Well then, this is fast becoming a book review blog, though that’s not my intention. I just have a lot of books I feel like commenting on lately!
Today I tackle Only Superhuman, by Christopher Bennett.
I picked up this book based on a limited interaction with Mr.Bennett, in which I asked about a picture he had as his avatar on a message board. It was very cool looking, in a style that seemed very familiar. It was the cover to his book, Only Superhuman, and it turns out the art was done by a semi-prominent Magic: the Gathering artist (which is where I recognized the style). Put the book on my “to read list” and picked it up when I saw the paperback at B&N. Some background on him: it turns out he’s written several Star Trek novelizations and done some prose based on marvel superheroes again. A great pedigree for a first original fiction novel.
Anyway, I finished the book today, and here’s my review:
The first aspect of Only Superhuman that needs to be discussed is its genre. Mr. Bennett was exceedingly ambitious in his primary concept which is a down the middle blend of hard science fiction and superhero. For non-genre readers, this creates a nearly impossible task for a novel, because hard sci-fi readers are notoriously difficult to please, as are comic readers. There are certain tropes and “rules” that both need to follow, and if you deviate, you get some less than positive reaction in my experience. In this genre blend, I feel like Mr. Bennett very much succeeded in creating a hard sci-fi world and problems with superhero characters and resolutions, and nods to both genres in the process. The attention to detail is beautiful. A lot of reviews I’ve seen have harped on aspects where it’s “too juvenile” (i.e. too superhero in genre) or “too boring (i.e. too hard sci-fi in genre). Which tells me he rode the line in between genres perfectly. If you like good genre mixing, you’ll probably enjoy this.
Only Superhuman takes us into a world a couple hundred years from now in which humanity’s colonized the asteroid field, mars, and created orbital habitats everywhere in between. He does a great job of setting up a very intricate geopolitical environment as well as giving us detail about how these habitats exist. The primary world building element that’s right in our face though is genetic modification. All of the politics in the story, and all of the characters are shaped by genetic mods and their reactions to it. It’s really well done, very detailed, and lends plausibility to the superhero concepts that come from it.
Our hero Emry is in a group called the “troubleshooters” who act as police in some of the outer asteroid worlds, using their superhuman talents to bring justice. It’s a fairly simple concept but it ends up being pretty complicated as the story progresses. It’s very political and makes you think about the consequences of genetic modifications, and of course the old moral of “with great power comes great responsibility.” I thought the plot built nicely, forced the main character to have to make moral decisions on every step of the way and left her changed over time.
As far as characterizations, I can give pretty good marks at some points in the novel, not so good in others. Early on in the book and toward the middle there’s points where the characters fall a little flat. A lot of it is because of the heavy focus on action and sex (which I’ll get to later) that don’t give the tertiary characters a lot of dimensions other than their purpose for the plot. There’s surface level work given to many of the Troubleshooters, but it’s mainly cosmetic more than depth. That said, I do care what happens to Emry by the end of the book, so the main character doesn’t so much suffer from that. She’s perhaps got a perfect genetically altered body, but she’s struggling with some real issues that make her fun. I also enjoy the change in Eliot Thorne over the course of the book. As much as the world building and backstory set ups were beautiful and some of the most intricate work I’ve seen in novels, I wish more work was spent here , which is why I ultimately give the book 4/5 stars. There was enough to keep me reading and going for the main character, but not much beyond that.
Now to the sex issue. You can’t turn a page in this book without a character thinking about or engaging in sex, ranging from mild to extreme. It’s not just a “make my mother blush” sort of situation, but it’s to the point where it distracts from the story. I think a choice was made in this book at some point where it was seeming “too juvenile” so this aspect of the world was upped to an extreme to try to counter that. I don’t think much purpose was served by turning every character into a sex addict or sex pawn as it may be. There’s one character who utilizes pheromones and other genetic alters to manipulate people by seduction, and I think that character would have been FAR more impactful if everyone wasn’t engaging in that. There were points because of this where I almost put down the book, but I suggest a reader gloss over that and look at the meat (no pun intended…) of this beautiful world.
The prose is pretty good. There’s a lot of superheroic fighting banter which I think really gives a nice nod to mainstream superhero comics. Puns are EVERYWHERE and I love it. The “tech” words sound great, realistic. And I don’t usually comment on things like this – but I really loved the attention to detail of the chapter titles. They were really cool, and I usually don’t pay attention to those.
Overall, the story was pretty fun. High action. It enters you in action, and departs in it so it’s very high energy. The backstory is imparted over time in chapters titled “Origin Stories” another nice nod to superhero comics which made me smile. A good first effort for an original novel, and this world is so in depth that I really hope Mr. Bennett visits it in the future. And if he wants to try to do a comic line and wants someone to script it out, I’d be thrilled to J