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Christopher L. Bennett: Only Superhuman

25 Nov 2012 · No Comments

I had very ambivalent reactions to Only Superhuman.

I really liked the central concept. Bennett starts with a fairly optimistic future in which, a century hence, there are hundreds of space habitats in the inner- and mid-solar system. The environment is rife with social schisms and empire/colony-ish tensions. The novelty is in Bennett postulating that humans with both intrinsic genetic and external technological adaptations to better survive in space might literally be inspired by and emulate 20th- and 21st-century superheroes. The plot, meanwhile, is distinctly comic-book-y, with sadistic henchmen, scheming villains, and hand-to-hand combat choreographed nearly to the point of panel breakdowns aplenty. I thought that was all fun and fresh*, and enough for me to overlook some hamfisted ends-versus-means pontificating (which is also comic-book-y, now that I think of it).

But — many times over the years I’ve been embarrassed when reading a comic book (or an f/sf novel) and someone who is not male has remarked that the cover features someone whose mammaries outsize her head. Extreme distortion of female anatomy is one of my least favorite comic book tropes, and Bennett leaves no doubt as to the breast sizes of his female characters. The emphasis on boobs had the side effect for me of making his characters’ sexuality seem less credible as self-directed, and a bit more like like enacting a series of adolescent male fantasy scenarios, and sometimes it was a bit, well, oogie. (For instance: when a parent not only encourages an early teen daughter to commit acts of sexual assault, but is eager to hear the details.)

In leveling this criticism (which is clearly in the eye of the beholder, anyway) I should probably note some mitigating factors. First, Only Superhuman is Bennett’s first original novel after a generous handful of media tie-in books. So maybe Bennett has been itching to explore aspects of his characters’ dynamics that are verboten for licensed properties like Star Trek and the X-men and there’s a bit of getting-it-out-of-the-system at work her. Second, in a brief afterward, Bennett explains that the Emerald Blaze’s journey to print has spanned more than a decade, so maybe some aspects of the story were solidified when Bennett was himself closer to adolescence. And third, if Only Superhuman seemed intended as erotica, it probably wouldn’t have raised my hackles, since in that context I expect both physical and mental attributes of sexuality to be exaggerated and social mores to be challenged. So maybe I should just take that as another aspect of dragging aspects of (mature audience) superhero comic books into a more-or-less hard science fiction context.

And if you’ve been dying to read a near-future, slightly raunched-up, solar-system-constrained,and moderately more realistic take on something like The Legion of Superheroes, this could be the book you’ve been waiting for.

* I especially liked it when a character complained that spending too much time close to the sun gives her freckles.

needs more demons? Leaves me curious to see if Bennett’s next book is a bit more to my taste or not.

Tags: b-author · o-title · science fiction

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