by Mark R. Brand and Scott Lyerly

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N O W   A V A I L A B L E :

The Department of Off World Affairs
by Russell Lutz

details | read excerpts: Heliopause | Junior | discuss


Editor's Note: Interviews may contain minor spoilers.


Mark R. Brand: Well, I've just finished reading The Department of Off World Affairs, and I almost can't say enough how impressed I am with it. Everything I liked about Iota Cycle was very much in evidence here, and then some. Let's start with the obvious comparison to kick things off. I know there was a lengthy span of time between the writing of Iota Cycle and The Department of Off World Affairs, even though the books were released only two years apart. Then again, I get the feeling since the books are told as a series of shorter stories that they weren't necessarily written in the same order that the books present them. Tell us a little about the chronological history of these stories and how they managed to find their way into these two respective books.

Russell Lutz: DOWA was pretty straightforward. I had a storyline planned out, chapter titles and plots and characters, all pretty rigidly defined. Since the story is more cohesive than Iota Cycle, I felt like writing it in order, so that the arc is kept consistent from chapter to chapter: What is the current status of Keira and her career? What is the nature of society's view of aliens? Things like that. I certainly came back to certain chapters and reworked them a number of times. ("Mass Hysteria" gave me fits.) But it was mostly written in the order you see it in the book.

IC was more complex. I wrote "Fall" first, as a one-off short. When I had a picture of that as part of a bigger story cycle, I wrote the "anchor" pieces, the ones that have titles that have to do with the seasons. I thought I was done. Then I realized that I needed more info about Europe and their struggle to make the revolution seem real, so I added the shorter chapters about the Burke family. Since there were almost no continuing characters, and the styles of each chapter were somewhat different, I wasn't as worried about continuity, of either plot or tone. Hopefully it worked.

MRB: Like many sci-fi fans, I was raised not only on a diet of some of the best fiction of the 70s and 80s, but also on a regular scholastic education that included a heavy emphasis on math and sciences. One of my favorite parts of The Department of Off World Affairs (and Iota Cycle) was the bewildering use of real-world physics and valid hypothetical science to enrich the believability of the story. Do you have a strong background in physics, chemistry, math, or biology, or are we seeing an author who has managed all of this by simply reading about it in other fiction?

RL: I have a couple of degrees in math, and when I was in school, and needed more credits, I took physics until they told me to stop. So there's that. Anything that I happen to get right in chemistry or biology is either luck or, more likely, Wikipedia.

My favorite "real" science bit in the book is also the one people would assume was purest fantasy: the MAD drive. I describe it as a "Modified Alcubierre Devecchio Drive". The Alcubierre Drive is an actual scientifically supportable suggestion by the Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre. Devecchio I added because it's the name of a friend of mine who's a physicist. But, as with any sci-fi, I took what I liked from the theory, and changed the rest.

MRB: The Department of Off World Affairs brought a lot of different narrative concepts together in an amalgam that I found very effective. There were some tangential plotlines like "Junior" sprinkled in with the throughline, and the diversity and sheer scope of the story seemed to be even greater than Iota Cycle. At the same time, however, you managed to make it all meld together in a fast-moving and cohesive way. Any differences in the approach to crafting the narrative for DOWA?

RL: One thing I tried to do was make sure that the three main characters (Vanessa, Terry and Keira) each got the same amount of coverage in the book. If you wanted to really dissect the thing, you'd see that they each appear in the same number of chapters, and it's not until late in the book that they appear in consecutive chapters. I was also very careful about the ways in which the characters interact—how often, and when.

I've been fascinated by TV shows recently taking disparate characters and following their trajectories separately, before bringing them into collision with each other. (Heroes is the gold standard, but there are a number of other shows, too.)

Beyond that, I wanted to have a more unifying tone for DOWA than I did for IC. IC was about changing up the tone from chapter to chapter, because I was traveling from world to world, from decade to decade. DOWA was about creating a single world, and even if I'm telling different kinds of stories (compare the riot in Harlem to the riot in Vieux Mer), I wanted it to feel like it was really all in the same universe. Maybe a universe that's a little more chaotic than the real one, but not to the Hitchhiker's Guide level.

The trickiest part, and I hope I pulled it off, was holding back the final threat until relatively late in the story. There's a few chapters of "Earth accepting the change". Then there's "Earth dealing with repercussions". Then there's a major shift in "Zinc", where Earth gets hit by a big spotlight, and things start to snowball. But you don't hear the name "The Antagonist" until chapter 20 (even though there are a few hints of his existence earlier). I didn't want this to be a novel about an alien terrorist, but I wanted him to be the engine of the climax.

For whatever reason, the concluding chapter of DOWA is similar in structure to IC. It's long, it involves a lot of travel for our characters, it occurs in a confined space, and it revolves around solving a mystery, the seeds of which I've sown throughout the novel. I guess I like that kind of story structure.

MRB: Scientists from India, business tycoons from Japan... It seems as though you wanted to convey a sense even of a coherent human world to offset the diversity of the aliens that populated the universe. Were you consciously trying to strike a balance between your own point of view and the prevailing insular nature of sci-fi like Independence Day that presents a totally Amero-centric version of the world?

RL: I've got no problem with American stories about American people with American problems. But an event like this would certainly have global implications, and I didn't want to just toss off cute little asides about what might be happening overseas. I wanted to show it. I regret I didn't have any scenes in South America, but at least I have a chapter that takes place in Djibouti!

But I also didn't want to imply that the world would simply unite in some fantasy way with the realization that there are aliens out there. I think about it like Europeans coming to the New World. I seriously doubt all the natives on the continent simply said, "Hey, we're us and they're them." They still had to deal with each other. Similarly with humanity. There would still be divisions within the human race that require work. That's one of the reasons I wrote "Race Relations" the way I did. Whites and Blacks still have some issues to deal with... but in the fact of what's happening with the Dandelions and the Picassos, they start to look a little pedestrian.

MRB: In addition to the richness of the thematic detail, the depth of characterization, and the variety of plotlines sure to ensnare even those readers who aren't too fond otherwise of sci-fi, you also included a rather steamy love scene in this book. I personally have a difficult time writing these scenes, though my newest novel contains some. The scene in DOWA, however, seemed natural and not at all stilted or awkward. Care to comment on the construction of this scene?

RL: Most difficult eleven paragraphs of my writing career. Not that it took long to write and edit. But I felt like the story of Terry and Vanessa needed that kind of release, and so I decided to go for broke... but keep it "literary". Still, it was tough to get in a headspace to write like that. It helped to do it from Vanessa's perspective, since that makes it seem a little less like some childish wish fulfillment, and more like a story. I also ran that scene past a couple of people (a man and a woman) to make sure it worked.

And, by the way, if my mother asks, this scene was ghost written by someone else.

MRB: Just to satisfy my own childish curiosity, where did you come up with the ideas for your aliens? There are more creative interpretations of extra-terrestrial life in this book than in any four other good sci-fi books. How did you go about assigning them all their own separate ideologies and personalities?

RL: I came to the conclusion early on that the aliens would have these official nicknames, since I didn't want to deal with too many of those untypeable alien names. (I threw in a couple, just for fun.) I know people feel the need to look for similarities to the familiar. From that, I decided to let the names drive the design of the aliens for most: Skeletons, Anemones, Lilies. There were a few that were purpose-built for a story. The Red and Violet Gamers were pretty much just a what-if. What if two cultures simply agreed to remain at war forever? I wanted Prometheus (the crusading Dragon) to have a forceful appearance to go with her forceful championing of the weak. On the other hand, I wanted the Vampires to be physically intimidating, but completely harmless, even charming. And I wanted the Rope Man to be scary. Really scary. (She'd have scared me, anyway.)

The one race I spent the most time describing in the book is probably the Blues. There are some Vulcan aspects to them: they're polite, they're curious, they're helping midwife us into the galaxy. But I specifically wanted to invent a race that did not think in terms of front and back, left and right. Their movements, their personality tics, even their word choice, was all driven by their unique biology. And then, just to make sure you realize they are really "people", I give you two of them with very different personalities. Too often, I think, alien races in fiction are really one character multiplied by a billion. (No pun intended.) And for most of the races I describe in DOWA, I'm just as guilty. (You only ever meet a single Bull.) But I wanted a few examples of aliens that could be as different from each other as we are.

MRB: I can only imagine the time and effort that you've put into crafting something as complex as The Department of Off World Affairs. That said, what else can we look forward to from you?

RL: I'm still working on a fantasy series that is an allegory for the creation of the United States, but it's slow going. My next big new project will likely be a disaster story, another tale with global implications. My goal is to make the scope of that one as big (or bigger) than DOWA, just without the alien craziness. The title of that one will be The Madagascar Event. Fingers crossed!

* * *

Scott Lyerly: What are your five favorite books, and why?


  • Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. The sheer amount of creativity on display is daunting.
  • Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. He perfected the science thriller.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Considered by many to be the first romantic comedy. Considered by me to be the best.
  • Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. I'm treating this as a single book, because it is a single story being told, not just endless sequels. It's a remarkably engrossing, exciting, and hopeful epic.
  • Night's Dawn trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton. It's the space opera flip-side of Robinson's hard science. It's mesmerizing how he manages to juggle so many stories and characters and settings while maintaining a cohesive overall narrative.

SL: Who are your five favorite authors, and why?


  • Stephen King, because he's the voice of our time. And he's cool.
  • Kim Stanley Robinson, because his prose is uplifting and down-to-earth, all at the same time.
  • Margaret Mitchell, because she wrote exactly one book, and it is nearly perfect.
  • William Shakespeare, because… Do I really need a reason?
  • Vincent Bugliosi, because his books are a great amalgam of technical detail about the legal system, and unalloyed passion for justice.

SL: Who or what was your biggest influence in deciding to become a writer? What inspired you to write DOWA?

RL: There are a few specific works that were inspiration for DOWA. The most obvious is Contact by Carl Sagan. (Vanessa = Ellie) I always wanted to actually meet those mysterious aliens out there, not just see a holographic simulation of a dead relative. In a lot of ways, the DOWAverse is a somewhat less silly variation on the Hitchhiker's universe created by Douglas Adams. I wanted to maintain a slightly out of control, slightly kooky tone, similar to the feel of the Potterverse from JK Rowling. I don't want the DOWAverse to feel too dangerous, but it should feel messy, chaotic, uncontrollable.

SL: How long did it take you to write DOWA? How much scientific research did you have to do?

Actual calendar time was just about one year. I did only enough scientific research to be dangerous. There was a lot less rigorous science in DOWA than there was in Iota Cycle. Most of the "science" on display is pure fantasy: quicklight, time suspension, all the alien designs. The only thing with some real science to it is the MAD drive on Earth's first starship.

SL: Do you have a favorite character, and why?

RL: I have two answers. My favorite character in terms of someone it would be fun to simply hang around with is Gainsborough, Keira's helpful Blue friend. He's a little too nosy, and perhaps sunnier than he should be, but he's just plain nice to have around.

My favorite character to write, though, was The Antagonist. Getting into the headspace of someone that arrogant and manipulative is really fun. I don't write a lot of villains into my work; writing a villain that's more than simply evil for evil's sake is tricky. For this one, I tried to go all out. I want the reader to get his motivation, even as you hate him for it.

SL: What are you reading now?

RL: All kinds of stuff. On the fiction front, I'm slogging through Ulysses by James Joyce, while leavening that with The Judas Strain by James Rollins. (Really, they're basically the same book.)

In non-fiction, I'm working through The War of the World by Niall Ferguson, because I feel the need to understand the Twentieth Century, even if it is unbelievably depressing. I just finished reading Year Million, a compilation of essays about what humanity might be like a million years from now. The future, it seems, will be almost as depressing as the past, just for entirely different reasons.

SL: What is the most overrated book you've ever read?

RL: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Hands down. Poorly written, poorly plotted, poorly characterized. It was a huge step down from the relatively deft Angels & Demons.

SL: If you could require everyone to read just one book, what would it be?

RL: That question presupposes that there's a single book that would be of interest to all people. Can I even pretend to suggest something like Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen, when 85% of the public would balk at reading a "comic book"? I've already mentioned my favorites in the sci-fi and romantic comedy genres above. I can add a few others in other genres:

  • Legal thriller: True Crime by Andrew Klavan
  • Military thriller: The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
  • Mainstream: Snow by Orhan Pamuk
  • History: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer
  • True Crime: Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi
  • Biography: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

SL: What's the best thing you've ever written?

RL: That's certainly a loaded question! Well, at novel length, DOWA is the best thing I've done so far. At short story length, I'm most pleased with a story called "Car Service" (published on about a professional gambler who gets wrapped up in a bizarre situation in Lake Tahoe.

But when I think of my work at its best, I tend to gravitate to particular moments in my writing. The destruction of the Iota Horologii system in Iota Cycle. The revelation of who The Antagonist is in DOWA. The final moments of the story (and of the human race) in "The Last Perfect Afternoon". If I could sustain that level of emotion and clarity for an entire story, then I'd start thinking of myself as a great writer. Until then, I'll just keep trying.

SL: What's the last piece of your writing that you hated and threw in the wastepaper bin and why?

RL: I find it really hard to give up on anything. I tend to believe that rewriting is always possible. (Someday my detective-living-in-an-undersea-city novel will see the light of day! This I vow!)

But I did recently give up on an odd little short story called "Where is Lonnie?" about a mysterious spiritual force screwing around with people on a train in the middle of a ten-thousand-mile trek through inhospitable wilderness. It ended up being both too clichéd and too weird.

SL: Is there any particular ritual involved in your writing process (favorite pen, lucky charm, south-facing window)?

RL: It's all about Microsoft Word on my laptop, usually at a coffee place, plugged into a corner outlet, tapping away. And I like to have access to the internet at the same time, so I can quickly fact-check myself. I hate to leave details open-ended, just in case I forget to go back and fix them.


For an off world perspective on Russell Lutz, click here.




Copyright © 2008 Mark R. Brand and Scott Lyerly

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R S:

Mark R. Brand and Scott Lyerly are better interviewers than me am.

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