Essentially, Exo is an alien story without either first contact or invasion in it.
The story starts when aliens are already here, and they govern us. Humans and aliens coexist in many contexts, but there is still violence. Some people have bought into the coexisting system, and others don't. Fonda said she really wanted to make sure that nothing was black and white, but that moral issues were subtly shaded.
Her main character is intended to turn tropes on their heads. Donovan is a young human soldier whose job it is to fight human insurgents. Fonda says she wants to see if she can make you root for a character on the "wrong side."
Culturally, the book sounds fascinating. Fonda told me that part of this was deliberate and part unconscious. Her editor apparently came to her and said how great the main character was as a metaphor for a second-generation child with mixed identity. This was something of a surprise, but it was definitely there, and she had an opportunity to strengthen that aspect of the story while working with the editor (so, awesome!).
Donovan is an EXO, a human who has been modified so he has body armor. Because of this he's considered alien to humans, but human to aliens. It's a major identity conflict, and some of Fonda's resources for portraying him no doubt came from her experience as a child of immigrants.
She wanted to make Donovan's experience personal. Writing is personal, she says - even when you are working on pot structure. The personal is what sustains interest and drive.
The setting of the book is Earth after it has been "reformed" by aliens among us. She asked a question I've never seen asked before: Why would aliens show up in a major city, i.e. a place so "infested" with the local inhabitants? Her alien cities are therefore in areas like Patagonia, Mongolia, and the border between Wyoming and Nebraska. Humans then migrate to those areas to interact with the aliens, which means suddenly you have a metropolis in the middle of grassland. North America is split into west and east.
I asked Fonda about her research. She said she picked a few locations to research, using the criterion of high altitude - the kind of spot that makes for a good observatory - because she thought aliens would want to have enhanced ability to communicate with home. These places also had to be sparsely populated and have access to water. She used population maps and looked up the locations of actual deep space antennas. She said she related to the location she used for the main city because she grew up in Alberta, and is familiar with cold prairie land. She also attended the Launchpad Workshop, which is a crash course in astronomy for science fiction and fantasy writers hosted by the University of Wyoming.
Fonda told us, "I discovered I really love designing aliens." Most important to her was that she didn't want them to look like us, since she didn't have to have them portrayed by actors on TV. However, they also needed to be capable of living alongside us, and for that she wanted them to be land-dwelling, and to have a vocal language.
The aliens are the Zri, who are called "shrooms" by the humans. They have domed bodies with six legs and six eyes. Their limbs have fingers. They have musical speech. The languages are incompatible in that humans can't produce alien language, and the aliens can't produce human language, but they are mutually comprehensible.
Fonda mentioned that one of the challenges of space travel she dealt with was radiation. The space-traveling aliens have body armor that allows them to resist this radiation, and so do the humans who are altered to have body armor.
One of the worldbuilding details she told us she liked was how the two groups can understand each other, but not perfectly. They have translation machines to help with the process, but the machines translate the alien language as a deep male human voice.
I asked her about the gender of the aliens, and she said they are hermaphroditic, but "they have male voices." Apparently the aliens deliberately chose to render their voices as those of human males in order to prey on human patriarchal expectations. Fonda notes that humans will also do that, as when female CEOs will deepen their voices.
Fonda likes to ask, "What's the logic behind that?" when she is worldbuilding. She also asks, "What from this world is relevant?" The aliens couldn't be sentient plants or light particles. All alien stories, she says, are human stories. We use the lens of Other to examine ourselves and ask, "What is human?" It's very important to look at humans interacting with the strange and unknown.
She told us about the book Story Genius by Lisa Cron, who says we are wired for stories because we are testing ourselves in preparation for actual scenarios.
Fonda says using aliens is a relatively safe way to portray the Other because it doesn't involve projecting Other onto other humans.
Donovan, the main character in Exo, is a member of the Global Security Forces. He gets abducted by a terrorist militia, an anti-alien human group. Because Donovan is the son of a political leader, he is perceived as a bargaining chip. However, things go wrong. Donovan understands the stance of the militia but at the same time is loyal to his father. Fonda says this is "not a good guys versus bad guys" story, but happens in a moral gray zone. We love the rebel versus the evil empire, Katniss, etc. but in many places, America is the evil empire. She wanted to ask "What is a terrorist?" "What is the justification that opposing sides use in conflict?"
Fonda also says that teens have a better sense of the world's complexity than we think. They can handle nuance in a story. She told us about a high school visit when she learned that teens are still reading "classics" which were written as adult works. We noted that YA is a new genre. Fonda says she's comfortable there because she loves the transition phase. We can still be coming of age until age 40, she says.
Sarah asked whether Fonda had done much digging into different Earth cultures. There is not so much of that in Exo, but it does nod to other areas of the world and how the alien occupation played differently there.
Khaalidah asked about Fonda's writing process. Fonda said that every book is different. Her first novel, Zeroboxer, took 6-8 weeks of research and a year for the first draft and revisions. Exo, she says, started as a "trainwreck NaNoWriMo."She tried to "pants it," or just write it without planning, and stalled out after 30,000 words, so had to delete it and try again. The second time she re-envisioned it, and rewrote it more. Exo has more layers to it, and needed more drafts to bring it into focus. Fonda says there will be a second book to follow Exo, too. An idea can marinate for months or years, but she estimates two months for research and outlining, five months for the first draft, a break, and then two and a half months or so for revision. When she uses an outline, it hits major plot points, and notes on character arcs. She sold the sequel to Exo on proposal with an outline and three chapters. Having an outline, she notes, doesn't necessarily mean anything once you start writing. She quotes Lin-Manuel Miranda saying some "ideas are Moses," in that they lead you somewhere important even if they don't make it into the final book.
Lastly, we asked about the gender of the main character. Fonda says that she's written young men so far because that's "the character that pops into my head." She's had people say "you like to write teenage boys," but she says she likes to write others, too.
Fonda, thank you so much for coming and telling us about this exciting book - it's out now, so go read it! Thank you also to everyone who attended and make the discussion so fascinating.
Next week, 2/8/17 at 10am Pacific, we'll be speaking with guest author Alec Nevala-Lee about his story, "The Proving Ground." We also have a discussion of Colorism scheduled for February 15th at 10am Pacific, so please let me know if you would like to participate.