Silly Interview with S. L. Huang, Spectacular Specimen of Superhumanity

SL Huang. Photo Credit: Chris Massa

Rachel Swirsky: When you were at MIT, did you take any writing classes? What was it like studying writing in that environment? 

SL Huang: I did not!  Which is kind of strange given that MIT has a ridiculously good creative writing program, but I was in my “writing is the one thing I do that I will not stress out about or set any goals for” phase. (You can see how that has worked out for me, she says, eyeing the current mountain of deadlines.)

RS: Your bio says you are a gunslinger. Are you really a gunslinger? I hope so. Feel free to lie if you aren’t (or if you are, actually).

SLH: I am indeed really a gunslinger.  Some number of the following facts are true about me:

  • I have qualified at the Expert Rifleman level on a civilian version of the Army Qualifying Test
  • I can field-strip an AK-47 in less than seven seconds
  • I once fixed a malfunctioning Springfield XD with a piece of duct tape
  • I have fired an Uzi in the middle of Market Street, San Francisco
  • I’ve had conversations with police officers while hiding five shotguns under my trench coat

(NB, for the NSA agents reading this: the police officers knew they were there.)

RS: What is your gunslinger origin story?

SLH: I learned to shoot at MIT.  No, really.  MIT has one of the best pistol programs in the country.

My pistol coach from MIT now coaches the U.S. Paralympics Shooting Team.  We’re still in touch.

RS: You mention liking the abelian grape joke which I must admit I do not understand. I really like the Heisenberg’s speeding ticket joke. What does our shared love of terrible nerd jokes say about us? I remind you that you are free to lie.

SLH: It means we are spectacular specimens of superhumanity who ride into battle on dragons and eat gas giants for breakfast.

(p.s. I love the Heisenberg speeding ticket joke, too.)

RS: In 2016 you put together an anthology of Campbell-eligible writers so that they can show off their work to potential voters. In the past, it has always been difficult to identify eligible writers, let alone find all their work in one place. How did you figure out who to include? Did you reach out to writers who were in professional TOCs, or did you wait for people to come to you?

SLH: We (my co-runner Kurt Hunt and I) sidestepped the identification-of-eligibility question by pawning off the work on our friends at Writertopia, who maintain a list of Campbell-eligible writers as a genre resource.  Put yourself on their list, we said, and you can be in the book!

In all seriousness, we did not mean to cause so much extra work for them — we figured most people interested would be on the Writertopia list already.  But we figured WAY wrong, and Writertopia got flooded with add requests.  Bill Katz and David Walton over there are absolute gems of human beings — they did an incredible job vetting and adding people before our deadline, and they’ve given us nothing but support.  We owe them big time.

As for how we reached out — hahaha, we had less than two weeks to get submissions; there was no way we could wait for people to come to us.  We posted on forums, blogged, and tweeted.  We sent over a dozen press releases to genre sites and asked for signal boosts from well-followed voices in SFF.  We also wanted to reach out to eligible writers and invite them directly, but could only find public email addresses for about 60% of the people who were already on Writertopia’s list — and here our Writertopia friends did us yet another solid and forwarded an invitation to them all on our behalf.

I was so, so pleased with the response we got.  120 authors!  Over A MILLION WORDS OF FICTION!

We passed the torch on it the following year, and I hope anthologies of the year’s Campbell-eligible writers keep being a thing as often as possible. Some of our authors told us the anthology felt like an enormous group hug, and I’m so proud to have been a part of that.

RS: Looking at the stories in the Campbell anthology, would you say there were noticeable thematic preoccupations? What was the zeitgeist for new writers in 2015?

SLH: The biggest zeitgeist, I think, is that there wasn’t one.  The thematic diversity in this group is incredible.  I wasn’t able to read even close to all million words, but we had stories from F&SF and Analog, Strange Horizons and Mothership Zeta, Angry Robot and Baen.  We had self-published, small press, and Big Five.  We had funny stories and tearjerking ones, swashbucklers and horror, aliens and myths and hard SF and fairy tales.  Flash, shorts, novel excerpts, even a play!  And the authors came from all over the world and from all walks of life — we even had at least one translation.

If this anthology proved anything, it’s that the upcoming generation of SFF writers want there to be room for all types of stories.  And so far we’re kicking ass at making that happen.

RS: Any projects coming up, or anything else you’d like to write about?

SLH: So much!!

My main novel series is the Cas Russell series with Tor Books — the first book, Zero Sum Game, came out last year, and the sequel Null Set is dropping in July. Billed by Tor as “the geek’s Jack Reacher,” it’s about a superheroine — an antiheroine — who can do math really, really fast.
She uses it to kill a lot of people. As you do with math.

I’m also one of the collaborators who wrote The Vela, a serialized novel that was just released from Serial Box. My co-authors are Yoon Ha Lee, Rivers Solomon, and Becky Chambers, and you can read the whole thing right now!

That “let’s not set any goals or deadlines for writing” philosophy from college REALLY was not very successful for me…

(This interview was posted early for my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!)

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6 Responses to Silly Interview with S. L. Huang, Spectacular Specimen of Superhumanity

  1. 1
    Petar says:

    You cannot field strip an AK-47 in seven seconds. Not according to the guidelines which require checking the travel of the safety, clearing the chamber with the bolt, and removing the barrel rod, not even if you use gravity to separate some of the assemblies, and that carries the risk of losing the bolt insert. If you are really, really good, you may manage to come close with a AKM, as long as you squint and pretend that a few things are not essential for a field strip. Remember, the field strip requires only a disassembly into the major parts, but it has to eliminate the most probable causes for failure. I.e. you cannot skip a step just because it is not required for the disassembly.

    Also, none of the above makes you a gunslinger. To be a gunslinger, you need to have been in a real gun fight, you need to know how you feel when you are being shot at, and you need to know how you feel after you have killed someone. Then, you need to remain capable of doing it again. And finally, you have to be willing to risk having to do it again. You’d be surprised how many people stumble on that last part, and, given the choice, decide to find something else to do with their life instead.

    I wonder, did she consider that there are people who may find such humor “I’m a gunslinger” a bit disturbing? Or that in some cultures, making such a claim may land you in a bit of an awkward situation?

    On the other hand, “The Geek’s Jack Reacher” is spot on. My wife is a a college professor who grew up middle class in the US. Just from living with me, enough gun knowledge has rubbed on her that she can spot, on the fly, plot elements that escape Jack Reacher, and the four “foremost sniper experts in the world” for days.

    Gun nuts read gun porn from John Ringo and Larry Correia. Veterans read Joe Haldeman and David Drake. The two did not use to mix before the US polarized political climate forced people to choose sides, and the middle became a bad place to be. Now they mix, and find out that yes, they do not particularly like each other.

  2. 2
    Petar says:

    Oh, and do not feel bad about the abelian grape joke, because it is not a joke, it’s a pun: the color purple is associated with grapes, all members of abelian groups commute, grape sounds like group.

    Thinks it’s really funny? Yeah, me neither. Puns are an abomination unto Nuggan.

  3. 3
    Eytan Zweig says:

    Petar – Genuine question: is a “gunslinger” an official designation of some sort that you are referring to? Because, colloquially, I’ve only ever heard it used in the sense of “someone who can draw a pistol quickly” (and a quick dictionary search agrees with me). To my knowledge, it has little to do with using guns in a combat situation, but specifically is a term from the world of gun showmanship (or from Wild West stories, but I assume that’s not what you meant either).

  4. 4
    Petar says:

    I thought it was clear from the context that no one was claiming to have been a Wild West duelist or showwoman. In modern contest, that meaning of “gunslinger” would be referred to as “quick draw competitor”, and I have never, not once, heard someone use “gunslinger”.

    Gunslinger is a term you’ll hear often on gun ranges in Southern California, in two contexts – one negative, one positive.

    The negative one has to do with braggadocio, and describes behavior prohibited outside of private firing lanes, like holster draw and rapid fire. I don’t think many would willing describe themselves so.

    The positive one has to do with handling weapons proficiently under pressure. The last time I heard it discussed, examples from fiction were thrown around – John Woo movies, John Wick, Spider Jerusalem comics, etc. Given the history of the author intersects with mine in at least three points – MIT pistol competitions, Hollywood consulting, weapon enthusiast, I assumed she meant exactly what I would mean by the term. Basically, “gunfighter”, which is very different from weapon expert.

    And then, the examples were weird. Not any weirder than drug mules making enough money to hire a top end mercenary, headbutting someone while sitting on a chair, being unaware of keyword communication surveillance, confusing bullet type with caliber, knocking our dozens of people without side effects, targets waiting frozen to be hit by a tennis ball bouncing off five times, corrupt cops leaving their badge behind when engaging in illegal activity, toes delivering enough momentum to knock out a man without breaking, yada, yada, yada… but still weird and out of place. For both a gunfighter and a quick draw expert.


    I can’t resist. Here is a weapon joke, to go with the math jokes. What does the Huang’s Expert Rifleman badge and Trump’s brand new Sherman tanks have in common?

  5. 5
    RonF says:

    I satisfied part of my Phys. Ed. requirement at MIT by taking a class in pistol shooting. I also took a Humanities class (classic MIT definition = “classes where the textbooks have no equations”) in Fantasy and Science Fiction which the instructor turned into a writing class after she found the reports we turned in on the first reading assignment to be unreadable. “You all think that the longer the sentence you write and the bigger the words you use the better your writing is. I’m turning the next 6 weeks of this class into a writing class! When I get done with you people you’re going to be able to write a simple declarative sentence!”

    She sounds interesting. I’ll have to check out her stuff. What course was she at the Institute?

    Fun fact: absent a physical disability, you must be able to swim 100 yards to graduate from MIT. And yes, people have had their diplomas withheld in recent years until they passed the swim test. You take a swim test your first week there before classes start, and if you don’t pass you need to sign up for a swimming class. The policy has been protested multiple times, but the Institute has stood firm.

  6. 6
    Petar says:

    She was Course 18.

    Speaking of MIT HASS requirements, I also knocked off mine with the SciFi genre courses. I learned a valuable lesson – I can’t write worth shit, but I can edit (and critique, but there’s not benefit in that) quite well.

    I was privileged to have Joe Haldeman as a professor. Ah, the good old times when you could be a best selling author without picking sides. (I consider Haldeman unaligned, but that only means that my biases align with his)

    He also was the first one who told me how science (or any, really) consultants in Hollywood are treated. I suspect his motive was to have us stay away. It did not work.