Q&A with Andrew deyoung, author of the exo project

There’s a lot going on in The Exo Project thematically—you’ve got environmentalism and the future of the human race, matriarchal societies, space travel. Where did this book begin for you?

All that thematic stuff came later. For me, this book began not with those big ideas, but with a very simple image: a girl sneaking out of her village to watch the sun set, and then getting a telepathic vision of visitors from another planet. From there, I just started asking questions: who is this girl? What kind of world does she live in? And who are these visitors? Why are they coming to the girl’s planet? What do they want?

I discovered pretty quickly that the visitors were humans, and that they were searching for a new planet to replace Earth, which was completely ruined. I also discovered that the girl was part of a matriarchal society on her planet, and that her vision marked her as the future leader of her people. So that’s how the themes started coming forward—but the whole thing began with an image, a scene, a character.

The Earth you portray in the book is a bleak place. The human race is on the brink of extinction, and the Exo Project is launched to explore distant exoplanets and find a new home for humanity. How realistic is this future for our planet?

In the book, Earth is ravaged by two environmental threats: global warming and solar radiation as a result of ozone depletion. Global warming, of course, is a very real threat to the planet and to the human race, ozone depletion a little bit less so since we’ve begun to get CFC emissions under control. There are models and predictions about what will happen to the world if global warming is left unchecked, but I didn’t dig too deeply into that science. My concern was more with general questions about the human race and our ability to care responsibly for our planet. Do we have the collective capability to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reverse global warming? Can we change the way our economy works, the way we create wealth and prosperity, the way we as a species coexist with nature? These are huge questions facing our world, especially as we in the United States have a new president who questions the science on global warming.

I’d love to say that the future I portray in The Exo Project isn’t very plausible, but in my more pessimistic moments I fear it is.

Though the book starts on Earth, most of the action takes place on a world called Gle’ah—a prairie planet with grass as far as the eye can see, and a moon that orbits so close that it affects the planet’s gravitational pull. How did you come up with the details of this world?

I wanted Gle’ah to be as dreamlike as possible. The fact that it’s a prairie planet is probably due to the fact that I’ve lived most of my life in the upper Midwest, so landscapes with rolling plains and prairie grasses—which some find dull—are really beautiful and haunting to me. The rest of the details I threw in just because I thought they were cool, like the moon that affects gravity so that people feel light or find their hair floating around their ears when it’s overhead.

And how about the planet’s matriarchal society, the Vagri? Where did they come from?

The Vagri in many ways are the exact opposite of the human race. The humans come from a history of patriarchy, they value dominance and force, and they’ve come to the brink of extinction because they’ve basically destroyed their planet. By contrast, the Vagri are matriarchal, they value wisdom and perceptiveness, and they’re completely peaceful.

I talked earlier about being pessimistic about humanity’s ability to solve our problems. With the Vagri, it was so fun to create a completely new society from the ground up, and to imagine it working differently than how we see human society working—or not working. The trick was not just imagining how Vagri society functioned, but how it came to be that way: how they came to venerate women above men, how their women got telepathic powers, how they survived for so many years as pacifists. Those explanations become a mystery that helps drive the plot of the novel in the second half.

The Exo Project is, at heart, a teenage romance between your two leads, Matthew and Kiva. How do you think this romance plot comes together with all these big themes you’ve spoken about?

For me, the romance plot between Matthew and Kiva is absolutely the crux of the novel. In Matthew and Kiva’s relationship, we see this collision of human society and Vagri society, of these two different ways of being in the universe.

It’s also really important to remember that these two characters are teens, that this is a story of first love. Matthew and Kiva’s story contains what I think is the emotional truth of the novel: that falling in love is a bit like meeting an alien race, like getting lost on a strange, beautiful planet. It’s scary, and magical, and it changes everything about your outlook on the world. This is what I wanted to explore more than anything, how love changes us and gives us hope in the face of profound uncertainty.