Fiction by Christopher L. Bennett
||If you like my stories, please consider making
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|ONLY SUPERHUMAN |
the future, genetically engineered superhumans, inspired by classic
Earth comic book heroes, fight to keep the peace in the wild and wooly
space habitats of the Asteroid Belt
AD: Generations ago, Earth and the cislunar colonies banned genetic and
cybernetic modifications. But out in the Asteroid Belt, anything goes.
Dozens of flourishing space habitats are spawning exotic new societies
and strange new varieties of humans. It’s a volatile situation that
threatens the peace and stability of the entire solar system.
Blair is a Troubleshooter. Inspired by the classic superhero comics of
the twentieth century, she’s joined with other mods to try to police
the unruly Asteroid Belt. But her loyalties are tested when she finds
herself torn between rival factions of superhumans with very different
agendas. Emerald wants to put her special abilities to good use and
atone for her scandalous past, but what do you do when you can’t tell the heroes from the villains?
Only Superhuman is a rollicking hard-sf adventure set in a complex and fascinating future.
"Only Superhuman is a heady comic-book fix for the discerning SF reader,
filled with a sense of wonder and a sense of seriousness." -- Kevin J. Anderson
"Knowing Chris Bennett's writing as I do, I
expected Only Superhuman to have an imaginative plot and a compelling
super-heroine in Emry Blair. What I
hadn't expected was for the backstory to make so much sense. Usually science is the first casualty of
super-hero stories, tossed aside with the breezy rationalization: 'Hey, it's comics!' Only Superhuman is, to my knowledge,
the first hard science super-hero story. And
the story is the better for it." -- Mike
W. Barr, author of Camelot 3000
"Many writers have written about superheroes, but
nobody does it like Christopher L. Bennett." -- Stanley
Schmidt, editor of Analog
Library Journal's SF/Fantasy Debut of the Month! "Bennett
brings believability to the larger-than-life world of superheroes in a
story that should appeal to sf and comics fans alike." -- Jackie Cassada
Cover art by Raymond Swanland
in hardcover and e-book form, as well as a fully dramatized audiobook
from GraphicAudio. A mass-market paperback edition will be released in
is my attempt at a big, flashy, pulpy, sexy,
larger-than-life action blockbuster in prose form. In many ways,
it's an atypical tale for me. It’s more action-oriented than most
of my published work (except for my two Marvel Comics-based novels), it
doesn’t feature aliens (though there are AIs and multiple varieties of
transhuman), and it’s got more sexual content and language than my Star Trek
fiction. But the fact is, I’ve been working on this concept for
literally more than half my life, and it’s very close to my heart. As a
bullied child, I was always drawn to the idea of superheroes, people
with great power who used it only to help and protect. Thus, when I
realized that bionics, genetic engineering, and
such technologies would someday allow real "superpowers," I wanted
to create a vision of a world where real superheroes could plausibly
I conceived of Emerald Blair in the summer of 1988, and made my first try at a spec novel about her, called simply Troubleshooter,
in 1993. I spent the rest of the ’90s rewriting and revising it,
as well as coming up with ideas for multiple sequels and even a
comic-book series, fleshing out the universe with new characters,
worldbuilding, and backstory. But around 2000, I realized that
the book had some
fundamental flaws. My worldbuilding had been too conservative, my
approach lacked a distinctive hook to stand out from the growing trend
of transhuman adventure fiction, and most importantly, the story wasn't
personal enough for Emerald and didn't give her any real growth.
The backstory I'd devised for her was much more interesting
than the actual novel. So I abandoned Troubleshooter,
rethought everything from the ground up, and crafted a new outline
that distilled the best elements from all those sequel and spinoff
ideas as well as the best of my new thinking.
Initially, in pursuit of plausibility, I’d downplayed the
superhero aspects of the concept, but now, to make it stand out, I
decided to play up those superhero tropes, to justify and explore them
as plausibly as I could while still embracing the fun and grandiose
charm of superhero comics. As it happens, superhero novels have
since become a trend themselves, but it seems the hard-SF approach I've
taken is still pretty unusual.
What I tried to do
throughout the book was to take
superhero tropes and ask, "Is there a way this could plausibly happen,
reason it could be justified?" In some cases, the answer was no. Hardly
any of my superheroes or villains have secret identities. Nobody flies
under their own power or runs faster than a speeding bullet. Nobody
wears a cape, and even the flashiest costumes are practical body armor
providing more coverage than a lot of what comics heroes -- and
especially heroines -- tend to wear. And there are a lot of limits on
just what the novel's superheroes can realistically hope to achieve --
which, indeed, is one of the major questions addressed in the book. But
it was interesting and
sometimes surprising to discover just how many comics tropes I could
justify. At times it was a difficult balance, and sometimes I was
tempted to split it off into a separate universe where I could loosen
the rules a bit and be more fanciful. But reconciling the dream of
superheroes with my most rigorous hard-SF universe was important to me.
Plus there are some concepts and worldbuilding touched on here that I
hope to develop further in works set in other places and times in my
I started Only Superhuman in 2003, but then my Star Trek
writing career began in earnest, so I didn’t finish the first draft
until ’05. After a fair amount of rewriting and refining, I began
shopping it to agents in ’07, and though I had no success, one agent
offered constructive criticisms that let me tighten and improve it
considerably. Eventually I decided that
maybe it was too idiosyncratic a project to serve as my introduction to
agents. I submitted it for consideration by Marco Palmieri, then my Star Trek
editor at Pocket, and began work on a different spec novel for my agent
hunt. But then the 2008 economic crisis hit, Marco got laid off
from Pocket before I got his answer, and I got stalled on my other spec
novel. But then, at the 2010 New York Comic-Con, I learned that my fellow Trek
novelist Greg Cox was acquiring books for Tor, and he said he’d be
willing to take a look at what I had. I sent him Only Superhuman,
and the rest is history. After all the obstacles and delays I
faced before, it was a delightful surprise how smoothly it went from
submission to acceptance. (Shortly thereafter, as it happened,
Marco Palmieri began working at Tor, and has been an assistant editor
on this novel, so I got to work with him on it after all. Nice
how that worked out.)
This is the culmination of more than half
a lifetime’s work, the fulfillment of one of my primary goals in
life. What’s more, I finally get to share Emerald Blair, a
character who’s been close to my heart for most of my adult life, with
the rest of the world. And hopefully it's just the beginning...
Stories set in the same universe as Only Superhuman:
|The colony ramship Arachne
accidentally destroys a space habitat of the nomadic Chirrn while its crew
is suspended in hibernation. Even if the colonists can persuade the
Chirrn that the disaster was an accident, will they still be held culpable
for negligent mass murder? And can they get a fair trial despite the
Chirrn's mistrust of planet-dwellers?
the title to read the entire story on this site. A slightly
different form of this story appeared in the November 1998 Analog.
"His story's challenging of conventional SF
wisdom makes Bennett the most notable of this batch of new writers" -- Mark
R. Kelly, Locus, January 1999
The idea for this story was staring me in the face for years. In
an unsold novel manuscript, I had a character on an interstellar ramjet thinking
about its ionizing/defensive lasers, and just as a throwaway line I had her
hope that no alien starships would cross its path. I re-read that line
dozens of times before I realized there was a story in it. But presumably
the designers would address that risk, right? They'd scan for engine
emissions or something.
That's where the Chirrn came in. They were another idea I'd had for
years, with no specific story in mind to put them in. I didn't want
the kind of SF universe where everyone gets spaceflight at the same time.
I wanted a species that had been in space for millennia -- but to explain
why they'd never visited Earth, I decided to use a concept I'd read about,
the idea that inhabitants of interplanetary O'Neill habitats might travel
to the stars by just sticking on engines and taking their worlds with them.
I'd added a prejudice against planet-dwelling in general to make sure they'd
want nothing to do with us. Once I came up with the idea for AVG, I
realized the Chirrn were the perfect species to use -- not only did it heighten
the catastrophe by making it a space habitat rather than a ship that was
destroyed, but their prejudice intensified the conflict. Their mode
of space exploration also raised the question, why bother with something
as difficult as ramjet travel?
(Of course, it's clear from the story that despite their unwillingness
to interact with planet-dwellers, they've extensively studied us from afar.
Not so paradoxical -- prejudiced cultures are often fascinated by the study
of those they need to believe they're superior to. Though I'm being
a bit harsh on the Chirrn; a lot of it is just natural curiosity.)
Personally, in retrospect, I find my debut effort to be a bit dry, talky,
and light on characterization. But I suppose that's okay for a courtroom
drama; and it went over well with the readers. I got a few angry letters
about the outcome, but nobody had anything negative to say about the storytelling.
I also wish I'd developed the Chirrn's culture better, made them more alien;
and some of my scientific assumptions were a bit naive. The revised
version available on this site corrects the science and fixes some wandering
viewpoints (i.e. switching between two characters' inner thoughts in the
same scene), but leaves the bulk of the story intact. (The dates have
been adjusted to reflect a maximum velocity of 0.951c, instead of
the 0.99c postulated in the original.) I've been working
to expand the story into a novel which develops the characters
and the Chirrn's culture in far more depth.
Oh, and for the record, "Chirrn" is only a rough approximation of their
name for themselves. A sequence of a sneeze, a growl and a gulp would
come about equally close.
Notes: The Chirrn
Notes: Ramships and Related Technologies
|"Among the Wild Cybers
|On the planet
Cybele, the self-replicating robot probes sent by humans to survey the planet
have evolved into independent "animals," and are out-competing the native
forms. But crusading biologist Safira Kimenye is determined to defend
their right to exist by whatever means necessary.
Click the title to read the entire story on this site. This story originally appeared in the December 2000 Analog.
"The standout story in this issue... a cleverly-portrayed
riff on machines-as-organisms...." -- Michael Rawdon
"...brilliantly realized.... worth the read
for the strong conceptual realization." -- Jay Lake, Tangent
Online (Okay, he also says it "might have tread more lightly"
and "bogs down in its own balance-of-nature agenda," but I'll take what I
"...a slightly unwieldy title..." -- Mark Watson,
This idea was inspired by a Roger Zelazny story about robot cars roaming
the countryside like herds of bison. His robots were sapient and had
gone wild under the influence of a computer virus. But I was intrigued
by the concept of robots acting like animals, their behavior shaped not by
programming or self-aware thought but by pure Darwinian pressures. So
I tried to think up a situation in which such a circumstance could logically
arise. That situation came with plenty of tough ethical dilemmas built
This is often the way I work. Some people might think that sticking
to strict science can limit creativity, narrow your range of ideas.
But I find just the opposite to be true. Having the framework of science
and logic to build upon helps me generate ideas. It lets me extrapolate,
to figure out the consequences of such-and-such a premise, and arrive at
ideas I never would've found otherwise. AVG and AWCC both started with
the technical questions.
Given that the auxons would ideally need a lot of time for this evolution
to occur, I realized that the ideal planet to set it on would be Gamma Leporis
V, the destination that AVG's colonists never reached. The unexpected
delay in colonization fit the premise perfectly, and it let me tie the stories
together indirectly. I love continuity. Most of the stories I
write are set in a common universe, which I've been developing for most of
my life (though it's gone through many, many changes over the years -- nothing's
locked down until it's published, and AVG was even revised when I republished
My first draft was written in epistolary form, as a transcript of recorded
journal entries and comm traffic. I wanted to pay homage to the likes
of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, by telling it in the form of a naturalist's
research diary. Analog's editor Stanley Schmidt loved the concept
but didn't like the execution. I can't blame him -- it was very forced
and ill-paced. I also didn't have a resolution for the moral dilemma,
and just had the story break off at a point of crisis, a "so what do we do
now?" kind of thing. But Stan hinted that he'd like to see a revised
version of the piece. Unwisely, I sent the first version off to two
more magazines before finally taking Stan's suggestions seriously and hitting
on a solution for the story's problems. For the first time, I actually
hoped to get a rejection, so I could totally redo the story. And of
course I did. The moral: take your editors' advice seriously.
Notes: The Planet Cybele
an accident in space leaves two lovers blind, deaf, and lost, will they
be able to overcome their barriers to communication in time to survive? |
This story appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Alternative Coordinates magazine, and is currently out of print.
not much of a story behind how I conceived of this idea. It just
struck me as an intriguing puzzle: if someone were stranded in space,
blind and deaf with no external assistance, how would they survive?
I thought it would be a good opportunity to do a "problem story"
in the vein of vintage hard SF, the kind in which the characters are
faced with a scientific crisis and have to reason out a solution based
on their scientific knowledge (Asimov's "Marooned off Vesta" being a
classic example). But I wanted to make it more modern and
character-driven in approach. Often in SF, there's a tendency to
choose between hard science and strong characterization, to focus on
one to the detriment of the other, but I've always felt the best
approach was to embrace both.
Ultimately, it's just as well I
chose to focus on character, since the science proved more recalcitrant
than I'd hoped. The problem was, this deviously difficult
challenge I'd posed myself and my characters was maybe a little too
difficult. I employed a certain SF concept of my own, a fresh
approach (I hope) to the idea of exotic matter, as a means of getting
the characters into their mess, but the question was, could the same
concept provide a way out? And if not, what other alternatives
were there? My struggle to think up a solution ended up as part
of the story.
This is the first story I ever wrote in the
first person. I generally avoid first person because I find it
implausible. I always wonder, how does the narrator have the
skill to tell this story? How do they get the opportunity to
write and publish it? How do they remember it in such detail,
right down to the verbatim dialogue? "The Weight of Silence" was
my attempt to take a more realistic approach to a first-person
narrative, to tackle these problems rather than glossing them over.
And so the challenge of telling the story becomes one of the
problems the narrator has to solve.
Spoiler discussion and notes
Stories set in the Hub Universe:
of the Matter"
Hub is the most important place in the galaxy, the single point that
makes all interstellar travel possible. But can an unimportant
man from an unimportant planet called Earth solve its mysteries where
all others have failed? ...Well, probably not. But that won't
stop him from trying -- or others from trying to prevent it.|
This story appeared in the March 2010 Analog.
Once, I formulated a theory about science fiction sitcoms. This was before Futurama, before I saw Red Dwarf. All the SF sitcoms around, from the best (Buck Henry's Quark) to the worst (UPN's Homeboys in Outer Space),
seemed to fail, and my belief was that it was because they were all
farces and spoofs, set in worlds that were merely mocking SF tropes
rather than having any integrity of their own. It seemed to me
that for a series to win an audience, its world and characters had to
be believable enough for them to invest in. Something that was
pure spoof could be entertaining as a movie, but as an ongoing series
there needs to be more. Red Dwarf and Futurama
supported this belief; while both shows had a lot of spoof in them,
they managed to build interesting universes of their own, and to go
beyond simply making fun of science fiction to telling stories that
actually were science
fiction, that worked as interesting and entertaining speculative tales
in their own right while being told in a funny way.
So I began
thinking about what I'd like to see in an SF sitcom: namely a show
whose premise was as solid, credible, and well-developed as any
dramatic SF universe, but whose focus was on humorous characters and
situations within that universe. After all, there's nothing
intrinsically absurd about a sheriff in a small town, an Army hospital
in the Korean War, a taxi company in New York, or a radio psychologist
in Seattle. Most sitcoms depict naturalistic situations and
derive their humor from characters and events. Why couldn't
an SF sitcom do the same? Especially since there's plenty of
potential for humor in a plausibly created SF universe. Just
imagine the cultural clashes and misunderstandings between species, or
the ways that technology could go wrong.
Naturally, an SF sitcom
would be under budgetary constraints, so I'd have to keep those in
mind. Perhaps the best approach would be to emulate sitcoms like Taxi and Wings -- or dramas like Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5
-- by using a transportation nexus as the setting, a place that many
different people pass through, allowing a wide range of stories
while staying on a few standing sets. What if it's the
transportation nexus, the only means of FTL travel known to exist?
How would it operate? What would be the ramifications?
Once I had the idea of the Hub, it spawned all sorts of rich
The sets for a sitcom couldn't be too elaborate,
so why not make it the cheapest, most run-down, least technologically
advanced section of this great interstellar nexus? After all, if
Earth were new to the interstellar community, it might not rate
classier facilities. And humor often comes from failure and
frustration. (The short-lived The John Larroquette Show, set at a decrepit bus station, was an influence on me here.)
you need hope, too. Your hero needs a goal, an aspiration.
If humanity's so lowly in interstellar society, maybe he wants to
prove humanity's worth. A nice, optimistic, humanist message.
But it needs a comedic twist, so maybe the hero's a lovable
loser, a guy with lots of hope but questionable qualifications.
And what better foil for him than a cynical leading lady who's
been around the block a few times? Along with a helpful alien who
represents the brighter, more idealized side of galactic life -- and
its comical downside.
Now, not long after I came up with the Hub
universe, I decided I really didn't have any interest in moving to
Hollywood and pursuing a TV career. So I figured I'd do The Hub
as a series of short stories and maybe eventually sell the TV rights.
But it was a long time before I came up with enough story
premises to feel confident about its prospects as a series. Once
I did, I went ahead and wrote "The Hub of the Matter." And
rewrote, and rewrote. Comedy requires precision. For a
while, I was too nervous to submit it. But I finally did, and it
sold on the first try. Which was heartening. Once it sold,
I began work on a second story.
I really like about the Hub universe is that it has a single,
distinctive core concept that everything else grows out of. It's
got a clear identity -- good branding -- but it has so many
possibilities. It's a universe I'm hoping to spend a lot of time
Spoiler discussion and notes
|"Home is |
Where the Hub Is"
quest to solve the mysteries of the Hub continues to get him, Nashira,
and Rynyan in trouble -- though it's the kind of trouble not all of
them have a problem with. What happens when a moral compromise
becomes too comfortable? |
This story appeared in the December 2010 Analog.
the basics of the Hub universe established, I wanted to delve into how
the Hub affected the societies that made use of it. What does it
do to a world's culture, economics, etc. when its commerce with the
rest of the galaxy relies on a single access point? And what
happens if that access point is in an inconvenient place?
needed to come up with a way to justify having Nashira make an
interesting discovery so soon after the last one, when the first story
had established how unlikely such discoveries were. The key was
for the "discovery" to be an arranged event. But one that didn't
have the expected consequences.
I can't say much more without spoilers, so the discussion will continue here:
Spoiler discussion and notes
Other original fiction:
|"No Dominion" ||What
happens to homicide investigation when death becomes a curable
condition? The answer is more complicated than you might expect. |
This story has appeared online at DayBreak Magazine since June 13, 2010. Click the title to read it there.
As a lifelong Star Trek
fan, I've always favored optimistic science fiction, and have mostly
tried to write fiction set in a future that's better than the present.
However, over the years, I've learned to add more darkness and
ambiguity to my stories, on the principle that those were what sold.
Even though the world in my fiction is an improved place, I often
focus on the parts where things are still going wrong. Even
when everyone is trying to do the right thing, the situations are too
messy for an easy answer and outcomes tend to be bittersweet. My
work has turned out to be less optimistic than I originally intended.
So I was pleased to discover the existence of the Shine anthology,
a project undertaken by editor Jetse de Vries to focus on truly
optimistic science fiction, stories that portrayed a better future and
a vision of how we could attain it. This, I figured, was right up
my alley. But as it turned out, I had trouble thinking of an
idea. The anthology's guidelines specified near-future SF,
set within the next 50 years.
I tend to assume that things are likely to get
worse before they get better, that climate change, overpopulation, and
the impending technological revolution will create a lot of turmoil
that we'll have to work hard to overcome before things can really start
improving. Also I'm
just not a near-future kind of writer, preferring to set my fiction
farther afield in space and time.
I kept setting this aside for later consideration, and almost missed the deadline as a result. When I realized
I only had three weeks left, I knew that was it
-- either I came up with something in the next 24 hours or I gave up
completely. I expected the latter
-- but by the next morning, I had the idea for "No Dominion." The
title, fittingly, comes from Dylan Thomas's poem "And Death Shall
Have No Dominion." The
idea of curing most forms of death certainly struck me as
optimistic, yet I realized it offered a number of interesting
complications from a law-enforcement perspective. The
result is more a police procedural, heavily influenced by Law & Order,
than a classic murder mystery.
had the story written within days. As it turned out, the
anthology deadline was extended by a month, which was good, because I belatedly
read a pair of posts on the Shine
weblog spelling out in detail what de Vries was and wasn't looking for,
and the original version of my story violated several of his ground
rules. For one thing, it was set in space. More
importantly, it merely showed a better future without really discussing
how the world could get
better. I took a while to revise the story to fit de Vries'
parameters, and it worked. There wasn't room for my story in the
anthology proper, but de Vries decided to publish the overflow in an
online form, creating DayBreak Magazine for that purpose, and I was delighted when he offered to buy my story for DayBreak.
Dominion" is my second published story to be written in the first
person -- the first being "The Weight of Silence" (see above) -- and one of the few I've ever written in that form.
First-person is something I generally don't like to use unless I
can justify the narrating character having the talent, inclination, and sufficiently precise memroy
to tell the story in prose form. That isn't really the case
here, so I'm not sure why I went with first person. It just felt
like the right approach here, perhaps because it's a common idiom for
story is not set in the Only Superhuman universe. If not for the 50-year deadline, it
might have been compatible; as it is, though, it's in a world with a
swifter rate of medical advancement. Whether I do anything else
in this story's universe remains to be seen. But I've always felt
it was a waste to create a whole universe and only do one story in it.
Spoiler discussion and notes
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