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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Author Spotlight: Christopher L. Bennett


I am extremely happy to have interviewed one of my favorite authors, Star Trek and science fiction scribe Christopher L. Bennett. His works include numerous Trek novels, such as the Department of Temporal Investigations series, Orion's Hounds for the Titan series; as well as his original science fiction novel, Only Superhuman, an interesting mix of hard science fiction and comic book heroics.


Here is his official biography from his Facebook page: CHRISTOPHER L. BENNETT is a lifelong resident of Cincinnati, Ohio, with bachelor's degrees in physics and history from the University of Cincinnati. He has had multiple works of short fiction published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact as well as the online magazines DayBreak and Alternative Coordinates, and has written critically acclaimed science-fiction tie-in novels including STAR TREK: EX MACHINA, STAR TREK: TITAN: ORION'S HOUNDS, STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION: THE BURIED AGE, two STAR TREK: DEPARTMENT OF TEMPORAL INVESTIGATIONS novels, X-MEN: WATCHERS ON THE WALLS, and SPIDER-MAN: DROWNED IN THUNDER, all of them with a hard science slant. ONLY SUPERHUMAN is his first original novel.


His novels are known for their hard science slant, and I asked him about research, science in stories, and what else he would like to write. 

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Thank you for being interviewed on this blog.

CLB: Thank you for inviting me.


Your novels have a hard science slant to them. Is that a style you purposely adopted or did it evolve naturally? How did it come about?

CLB: I’ve always been interested in science, and always been a fan of hard science fiction. And it’s just the way my mind works; I’m a pretty logical, meticulous kind of person. I need to understand why something is happening, what the basic mechanism behind it is, in order to write about it.


Which comes first: science or the story? Do you have a scientific theory or premise and work a story around that, or do you come up with a story first and work the science in later?

CLB: It depends on the work, but often my story ideas do come from asking what-if questions based on a scientific or technological concept, or an aspect of worldbuilding. For instance, my first published story, “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide,” came from thinking about the asteroid defenses an interstellar ship would need and wondering what would happen if such a ship accidentally destroyed an alien space habitat.


In the Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigation series, you obviously had to research theories of time travel. In your newest book, Only Superhuman, there are a lot of scientific concepts:  transhuman modification, space habitation, artificial intelligence. How do you decide which subjects you need to research? Does the story or plot dictate what you need to study up on?

CLB: Those are both cases where I started with the scientific idea. DTI came from wanting to tackle the mess that was Star Trek time travel and find some reasonably coherent explanation for it all. Only Superhuman began with the realization that the technologies for human enhancement that were on the horizon—bionics, genetics, robotic exoskeletons, and the like—could one day give us superhuman powers, and that made me wonder if something like superheroes could ever really exist.


When reading a novel, is bad research easily spotted? Does it take you out of the story? Have you ever stopped reading a book, saying "that's impossible!"

CLB: It does bother me when there’s an egregious failure of research, whether in science or any other subject I’m knowledgeable about. If it’s clear that the writers just didn’t bother to find out something that they could’ve found in two minutes on Wikipedia, that’s annoying. But I try to respect the difference between research failure and intentional poetic license. Some stories try for more realism than others. If a story is deliberately taking a more fanciful tack, that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with telling a story set in a more fantastic reality than our own, so long as it’s consistent within itself.


Have you ever had to change a story significantly because the science didn't support it?  Was there ever a scene or concept you wanted to write, but didn't because it wasn't scientifically accurate?

CLB: Yes, that has happened more than once. I’ve even abandoned short stories when I realized the science wouldn’t work, or at least put them on indefinite hold until I could figure out a way to fix them. In Only Superhuman, the original version of the opening chapter involved a space station disaster caused by the station being blown off its axis by an atmosphere leak, but then I learned that the thrust imparted by such a leak would be far too inconsequential to have that effect, so I had to come up with a whole new version of the sequence.
Of course, the level of accuracy I strive for depends on what universe I’m working in. My “default” universe, where Only Superhuman takes place, is the one I try to keep the most credible overall. My standards are looser in my Star Trek work or in the universe of the two “Hub” stories I’ve had published in Analog, and they were looser still in the Marvel Comics-based novels I did a few years back, X-Men: Watchers on the Walls and Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder, though I still tried to work some good science into both.


Tell us about your writing process. Sometimes you get assignments, sometimes they are on your own. What steps do you take from the first kernel of an idea to final draft?

CLB: First off, I just think about various ideas and aspects of the story, often while going for long walks, and get a rough sense of what I want the story to be. This tends to be a fairly disorganized process and can take a long time to fall into place. Eventually, usually after a lot of procrastination, I start writing stuff down, just as scattered notes to begin with, but putting my ideas on the page (usually a computer file, but sometimes I still write notes on real paper) usually helps me get more of a handle on it. I usually do a rough written summary of the story structure as part of my development notes, though this can go through a lot of changes.. Then I start writing a fuller, more detailed story outline and work out the specific plot and character beats. If it’s a tie-in, I submit the outline to my editor for licensor approval, and start writing when I get the go-ahead. I usually write fairly linearly, going forward from scene to scene and only going back if I think of a new scene that should be added or something I forgot. In the past couple of years I’ve started to be more flexible; if I have different subplots that are largely separate, I may focus on one for a while and then go back and fill in the other, even if they’re interspersed in the final work. Sometimes the writing comes more easily than others; I have a tendency to work slowly until deadline pressure looms and then pick up the pace, but it tends to come more quickly once the story begins building momentum toward the climax. Once I’m done with the first draft, I go through several revision passes to catch errors and oversights, refine things, trim unnecessary or redundant verbiage, and the like. Once I turn it in to the editor, they’ll usually make suggestions on things to fix or refine, and the licensor may have some input as well. Copyeditors usually catch some textual or conceptual errors I missed, and those get fixed in the copyedit stage.


How long do you do research? Do you do it all before writing? During? Write the first draft then research and incorporate it into later drafts? What's your writing schedule like?

CLB: Oh, all of the above, depending on the work. I try to do adequate research in advance, but I have an unfortunate tendency to take some things for granted until I’ve already written a scene and then think, “Wait a minute, I should check that,” which often leads me to discover I made a mistake and have to rework something substantially, as with that Only Superhuman action sequence I mentioned before. These days, with the ease of going online, I often research while I write—for instance, if I’m about to write a scene set in a certain star system, I’ll look up information about that star and what it’s like and incorporate that into the scene. Although I often prefer to write without being connected to the Internet, in order to avoid distractions, it can be very useful to have it right at my fingertips while I work.
As for my writing schedule, it’s very inconsistent. I try to develop more discipline, but I just have a weird attention span—I get very focused on one thing for a while, then it shifts to another and I kind of have to go with it. So I tend to work in fits and starts, going from periods of high productivity to periods of low productivity. Ideally I can make the best of that by working on multiple projects at once—when my attention starts to wander from one project, I try to shift gears and work on a different one for a time.


You said worldbuilding is one of your favorite aspects of the writing process, and it is something you're very good at. Which world that you created is your favorite? How much more information do you have about your worlds that don't make it into the final book?

CLB: Well, “worldbuilding” isn’t necessarily about literal worlds as in planets, but about developing universes, civilizations, technologies, anything that’s part of the setting and background of a story. So the “world” can be an entire galactic society. But in terms of specific planets and the civilizations thereof that I’ve developed, I think my favorite may be one that I haven’t actually managed to get into print yet. I went into great depth developing its civilization and even have a written outline of its whole history, and I hope that at some point I’ll get to publish a novel about that world.
Of the environments and civilizations I have gotten into print, there are a number that I’m quite proud of. In my original work, I like the diverse asteroid-belt society of Only Superhuman and the alien ecology of the title planet in my novelette “Among the Wild Cybers of Cybele.” In my Star Trek work, I’m particularly proud of the Gum Nebula interstellar community and ecosystem from Orion’s Hounds, the Manraloth and ancient galactic history from The Buried Age, and my interpretation of fluidic space from Places of Exile.


Research isn't just for science fiction. It can be anything to add plausibility to a story: law, auto mechanics, plumbing, what have you. What advice would you give to writers wanting to research their topic? Any tips on how to research smarter and not harder?

CLB: Well, be more thorough and organized about it than I usually am. Be wary of your assumptions—double-check everything. And don’t assume you can just read Wikipedia alone and have the right answers. It’s always good to check multiple sources. Talking with people knowledgeable in the fields you’re covering is helpful, though it’s not always easy for shy people like me.
On the other hand, you don’t really need a university-level expertise in a subject to write fiction about it. You’re just telling a story, so creating the feeling of believability is the most important thing. If the needs of your story require ignoring or fudging certain facts, then don’t hesitate to do so, although it helps if you can concoct a plausible-sounding handwave. For the purposes of a story, it’s often enough just to sound like you know what you’re talking about. Like the saying goes, “The key is sincerity—if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”


Are there any genres slightly outside your comfort zone you'd like to try (political thriller, murder mystery, etc.)

CLB: I have made a couple of attempts at writing fantasy, though I haven’t sold anything yet. Generally I’m pretty content sticking with SF.


What other hobbies/interests do you have when you're not writing?

CLB: Not many, I’m afraid. Mostly just going for walks, watching TV, and websurfing (though the latter two are increasingly converging), and sometimes listening to music, mostly film and TV soundtracks.


What work are you most proud of?

CLB: I can’t single out just one. There are a lot of things in my Star Trek work that I’m proud of achieving, particularly Orion’s Hounds and The Buried Age, and I think my two Marvel novels hold up quite well too.


With Star Trek: Enterprise - Rise of the Federation: A Choice of Futures, you've fulfilled a dream of writing for each live action Trek show. Do you want to continue with Trek or are there other projects you'd like to explore?

CLB: I’m not tired of writing Trek yet, and I have no plans to walk away. But I am hoping to do more original fiction alongside it.


Any chance of seeing more of Emerald Blair from Only Superhuman?

CLB: I’d like to do more with Emerald and the Troubleshooters, but it remains to be seen whether it’s in the cards.


Once again, thanks for taking the time to be interviewed.

CLB: Sure thing.

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Once again I'd like to thank Mr. Bennett for being interviewed for my blog. His novels can be purchased at most retailers. Christopher L. Bennett can be found at these links.

2 comments:

  1. Great Interview.
    I really feel that I now know more about an author I like. :D

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for comment. It means a lot to a blogger to get a compliment like that.

    ReplyDelete