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MIT Technology Review

Calculated combat

As a writer, S. L. Huang ’07 invented a gun-toting, math-loving action hero. As a stuntwoman and armorer, she is one.

Photo illustration of S.L. HuangPhoto illustration of S.L. Huang
Photo illustration of S.L. Huang
Ms. Tech; Image source: Lucy Hewitt

While studying at MIT in the early 2000s, an ambitious math major took breaks from formulas and algorithms by burying herself in weapons, writing, and stagecraft. She had fallen in love with logic and theoretical computer science, but she was equally enamored with her idiosyncratic extracurricular activities.

The MIT pistol shooting class she took honed her focus. The plays she performed in, particularly the combat scenes, felt thrilling. And she wrote two unpublished novels that allowed her to build brand-new worlds.

When she thought of graduate school, it didn’t seem to offer the same sense of adventure. Sitting on the grass by Building 54 one afternoon of her senior year, she called her mother and said she was trading math for movie sets. With her mom’s blessing, she headed into the film industry after graduation. Several months later, as friends were easing into grad programs, she was being gunned down over and over on the set of Battlestar Galactica.

“I walked on set and I’m wearing the uniform. I’m trying not to creepily touch the set. Edward James Olmos is standing like 30 feet from me,” she says. “It was an amazing experience for my very first stunt job.”

Twelve years after leaving MIT, she has built a career from seemingly disconnected passions, and she slips into a new name for each one. Under a stage name, she performs stunts—anything from sword fights to motorcycle chases to getting set on fire—and she’s armed to the teeth. Until a move last year to southeast Wisconsin, she was Hollywood’s first (and only) female armorer, providing weapons and weapons training for more than 100 film and television projects.

She’s also achieved success under another alias: S. L. Huang, the name she uses off set (and in this article). As Huang, she’s the sci-fi author behind the Cas Russell series, which revolves around a gun-wielding, morally dubious mercenary math genius caught in the center of a global conspiracy. Zero Sum Game and its recently released sequel Null Set are packed with explosions and shoot-outs, but firepower is no match for lightning--speed vector calculations and Bayesian code-breaking.

“People will come up to me and say, ‘I’m not a math person at all. I hate math. Math confuses me. But I love your book,’” she says. “That’s just the greatest thing to hear.”

Formulas and firearms

Both her stage name and S. L. Huang are derivations of her legal name, which she doesn’t use professionally for privacy reasons. Long before adopting either moniker, Huang was an athletic, math-loving child who dreamed of calculating her way to superhuman abilities: figuring out the exact angle and force necessary to hit a home run every time, mentally computing the velocity needed to throw a heavy opponent in Shaolin Kempo Karate. Shortly after seeing her first play, Huang landed a small part in an elementary school musical, and the experience “grabbed something in my soul,” she says. Stage combat workshops came soon after, but just as she began thriving on the stage, on the field, and in class, her health started to decline. At age 12, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and nearly died while undergoing intensive radiation and chemotherapy.

“Because I had cancer as a kid, I think it’s sort of why I have always been very independent in choosing to do the things that I love doing and not really worrying about protection,” she says.

Almost no one at MIT knew that Huang was a writer, but many knew that the East Campus girl who could talk for hours about set theory—a foundational branch of mathematical logic that focuses on properties of sets of numbers and other mathematical and non-mathematical entities—spent her free time getting a motorcycle license, firing semi-automatics in the Z Center basement, and taking private sword-fighting classes with Emerson College theater teacher Ted Hewlett. By the time she graduated, Huang was as proficient with handguns, broadswords, rapiers, and quarterstaffs as she was with complex variable functions and algorithm design.

When she arrived in Los Angeles, after completing six months of stunt work and training in Vancouver, British Columbia, she started making connections within the stunt community and began taking workshops in exotic weaponry she hadn’t had access to in Cambridge. That’s how Huang wound up in a flintlock firearms class led by Mike Tristano, a longtime armorer and historical weapons consultant for the entertainment industry. Tristano had noticed that she was a fast learner with an avid interest in historical firearms. So when Huang asked if Tristano could use someone to help clean guns and learn the armory business, he quickly took her on as an apprentice. Meanwhile, she applied for the necessary licenses to work as a full armorer with Tristano’s crew and take jobs on her own.

“She really loves weapons—swords, guns, it doesn’t matter,” Tristano says, adding that Huang’s even-keeled nature and sense of humor made her well suited to working with high-strung Hollywood types. “The same directors and producers call us, and a lot of times if it was just one person needed on set, they would request that it was her. That tells me a lot. That’s very rare.”

S. L. Huang
Lucy Hewitt

From warrior to wordsmith

Huang was in demand, armoring actors like Jason Momoa and Danny Glover one week and getting killed by Nathan Fillion or serving as a weapons expert on reality shows the next. She found stunt and armory work in a broad range of TV shows like Shameless, 2 Broke Girls, and Switched at Birth, as well as in video games, music videos, and movies. “Most of the A-list actors I’ve worked with have been classy as heck,” Huang says. Working with directors and production staff, however, is sometimes challenging. “Hollywood personalities can be a lot,” she says, and they can be tough to handle when they learn that something they want is impossible or dangerous: “I had instances of directors or producers hopping up and down and yelling at me, and I would just continue saying no very calmly.”

While the work is less glamorous than you’d think, it has brought her into contact with Olympic athletes, drag racers, old cowboys, intense hippies, and people who grew up in the circus. And the work itself is never boring. “I would get curveballs thrown at me almost every job and would have to figure out creative ways to handle them under pretty intense pressure,” she says. “There’s a lot of thinking on your feet.”

Health problems threw her some curveballs as well. When she worked on the 2013 film adaptation of The Lone Ranger, Huang caught typhus. (After she’d recovered, friends teased her that she had become a one-woman “episode of House.” As a joke, they showed up at a Thanksgiving celebration wearing contagion masks.) Then, in 2013, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Treatments were successful but left her unable to handle a hardcore training regimen.

By then Huang had already written the first draft of Zero Sum Game. To stay “sane,” as she put it, during this second cancer battle, she focused on refining her high-octane fantasy world, where math provides escape routes from seemingly impossible problems. She wrapped up cancer treatments and self-published the first two Cas Russell books by the end of 2014, published book three in 2015, moved to Japan on a student visa for a change of pace as she recovered, and published the fourth book while there.

As her time in Japan drew to a close and she was debating whether to stay longer, a producer emailed asking about film rights to the series. It prompted her to find a book agent, who pitched the series to major publishing houses. Diana Gill, an executive editor at Tor Books, a sci-fi and fantasy imprint that’s part of Macmillan Publishers, began reading Zero Sum Game a few weeks later while en route to a writing conference.

“It was so good, I bought Wi-Fi on the plane to make sure my publishers could start reading it immediately,” says Gill. “I was like, ‘This is it. This is what I’ve wanted forever.’”

“Hollywood personalities can be a lot. I had instances of directors or producers hopping up and down and yelling at me, and I would just continue saying no very calmly.”

The time was also right for Huang. She originally self-published the series in part because she had heard horror stories of traditional publishers pushing authors to whitewash characters of color and make LGBTQ characters straight. After years of watching Hollywood marginalize Asian actors and creators, and experiencing some of the same thing herself, she was determined to send her characters into the world on her terms. By the time she connected with Gill, she had worked on shorter fiction pieces with some smaller publishers whose editors had honored her vision, and she had confidence Gill’s team would do the same.

Tor released a revised edition of Zero Sum Game in October 2018, character identities untouched. Null Set, a rewrite of the fourth book, came out as a sequel in July 2019. Meanwhile, Huang moved to Wisconsin, midway between the Chicago and Milwaukee film hubs, where she now splits her time between stunt training and writing two additional Cas Russell books, all while trying to streamline her writing process.

“I sit down and write by the seat of my pants,” she says, adding that she usually has to fully write out scenes before knowing if they’ll work—and sometimes ends up throwing out as many words as end up in the book. “I’m desperately trying to be a little more calculated and algorithmic about it all, because I’d much rather have a more repeatable process,” she says.

Huang is also devoting time to her other great love: math. Between writing and training, she’s studying knot theory—the mathematics behind how three-dimensional closed curves loop and tangle, similar to physical knots—for a collaborative fiction project having to do with space travel. Her goal is to show math lovers and mathphobes alike not just “how cool math can feel,” but how beautiful perfectly designed systems and solutions can be.

“It always feels so vast and universal and stunning,” she says. “Like seeing the universe from on high.”