Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Children of the Eezo

Outcasts have had a place time and again the history of science fiction. The most famous example of them in our pop culture consciousness are the mutant characters of Marvel Comics, best embodied by the X-Men, who first appeared in 1963. In well-established lore begun by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, mutants are born with super-powers and abilites, and might even be the next step in human evolution jump-started by radiation exposure. Normal humans have grown to hate and fear mutants, and Charles Xavier created the X-Men to show everyone mutants can be a positive force and defend the world against evil mutants like the Master of Magnetism, Magneto.

The X-Men have been among the most popular chracters in Marvel's publishing history, and include the likes of Cyclops, Rogue, Nightcrawler, Psylocke, and of course everyone's favorite berserker, Wolverine. The X-Men started, not coincidentally, as the Civil Rights Movement was moving forward full steam in the United States. One could say these super-heroes were Marvel's own not-so-subtle call for tolerance and equality in real life. (In this way, Marvel preceded Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek", which often told stories that involved real social issues as a powerful subtext.)

As I described before, the future of "Mass Effect" isn't perfect. It has its own outcasts, or at least they're dangerously close to gaining that dubious status. These waywards are known as Biotics, and they're closely linked to the fictional mass effect phenomenon from which the series gains its title.

[A BRIEF SPOILER follows here! You were warned!]

The mass effect technology most every civilized race in the galaxy uses was created or is at least based on Reaper knowledge, and not by accident. By leaving such relics as mass relays and other technology behind, intelligent beings can advance along paths that would suit the Reapers until their time came to return and harvest those species every 50,000 years. And untold number of races like the Protheans were either rendered extinct or reengineered at the genetic level to become slaves to the Reapers.

[Okay, spoiler over!]

Mass effect technology is driven by the rare substance Element Zero, or 'eezo' for short, which when subjected to electical current can increase or decrease the mass of objects within its dark energy field. Mass effect fields can create kinetic barriers, enable faster-than-light space travel, and in the case of mass relays scattered across the galaxy, slingshot ships through corridors of mass-free space from one relay to the other. (Such distances would take years instead of a moment to travel without the relays, even with FTL drives.)

Almost in mirror to what was hinted time and again in the X-Men comics, that radiation has often played a role in the development of mutants in utero, a Biotic can result when a fetus -- of most any organic race -- is exposed to Element Zero in-utero. (More often than not, unfortunately, fatal cancers can result in the child from eezo exposure instead.) Those rare few born Biotics develop the ability to create mass effect fields by force of will, through telekinesis, kinetic fields, or distortion. This phenomenon is still new for Humans, but races from the Asari to the Drell have long brought children into the world with Biotic powers.

At least for Humans, intensive training from childhood and surgical implants help Biotics learn how to generate enough power for practical use. Implants and training can't do anything to lessen the almost-constant pain Biotics go through as they grow with their abilities. Combined with being literally set apart from society in special schools and training camps, it's no wonder they must feel like outcasts. More than one of Shepard's crew, Kaidan Alenko and Liara T'Soni, most notably, were born Biotics. Kaidan has let a lot of water pass under the bridge, without a doubt. The player can also be given the choice, since the first game, of whether Commander Shepard has Biotic ability or not.

There is a very nasty dark side to all of this, of course. Kaidan has alluded that some private interests have deliberately flown eezo-fueled craft at low level over densely-populated areas so that exposure to children in the womb is less than accidental. Shepard has tackled Biotic terrorists who want simple fairness, and cults whose members don't feel like they have a place in society. The terrorist organization Cerberus captures or pays slavers for young Biotics to experiment on, to see if a more powerful Biotic can be created. The result is Jack...and she's another story entirely, friends.

The history of Biotics in "Mass Effect" is without a doubt troubled, like any outcast's would be...but what will happen next? Could they play a pivotal role in the war against the Reapers? We can only wait and find out, but with hope science fiction's way of addressing real problems in unreal settings will be with us for a long time to come!

No comments:

Post a Comment