Why I Can’t Seem to Finish Mass Effect: Andromeda

You guys, I tried.

There are good, entertaining parts to this game–I’ve mentioned them before–but the parts in between them are too much of a slog. At some point, the anticipation that drives me through that slog to get to the good parts wears thin. Andromeda needs more than cool ideas. It has to execute them well, and consistently enough to keep the audience engaged. The game is made up of a series of good moments, and some great ones, with a lot of not-so-good stuff in between them. But what it needed was to draw the audience into a continuous story, and it doesn’t really do that.

Time

Too many things about this game waste your time. There’s a lot of unnecessarily unskippable animation, the most glaring of which is the travel. Yes, the image of the galaxy with the background of a black hole behind it is striking. Yes, the first time we watch ourselves zoom through that galaxy is cool. But the tenth time isn’t. Nor is the hundredth time, especially when it takes so long.

Then too many missions will take you all over the map without enough happening to make it worthwhile. I don’t want to pick up half a dozen objects in completely different locations for a story-based mission. There have been a few times when I’ve been pulled in by the story behind a mission, only to have it turn into a fetch quest that killed my enthusiasm.

Characters

The characters are cool conceptually, but don’t draw me in enough to really connect with anything about them. They’ve got the right framework to be interesting. But they feel off, because there isn’t enough subtlety–they state who they are and what’s important to them with far too much honesty and self-awareness. It doesn’t feel real. We have to guess at why things bother us, and at what the complexity of our reactions actually mean. We don’t magically know these things, and even if we did, we wouldn’t spell it out for someone else.

I wanted to like most of these characters, if the game had only provided more depth to their characters. For instance, Liam is practically a gift to this team. Everyone else is wrapped up in themselves, even at the expense of diplomacy with a new species. Meanwhile, Liam naturally reaches out towards others, and is frustrated when different sides try to shut people out. He could have been a natural choice for a player to confide in. I was always waiting for him to show a full-fledged personality. I wanted the game to delve into the urgency that’s behind his desire to get people talking to each other. Into where this desire to take truly audacious risks–the kind that could backfire–to get that cooperation comes from.

Maybe it happens in a part of the game that I haven’t gotten around to. But it’d be too late anyway. Too many moments had already passed, where his character–and the other characters–could have felt deep but came off as shallow. Even talking to them has become too much like doing homework.

I’m also tired of characters telling me that I’m interesting. In the same words. Again, and again, and again. Maybe this is because your character doesn’t have a set personality, preventing anyone from being too specific about you. But there are other ways of managing that which don’t sound so trite.

Almost everything about the character growth wasn’t working for me here. There’s no sense of development. At some point, the crew started talking about becoming a family, and I was all like ‘how did this happen while I wasn’t looking?”

The high point for character work in the game is Ryder’s father-sibling relationship with her/his family. There was genuine tension, and care mixed with misunderstanding. I would’ve loved if the game leaned into it more. My biggest regret with not finishing this game is that I won’t know if my character’s brother ever wakes up, or what their relationship would be at that point. But it’s not worth playing through the entire game just for a few good scenes.

Loyalty Missions

When I realized Andromeda was going to have loyalty missions, I was excited. Because I was thinking of the loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2, a major part of the framework of that game. Each of your companions asked you to go on a mission that mattered to them, and how you resolved it determined whether or not you gained their loyalty. These missions dug into the characters you were journeying with, and I absolutely loved them.

Naturally, Andromeda’s version is watered-down and less exciting. Part of that stems from the inferior characterization. Given that the whole concept of a loyalty mission is character driven, that makes sense. But another problem is that the missions themselves are far less in-depth. Unlike in ME2, where those missions were a major part of the game, Andromeda’s loyalty missions are far less key.

That could have been alright, if some other part of the game allowed for stronger character development. But instead, I’m left disappointed that these strong opportunities to highlight the companion characters couldn’t have been more powerful. That isn’t to say that none of them were enjoyable–some were–but generally, they felt like just another side mission.

Of the few I managed to complete, two stood out:

Vetra’s mission – It was too short to have much of an impact, and didn’t bring any huge surprises plot-wise, but I enjoyed it. Bringing Vetra’s relationship with her sister into focus, it was the high point in the game for Vetra’s characterization. The set-up was also fun–I enjoyed getting locked in the prison and having to break out, picking one out of several combat advantages ahead of every battle.

Drack’s mission: I was too disillusioned by the game at this point to really enjoy the mission, but there were moments when it still managed to draw me out. I liked the older generation/younger generation conflict of personality, but where they both obviously still cared for each other. There was one really funny moment when Drack dangles the antagonist off a cliff. Drack’s a ruthless ex-soldier who’s obviously capable of dropping him and not losing any sleep over it–but the antagonist still accuses of him of bluffing, in a laugh out loud moment.

Overall

I wish the whole game was good. Or that the whole game was bad.

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Once Upon a Time: At Its Best When Breaking the Mold, at Its Worst When Following It

The face of a woman off to the side, with an apple in front of her, half black and half red. The words "Once Upon a Time" fill the other side of the image.

Image: ABC

Genre: Fantasy/Fairy tale retelling

Synopsis: Emma is living on her own and working as a bail bondsman, when the boy she’d given up for adoption at birth appears on her doorstep. There’s nothing for it but for her to bring the kid back to his adoptive mother–who he insists is the Evil Queen. The Evil Queen, who cast a curse on fairy tale characters, trapping them in our world with no memories of who they are. While Emma is supposed to be the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, capable of breaking the curse.

Emma doesn’t believe any of this, of course, but bringing Henry home makes her concerned enough to stick around. And in doing so, she launches a sweeping tale of second chances and redemption, with the fate of every story we knew as children in the balance.

Series: Six seasons, with an upcoming seventh–however, the sixth seasons brings this story to a natural conclusion, while the seventh includes a time skip and new characters.

I’ve Watched: All six seasons.

Verdict: Has its ups and downs, but I really do enjoy it when it’s at it’s best.

It’s been a long time since I last watched this show–I dropped off somewhere around season three. And I’m not entirely sure why. It’s imperfect, but also contains plenty of unusual elements that make up for its flaws. I do wish it was consistently less typical–but even so, it’s still far more atypical than most stories I’d find on TV.

For whatever reason, I stopped watching this show somewhere around the third season. It’s in its sixth season now, with a seventh season on the way, and I’ve finally caught up. (In case anyone was wondering which feel-good show I binged on to get my mind off The Handmaid’s Tale, this was it.)

Once Upon a Time shines when it breaks from the script, shaking up the narratives we’re familiar with. We have a menacing Peter Pan who throws his family under the bus for his own selfish needs. A Beast who’s more of a deal-making wizard than a bruiser. A Snow White who survives on her own in the woods, while being hunted down by the Evil Queen. The show also embraces an unusual family structure, with both an adoptive and birth mother being part of a child’s life, developing a friendship along the way.

It doesn’t always tell a story in a way that’s transformative, but it’s worth it for the times that it does.

Despite being an optimistic, happy ending-style show, Once Upon a Time has a strong focus on second chances and redemption. Even the purest heroes hurt people and have to make up for it. Granted, the conflict between Snow White and the Evil Queen is ridiculous. But plenty of other selfish choices and their consequences are on display.

It also has a plethora of female characters with their own character journeys–not all of them are great, but some are, especially the protagonists. And I do appreciate the friendships between women, and getting to see groups of women adventuring together. I also just found out that one of the actresses portraying a main protagonist is LatinaAdditionally,  two central characters–Captain Hook and Rumpelstiltskin–have disabilities. I get the impression that there’s pros and cons with their portrayals, but at the least, there’s one heroic disabled protagonist.

On the other hand, the show does have a problem with repetitive elements. For instance:

  • The sheer amount of time these people have their memories taken away is ridiculous.
  • Snow White and Prince Charming have flirted with darkness so many times, making similar mistakes all over again. I feel like I’ve watched the same scene multiple times, with Snow monologuing about where they went wrong.
  • Two particular characters have gotten together and torn apart so many times, it gets old.
  • Rumpelstiltskin not only has a character arc set on repeat, but also is connected to every character ever (and has manipulated pretty much all of them).

Other negative elements include:

  • Sometimes it gets formulaic or even problematic.
  • With every episode having flashbacks to a past event, each episode needs to juggle two intertwining plots, while continually adding backstory. While some episodes have made great use of this, others have been brought down by it–not every flashback is engaging or necessary. (And if I have to watch another scene of the two-dimensional Evil Queen, I’ll scream. After 6 seasons, I think we get the point.)
  • The pacing is uneven–some plot points move at an interesting pace, others drag, while still others replay themselves to the point of exhaustion.
  • Overemphasizes romantic love, though it does still put work into its platonic relationships.
  • Aside from the actress playing Regina, the show has made a token effort to include people of color, but the speed with which they’re written out of the story has to be seen to be believed.
  • There are only four LGBT characters on the show (three of which are peripheral, one of which used to be more prominent, long before she was revealed as bisexual), surrounded by dozens of straight people.
  • Several moments of problematic consent, which the show deals with strangely if at all, crop up.
  • You’d think all of the women would have invested in sensible shoes at some point, but no. Still running in heels.

I’m also against the Charmings taking what is essentially an untested drug without any regard for safety, just because they have faith it’ll work. Fortunately, the show demonstrates the dangers of that mentality.

I’d say Once Upon a Time is worth the watch for me. Plenty of negatives are mixed in with its positives, but there’s always a good story coming around the corner. Over six seasons, even as some characters’ stories grow stale, others continue to evolve in interesting ways.

So as not to have to talk about all six seasons right away, I’ll take a closer look at those character journeys in later posts.

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BookCon and Stream of Annihilation

So this weekend was packed for me, between attending panels at BookCon and trying to catch some of the one-shot DnD games played at Stream of Annihilation.

BookCon

My favorite panel had to be Holly Black (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown) and Leigh Bardugo (Six of Crows). Not only have I recently read great books by both, but they were a lot of fun, especially together. Aside from the hilarious personal stories they shared, some standout moments included:

  • The two of them describing their writing process, and their massively divergent schedules–Holly Black apparently writes twice a day, in the afternoon then again from midnight to 5am.
  • Leigh Bardugo discussing the differences between her two series. The first one is the story of a chosen one, while the second one specifically focuses on characters that aren’t chosen, and that no one cares about.
  • The revelation that Holly Black has elf ears. I honestly didn’t know this was a thing.

Stream of Annihilation

There were a lot of one-shot, 1.5 hour long sessions, but I’ve only watched two of them so far. Both are great.

Tower of the Curator A group of adventurers enter a tower, questing to find a particular object–if they can get past the tower’s denizens.

Between engaging NPCs, an interesting encounter, and memorable characters, this made for a fun session. I especially enjoyed the contrast between the roles played by Critical Role’s Matt Mercer and Marisha Ray. Matt was a no-nonsense cleric who wanted to get the job done right, while Marisha played a more freewheeling bard.

Girls, Guts, and Glory A party is shipwrecked in the midst of their quest, left picking up the trail of their mission. But their biggest challenge will be to determine what is and what isn’t a threat to them.

Matt was the dungeon master for this game, crafting an engaging story where the players had to put themselves back on track after being thrown off-course. The players are all from the same gaming group, coming in with a pre-existing adventuring party and dynamic. Their characters were cool, and the role-playing was very engaging–most of the players are actresses and it showed. They seem to have some material available online, and based on this session, I will definitely be checking it out.

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Round Up: Simple Biologist and Board Games

Simple Biologist: A scientist puts out videos explaining the main concepts in papers put out by researchers.

Visiting a Board Game Cafe: Because apparently we have this, in NYC. A couple of friends and I had been planning on going for over half a year, but we got snowed out twice before finally accomplishing it. It was great, and we got to try out a few games that we really enjoyed playing.

Superfight – A card game where 2 players at a time draw character cards (like Iron Man, a pirate, or Chuck Norris) and attribute cards (like armed with a flamethrower, or thinks they’re invisible). They players will put together a character card and an attribute, playing it against the other player’s choices. Another random attribute is added to each character that their player is stuck with. Then both opponents argue why their character should win. The other players determine who gets the point, and the game moves on to pit another set of players against each other.

We had a massive amount of fun with this one. Because it’s so open to interpretation, the players really get to tailor the game to their specific group and their humor. Especially since we let each other discard cards we weren’t familiar with it, focusing only on the pop culture we liked. The game essentially provides the players with ridiculous scenarios to talk about, turning it into a joke-fest with your friends.

Ticket to Ride: Europe – A relatively simple strategy game where players build train routes across Europe to score points. We learned the rules pretty quickly, then set out building and trying to outscore each other. With only three players, there wasn’t a lot of blocking each other’s routes–or maybe it was because we as players focused more on completing our own goals than blocking the other players. I guess we just wanted to be nice to each other.

It was fun, and I really liked how quickly we cycled through turns. The game only let each player do one thing a turn, and it kept us moving at an enjoyable pace while strategizing over the most beneficial move.

And in case anyone was wondering, yes I did choose to play this game (and the next one) because of Tabletop:

Fury of Dracula – One player is Dracula, while the others are vampire hunters. The hunters search the map of Europe for Dracula, while Dracula moves secretly, leaving behind dangerous surprises in his wake. Half the battle is finding Dracula, but the other half is actually defeating him–which means hunters need to supply themselves with weapons capable of taking down their undead enemy, or combat will go poorly for them.

We didn’t get to finish this game, because it’s a long one. But we had a lot of fun even so. Reading through the instructions took a bit of investment–this game is not as simple as Ticket to Ride–but once we figured it out, it was fairly straightforward. We searched Europe for Dracula, ran into those nasty surprises he planted. Did a little bit of damage to Dracula himself, the one time we caught up with him. But then he got away, we needed to heal and resupply, and the game was nowhere near done.

In the end, we barely dented Dracula, but Dracula’s player was also frustrated that we kept clearing out her surprises before they became too bad. So we stopped at a bit of a stalemate. It was great, and the mechanic of never quite knowing where Dracula is added an element of uncertainty. I’d love to finish a game of this one day, and hopefully not draw quite so badly when I do.

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The Handmaid’s Tale Presents a Disturbing Dystopian Society

An image of a woman in a red robe and white hat, standing in front of a concrete wall stained with bits of red, probably blood--some of it dripping onto the road. The poster reads, "We will bear no more, A hulu original, The Handmaid's Tale."

Image: Hulu via IMDB

Genre: Dystopia

Synopsis: June used to have a family and a life, until an extremist government took over. They renamed her, and as one of the few remaining fertile women, assigned her to be a Handmaid–given to an elite household for the purpose of bearing children for a commander and his wife. The story proceeds to show us a vicious dystopia where certain people are dehumanized and devalued, stripped away of their freedom and individuality.

Series: One season.

I’ve Watched: The first two episodes.

Verdict: It’s disturbing, and has a power to it–though the content can make it pretty  hard to watch.  

Well, that was uncomfortable.

The material is heavy, and that ends up outweighing every other aspect of the work. I don’t know if the recent dystopia craze has diluted the punch I expect from the genre, or if The Handmaid’s Tale is taking on particularly emotional subject matter. But damn, is this a rough watch. It’s supposed to be, it has to be. But it’s still rough.

I cried three times in the first episode. At several points, I had to stop watching, because I just couldn’t. The only thing that got me through the pilot was sheer willpower–I told myself, if I finished the pilot and found that I couldn’t do it anymore, I could stop. And then I found myself some light, feel-good show to binge on for weeks afterwards, before I could bring myself to try the second episode.

I paused the second episode 30 seconds in, and had to take an hour break before I could keep going, it disturbed me so much. Most scenes are tinged with this emptiness, this sense that the horror of what’s happening is dulled by how commonplace it is–that the characters’ emotions have to recede or it’ll be too much. It’s creepy, how placid the surface tone of the show is.

In contrast, the vague sense of paranoia–that no one can be trusted–is almost a relief. The characters are literally afraid of talking about their lives before this became their reality. It’s like that life isn’t supposed to have been real, like society doesn’t want it to be anything but a dream they can never share with anyone.

And then there’s this scene in the second episode, when the commander issues June an invitation–or what he considers an invitation, though it’s really a command. She’s told to meet with him privately, which is forbidden. In his private rooms, which are forbidden to all women, including his wife. June spends the day terrified of what he might want. Of whether he’ll accuse her of something, whether he’ll want sexual favors she doesn’t want to give. Whether she’ll be in danger.

We’re following June’s perspective, so we enter the scene as unsure of his intentions as she is. Everything he says sounds vaguely threatening, and could easily be a prelude to something awful. The whole scene is slightly creepy, with an uncertainty about whether at any point it’ll cross a line. It’s only when she’s left the room that she can be sure that nothing else will happen. (I have fuzzy memories of reading the book this is based on about a decade ago, which is probably the only reason this scene wasn’t more stressful for me–because I remembered where it would go.)

I don’t know how far I’ll get with this show. I’m probably going to have to take it slow, because it can be an uncomfortable watch. But if someone wants to watch a dystopia that seems to have hit that spot where it’s both personal and horrific for plenty of people–I can’t remember the last time I came across another that’s pulled it off like this.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events has a Charismatic Charm

Genre: Adventure/comedy

Synopsis: Three siblings, the Baudelaires, suddenly find themselves orphans. They’re sent to live with a nearby relative, Count Olaf–who, it turns out, only wants their money. He puts them in poor living conditions, uses them as servants, and abuses them verbally (and once physically). The siblings are left to survive their dreary situation, foil his schemes, and fight for a happier future.

Series: One season. There will be a second season. 

I’ve Watched: The first 4 episodes.

Verdict: Fun to watch, but more because of its style than its character work.

The great strength of this show is its style of storytelling. This is a comedy, but it’s one that relies on a serious and sophisticated tone to highlight how absurd the plot is. The story is defined by the deadpan delivery, in an almost literary tone, of the over-the-top material. This gives it its unique charm, the personality that draws the viewer in.

Because the story is absolutely ridiculous (in that positive, intentional way):

  • The siblings each have improbable skills, and not just for their age. Violet is a gadgeteer who uses a home appliance to lift herself up a piece of fabric. Klaus sways a judge through some philosophical presentation. Sunny uses her teeth to whittle down a key.
  • Count Olaf appears in various, obvious disguises, but only the Baudelaire siblings recognize him. The adult figure with power over their fate keeps falling for Olaf’s ruses, and dismissing the siblings’ concerns.
  • In the background, unexplained spy-shenanigans happen with the intent of keeping the siblings safe–but conveniently fail to keep danger away from them.

For all the humor, the material is thematically serious. The siblings are the ones with the most to lose, and the ones most aware of the risks to themselves. But no one ever takes them seriously. They’re in a nightmare situation where no one will believe that their reality is real.

At times, the story is a little too bleak to be enjoyable. A good example is when the plot of an episode revolved around a child bride situation. 

While I generally liked the story, the style is what makes the experience. There isn’t much else drawing me in. The show doesn’t do deep character work, and for the most part, that wouldn’t fit into this story. Still, while all the characters are portrayed well by their actors, I feel sympathy for them more because of their circumstances than any attachment to these particular people.

The one exception is Monty, the uncle who takes the children in after they escape Olaf’s clutches. In the first four episodes, he was by far the most well-developed character. He displayed a sense of adventure and daring, but also a softer side towards his new charges. Then when dealing with his rival herpetologists, he’d confront them in this ferocious, swashbuckling manner. He was fun, and he showed off different sides of himself. In a story that had been fairly dark up till then, he brought a spark of hope. I was pretty disappointed to see him go, because he added so much to the story.

The show is mostly good, and its charm is worth experiencing. It’s not flawless, and there are still disappointing parts. But overall, I’d call the first half of the season an entertaining experience. And even as the fourth episode closes and the siblings are getting shuffled off to another unknown relative, I’m compelled to find out what happens next. To discover what quirky personality this new guardian will have. 

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Science in Mass Effect: Andromeda

I’m still not done with Mass Effect: Andromeda–I’m about halfway through the game. It might take me some time to get through it, but in the meantime, I wanted to talk about the impression I’ve had of the game so far from a biological/genetics standpoint.

At some point in the game’s production, someone with knowledge about scientific research must have been consulted. Andromeda leans away from a lot of the pitfalls I frequently see in media representation of science, and instead shows some understanding of what science is like. (Though that doesn’t mean I always agree on how a particular subject is tackled.)

There are a number of nice touches hidden throughout the game:

  • Cryostasis was used to keep colonists alive during the 600 year journey to Andromeda. In one overheard conversation, the revival team asks what to do with the people who don’t survive the process. They have this functional cryopreservation process, but not everyone survives it. It’s an acknowledgement of the unpredictability of biology, where nothing is ever 100%.
  • The angara are a different species that the colonists encounter for the first time. When scientists are presented with the angaran belief in reincarnation, and the ability of certain angara to recall memories from an ancestor, their reaction isn’t the stereotypical ‘but that can’t happen.’ Instead, more realistically, they speculate on how the angara might be able to genetically inherit ancestral memories. 
  • Another newly encountered species, the kett, are able to incorporate genes from other species–a controlled, deliberate horizontal gene transfer (with the game using the terminology).
  • The game also stretches the imagination in terms of thinking about AI. Far from the old school stories where AI is inevitably a danger to humanity, here, the main protagonist interfaces with an AI in a way that’s compared in-game to a symbiotic relationship.

Science and Religion

The one aspect I had mixed feelings about was how the conversation with your crew’s religious scientist goes down. On the plus side, the game makes the point that–despite stereotypes of scientists as exclusively atheist–some do participate in other religions. That’s totally worth saying. The minus side is that the conversation this revelation happens during forces a massive oversimplification. The character tells you that she believes in a higher power behind creation, and that science brings her closer to that higher power. You have literally only two very extreme ways to respond to that–either ‘I feel the same way’ or ‘There’s no higher power.’

I mean, really? 1) Even for people who are religious, there are a number of different beliefs they can have, and a number of different relationships those beliefs could have with science. 2) The references to a higher power might make anyone who’s religion isn’t strictly monotheistic feel excluded. 3) This also completely ignores agnosticism, by forcing a choice between believing and not believing in a God. 4) Even if someone is an atheist, they might not be comfortable stomping over someone else’s beliefs like this conversation choice forces you to.

The game didn’t have to force the conversation to a point where it only presented two possible belief options–especially when the entire point of the scene must have been to expand understanding instead of oversimplifying. I get that it’s hard, with only one character representing the demographic and a limited amount of options you can possibly give your player, to do the complexity of the topic justice. Then again, a sci-fi book I recently wrote about–The Terrans–also had a limited space in which to discuss science and spirituality. But the discussion in that book came off as far more nuanced than the one in Mass Effect: Andromeda. 

I don’t know, the scene felt clunky to me. I didn’t enjoy it. But maybe for people who aren’t aware scientists can be anything other than atheists, this’ll be a net good?

The Prologue, creating a science-like feel through its exploration

A reading from 600 years ago determined that the planet you first encounter should be habitable. Yet, when you get there, it’s a disaster. You’re shot out of the sky even trying to land, and frequent lighting strikes continue to zap all around you. You have no idea what’s going on or how it’s happening–and you’re like, okay, how do I find out?

It’s a mix of exploration of a location you don’t know, and exploration of a phenomenon you don’t understand. The latter is pretty much science, although your engagement with it has more to do with observation than experimentation. You wander around scanning strange plant and animal life, looking for your team, and in general trying to put together a theory for what’s going on.

Since I frequently use exploration as a metaphor to explain the process of scientific research, it isn’t surprising that an exploration- and mystery-heavy opening would feel science-like to me. This kind of excitement at coming across something you don’t understand, and looking for clues to try to put together educated guesses–it elicits the same feeling of discovery. Moreover, once the team puts together a plausible idea and plan of action that may or may not solve their problem, the protagonist gives this wonderful quote:

“We’re banking on science we don’t understand. What if the theory’s wrong?”

This is a great acknowledgment that the one working theory you’ve been able to put together from the scraps of information you’ve found so far might not be the right one. It’s the perfect thing to say in this scenario. Of course, plot reasons mean that the theory has to be the right one, but I like that the characters know it could easily be wrong.

Conclusion

Whatever other faults the game may have, someone involved somewhere in the process of developing this game had to have familiarity with scientific research. That’s my impression on the topic.

To close off, I’d like to leave you with a relevant blog post I found, written by a computer science professor: “The technology of Mass Effect Andromeda.”

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Miscellaneous Roundup 2

The personal intersecting with the science (AKA Work/life balance): I’ve been sick this past week, which isn’t great timing when I literally cannot miss a day of lab without risking over a month of work. So that’s been fun. For those interested, I’m knocking out a gene of interest in cell lines, isolating single cells, and growing populations from those single cells. When enough cells grow, I can store some as back ups–but I’m not at that stage yet. If any of them die out now, they’re gone forever.

Every Heart a Doorway is nominated for a Hugo: I posted last month about this novella, how much I loved it, and how it hit me on a personal level. So it’s worth mentioning that Every Heart a Doorway is on the ballot for the Hugo. It’s pretty awesome to see something that feels so outside the mainstream being acknowledged. 

Another convention has a harassment-related scandal: For those who haven’t heard, there was an uproar last week about a sci-fi convention that had a known harasser (who’s been at it for over a decade) on staff, after a guest of honor pulled out of the convention over his presence. Jim C. Hines has a write-up explaining the situation, and K Tempest Bradford’s post has some other information. The convention initially stood by the harasser, before finally removing him from their staff.

It was handled impressively badly. When their guest of honor contacted them, explaining that she’d personally had uncomfortable experiences with him and didn’t feel safe, one of them replied back saying that the rumors about this guy are overblown and she’s not being fair to herself in avoiding him. Then someone from the convention publicly posted the private emails she’d sent to them without her permission (they’ve since been deleted). Among other insensitive things. So that happened.

Critical Role:

1) The Bard’s Departure; A Psychologist’s Reaction to Episode 85 of Critical Role – I like to point out posts professionals make talking about media, and this links to a more personal piece from the perspective of someone who’s experienced the psychology in question–also an important thing to pay attention to.

2) My updated thoughts on Critical Role – With the show doing a year time-skip, this is a great time to check in.

The journey to hell arch – I loved this. The group walked into an all new setting where everyone was trying to corrupt them and get them to sell their souls. There was a bunch of information gathering, subterfuge, and deal making–not all of it to the party’s favor. The rush through the prison itself, searching for their target while not trying to get caught by the guards, was thrilling. I do love seeing those high level spells used creatively, and the cast really had fun with this one. There were several close, tense moments where everything depended on the roll of the dice. I was on the edge of my seat, probably more so than for any other action-based episode in the series.

The wind-down/conclusion before the time-skip – This was hilarious. The show is always good, but this was one of the funniest episodes I can remember. It’s highly dependent on the personalities of every character, and yet accessible to newcomers. If I’m ever in the position of finding an entry point into Critical Role for a friend, I’ll start them at the moment in this episode where Pike shows up–it provides a bit of exposition for her character, who was absent, but not too much. And the humor for the bar scene here doesn’t depend so heavily on all the moments that came before it.

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Orphan Black Season 4: Bringing the past to life

Genre: Sci-fi/thriller

Synopsis:

S1: Grifter Sarah Manning happens to meet a woman who looks exactly like her in a train station, right before the woman commits suicide. Naturally, Sarah uses the opportunity to take her identify and steal all her stuff. But while pretending to be the now-deceased Beth Childs in order to access her bank account, Sarah finds herself thrust deeper into Beth’s life than she imagined. But there’s a reason Beth killed herself. There’s a reason why the two of them look so alike. And Sarah’s walked right into a dangerous trap.

S2: Sarah now knows who she and her look-alikes are–but so does a powerful organization. The Dyad Institute runs a program studying the look-alikes, the clones, but up until Sarah stumbled into Beth’s life, she’d remained off their radar. Now that Dyad knows about her and her daughter, it’ll fight to get their hands on them.

S3: Sarah forms a tenuous compromise with the Dyad Institute, but her family is threatened by another set of clones–her brothers, given to the military while she and her sisters were given to a research institute. The male clones are suffering from a disease, and they believe Sarah and her sisters are the key to their cure. They–and their military allies–will do near anything to save themselves and each other.

S4: As several factions fight over the fate of the cloning program, Sarah and her sisters are caught in the crossfire. Following in the footsteps of Beth’s last investigation before she died, Sarah has to keep herself and her sisters alive–which means finding a cure for the disease affecting them, even as her enemies want to misuse the same information that she needs.

Series: 4 seasons. The 5th and final season is upcoming.

I’ve Watched: All of season 4.

Verdict: Fantastic.

(video)

I’ve been loving Orphan Black pretty consistently since its premiere, and this season is not an exception. That’s especially impressive, given that the plot ties into events that happened before the beginning of the series, employing flashbacks to bring us into those moments. Flashbacks comes with a lot of potential pitfalls–we already know what’s going to happen, so there’s a limit to how much the story can surprise us–but Orphan Black uses that to its advantage.

Nearly all of the first episode of the season is composed of flashbacks, and I’ve never seen another series pull that off so well. Orphan Black zeroes in on a character who dies in the beginning of the pilot, executing it in a way that’s riveting. 

Spoilers

Throughout the rest of the series, we’ve only known Beth through secondhand information, picking up bits and pieces from the people in her life and whatever evidence she’d left behind. Now, we get to witness her experiences in those last days, watch the cage slowly closing in around her. The deep personal aspect of the story drives the episode, and knowing what’s coming charges every scene with a sense of tragedy.

The most powerful moment arrives as Beth is nearly alone, confiding in a mystery character with no connections to anyone we know about. This is a window into a secret world. No one else will ever understand the full depth of everything that was weighing on her in that moment. That knowledge is lost to our protagonists. And getting to see those secret moments now, four seasons after her death, makes it clear how much of her experiences were erased from the narrative. How much she took with her to her grave, how much knowledge she had that the remaining protagonists are only now putting together.

There’s something satisfying about how the show works to make Beth matter, to make her character seem real, even though she’s been dead for the entire series. It doesn’t take her for granted. That’s most impressive for Beth, but this is something Orphan Black does for all of the sisters. Despite its fast pace, it makes time to expand on their experiences.

Sarah is always moving to where the action is, constantly driven by the danger to herself, her sisters, and her daughter. Whatever happens, she’s at the lead, taking risks and pushing forward. And yet there’s always new conflicts for her character, especially now that she’s stretched so thin. She has her foster brother, Felix, and her foster mother. She has her daughter. She has a slew of sisters–three of whom she’s personally close with, and an unknown number of acquaintances or strangers whose future she’s nonetheless responsible for.

And if that isn’t enough, the memory of Beth is always there, the sister who was responsible for all of them before her. The woman she only saw for a second in life and came to know in death. The person whose life she stole, who she’ll never be able to apologize to.

With all these new ties pulling at her, with the responsibility for so many people on her shoulders, it makes sense that the most personally challenging moments for her come when Felix finds his biological sister. Felix’s motivations are understandable, as both his foster sister and mom find more of their biological relatives. Sarah ends up focusing on the immediate, life-threatening concerns facing her sisters, and he’s always relegated to supporting their needs.

But Sarah’s character flaws shine through in the difficulty she has accepting Felix’s sister. As much as Sarah’s grown, moments like this serve as a reminder that she was a total, self-focused wreck not that long ago. This responsibility thing is new for her. 

Then there’s Cosima, who’s only getting sicker while she researches a cure for herself and her sisters. Who’s reeling from the uncertainty of whether her girlfriend is alive or dead. Orphan Black keeps both Cosima and the audience in suspense as to Delphine’s fate for a long time. I’d been spoiled already about her survival, because there were plenty of posts at the time about how a queer woman finally got to live. (A fair reason for jubilation, considering not just the 100’s recent fumble, but an entire history of fumbles.) But it surprised me how long the season took to confirm it–they didn’t have to put their audience through that. 

There’s a lot of complexity and character work in Orphan Black, something that’s remained consistent for all four seasons. It’s great. I probably won’t be able to watch season five as it comes out, but I will absolutely see it, sooner or later.

Also: I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to pull out objects you’ve been stabbed with, instead leaving that to a trained medical professional.

Favorite Quotes:

“My sister has a robot maggot in her face. You tell me what the solid plan is.”

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Sci-Fi for Capturing the Imagination with Detail-Oriented Debate

Today I want to bring up two pieces of media, a book and a movie, that do a great job with something I don’t see tackled in fiction very often–they delve into the complex details behind the big picture, and make them interesting. They form a story around those details, instead of making it all about the big picture.

Character conflict and personalities are used to engage the audience with the narrative. Meanwhile, focusing on the complexities instead of sidelining them make the stories feel like they belong in a world as complicated as our own. Both of them managed to pull me in by appealing to my sense of curiosity. So it’s fitting for me to talk about both in one post, given that they share their strengths.

The Terrans

A woman floating in a spaceship, forming a ball of energy in front of her with hands. The writing reads

Image: Ace via Jean Johnson

Genre: Sci-fi

Synopsis: Jackie is a psi–primarily a telekinetic and telepath–for the United Planets. When her civilization’s precogs start getting visions of a first contact with new aliens, Jackie’s abilities and government experience recommend her as an ambassador for the coming encounter. The mission puts her in the path of a new hostile species, and initiates contact with potential allies–the V’Dan–provided everyone can get over their cultural differences and distrust of a new civilization. The pressure is on Jackie to make sure an alliance goes smoothly, and given the gulf of understanding between them, she’s got her work cut out for her.

Series: First in a series.

POV: Third person, with Jackie serving as the primary protagonist.

Preview: Here.

This book is great for people like me–detail-oriented, and interested in hashing out complexities. The complexities in question are culture clashes, governmental checks and balances, transparency, applications of science. The story doesn’t skimp on much, when it’s relevant to the problem at hand. And it’s nice to see the details that are needed to make the entire thing work weighted appropriately.

Since one of my frustrations with the recent Mass Effect: Andromeda game is some of the oversimplifications in it, this served as a balm to that part of me which wanted every detail treated with the gravity it deserved.

The main protagonist is Jackie, a stern and dedicated professional who wants to do the right thing–and wants to be the one making sure the right thing gets done almost as badly. She genuinely believes in the ideal her government aspires to, and is frustrated by people who don’t meet her own standards for maturity. In a lot of ways, she’s shaped by the expectations of her society, while still retaining a more localized cultural identity that rounds out her character.

She’s thrown into the center of a new and complex cultural interaction, one where both sides face difficulty and frustration in getting over their preconceptions. One nice touch is that both civilizations have advanced their technology differently–which means each of them has made progress that the other hasn’t. There was this illustrative moment where one person was rescued by the other side, and yet couldn’t help but think of his rescuers’ technology as primitive.

This book mostly focuses on a handful of V’Dan interacting with Earth’s civilization–the next in the series is shaping up to tackle the opposite circumstance–so we get a lot more details about Earth’s society. The government is still in essence a representative democracy, but with more citizen engagement. We get descriptions of what safeguards are put in place to combat corruption from previous centuries (including our century.) There’s certainly an appeal to the idea that public officials must not only maintain a plurality of support, but also pass tests on basic knowledge of laws and STEM subjects.

Speaking of STEM, I like how a lot of the science is handled–contact with a subset of humans that have been separate from Earth humans for some 10,000 years is met with quarantine, and a rush to develop vaccines. There are a number of nuanced stances on science and spirituality from several characters.

There are also discussions of ethics–they’re technically focused on government and psi abilities, but my medical research background leads me to associate detailed considerations of ethics with science. I’ve never encountered the same level of discussion on ethics in any other field, (though plenty could use it).

Overall, the Terrans should appeal to people who love to think and overthink–that includes me, which is why I ended up getting really into it.

The Man from Earth

(video)

Genre: Sci-fi

Synopsis: A group of college professors gather to say goodbye to one of their colleagues–only for him to spring a surprise on them that challenges their reality. In the ensuing conflict, the truth becomes a matter of what each person is willing to believe.

Verdict: One of my favorites–a thoughtful piece focusing on character conflict and nuance over action.

The last time I talked about this movie was years ago, but after reading The Terrans, I had to bring it up again for thematic purposes. Not because the premise of the story has that much in common with the book, but because the execution does. Both focus on character conflict coming from people’s assumptions, and both engage in detail-oriented conversations which serve as the primary driver of the plot.

The Man from Earth is about a man who can’t die–meaning he’s been around since prehistory, never ageing. The story delves into the details of what that would actually mean, in a practical sense. What is he capable of remembering? How much knowledge can he accumulate? How could he fit into the world, as he is?

A group of diverse, intelligent people discuss the ramifications–and it gets heated, because each of them approaches the topic from the standpoint of what they want to believe, and what it would take to convince them. They approach it from different areas of expertise–biology, anthropology, psychology. Religion becomes a hugely contentious point, affecting at least one character on a deeply personal level.

The conversation is interesting, the picture the protagonist paints compelling–and the conflict drawn out when people’s beliefs collide is raw and powerful. I still think the ending should have been ambiguous, but the story remains deeply engaging.

I would recommend both The Terrans and The Man from Earth as examples of thoughtful, complex sci-fi that captures the imagination primarily through character conflict and detailed discussion of the practicalities behind big ideas.

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