Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Book Review: Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis, by Nicky Drayden

Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis
Nicky Drayden
Trade Paperback / Ebook
ISBN: 9780062867759
Harper Voyager, February 2021, 336 pages

Greetings, readers! For this month’s review, I’d like to talk about an author whose work I’ve grown to greatly admire, and it is the wonderful Nicky Drayden. I’ve covered several of her other books in previous issues, Temper and Escaping Exodus, and I’m pleased to be able to talk about her new novel, Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis, which is the sequel to Escaping Exodus.

For those who haven’t read Escaping Exodus (go read it, it’s pretty darn good), the setting of Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis continues Drayden’s story about a group of human spacefarers who have made their home in the guts and internal structures of a giant space creature called a Zenzee (which isn’t exactly a spacewhale, but in my head it’s totally a spacewhale) and have to navigate various societal and environmental problems created by their not-quite-parasitic not-quite-symbiotic relationship with their host. Like most sequels, you’ll probably want to read the first book before diving into this one—while Drayden does a good job of providing a recap of previous events in her initial chapter, the cast of characters has a richly compelling backstory and set of relationships with each other that you don’t want to miss out on.

One thing that really stood out to me with Escaping Exodus was how vividly imagined and alive its peculiar world felt, and I’m happy to say that Drayden has continued that same penchant for mind-bending imagery in Symbiosis. Every page has something weirdly new (in a good way) for your brain to mull over, including characters literally walking around inside a massive brain, and Drayden does excellent work in making the alien host simultaneously feel like something familiar, yet also profoundly and unsettlingly different.

However, it’s the characters in Symbiosis where Drayden’s writing skills really shine, and for as alien as the world they find themselves living in is, their relationships are very recognizably human, encompassing all the messy, beautiful, unpleasant, and awkward ways in which we interact with each other. Every character in the book has flaws and strengths, joys and regrets, and the overarching theme of having to live with your past while finding a way to not let it destroy your present and future is reflected in all facets of the book and is a message well worth heeding.

Symbiosis also has a strong theme of environmentalism running through it, similar to Escaping Exodus, which I greatly appreciated. The characters being utterly reliant on their Zenzee in order to survive is a not so subtle microcosm of our own journey through space, only we’re on the skin of a rock and they’re in the flesh of a creature. In either case, we both need our greater host to remain healthy if we want our own survival to endure, but just as in real life, in Symbiosis there are plenty who believe otherwise because it fits their own personal goals of enrichment.

My only minor quibble with Symbiosis, and it’s the same one I had with Temper, is that I wish Drayden had spent a bit more time in the final parts of the story expanding on some of the ideas presented there. Don’t get me wrong, the story didn’t feel rushed or anything, and the conclusion was entirely satisfactory, but I wanted to know more about some very cool concepts that she introduced, and I wouldn’t have minded reading another hundred pages in which they were explored further. On the whole, though, having so many interesting ideas that you don’t have space to fit them all in without writing a thousand-page epic is probably a pretty good problem to have, and is indicative of Drayden’s ability to constantly innovate and surprise the reader.

Overall, if I had to find a way to distill Symbiosis down into just a few sentences, it would be that this is a book bursting at the seams with physical and emotional life and all its gloriously messy contradictions. We can, and do, hurt the ones we love, and sometimes we forgive, and sometimes we can’t, but our relationships are always changed by our actions, and the past never changes. All we can do is find a way to live with the world we’re in as best we’re able, and hopefully not cause any more damage than is necessary. You should read it.

Read if: you enjoy descriptions of the native flora and fauna of alien digestive systems; you’ve experienced imperfect people trying their best; you’re somewhat curious about spacewhale hentai.

Chris Kluwe

Chris Kluwe

Chris Kluwe grew up in Southern California among a colony of wild chinchillas and didn’t learn how to communicate outside of barking and howling until he was fourteen years old. He has played football in the NFL, once wrestled a bear for a pot of gold, and lies occasionally. He is also the eternal disappointment of his mother, who just can’t understand why he hasn’t cured cancer yet. Do you know why these bio things are in third person? I have no idea. Please tell me if you figure it out.