of missing it by inches and watching it bounce about three miles away to the other side of the court (as I invariably did every time I tried to play tennis). And when I started reading Zero Sum Game, which begins in the middle of a gunfight, I was thrown off-balance by the inherent unbelievability of its premise. But holding that premise against it is probably about as useful as complaining that radioactive spiders can’t turn you into Spiderman. Or Spiderwoman. It’s not about whether you believe it or not; it’s what you do with that premise. Once I settled into that, Zero Sum Game was actually rather a lot of fun.

You see, Cas isn’t an entirely likable protagonist. She kills people. A lot. Probably more than necessary. The person she is closest to is literally a psychopath. She steals, loots, blows things up, and she doesn’t really have friends. Essentially, she’s a criminal, yet we relate to her because she is Our Narrator, and I found that tension interesting. Unlikable protagonists aren’t unusual – BATMAN is pretty annoying, for instance – but female unlikable protagonists are much more so. Off the top of my head, I can think of Bellis Coldwine from The Scar, but that’s pretty much all.

While we’re talking about BATMAN, I actually think Zero Sum Game does a lot more successfully what The Dark Knight tries to do, which is to say, it questions the morality of superhero culture – all the bloody murder, and the superhero’s right to judge between good and evil – while telling a compelling superhero story. Nothing here is simple: there’s plenty of soul-searching, of self-questioning, and there’s a certain shifting of evil that goes on in the structure of the story. Like, Cas is a part of the criminal underground, and she rationalises it, illuminates it, for us, so that order (mathematical or otherwise) is constructed out of apparently random acts of violence. But then we find another level of criminality in Pithica, the Shadowy Multinational Conspiracy, and that creates for us another underground which seems impenetrable to us and to Our Heroes. It’s a novel where there are no certainties, only shades of grey.

None of this, though, drags as it does in The Dark Knight; the whole book is well-paced and well-plotted, easy to race through and get lost in. Occasionally I did feel that the dialogue was – not bad, but serviceable; it conveyed information, not character. But in the light of everything else Zero Sum Game does well, that didn’t bother me too much. I’m unlikely to read it again, but Zero Sum Game was a lot of fun.

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