Apr 042012

The ecological succession that creates a deciduous forest starts with the greed of pines. Fast-growing conifers colonize a suitable area and take it over, suppressing ground-cover growth with their light-blocking needles. As the pine growth becomes more dense, this advantage backfires. The lower branches of the old trees die, and infant pines starve in the darkness beneath that crowded sky.

This is a fitting allegory for the universe of Mass Effect, where humanity emerges into a galaxy run by entrenched powers uninterested in assisting them. Early on, Mass Effect establishes that the Citadel Council forced humanity to establish colonies in dangerous parts of the galaxy, then refused to offer aid when those colonies were, inevitably attacked. The existing power structure is only interested in humanity’s ability to serve as a buffer against its enemies, not in helping us thrive.

Despite all this, humans get a comparatively sweet deal. After the events of the first game, they take a position on the Council and get to play a role in decisions that affect them. The Elcor, Volus, and Hanar are not so lucky. Although they have been taking part in galactic politics for centuries by the time humanity first contacts an alien species, these races are denied any real representation. Little stands between them and the fate of the Batarians, who angrily cut ties with the Citadel after the Council gave humanity colonization rights in sectors the Batarians wanted for their own.

Whatever complaints these races have with the galaxy as it is, their luck could have been even worse. Fifty thousand years ago, the Protheans were more advanced than galactic civilization is at the time of Mass Effect. Had they been allowed to flourish, they would have been a power so dominant that any challenge from the races of Shepard’s Citadel Council would have been negligible. More to the point, it would have been impossible. Many pieces of evidence from the games demonstrate that the Protheans were watching or even actively assisting the development of the humans, Asari, Hanar, and other species. Our first steps into space would have placed us right into their hands.

As the Prothean survivor Javik makes clear, those hands would not have been entirely welcoming. According to him, the Protheans offered every race a simple choice: join us or fight us. Against the might of the enormously advanced Prothean empire, only one option could realistically result in survival. The Protheans would have made slaves of the galaxy’s current civilizations. Indeed, preserving a core of Prothean society to dominate the galaxy’s more primitive races and transform them into an effective fighting force against the Reapers was the purpose of Javik’s failed mission.

He who would be your master

In a galaxy without the Reapers, however, even the Protheans would have been subjugated. The 50,000-year cycle of galactic flourishing and extinction has been repeated countless times, creating a chain of cultivation reaching back tens of millions of years. If humanity could not even assert itself against species that had a head start of only thousands of years, how would it fare against galactic civilizations that had been around for eons?

Would humanity have even developed in such conditions? Garden worlds are one of the galaxy’s most precious resources, after all. With millions of years to search, certainly some advanced race would have eventually found Earth and decided to settle there. It took us only tens of thousands of years to expand into every almost every corner of our world; an advanced alien race could probably reach the planet’s resource capacity in just a few hundred years.

Could human beings have evolved in such an environment? Would they have been allowed to?

Genocide is, after all, a fact of galactic life. The Rachni attempted to exterminate the Asari and Salarians. In response, the Salarians uplifted the Krogan and used them to kill off the Rachni. Once the Krogan became unruly, the existing powers recruited the Turians to help them suppress their one-time allies. When even that failed, the Salarians came up with a virus that would slowly exterminate the race that had saved them. Similarly, the Quarians gave life to the Geth, then attempted to eradicate them. By the time of Mass Effect 3, the Salarians, seemingly having learned too little from their exercise with the Krogan, are experimenting on the similarly violent and temperamental Yahg.

Humanity joins the Council at the end of the first Mass Effect game, but they do not really join the galaxy’s ruling class until Mass Effect 3, when Shepard is given multiple chances to wipe whole species from the stars. She can choose to deceive the Krogan and allow their race to slowly die out. She can allow the Quarians to destroy the Geth, or vice versa. Patricia Hernandez rightly sees shades of the “white man’s burden” in these choices, but they speak to an even more disturbing truth.

When Shepard speaks with the Catalyst at the end of Mass Effect 3, it explains that its plan is to harvest intelligent life, storing those civilizations in the form of Reaper ships, which will return in the next cycle to repeat the process. Horrifying as this sounds, Mass Effect shows us that we cannot avoid being the instruments of genocide. We will become reapers, one way or another.

We will destroy the species that threaten us, like the Rachni and the Geth. Even if we avoid that, as Shepard can, our expansion across the galaxy’s garden worlds will still choke out emerging intelligences. We will trod them underfoot as we build our colonies, killing civilizations before they even form. The few species that avoid that fate and reach the stars will be subjugated, if not literally then at least economically. Unable to expand or challenge their technological superiors, these races will starve inside the crowded sky.

The Mass Effect trilogy is not a grand tragedy of inevitable conflict between organic and synthetic life. It is a tragedy of the cruelties all intelligent species inflict on one another, intentionally and otherwise. It is a story of the old suppressing the young, the uplifter suppressing the client.

Unfortunately, the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy aims at the wrong target entirely. Javik, completely dispensable for the official justification for the Reapers, ended up as DLC, and without him this theme cannot really crystallize in Mass Effect 3. The writers at BioWare ultimately chose to explain their universe using principles they’d repeatedly contradicted, rather than the theme they had built up through three games and actualized through the gameplay of cooperative storymaking.

That problem makes the Reapears a reasonable solution. Without a gardener to prune away the old races, new races will not flourish. Trapped in their home systems, subjugated, exterminated, or snuffed out before they evolve intelligence at all, their cultures will be lost. The Reapers clear away the advanced civilizations, preserving their culture in enormous synthetic intelligences, giving the more primitive species a chance to grow into the stars. That is a story that lives up to Sovereign’s explanation of the Reapers’ intent, and one that would pose a genuine moral challenge at the end.

We only exist because the Reaper’s genocides granted us the opportunity to thrive. They were our salvation through the destruction of older races. To give new civilizations a chance to thrive, they must clear us away. Can we really choose to destroy them, knowing that by doing so we consign countless future races to death, subjugation, or nonexistence?

That’s a decision I would have liked to make.

  7 Responses to “To clear the crowded sky”

  1. Don’t have anything to add, but great piece dude. (Er, I’m not spam. Honestly.)

  2. Just a quick note: the rachni originally attacked the Citadel races because the Reapers were controlling them. The Queen alludes to this in the first game, “sour note” and whatnot.

  3. I agree with Patricia (and you) in that the phrase “white man’s burden” is much better than what I had been using. I was calling Shepard “Space Savior: Savior of Space” in how she, and only she, must be the savior of everyone and is the only one capable of making all the decisions.

    Still, that’s what we keep seeing, right? Shepard and, to a greater extent humanity, is, in a way I have written about too, a stand in for many other imperial forces. We come in and tell the aliens to stop what they have been doing and follow us. It’s a trope, unfortunately, of futurism space content like Mass Effect — and Star Trek.

    The player is more like a Reaper than you mentioned though. We pick and choose who will die, which species to save and which to let die. We decide which of our team gets a romance which do not. In a galaxy of decisions, our path is one of choosing a single future among numerous (if not shown) chains of snuffing out other possible futures.

  4. […] To clear the crowded sky […]

  5. Excellent analysis – it helped clarify for me which ending I want to choose. Your critiques are thoughtful and elucidating. It is almost like working with my old college professor in comparative lit., and I loved that class!

    The ‘best’ ending is where Shepard lives after making the red choice – at least that is what the guides and youtube is saying. According to your analysis, Shepard may be a galactic hero in the short run but in the long run she will be accused of genocide.

    Green – Use Shepard’s DNA to achieve synthesis and hope that DNA trends toward allowing
    galactic races to work together and prevent genocide.

    Blue – Shepard becomes God and controls the universe

    At first I was trending towards red but now I am more on the green side. I would love to hear what your critique is on these endings. Thanks!

  6. Great article, and definitely a better motivation than something repeatedly contradicted throughout the series with some extra grimdark thrown in to be ‘deep’.

    Personally I’d say that it’s a natural inevitability that the Reapers have no right to ‘correct’. Even living on Earth now, we’re preventing the emergence of rival intelligent life on the planet. The galaxy is just a bigger version. And perhaps if species were allowed to reach the racial equivalent of old age withoutbeing culled, they’d die and make room as in the pine forest you mentioned. Or so my Shepard would argue.

    It’s a brilliant motivation, and it fits perfectly with the Prothean VI’s line about there being far more to the galactic cycles than the Reapers showing up to kill stuff.

  7. I disagree with this analysis. It’s IMO wrong in both its foundations it draws from them. Concerning the former, there is a clear difference between this cycle and the Prothean cycle. The Protheans conquered everywhere. That’s not the way of the Council. In fact, you’re wrong in saying that the Council forced humanity to settle dangerous sectors; in fact the Alliance in a fit of hubris decided to try to swallow a vast region of space almost as large as Citadel space, despite warnings about that, a bite clearly too large for them, which is why they cannot properly defend it. Hardly the fault of the Council. Likewise, the Council AFAIK never kicked out the batarians of contested space; they simply chose not to get involved.

    However, most importantly, the Council never conquers anybody. The Terminus Systems, practically defined as “those areas of the galaxy not under Citadel jurisdiction” exists and go on existing for two thousand years now. The Batarian Hegemony, now also outside the Citadel, faces economic hardships because of that, but there is no real concerted effort against them. And new species are simply welcomed into the galactic community – which is ruled by three later four top dogs, yes, so of course they’re eager to increase their influence that way, but it’s still a far cry from conquest. The turians were assholes in starting the First Contact War, but there was never an aim of conquest. The raloi were welcomed on the galactic stage. And even the yahg were tried to be contacted and even after the massacre of the Citadel delegation merely (officially) quarantined. The Citadel system is in its setup quite corrupt, but it doesn’t go around destroying or subjugating races unless provoked to do so.

    The Protheans would have used genocide to gain Garden Worlds. The Council, the galactic cycle Shepard protected, doesn’t. In fact, it has let dozens or even hundreds of Garden Worlds in the Traverse untouched over several centuries, so they don’t even appear to be that rare of a resource. Therefore, the continued existence of *this particular* cycle at least is not in fact a threat to future species. And even the hanar and elcor seem to be doing okay. They should get more of a say, yes, but they’re doing okay. And the volus, in fact, even *chose* vassalage to the turians.

    Also, another wrong basic assumption, the sky is not actually that crowded in the ME universe if you consider that only a mere percent of the galaxy is connected by the known relay network according to the codex. 99% of the galaxy is still open to be explored and claimed.

    However, even leaving all that aside, and that is the most crucial point, what’s the alternative? Repeated galactic genocide in the name of cultural diversity? That’s beyond screwed up. That’s not a moral choice at all. Of course some races will fall short in terms of power compared to other. But to me this seems akin to complaining how small Denmark or Slovenia etc. are. It’s just how it is – and yet the Danes and Slovenes are doing quite okay. They’re hardly starving! In fact, it probably makes for a better life to be Dane than to be Chinese, despite China’s status as rising super power. What you’re saying, essentially, is that every race has the god-given right to be a Great Power, and that’s just not true. Saying every race has the god-given right to be a Great Power and hence we should kill literally quadrillions (!!!) of people (as the assumed sum of all cycles) is beyond just wrong and simply fucked up.

    Cultures are essentially immaterial, and even its material products are, of course, lifeless. Culture and civilization only exist for the sake of people, not the other way round. Preserving culture is meaningless if the people are killed. In the end, that is what the fight against the Reapers is all about: Saving dozens of billions of people in the galaxy. Forget notions of race and so on – dozens of billions of individuals.

    So, in summary, your notion of what Reaper morality should be makes even less sense than what the game presents us with, and is considerably more screwed up in its implications.

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