April 08, 2021


Escaping Exodus 2: Symbiosis. By Nicky Drayden. Harper Voyager. $16.99.

     Be careful what you wish for. In Escaping Exodus, Nicky Drayden created a fascinating dystopia, a society she explored in such detail and with such care that reading about it was a genuine adventure – if only those pesky characters had not kept intruding. Drayden spent so much time with the rules (many rules) and traditions (many traditions) of her spacefaring civilization that the characters plunked down within the environment never measured up to the setting, however hard Drayden seemed to try to bring them to vivid life. Now, in Symbiosis, the sequel to Escaping Exodus, Drayden is determined to produce character portraits and explore them at length. Unfortunately, in so doing, she veers off the rails into an overly complex plot that never quite hangs together and that strains credulity to and beyond the breaking point – yes, even more than the plots of futuristic dystopian novels usually do.

     “Be careful what you wish for” could actually be the watchword, or watchphrase, for one of the central characters in Symbiosis, Doka Kaleigh. He is a very rare male leader in a strictly stratified and hidebound matriarchy, and as a result of his gender is constantly being challenged, put on the defensive, and left one step from disaster – a disaster that, if it were to befall him, would also befall the entire society, a reality of which Doka’s many enemies are blissfully unaware (or about which they care not a whit). The society is one in which humans are, essentially, cancer cells, growing and reproducing and functioning parasitically inside moon-sized interstellar beasts called Zenzee that somehow thrive in the vacuum of space (just how is never explained: Drayden is writing fantasy and space opera, not science fiction). Doka wishes to change society, to make it far more humane, to have it be symbiotic (hence the sequel’s title) rather than parasitic. And he has made considerable strides in his desired direction, despite the forces arrayed against him. But he has a wish of his own, and it threatens to undermine all his accomplishments. He desires to love and be loved by his wife (and alternate-chapter narrator), Seske.

     Drayden’s society is one in which family structures are rigidly arranged and controlled, one basic notion being the “Rule of Ten: nine parents, and one child to share between them.” The parents have assigned and unchanging roles, the relationships among the adults among them: Seske is a platonic will-wife, a type of consort whom Doka may not love without threatening the entire basis of this traveling-among-the-stars civilization. By having him nevertheless love Seske, Drayden makes an attempt to humanize her characters and give them depth – but this effort, one of several in Symbiosis, seems contrived and ultimately falls flat. Just how contrived it is becomes clear when a deus ex machina event (one of several of those) forces the Doka-led Zenzee occupiers to accept thousands of refugees from another of the Zenzee. The entry of the immigrants, whose own society differs from that of Doka and Seske in numerous ways, precipitates a culture clash that destabilizes everything that Doka has painstakingly wrought. It also forces Doka and Seske into an alliance that goes beyond their officially sanctioned marriage – making Doka’s feelings all the more awkward, of course – as they work together to preserve what is good in humanity while casting off those traditions and behaviors that undermine humans and Zenzee alike. On top of that, in another deus ex machina occurrence, Doka and Seske together discover long-buried, crucial secrets that have the capacity to transform or destroy their society – with matters eventually resolved through a climax that relies on, yes, another deus ex machina.

     Authorial manipulations are, to be sure, nothing at all unusual in fiction, and they are perhaps more common in fantasy than elsewhere, since fantasy authors tend to take advantage of their ability to make up elements of nonexistent worlds and societies as they go along. Drayden, though, is strongest when she is building such worlds: all her books, including the first Escaping Exodus, are at their most fascinating and involving in their explorations of the grotesqueries of their settings and the bizarre appearances and behaviors that Drayden presents. There is some of that inventiveness in Symbiosis as well, and some cringeworthy, horrific scenes that make sense in context and effectively help deepen the sense of a vibrant (if deeply flawed) society. But what is apparent throughout Symbiosis is how hard Drayden is trying to make the characters believable, to correct a flaw in her writing that has led her, again and again, to produce individuals far less interesting and real-seeming than the groups, circumstances and worlds within which they exist. However, manipulativeness does not work well in bringing characters to life: it simply does not work to instruct readers to find characters engaging and worthy of attention and emotional identification. Symbiosis will be satisfying for readers who found Escaping Exodus fascinating for its settings and the vivid imagination that Drayden lavished on them. However, anyone who hoped Drayden would now use her scene-setting talent to enliven the characters within those scenes will – while enjoying the fast pace and excitement of Symbiosis – be disappointed that so much of the new book is essentially more of the same.

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