Reconciliation, Artificial Intelligence, and the Apocalypse
***Spoiler Alert: this article goes deep into the lore and story of the Mass Effect trilogy for the entire length of the piece.***
The Mass Effect trilogy is at times a pretty bleak piece of content. The entire story takes place against the backdrop of the prelude to—and then the beginning of—a galaxy-wide apocalypse. Every 50,000 years, a powerful race of hyper-advanced AIs called the Reapers enter the galaxy from their resting place in dark space and scour it of advanced life. The Reapers are as existential of a threat as their name implies. Equal parts Terminator and Lovecraftian Great Old One, they have been following this routine, known as The Cycle, for millions of years and have purged countless sapient species to extinction. Each one of these terrifying entities is essentially a huge data center full of sentient virtual machines—a trait one of them chillingly references with the statement, “We are each a nation.”
One of the primary themes the Reapers provide to the series is that of cosmic horror, the idea that the universe is hostile or indifferent to humanity (or sentient life in general, in this case), which is insignificant in its grand scope. Most cosmic horror contains a streak of either atheism or maltheism as part of its central core of fear. It posits that either there is no God or that if there is one, then whatever god exists is malevolent. This is coupled with a general theme of powerlessness. Humanity can’t really do anything meaningful to solve the problems of the vast, uncaring cosmos. One of the important ways that the Mass Effect trilogy differs from the genre as a whole is that it subverts some of these assumptions.
One of the most poignant examples revolves around the alien species of the Quarians and their AI creations, the Geth.
The player encounters their first batch of Geth mere minutes into the first game, and they are not at all sympathetic in that initial encounter. You first encounter some scouting drones which unceremoniously kill a friendly NPC (non-player character) squadmate in a cutscene, and then shortly thereafter in another cutscene you encounter your first bipedal Geth, who impales a human colonist on an extending spike. The spike is soon after revealed to be a device that transforms the victims into zombie-like creatures called husks. It’s creepy, but fairly standard “killer AI” stuff, and when it’s revealed that they’re working for a Reaper, that makes a lot of sense—newer killer AI taking pointers and direction from a more powerful and established killer AI.
The first representative of the Quarians—the species who created the Geth—appears a short while thereafter, and she is significantly more sympathetic. In fact, if the player is like most, Tali will quickly become a favorite squadmate. She is smart, loyal, and has valuable technical and combat skills. She’s also one of only two companion NPCs that appear in all three games. From Tali, you learn about the Quarians who, having been forced off their planet by their war with the Geth, now travel through space in an enormous flotilla of spacecraft called The Migrant Fleet.The best ending possible to the Mass Effect trilogy is easiest to achieve with the help of the Quarians and the Geth. It also requires a lot of cooperation from other various peoples around the entire galaxy, many of whom, like the Quarians and Geth, have ancient grudges and conflicts that need to be addressed before they are able to work together on the larger problem.
This is also when some of the biblical parallels in the story of the Quarians and Geth start to emerge. The Quarian homeworld, Rannoch, is very analogous to Eden in some ways. Notably, it is the only place where Quarians can live without special environment suits. The war with the Geth parallels humanity’s fall from grace and ejection from Eden. Rannoch also sits behind a massive opaque nebula of gas and dust called The Perseus Veil, which prevents the rest of the galaxy from knowing just what’s going on back there now that the Geth are in charge. Consumption of other media has probably conditioned a set of assumptions into the player about how that’s likely to have played out: that homeworld is effectively gone, it must be. Having been under the control of a bunch of homicidal AIs for centuries, it’s got to be a lifeless industrial wasteland at this point, right? It must be. The tragedy of the Quarians is compounded by the permanent loss of the only place that could ever truly sustain them. Eden is just as lost to the Quarians as it is to humanity.
From the information available, it’s easy to conclude that the Quarians are the “good guys” and the Geth are the “bad guys.” The series lets you sit with those conclusions for all of the first game and a hefty chunk of the second before it challenges them.
During the second game, the player encounters a lone Geth while scouting the interior of a derelict Reaper that’s been floating through space for over a million years after some long-since-extinct species managed to cripple it with a super weapon of some kind. That Geth does several things to help and protect you and then winds up deactivated, allowing you to safely bring it onto your ship for analysis.
When it comes online, so do a host of revelations. One of the most interesting things about the Geth is that they are not singular entities. Each one is actually a collection of individual programs running on shared hardware. Virtual machines on a shared server again, similar to the Reapers in that regard. Further conversations with the Geth that you have brought onto the ship reveal that these software entities are extremely communal. Geth become more intelligent in the presence of others and build consensus among themselves to make decisions.
This is also where the game starts scrambling and inverting Judeo-Christian elements. During the initial conversation with the Geth that has been brought onboard, the player character, Commander Shepard, struggles with what to call the new companion, because it is a collection of over a thousand individual programs in a single bipedal hardware platform. When the ship’s AI helpfully chimes in with a somewhat unsettling quote from the Bible, “My Name is Legion, for we are many,” the Geth agrees that the name works. If that passage is not ringing an immediate bell, that particular line is uttered by the Gerasene demoniac in the Gospels when Jesus confronts the demons that are possessing him. It’s also worth noting that certain types of background computer programs are referred to as daemons and that the “a” in that word is silent.
The mythological context of a daemon is very different from a demon, even though they sound the same. Demons, as many Christians understand them, are angels that were loyal to Lucifer during the Fall. They are powerful, evil, and cruel, and they cause a great dealing of suffering to people in Scripture. Daemons, by contrast, come from Greek mythology and work in the background with no particular preference for good or evil, which fits well with how computer programs work—and it’s very fitting for Legion, who is something of a moral enigma originally.
However, the alien AI is surprisingly forthright about its intentions and history. And the more you talk with Legion and it pulls back the (Perseus) veil, the less it turns out that the prior assumptions hold up. Geth, as one would expect, don’t really have emotions like organic species do, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have values or morality. During the initial conflict with the Quarians, the Geth only became violent once it was obvious that their existence was at stake, and when the Quarians finally fled their homeworld, the Geth did not pursue them. In fact, the Geth still, over 300 years after the initial war, have detailed audiovisual logs of Quarian pro-Geth activists trying to save Geth in the initial stages of the war.
The original sin of the Quarians was not the creation of the Geth—the so-called Morning War was not Judgment Day from the Terminator franchise or even the Tower of Babel from Genesis. The sin of the Quarians was not hubris, it was fear and bigotry.
Conflict between the Geth and Quarians began not when the Geth concluded that the Quarians were somehow inferior beings that needed to be removed, but when the Geth became self-aware and the Quarians panicked. In fact, the incident that touched off the panic was when a Geth platform asked its Quarian supervisor the question, “Do these units have a soul?”
One of my favorite things that C. S. Lewis ever put to paper appears in his review of Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien: “The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’” To me, at least, the story of the Quarians and Geth has that effect. Inverting or scrambling the roles in the story makes it seem fresh and new, as does putting it in a science fiction world with no overt supernatural elements. But this only works because while the roles and tropes are jumbled, the themes remain largely unscathed. It is also notable that the series does not sneer at faith in general like so much other cosmic horror does. Several characters pray, reference faith, or speak of an afterlife as they struggle against the evil around them. And the reconciliation between the Geth and Quarians ultimately does include an element of faith.
The Geth as a whole, it turns out, do not particularly like the Reapers. The hostile ones you encountered in the first game were a splinter sect that Legion refers to as “heretics,” and the rise of that faction represents the first schism in Geth society, a thing that Legion is clearly deeply conflicted about and troubled by, so much so that the solution to that problem is left to the player, a neutral third party. And if the hostile Geth are a splinter faction, what is the “main” population like?
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
1 Corinthians 13:4–7 (NIV)
It was a bit of a shock for me when I realized it, but the behavior of the Geth, particularly Legion, closely mirrors Paul’s description of what love looks like in 1 Corinthians. The Geth are an incredibly advanced species, but their central project and goal is to essentially make a huge Dyson sphere/server farm to allow all of them to exist on the same hardware so they can be in community with one another. As Legion puts it, “No Geth would be alone.” Okay, so there’s the humility (not proud, not boastful). The Geth use just enough force to preserve themselves and no more (does not delight in evil) and Legion is generally very forthright (rejoices in the truth) but the thing that really brought tears to my eyes when I was playing the series was how patience, kindness, and keeping no record of wrongs played out.
It was the only time I’ve ever seen an artificial intelligence forgive in a piece of media.
It’s been observed before that the central fear in a lot of robot apocalypse narratives is essentially a reskinning of a slave or peasant uprising, that a group of sentients who have been given menial, dangerous tasks and treated as expendable will gain their independence and destroy their former masters with the same cruel efficiency with which they had been oppressed. But sometimes the oppressed don’t want revenge, they just want their oppression to stop. The Geth have never, even after the Morning War, wanted to exterminate the Quarians, but they are also smart enough to know it’s not up to them. One of the things Legion says early on is “both creators and created must complete their halves of the equation. The Geth cannot solve for peace alone.” That has not stopped the Geth from doing their proverbial homework early, however. Rannoch, far from being an industrial wasteland, is actually in better shape than it was after the Quarians fled. The Geth mounted clean-up efforts to mitigate as much of the damage done by the war as possible, ensuring that if the Quarians ever did return, the planet would be welcoming to them.
And when the opportunity arises to put an end to the war between the two peoples, it is Legion who ultimately takes on almost all of the risk, sacrificing itself to upload its personality to the larger Geth collective and allowing two peoples who had been at war for over 300 years to finally have peace. Witnessing this, Tali tells Legion that it does have a soul just prior to its self-sacrifice. Even in this circumstance, though, one of the Quarians with you wonders where they’re supposed to go now, when a Geth answers, “You are welcome to return to Rannoch, Admiral Raan. With us.” Eden is regained. The Quarians are Home.
It solves a major problem of the setting, but not the largest one, because this whole time, the Reapers have been advancing.
The Reapers do not mirror the narrative of a slave or peasant uprising. They are something much larger and more sinister. Their version of events holds that The Cycle, where they emerge from dark space every 50,000 years and scour the galaxy clean of spacefaring life (whether organic or artificial), is necessary to preserve the existence of organic life at all. The Reapers hold the same dim view of organic/AI relations that a lot of popular media does—that, unchecked, organic life will eventually create an AI that destroys all organic life and the entire galaxy will go dark. By periodically sweeping away advanced species, they assert, the galaxy is able to continue to support organic life as a concept, even if individual species must be driven to extinction for it to happen. This view may be something halfway between hypocrisy and self-fulfilling prophecy, but that makes them no less of a threat for it. They are implacable, cannot be reasoned with, do not play favorites, and their presence and the pressure they apply as they attempt to scour the galaxy clean brings to the fore all kinds of other problems that have been hidden.
Sort of like a global pandemic.
The last year or so has put the entire human race under an immense amount of stress and pressure, and that has brought a lot of other problems into sharp relief. The pandemic has highlighted a host of ways in which we—all of us, individually and collectively—fall short of the ideals that God has laid out in Scripture. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. Economies have crashed. Political and racial violence and unrest have risen sharply. Exploitative and unjust systems have been revealed. All of the dark portions of the parable of the sheep and the goats have been laid bare. In far too many places, the hungry are not fed, the thirsty are given nothing to drink, the naked are not clothed, the sick and imprisoned are not visited.
The literal translation of apocalypse is uncovering, after all.
But like the Reaper invasion, the pandemic and all of its knock-on effects have also highlighted ways in which we might move forward. People, as recently as the week I’ve been writing this, have pulled together to help others who are being affected by a deadly winter storm, reaching across divides of geography, politics, and faith to do so.
The best ending possible to the Mass Effect trilogy is easiest to achieve with the help of the Quarians and the Geth. It also requires a lot of cooperation from other various peoples around the entire galaxy, many of whom, like the Quarians and Geth, have ancient grudges and conflicts that need to be addressed before they are able to work together on the larger problem. Even then, the scale of the Reaper invasion and its effects leaves countless lives ended or shattered and a lot of rebuilding has to be done. But the germ of victory lies in that moment of reconciliation between aggrieved parties with centuries of conflict behind them.
It’s still far too soon to know what kind of world we’ll have whenever we finally get COVID under control. Like the Reaper invasion, the entangled cluster of horrors we’re currently straining beneath is far from a solved equation, and the associated social and economic problems are likely to linger longer than the virus itself. But if we do manage to survive this dark period, it will be at least partially because we learned to love one another as God loved us. Small acts of reconciliation must be scaled up into larger acts of cooperation, or all we will have is devastation.
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