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Mass Effect and the Insignificance of Human Civilization

The narrative in Mass Effect reveals some of the greater questions in literature and society today.

A recent opinion piece in the sci-fi fan site, Pop BioEthics, makes a pretty grand claim: that the science fiction universe of successful video game franchise Mass Effect is the most important of our generation. Written by Kyle Munkittrick, the piece lays out a well-conceived appraisal of the Mass Effect universe’s, “ability to reflect on our society as a whole.” Most importantly was that it points to the insignificance of humanity within the greater intergalactic community, but also to the abstract insignificance of civilization at its center; something Mukittrick referred to as “cosmicism”.

When compared to other sci-fi universes like Star Wars and Star Trek, even some of the older, more literary universes like Dune, and Asimov’s sci-fi foundation, Foundation, we find a human-centric universe. However, society has changed and become more globalized, more aware and realistic of the impacts and influences of diversity. In doing so, we also see that interplanetary diversity would be simply racial, but special. In addition, humanity is only now contriving interplanetary travel and can imagine that other species, as in the Mass Effect universe, have already been doing it for centuries, even millennia. What does that make us? That makes us the Australian aborigines. That makes us Columbus’ “Indians”. That makes us John Smith’s Pequot natives. We are the newcomers to a scale and importance of technology of which we are only coming to understand. Mass Effect shows humans as a minor player within a greater cosmic political game, a pawn to be moved rather than a kind doing the moving (as with Star Wars’ Empire or Star Trek’s Federation).

Also developed within Munkittrick’s piece was a growing awareness of anti-theism. I won’t call it atheism, because although many people may not believe in a particular God, manby do still consider themselves “spiritual”. What does that mean within a human social context, but a belief that although there is something greater than ourselves, it’s probably indifferent to us, or at the very least much less conscious of our own foibles and triumphs. What that has lead to within the science fiction genre is a greater ambiguity to existential questions. What are heading toward with all of this technological progress? What happens when we get there? Is there a “there”?

In the Mass Effect universe, this manifests as a group of civilizations that have all arrived at essentially the same place, a seat of intergalactic power known as the Citadel. The Citadel, and the Mass relays that are used by these civilizations to travel between galaxies, are leftover technology from an ancient, bygone and super-advanced race. What we come to find out (Spoiler Alert here if you haven’t played the games) is that they are actually an elaborate, and millennia long trap, snaring civilizations after they have matured to the point where they can use the Mass Relays, and feeding a race of hyper-intelligent AI.

In this one point, I will diverge from what Munkittrick calls his “cosmicist”, unknowable meaning of existence. In his opinion piece, Munkittrick says that the problem for humanity is not that there is no meaning, but that the meaning is unknowable to us, beyond our comprehension. That’s not really a new concept, but it is well articulated and illustrated in the Mass Effect universe. However, at its basest level, the meaning is survival. After all of the elaborate and incredibly complex narrative, and beyond the inconceivably futuristic advances of Mass Relay technology and creating a race of AI advanced enough to conceive of such an elaborate, millennia-spanning snare, we’re still talking about survival; feast and famine, plenty and scarcity. The Mass Effect universe is still one in which, despite all of the technological glamour and political intrigue and ethical meandering, one species is feeding off another one. It just happens to be a narrative-rich and brilliantly conceived trap that it’s using to catch its food. Think of Commander Shepard as the tricksy faun that was able to slip the hunter’s snare at the end of the first Mass Effect (and blow up their super-space ship in the process).

Thus Cosmicism is just Darwinism writ large, and the progress that we pursue within civilization is simply an evolving and complex buffer from the harsh realities of our origins, scraping to subsist and survive in the wilderness. The scariest moments to us, in science fiction or in reality, are the moments in which civilization is peeled away, and we’re forced to confront that reality.