Why Mass Effect is 19th Century Imperialism Meets “War of the Worlds” IN SPAAACE!
When the Player Character Commander Shepard appears in the opening scene of the first game, humanity has been part of the galactic community for about thirty years. They’ve gained far more socioeconomic power than many aliens who have been around longer, and are eager to gain more.
Most Mass Effect species have a shtick, and humanity’s is their ambition. This is a diplomatic way of saying “greedy, entitled bastards who won’t wait their turn like everyone else.”
The galactic community, under Citadel Council rule, consists of dozens of sapient aliens who seemingly contribute their individual resources to better the community, and in return are allowed to colonize new worlds to gain more wealth and resources for their own species.
How many colonies each species gets depends on their perceived merit.
Yet, there’s friction under the external cooperation. Many aliens who have been around longer than humans are barred from colonizing more worlds or gaining more galactic power, for seemingly arbitrary reasons.
For instance, the volus were one of the first to join the galactic community and found the Citadel Council thousands of years ago, along with the matriarchal asari, scientific salarians, and later militaristic turians. The volus helped found the galactic community as the player knows it. Yet, the volus are barred from joining the Citadel Council on the pretext that while they’re good for trade, they don’t have a standing military.
Likewise, the quarians are all but outcasts in the galaxy despite their advanced technology and synthetic intelligence. Since the quarians created intelligent androids that formed sapience (called geth) that formed sentience, the Council has all but disowned the quarians. Even after the geth attacked the quarians and took their homeworld for themselves, The Council and galactic community have abandoned the quarians to drift aimlessly through space, floating in rust buckets they’re barely able to hold together after 300 years.
Despite the quarians having not one planet to call their own, and many species getting new planets to colonize every year, the quarians are not allowed to resettle into even one colony.
And then humanity has the military power the volus lacks and no criminal history like the quarians, yet humans are also restricted from gaining new colonies or a seat on the Council because they haven’t been in the galactic community very long.
Let me see if I heard that right: The volus were one of the first aliens to join the galactic community and helped found it, but they cannot join the Council because they do not have a military. The humans do have military power, but they cannot join the Council (yet) because they have not been part of the galactic community very long.
… All of this goalpost moving reminds me acutely of 19th Century European Imperialism.
Let’s play a game of ad-libs:
Replace the setting of 22nd century Space to “19th century Europe.”
Replace the Citadel Council with the “Concert of Europe.”
Replace the colonized planets with “colonized islands and continents.”
Replace humanity with Germany.
Humanity: a young upstart species with lots of raw power who feel denied their “rightful” share of colonies in various planets and seat at the Council just because they joined the galactic community a mere 30 years before.
Germany: a young upstart nation with lots of raw power who felt denied their “rightful” colonies in various continents and an important seat at the Concert of Europe because of their early formation a mere 40 years before…
You see where I’m going with this.
Interesting how we now know that foreign powers colonizing a world to plunder its natural resources for personal enrichment, without too much regard for how our presence or interference can devastate that world and its inhabitants, doesn’t stop the Mass Effect writers from glorifying colonization IN SPAAACE!
“But wait!” I hear you say, “The galactic community colonizing planets and squabbling over who should get how much is just a backdrop for the REAL threat: THE REAPERS!”
Yes, and I say that too is an unintentional commentary about Imperialism.
The Reapers being SUPER ALIENS who drop out from THE FURTHEST REACHES OF DARK SPACE to harvest the organics of every known species in the Milky Way, leave endless destruction in their wake, and then disappear once they’ve harvested whatever they wanted from organics, is simply a larger scale version of what the Martians do to the English in The War of the Worlds.
The War of the Worlds was written by English author H.G. Wells, published in 1897, during the height of the British Empire and the Concert of Europe’s stranglehold on the globe.
Quoth Wikipedia: “At the time of the novel’s publication the British Empire had conquered and colonised dozens of territories in Africa, Australia, North and South America, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and the Atlantic and Pacific islands.”
The War of the Worlds is regarded as the first “alien invasion” story, or at least defined the alien invasion genre as we know it. And it was a not-so-subtle stab against Imperialism.
As H.G. Wells wrote in his own book:
“And before we judge them [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished Bison and the Dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?” — Chapter I, “The Eve of the War”
It’s interesting to me how the entire alien invasion genre as we know it started as a blatant criticism of colonization and Imperialism.
Wells outright states in his book that Europeans were morally wrong to wipe out animals and other human “races” in lands they conquered, so they should reflect on their own behavior before being outraged when a hypothetical alien race does the same to them.
And I find it interesting that Mass Effect borrows the trappings of the alien colonization and invasion genres, without the self-awareness or criticism.
The Citadel Council colonizing various planets, distributing them to various species based on perceived merit, and various species competing for more planets to colonize (so they can plunder its natural resources for their own enrichment) is treated as fine.
Humanity wanting more planets to colonize and more power on the seat on the Council at the start of the first game is framed as right, and the Council denying them as unjust.
And the Reapers dropping down from deep space to harvest the galaxy’s organics for their own unknown purposes, is treated as awful just because they’re the ones doing it to us.
Granted, the Reaper’s intention is to wipe out all life on the galaxy; from sapient humanoids to the smallest plants and insects. Yet, we never truly learn their motivation. For all we know, the Reaper’s reason for wanting to harvest and wipe out the galaxy is sound by their own logic.
Here’s the thing: Various characters commit genocide in the game too.
And they do so for what they deem to be worthy reasons.
The krogans completely eradicated the insectoid rachni due to the latter being expansive, intelligent, and highly aggressive. Commander Shepard can make this extinction permanent by wiping out the last known rachni queen.
The salarians then created a genophage to severely reduce the number of kroguns, also due to krogans being severely expansive, aggressive,and rapid breeders… Commander Shepard can help make permanent.
The quarians then tried to eradicate the geth they accidentally created, and were nearly wiped out for their efforts. Commander Shepard can also wipe out the geth, the quarians, or both.
Interesting how various alien species in this trilogy plunder planets and wipe out other species for what they see as justified reasons, but then balk at the Reapers doing the same to them, without a trace of self-reflection.
Much like how the player is allowed to commit genocide on various alien species with little consequence, while the one mega alien species come to do the same to them is wholeheartedly condemned by the narrative.
… Much like how the BioWare writers use “alien invasion” and colonization tropes without considering the self-reflective nature they came from. “It’s okay when we colonize and wipe out others, but it’s bad when they do it to us.”