Only Superhuman/Troubleshooters


Only Superhuman

Only Superhuman MMPB cover

In 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
Only Superhuman by Christopher L. Bennett  Trade Paperback:
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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…


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; Koyama Hikari
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 blog (archived)

Troubleshooter Short Fiction

“The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of”



Footprints in the Stars
An adventure of the founder of Only Superhuman‘s Troubleshooter Corps in his heroic prime. Can one lone Troubleshooter prevent war from breaking out over an alien artifact with untold powers? “There’s only one war.”


This story appears in the anthology Footprints in the Stars (eSpec Books, Oct. 2019).

  • “The author creates a richly imagined future and an intricate, suspenseful plot. One notable feature of this story is the way in which it uses the notion of a superhero in an unusually plausible way.” — Victoria Silverwolf, TangentOnline

“The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of” is my third published tale in the Troubleshooter series (with the fourth, “Conventional Powers,” on the way in Analog), and the only one to date that doesn’t center on Emerald Blair/the Green Blaze, instead flashing back two years before Emerald’s birth to the height of the Troubles (as I’ve retroactively but logically named the period of strife during which the Troubleshooters arose). Instead, the story centers on Yukio Villareal, aka Troubleshooter Shashu, the Archer of the Asteroids — the man who embraced the “superhero” image of the early Troubleshooters and turned it into a functional reality. I’ve tried to make him suitably suave and swashbuckling. (Imagine a cross between Cesar Romero and Toshiro Mifune in their prime.)

To readers of Only Superhuman and its prequel “Aspiring to Be Angels,” introducing alien technology into the backstory of the Troubleshooters may seem incongruous. But this is an idea I conceived before OS was published, so it’s always been part of the intended backstory. It began as a flashback within a possible novella or novel revolving around the alien artifact and the Troubleshooters’ connection to it. Since no novel sequels to OS have ever happened to date, the idea went onto the back burner.

But when Danielle Ackley-McPhail of eSpec Books invited me to pitch to Footprints in the Stars — an anthology on the theme of humanity’s discovery of the first evidence of alien life (as opposed to direct contact) — I realized that the Shashu flashback from that outline was the perfect fit for its premise, and could easily work as a self-contained short story. (And that doing so would not preclude telling the larger story at some later date.) I was pleased to be able to contribute, since Footprints is the first non-Star Trek anthology I’ve ever appeared in.

Spoiler discussion and notes

“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

 “Conventional Powers”


A tale of Emerald Blair (the Green Blaze) set after Only Superhuman. Visit a superhero convention… in a world of actual superheroes!


Appearing in the September/October 2019 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

Also available on my Patreon.

The idea for “Conventional Powers” was inspired by my trips to New York Comic-Con in its first several years. I remember mentioning it to fellow authors or editors at one NYCC – possibly even the 2012 one where Only Superhuman debuted, though I think it may have been the one before that, or even the earlier one where I first pitched the novel to its editor Greg Cox. Anyway, somewhere along the line, I got to wondering what a superhero/comics/sci-fi type of convention would be like in the Troubleshooter milieu where superheroes actually exist as a profession, and where the lore of superhero comics has been embraced as a sort of foundational mythology by the transhuman Strider culture of the Main Asteroid Belt. I figured it would be a hybrid of a sci-fi convention and an industry trade show where professionals got together to discuss their methods and learn from each other, or where new technologies were offered to potential investors. Merging the two types of convention was too fun an idea to pass up.

Originally, a simpler version of this story was part of the sample chapters I wrote as a pitch for an Only Superhuman sequel novel. The book didn’t perform well enough for Tor to commission a sequel, though, and eventually I decided to rework the convention scenes into a standalone story. I tried to cover a lot of aspects of the convention experience, including allegories/parodies of some of the controversies that the fan community has seen in the past few years. But at the same time, I took the opportunity to explore the larger community of transhuman “mods” and superpowered crimefighters in the Strider community of the Main Asteroid Belt, beyond the Troubleshooters. I also got to delve more into the behind-the-scenes workings and support staff of the Troubleshooter Corps itself. I’m pleased by how much worldbuilding texture this story adds to the Troubleshooter setting.

Spoiler discussion and notes

Patreon content

“Origin Stories: Homecoming”: A character vignette taking place midway through Chapter 14 of Only Superhuman and elaborating on Emerald Blair’s decision to enlist in the Troubleshooter Corps.

“They Also Serve”: A character vignette taking place just before Only Superhuman, focusing on Emerald Blair’s mentor Arkady Nazarbayev.

“The Baseless Fabric of This Vision”: A full account of the adventure whose climax opened Ch. 4 of Only Superhuman, illustrated with some of my thumbnail sketches from the spec comic book script I adapted it from.

“Legacy Hero”: An original sequel to “Conventional Powers.” When the newest Troubleshooter inherits the mantle of the Corps’s greatest detective, she and the Green Blaze must try to crack her last unsolved case.

Guardian Angel: A 5-part serial focusing on Koyama Hikari/Troubleshooter Tenshi, who fled her upbringing as the ultimate assassin and now atones by fighting for peace. With help from a reluctant ally, Tenshi’s pursuit of a devious fugitive leads her into a confrontation with the past she hoped she had escaped. The self-contained secondary plot of a planned novel, previewed as a Patreon serial.

Excerpt from TROUBLESHOOTER (1999 draft): The opening of my abortive first attempt at an Emerald Blair novel.

Solsys Geography Index: Expanded/updated from Only Superhuman.

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