eSpec Books interviews best-selling science fiction author Christopher L. Bennett, author of Arachne’s Crime (currently funding on Kickstarter), Only Superhuman, Among the Wild Cybers, and a wide array of media tie-in novels.
eS: Hi, Christopher. Thank you for joining us today. Arachne’s Crime has some pretty detailed tech. How much of the tech is extrapolation and how much is technobabble? Please tell us something about the science of your universe.
CB: I’ve always striven to make the science in the Arachne/Troubleshooter Universe (as I’ve finally settled on calling it) as authentic as I can. I allow for a little poetic license with things like faster-than-light travel, but I ground them in real theory with a minimum of fudging. The novelette that Arachne’s Crime is expanded from — “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide,” my first professional sale back in 1998 — was a concept that came out of the science, when I worked out the asteroid defenses an interstellar colony ship would need and wondered what would happen if an alien ship crossed its path.
However, when I wrote the original story, I didn’t know that the science I based it on was outmoded in some respects. For the novel version, I updated the colony ship Arachne from a Bussard ramjet (which would have too much drag against the interstellar medium) to a magnetic sail craft using a system proposed by Jordan Kare and explained by Paul Gilster in his book and namesake website Centauri Dreams. (The original version of “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide” is reprinted in Among the Wild Cybers, albeit with some tweaks to ameliorate the credibility problems.) I also got some invaluable science help from my fellow posters on the ExIsle BBS, including Paul Woodmansee of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in working out the nature and technical details of the disaster that opens the story.
eS: Where did you come up with the idea for the duology?
CB: When “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide” was published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact 21 years ago, it generated some lively reader response, in part because it didn’t have the kind of John W. Campbell-style ending (a clear-cut human victory over aliens) that many Analog readers may have been prone to expect. A couple of readers’ assumptions about what might happen after the novelette were so far off from what I had in mind that it got me thinking I should tell the tale of what really did happen next. It took a long time to get there, though.
For quite a while, this was a single long novel that I could never entirely get right. Eventually, when I started thinking about submitting it to smaller publishers, the need to limit the word count made me consider splitting it into two books, and I finally realized it had been two distinct stories crammed together all along, which was probably why various agents and editors had found it lacking in clear focus. Splitting it at the logical breaking point left the first part too short, which gave me the opportunity to flesh out some important parts I’d rushed through before, deepening my exploration of the alien culture featured in Arachne’s Crime before moving on to the larger-scale, more cosmic adventure of Arachne’s Exile.
eS: How does this series interlock with Only Superhuman? Are they a part of the same over-arching reality or separate unto themselves?
CB: The Arachne books, Only Superhuman, the stories in Among the Wild Cybers (excepting “No Dominion”), and the other two Troubleshooter stories (“The Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of” from Footprints in the Stars and “Conventional Powers” in Analog) are all part of the same continuity. It’s always been the default continuity where I put everything that I don’t have a reason to put elsewhere, so it hasn’t really had a clear defining theme, though it’s now largely coalesced around the Troubleshooter sequence (basically everything taking place in the Sol system before the mid-22nd century) and the interstellar-era stories that all connect at least tenuously to the Arachne duology, which is why I’ve decided to name it the Arachne/Troubleshooter Universe. However, there are some Troubleshooter connections in Arachne due to shared worldbuilding; a few of the novel’s characters come from the Strider (asteroid dweller) civilization of the Troubleshooter stories, and one supporting character is the granddaughter of a lead character from Only Superhuman. There are also some themes and ideas introduced in one of the Troubleshooter stories that come into play in Arachne’s Exile.
Basically, this duology is the linchpin that connects to everything else published in my primary universe to date and thereby gives it the unifying element it lacked before, as well as painting a larger picture of the galaxy that puts the rest in context and gives me a foundation for future storytelling. There are some stories I’ve wanted to write for years but didn’t feel I could move forward until I’d gotten Arachne published to lay the foundations.
eS: Though you are known for your media tie-in work, you have quite a few works of your own creation. Can you tell us about some of your other works?
CB: The Troubleshooter series beginning with Only Superhuman is a hard science fiction superhero series set in the Asteroid Belt in the late 21st and early 22nd century, the wild and woolly frontier era where the lack of unified government and law enforcement creates a void filled by the Troubleshooter Corps, a non-governmental group of transhuman peacekeepers who embrace the trappings of superheroes to earn the trust of the highly nationalist Striders in a way that a more conventional paramilitary force could not. My fellow author Glenn Hauman describes it as “The Expanse with superheroes,” which is a good elevator pitch, though the concept predates The Expanse. I’ve also done three Troubleshooter short stories, including two prequels and one sequel to the novel, and I’m working on a couple of other projects in the series as time permits.
The other stories in Among the Wild Cybers are in a mix of settings from the interplanetary era to the age of FTL expansion across the galaxy. If there’s a unifying theme, it’s the exploration of a basically optimistic future where seemingly intractable problems still arise even when everyone involved is trying to do the right thing, and improvement is won through hard work and hard choices.
Beyond the Arachne/Troubleshooter Universe, my other ongoing original creation is the “Hub” series of comedy SF stories published in Analog over the past decade and collected in two books from Mystique Press, Hub Space: Tales from the Greater Galaxy and Crimes of the Hub.
eS: What authors do you like to read for your own personal enjoyment? And why?
CB: These days I tend to read a lot of comic book collections from the library. I’m particularly fond of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, written by Ryan North, and Ms. Marvel, written by G. Willow Wilson. In prose, I’ve enjoyed the Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan, the memoirs of a naturalist investigating the biology of dragons in an alternate world paralleling the 19th-century age of British exploration.
eS: What advice would you give aspiring authors?
CB: It’s a cliché to say “don’t quit your day job,” but it’s true. I’ve managed to squeak by as a full-time writer thanks to my Star Trek work, but only with a modest lifestyle and little in the way of savings, and it’s become harder in recent years as that work has become less regular. If you aspire to authorship for material reasons rather than the love of the craft, then you’re in the wrong line of work. Only a very few authors get a lot of money out of it.
But if you love writing, then keep at it. Don’t be disheartened by rejection, because it’s a learning opportunity, an incentive to raise your game. It took me five years of submitting stories before I improved enough to make my first sale. And that’s the other thing: Never assume your work is perfect or the criticisms of it are unfair. There’s always room to improve and learn from others. So listen to the critiques you get. Assume they’re meant to help you do better, because they are.
eS: What upcoming projects would you like to tell us about?
CB: All I really have lined up in prose at the moment, besides the Arachne duology, is Star Trek: The Original Series — The Higher Frontier, which is due out in March 2020. It’s the first time in many years that I’ve gotten to return to the post-Star Trek: The Motion Picture time frame I previously explored in Ex Machina, Mere Anarchy: The Darkness Drops Again, and portions of Department of Temporal Investigations: Forgotten History.
Beyond that, I have an ongoing gig writing game campaigns for the Star Trek Adventures role-playing game. All my campaigns to date have been published, but I have several more in the outline stage.
eS: What do you do for fun?
CB: Mainly what I’ve been doing for recreation the past year or so is watching a lot of Japanese tokusatsu (live-action superhero/monster) shows, mainly Super Sentai (the franchise Power Rangers is adapted from) and its sister series Kamen Rider. For all their silly, toy-based monsters and weapons and formulaic fight scenes, they often have strikingly sophisticated writing, rich characters, impressive production values and cinematography, and terrific music, and I quite enjoy them.
Christopher L. Bennett is a lifelong resident of Cincinnati, Ohio, with a B.S. in Physics and a B.A. in History from the University of Cincinnati. A fan of science and science fiction since age five, he has spent the past two decades selling original short fiction to magazines such as Analog Science Fiction and Fact (home of his “Hub” series of comedy adventures), BuzzyMag, and Galaxy’s Edge. Since 2003, he has been one of Pocket Books’ most prolific and popular authors of Star Trek tie-in fiction, including the epic Next Generation prequel The Buried Age, the Enterprise — Rise of the Federation series, and the Original Series prequel The Captain’s Oath. He has also written two Marvel Comics novels, X-Men: Watchers on the Walls and Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder. His original novel Only Superhuman, perhaps the first hard science fiction superhero novel, was voted Library Journal‘s SF/Fantasy Debut of the Month for October 2012. He has three collections reprinting his original short fiction, Among the Wild Cybers: Tales Beyond the Superhuman from eSpec Books (containing an original Only Superhuman prequel novelette) and Hub Space: Tales from the Greater Galaxy and Crimes of the Hub from Mystique Press.