Original Short Fiction

 

 “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad”

Analog SF&F June 2016 cover

A mystery set in the universe of Only Superhuman. A fatal accident in space is linked to a movement to liberate AIs from enslavement. Are they willing to kill humans to defend the rights of artificial life? And do the cybers even want their help?

This story originally appeared in the June 2016 Analog.

  • “Bennett gives us a peek into the future, with some intriguing insights into the personality of an AI.” — Kevin P. Hallett, Tangent

“Murder on the Cislunar Railroad” is my first true murder mystery. Technically it’s my second after “No Dominion” — but that was more a police procedural in the Law and Order vein, while this is a proper whodunit with clues hidden in plain sight, though hopefully with some surprising twists on the format. The Agatha Christie nod in the title is intentional, naturally, but the primary reference is to a different sort of railroad.

This is my first Analog story in 15 years that isn’t set in the Hub universe. In fact, it’s going back to my main original universe, the one my first two Analog stories occupied (see below). It takes place in the same colonized Solar System setting as Only Superhuman but about 15 years earlier, and it connects indirectly to the backstory of Zephyr, Emerald Blair’s AI (cyber) sidekick. This is because I wrote an earlier version of the story years ago and cannibalized it for ideas when I needed to flesh out Zephyr’s backstory. For a while, after several failures to sell the story, I decided to save it for use as a flashback within an Only Superhuman sequel. Now that such a sequel novel seems unlikely, I decided to have another go at making it work as a standalone piece, and I realized what the problem may have been.

When I first wrote the story, I tried to work out all the character backstories in advance so that every role would be well-drawn and textured. Which was a good idea in principle, but somehow I ended up with a story populated almost entirely with unlikeable characters. I suppose it’s because I wanted them all to be plausible murder suspects, but it made them a nasty bunch to read about. So I rewrote it to make the characters more palatable — or I thought I had. When I revisited the story more recently, I realized that a central character who needed to be empathetic still came off as rather haughty and cold. Correcting that may have been what I needed, since I sold the re-revised story on my first try.

Spoiler discussion and notes

“The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing”
A tale of love and transhumanism in a remote and dangerous star system. There has been a division in humanity due to a horrendous accident, followed by an even more divisive war. The chasm between those two halves seem unbridgeable. Suddenly, due to unforeseen circumstance, the chance to reconnect becomes a real possibility.

This story has been online in Buzzy Mag since November 13, 2014. Click the title to read it there.

Like Only Superhuman, this is a story I’ve been working on in various forms for a very long time, sticking with it despite setbacks because I loved the setting, characters, and driving emotions of the story so much. I’m particularly proud of the worldbuilding I did for this tale, and its plot came from a deeply personal place, arising from my experience with loneliness and my feelings about the preciousness of human contact. But as with anything so personal, I was too close to it to see its flaws. I first wrote it in 1998, and the rejection letters I got were promising, with a couple of editors calling it poignant and well-told, but with a plot that didn’t quite work for them. The rejections shaped the various revisions that followed, not always for the better. I fleshed out the protagonist’s culture one way, which made it too dark and unbelievable, so I took it a different way, making it more spiritual. But then I realized the heroine didn’t really grow or change, a problem with several of my earlier works. So I gave her a fuller personal journey in flashbacks, further enhancing the worldbuilding too. But adding the extra material had swelled the original 8,000-word novelette to 13,000 words, and I soon used up all the markets open to stories that long.

Then, somewhere along the line, I decided for reasons I don’t quite remember that the star system I’d set the story in, Diadem, didn’t suit my needs, or didn’t actually work the way I’d depicted it, or something. At some point I learned the assumptions I’d made about the behavior of asteroids in a binary system was wrong too, but I think that came later. In any case, I chose to shelve the story until I could find a better setting, hoping that some new markets might open up in the interim. Unable to find a real binary star system that would suit my needs, I debated whether to find a way to make the premise work in a single-star system or to set the story further into the future and far enough out in the galaxy that I could invent an imaginary star system that met my desired parameters. In 2008, I did a draft that went with the latter approach, but it was still too long — and perhaps I’d changed enough in the ensuing years that I didn’t identify as much with the protagonist’s motivations anymore, giving me second thoughts about the story’s ending. So I never got around to submitting it.

But in 2013, I learned about an anthology that was accepting submissions for cyborg/transhuman-themed stories, and I figured that “Butterfly’s Wing” could work, if I could trim it below 10,000 words and play up the human-modification angle more fully. This led me to abandon the flashbacks and make the protagonist’s learning curve more integral to the present story, a definite improvement. But I realized that the old ending had a problem I’d never really noticed before, an unintended implication I wasn’t comfortable with. Fortunately, the new conceptual elements I’d added for the anthology opened the door for a new twist to the ending, one that resolved the problem. The cyborg anthology still didn’t take it, but on my very next submission, to the online Buzzy Mag, the story finally, finally sold! After sixteen rejections, one unanswered submission, and one magazine going under before responding to my submission, I finally sold “The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing” on my 19th try.

Although once I got the copyedits and notes from Buzzy‘s fiction editor Laura Anne Gilman, I realized that the story I’d sold them was a mess. I’d revised it rather hastily to meet the anthology’s deadline, and in trying to trim it down and combine elements from multiple drafts, I’d ended up with a rather sloppy patchwork that lost some important exposition and didn’t integrate or sell the new ideas as well as it should have. I’m frankly amazed they bought it in that condition. But Laura’s notes helped me clarify and tighten the story quite a bit — and after that final revision, it was ready at long, long last.

Of all my unsold stories, this is probably the one that meant the most to me, so I’m very happy that it’s finally getting published. I’m also glad that I get to expand my main universe a little more. This story is set further into the future than any of my other published (or unpublished!) stories in this universe; in fact, I’m not entirely certain when it takes place, but I’ve tentatively placed it in the late 25th century.

Spoiler discussion and notes

“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.

So 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.

I 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 blog 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.

“No Dominion” is my second published story to be written in the first person — the first being “The Weight of Silence” (see below) — 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 memory 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 detective stories.

This story, unlike the others on this page, 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

 

“Aggravated
Vehicular
Genocide”Analog Nov 98
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?

This story originally appeared in the November 1998 Analog.

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  •  “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.

Chirrn

Click to enlarge

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.

“Among the Wild Cybers
of Cybele”Analog Dec 2000
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.

This story originally appeared in the December 2000 Analog.

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  • “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 can get.)
  • “…a slightly unwieldy title…” — Mark Watson, BestSFNet Reviews

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 into it.

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 it here).

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.

“The Weight
of Silence”
When 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.

There’s 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.

Unfortunately, this story spent the least amount of time in print of any of my stories, since Alternative Coordinates went under less than a year after its publication, and as an online magazine, it has no back issues available.

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