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Nerdy Academia: The Many Worlds Of The Cycle (Part 2)
The goal of Nerdy Academia is to encourage, and provide examples of, close readings and academic-style analyses of nerdy works. There’s a billion essays about War And Peace out there but a scant few about fun things like nerdy fiction. I want to examine science fiction, fantasy, comics, video games, etc. just like I would with other sources of literature. I also want to deliver the – I guess you could call them essays although that sounds too stuffy – in short, easily consumable posts. Nerdy Academia is larger academic readings of both classic and pop nerdy works, breaking them up into smaller chunks for quick reading.
This week, we’ll flesh out our look at the geth and personhood in Bioware’s Mass Effect series. (Part 1)
((Also, thanks for remaining patient during that lull time between updates. Between prepping for my last year at university to start and a whole mess of family drama, I barely got time to do any writing. I’ll try not to let it happen again!))
Last time on Nerdy Academia we laid out five broad criteria for evaluating the personhood of artificial life. Originally intended to prove the personhood of Cylons from the television show, Battlestar Galactica, these criteria work perfectly in discussions of the Geth from the Mass Effect universe, and are as follows: “(1) be rational or intelligent; (2) have robust mental states like beliefs, desires, emotions, and self-awareness; (3) use language, rather than simply transmit information; (4) be involved in relationships with other persons; and (5) be morally responsible for one’s actions as a free and autonomous being who could have done otherwise” (Arp & Mahaffey, 55). In this installment, we’ll start applying these criteria to the Geth directly to illustrate how they fit within Arp & Mahaffey’s model of persons
Within each playthrough of the Mass Effect series, there exist possibilities for the geth to apply each one of Arp and Mahaffey’s criteria for evaluating personhood. The geth term, “consensus” exhibits their ability to reason and solve difficult intellectual problems. That includes them within the first criteria of being able to be rational and intelligent. That criteria is easy to fulfill, though, because the genesis of the geth was in the computer science of the quarians, the race that built the first geth.
The category of mental states beyond mathematical calculation is one of difficulty, but is also relatively easy to resolve. There are many instances within the series where geth refer to the quarian race and specific quarians as “the Creators.” While this nomenclature is true on a literal level, it also takes on a spiritual level. Just before Legion’s self sacrifice, Tali-Zorah (a quarian recurring character) tells the geth that it does have a soul, to which Legion responds “Keelah-Selai” which roughly translates from Quarian to “By the homeworld I wish to see some day” (Mass Effect 3, Priority: Rannoch). As Legion’s final words, the quarian phrase takes on a spiritual essence, changing from an idiomatic expression to a sort of prayer. Legion dies on the homeworld which inspired the phrase, but his data is uploaded to the rest of the geth in a transcendence which carries divine significance. The approval of one of the “Creators” accents Legion’s sacrifice in a similar way to a catholic priest’s last rites in that it sanctifies the soul of the deceased so that it may enter heaven.
Also in this scene, Legion’s use of the Quarian prayer, and his thanks to Tali for her assertion of the Geth soul exhibit characteristics of the use of language for means beyond exchange of information, the third of the criteria for evaluating personhood. This interaction only happens, however, under specific circumstances. In a playthrough where Shepard chooses “renegade” options, or if the events in a peripheral mission earlier on Rannoch, the Quarian homeworld, do not end favorably, then the example of geth exhibiting signs of a belief system may be absent from the narrative.
The fourth criteria of personal relationships can also be granted or negated within the narrative. Every squad member in Mass Effect 2 asks Shepard to help with some personal task. The name given to these tasks by the fandom is “loyalty mission”. Legion’s loyalty mission is where the moral choice of reprogramming or destruction found at the beginning of this essay occurs. The presence of Legion’s loyalty constitutes a personal relationship with Shepard that is representative of the criteria. Importantly, this loyalty can be nullified, placing a conditional attribute to Legion’s loyalty. This conditional aspect throws doubt on the existence of geth loyalty because it changes it from something earned and kept to a sort of state-dictated system. In a universe where Shepard gains and observes Legion’s loyalty, the fourth criteria is considered fulfilled. However, if the loyalty is not gained, its existence is unproven and if the loyalty mission never happens (it is technically optional) then the question of Legion’s loyalty never even has bearing upon his existence. He is capable of existence without personal connection. Depending on whether or not the player wants Legion’s loyalty places a conditional contingency on the fourth criteria, something that will be discussed later on.
The simple fact that Legion shows up to help Shepard proves that criteria five applies to the geth. In the character of Legion there is proof that the geth can make autonomous choices because the mobile unit that joins the squad has made the conscious choice to help Shepard with the fight against the reapers. While “A House Divided” may seem like a mission which removes this autonomy by reprogramming, the background of the schism of the geth reveals that this autonomy is not lost inherently, but through the actions of Commander Shepard. Legion tells Shepard “the heretics desired to leave. We understood their reasons. We allowed it. There was peace between us” (Mass Effect 2, Legion: A House Divided”. The in-group autonomy of the geth is fully established as a functioning part of the geth society.