As I mentioned recently, I'm currently playing through the Mass Effect trilogy and reading The Expanse series. Mass Effect 2 and Leviathan Wakes both feature cities carved into asteroids. And, you know what, that's one of the coolest things there is in sci-fi. This article has nothing to do with Asteroid City, the upcoming Wes Anderson movie set at a 1955 Junior Stargazer convention hitting theaters this summer, but then again, maybe Asteroid City is the answer to the question I posed in the headline.
In The Expanse, it's Ceres, the hollowed out hunk of rock where co-protagonist Miller is working as a cop when the story begins. Asteroid cities have a similar appeal to any large structure built underground. You can't take anything for granted; if it's there at all, a huge amount of effort went into building it. And on Ceres, everyone lives in small rooms arranged in corridors throughout the 'roid. It's difficult to think about the enterprise at all without thinking about the work that went into it.
In Mass Effect 2, it's Omega, an asteroid city where Shepard heads to recruit crew members after joining up with Cerberus. There, she meets Mordin Solus and reunites with Garrus. Each time you approach the station in Legendary Edition, you're treated to a striking cutscene showing the Normandy flying toward a huge hunk of metal and rock, ringed in ominous red light. It looks like a huge mushroom or perhaps like one of those county fair swing rides, —- if the swing ride was rigged to kill anyone who rode on it.
Asteroid cities rule because futuristic cities are almost always cool. Blade Runner's Los Angeles, Cyberpunk 2077's Night City, Star Wars' Coruscant, basically any city with Neo- appended to the front of its name — there is something inherently groovy about occupying a space that is far beyond any technology we currently have, but a little seedy. I like the gleaming white spires of Mass Effect's Presidium, but the real good stuff is when you head off the beaten path and explore the Citadel's night clubs and dark alleyways.
These meteoric metropolises have the added potency of being a metaphor for the adaptability of the human race. Even in something as cold and uncaring as a hunk of rock hurtling through space, humankind can survive and thrive. Even in a place that naturally has none of the necessities of life, we can somehow scratch out a living.
Of course, the variation that Guardians of the Galaxy uses is arguably even cooler. Knowhere, a city that shows up in the comics, the movies, and the game, is a spaceport carved into the hollowed out head of an ancient Celestial. In the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, the Guardians have made Knowhere their base of operations. In the Eidos Montreal game, it's where you meet Cosmo, the space dog. Making the "asteroid" in question the remains of a living thing brings into focus the idea that is inherent in all asteroid cities; that their inhabitants are essentially hermit crabs, making use of what another species left behind.
In that way, Omega is a metaphor for Mass Effect's sci-fi as a whole. The ability to traverse space at all is due to the Protheans, a precursor race that left the mass relays behind. Like an expedition colonizing an asteroid, humans only have anything in Mass Effect because of what was left behind by those who came before.
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