The robotic uprising is a pretty common theme in science fiction. It’s mainly designed to show the folly of man and how we shouldn’t tamper in God’s domain by creating life. The idea being, given man-made sentience, but without human emotions or conscience, machines would readily decide that humanity is inferior and wipe us out (or attempt to) in relatively short order. There have been some good stories with this as the premise (the Terminator series comes to mind), but to be honest, it’s a bit stale. But what if the reverse were true? What if machines predated organic life? And what if they were simply waiting for us to outlive our purpose before harvesting us? This is the highly disturbing idea behind the Reapers, the main villains of the Mass Effect video game series.
The Reapers are extremely ancient and powerful machines, whose existence stretches back millions, possibly billions of years. They are highly intelligent, are not merely possessed of extremely advanced technology, but made of it, and there are endless numbers of them. Even worse, they have the frightening power of indoctrination, the ability to convince any organic beings exposed to them for extended periods of time that their cause is just and must be aided unto death. Even most of the technology developed by organic life was manipulated by the Reapers, left where it would be found so their technology would develop along a path the Reapers could easily counter. In truth, the Reapers have spent time immemorial preparing for their endless cycle of slaughter, and are well-prepared for most anything such upstart species might throw at them.
The Reapers seem motivated by their belief in an endless cycle of order and chaos. They hold themselves as pinnacles of order in a chaotic universe, and organics as chaotic elements which disturb that order. Since organic life inevitably evolves and inevitably reaches the stars, they believe it wisest to control the chaos, and lead their prey into a long-term trap. Then, once such beings are again reduced to ash and cinder, they sleep until they must do their duty once more. In truth, there is little malice in the Reapers’ actions. They simply see themselves as the absolute top of the food chain, far beyond creatures who exist only for the briefest of moments in comparison. In their conversations with Shepard, they seem more annoyed than hateful, inconvenienced by the notion that they should have to explain themselves to tiny beings who could never truly comprehend what they do.
In previous entries, I made note that Lovecraftian horrors from beyond the universe, while scary, don’t generally count as villains because they lack the ability to be motivated by anything we can understand. The Reapers walk a curious line in this regard. They are a sufficiently advanced species, but they still understand and use concepts we can grasp. Order and chaos, and the conflict therein, are ideas human beings can relate to, which means that the Reapers came from beings not too dissimilar from ourselves, and must on some level think as sentient organic life does. Given this, they must have the ability to choose their actions, and comprehend what those actions mean for the beings on whom those actions are inflicted. Given this understanding, and that they choose to ignore it, they qualify as being villainous.
And in this, I think, they are not so dissimilar from us. Some of the greatest crimes in our history have been committed not out of hatred, but on the basis that one group is superior to another. Whether it’s groups of people or even humanity against other species, history is rife with the idea that being superior gives one the power, even the right, to take from “lesser” beings. There are many problems with this idea, not the least that superiority is an arbitrary notion at best, especially when based on something like military might or technological advancement. Even moral advancement seems to be undercut by the actions taken in its own name. In any case, this doesn’t prevent even the most theoretically enlightened societies from harvesting resources on a massive scale and not even registering it as potentially evil. Even moreso than humanity, the Reapers have had billions of years, as well as the tide of absolute inevitability, to justify their behavior. While this does not excuse their actions, it is easy to see how such beings could arrive at the conclusions they do.
In a sense, the Reapers could be a potential glimpse into our own future. They are creatures who achieved such power as to effectively label themselves as gods, and with no one to disabuse them of this notion, the label became reality. The Reapers are not scary because they are alien, but because on a long enough timescale, it’s very easy to imagine humanity deciding something similar.