For a Sci-Fi Saturday post, this started as a stretch and then some. While Zero Sum Game (2018), by S.L. Huang, has at least a science fiction flavor, The Gun Seller (1996), by Hugh Laurie (yes, that Hugh Laurie), is more fantastical than science fictional. They do have in common a protagonist beyond capable as well as action hero thriller plots.
I can redeem the post now that I’ve read The Android’s Dream (2006), by John Scalzi (whom I’ve praised here before for Redshirts). Here, too, is an extremely competent protagonist in an action hero thriller. (As an aside, the two written by men feature a love interest. (While I’m at it, guess which of the three does not have a Wiki page.))
The bottom line: I thoroughly enjoyed all three!
Of course, as always, it depends on whether you like that sort of thing. After all, on some level, Jason Borne stories are pretty silly. Fun, especially when well done, but pretty silly.
For me, being well done involves world-building and internal consistency. An author can make up almost any crazy scenario they want, but then they need to play by their own rules.
(I mentioned recently that Marvel movies, and comics in general, tend to be egregious offenders of the rule of internal consistency. Abilities and weaknesses tend to be very context dependent.)
It boils down, really, to not taking me out of the moment. I’ll suspend my disbelief, but when glaring incongruities take me completely out of the moment, that’s bad,… m’kay?
The hero in Zero Sum Game is Cas Russell, 23-years-old, female, and calling her a math prodigy doesn’t begin to tell the story.
In fact, she’s a kind of natural human supercomputer, a math savant of the highest order. It amounts to being a superpower, and it’s one of the two elements that give the story its science fictional flavor.
[WARNING: MILD SPOILER PARAGRAPH FOLLOWS!]
The other science fictional element involves the villain, a woman with what amounts either to a matching savant power of anticipation, calculation, and hypnosis; or — as the story implies — outright telepathy (which is totally SF).
Russell’s preternatural math ability is matched by extraordinary physical prowess (again to superpower level). It’s one thing to be able to instinctively see bullet vectors, but it’s rather another to dodge flying lead.
The first scene of the book reminded me a lot of the scene in Marvel’s The Avengers where we meet Black Widow. If you recall, she is tied to a chair by Bad Guys who intended harm and pending death. And yet, she is the one in control of the scene.
Likewise do we meet Cas Russell, retrieval expert: Tied to a chair, threatened with death, but in control (and sassy).
Things kick off from there, and the action is pretty much non-stop and lots of fun. I give this a strong Ah! rating.
The story follows common tropes of betrayal and being chased, but it all holds together well. Cas Russell is not a particularly likeable person, and she almost certainly has Asperger’s or some form of autism. As demanded by the genre, her personal life is a shambles, in part due to her fierce independence (also according to trope).
If I have any complaint (and I really don’t), it involves Russell’s physical abilities — she is essentially a superhero (very much like Marvel’s Black Widow, but with supermath, too).
The thing is, I’ve long thought Asian martial arts stories were the equivalent of western superhero stories. They involve beings with special powers capable of special feats. Asian martial arts heroes are, in that culture, what Superman and the Batman are in ours.
From the author’s online bio (the 100-word version):
SL Huang is an Amazon-bestselling author who justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. Her novel Zero Sum Game and its sequel Null Set are recently out from Tor Books, with the third book upcoming. Her short fiction has sold to Analog, Nature, and more, including multiple best-of anthologies. She is also a Hollywood stuntwoman and firearms expert, where she’s appeared on shows such as “Battlestar Galactica” and “Raising Hope” and worked with actors such as Sean Patrick Flanery, Jason Momoa, and Danny Glover. Follow her online at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter as @sl_huang.
A third Cas Russell book, Critical Point, is due in April of 2020.
Hugh Laurie’s The Gun Seller is a fun romp worth reading just because Laurie wrote it.
It’s a funny intelligent competent story by a funny intelligent competent guy.
That said, it’s the only novel he ever wrote. A sequel, The Paper Soldier, was supposed to come out in 2007, and then in 2009, but now appears delayed indefinitely. (Nor has there been a screenplay based on the first book, which was also in the works.)
So the first time I saw him on a talk show was a bit of a shock.
You can get the story’s plot details from the Wiki article. Suffice to say, as with Zero Sum Game, it involves a rough but competent independent operator roped into a scheme that isn’t what it appears to be. And then things happen.
The book is breezy good fun involving international arms dealing, conspiracy at high levels, terrorists, and lots of running around.
It’s currently available through Amazon Prime for free and worth every penny. I give this an Ah! rating (true for all three).
As an aside, the post’s title is a reference to a British TV series Laurie did with his friend, Stephen Fry. The series is called A Bit of Fry & Laurie, and it’s a sheer delight. It’s Monty Python level silliness fueled by the towering intellect of Fry (and Laurie, who plays the foil). Definitely laugh out loud throughout. (It’s available on Amazon Prime.)
Which brings me to the definitely science fictional The Android’s Dream.
As you might guess, the book’s title is a reference to the Philip K. Dick story that inspired Blade Runner (but there is, otherwise, no connection between them).
In this case, “Android’s Dream” is a genetically modified breed of blue-wool sheep Earth gifted — and granted exclusive rights — to the ruling family of the Nidu, an alien race with diplomatic ties to Earth.
The sacrifice of one of these sheep is required during the coronation ceremony that passes power from one ruler of the Nidu to the next. Without the sheep — which only the ruling family has legal right to own — power cannot be assumed.
The problem is, a coup is in the works, and someone has used a special virus to kill all known members of the breed.
But it turns out that, due to a particularly nasty genetic manipulation, a sheep genetically modified to have human characteristics (for a starring role in a political sexual blackmail attempt) was allowed to become pregnant and give birth.
The offspring is a normal human woman, Robin Baker, but her “junk DNA” contains lots of, guess what, “Android’s Dream” DNA.
In fact, overall, her DNA is 20% sheep, which is a hell of thing to learn as an adult. (The Robin was adopted as an infant, but the family was never told of her origin, so she had no idea.)
Things kick off with a scene in which an Earth ambassador with a secret agenda uses rectally installed technology to emit farts with chemically engineered scents designed to deliberately insult the Nidu ambassador.
The Nidu have a very powerful sense of smell, and their ambassadors have evolved scent into a language akin to the language of flowers developed in Medieval Europe.
The scent insults are intended to create an incident from the volitile Nidu ambassador, but go too far and invoke a heart-attack. Ironically, due to a lifelong diet of red meat, the scheming Earth ambassador coincidentally also suffers a heart attack. Both die.
This gives the Nidu an excuse to demand of Earth, give us an “Android’s Dream” sheep in time for the planned coronation ceremony or suffer our wrath. You did it once, you can do it again.
And so the hero, Harry Creek, is given the task of locating a sheep and getting it to the Nidu. Fortunately, Harry has some help from a very powerful AI based on a quantum brain scan of a childhood best friend, Brian, who died in a war.
Brian and Harry discover Robin and then Harry has to protect her from various Earth and Nidu agents who either want her captured and given to to the Nidu or destroyed. Worse, it appears the Nidu own Robin’s DNA, and the protocol calls for the sheep to be sacrificed…
I devoured these books in large chunks.
In all three cases I began reading in the evening or late afternoon, read until bedtime, and then finished them the next morning.
They’re not deep; they’re not profound; they’re just sheer good fun.
And these days, who doesn’t need that?
Stay warm and woolly, my friends!