Mass Effect’s Place in Science Fiction – Revelation


“Reading Journals” are one of the main, and currently the only, sub-series for Gaming’s Place in Literature. These Journals are used to explore individual novels within a game’s expanded universe. The general format will be to write about the book’s writing style and quality of story before diving into a genre analysis. Exceptions to this format will likely occur.


If I could narrow down Drew Karpyshyn’s style into a single phrase, it would be “character-driven exposition.” It’s not an uncommon writing style, but I had to smile at how perfect it was for a novel based on a roleplaying game in which exposition is delivered directly by the characters. In Revelation, it is slightly different as the exposition is not entirely done through dialogue. Instead, Karpyshyn introduces us to a character and then lets us see the setting and situation through their eyes. In some cases, this is style is used to its full, effective extent. In other cases, it becomes an unfortunate case of telling without showing.

This is how we get our first appraisal of the Alliance military and Anderson through the cynical eyes of Grissom, which allows us to get a positive look at Anderson from someone who is not an optimist. Kahlee’s viewpoint gets us the paranoia, Ambassador Goyle lets us see the scope of where humanity is in the galaxy’s political field, the scattering of other characters like Jella and Groto Ib-ba gives us a bit of a look at the underworld of the galaxy.

Saren’s arc is the best built between the three lead characters and is one of the two best examples of character-driven exposition in the novel. Every scene he has builds one to the next onto how far he’s willing to use cruelty as a means to an end. His first scene is him stopping a collection of thieves brutally and efficiently. The next is torturing a violent criminal for information. The third scene is Saren withholding medical aid from Kahlee’s father for the sake of information. By the time we reach the climax where Saren sacrifices an entire village of civilians for his mission, it’s a natural escalation, making perfect sense for his character. We’ve seen the lengths he’s been willing to go.

Unfortunately, Anderson’s own development was lacking. The romantic sub-plot between him and Kahlee seemed to make the assumption that a romance was expected and therefore simply had to happen. The worst part about this is that almost all of Anderson’s character development relies on this romance. The first personal conflict that we are introduced to is his divorce, and in the end, his main goal in stopping the villains is to rescue Kahlee. Due to the expected nature of the romance, Karpyshyn devotes very little time to showing us how Anderson feels; most of it is told in straight-up exposition.

This issue of “tell, don’t show” also happens with the development of the Spectres. It’s a clear demonstration how little the Spectre status matters to the plot when we don’t even get to be in the room where the Council claims that Anderson threw away his shot. Like Anderson’s personal arc, most of the Spectre developments are merely spoken. We are told that it would be wonderful if humanity got themselves their own Spectre, but beyond the fear surrounding Saren’s presence, we’re never shown the importance and effectiveness of Spectres. We’re never told that Anderson wants this position – something that his dialogue in the first game seems to suggest. There’s no atmosphere surrounding the Spectres, and with Saren’s brutality as our only frame of reference, why should we want Anderson to have such a role?

Outside of Saren’s arc, the best portions of the novel are that of Ambassador Goyle and the Council. This is again where the character-driven exposition shines. Goyle is the ideal character through which to view the developing political field around humanity, as she herself knows the game. As we watch her calculate exactly how much to push back and how much to yield to the Council, we are given both a broad and intimate view of the Citadel and the Alliance that were only lightly touched upon in the first game.


To talk about how Mass Effect: Revelation fits into the overarching genre of science fiction, let’s go to one of the pillars of the genre: Isaac Asimov.

It would be quite easy to slip into the discussion of the A.I. fear, the Frankenstein Complex within the Mass Effect universe, which is one of the subplots of the novel, but instead we’re going to look at another aspect of the genre where Asimov made his mark: social science fiction.

Social science fiction is one of the three categories into which Asimov sorts the overall science fiction genre in his essay “Social Science Fiction.” The three categories are gadget, adventure, and social. Most science fiction tends to blur the lines between the categories, and Asimov admits that they are not hard and fast rules. Genre is, after all, a slippery thing. Nevertheless, they are useful for the genre exploration we will being doing today.

Gadget science fiction is about the development of technology; the plot would revolve around the creation of an invention. Adventure science fiction focuses on the use of said invention to accomplish some great task. Social science fiction is about the effect on society caused by the invention ([1], pp 40-41). Mass Effect in general tends to slide between adventure and social science fiction and Mass Effect: Revelation is in top form when it is primarily focusing on social science fiction.

Social science fiction, as a sub-genre, filled one of the primary functions of the overarching genre, accustoming its readers to the idea of change ([2], pp 15). Now Asimov, being a man of science (a biochemist), tended to focus on the STEM side of change. In Mass Effect, technological developments are what brings humanity into contact with the turians and is one of the reasons humanity ascends so rapidly in the galactic community. Science and technology are the impetus for the societal change in the franchise, and is often the impetus for the clash of cultures between the different species in Citadel space.

The development of an A.I. under humanity in Mass Effect: Revelation is what sets of this particular story. A.I. development and rebellion is a constant theme in Mass Effect, with the geth and quarians being a major conflict in the games and a reversal of the Frankenstein Complex theme found in the rebellion against the Reapers. This also exists in smaller stories, such as the Citadel A.I. encountered and destroyed by Shepard in a side mission of the first Mass Effect. Here in Revelation, this scientific development spurns forward the plot as different parts of the society react to this threat of change.

However, despite technology enabling these developments, technology is not at the core of the societal conflicts explored in Mass Effect. Many definitions of science fiction tend to focus around the gadget or hard science-aspects of the genre; even Asimov’s definition of social science fiction does so. Yet some of the most famous examples of science fiction tend to have the core centered on the developments resulting from new people groups discovering each other. In an interview with WIRED, President Barack Obama countered one interviewer’s statement about Star Trek:

Interviewer: “That certainly was a show [about] a utopian future inspired by technology. I’m curious what about that show shaped your vision of an optimistic future.”

President Obama: “…What made the show, I think, lasting, was it wasn’t actually about technology. It was about values and human relationships, which is why it didn’t matter that the special effects were kind of cheesy and bad. …It didn’t matter because it was really talking about a notion of a common humanity and a confidence in our ability to solve problems.” (emphasis mine)

This is also where Mass Effect diverges from Asimov’s definition of science fiction. While its level of optimism can vary from Star Trek: The Original Series, the core of the story is around human (and alien) relationships, and Mass Effect: Revelation revolves entirely around this notion. Every character is motivated by some form of relationship. We see relationships between individuals playing out, the character-based exposition style highlighting this exceptionally well. We see relationships between factions shift between symbiotic and competitive, or – as with Goyle and the Council – an interesting mix of both.

While Asimov’s definition of social science fiction does include Mass Effect in the sub-genre, it does not wholly encompass the core of the series.


[1] Isaac Asimov, “Social Science Fiction” Turning Points: Essays on the Art of Science Fiction. Ed. Damon Knight, Harper Row, New York, 1977

[2] Majorie Mithoff Miller, “Social Science Fiction of Asimov,” Writers of the 21st Century: Isaac Asimov. Ed. Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg, Taplinger Publishing Company, New York, 1977.

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