TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery!
CLB: Thank you!
TQ: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
CLB: I’m not sure. A lot of my quirks seem to be pretty common with writers, like procrastinating too much, or doing some of my best thinking when I go for walks or get a change of scenery. But one thing I’ve realized about myself is that it’s hard for me to write about something unless I have at least a rough understanding of how and why it could happen. I have to believe it could work, at least by the rules of the fictional reality it’s in, and that means figuring out how it works. I just have a very analytical mind. That’s why I tend so much to the hard end of the science fiction spectrum, and why worldbuilding is my favorite part of the creative process.
TQ: Who are some of your favorite writers? Who do you feel has influenced your writing?
CLB: I grew up reading mostly the hard-SF giants like Asimov, Clarke, and Niven. In more recent years I’ve been influenced by the new wave of hard-SF space opera authors like Vernor Vinge and Greg Egan. But Star Trek has always been one of my main influences, and I follow its lead in a lot of ways, like taking an optimistic view of the future, striving to be inclusive and embrace diversity, promoting positive principles and values, and so on. Star Trek/fantasy novelist Diane Duane has been an influence as well; the format of Only Superhuman with its periodic flashback chapters was inspired by Duane’s Trek novels The Romulan Way (with Peter Morwood) and Spock’s World. And when I got the opportunity to pitch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine story ideas to producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe in 1996, I didn’t sell anything but I learned a lot from him about putting character first in my writing.
Another creator who influenced my approach to characterization in this book was Chuck Jones. No kidding. His insightful writing about the classic characters he perfected such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, and what made them work as characters, was an influence on writing Emerald Blair. I’ve never agreed with the conventional wisdom that villains are more interesting than heroes, that they always get the best lines. Who gets better lines, Bugs Bunny or Elmer Fudd? I wanted Emerald to be a hero like Jones’s version of Bugs: quick-witted, always on top of the situation, able to confound foes with humor and the unexpected, but fierce and relentless in defense of the innocent. Although she turned out being a lot like Spider-Man as well, since that comic heroism is combined with a tragic backstory and a strong drive for atonement.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
CLB: If by “pantser” you mean writing by the seat of my pants, I’d say I’m a mix of both. I generally do a lot of work building the world and the story outline in advance, but I’m very open to finding new things along the way, and some of my favorite moments in my writing have been spontaneous discoveries. On the other hand, not long ago I tried writing my second original spec novel with little guidance from an outline—that is, I’d done a rough outline but rethought a lot of things and tried to go right to manuscript without working up a revised outline first—and I ended up with an unfocused mess that led me in the wrong direction. It wasn’t until I went back and worked out a clearer plot outline that I was able to get it to work to my satisfaction. So I guess I’m a plotter on the large scale but more spontaneous on the detail level.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
CLB: Just getting started. I tend to follow Newton’s First Law. Once I’m in motion, once I get some momentum going, writing can come very easily—indeed, sometimes it’s hard to stop—but it can be very difficult to get myself into that groove in the first place, and it’s often a long, slow slog uphill until I reach the point where it really begins to flow.
TQ: Describe Only Superhuman in 140 characters or less.
CLB: Oh, I’m no good at giving brief descriptions of the book. Let’s see… “Hard-SF superhero adventure as tough, smart, sexy Emerald Blair struggles to keep the peace in the wild & wooly Asteroid Belt.”
TQ: Tell us something about Only Superhuman that is not in the book description.
CLB: I think that in the emphasis on the book’s plausible, hard-SF approach to superheroics, one thing that hasn’t been played up is that there’s also a fair amount of spoof and gentle satire. Approaching a subject plausibly means not just proposing a way it might actually work, but acknowledging the problems and absurd consequences that could arise from it. After all, there’s no shortage of absurdity and silliness in real life. So I poke fun at a lot of things. For everything that I portray as a potentially positive tool or source of power, whether transhumanism or central government or the celebrity the Troubleshooters cultivate or the sexuality that Emerald and other characters embrace, I also try to acknowledge the downsides and excesses, and often that means highlighting the absurdities. I particularly enjoyed poking fun at the media and pop culture of Emry’s era, putting in throwaway references to cheesy shows like Annie Minute and the Time Trippers (imagine a cross between Josie and the Pussycats, the Power Rangers, and Mr. Peabody) and future genre fads like “curry Westerns,” which are analogous to spaghetti Westerns but made in Bollywood. I also liked taking digs at some of the overhyped cliches of the transhumanist genre, like the Singularity and brain downloading.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Only Superhuman?
CLB: Oh, all sorts of things. Some of the big stuff would include research into the asteroid belt, the physics of orbital habitats, genetic engineering, bionics, and the like. Gerard K. O’Neill’s seminal book The High Frontier was a valuable reference for the design and function of space habitats. I read a lot of articles in science magazines and sites about prospective interplanetary drives, including such things as the beam and tether propulsion systems seen in the novel. There’s a cool site called Atomic Rockets at http://www.projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/index.php which has a lot of valuable information about plausible spaceship design and technology. A lot of the stuff in the book about the distinct geology and orbits of the various asteroids, and how that affects their cultures, economies, and the like, was added to the novel after the public hoopla about dwarf planets in 2006 got me interested in learning more about Ceres, Vesta, and the other asteroids. It really enriched the worldbuilding and helped the novel come into focus. I used the Celestia space simulator program to work out navigation and distances in the Asteroid Belt, and some folks on the Celestia forum put together add-on files with many more asteroids at my request, so I’m very grateful to them.
But really, I’ve been working on this for so long that I drew on research and input from all over. Some of the character input came from friends, mainly a college friend whose own childbirth experience informed the flashback scene to Emerald’s birth.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? Hardest and why?
CLB: The easiest may have been Hanuman Kwan, the Neogaian engineered with monkeylike traits. I couldn’t resist the private joke of imagining Roddy McDowall in the role, and with that voice and persona in mind, the character pretty much wrote himself. (Yes, I know, apes aren’t monkeys, but I still couldn’t resist.) Although writing Emerald herself comes pretty easily because I’ve lived with her in my head for so many years, and because she and similar characters I’ve written are, to an extent, the other side of my own personality—what I imagine I might be without my fears and inhibitions. (Yes, that’s right—my wish-fulfillment version of myself is a hot woman. Make of that what you will. I guess that, having grown up bullied by boys and only shown kindness by female students and teachers, I’ve always gravitated more toward women as role models and inspirations. Yet I’m also very attracted to women, so I make those characters very sexy too. I guess I’m engaged in some inside-out and outside-in wish fulfillment at the same time.)
The hardest? Maybe Zephyr, Emry’s sentient ship. I always had him as part of the concept, but it was only fairly late in the process that I realized I hadn’t really fleshed him out as a character or given him any nuance, and it was a challenge to work out the backstory, worldview, and motivations for a disembodied artificial intelligence. Fortunately I’d already done some worldbuilding about human-AI relations for an unsold story set at an earlier point in the same universe, so I was able to build on that.
TQ: Without giving anything away, what is/are your favorite scene(s) in Only Superhuman?
CLB: I don’t know if “favorite” is the word, but one scene that stands out for me was the flashback to the death of Emerald’s mother. Since I lost my own mother when I was young, this was naturally very personal for me, and I wrote it in a visceral, stream-of-consciousness way, just letting the feelings overwhelm me and writing whatever came out. I cried for maybe half an hour after I finished it. It’s probably the one scene I never altered even slightly from the first draft, since I didn’t want to compromise the emotional honesty and rawness of it.
The scene that introduces Koyama Hikari, her practice combat with Emry in Chapter 2, is one that I feel turned out particularly well, with some nice character-building, in particular a certain shocking revelation about Kari’s past—although I do wonder if that might’ve been stronger if I’d held off revealing it a bit longer. The Pellucidar scene was a lot of fun to write, an action set piece that let me go wild with the goofier aspects of the Troubleshooters’ world, and I love its punch line. Anything written from Bast’s point of view was a lot of fun for me as a cat-lover. And everything with Sally Knox was a hoot.
TQ: What's next?
CLB: I’m working on an exciting new Star Trek project, an Enterprise sequel called Rise of the Federation: A Choice of Futures. The previous Enterprise novels covered the Romulan War and ended with the founding of the Federation; now I’m picking up a year or so later and examining the early days of the Federation, its growing pains as it tried to define its identity and goals, as this union forged in war tried to find its role in peacetime and deal with other powers that felt threatened by its existence. It’s a great opportunity, because it’s a period of Star Trek history that’s almost never been explored before, except in one book that came out shortly before Enterprise and was then thoroughly contradicted by it. So it’s this wide open space that’s begging to be filled in, and that gives me a lot of freedom to tell new stories. It’s due out in July 2013.
I’ve also completed a spec novel that I’ve begun shopping to agents (I’m currently unrepresented). It’s set in the same universe as Only Superhuman, but a couple of generations later and on an interstellar stage. It expands on my first published story, “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide” from the November 1998 Analog, and moves forward from those events into an epic adventure on a cosmic scale.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
CLB: Thanks for having me!
About Only Superhuman
Tor Book, October 16, 2012
Hardcover and eBook, 352 pages
2107 AD: A generation 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, 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.
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