Five years ago, Christopher L. Bennett made his Star Trek fiction debut with the Corps of Engineers eBook Aftermath. Since then, he’s contributed a story to each of the recent anniversary anthologies (Prophecy and Change, Distant Shores, Constellations, and The Sky’s the Limit) as well as further eBooks, novellas and novels.
His first novel-length Trek adventure was Ex Machina, which he describes as “a direct sequel, in terms of certain character and continuity threads” to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. We begin our discussion with Christopher by asking if he saw it as a risk to base his book on such a frequently-criticised movie.
“I never thought of it that way,” he considers. “I love The Motion Picture and I saw it more as an opportunity to share what I loved about it and maybe change a few minds. Also, a number of other novels have built on less-popular episodes or films but have been well-received in their own right. I’m personally not that fond of For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky, the episode that Ex Machina is also a sequel to, but the problems with that episode offered me many opportunities to be creative and fill in gaps.”
It’s clear from reading Ex Machina that Christopher has a real passion for the Motion Picture era. “No other Star Trek movie or series has been as effective at invoking a sense of wonder or depicting the future so richly,” he says, by way of explanation. “Most of all, though, I’ve always identified strongly with Spock’s journey of personal discovery in the film, which paralleled and probably influenced a similar emotional transition I went through at about the same time. It’s always surprised me that no novelists chose to follow up on such a critical event in Spock’s life. I also felt that the changes the other characters went through around this time made it a rich area for storytelling.”
The novel was based on an idea Christopher had held on to for a long time. “I conceived of this book back in the nineties, when Star Trek novels were tightly constrained from going too far beyond screen continuity. I felt that the gap between the first two movies would allow stories that put the characters through real growth and change while still staying within the bounds of screen canon. I saw it as a way to sneak around the limitations on Star Trek novels at the time. In retrospect, though, I doubt I would’ve been allowed to do it at the time, so it’s just as well that I didn’t pitch it until the editorial climate was right for such a book.”
Christopher also had the honour of contributing to the Star Trek: Titan series, penning the third novel, Orion’s Hounds. Sizeable portions of the book were devoted to scientific explanations; could that type of writing potentially turn away casual readers? “I’m aware of [that] possibility,” he agrees, “but not fearful. I try to write books that are interesting to me, on the theory that there are people out there who would also find them interesting. The strength of the Star Trek novel line is its diversity, offering something for every taste. I’m writing for the segment of the audience that enjoys books with a strong science-fiction component, although I do try to make the science clear enough for everyone, and to balance it with strong character-driven storytelling. So far, it seems to have worked out pretty well. I’ve actually been surprised at how well-received my books have been.”
When the Titan books launched, readers were promised a more traditional focus on exploration, but arguably this only begins to shine through in Christopher’s novel. Would he consider it to be the true pilot for the series? “I think of it more as a ‘second pilot’,” he explains. “Taking Wing was the pilot for the ship and crew, and Orion’s Hounds was the pilot for the mission. But the series is just as much about the crew as the missions.”
More recently, Christopher’s The Buried Age was released. It featured Picard, and was set between the Stargazer novels and the start of The Next Generation, but there was debate over whether Christopher’s depiction of Picard worked as the “missing piece” between those established events. He reiterates the fact that it’s impossible to please all readers, explaining that, “in a case like this, filling in a gap that people have speculated about for years, it’s inevitable that any approach is going to clash with some people’s assumptions. Indeed, I specifically wanted to take this story in unexpected directions. I saw little point in telling a story that just confirmed prior assumptions.”
So why did Christopher characterise Picard in the way he did? “Early TNG showed us a Picard who was aloof, reserved, and professorial, but later stories gave him an abundance of old friends and old flames, so he must have been more gregarious in the Stargazer years. I needed to figure out what could have changed him so much. I also wanted him to turn away from Starfleet for a few years. Given that his experiences during this time never came up in TNG, I figured they had to be at some remove from Starfleet affairs and from the Alpha Quadrant politics that became so important in the show. That gave me a prime opportunity to delve into his other side, the archaeologist and scholar. However, I had to balance that with the need to explain why Picard was deemed worthy of commanding the ‘flagship’ of the fleet despite apparently having no starship commands for nine years, so he had to come back into the Starfleet fold eventually, yet in a different capacity from his familiar starship-command role.”
Looking towards the future, there are more exciting Christopher L. Bennett Trek projects in the pipeline, including Greater than the Sum, which is the latest in the ongoing “TNG relaunch”. “There’s not much I’m cleared to say yet,” he tells us when asked about the book. “The blurb that’s been published online describes the Enterprise being assigned to hunt down the Borgified science ship Einstein which survived the previous novel, Before Dishonor, in order to prevent it from obtaining a dangerous technology. That’s true as far as it goes, but it’s just the setup for the real story, which is far more character-driven and exploration-driven.”
Previous books in the “relaunch” have been criticised for their new characters behaving inconsistently between stories. We asked Christopher if this affected his approach towards Greater than the Sum, and if it added any extra pressure. “You can’t write the kind of Trek fiction I’ve written, big sweeping stories that tie together elements from across the Star Trek universe, without having to deal with inconsistencies. It’s always a creative challenge to take conflicting ideas created by different people and fit them into a coherent model of the universe. My approach was the same here: to treat what had come before as a consistent whole, work out the underlying theory that tied it all together, and use that as the basis for the story I told. Given that real human beings are complex and often self-contradictory, it wasn’t really that hard to do here. It’s my hope that Greater than the Sum will give readers a greater understanding and appreciation of characters and events from its preceding novels.”
Another highly-debated point amongst fans is the use of the Borg, whose appearance in Greater than the Sum will be the third in four consecutive novels. “I wanted [the book] to be a change of pace from the big action stories that surround it, so I tried to minimise the Borg presence, making the Einstein a McGuffin that mostly motivates the action from offstage,” Christopher reassures us. “The book is more about gaining insights into the Borg as a species, in my usual way, than it is about fighting them. That said, I think I’ve come up with some pretty interesting tactics in the action scenes that do occur. I’m very, very bored by space battles and gunfights as a rule, so I always try to make it interesting for myself by devising creative methods and tactics.”
On his website, Christopher says, “please don’t ask me to write another huge, sweeping Star Trek epic anytime soon!”. Does this mean that, in Greater than the Sum, readers will see a new side to his writing? “It means that this book is smaller and more intimate in scope than Orion’s Hounds or The Buried Age,” Christopher informs us. “It’s my second-shortest Star Trek novel, the shortest being my Myriad Universes contribution. Despite the announced subject matter, I see it as a quieter interlude between the blockbuster stories of Before Dishonor and the Destiny trilogy.”
That trilogy, released at the end of the year and written by David Mack, will unite characters from several different corners of the Star Trek universe, and is one of the most hotly-anticipated Trek projects for years. “I was recruited for this project just after Dave completed his outline for Destiny. My job was to bridge the two, to wrap up loose ends from the previous novels and position the pieces on the board the way they needed to be at the start of Destiny,” Christopher tells us, when we ask how Greater than the Sum fits in. “The bulk of Greater than the Sum is its own story, but it introduces some characters and concepts that figure in the trilogy, and its epilogue is a direct prologue to Destiny. Dave has also been coordinating closely with me and other authors of related fiction, making sure that everything’s consistent, so I’ve had the opportunity to offer input on the trilogy itself, just as Dave offered some input on Greater than the Sum. I’ve read his manuscripts for the first two novels so far, and I can tell you, this is epic stuff – not just the massive action Dave is legendary for, but some really interesting science-fiction ideas as well.”
Also forthcoming from Christopher is Places of Exile, a novel in the aformentioned Myriad Universes collection of alternate-reality stories. “I originally pitched my idea years ago as a full-length novel, since the format of the miniseries had not been determined yet. I had to tighten it considerably to make it work. Aside from that, though, I only received a couple of very minor notes from my editor,” he explains.
He also reveals, exclusively to Unreality, that “Places of Exile is an alternate take on Voyager. It begins with a key moment of decision in that series and explores what might have happened if the opposite choice had been made, changing everything that follows.”
On the Myriad Universes books as a whole, he informs us that “it’s important to note that these tales represent events that ‘actually’ happen in some other timeline branch of the Star Trek multiverse, rather than being the kind of ‘imaginary story’ that can go in more extravagant directions. At least, that was my working assumption. My tale is entirely consistent with Trek canon up until the point that history diverges, and much of what happens after the divergence is affected by canonical events that preceded it.”
To conclude, we discuss Christopher’s wider Trek work. After so many stories, is there anything in his earlier writing that he’d like to go back and change? “There were a few cases of gratuitous exposition of sidebar ideas, like explaining universal translators in Aftermath or transporter Heisenberg compensators in Ex Machina – concepts that didn’t add anything to the stories and that I was later able to use in more plot-relevant ways in later works (Friends With the Sparrows for translators and The Buried Age for transporters). Had I known I’d get other opportunities, I would’ve saved these ideas until they were useful. I also wish I hadn’t tried to address the Klingon forehead issue and the Vulcan mind-meld issue in Ex Machina; those passages are rather dated in the wake of Enterprise‘s fourth season.
“I also wish I’d been more assertive about making sure the O’Brien scenes in Aftermath didn’t conflict with the O’Brien scenes in Unity. Editor Marco Palmieri and author S.D. Perry were both understandably distracted by their new babies at the time, but I had no such excuse for not making sure the issue was addressed; I was just too timid to call attention to it. This is a collaborative process, and we all share the responsibility for keeping our stories straight. This was a case where I didn’t take enough of my share.”
Finally, we ask Bennett if (beyond Trek, and the X-Men and Spider-man universes to which he has also contributed) there are any other sci-fi franchises he’d like to write stories for. “I’m not sure,” he considers. “Possibly Stargate, though I haven’t pursued that yet. Given the chance, I might like to write a Superman novel. Right now, though, I’m focusing mainly on my original science-fiction. It’s been far too long since I’ve sold a story set in a universe I created myself.”
Greater than the Sum will be released by Pocket Books in August 2008. Ex Machina and The Buried Age were released by Pocket Books in January 2005 and July 2007 respectively.