Only Superhuman

Only Superhuman MMPB coverIn 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

2107 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.

Emerald 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 for October 2012! “[T]he author… has created a world of believable supermen and women set against a complex world of rival factions not unlike those of Renaissance city-states…. 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

 

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Only Superhuman audiobook  Audiobook:

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Directed and narrated by Nanette Savard
Starring Alyssa Wilmoth as Emerald, Colleen
Delany as Psyche, Thomas Keegan as Zephyr,
and Elliot Dash as Thorne

Hardcover/Mass-market Paperback:

Out of print. Check used-book dealers.


Only Superhuman 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 other such technologies would someday allow real “superpowers,” I wanted to create a vision of a world where real superheroes could plausibly exist.

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, a 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 main universe.

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…

Notes:

Novel annotations (major spoilers!)
Character Profiles (mild spoilers)
Historical Timeline
Measuring the Green Blaze’s powers (mild spoilers)

Character Art: Novel cover; Emerald Blair; Psyche Thorne
Audiobook discussion; My visit to GraphicAudio

Essay on Tor/Forge blog
Interview on My Bookish Ways
Interview on The Qwillery
Podcast interview on The Chronic Rift
Podcast interview on GraphicAudio’s All in Your Mind
Essay on Upcoming4.me blog (archived)

“Aspiring to Be Angels”

An Only Superhuman prequel story appearing in Among the Wild Cybers: Tales Beyond the Superhuman

In the wake of a personal setback, apprentice Troubleshooter Emerald Blair is on the verge of washing out of the Corps. Answering a distress call from an AI research institute, Emry ends up alone against an insane superintelligence and must find her way again if she hopes to survive… and earn her name as a superhero.

When my initial attempts to sell Only Superhuman were unsuccessful, I decided to try introducing the Emerald Blair character and her world through short stories to generate interest for the novel. So in 2010, I wrote the first version of “Aspiring to Be Angels,” under the title “Ascending into Madness.” It was heavily inspired by the 1998 anime series Serial Experiments Lain, written by Chiaki J. Konaka and directed by Ryûtarô Nakamura. The Lain influence made it a darker, creepier story than Only Superhuman, almost more of a horror story than a superhero story. Since I was considering it as the introduction to the character, I chose to downplay the superhero element. Setting it during Emry’s apprenticeship was a good way to do that.

Once Greg Cox acquired the novel for Tor Books, obviating the need for introductory stories, I decided instead to use “Ascending” as the opening flashback chapter in the second novel. Alas, the sales of Only Superhuman were not strong enough to warrant a sequel, so I revisited the story as a standalone, rewriting it to fold in more of the superhero element, since the novel had already planted the seeds.

But I felt that Emerald’s character arc was a bit lacking. The events of the story were supposed to be a learning experience for her, but it didn’t feel like a crucial enough event in her training or her life. So I needed to deepen it. In time, it occurred to me that I could incorporate a plot thread that I’d originally written as a flashback in Troubleshooter, my first, failed attempt at an Emerald Blair novel, and had then reworked for the final flashback chapter in the first draft of Only Superhuman. I ended up cutting that chapter for the sake of the narrative’s flow, so that story remained untold; yet it was a major moment of crisis in Emry’s training, and it could mesh well with the themes and character arc of this story, adding richness and impact. The shift in thematic focus led me to rename the story “Aspiring to Be Angels.”

Spoiler discussion and notes

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