Hello everyone! Yesterday was the release day for the final installment of the Mass Effect trilogy, which means that it’s quite possible that most of the people liable to really care about this topic are off actually playing the game (I would be too if it weren’t for school. Spring break can’t come soon enough). Last week (in this post) I started into my analysis of Popbioethics.com’s audaciously-titled article “Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation”, and today I will be focusing on the second major point of the argument: the message of Mass Effect, and what it tells us about the Science Fiction genre.
The Message: We Don’t Matter
Essentially, the general message that Munkittrick points to in the Mass Effect universe is that “human beings are delusional about their importance in the grand scheme of things”. We are one of many, and unlike the universes of Star Wars, Star Trek, Ender’s Game, and a great deal of other science fiction worlds, humanity has a very minor role. This is not something that tv and movies can usually do, Munkittrick explains, because they have to have appeal for their human audience. This is an important point because it explains the importance of the setting to the message (his first point to his second) and how each piece builds on the last, but I’ll get to that in a moment. According to the article, the world of Mass Effect is colored by its message in three major ways:
- Humans are petulant: Humans may be the new kid on the block, but they tend to walk around like they own the place. They react with insolence to the authorities already in place (ones that have been there hundreds of years before humans even understood what space was), and many do not accept being treated as second-class, even though there are many other races that are even further back in line. This somewhat justifies the feelings of the other races, and helps to put the humans’ struggle for significance in perspective.
- The lowering of humankind makes it harder to be xenophobic: Since humans are not the most important species in the galaxy, the player is given a sense of kinship with many of the other races that are in the same boat. Many characters of other races are much more identifiable because they are similarly ‘inferior’, so that instead of focusing on what makes alien characters different, the player focuses on what makes them ‘human’. This also ensures that no matter Shepherd’s gender, race, or sexual orientation, the player is subjected to the same prejudices, based on species alone.
- The undermining of human pride opens the door to new discussions: When the player is not focused on how great humanity is, examining the greatness of other beings does not threaten the perceived balance of power. In many other science fiction universes, beings more powerful and capable than humans are seen as a threat, or at least arrogant and supremacist, and the default reaction is mistrust. In the world of Mass Effect, humans are not at the top, and so the king-of-the-hill reaction is gone, letting the player see genuinely superior beings more clearly. Characters such as cyborgs, artificial life, and genetically engineered super beings (all of which are represented in the main cast in some way) are actually relatable, instead of being threatening.
These parts add up to a whole that works to change the player’s perspective, working with the setting to frame the philosophy of the world (which I will get to next week). It deconstructs the player’s preconceived notions about the importance of humanity and opens up the realm of discussion to themes beyond the basic space-faring hero story. But, does this all add up to something so unique that it can be called the “most important science fiction universe of our generation”?
Chinks in the Armor (if we can still say that)
While I certainly agree with Munkittrick that the way that Mass Effect’s world frames humans in an non-human world creates an effective equalizer, I don’t think it’s as drastically different from most other worlds as he seems to. Certainly, worlds that focus entirely on the human race’s actions and importance will tend to maintain an “us against them” mentality that can make it difficult to relate to non-human characters, but even if the world of Mass Effect isn’t too keen on humans taking over, they’re doing it anyway. While it may come off as insolence, the humans of Mass Effect really are hot stuff.
New as they are, humans have in only a few generations gone from isolation in their far-off system of Sol to jockeying for Galactic governmental authority. Shepherd himself is human, and has become a new symbol for human progress, becoming the first human Spectre, a sort of intergalactic secret agent with far-reaching authority and political clout. Not only that, but even taking into account the myriad ways the plot can turn depending on the choices of the player, humanity still plays extremely pivotal roles in the fate of the galaxy. Speaking in literary terms, Shepherd (and by extension, the human race), is the Hero from the Outside, the Beowolf of Mass Effect, coming in to change the status quo and place things back in the hands of mortals.
Humans may be perceived as being inferior, but they are far from actually being insignificant. This comes to a general rub of the article that motivated me to tackle it in the first place. In many ways, science fiction is about determining mankind’s place in the universe. Even in non-spacefaring stories, the world frames human limits in ways that identify the metaphysical position of the writer. Munkittrick commits something of a literary sin by reading into the world of Mass Effect an exclusively material, even secular humanist perspective that marginalizes mankind’s importance and necessarily downplays the audiences’ high notions of human grandeur. However, the world itself still assumes human significance, or else they could not be the agents of change and action in the story.
This is one of the reasons I believe Munkittrick is wrong about his assumptions. While Mass Effect’s message does allow for an interesting background for discussion, the discussions are not new, and can be (and have been) handled just as effectively in other stories. The medium (videogames) does not make Mass Effect meaningfully better at handling these themes, and neither does the message that Munkittrick says Mass Effect portrays make it the genre-definer that he claims in his title.
Does the conclusion of Munkittrick’s argument (as cumulative as it is) prove his claim? Next week I’ll take a look at the Philosophy of Mass Effect, and Popbioethics.com’s final arguments about its significance to the Science Fiction genre. Until then, you can still get the free demo for Mass Effect 3 here to play around with!