The following will contain spoilers for the Mass Effect novel Mass Effect Andromeda: Annihilation.
I recently finished a second read of the novel Mass Effect Andromeda: Annihilation by Catherynne M. Valente. Bioware’s science fiction series is no stranger to tie-in content. With a handful of books, dozens of comics, and even an animated film, there’s a lot of external media beyond the RPGs that spawned them. But Annihilation, in my opinion, is probably the best among them. The reasoning being: it’s distinctly separated from the franchise’s typical human-centric view of its universe.
Mass Effect: Andromeda was certainly not everybody’s favorite game in the series. But comparatively speaking, it’s one of the more hopeful pieces of that universe’s fiction. In theory, at least. After it’s done pushing the game’s colonialism undertones out of the way with all its might. Andromeda is supposed to be about new beginnings. It’s about an initiative of hundreds of thousands of Milky Way aliens looking to settle in a new galaxy. One without the centuries of interspecies baggage they’ve held against one another back home.
But is the Andromeda Initiative’s posturing of a new beginning just posturing? There’s a case to be made. The entire thing still centers around the alien races with the most power: humans, asari, turians, and salarians. These four species got their own Ark to carry them in cryo sleep 600 years through dark space. While everyone else, including the quarians, drell, elcor, batarians, and hanar were all put on a catch all ark led by the quarians. Ark Keelah Si’yah is the cultural melting pot of the Milky Way hurtling toward Andromeda. The second tier of galactic influence is all grouped up in one ship made to somehow accommodate the needs of all of their incompatibilities. The ship is one that would arrive in the new galaxy long after those who had been in power in one galaxy were long-established in the next.
Mass Effect Andromeda: Annihilation is about the Keelah Si’yah. The book features almost no human characters beyond a worker in the prologue, giving us a series of new perspectives of Bioware’s version of an intergalactic community. By following the drell detective Anax Therion, quarian officer Senna’Nir vas Keelah Si’yah, and elcor doctor Yorrik, Annihilation taps into interspecies relationships in ways Commander Shepard and Pathfinder Ryder never would have come into contact with as humans. These three protagonists are also working with a batarian smuggler Borbala Ferank, volus tailor Irit Non, and hanar apothecary Ysses. If you ever wanted a story about the underrepresented species of the franchise, this is it.
By design, Mass Effect has always been about humanity. It works as a means of framing its storytelling because humanity is a relative newcomer to the galaxy, and playing as a human lets the games naturally weave exposition into dialogue. So as Commander Shepard, I know a lot of the things Annihilation plays with by osmosis or codex entries.
One example of this is how the massive elcors speak in a low monotone, thus have to preface everything they say with an intended emotion when speaking to other species. Since Yorrik is a star of the show, this quirk often played for laughs when viewed through a human perspective, becomes a cultural touchstone. There’s a scene late in the book where things have gotten dire, in which Yorrik tells his alien companions to speak the way an elcor does in high stress situations. This will help the group express themselves and also be more contemplative in how they speak. There’s initially resistance, but in the end, Senna’Nir speaks to Yorrik with the same prefixed intention, quoting Hamlet, one of the elcor’s favorite plays.
“With infinite grief and friendship: ‘Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
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Most of the species in cryosleep on the Keelah Si’yah have never been party members in any of the Mass Effect games. They have always been the extras that sway in the background of Commander Shepard and Pathfinder Ryder’s show. Many only make an appearance if someone needs to send our hero on a quest, or someone needs to be on the other side of their gun. Annihilation’s cast may not be combatants, but they’re still dealing with their own life or death circumstances.
Annihilation’s overarching story begins as a deadly virus is making its way through the Keelah Si’yah. Somehow, the virus is spreading across multiple species, as drell, batarians, hanar, and quarians are all succumbing to it. Anax is able to determine the virus was created as a bioweapon by the ark’s quarian captain: Qetsi’Olam vas Keelah Si’yah. Having been a victim of a hate crime in the Milky Way, Qetsi believed that the power dynamics of their old home would follow them to Andromeda. She released the virus in a handful of drell cryopods, with the intention of letting the disease pass from them to humans, asari, turians, and salarians when they arrived in Andromeda. Eventually allowing the species of the Keelah Si’yah to rise up and lead the Milky Way citizens in the new galaxy. She believed there was no way those who had been in power before would allow things to be any other way in a new galaxy.
When technical issues resulted in the virus mutating in the hundreds of years of cryosleep, it began to infect the drell and spread across the ship. Resulting in a catastrophe that nearly ended any chance of these people making it to Andromeda in the first place. For all the hope that Andromeda could be a new beginning, grudges left light years behind these people almost undid the entire intiative.
But are Qetsi’Olam’s fears so unfounded? Humans, asari, turians, and salarians were the ones who received their own arks and arrived in the galaxy first, unwilling to wait for the quarian ark to settle its affairs before launching into dark space. Even when reading Annihilation, I realized the visual images of these species in my head were still very much from what they all appeared like in Mass Effect 3, as they weren’t present in Mass Effect: Andromeda.
As progressive as Mass Effect can be, it is also filled with conservative status quos, notions of merit-based hierarchy, and classist undertones to its race relations. All of which are perpetuated by those four species on top. Mass Effect 3 airs out everyone’s dirty laundry, but the people of the Andromeda Initiative were well into cryosleep by the time the Reapers arrived and Commander Shepard put everyone in a “Get Along Shirt”.
Mass Effect Andromeda: Annihilation is a rare, unfiltered moment of the series really reckoning with the world it’s made outside of the scope of humanity’s understanding. And while it’s not a video game that Bioware and EA will spend millions promoting, the next Mass Effect game has to answer the questions it raises. We still don’t know much about the next Mass Effect. But it does sound like it will be continuing the story of Andromeda in some way, as well as shifting focus back to the Milky Way. Andromeda was all about setting the table for the Milky Way species to find a new home in a new galaxy. This next game has to be about who is actually getting a seat at that table. And it can’t be the same four species taking it all for themselves while the people of the Keelah Si’yah fight for the scraps that fall beneath them. Not again. What’s the point of traveling 600 years through dark space if everything is going to be the same?