Oh, Mass Effect, my problematic love.
As an entirely new audience discovers the joy of the original trilogy via the Legendary Edition, I’ve been thinking about what drew me back to the series again and again. Sometimes when we talk about this series, it’s easier to focus on what we don’t love about it. As Kael’s Diary of a Hardline Shep points out, Commander Shepherd’s “extrajudicial space cop” status sure hits different in this decade. It’s worth thinking critically about why even Shepherd’s diplomatic duties typically involve guns. It’s certainly worth thinking critically about how (and why??) sexual dimorphism in aliens is represented—not to mention human and alien sexuality, and the mysteriously limited romantic options for a gay male Shepherd. And as Zainabb said in last August’s roundtable, the pleasure of exploring the discoverable universe is interwound with the pleasure of controlling and/or colonizing it: the space cantinas are Shepherd’s to raid, the space crates are Shepherd’s to loot, and the Krogan coming-of-age ceremony is simply waiting for Shepherd to crash.
Yet Mass Effect is a rich text, and it’s possible to be critical of it while still wanting to replay and unlock every possible dialogue option, and to trigger every possible encounter in the first two games so that you can reunite with every possible character at the end of the known world in Mass Effect 3. It’s possible to feel skeptical about the game’s implicit politics and explicit mechanics while feeling genuine affection for its characters and letting the symphony of well-timed emotional notes land their punches.
LoreQuest is a series about books that make you feel the way video games do. In this list, I went for literal feelings—not books that have game-like mechanics, like Piranesi‘s resource-gathering and Gideon the Ninth‘s co-op dungeon crawling, but books that struck similar emotional resonances to those I felt playing Mass Effect for the first time or tackling some of the problems you solve as the first human Spectre. Bonus: almost all of these books have sequels, so go ahead and fall in love with space drama all over again.
Spoilers for the Mass Effect series throughout. It’s been out for years, my guy.
If you chose the synthesis ending in Mass Effect 3, read:
All Systems Red (2017), the first novella in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series
If you tackle the endgame of Mass Effect 3 with enough military strength, you have an option to synthesize all organic and synthetic life rather than destroying or controlling synthetics. This option is presented as a happy medium—look, you don’t want to hurt your friends EDI and Legion, do you? But the abrupt ending doesn’t really address the logistics of what it means for synthetic and organic life to merge.
All Systems Red‘s SecUnit (or Murderbot, as it privately calls itself) understands the logistics. Murderbot is a construct designed to provide security services, with machine augmentation to process data, cloned human tissue to interpret data and, of course, built-in arm guns. SecUnits can be rented from one of the mercantile companies that control space business. Side note, isn’t it interesting that space adventures always seem to take place in either a Space Empire or a Space Corporatocracy? As if we could go to the ends of the known universe and still not escape our worst human institutions. Anyway, the company that made SecUnit can also destroy it remotely if it fails to comply with orders—except that Murderbot has figured out how to disable its governor module (or unshackle itself, in EDI’s terms). Initially, its plan is to avoid detection by continuing to protect its clients and by watching hours and hours of human television serials to avoid the more existential questions of what it means to be a hypothetically free agent. Relatable, right?
Fortunately, its clients are researchers from beyond corporate space who actually have some kind of socialist power-sharing government, as well as the willingness to see Murderbot as a person rather than a robot. Unfortunately, this means Murderbot has to grapple with questions like “what do I want?” and “what do I do now?,” so there’s plenty of material for the six books in this series.
The novellas (and one novel) sketch out the mechanics of space travel, space commerce, and bot classes in a breezy way that reminds me of Mass Effect: Look, here’s a mining complex, over there’s a transit station, don’t worry about the details! The series expects you to have a general idea of these things from other space operas. And some of the volumes function a little like DLC or even a loyalty mission—like, here’s a quick detour over to a mining facility, where we complete a self-contained plot but learn some information that impacts the main quest. They’re fun books, easy to pick up and put down. But what makes them memorable is Murderbot, whose distinctive voice is sarcastic and self-aware but also a little depressed and aimless. It doesn’t like eye contact, prolonged social contact, or physical contact. It is slowly becoming aware of what and who it does like. And those moments make me want to turn and look at a wall to collect myself, just like Murderbot.
If you want to smash the space patriarchy, read:
The Collapsing Empire (2017), the first novel in John Scalzi’s Interdependency series
As I said, space adventures always seem to take place in an Empire or in Late Stage Space Capitalism. There must be many reasons for this, not least because the fantasy of space exploration is inherently colonialist, as we said in our roundtable last year. Practically speaking, however, it makes sense that you would need a vast amount of consolidated resources to settle space. You would need a common language and shared values and the means to build space transports between cultural hubs. Or I suppose you could just stumble across existing architecture, as the early space explorers of Mass Effect stumbled across the mass effect relays and the Citadel.
In the world of the Interdependency, the stumbled-across architecture is a series of naturally occurring “streams” that facilitate faster-than-light travel between far-flung planets. Called the Flow, these streams are absolutely critical to the survival of the Space Empire created by humans fleeing from Earth and whatever came after Earth. Almost none of the planets in the Interdependency are habitable; humanity has built their Plan B civilization very tenuously in habitats floating in the atmosphere. Resources to sustain the habitats are controlled by avaricious merchant lords and their wealth-hoarding houses: Space Feudalism. And as critical as the Flow is, few people understand how it works; the physics are mostly apprehended through highly theoretical math.
So it is a pair of highly theoretical math nerds who discover that the Flow streams are shifting and closing, inevitably cutting off human habitats from each other and leading to certain death.
The most beloved chapters of the Mass Effect story involve relaying from planet to planet and trying to persuade space bureaucrats to take a mass annihilation event seriously. Just kidding! Nobody loves that! We are living in it now, and we hate it! But take the crisis out of the immediate present and place it in a galaxy far, far away, and we might get enough space (!) from it to find that kind of conflict cathartic. And if math and space bureaucracy don’t sound like much fun, don’t worry—Scalzi’s style is breezy, almost slapstick, and his main characters are winsome and clever. You’ll even root for the Emperox, who has the same doubts about Space Empire that we do and wants to see it radically reformed.
Oh, and the spaceship names are delightfully ridiculous. If you love the Quib-Quib, meet the Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.
If you long to see Francis Kitt’s all-Elcor production of Hamlet, read:
Mass Effect: Annihilation (2017) by Catherynne M. Valente
Is it basic to include an official tie-in novel that takes place in the Mass Effect universe? Maybe. I haven’t read very many tie-ins, to be honest, but enough to know that BioWare made an unusual choice when they contracted two well-known, award-winning fantasy novelists to flesh out the universe of Mass Effect: Andromeda. I do love and recommend Mass Effect: Initiation by N.K. Jemisin, a tightly paced thriller that explores the early days of the Andromeda Initiative and fills in the unpopular character Cora with some needed nuance and sympathy. But I want to highlight Mass Effect: Annihilation by Catherynne M. Valente because it tackles one of Mass Effect‘s alien problems.
When the Andromeda Initiative launches its intergalactic journey to escape the impending Reaper threat to the Milky Way, their ships or arks are organized like that Twitter joke about Hogwarts Houses. Everyone knows there are five types of people: human, asari, turian, salarian, and miscellaneous! Annihilation takes place on the miscellaneous ark—nominally a quarian ark, the Keelah Si’yah—which houses a half dozen species whose needs vary greatly: fragile quarians, water-loving hanar, desert-loving drell, ammonia-based volus, elephantine elcor, fractious batarians. The “everybody else” ark never reaches its destination before or after the events of Mass Effect: Andromeda, and this tie-in novel answers why: a deadly pathogen began infecting the colonists on board, even as they lay in cryosleep.
Yes, it is a pandemic novel. But with alien biology, spaceship mechanical failures, and the locked room mystery of who initiated the catastrophic chain of events—and why—the quarantined ark is far enough removed from our reality that it is a pleasure to watch the crew work together to investigate and treat the illness. And on the page, representatives of the undersung species get a little more space and dimensionality than they typically do in-game: there’s a battle-hardened batarian matriarch you’re going to fall in love with, and not only does an elcor recite lines from Hamlet, he muses on the possibility that Shakespeare himself was part elcor.
If you love space adventures but you’re going to scream if you walk through one more bulkhead door into one more featureless room filled with storage containers, read:
Binti (2015), the first novella in Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy
Look, I’m not saying the Mass Effect trilogy didn’t have its moments of beauty. The first time you see the Citadel? The view of infinity from Samara’s window? Lovely, moving, etc. But is it too much to ask for a little style? Is it likely, in Mass Effect’s capitalist Space Bureaucracy, that more individuals wouldn’t pay homage to their home cultures in fashion and architecture? Whoever makes those pre-fab trailers would make a killing if they figured out how to print or modify them in colors and patterns. (Try using mass effect fields! The solution is always mass effect fields.)
A vividly visualized, distinctive world is part of what makes the Binti novella and its sequels so indelible. Nnedi Okorafor writes what she terms “Africanfuturism,” with sci-fi and fantasy landscapes rooted in African traditions and cultures. For example, Binti is from the Himba people in Africa, so she coats her skin and hair in fragrant clay (called otjize) and lives in a multi-family home in a close-knit village at the start of the series. She is also from the future, a gifted mathematician from a family line of talented engineers who build a sort of personalized communication technology called astrolabes. For good or ill, this future isn’t stripped of cultural markers like the homogenous space-age fashion we’re used to; Binti’s Himba clothing and cosmetics make her stand out as a minority among human space travelers, but they also provide her with literal and figurative strength.
Beyond Earth’s cultural richness, many of the novella’s most enduring images come from Okorafor’s own prodigious imagination and her vision of space, alien species, and the intergalactic university Binti seeks to attend. Binti’s space transport is not just a ship but a living organism with a shrimp-like carapace and genetically enhanced chambers that sustain human life. No brushed steel bulkheads aboard the good ship Third Fish: human accommodations are gilded and draped like a first-class cruise cabin. (Binti finds this wasteful, but Third Fish doesn’t mind! You get to hear a little from this creature’s perspective in one of the sequels.) When Binti finally makes it to Oomza University, located in a lush jungle-like environment entirely unlike the desert she grew up in, she seeks out substitutions for the oil and clay she would blend for otjize. In this way, the literal earth of a strange planet becomes part of the process that ties her to home—a tactile invocation that illustrates the sensory world-building of this action-packed series.
What is it that keeps bringing me back to the Mass Effect series? The same thing that brings me to any space opera: a blend of the familiar and the strange. The excitement of landing on strange planets and the reassurance of finding a language I speak and relationships I understand. The promise of exploration and discovery alongside elements that remind me of the first space operas I fell in love with—like Star Wars, which itself pays homage to older stories.
So if you dip into any of these space adventures in book form, I think you’ll experience the thrill of discovering something new—and at the same time, you may find yourself at home.
Sara Davis is a recovering academic and marketing writer who lives in Philadelphia. Her PhD in American literature is from Temple University. She blogs about books, games, climate change, and other obsessions at literarysara.net.