When Twin Cities novelist Andrew DeYoung set out to write a teen romance, he made it a little difficult for his boy-meets-girl characters. In "The Exo Project," not only are they different life forms, but they live 100 light years apart on distant planets.
Andrew DeYoung said his novel started with a realization.
"Being a teenager is kind of like being stranded on a distant planet. It's kind of beautiful and wondrous, but it can also be lonely and alienating," he said.
He added that if you are lucky enough to connect with someone, it's amazing, miraculous. "Almost like finding life on that planet that you are stranded on," he said.
For "The Exo Project," he started with two characters on distant planets who both feel a little alien where they live, and set them on a collision course across the cosmos.
"And then the rest of it, the political, the spiritual ... that comes from having to write a coherent story," he said.
DeYoung created Matthew, a young man, just 17, living a little in our future. Climate change means 120-degree days, blasted crops and a desperate human race. Earth's global government mounts the Exo Project, sending spacecraft crewed by three cryogenically suspended volunteers. They'll travel for a century to explore potential new homes. It's probably a suicide mission, but Matthew signs up because his family will get a lump sum that will pay his mother's medical bills.
And there is Kiva, who lives 100 years into Matthew's future. She has become the leader of her people, who live a rustic life on a grass-covered planet with three moons. One of them orbits so close that its gravitational pull can lift people a few inches off the ground.
Kiva became leader because she has visions. Near the beginning of the story, as that moon spins close, she has another vision in which she sees a huge stone bird hurtling through the stars towards her.
And three dark silhouettes standing shoulder to shoulder on the horizon. Then the moon spun on, releasing Kiva's body from its grip, the strands of her hair fell, and pooled again on the ground. She blinked away a single tear. It ran down her cheek and dripped in her ear. Strangers. The word came to her unbidden. They're coming.
"The Exo Project" is at its core a boy-meets-girl, or rather earthling-meets-Gle'Ahn, kind of story. But Andrew DeYoung builds the pressure. Not only is Kiva responsible for her people, and by extension her planet; Matthew has to decide whether this is the planet that can become a new Earth.
But DeYoung said it's an extension of another basic of teen stories — of young people, falling in love, being forced to grow up too soon.
"Obviously I don't think there are many teens in the world for whom the fate of their entire nation or people hangs in the balance," he said. "But that's what novels are for. You sort of put things in boxes and turn up the volume and see what happens."
Part of the fun of "The Exo Project" is learning how carefully DeYoung has thought through the elements of his story. He decided that it would be interesting to make Kiva's society female-led. He began thinking about how human society became patriarchal because of physical dominance, and then moved on to what might lead to a matriarchy.
"And what I came up with is telepathy," he said.
On Planet Gle-Ah, the women not only can communicate telepathically; they are incredible listeners, leading to extraordinary understanding.
"And the men are still physically dominant, but that ability to listen and to be in touch with this higher consciousness is so compelling that the women are in charge," he said.
His challenge then was to write in such a way that readers sensed what was going on, so he had to explain it less.
DeYoung admits he kept to himself as a writer, at least until he sold this book. Now he's out talking about "The Exo Project." He'll read from it at the University Club in St. Paul on Tuesday in an evening dedicated to young adult fiction. It's part of the long-running Carol Connolly writers series. He said he's been pleasantly surprised to meet members of the local YA writers community.
"I've found that everybody here is very, very welcoming," he said.
Maybe they've visited those distant teenage planets too.