OK, back to Mass Effect fanfiction.
Transcendant Humanity by Solaris242
One of the things I really enjoy is first-contact scenarios, because they have so much potential for interesting explorations of the societies involved… especially if one or both of the species have never met anything like each other before. After all, if you want “reaction to the unexpected”, first contact is hard to top.
The problem is that, if you check a list like the Alternate First Contact War C2 on Fanfiction.net, you’ll find that far too many of them are focused on either the on-the-ground experiences of the soldiers, or how a different humanity can curb-stomp the Turians. (Not that it’s surprising. Writing a really good contact fic requires out-of-the-box thinking that school tends not to teach, and Mass Effect is a mainstream fandom.)
Obviously, you can do nuance and subterfuge, but that’s a fic for another review. Transcendant Humanity is more of a Humanity, F*k Yeah! story, done well.
The basic premise is that, instead of leaving behind eezo, the Protheans left behind only a warning… leaving humanity without FTL travel and united in their fear of a cryptic, genocidal force from out among the stars. Instead of expanding outward, humanity turned to transhumanism.
Now, this is where canon timelines get fudged a bit, but definitely for the good of the story.
Without eezo, and with humanity turning our effort and our intellect toward dealing with ever-increasing population density and a long-term plan to fortify Sol, Charon spends two millennia ignored as too uninteresting for mining purposes and another decade as the subject of study by a humanity that still remembers to “Trust not the Gates”.
When a means is developed to send exploratory ships without using eezo, they wind up on the wrong side of a Turian patrol fleet and the first chapter ends on one of the most distinctive cliffhangers I’ve ever read:
The Turians expected a young race, just reaching the stars. They feared that humanity was another potential Krogan, or Rachni. Upon exiting the Sol Gate, their entire fleet is frozen by the sight before them.
Thousands of ships that the Turians had believed to be ‘dreadnoughts’. Tens of thousands of frigates. A hundred true dreadnoughts, and dozens of super-carriers almost ten kilometres across; spawning truly uncountable swarms of fighters and drones.
And behind the defensive fleet, the true power of humanity. An occluded star, a supercomputer larger than worlds, filled with a trillion minds. Transcendent Humanity speaks as one, the force of their voice ripping through firewalls, absorbing language and codex, booming from every device capable aboard the Turian ships.
This is Sol, the home of humanity. YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE.
Now, admittedly, the first chapter is an exposition dump. A reasonably good example of one and having one for the first chapter (or even just a point-form timeline) is a tradition in these sorts of fics, but it’s an exposition dump nonetheless.
Chapter 2 puts the story into a narrative that’s much more normal, accounting for the context of a humanity who consider bodies optional.
It’s the kind of story where it’s difficult for me to give much detail on the plot, because the plot is merely a framework tying together creative and novel scenes. I’ve seen first contact done a million times before. What makes this story work is the fresh world and interesting character experiences that it brings to the table.
The moment I find most memorable is probably when the “Ghosts” (bodiless human infiltrators) who make their way into the Citadel’s systems wind up bringing home an ambassadorial cluster of Geth runtimes, who are struck dumb by the experience of downloading into a “home body” and then experiencing the taste of food.
It’s also an amusingly nostalgic reminder of the early days of the Internet when one of them, making an observation about the Citadel network, comments that “This place is like 75% Asari porn.”
At the same time, it’s refreshing to see a story where, unlike so many Alternate First Contact War fics, the Shanxi assault is averted entirely and it’s satisfying to see a story where humanity is a walking middle finger to the concept of circumscribing and outlawing A.I.
On the character side, there’s one scene which truly captures what makes this story so special. During the initial meetings on the Citadel, a more likeable Donnel Udina visits a café, where, as the first organic human to ever set foot in Council space, he has a conversation with the proprietress… another kind of first contact and an elegant way to insert fresh new content into events I’ve read countless times over.
It’s the use of that imaginativeness on scales both large and small which makes the story what it is. (Wait until you see how they get a cyber-attack into a fleet that’s prepared for it and the crafty solution they come up with for outwitting the Treaty of Farixen.)
Unfortunately, the story stands incomplete at 40,604 words and the update pattern suggests it’s unlikely to be finished, but I’m glad to have what we got. (Not to mention, the author also started another fic, in which the Turians’ first contact with humanity is as survivors of Sol having being consumed by a black hole… though that has made even less progress through its story arc.)
All in all, there’s no other Mass Effect fic quite like Transcendant Humanity and, when I think about it, that’s kind of sad. It’s not wonderously well-written and it’s not a particularly novel concept (I’d give it a 4.5 out of 5). What makes it special is that it manages to evoke some wisp of that era when the space program had sparked a curiosity in the world and the sci-fi new releases didn’t feel so glutted with thrillers, dystopic projections of corporate overreach, and other aspirants to movie adaptation… and isn’t that what an alternate history story should aspire to do?
UPDATE 2020-02-11: The monologue in chapter 20 where a human character insightfully lays out the nature of the relationship between the Geth and the Quarians is also a masterpiece that deserves mention.