Fifty-eight pages into Drew Karpyshyn’s Mass Effect: Revelation, the fearless soldier catches up with his team just in time, dragging his injured comrade with him. “‘ I told you not to wait for us,'” he shouts at them “‘… I should bust each of you down a full rank for disobeying orders!'” He pauses, then adds: “‘That, or recommend you all for medals.'”
I know I must have seen that before in military fiction, because otherwise how could it feel so cliched? But I suspect that the busted-a-rank-or-we-can-has-medals owes more to G.I. Joe than Platoon. And it certainly has no place in the prequel novel setting the stage for and written by the lead writer of, the multi-platform video game Mass Effect, released this year.
Although obscured by the release of Halo 3 and those guitar games, Mass Effect has found critical acclaim for its innovative story line, big sci-fi universe (which is drawing comparisons to Star Wars, but I would suggest The Fifth Element, or Larry Niven’s novels), and RPG mechanics in a FPS interface. (That would be role-playing game, and first-person shooter, the yin and yang of the modern gaming world.)
I started Revelation with an open mind that quickly closed with dread. Karpyshyn is at his most sophomoric and hackneyed in the broad brush strokes he uses to establish the novel’s milieu. “Every major religion on Earth,” he writes in the two paragraphs he devotes to future history of theology following the discovery of alien life, “was rocked to its core. Dozens of new belief systems sprang up overnight…”
I’ve studied the various documented reactions to Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast, but I also lived through the overwhelmingly tepid response to NASA’s discovery and subsequent rebuttal of Martian fossils in the Antarctic meteorite. There was a sci-fi novel written before that find where mankind is galvanized and inspired by the discovery of Martian trilobytes: funding for the space program increases by orders of magnitude, strangers watch for Mars footage together in bars and storefront windows (even Moscow, if you please), and all of our differences seem somehow petty.
Well, all of our differences are petty, but I don’t see the discovery of Martian trilobytes or Europan arboreal hominids or sophisticated alien research labs creating “dozens of new belief systems” overnight.
Which I suppose is a matter of opinion. But the end of modern religion is not a foregone conclusion, and you should devote more than two paragraphs to it if you want it to be part of your universe.
I decided around page eighty or so that I had to finish this book so that I could warn others away from it. Like Job’s servant, I alone would escape to tell thee. But something funny happened. A few of the two-dimensional characters unexpectedly turned in profile and revealed a third dimension. Some neat plot devices and some hints involving mysterious artifacts and nefarious plots that I found myself giving a damn about. Which makes me the servant who informs Job that his beach house collapsed in an earthquake in the middle of a rave, but everybody got out with cuts and bruises and the insurance will cover ninety percent of the damage. Oh, an when you rebuild it, you can do the beach front staircase the way Assurbanipal’s three houses down is, sort of snaky and spirally.
Revelation may have borrowed some tired conventions that needn’t have been borrowed, but it also builds upon and contributes to the growing genre of video game narrative. (It was not too long ago that someone said, “Wouldn’t it be wacky if the ghosts chasing Ms. Pacman moved differently? and were different colors?”) Video game writers are discovering what works, what narrative devices complement the hands-on nature of a game. In a militaristic story, the course of events would be dictated by what sort of weapons exist, and what sorts of armor.
A character who can take twenty body shots and keep going in the video game can’t morph into a defenseless coward in the cut scenes or the novel. If space travel is made to work a certain way to facilitate exciting game play, then the real-world implications of such a manner of travel should be addressed in the narrative. Most importantly, and most aptly handled in Revelation, is back story: if two pixelated characters (the pixels are still there, rendered or not; they’re just getting harder to see) in the game are going to spend hours chasing and shooting at each other, at a considerable personal risk, then the prequel book should answer two questions: Why? and Why do I care?
For all of its faults, Revelation ultimately delivers a handful of survivors (the casualties among the book’s cast are considerable, which serves to heighten our emotional investment in the ones that remain) that are interesting, have multi-faceted parts and complicated motivations. The title is appropriate, both for the apocalyptic implications of the mysterious artifact, and for the revealing of various things: motivations, relationships, betrayals. Most effectively, the author introduces a cast of characters without signs over their heads reading GOOD GUY! BAD GUY! We experience each character on his own terms, from his own perspective (there are really only two women in this universe, much like Tolkien), and only in the dramatic conclusion do the house lights come up for us to see the color of everyone’s shirt. Realizing that this character is ‘good’, and that one is ‘evil’, after experiencing so much of the story from the perspective of each and from other competing factions, comes not as a plot twist or a surprise ending but as a revelation.
Gamers, especially if you haven’t played Mass Effect and plan to: read this book. You won’t regret it.