“The Worst Punishment in the Universe” – an interview with Mark Laporta

Mirror at the Heart of Time, by Mark Laporta, will be published by Chickadee Prince Books on June 1, 2017 in trade paperback and ebook. Available right now for pre-order from Amazon or your local bookstore. See the whole trilogy here.

Interviewed by Mark Lipowicz

Lipowicz: You’ve just finished the third book in your trilogy, which tells the story of Ixdahan Daherek, an adolescent criminal on an alien planet who is sentenced to life as a human high schooler on Earth. Where did this idea come from?

Laporta: I started from my own recollection: that being a human teenager felt like the worst punishment in the universe. The contradictory physical and psychological impulses, the mixed messages from adults and the lack of any meaningful function in society drove me around the bend. So I imagined an alien teenager actually receiving that punishment — for selling state secrets to the enemy.

In Book One, when Ixdahan is in human form and renamed “Derek,” his emotions seem pretty human. Was there something from his Homeworld that I should have noticed?

As I see it, sentience is sentience, and it seems reasonable to assume that some alien intelligences would be a lot like ours. To be sentient and self-aware is to be self-conscious and riddled with self-doubt. And given a species that reproduces sexually, there’s liable to be a lot of common ground between humans and aliens. So in the breathless minutes before a hot date, I can imagine an alien life form asking, “Do these pants make my antennae look fat?”

In Ixdahan’s case, part of his punishment is an overlay of brainwave patterns that mimic the cadence of the human mind. So initially, he “thinks human,” whether he wants to or not. Later, as he learns to value his friendships with Lena and Vance, he discovers what behaviors support and preserve those relationships, aided by his telepathic ability.

mirror-at-the-heart-of-time-cover-for-publicity-reduced-sizeBut he never stops being an alien. There’s much about human culture he never grasps, even by the end of the trilogy. None of his experience on Earth erodes his vastly more complex mind, cultivated by “direct to cortex” learning in several fields, enhanced by his telepathic perceptions and supplemented by his understanding of the wider universe.

 When Ixdahan, in human form, meets Lena, a high school girl, she finds his fish-out-of-water dorkiness appealing. Where would you say Ixdahan, Lena and the others find their motivation to be brave and save the planet?

Like many teenagers, my characters start out preoccupied with social status, looks, fashion, school, parental authority and the question, “Who am I?” But as evidence of an impending alien invasion mounts up, they take action — partly because they believe the adults in their lives will never take that evidence seriously.

In Ixdahan’s case, his involvement also stems from a growing sense of personal responsibility for the impending crisis. For Lena and Vance, the empathy they develop for Ixdahan’s curious plight further strengthens their commitment to the cause. He has, unexpectedly, become a close friend they’d do anything for.

While I’ve read a lot of books, I don’t remember any characters or situations quite like those in the Changing Hearts series. Is there a source of inspiration you can tell us about?

My favorite stories are ones where the main characters’ best qualities lead them straight into an abyss. Ixdahan is determined, defiant, devious and brilliant — just smart enough to do the stupid thing that gets him exiled to Earth. Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, he has to redefine both his place in the universe and the universe itself.

But the main inspiration for the series is the unpredictable way actions in real life lead to random consequences which, many years later, appear to have had a purpose after all. Underlying all that are aspects of the human condition I can’t claim to have discovered, but which haven’t received as much attention as they deserve.

 Did Ixdahan and the other aliens you describe invent the “Galactic Array,” which enables them to communicate telepathically across great distances? Or is it built into their DNA?

heart-of-earth-2017-kindle-coverI never tell the full history of the Galactic Array, but I do allude to “the inter-species panel of programming consultants” who have maintained it for centuries. It’s a space-based system of satellites and deep space buoys that detects, magnifies and transmits the signals produced by telepathic minds. The Array enables Ixdahan to connect with minds thousands of parsecs away. As needed, the aliens in Ixdahan’s neighborhood can also use ship-bound or planet-bound mentallic transponders to further strengthen the signal. The Galactic Array also functions as a kind of interstellar Internet.

I liked how Lena and others took on some of the “DNA” of the aliens.

Well, of course, Lena does so literally, when she’s accidentally infected with a Vrukaari mind-control virus. But aside from that, yes, she and Vance in particular gain a wider perspective by dealing with Ixdahan. Besides, saving a planet will do that to you, especially once you realize there are other inhabited worlds you never knew existed.

When we see aliens in human skin — as we have many times in TV and film — we’re comfortable around them. We can focus on how they’re similar to us, rather than on how different they are. In Heart of Earth, did you want us to see Ixdahan more as a human teenager, or as an heir to power in his Homeworld?

Ixdahan is forced to adapt to life on Earth by adopting human customs and expressing himself in human terms, just to survive. His mind has been shoved into a human body, and is affected by human senses, hormones and physical limitations. But his orientation and thought patterns remain those of his Snaldrialooran homeworld. Snaldrialoor is the frame of reference by which he judges everything.

I can see where Ixdahan learns from other cultures. Does he also have some gift he shares with those cultures?

Between the force of his personality, his alien outlook and the impending crisis he had a hand in creating, Ixdahan forces Lena, Vance and, to a lesser extent, Callie Ann, to see beyond their comfortable, narrow concerns and gaze out into the universe. Throughout the rest of the series, his inquisitive mind, commitment to ideals and unflinching willingness to act on those ideals, helps awaken the moribund spirit of the Onkendren and leads the frightened Zoktylese to shake off tyranny.

What’s the hardest thing when writing about Ixdahan’s Homeworld?

The challenge is maintaining a firm distinction between the cultural biases and attitudes that shape life on Snaldrialoor vs those that shape life on Earth. Because the Snaldrialoorans are thousands of years ahead of us in technology and their detailed vision of the universe, it doesn’t take much to make them distinct from humans.

I’ve also hinted at an official religion, dating back millennia, that reveres cosmic figures like the “Sentient Masters of the Infinite Continuum.” Also, unlike Earth, Snaldrialoor has a unified world government and has long-ago solved the social problems that still dog our heels on Earth.

Meantime we get to see how other cultures fare when they encounter Ixdahan and the beings of his world.

Keep in mind that these alien worlds have had thousands more years to create their societies than we have. And, as you can see, they still don’t get everything right. Both the upright Snaldrialoorans and the evil Vrukaari still maintain military fleets and standing armies. They might have worked out life on their own worlds, but there’s still a need for an elaborate diplomatic corps, including Ixdahan’s father, Pertahru.

 Ixdahan & Company are in their third “episode.” Do you see them developing in more sweeping stories, or is another direction possible?

It’s possible a few of the characters in Mirror at the Heart of Time might appear in stories of their own at a later date. Even now, I’m curious to know what happens to Hewlontri, Vendera and the Multiversals immediately following the end of the series. But at the moment, I have another universe in mind, that I’m developing in a new, unrelated storyline. For now, I’m excited to explore a new set of themes in a different fictional landscape.

I see you have a lot of stories to tell!

Right. Which reminds me, I’d better get back to work.More