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Christoph Hühn (ch), Jörn Podehl (jp), Henning Koonert (hk)22.09.08

Building Worlds with Christopher L. Bennett

TZN Exclusive Interview with the "Star Trek" Novelist

The English-language original of our interview with Christopher L. Bennett.

TrekZone Network: When did you start writing fiction and for how long have you been a professional author now?

Christopher L. Bennett: I dabbled with writing in high school, but made my first attempts to write professionally around 1991. I made my first professional sale in 1998.

TZN: You studied physics first and a couple of years later history, too. Was this in preparation to become a professional author or did you originally have different career plans? If you hear that somebody studied physics, the idea that that person writes fiction novels does not come to mind immediately.

Novelist Christopher L. Bennett
Bennett: I majored in those subjects mainly because I was interested in them. I never really accepted the idea that education should be a means toward a specific career rather than learning for its own sake. The only reason I declared a physics major the first time was because I had to declare something. When I went back for my history degree, I did focus on global and cross-cultural history because I knew it would be helpful for my writing, but mainly I wanted to satisfy my curiosity, compensate for the profoundly Western-biased history education I'd gotten earlier, and hopefully meet girls. Sadly, I had mixed results with that last part.

And there have actually been a lot of physicists and astronomers who write science fiction, including Hal Clement, Gregory Benford, Robert L. Forward, David Brin, Catherine Asaro, Carl Sagan, Charles Sheffield, and TNG writer/producer Naren Shankar.

TZN: Who is Christopher L. Bennett: What can you tell us about your person and what your interests and hobbies are? What does your family think about your work - and about "Star Trek"?

Bennett: There's not much to tell. My work pretty much defines my life these days. My main hobby is surfing and posting online, but that's closer to an addiction. I read, I watch TV, and I try to eat right and stay in shape. The only family I'm close to is my father, who isn't particularly into "Star Trek" but enjoys my work. I've heard positive responses from other family members, though.

TZN: What kind of books do you like to read and what kind of TV shows do you watch in your free time?

Bennett: Most of what I read and watch is in the science fiction, fantasy, and superhero genres. I sometimes watch other dramas such as "Law & Order" and "House".

TZN: To what extent can you (and do you) draw on the knowledge you gained through your studies of physics and history in your writings?

Bennett: I make pretty heavy use of my knowledge of science and history. They're both very useful disciplines for writing science fiction - science for understanding how nature works, history for understanding how societies work, evolve, and interact.

TZN: You have written mainly for "Star Trek". How come?

Bennett: I'd prefer to have a lot more original fiction under my belt, but it hasn't worked out that way. But I was lucky enough to be given an opportunity to write "Star Trek" fiction, and I've repeatedly been asked to come back and do more. I haven't pursued many other franchises because there are only so many that I'm interested in or qualified for. I am still working on branching out into original fiction, though.

TZN: Within the "Star Trek" universe, you have authored stories for nearly all of the series. Do you have a favorite show that you like to write for in particular? If you do, why that one?

Bennett: I don't have a single favorite series to write for. What I find most satisfying is writing stories that give me a lot of freedom to be creative, whether it's a novel that features an original crew like the "Titan" books, that advances continuity beyond the end of the series like "Greater Than the Sum", that fills in an unexplored gap like "Ex Machina" or "The Buried Age", or that takes place in an alternate history like "Places of Exile".

TZN: You have written short novels, such as "Places of Exile", which you have written recently for the "Myriad Universes" anthology, as well as full-blown novels. Which format is more fun to write?

Bennett: Writing is rarely fun. It's satisfying and rewarding, but writing a novel of any length is grueling work. I suppose that a short novel would typically be easier, but that wasn't true of "Places of Exile", because I had a very big, epic story to tell and it was difficult to cram it into 55,000 words.

TZN: You are one of the few authors who provide ample annotations for their novels online. What drives you to publish your notes online?

"Titan" Novel "Orion's Hounds" by Christopher L. Bennett
Bennett: For me, the worldbuilding part of science fiction is almost more enjoyable than the actual storytelling part. I'm known for writing character-driven fiction, but that's something I had to learn. Innately, I'm more from the school of science-fiction writers that focus on imagining new worlds and technologies and exploring how they work. I enjoy analyzing and explaining things.

Also, I've always believed that science fiction can be a valuable tool for education. I've learned a lot about the universe from the hard science fiction I've read, and I want my work to be informative too. It frustrates me that virtually all science fiction in film and television badly misrepresents physics, astronomy, biology, and the like, because it's squandering a great opportunity.

TZN: Which of your own novels do you regard as your best one? And is there one in particular which in retrospect you would like to rework or one you would rather not have written at all?

Bennett: "Orion's Hounds" is the book that satisfies me the most. It comes closest to being a work of pure, original science fiction and is a very successful, expansive exercise in worldbuilding. I'm also very fond of "X-Men: Watchers on the Walls". Even though it was written for a more fanciful and more restrictive franchise than "Star Trek", it's a book I really enjoy revisiting and re-reading.

I don't have major regrets about any of my novels, and there's nothing I'd take back. There are a few minor continuity issues in "Ex Machina" I'd tweak in retrospect, and I wish "Places of Exile" hadn't been quite so compressed in time.

TZN: Some people regard your latest novel, "Greater Than the Sum", mainly as a stopgap within the context of the TNG relaunch. What's your opinion on that?

Bennett: I haven't heard anyone describe it that way, and I don't really understand the characterization. A stopgap is a temporary substitute, a makeshift fill-in for something else. "Greater Than the Sum" is an integral part of the TNG continuity, moving the series forward and setting the stage for what's to come.

TZN: As a fan of "Star Trek", what's your opinion on the TNG relaunch in general? The project has been criticized by some as too Borg-centric. Do you share that sentiment? And what do you think of the controversy of Peter David's book "Before Dishonor"? It was criticized very hard.

Bennett: It's not really my place to comment on the controversy. My responsibility is to tell my own stories and to make the most of what I'm given to work with. My priority in "Greater Than the Sum" was to move the series forward and set the stage for what followed, but I also tried to put what came before in context and show how it could all work as a cohesive whole.

I don't think there's really such a thing as a "Borg-centric" story, since story comes from character and the Borg are basically an impersonal force of nature. The essence of a Borg story lies in how its characters cope with the Borg threat, or else in exploring how liberated drones (such as Picard, Seven, or Hugh) deal with their past. So each "Borg story" is really a story about people coping with the consequences of the Borg, and thus each one is different.

TZN: The upcoming "Destiny" trilogy by David Mack is said to fundamentally change the "Star Trek" universe. You're currently working on a post-"Destiny" novel ("Titan: Over a Torrent Sea"). How did "Destiny" impact your work on "Over a Torrent Sea"? In what ways did you have to coordinate with David Mack and Marco Palmieri?

Bennett: Since Titan's adventures take place far beyond the Federation, there was very little overlap between "Over a Torrent Sea" and the other post-"Destiny" books. Mainly what I dealt with was the personal toll of the trilogy's events, how Titan's personnel deal with tragedy and move forward with their lives. Still, Dave, Keith DeCandido, Bill Leisner, Kirsten Beyer, and I have been staying in touch and sharing our manuscripts with each other to make sure all our books fit together. Marco is overseeing it all on his end, but he doesn’t micromanage.

TZN: What can you tell us about "Over a Torrent Sea"? In how far will it differ from your previous "Destiny" novel, "Orion Hounds"?

Cover of Bennett's "Titan" Novel "Over a Torrent Sea"
Bennett: It's another story exploring exotic alien life forms and environments, but on a different scale from "Orion's Hounds". It's mostly set on a type of planet that was only theorized four years ago: an "ocean planet," a world that's mostly water and ice by volume. No continents, no islands, just an endless ocean that might as well be bottomless too, since at around 90 kilometers down, the pressure becomes so crushingly huge that the water itself is forced into ice even though it's boiling hot. It's a planet full of exotic and unusual life forms that shouldn't even exist there. And it's grounded in cutting-edge planetary science.

Naturally, since it's an ocean world, the story focuses heavily on Aili Lavena, Titan's water-breathing navigator. She's even on the cover of the book, in an impressive painting by Cliff Nielsen. This is the first time we've really had a chance to get to know her, and she won't have many secrets left by the end. Heck, the cover alone leaves practically nothing to the imagination.

TZN: "Star Trek" producer Damon Lindelof said in a recent interview that the first thing the creative team behind the new movie did was to evaluate the State of the Union of "Star Trek". From an author's perspective, what's "Star Trek's" current State of the Union according to you?

Bennett: From an author's perspective, it's great. I don't think there's another media franchise where the tie-in books have such scope, originality, and freedom, and that's a great environment to work in. "Star Trek" literature has always thrived when the onscreen franchise has been dormant. And I'm hoping that print and onscreen Trek will complement each other in the future better than they have at certain times in the past.

TZN: Regarding your future work: Do you have plans for other tie-ins beyond the "Star Trek" universe or maybe even original work in the near future?

Bennett: I'm developing a few original projects, including a novel based on my first published story. As for other tie-ins, nothing's on the table at the moment, but I'm open to the possibility.

TZN: We like to cap off our TrekZone Network interviews with a distinct question, so here it is: Where do you see mankind in 100 years from now?

Bennett: Almost certainly, the planet will be warmer and many of our coastal cities will have been submerged. I'm hopeful that we'll manage that transition wisely, but more likely we'll live in denial until it becomes desperate and make things a lot rougher for ourselves than they have to be. So we will most likely have gone through harsh times by then, but hopefully will be wiser and better for it. Probably we will have colonized space, mainly through the efforts of private enterprise with government backing, as has historically been the case with frontiers. The resources of space will have played a major role in helping Earth through its crisis, or else will provide a refuge for humans abandoning an increasingly inhospitable Earth.

Our technology will have advanced in ways beyond anything ever seen in TV science fiction, probably including the genetic and bionic enhancement of our bodies, but I'm skeptical that we'll reach the godlike "Singularity" level proposed by many futurists and SF writers, since history shows that technological progress tends to be intermittent rather than exponential. We'll probably still be confined to our own star system but be aware of numerous other habitable planets and have unmanned probes en route to the nearer ones. And we'll probably be watching a reimagined "Star Trek" in some form and learning about the original series in school the way we learn about Dickens and Melville today.

(ch, jp, hk - 17.03.09)

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