The Mass Effect Universe and Literary Allusion Part 1
Well, I’ve been extremely busy lately. I haven’t exactly had time to write anything on Battlstar Galactica yet, nor have I been able to compile my extensive notes and musings on Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. They’ll come…eventually.
I decided I wanted to write a short post that will probably lay the groundwork for a much larger discussion on the literary allusion in the Mass Effect series of games. All three of them are a rich source of references to other works, borrowing their ideas and reframing them in a new context.
The particular literary allusion I’d like to talk about now happens in Mass Effect 3, just after you assault the Cerberus headquarters. If you venture into the cockpit and talk to EDI after the mission, before Earth, Shepard will ask if she has any questions. After she answers no, he asks if she has any lingering issues about “An imperfect designer who can be seen as a warped father figure…” My first response was to smile at this line, but then I realized that they were making a reference to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
It’s not unusual for science-fiction to reference this work. In many ways it can be seen as one of the forerunners of modern science-fiction. For instance, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot makes numerous references to the work in the form of robots and Dr. Susan Calvin. The central idea is that you have an imperfect creator (Victor Frankenstein) who creates some sort of being (the Daemon) that has a bond that developmentally starts to resemble a parent and a child. My experience with reading robot-oriented science-fiction usually falls under the auspices of Isaac Asimov, who I consider to be the person who took Karel Capek’s original idea in Rossum’s Universal Robots and made it into the real science of robotics through the sheer force of his prose. For the most part, his robot short stories can be, in many ways, connected to the Frankenstein story. I’ll probably expand on this idea later, when I have more time and have further developed these ideas.
So it isn’t without precedent that artificial life, like robots and androids, has been used to make allusions to Frankenstein, which is itself a new take on the ancient Prometheus myth. EDI denies that there are any lingering issues and it really doesn’t seem to affect her. This is what’s new. In Asimov’s stories, and in Frankenstein, the created beings had a number of issues stemming from the idea of an imperfect creator being seen as a warped parental figure. I think that the reason it’s different in Mass Effect 3 is because, as the story progresses, a distinction between the Reaper’s version of artificial life and the artificial life of the Geth and EDI begins to develop. The Reaper on Rannoch, the Quarian homeworld, uses the war between the Quarians and the Geth (creator versus the created–witness the Frankenstein themes) as an example of why artificial life and organic life can never coexist. However, if you take the paragon path and find a way to end the war with both species intact, this assertion is proven to be incorrect.
The Geth aren’t the robots of Asimov, or really any other science-fiction writer, for that matter. They exist primarily as programs that can download into mobile platforms and take physical bodies, but they exist mainly as digital information. This is an important difference that really underscores the flawed logic of the Reapers, but it also contradicts many of the game’s own ideas. The Prothean VI Vendetta states, on Thessia, that the patterns of civilizations, artificial life, and harvesting by the Reapers is an ongoing pattern, and that there are forces outside of their control which bind everyone, including the Reapers, to this pattern (shades of Battlestar Galactica’s “it has happened before, and it will happen again”). The idea of a cyclical pattern of existence isn’t unusual for science-fiction that deals with events on a massive scale. It’s also not new for some science-fiction stories to upend this idea with unforeseen variables that change the dynamics of pattern. The Geth, I think, represent an unforeseen variable in this pattern. The war that they fight with the Quarians is one of self-defense. They are not homicidal killing machines, and even Legion says that one of the things they respect the most is for species to have the right to self-determinate.
And this is where EDI comes in. EDI is a hybrid human VI with Reaper code. She is a fully autonomous artificial life form with self-awareness. She doesn’t have any lingering issues about the Illusive Man as a warped father figure because she breaks the mold of created beings. If she is to be the analogue of the Daemon, she is his antithesis. She may be somewhat ostracized because of her nature as an artificial intelligence in some ways, but she makes decisions on how she develops not based on the injustices she suffers or the attitude of her creator (the Illusive Man saw her as a tool and, most likely, an abomination because of his adamant disgust of the Reapers), but based on her self-actualization and the bonds she makes with the crew of the Normandy and, in particular, Joker.
Mass Effect 3 makes the allusions to Frankenstein while, simultaneously, breaking the relationship characteristic to Frankenstein and Asimov’s robot stories between creator and created. I’m reminded of the end of Battlestar Galactica, in which the Caprica angel says to the Balter angel that complex systems, such as the one run between the humans and the Cylons, can produce unpredictable variables and aberrant results. When it comes down to it, no matter how much control the Reapers tried to impose, they’re working in a system on a galactic scale. They couldn’t possibly predict or account for the number of random variables that could, in the end, lead to a completely different outcome and disrupt the pattern. Mass Effect 3 demonstrates this by showing the stark differences between the artificial life of the Reapers and that of the Geth and EDI.
I hope to talk, eventually, about how the pattern is forever disrupted with the destruction of the Mass Relays and how that ties in with Sovereign’s discussion with Shepard in Mass Effect. I think that would be a rich avenue of discovery.