In the year 2107, humanity has banned any human genetics modifications—other than the basic mods needed for human survival on Earth and the immediately adjacent colonies, that is. But while Earth and her immediate neighbors are genetic conservatives, human settlements in the Asteroid belt and the outskirts of the solar system are far more radical minded. Here, human genomes are spliced with animal and machine, resulting in people with super-human abilities, like Emerald Blaze. While some, like Emry and her fellow Troubleshooters, use their abilities for good, many others take Earth’s anti-modification discrimination personally. When a group of superhumans, the Vanguards, put forward an agenda very different from that of the Troubleshooters, Emry finds her loyalties tested. The deeper Emry invests in her mission, the more blurred the lines between justice and truth become.
On the surface, Only Superhuman sounds like a good read, right?
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Unfortunately, Christopher L. Bennett's Only Superhuman perpetuates the same ridiculous hyper-sexualized, do-me doll stereotypes that have become so prevalent (and so nauseating) in superhero fiction. This, combined with frequent info-dumps and depressingly bad dialogue, obliterated any interest I may have had for the underlying story.
Protagonist Emerald “Emry” Blaze is a genetically modified superhuman: incredibly fast, tremendously strong and dedicated to her job as a fully inducted member of the Troubleshooter Corps. Of course, all this falls a distant second to Emry’s most valuable (and most frequently flashed) assets: her spectacular breasts. In fact, the book probably should have been titled, Only Superhuman Breasts, because they basically determine the course of the story and are Emry’s defining characteristic.
For example, we learn that at the ripe age of 13, Emry’s favorite game is chasing down the boys (including college-age guys) and flashing them her enormously developed breasts (“heavy round orbs” which she “loved to show off with scanty tops, often lifting or shedding them for the boys who gawked at her”). Mind you, most of these boys are described as scared or not as interested in sex as our protagonist, so there is also the question of consent which goes unchallenged. To this, Emry’s parents laugh and shake their heads at their daughter’s endearing quirks.
Years later, Emry meets a carjacker with whom she spars for sex (“You win the fight, you get to fuck me.”), an episode punctuated by this fantastically memorable scene:
“Well, how am I doing?” He punctuated it with a kick to her gut, knocking her torso upright, and then delivered one more kick to her ample breasts in retaliation for her attempt on his balls. He felt somewhat guilty when she yelped in pain, but he reminded himself that she not only deserved it, but probably even enjoyed it in some sick way. Or maybe not so sick, he thought as he saw the approval—the hope—in her eyes.
And on and on the list goes. I haven’t even talked about the girl-on-girl sparring scene that results in the physical arousal of its male spectators, or Psyche and Emry literally wearing out four men in a sexathon before satisfying each other.
I need to stress that I am all for empowered female characters who enjoy sex. I believe that Bennett was trying to create a superheroine who owned her sexuality. The problem, however, is that even though the book is mostly narrated from Emry’s point of view, her entire persona (as well as the other female characters) is built from the perspective of the male gaze. This problem is compounded when one takes into account the historical context of female superheroes, who are so often defined by their sexiness. At best, this type of character is boring; at worst, it is insulting.
This is to say nothing of the uninspired plot, the clumsy delivery and the stilted dialogue (“Ohh, Emerald...my jewel...it’s just us now...I’ll take care of you now...”). But far and away, the largest problem with Only Superhuman is Bennett’s hypersexualized female characters, which call to mind the very worst stereotyping in the superhero genre.
In short, Only Superhuman? Not the book for me.
In Book Smugglerish, a deflated 2 out of 10.