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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