Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation

The sci-fi enthusiasts over at io9.com have kicked up a lengthy editorial that attempts to make the argument that BioWare's Mass Effect is "the most important science fiction universe of our generation." I'm not sure it'll ever ascend to the same lofty place that Star Wars or Star Trek have for my generation, but I suppose some of their arguments are fairly sound:
Mass Effect starts with humanity in the galaxy where it should have been in the United Federation of Planets: unnoticed among the other minor species struggling to prove to the Council why they add anything of value to the civilization that is Citadel Space. Such a message would be laughable were it made central to Star Wars or Star Trek, where nearly every important character is human. Star Wars and Star Trek start with the assumption that humans will be important in galactic civilization. Why? In part because the medium forced that decision, but more so because both universes assume that human beings add meaning to the universe. Mass Effect doesn't make such an assumption. Mass Effect never lets you forget that we might not add one jot of meaning or benefit to intelligent life beyond our solar system.

Humanity's minority and irrelevant status is underlined by the fact that on the Citadel we are not only new, but one among many second class species. In addition to the Council species (asari, turian, and salarian) there are four other Citadel member species in the same secondary status as human beings. There even a few other non-Citadel species with more respect than humans. Events that shaped the civilization of the galaxy, like the turians leveraging the krogan in the Rachni Wars (Enders Game meets Starship Troopers) and the quarian civil war with the geth (aka the Cylons won), were happening when humans still thought the Earth revolved around the Sun. The volus, a wheezing, whining race forced to live in pressure suits when off-world, have been petitioning for Council membership since the Ptolemaic Era. Galactic civilization is unimpressed by Earthlings.


In Star Trek cyborgs (Borg) and androids (Data) are one of two things: a threat to humanity or desperate to emulate it. In Mass Effect, Shepard's resurrection leaves her largely cybernetic while EDI, the ship AI, and Legion, an autonomous mobile geth platform, are more interested in helping and understanding humans than they are attempting to become or obliterate human beings. Legion even corrects a crew mate at one point, mentioning it does not see itself as artificial life, but as synthetic life that is, not a mimic, but a new and equally valid form. Shepard's constant discussions with, dependance upon, and similarities to her non-organic crew members is made more accessible to the player due to Mass Effect's questioning of human exceptionalism.

Mass Effect's message is designed to open up narrative complexity by destabilizing the player's sense of confidence in his or her own skin. By undermining the value of being human, threatening and novel lifeforms become relatable, minority aliens become allies, and human intentions become questionable. As an action-adventure game, the player is more likely to become invested in the message because the setting, cast, and interactivity of Mass Effect creates a more visceral emotional connection to the narrative. All of which serves to enable Mass Effect's philosophy.


Mass Effect is the first blockbuster franchise in the postmodern era to directly confront a godless, meaningless universe indifferent to humanity. Amid the entertaining game play, the interspecies romance, and entertaining characters, cosmological questions about the value of existence influence every decision. The game is about justifying survival, not of mere intelligent life in the universe, the Reapers are that, but of a kind of intelligence. Therein the triple layered question What value does galactic civilization bring to the universe; What value does humanity bring to galactic civilization, and What value do I bring to humanity forces the player to recontextualize his or her participation in the experiment of existence.

I'm not saying that Mass Effect provides any answers. The value of Mass Effect as a science fiction universe is that it is a critical starting point for discussion about the purpose of humanity in a materialistic universe. Without an answer to that question, there is no real reason for Ender to defeat the Buggers, or for humanity to seek out new life and new civilizations, or for us to not let non-organic life be the torch bearer for intelligence in the universe. Mass Effect confronts us with a female hero of our own creating, with the deepest implications of diversity, with the most dramatic questioning of the value of what it means to be human. Whether you are a feminist, a transhumanist, a theologist, a proponent of space exploration, a pacifist, a human exceptionalist, a bioethicist, a scientist, or a philosopher, Mass Effect demands you rethink your world.