Nicky Drayden’s novels are weird—and I mean that as the highest of compliments.
Her genre-blending debut The Prey of Gods landed on the scene in 2017 with the self-same subtlety of a Roman candle stuck up your nose. Artificial intelligence and African folklore, mind control and murder, demigods and dik-diks, The Prey of Gods had has everything. Her sophomore effort, Temper, an Afrofuturist romp through a world in which your social identity is defined by your balance of vice and virtue, continued in the same audacious vein, plus twice the world-building.
Now comes Escaping Exodus, Drayden’s third novel, as pleasantly and characteristically bonkers as ever. Eschewing her established skill at tossing science fiction and fantasy together in a blender, she leans full into her Octavia Butler fineries and drops us aboard a city-size starship carved in the innards of a drifting space beast.
Centuries ago, humans fled Earth for the safety of the stars, eventually discovering a way to live inside these enormous, tentacled beasts, using up their resources from the inside out. They build homes, stores—entire economies and societies—within the walls of the body until the beast gives out, and the humans must find a new host to leech off of.
It’s an inherently problematic arrangement, but one to which Seske, next in line to the matriarchy’s throne, is blind. To a teenage heir, the beast is simply home, its colonization a result of the wisdom of her ancestors.
The story unfolds through the alternating perspectives of Seske and her best friend (and possibly more) Adalla, one of the many workers charged with keeping the beast’s organs and overall biology functional. At the start, the pair’s biggest problems are their rapidly diverging futures: Seske is being groomed to rule, a process that includes selecting mates (more on that in a moment). Adalla, meanwhile, yearns to progress in her work and earn a coveted spot tending the beast’s heart. Theirs is a classic dilemma of a classed society: they never should have been friends in the first place, and the various Powers That Be intend to ensure they will not remain so.
But even as the young women are driven apart, each makes an unsettling discovery that changes their view of the world they inhabit and their respective places in it. Truly, their discoveries confirm what the reader has known, in some way, all along: this mode of survival—this Manifest Destiny of space creatures—is an ugly thing, and one that neither of their newly awoken consciences can abide.
Seske and Adalla’s relationship is compelling and serves as the framework for all the plot to come (including a few wild tangents that complicate matters significantly), but it is this theme of environmental justice that is the novel’s central concern. As Seske learns to lead, she grapples with the devastating consequences of her people’s way of life to the beast that carries them. Adalla, on the other hand, becomes obsessed with the class inequality that fuels the system. These twin threads feel true enough to our own time, and thoroughly modern, while aligning with science fiction’s long history of climate-focused, socially conscious works.
Both threads are also entwined with one of Drayden’s recurring concerns: the construct of gender and the subversion of its norms. Gender fluidity and explorative sexuality are key components of The Prey of Gods. Here, Drayden likewise flips gender roles on their head by crafting a matriarchal society focused on containing the population: families are composed of multiple mothers and fathers but are limited to one child apiece, in a setup that feels reminiscent of Butler’s Xenogenesis series.
In opposition to contemporary daydreams of smashing the patriarchy, Drayden’s society is far from a utopia. It is cruel and rigid: gender norms haven’t vanished, they’ve reversed, with men treated as second-class citizens, considered disposable and deemed unfit for much more than housework and child-rearing. While the situation may sound cathartic to some readers, its reality is troublesome and counter-productive, an inequity sowing seeds of rebellion every bit as much as Adalla’s realizations galvanize the working class.
Life aboard this spacebeast is chaotic, the mess tolerated so long as it’s hidden beneath a certain set of creature comforts. The question before both Seske and Adalla is what to do when the mess finds it way to the light.
While that’s a pickle for the characters, it’s a playground for Drayden, whose specialty is narrative chaos. In a rather stuffed novel, her outsized sci-fi sensibilities enliven the worldbuilding while allowing her characters emotional room to grieve, to fight, and to love, believably and heart-achingly. (The exception being two trans characters who could have used even more screen time, given their unique places in this gendered society.)
However you slice it, Escaping Exodus doesn’t follow the path you think it will, and neither does its author. And that’s the fun of it all.