I’ve been reading science fiction avidly for about 5 years now, and I really got into it to begin with thanks to the Mass Effect video game series. Those games have, I believe, a sense of worldbuilding that’s hard to find in published science fiction. As a setting for SF stories, it’s unbeatable to my mind. It’s a densely-populated galaxy filled with humans and numerous, diverse alien species, living and working side by side. It’s a co-operative, optimistic future, despite all the peril it gets put in during the games’ storylines. To put it simply, it’s a future I would love to live in.
The notion of entirely alien species being your co-workers, friends and even romantic partners is just such an alluring one, and it’s why I’ve read far and wide trying to find an SF author who feels the same way. While I’ve found some wonderful authors that come somewhat close to the feeling I got from those games (Reynolds, Banks, Brin, Vinge, and others… see below), I’ve yet to find any novel or series of books that entirely scratches that itch. A reading experience that brings to life a universe I want to live in and explore.
And no, the Mass Effect tie-in novels don’t count. They’re just awful.
This blog post has two aims:
- Firstly, to lament upon the lack of recent books that fall into a similar worldbuilding niche as the Mass Effect games (the ‘recent’ part being important, I’ll explain why soon).
- Secondly, to give some recommendations to works of science fiction that admittedly do come close. This will be my personal selection of recommendations for anyone else who, like me, came to printed SF via the Mass Effect games, and who wants to read books with a similar feel.
There should be more books like Mass Effect!
The first Mass Effect game came out in 2007, with the sequels coming in 2010 and 2012. I don’t blog about video games, so I won’t go much more into the specifics of their releases, but they were pretty damn popular. And they were, deservedly, critically acclaimed; yes, even the third title with its controversial ending. Moreso, they are without a doubt influential and key works of recent space opera. The website io9 called the series a “major highlight in the history of space opera” and “the most important science fiction universe of our generation”.
So I’d really like to know, why has there not been a huge upsurge in SF novels since 2007 that feature smart worldbuilding, diverse and fascinating aliens, an optimistic feel, and a similarly grand setting? I’m sure there have been a handful like that (one notable series I’ve come across is by Michael Cobley, in my list below), but not the amount I expected. Not a sudden glut of Mass-Effect inspired SF. What I’m really asking is,
Where is my burgeoning post-Mass-Effect space-opera literary subgenre???
You would seriously think it would be a thing. From 2007 onwards, surely dozens or hundreds of budding authors have been inspired by the game series, just as I have? Surely publishers have seen the money-making opportunities of encouraging some of those authors to begin new franchises? Why aren’t there new and exciting space opera series popping up all the time on bookstore shelves?
Why aren’t people writing about galactic societies and federations, countless worlds and histories, treaties and trade with bizarre and awesome aliens? Why aren’t we meeting more aliens who aren’t just of the forehead-makeup variety, but are well-thought-out biologically, culturally, and so on?
A more specific question: Why aren’t more people being inspired by the weirder romances from the Mass Effect games, and including alien-human relationships in their stories? And I’m not just talking about erotica and paranormal romance books, but serious social-SF books dealing with these themes in thought-provoking ways. Why can’t we read about the challenges and triumphs of interspecies attraction in a multi-species galaxy? The prejudices, the breaking-down of societal boundaries, the steps in equality? There’d be great parallels to modern-day sexual politics in stories like that.
There are a million stories you could tell in a universe as richly detailed and diverse as the Mass Effect universe. SF writers need to step it up. There could be galaxy-spanning adventures, small personal stories, and everything in between. Not everything has to be military-based, either. We could explore these worlds from the perspectives of scientists, diplomats, explorers, merchants, criminals, celebrities, and more.
I have half a mind to write something like this myself, but that would take a great deal of planning, commitment and time, and maybe I should save it for when I’m not undertaking a PhD. Also, I just don’t know if I’m talented enough. I don’t even know if I’m making a coherent argument here, so I’m not sure I could write an entire novel and hope it to be readable.
So let me say it one more time: It’s been 7 years since 2007, and in that time, there should have been far more books like Mass Effect published. Now that’s enough lamenting, time for the recommendations.
Books like Mass Effect
Now that my woes are out of the way, I’d like to give my recommendations for some authors and stories that might appeal to anyone else who shares my want for a written universe a lot like my beloved game series. This is not a definitive list, but one coloured & limited by what I’ve personally read. At the end are a couple of books I’ve yet to read, but ones I often hear recommended when people ask for books like the Mass Effect series. Please comment if you have any recommendations along these lines.
- Uplift series by David Brin – The closest there is, I believe. This is a series written in the 80s and 90s, comprising 6 books as well as a tie-in book, an illustrated guide to the alien species. I’ve read the first trilogy. Sundiver is not as bad as people say, but it’s still probably skippable. Startide Rising and The Uplift War are a fantastic duology about humanity (and our dolphin and chimp buddies!) getting into a heap of trouble in a conservative alien universe. Can’t recommend these enough. As for the second trilogy, I have no idea. I’ll get to them soon.
- A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge – A pretty phenomenal SF adventure through space and across an alien planet, with some fantastic ideas for aliens. A Deepness in the Sky is a prequel, and just as good. Everyone will recommend this to you, and you should listen to them and read the damn books. Beware of some silly (by today’s standards) ideas about future-internet though.
- The Culture series by Iain M Banks – Literary masterpieces, and a group of standalone stories set in a grand, populated galaxy… although the aliens are all pretty humanoid (at least in the books I’ve read). Start with The Player of Games.
- Revelation Space universe by Alastair Reynolds – These books are dark and gothic, feeling a bit like the Mass Effect universe viewed through a grimy filter that gives everything the atmosphere of movies like Event Horizon or Alien. The main ship of the series is like a haunted mansion floating through space. To be honest, there aren’t many aliens featured, but whenever they do show up they are mysterious, frightening, and important to the plot.
- Humanity’s Fire series by Michael Cobley – A recent series that I’ve only read the first book of so far: Seeds of Earth. It’s bright and colourful, feeling sort of like a mashup of Star Wars and Mass Effect, and I really liked it (although the aliens aren’t the most imaginative out there). I really gotta read more of this series.
- Species Imperative trilogy by Julie E Czerneda – Humans and aliens get down to some scientific co-operation! These books are bright and cheerful and fun, with the occasional dark turn of plot. They’re real popcorn novels and I’m glad I have them on my shelves. After the first book, Survival, more aliens show up.
- The Icarus Hunt by Timothy Zahn – Another popcorn book. I’ve read another Zahn book and it didn’t really grab me, but this standalone novel is a gem: A rip-roaring adventure and mystery. The main character is human and his partner-in-crime and best buddy is an iguana-like alien. They get up to hijinx and get chased through space a lot. Think of Firefly/Serenity with wacky Star-Wars-like aliens. Just pure fun.
- Starplex by Robert J Sawyer – A bit more like Star Trek than Mass Effect, this is a short novel which has only a handful of aliens. But it paints an optimistic, co-operative future very much of the kind that I long to read more about.
- Kin (short story) by Bruce McAllister – This short story gets a special mention because, despite being only a handful of pages long, it hints at a huge universe full of worlds and cultures. It’s dense with that Mass Effect-like feeling. It’s also about an extremely unlikely friendship between an alien and a human. The ending is something absolutely special. Go out and read this story now, and hope that the author still plans to turn it into a novel (like he said in an interview a while ago).
- (Edit, long after the original post) The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers – See my review here.
I haven’t read the following yet, but they are very high on my must-read list because of all I’ve heard about them:
- Sector General series by James White
- Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained by Peter F Hamilton
- Becoming Alien by Rebecca Ore
I never know how to end blog posts, so here’s a Turian dancing.