November 14, 2019
(+++) THE UGLINESS OF SURVIVAL
Escaping Exodus. By Nicky Drayden. Harper Voyager. $16.99.
Nicky Drayden is an absolutely marvelous world creator and scene setter – who hopefully, as she continues to mature as a writer, will become equally adept at producing well-rounded, believable characters. Drayden’s third novel, Escaping Exodus, is a typical example of a fantasy book masquerading as science fiction: although set in deep space long after the destruction of Earth, it has none of the carefully researched science on which true SF builds but simply uses its framework to produce an exotic environment within which some far-from-exotic, indeed thrice-familiar, human emotions and concerns can play themselves out.
Drayden writes of an Africa that never was, projected into a future that never will be. No longer living on a planet (or even looking for one), or on starships (except during the “exodus” of the title), humans exist as parasites inside moon-sized interstellar beasts that somehow thrive in the vacuum of space. How this can be is never explained; this is one way in which Escaping Exodus is pure fantasy. The beasts exist purely for exploitation by humans even though they turn out (inevitably) to have consciousness and even intelligence – just expressed in ways humans can never understand (again, this is fantasy, so there is not even an attempt to say how this can be).
As for the human society that hops from beast to beast, in “exodus” when the hulk of one beast eventually proves unable to sustain it, that society is cruel, hidebound, and inflexible. It is mired in longstanding traditions that are understood poorly if at all and are designed to fend off the slightest disturbance of a wholly irrational order of existence filled with ancient African tribal rituals, belief in ghosts, and other vestiges of a long-abandoned kind of thinking that apparently has gone with the remains of humanity to the stars and beyond.
This society, whose depredations Drayden describes in fascinating and highly involving ways, is of course a typical dystopia, but the ins and outs of its functioning are so enthralling that the book is gripping whenever Drayden explores the triumphant tribalism that was apparently ascendant when humans headed into space and with which they are still very much encumbered. The society is intensely and absolutely matriarchal, and anyone who thinks an unbending matriarchy would do a better (or just more humane) job of handling societal needs than patriarchies have done will quickly have that notion laid to rest in Escaping Exodus. The entire society is built on mass murder, on outright genocide, on specifically defining certain people (“grisettes”) as tools unworthy of life and quickly deprived of it: after they are done nearly working themselves to death, the rulers (“contour class”) finish them off. And the pervasive class system is full of rules, rules, rules, for everyone at every level. In this completely stratified fantasy world, which has overtones of Animal Farm but with humans who are of less consequence than Orwell’s animals, everybody exists within never-questioned requirements, ranging from “names are given only to sufficiently high-class individuals” to “no touching during courtship.”
This rigidly stratified society, still encumbered by triumphant tribalism in all its activities, would be laughable if there were the slightest hint of humor in Escaping Exodus. But there is no such thing: the book is deeply, darkly, intensely serious throughout. Obviously, a dystopic society such as this will eventually be challenged from within or without as it rots, and that is where the two narrators of the book, upper-class Seske and lower-class Adalla, come in. Unfortunately, try as she might (and she does), Drayden never makes either of them nearly as interesting as the social structure which they exist in and eventually try to upend. “This way of life, something has to give, or it’s all going to break,” narrates Seske at one point, and that, in a nutshell, is the theme of Escaping Exodus. Seske inadvertently makes a connection, mental and physical and emotional, with the latest beast, and soon finds herself wondering “if there is more to the beast than just a convenient package of flesh for us to consume.” Well, cancers do not, as far as we know, wonder if there is more to the human body than something to consume, so perhaps Seske and a few others are slightly better than other cancer cells. But make no mistake: humans are a malignancy in Escaping Exodus, treating each other and the interstellar beasts with the same complete abandonment of anything that makes people human.
Seske, who is about to assume ultimate authority over the human colony by inheriting power from her mother, is supposed to seem more human, if not necessarily humane, because of the way she cares for lower-class Adalla (whom she subjects to horrendous torture because, well, she has to); Seske is also supposed to be seen as traumatized because she has a sister, that being a curse word in a society built around the notion of the “Rule of Ten: nine parents, and one child to share between them.” This “Sisterkin” exists because of a bad (that is, non-rule-adhering) decision by Seske’s primary mother, and it is obvious from the first introduction of Sisterkin that she will undermine Seske and challenge her for rule as soon as she can. When she does, it is scarcely a surprise. It is also unsurprising that the lower-class workers – plus the colony’s men, who are below just about everybody because men are, you know, male – will eventually decide they have had enough, and that Adalla will lead a failed rebellion against the status quo. When she does, it is, again, scarcely a surprise. Indeed, the various personalities, behaviors and interactions among the characters are thoroughly unsurprising, as is the eventual working-out of the plot. The characters are so unimportant as individuals – to Drayden and therefore to the reader – that, to cite one example, when Sisterkin abandons Seske to certain death and mounts a grand coup, Seske announces that she will deal with it, and after that, Sisterkin literally disappears from the novel, never mentioned again. That particular cardboard puppet has served its purpose.
The characters are all equally flat – although narrators Seske and Adalla, inevitably, are less so than the rest. Virtually all of Drayden’s creativity, of which she possesses quite a bit, has gone into constructing the horrific society of Escaping Exodus, leaving little left over to produce multidimensional characters with seemingly genuine motivations and some depth of personality. That is too bad, but this is only Drayden’s third novel, after The Prey of Gods and Temper, each of them excellent in its own way: this author has plenty of time to lavish her considerable skills on character development in the future, if she so chooses.
In Escaping Exodus, one clever element is the way different classes use language. In the downtrodden “beastworker” class, for example, Adalla explains that “‘sure’ is akin to a very soft ‘maybe.’ ‘Sure is sure is sure’ means you’d stake your life on it. And ‘sure is sure’ – well, that’s something drenched in doubt. Not a hard no, but about as close as you can ride up on it without it biting your head clean off.” Thus, in Escaping Exodus, Drayden has written a fine and compelling novel, sure is sure. But her characterizations have a considerable distance to go before they will be as good as her world building and descriptive talents, sure is sure is sure.