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AMONG THE WILD CYBERS: Putting it together

I’ve just e-mailed the corrected galleys for Among the Wild Cybers: Tales Beyond the Superhuman back to the publisher, which should be the last step for me in putting the interior of the book together, though I still need to work on coming up with a first draft for the cover blurb. Anyway, it was nice to see the whole thing put together as a book, and to get a sense of what the experience of reading through it will be. I’m pretty satisfied with how it worked out.

I thought it might be worth explaining how we arrived on the story order for the collection. My first thought was to go with chronological order, because that’s my natural inclination. That order would’ve looked like this:

  • “No Dominion” (2059)
  • “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad” (2092)
  • “Aspiring to Be Angels” (2106)
  • “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide” (2176)
  • “The Weight of Silence” (2202)
  • “Among the Wild Cybers of Cybele” (2250)
  • “Twilight’s Captives”  (2315)
  • “The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing” (c. 2480)

I thought it made for a decent story order, with a fairly strong starting story and a really strong closing story, and a good mix of lengths and focuses in between. I figured that if I inserted transitional passages explaining the intervening history to tie the stories together, it would give it a better flow. “No Dominion” wasn’t in continuity with the others, but as the odd one out, it seemed to make sense to put it either first or last, so including it in the chronological ordering seemed to work, however awkwardly.

But there was a glaring problem right off: That order opened with two murder mysteries, which would’ve given a wrong idea about what to expect from the rest of the stories. I was sufficiently attached to chronological order that I was willing to live with that, but my editor, Danielle McPhail, felt it was important to keep the two mysteries separate, to improve the flow. She agreed with me that “Butterfly’s Wing” was the strongest story and should go last, but she felt the next-strongest one was “Among the Wild Cybers of Cybele,” and that it should go first (hence the name of the collection). Beyond that, she left it up to me to pick the story order, requiring only that the two mysteries be separate. I took it as a general guideline to avoid putting similar stories together.

I felt that the brand-new Emerald Blair story, “Aspiring to Be Angels,” should come second, so the audience wouldn’t have to wait too long for it. I put “Twilight’s Captives” and “No Dominion” next because I wanted to front-load the collection with stories featuring strong, impressive female leads, particularly ones I hope to revisit in future works. I put “Captives” first because that let me alternate between stories with an interstellar/alien focus and a Sol System/investigation focus.

I couldn’t follow “No Dominion” with either “Cislunar Railroad” (both mysteries) or “The Weight of Silence” (both first-person narratives), so the fifth story had to be “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide.” And I didn’t want to put “Weight” next to “Butterfly’s Wing,” because those are both two-handers about a man and a woman dealing with a crisis in space. So “Weight” had to come after “Vehicular,” making those the only two consecutive stories still in chronological order. And that left only “Cislunar” for the penultimate slot. That broke the alternating pattern between interstellar settings and Sol System settings, but I guess it’s good that the pattern isn’t too rigid.

The upshot is a collection in which no two consecutive stories are set in the same century: 2250, 2106, 2315, 2059, 2176, 2202, 2092, c. 2480. That’s a pretty good mixture. In reading through the collection for the galley edits, I found that the jumping around in the timeline didn’t bother me. After all, the stories have fairly little direct connection to one another, so a linear progression from one to the next isn’t hugely important. It does feel a little odd to see “Wild Cybers” referencing the events of “Vehicular Genocide” when that one doesn’t come along until later in the collection, but in its own way, that kind of works. Referencing something near the start of a book and only explaining it later is a fairly common storytelling device, and this particular reference isn’t crucial to the story, just a bit of backstory that can wait to be fleshed out. There’s a similar instance of that connecting two other stories, though it’s looser.

Of course, there is a historical appendix at the end to put the stories in chronological context, so readers can use that as a guide if they want to read (or re-read) the stories chronologically. The appendix is put together from the transitional passages I wrote when I expected the collection to be in chronological sequence, although I was able to restructure and expand it once I put it all together into one essay, so it actually works better that way. It does, however, assume that the reader has already read the stories.

All in all, I’m really glad that this is nearly a book. I only announced it to the world two days ago, but I’ve been working on this collection on and off for nearly a year now. I can’t wait until all of these stories are finally available to my readers in one comprehensive package.

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Announcing AMONG THE WILD CYBERS — and the return of the Green Blaze!

At last, I’m able to make my first new project announcement in over a year. Among the Wild Cybers: Tales Beyond the Superhuman, a story collection reprinting nearly all of my previously uncollected short fiction, will soon be published by eSpec Books. And I have even better news: the collection will also feature a new, never-before-published novelette starring Emerald Blair, the Green Blaze, in her first print appearance since Only Superhuman!

Among the Wild Cybers will be available in both print and e-book form, and will be crowdfunded by a Kickstarter campaign that eSpec will soon be launching, probably later this month. The collection, edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail, will include all my short fiction from my default/Only Superhuman universe, plus the bonus story “No Dominion” (“bonus” meaning it was the only one left over and I didn’t want to leave it uncollected). The title comes from the first story appearing in the collection, “Among the Wild Cybers of Cybele,” but as it happens, the majority of the stories do feature cybers (AIs) in some capacity, though only three focus on them heavily.

Emerald Blair, "Green Blaze"

Copyright Christopher L. Bennett

The new Green Blaze story, “Aspiring to Be Angels,” is an 8000-word novelette depicting a key moment in Emerald Blair’s Troubleshooter apprenticeship. I know, I know – prequels. Not as exciting as a sequel would be. But Emry’s superhero training was a part of her backstory that I didn’t manage to include in OS’s flashback chapters; I tried to include it, but I ended up skipping over it for the sake of the novel’s flow. “Aspiring” allows me to fill that gap, and to explore the process by which Emerald Blair became the Green Blaze. Doing a prequel also allows me to bring back Emerald’s mentor Arkady Nazarbayev and delve further into his hero-sidekick relationship with Emry.

In some ways, though, “Aspiring to Be Angels” is more a horror story than a superhero story. It’s not gory or anything, but it’s more dark, bizarre, and creepy than my usual work. It’s something of an homage to the anime Serial Experiments Lain. But don’t worry, it’s also an integral part of Emerald Blair’s journey, true to her character and her world. And I’m hoping it’s just the beginning of her continued adventures, in one form or another.

Another story in the collection, “The Weight of Silence,” might as well be new for most readers, since the online magazine where it appeared, Alternative Coordinates, ceased to exist less than a year after the story’s publication. AC did have a printable PDF edition, as I recall, so there may be a few print copies of “The Weight of Silence” out there somewhere, but I doubt there are very many. So it’s been effectively a “lost” story for nearly seven years, and I’m glad it will finally be available again.

This will also be the print debut for two of my stories that have previously appeared only online, “No Dominion” and “The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing.” Both stories are still available online as of this writing (see links on my Homepage and Original Fiction pages), but between them, “Aspiring to Be Angels,” and “The Weight of Silence,” half of the stories in Among the Wild Cybers are appearing in print for the first or nearly the first time. Which means, hopefully, that “Dominion,” “Caress,” and “Weight” will finally get added to my Internet Speculative Fiction Database author page. Apparently their editors don’t pay much attention to online publications, although they do list my Star Trek e-novellas.

I’d originally expected that the stories in Among the Wild Cybers would appear in chronological order, but Danielle and I decided instead to arrange them for the best reading experience, so no two adjacent stories would be too much alike. Here’s the tentative order, with original publication dates:

  • “Among the Wild Cybers of Cybele” (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Dec 2000)
  • “Aspiring to Be Angels”                     (new)
  • “Twilight’s Captives”                         (Analog, Jan/Feb 2017)
  • “No Dominion”                                   (DayBreak Magazine, June 2010)
  • “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide”     (Analog, Nov 1998)
  • “The Weight of Silence”                     (Alternative Coordinates, Spring 2010)
  • “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad”    (Analog, June 2016)
  • “The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing”   (Buzzy Mag, Nov 2014)

There will, however, be an appendix providing a chronological ordering of the stories and an overview of the future history they occupy – including a few new bits of history and worldbuilding that haven’t appeared in print before. In writing that material, I even thought of a way to tweak a part of that history so that a couple of stories have a stronger connection than they did originally.

Between them, Only Superhuman and Among the Wild Cybers will contain the entire published OS continuity to date. If you also buy Hub Space, you’ll have all my published original fiction so far except for “Abductive Reasoning,” which came out too recently to be included in ATWC (which didn’t have room for it anyway). But that’s all right – having a story still uncollected gives me an incentive to keep writing more so I can build a second collection. Hopefully this time it won’t take 20 years to do it.

I’ll provide the link to the Kickstarter page once it’s available. Keep an eye out for updates on publication date, cover art, etc. I’m so glad I can finally post news about this book!

Another ANALOG story coming — “Twilight’s Captives”

This is threatening to become a regular thing — I’ve sold my seventh story to Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Called “Twilight’s Captives,” it’s a novelette about an interspecies diplomatic crisis in which a tense hostage situation, created and complicated by a fundamental clash of human and alien values, threatens to spark an interstellar war.

Like my previous Analog story, “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad,” this tale is in my main original-SF universe; but it’s centuries further in the future and delves into humanity’s FTL interstellar era, a period that to date has only been peripherally glimpsed in my Buzzy Mag story “The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing” (and foreshadowed in my long-out-of-print “The Weight of Silence”). This is also only my second published story in that universe to feature sapient aliens, the first being my professional debut, “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide” way back in 1998. I’ve developed a number of alien races for my default universe over the years, putting a lot of thought into their evolution and culture and history, but somehow I’ve almost never managed to sell any stories that featured them (in part because I was saving the main ones for novels — a strategy I’ve been reassessing lately). But “Twilight’s Captives” introduces aliens of three distinct types, belonging to two major astropolitical unions. I’m glad I’m finally getting the chance to flesh out this underutilized aspect of my future history.

Like “Cislunar” and “Butterfly’s,” this is actually an older, unsold story that I recently took another stab at, emboldened by my success with those two. But this one required surprisingly little reworking to make the grade — just a little streamlining here and there and a stronger opening paragraph. Which goes to show how important a good beginning is.

The publication date hasn’t been set yet, but I’ll let you know when it is.

I’ve sold a novelette! “The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing”

I’m pleased to announce the sale of an original novelette, “The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing,” to the online magazine Buzzy Mag. It’s a transhumanist love story set in a young, distant star system where human castaways have transformed themselves to survive among the asteroids. It may sound a bit similar to the setting of Only Superhuman — and in fact it’s set in the same overall universe — but the transhumanism here goes much farther than anything in Emerald Blair’s world.

I’m particularly pleased because this is a story I originally wrote a long time ago, around the time of my earliest sales to Analog, but was never quite able to get into a sellable condition. I got a slew of rejection letters from editors telling me it was a beautiful, poignant tale but didn’t quiiiite work for them, and I couldn’t figure out how to get it over that last barrier. Eventually I realized that, on top of that, I’d made some scientific mistakes in my portrayal of the setting, so I shelved it until I could figure out how to resolve both problems. And that’s where things stood for quite a while. But last year, I tried revising it to submit to a themed anthology that I felt it might work for, and I noticed a couple of plot problems I hadn’t spotted before and reworked the story to fix them. It didn’t quite fit the anthology, as it turned out, but apparently the revisions did the trick, since Buzzy Mag bought it. I’m really glad that the story will finally see the light of day after all these years.

This will be my fifth published work in my “default” universe, after “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide,” “Among the Wild Cybers of Cybele,” “The Weight of Silence,” and Only Superhuman. It doesn’t really have any direct connections to any of the others, though — it’s too far removed in space and time for that. But it’s one more small step to fleshing out that universe and maybe, eventually, building it into a more unified whole. It’s also my first published default-universe tale since 2000 to be set outside the Sol System.

The publication date for “The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing” hasn’t been determined yet, but I’ll announce it once it’s set.

ALTERNATIVE COORDINATES is gone

I’ve just discovered that the Alternative Coordinates webzine has apparently gone completely dead, taking my story “The Weight of Silence” along with it.  Effectively, that story is no longer in print.  Hopefully I’ll find a way to get it back into print sometime.

I guess online fiction magazines are still something of a gamble, even though they’re increasingly common these days.  But it’s always a shame when one of them goes under.  I’m grateful to Jeff Cochran and the staff of Alternative Coordinates for publishing one of my stories, even if it was only online for 10 months.  I hope they bounce back in some form.

Earth: A nice place to visit…?

In my last post, I talked about the interactive Google Maps thingy at the end of “No Dominion” on its DayBreak Magazine page.  It occurred to me that “No Dominion” is the only one of my published original works that could have a Google Maps page, since it’s the only one that’s set even partly on Earth.  And the first draft of it was set on a habitat in Earth orbit!  In fact, of my five published original stories, only the latest two, “The Weight of Silence” and “No Dominion,” are even set in the Sol System.  “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide” and “Among the Wild Cybers of Cybele” are set within ten parsecs of Earth, respectively en route to and at Gamma Leporis.  “The Hub of the Matter” and its upcoming sequel “Home is Where the Hub Is” are set near the center of the galaxy, 40,000 light years from Earth, and at various other locations within a volume 300,000 light-years in radius around that point.

What can I say?  I like space.  It was Star Trek that introduced me to science fiction, and the original show never went to Earth except in the occasional time-travel story.  And space is just so much roomier than Earth.  The tastes of the prose SF community turned away from “space opera” for a while, though that’s somewhat reversed itself by now, but I never lost my preference for it.

Ironically, my first published Star Trek tale, SCE: “Aftermath,” was set primarily in San Francisco and, I believe, pretty much entirely within the Solar System (other dimensions notwithstanding).  However, I think the only things I’ve written since then that are actually set on Earth (at least from the perspective of the viewpoint characters) are a few pages toward the end of The Buried Age and the briefing in the first chapter of Greater Than the Sum (although the prologue of Over a Torrent Sea opens in orbit of Mars).  My upcoming Star Trek DTI novel will probably spend more time on Earth than any of my other Trek fiction, although it features quite a lot of other locations as well.

I was going to say “than anything I’ve had published to date,” but then I remembered my X-Men and Spider-Man novels, both of which are set entirely on Earth (alternate timelines notwithstanding).  However, my original idea for the Spidey novel had Spidey travelling to another planet; I liked the idea of getting him out of his comfort zone (and, admittedly, more into mine).  It was decided it was too much of a departure for the character, but I’m still hoping I’ll get a chance to tell that tale someday.

Making stories shorter

I’m in between turning in the outline on Star Trek DTI and getting it approved, so I’ve been doing a bit of work on original stuff in the interim.  I decided to revise an old novelette that I haven’t had much success selling.  I belatedly realized part of the reason why.  I’d attempted to give all the story’s characters nuance and texture, but I somehow ended up making them all rather unlikeable.  Maybe that’s because it’s a murder mystery and I wanted them all to be plausible suspects, but then, the detective wasn’t much better.  So I wanted to strip away the unappealing aspects of the characters.  I also decided that I wanted to trim this 10,000-word story down to 7500 or less, short story length, since that would increase the number of markets I could submit it to.  (This was kind of inspired by my recent realization that I’ve never actually had a short story published, unless you count “The Weight of Silence” at 7600.)  I figured I could kill two birds with one stone, cutting out the unappealing character stuff along with the rest of the extraneous verbiage.

I wasn’t sure I’d actually be able to  meet my goal of 7500 words, but as of a little while ago, I managed to pull it off.  One thing I realized in the process was that I’d put in a lot of unnecessary worldbuilding.  The story’s in my “Default” universe, and as with much of my Default-verse fiction, I tried too hard to establish the story’s place in the larger continuity, to elaborate on backstory and historical and social context, even though a lot of it wasn’t really necessary to tell the story per se.  I guess that’s an important lesson to learn for an aspiring short-story writer: keep the focus tight.  Only include what you need in order to convey the crucial information about the single specific event you’re depicting.

Indeed, detailed descriptions in general are unnecessary in short stories.  I ended up stripping out a lot of the physical descriptions of characters and settings, paring it down to the bare essentials, and doing the same for a lot of the description of characters’ expressions, reactions, etc., letting it rely more on the dialogue.  Again, keeping the focus tight on the specific ideas that are relevant to the story, leaving out extraneous detail.  Short-story writing is about tightness of focus.  It’s not something that comes naturally to me.

The next bit of story reworking I want to do is the opposite in some ways, yet symptomatic of the same problem in others.  I got one of my recent short stories rejected with a very helpful note that I wish I’d gotten sooner: namely that the early portions of the story focus too much on setting the scene, on worldbuilding, and not enough on establishing the viewpoint character, what’s at stake for him, and why the reader should care.  This story actually turned out to be one of my shortest; I succeeded in the part about focusing on a single specific event and leaving out unnecessary detail.  But maybe I left out too much detail on the main character, or maybe included it too late and the other exposition too early.  I’ll have to look into remedying that, and since it came out so short, I have room to expand it where I need to without having to worry about cutting stuff.   But maybe cutting stuff from the early portions is what I need anyway.  Remains to be seen.