With the approach of Mass Effect 3 and its ultimate climax with the Reapers, fans are wondering now more than ever what the deal is with these cosmic horrors, where they came from, and what their goal is.
A friend and I were once discussing how Mass Effect pulls from themes, looks, concepts, etc. from all kinds of different sci-fi, especially the older stuff from the 70s, 80s and such. This eventually landed us on Reapers, and we began wondering of their origins (as we have before in similar discussions) with the reveal of Reaper reproduction at the end of Mass Effect 2 (please note I’m here to discuss the idea of Reaper reproduction itself. What I thought of the ME2’s end boss is an entirely different matter). With what we know about the Reapers now–as well as the knowledge that BioWare pulls all sorts themes from other sci-fi–this is what we came up with:
In Science-fiction, there is this idea on the different stages that life goes through–that we start off organic, then, over the course of thousands of years and technological advancement, we ‘transcend’ to cybernetics, and finally, after a time, we ‘transcend’ to become beings of pure energy. This is a branch from a tree of many ideas and theories known as Trans-humanism.
The theory is that the Reapers were once another organic race like anyone else–perhaps the, or one of the, very first. (For our purposes here we’ll call this ancient race the “Progenitors.”) The Progenitors, were possibly the first to achieve the greatest of technological advancements in the galaxy. After who knows how many years of said advancement, they achieved the cybernetic stage of life, in which they became part organic, and part machine. As Saren states in the first Mass Effect: “The strengths of both; the weaknesses of neither.” But the Progenitors would not stop there. They wanted to achieve the ultimate transcendence and become beings of pure energy, without form or restraint. Being the most advanced race in the galaxy, they were determined to become gods.
(This will take a short history lesson, somewhat messy in the interest of brevity.)
The idea in itself likely stems from the beliefs of the early 15th or 16th Century scientists, when humanity began to “first discover” science and what made the world tick, realizing that what they saw around them wasn’t necessarily super-natural. The said belief was basically this: If we understand something enough, we can control it and play god. We can cheat death, we can control the weather, etc.
The mindset stuck from then on and is mirrored, for example, in 19th Century works of literature such as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and it exploded in the middle of this century with the rise of Darwinism.
The Darwinian belief (I think it’s Social Darwinism?), adopted by many at the time, was basically that because of natural selection and evolution, etc., Human beings are becoming smarter, better, etc., as time goes on. We are constantly uncovering more and more secrets until it reaches the point that we’ve unlocked and discovered every secret there is to know about the world and nature. We take everything apart, see how it works, then put it back together so that it’s even better. This comes from simple human nature: the never-ending desire to understand and control the world around us (Sapere Aude – Dare to know!), and the hope of one day achieving utopia, possibly from such means (you can see how this is similar to what I mentioned earlier about “Understanding something so we can control it and “play god”). The ideas of playing god and cheating death are as old as human beings themselves. In one of the oldest (if not the oldest) works of human literature, Gilgamesh is on a quest to find immortality. That’s ultimately what it comes down to with the Reapers: it’s simple self interest and the desire to cheat death. So where does “the Reapers are beyond our comprehension” bit come into play?
Our theory goes on to explain that now that the Progenitors had achieved cybernetics, they continued to build and add on to themselves, and in an attempt to achieve ultimate unity and ‘become one,’ they began melding themselves together. Finally, after countless years of building and combining themselves, they became vast living ships. “We are each a nation,” (described by Sovereign) and “One will, but many minds,” (as described by Legion). This was probably their way of laying down the first foundation stone for the next stage of transcendence–energy. Trying to go beyond the bounds of physical limitations, and achieving unity and utopia.
Legion himself tells Shepard of how the Geth hope to build a giant construct world in which all Geth can uplink themselves, becoming one. One can see the similarity between this and the idea of the Precursors melding themselves together.
The concept of Trans-humanism, as well as the concept of living ships, has been in science-fiction for quite some time. One example of living ships can be found in an older sci-fi series known as Farscape, and examples of cybernetics and transcendence to energy may be found in Star Trek with the cybernetic race known as the Borg, and a race of pure energy beings known as the Organians. Another example of transcendence to energy can be found in the various Stargate TV series.
However, the Reapers ran into a dilemma: they could no longer reproduce. But they weren’t going to allow such an obstacle get in the way of their “transcendence.” They wouldn’t allow their vastness, power, and their entire race die out because of this one obstacle–and it is doubtful this was an overlooked mistake–they probably felt such sacrifices had to be made for the sake of science and transcendence to the status of “god.”
Thus they began their galaxy-wide harvesting of other organic beings in order to build more Reapers and become one step closer to that final stage. They didn’t believe what they were doing was wrong; this was for the good of science and all organic life. They probably even thought it was their right. As is stated by Harbinger, “We are the Harbinger of their perfection,” and, “We are your salvation through your destruction.”
Thus the cycle of extinction began. All for the benefit of the Reapers. But, of course, if they wanted to continue and advance, they had to make sure life could begin anew so that they may continue to harvest. Thus they built the Citadel and the Mass Relays so life would “evolve along the paths that [they desired]” giving the races of the galaxy the tools needed to advance to the appropriate point they’d be acceptable for harvest and cultivation. Heck the name “Reaper” itself suggests this. Whether or not the Protheans were really the first to call the Progenitors “Reapers,” the name certainly makes sense. Crack open a dictionary and you’ll find the definition of the word “Reaper” is (it may vary slightly depending on the dictionary, of course): “Somebody or something that reaps, especially, formerly, a machine for harvesting grain crops.”
Using their ability of “Indoctrination,” (and who knows how they came by this) they brain-washed organic beings into aiding them in the harvesting and building process. But though they have been doing this for supposedly billions of years, they don’t seem to be any closer to achieving that final stage of life, but that certainly hasn’t stopped them from pressing on anyway.
In doing this “more times than [anyone] can fathom,” they have probably forgotten who they are, or were. They may even genuinely believe they are gods, that they “have no beginning [and] have no end.” Maybe they simply chose to forget who they were, or even have told themselves they were gods until they believed their own lies. Who can say? Perhaps they despise organic life because they need us; refusing to admit their dependency on us, and yet harvesting on. If this is the case, then it is certainly hypocrisy at its best and, in my opinion, makes for an interesting character flaw. They claim their motives are beyond comprehension; this could be another lie they tell themselves, or maybe they truly believe it.
A fellow fan and user of the interwebz had this to add:
“If this is true and Reapers were indeed organic, their motives are obviously pretty clear. In their opinion, being a big cybernetic immortal living spaceship is the highest form of life and evolution a species can possibly reach. From that perspective, it’s not a curse but a BLESSING when your species is picked to become a Reaper (“We are your salvation through your destruction–we are the harbinger of your perfection”). However, from our perspective as organics, it’s not a blessing but just sick and cruel, hence Sovereign said that their motives are beyond our comprehension.”
This is all merely conjecture on our parts, but it was cooked up in the spirit of all that inspired Mass Effect and its creators; we think our sources, pulled from the games and other sci-fi, fit the evidence rather well. We really don’t know how the Reapers came to be, or what BioWare plans to do with them (if anything) but I certainly hope they carry out something along the lines of what was proposed here. There is one thing we know Reapers still possess, and that is their massive ego.