Nicky Drayden’s 2019 Escaping Exodus is a standalone SF novel.
Seske Kaleigh was born to become the leader of her spacefaring community. Becoming a leader involves onerous education and personal sacrifice. Seske would far rather spend her time having adventures with her lower-class crush, Adalla.
Seske’s culture is trapped on the edge of survival. Allowing Seske to follow her heart is not in the cards.
In the distant past, a flotilla of generation ships escaped from dying Earth to find a new home in another star system. The fleet arrived to discover that the world it had hoped would be a new home was not habitable. The system was home to a pod of enormous spacefaring beasts. Rather than take the risk of a second interstellar voyage, many of the ships (including the one in which Seske’s ancestors lived) burrowed into the beasts. They would live as parasites within the unfortunate creatures.
Human occupation is hard on the beasts. Seske’s people are particularly demanding. As a consequence, their beasts die after a decade or so, forcing the humans to migrate to another host. As the book opens, Seske’s people have just migrated to a new beast.
Seske’s life is transformed when she has her first period. This marks her entry into adulthood, when her duty to the community requires that she set aside childish crushes and find suitable spouses, women and men, for a person of rank like herself. This is an unwelcome disruption, but her Matris will brook no disobedience. The ship is danger. All must pull together.
Seske’s Matris suddenly dies. Managing the ongoing crisis falls to unprepared Seske.
Adalla, meanwhile, is learning more about her society than she ever wanted to know. A grim revelation leads to determination. Injustice is intolerable. Society must be reformed. Laudable idealism indeed … but it sets Adalla against her former girlfriend.
Apparently this is Generation Ship Week at James Nicoll Reviews!
Yes, I am still skeptical that a dying world could produce a flotilla of generation ships. Also, there aren’t any nearby star systems that would meet the needs of the plot (needs about which I will be mum because spoiler).
Unlike other SF settings I could mention, settings in which it seems that every colony was settled in the recent past from Southern California, or where, despite the passage of more time since the invention of beer, all of the character names could come from a 1950s era Wilmot County phone book, Drayden’s future societies differ dramatically from that of the author’s birth. Not only that … there’s not just one society, but several. Seske’s culture is quite unlike 21st century North American culture. Their neighbours have adopted entirely different strategies for adapting to their present circumstances. None of these cultures strike me as pleasant places to live.
Drayden’s society is arguably just as or perhaps even more nasty than the one featured in another recent review, of Devenport’s Medusa Uploaded. Both feature highly regimented societies in which the lower orders face brutal punishments for minor crimes (one family’s lineage is destroyed to punish minor tardiness, for example). Devenport’s Executives may kill on a whim. There is a whole category of labourer in Drayden’s book who live to be liquidated as soon as their usefulness runs out. Where the settings differ is that Seske’s society lives by rule of law, not whim, and that Seske’s people are desperately poor. Neither setting is one in which one would want to live.
Escaping Exodus shows what happens when we ignore long-term consequences in order to meet pressing short-term needs. Parasitizing the beasts bought the ships survival time. Exploiting the beasts in the manner they do1 means consuming a potentially renewable resource far more quickly than it can be renewed. A perfectly reasonable choice for the first generation. Not so good from the perspective of the people who are handed the bill.…
All of which sounds like this should be yet another noir-ish novel about unlikable people murdering other unlikable people whilst enslaving still other people who would likely be just as bad if they ever got the whip hand. Drayden gives us a cast of sympathetic people doing terrible things because they have convinced themselves that these are the least bad choices available. I cared about what happened to them. I’m looking forward to Drayden’s next novel.
1: From the perspective of the starbeasts, this is a horror novel in which an ancient and potentially long-lived species finds itself overwhelmed by a fatal infestation.