A few thoughts on Mass Effect and Space Operas

First, read this.  Or skim it.  Or take in the title.  Whatever.


I caught wind of this via io9.com (here).

Now, I’ll start out by saying that, yes, for all the reasons above and a few more, Mass Effect is a compelling and fascinating piece of sci-fi literature.  At its core, it is the natural progression, and the shiniest of the new-series space operas.

However, (and here comes the kicker) anyone who is foolish enough to hail Mass Effect as the most important SF Setting of our generation hasn’t been getting out enough.  Mass Effect is fundamentally built upon the foundations laid by the current generation of Space Opera writers.  Authors like Iain M. Banks, Alistair Reynolds, and to lesser extents, Peter F. Hamilton and Ken MacLeod have been toying with the ideas present in Mass Effect for more than two decades.  But if Mass Effect was simply reaching great heights by standing on the shoulders of giants, I wouldn’t have a problem.  The flaw of any media is that in order for it to be successful, it must appeal to its audience.  Mass Effect has had to dull the edges of its social commentary, its science, it’s very philosophical message in order to be a marketable version of its predecessors.  It may hold up to the even more popularized television and film worlds, but to hold it up as superior, simply because it is closer to the goal than its ugly cousins is an affront to the literature and to our intelligence.

Kyle Munkittrick’s article boils down the argument to three basic points: medium, message and philosophy.  I’m going to come at them in reverse order.

Munkittrick argues, and argues well, that Mass Effect has a superior philosophical backbone than other sci-fi because it has chosen to embrace Cosmicism, a school of thought that rejects humanity as anything more than a genetic accident.  We have no greater role to fill in the vastness of space because we are nothing but meat that happens to be slightly more capable than the local fauna.  Mass Effect belittles humans by introducing a plethora of species that are fundamentally superior to us on an evolutionary level.  And then one-ups itself by positioning the bio-mechanical Reapers as superior to a galaxy of powerful aliens.  All of this is true, but the use of Cosmicism as a philosophy doesn’t make a piece of sci-fi superior or inferior to any other.  Should the Humanistic optimism of Star Trek be derided because refuses to bow down to the oppressive infinities?  Of course not.  If we were to criticize Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica for their pro-human stances, we would have to criticize Mass Effect for Commander Shepard’s suborn refusal to accept the inevitable.  His/Her behavior throughout the entire series rejects the premise of Cosmicism and places humans as the only species rational enough to confront a truly horrific foe as what it is, another species that happens to have a momentary leg up on the technological battlefield.

Furthermore, the entire argument that “In nearly [every] great popular science fiction universe, there is a flaw,” is fundamentally flawed.  Munkittrick is proposing that the ‘flaw’ is a refusal to acknowledge the tenants of Cosmicism, implying that by failing to put humanity in our place at the bottom of the cosmic food chain, popular science fiction has somehow become less credible or substantive.  First, Mass Effect isn’t the first piece of popular sci-fi to embrace a cosmic point of view.  That honor goes to Babylon 5, a series that is clearly inspiration for many of elements of Mass Effect.  Star Trek followed suit (or lead the way, depending on which fanbase you ask) with its DS9 story arcs and many movies have explored the ideas being tossed around in the above paragraph.  Second, and by far the more important, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with assuming there is a place for humanity in the stars.  Cosmicism isn’t a more correct philosophy than any other school of thought.  Until it is proven empirically otherwise, we have no idea what shape our interstellar exploration might take.  There is as much merit in the works of Iain M. Banks, who proposes a race of humanoids so advanced they can shed their material existences at will, as there is in Alistair Reynolds’ bleak future where humanity is on the brink of extinction from an incredibly hostile machine system.  Science fiction isn’t a genre of right and wrong.  It is a genre of possibilities and potentials.  In fact, we cannot truly embrace the tenants of cosmicism without admitting that there is a possibility, however remote, that in the vast glittering infinities, there is nothing like us.  That we are, by some cosmic fluke, special.

In holding with his advocacy of Cosmicism, Munkittrick argues that the message of the Mass Effect series is that humanity is “delusional about their importance in the grand scheme of things.”  While it is true that the humans in games are xenophobic newcomers to the galactic scene who are held in contempt by the greater fraction of the alien meta-government, that isn’t actually the position of the games.  The history of humanity in the Mass Effect universe is one of exploration, conflict and passion.  A young species, humanity quickly came into conflict with the Turians.  While humans were tested by this war, they were successful in driving the Turian fleets from Sol System, an action which prompted the Galactic Alliance to broker a peace and induct humanity into the greater universal society.  Our species then quickly progress in galactic politics, gaining an embassy in less than a decade, a human specter 18 years after that and a spot on the Council that same year.  These events sparked complaints, anger and outright hostile action from the other species of the Mass Effect universe, who criticized and feared humanity’s rapidly expanding influence and role on the galactic stage.

Mass Effect does start humans in a position of relative impotence, but the protagonist’s actions, your actions, over the course of the first two games put humanity on the same level as the other leaders of the galaxy, and of them all, we are the only species wise enough to foresee and forestall the inevitable invasion of the Reapers.  Mass Effect’s humanity isn’t inferior to their compatriots.  They are the manifestation of the potential and possibility we have always assumed ourselves to possess, though we see both sides of that potential through the Renegade/Paragon dichotomy available to Shepard.  Munkittrick’s assertion that Mass Effect’s message is valuable to science fiction as a whole might be valid, but it isn’t the message he thinks it is, but the one that Asimov was talking about; “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today – but the core of science fiction, its essence has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.”

Munkittrick’s first/final argument is an attack, one directed at television and movies and their inherent inability to portray both inhumanity and humanity.  Science fiction shows and movies have always been hamstrung by the unavoidable need to cast actors to portray aliens.  Some shows, like Farscape and Babylon 5 have been more able to visually present non-humans without falling into the “human with a face-thing” trap.  Still, these shows feature predominately human/humanoid casts and suffer for it.  Even when pushing the limits of what puppetry and CGI can accomplish, few shows and movies push the envelope of our own human expression.  There are precious few shows that feature non-normative humans in leading roles.  Munkittrick commends the digital medium for its portrayal of aliens and for allowing the player to be as deviant as they desire.

I have no problems with the second point.  Writing yourself a role in a story is a wonderful experience and everyone should be able to enjoy creating a character through which they can experience a world as they chose.  As for the rest… well, let’s just say the above viewpoint is a little short sighted.  For all the potential creativity inherent to a fully digital world, Bioware chose to feature only 4 non-humanoid sentient species in the entire universe, the Rachni, the Hanar, the Elcor, and the Reapers, and the Reapers are busy constructing a humanoid Reaper in the second game.  While the Krogans and the Turians may have less in common with us than the Klingons or the Vulcans, they have much more in common with us than we do with fish, or even birds.  Two legs, two arms, two eyes and an upright posture isn’t so common that we should expect it everywhere we go.  Even the fully digital Geth, unconstrained by evolution, maintain a humanoid design for all but their largest weapon platforms.

If progress in science fiction is to be measured by the limits of our ability to imagine non-human lifeforms, then we cannot help but give first place to any one of the dozens of novels that really explore the possibilities of life.  Books like Banks’ The Algebraist that look at the possible lifeforms of gas giant environments, or Reynolds’ hideously inhuman machine Inhibitors or, possibly the best example of all, China Miéville’s Ariekei of Embassytown, a species so alien we are incapable of communicating with them.  Ostensibly, the reliance on the human form is due to our presumed inability to relate, emotionally, to a creature whose face doesn’t trigger our mirror neurons.  We are hardwired, biologically, to respond to human facial expressions.  Designers, artists and directors are all unwilling to sacrifice that connectivity just to have an inhuman companion or lead.  Only in literature, where we are freed from the bias of visual perception, can science fiction truly embrace the ‘Cosmicism’ Munkittrick holds in such high regard.

I have now aggressively attacked the source article, and done so in a way and a medium that rejects the notion of rational rebuttal.  So I’ll do some conceding of my own.  It is clear from Munkittrick’s article that he never intended to contrast the world of Mass Effect to the worlds of literary science fiction.  Such a comparison could not help but be in favor of books, if only because there is so much more literature than there will ever be movies or games of this current generation.  For every Culture novel and Revelation Space there are dozens of examples that don’t hold a candle to the world presented in Mass Effect.  The flaw, so to speak, is the invitation to comparison that the article invites by its very existence.  I will also concede that my books don’t meet the definition of ‘popular’ usually embraced by our media driven generation, but I’m fairly confident that there are more Banks readers than there are Mass Effect players.  Well… at least players that actually bought the game. Ultimately, the very question of ‘best science fiction universe’ is ridiculous because the nature of the genre is to accept, not reject possible ideas.  Is the Mass Effect universe more sociologically relevant to our current culture than past television programs?  Absolutely.  Is it the most relevant?  Impossible to tell.  Society shapes science fiction and the things that we are experiencing as nation and as an international community have more impact on the shape of Mass Effect and games to come than the whole body of science fiction will ever have.

Posted on February 18, 2012, in Theory and Discussion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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