Game Write is a recurring series dedicated to the fiction of game industry veterans. From the best-selling titles of Drew Karpyshyn and Austin Grossman, to the obscure classics of Jane Jensen and Sheldon Pacotti, this series hopes to unearth both the gems and the fluff we tend to leave buried in the credits. In this entry, we review Jason M. Hough & K.C. Alexander’s Mass Effect: Nexus Uprising, a tie-in novel to the newest — and possibly last — Mass Effect game set in the Andromeda galaxy. An immediate prequel to the game, it’s meant to shed light on the near-destruction of the Nexus and its crew, which almost put quashed the Andromeda Initiative’s utopian vision before it could start.
Nexus Uprising is infuriating.
The first of three planned stand-alone Mass Effect: Andromeda tie-in novels — the third and final is hitting the ‘net next month — Nexus Uprising is an immediate prequel to the game’s opening, detailing the stresses faced by the Nexus crew while they wait for the game’s protagonist to fetch-quest their problems away.
I read last year’s Initiation first — I read it on release. I was still addicted to Mass Effect: Andromeda and the fact that the lead author is one of the most respected and thoughtful SFF writers today had me ecstatic. (Jemisin just became the first author in history to win the Hugo for three consecutive years!)
And it was good. So, so good. Not just as a tie-in to a video game franchise — the idea of which obviously carries a low bar — but as character-driven sci-fi. You don’t need to be as shamelessly obsessed with the Mass Effect universe to be left slackjawed by that novel’s strengths. I’m similarly excited for the final Andromeda tie-in which promises to answer some of the game’s lingering questions — and it’s being penned by Catherynne M. Valente, another talented-as-hell author.
So I went back. I went back to the earlier Andromeda tie-in, Nexus Uprising, and, while I didn’t expect Initiation‘s quality, I still figured I’d have fun spending more hours with a universe I love.
It’s not good.
Nexus Uprising is fun, yes; it’s silly and entertaining and occasionally enthralling, but its character development is so gratingly lazy that very little of the story works. The personalities — the driving ambitions and feelings and ideas of each individual — are constantly clashing with an internal chaos that truly reads like they were written by two different people with two different opinions on how a character should act.
Sloane Kelly, Foster Addison, Jarun Tann, Nakmor Kesh — they weren’t exactly shining beacons of personality in the game — but neither was Cora Harper, which Initiation fleshed out beyond anyone’s expectations. Nexus Uprising is their story: The story of the Nexus’ arrival in the Andromeda galaxy a year ahead of the game’s events, and how a struggling leadership brought the crew together and fought to survive.
The Scourge, an unknown, devouring energy source spreading through the galaxy, has nearly destroyed the Nexus while its crew slept in cryostasis. Lives, including leadership, are lost. The schedule of operations meant to prepare the Nexus for the arrival of all the different species’ Pathfinders is completely voided, and the Nexus is stranded with a skeleton crew and dwindling resources. The only hope is for this small crew to isolate their golden planets expected to foster colonies – except the golden planets they traveled all these miles and years for have been heavily damaged by the same parasitic Scourge.
This is a hopeless story, and one alluded to frequently during the game itself as a dark moment for the survivors. It doesn’t, unfortunately, live up to the mystery provided by the game. Much of that is due to the characters being so inconsistent and unbelievable, so at odds with the Andromeda Initiative’s goals and philosophy.
The Andromeda Initiative was, if you recall, a utopian vision (led by a legitimate cult of personality, Jian Garson) where the Milky Ways’ many species could have a fresh start, where prejudices would be left at the door and everyone can work together in an unlikely harmony. This vision is referenced repeatedly throughout Nexus Uprising, but is ignored by just about every stupid, sociopathic crewmember.
“We’re in Andromeda now, Tann. Don’t you remember Garson’s words? Check all that old bullshit at the door.” — Sloane Kelly, 2012 [Loc. 1476]
Everyone stereotypes. Everyone makes offensive assumptions. Everyone is a racist asshole, even leadership — even the omniscient narrator riffs on krogans being uncontrollable morons, on salarians being cold and calculating, &c.
Jarun Tann, the surviving leader of the Nexus and a sterotypical bureaucrat, is meant to be humanized by the authors, but he’s even more unlikable here than in the game. His personality fluctuates between earnest naivete and self-serving villainy. His negative habits are often attributed to salarian stereotypes by the characters and narration.
Sloane Kelly, the closest thing to a hero, is a stupid, hateful, narcissistic scumbag who gives juvenile lectures to everyone about how the world ‘really’ works.
“Acting Director or not , if your math says to do X for some potential future benefit, and my gut says save someone’s life right – fucking – now, my gut is going to win, every time. That clear?” — Sloane Kelly, caring intellectual. [Loc. 1662]
Weasel, [Sloane] thought, sourly. She punched the wall again. Thought about kicking his door in after all, just to toss the room about a bit, like they used to do when they had a suspect they couldn’t quite nail down, but wanted to send a message. [Loc. 3716]
Here, the closest thing to a trained, objective authority on the Nexus gives a lecture on the dichotomy between science (‘evil’) and emotion (‘good’) straight out of the modern GOP, and later contemplates the times she used to break the fucking law in order to harass and intimidate anyone she suspects of a crime.
They really overdo the whole down-to-earth attitude on her part, too. After dropping the f-bomb for the umpteenth time, a character like Sloane Kelly can only look so level-headed and cool. Characters will frequently pull the George W. Bush card on her, thinking in really cheesy detail how she just gets them, that she doesn’t use big words or talk like a politician. It’s so shallow and infuriating — particularly post-Trump — and it’s difficult not to mimic her fucks and cunts in exasperation.
As to the uprising of the title: In Andromeda, players may recall that Sloane Kelly has been banished from the Nexus, and now leads a colony of outcasts on Kadara Port. She’s portrayed as ruthless, perhaps even villainous, and a key figure in a rebellion aboard the Nexus. The rebellion itself — and Sloane’s role — is far less interesting than the game implies.
That rebellion was led by one Calix Corvano, a near-mythical figure that died in the very uprising he instigated. At first, he’s portrayed as a clone of Garrus: Quick-witted, snarky, genuinely friendly and likable. As the story progresses, we’re supposed to witness his transformation to heroic outcast, forced to battle bureaucracy in the name of the little guy. Only it’s not so simple.
The pacing that leads towards the uprising is tiring: 80% of the book is day-to-day small moments of drama, and then the uprising just happens. The reason? Leadership lied to the crew for two weeks about the status of the golden planets. They lied to keep people from panicking and figure out a way to address it without causing…well, an uprising. It’s the principle of the thing, Calix argues. Leadership cannot lie, at all.
On numerous occasions, including before he learned that leadership was keeping a secret, Calix lies to the crew. He lies to Sloane Kelly. He lies a lot. He even gives a big speech to Sloane Kelly at the end that How dare you lie to me, and oh, I lied to you, but it’s fine, we’re even because you later lied to me. That happens. His morals are…not defined.
He starts the rebellion, too, by immediately opening fire on and murdering Nexus security forces — Sloane’s people — who he then blames along with the inept leadership for forcing him to murder them. Cool-headed, snarky, fun Calix is gone, replaced by a narcissistic, infuriating moron who just seems to revel in rationalizing murder.
The surviving leaders vote to send in krogan forces, ultimately squashing the rebellion in a bloodbath built on the bones of shallow krogan stereotypes (think ‘blood rage’). Sloane Kelly, while negotiating one-on-one with Calix to end the rebellion, is accidentally assumed to be a party to the rebellion. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Sloane Kelly became an outcast.
Sloan Kelly is fine with it, though, because she’s fucking furious that a bunch of krogans would be unleashed, or that they’d allow many of their own to be killed.
“We don’t,” [Sloane] said, stressing every level word, “send our own against our own.” [Loc. 5999]
It’s hard to keep in mind that Sloane Kelly was, right before this scene, sent by her own against her own, and she herself sent her own against her own, and the people she is now defending started this entire uprising by murdering a bunch of their own out of the blue. She hates Jarun Tann and Foster Addison so much that she’s joining the ranks of people who kill without any moral reasoning — who kill their own — because she can’t work with people who’d sacrifice their own.
The uprising doesn’t make any sense. Sloane Kelly’s character arc doesn’t make any sense.
N.B. It’s easy to forget that underneath all this drama is a really weird, really out-of-place love story between two LGBT crewmembers, one of whom gets sucked into the uprising. I wanted to love it, but this subplot serves zero purpose and never feels natural — partially because everyone wants to talk about this relationship. Reg and Emory are repeatedly brought up by far too many passionate gossips with no established relationships to either of them. “Reg’s husband is still out there, we can’t–” [Loc. 5783] one outcast who we’ve never seen talking to either Reg or Emory so naturally shouts during the denouement. After this line, the subplot, unless I missed it, is dropped and never resolved. These characters do not show up in the game. Thank you, Reg and Emory, for your dramatic contributions to this story.
For such a large story — and for so many stories in between — nothing much happens in Nexus Uprising. The uprising isn’t nearly as fitting as the mythopoeic tale in Andromeda had me yearning for. I’m hardpressed to find any character development that leads into the Jarun Tann or Sloane Kelly of the game. Foster Addison — called either Foster or Addison, depending on the paragraph — and Nakmor Kesh are better off, written as likable, good people, but they also aren’t explored with as much detail as either Jarun or Sloane. They phase in and out of the plot, offering minor asides and moral reasonings.
I started off enjoying the cheese and overbearing characters of Nexus Uprising, but by the end, that overbearingness outlived its stay. I was no longer having a good time. Instead, I was annoyed. This book is annoying. Skip it and read Initiation instead.
In other words, if you can enjoy this very-real, totally-happened quote, maybe you can enjoy this novel:
An asari chopped a human in the neck with the flat of her hand, sending the man to the floor in a choking gag. [Loc. 4939]
two asari karate chops to the human neck out of five