Thursday, July 12, 2012

Thoughts on Mass Effect Part 2: Revelation Effect

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the Mass Effect series and for the Revelation Space series of novels.

While the Mass Effect series and Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space series may be very different on the surface, they both draw on similar influences. Wait, you haven't read the Revelation Space series yet? I'll wait here. 

Mass Effect presents a fairly shiny version of the future, the future looks like the future you would have been watching on TV in the late '70s and early '80s. The world has a style similar to the one seen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Buck Rogers, and Battlestar Galactica. Heck, there is even a space disco in the world of Mass Effect (although it plays techno). Mass Effect also comes from the Star Wars/Star Trek funny forehead school of alien life. There are a number of alien species, most of which walk on two legs, some of which you can engage in sweet, consequence free lovin' with. People (and aliens) are getting it on like Carter is president. Heck, one of the only diseases that plays any role in the game is essentially birth control. 

The future of Mass Effect is also a future that is mostly free of the ichy subject of transhumanism and extreme genetic manipulation. Even humans that have been cybernetically enhanced (Shepard) tend to still look the same as regular humans. It appears that many of these kinds of things are actually banned or restricted in the Mass Effect universe, but we rarely see the corrupting influence ourselves.

Of course the future in Mass Effect is not a problem-free place, even before the Reapers show up. There is conflict, and humanity is struggling to find respect in its new galactic community. There are even bad parts of town, and even whole towns that are fairly seedy, but they are usually dealt with in the same way that the bad part of the space station tended to be addressed even up through Babylon 5. You occaisionally go there, and people tell you that it is the tough part of town, but it doesn't usually seem all that bad. But fairly consequence-free, easy FTL travel seems to have given us a future without many of the problems that tend to come along with being the member of a lower class.

The future of Revelation Space is the exact opposite. It is not a shiny place at all. The Revelation Space universe is one that is between cyberpunk and gritty transhumanism. There was a shiny future, but that is over now. Things have broken down, and it was all caused by disease and corruuption. A horrible mutating virus that effects anyone and anything that has powerful cybernetic enhancements has destroyed the glorious utopian future. It has literally twisted the buildings, ships and some of the people of the future with horrible cancerous growths. 

The only non-human life humanity encounters in Revelation Space is life they have created themselves. There are genetically uplifted "pigs" and "apes" but there does not seem to be a whole lot of hot mammal on mammal action going on. The humans are even alien to each other. Humanity has divided itself into different factions, each with their own idea of how to handle genetic modification and cybernetic enhancement. Many of these alterations are extreme enough that they almost qualify as a different species, a new kind of human. Humanity is further divided by time, because Revelation Space has no faster-than-light travel. It takes decades to get to the closest inhabited planet, decades you spend frozen, drifting through space. People have to interact with people who were born centuries after them, with very different worldviews. 

The only aliens that humanity knows about are extinct, and do not seem to have progressed even as far as humanity has before they died out. There are some bizarre, possibly intellegent life-forms in the Shrouders and the Pattern Jugglers, but nothing that the humans can interact with on a normal basis. This is because the universe of Revelation Space is one where the Fermi Paradox rules, in fact the story is an attempt to provide a possible answer to the Fermi Paradox. 

The future of Revelation Space has more than its fair share of seedy parts of town and totalitarian regimes. In fact there are whole seedy planets and orbital communities in Revelation Space. The reader spends more time in the bad parts of town than he does in the upscale places (which are also corrupted in some way), and there is not a space disco to be found in the whole galaxy. 

So Mass Effect and Revelation Space take place in two completely different visions of the future. One is the hopeful, shiny future found in the science fiction movies of decades past, the other is a gime, post-cyberpunk, borderline dystopia. For all there differences in setting, Mass Effect and Revelation Space tell almost exactly the same story. In many ways it is the most prototypical story to space opera, and it is fantastic both times.

Next time: It is time for the cycle to reset.