Here we are with part 3 of our history of pretend stuff that never happened. This series is eventually going to talk about the character Dr. Mordin Solus, but to make sense of his story I wanted to first make sense of history. And make the preceding cheesy pun.
The Krogan were breeding like crazy. Left unchecked, they could wreck the galaxy. They weren’t driven by malice or greed. Like locusts, they were just doing what their species did.
The Salarians devised the genophage, a carefully engineered mutation that would greatly reduce the number of viable Krogan pregnancies. The Salarians designed it so that Krogans would have stable population levels. They didn’t want to exterminate the Krogan, they just wanted to put the genie back in the bottle and maybe give the species some time to mature.
Of course, there was no way to predict the cultural change that the genophage would bring about, and how that might further alter the population levels. They calculated that having 1 in 1,000 eggs produce a living Krogan would keep the population flat, but that was assuming the Krogan settled down and stopped fighting so damn much. But once their race was infected, they just turned their aggression inward.
The game gives different numbers on how well the genophage worked. In Mass Effect, Wrex insisted that his people were dying out because they were running around the galaxy fighting for money and thus squandering individuals needed to keep the species going. In Mass Effect 2, Dr. Mordin Solus (I told you he’d come up eventually) said that the Krogan numbers were actually increasing. There are lots of reasons that these two could have different viewpoints on the matter, but I really think they should have lampshaded the new revelation. “Oh yes. The Krogans think they’re dying out because they population on the homeworld is dwindling, but elsewhere their numbers are seeing a net gain.” Or whatever.
The Genophage should have exiled the Krogan from their own homeworld. The mutation was designed to make space-faring Krogan population numbers stay flat, as they were back on Tuchanka. But Tuchanka was a lifeform-devouring hellhole, and any birth rate that works in space is going to be far too slow to keep up on Tuchanka. Some of them went home anyway, and the result was an additional strain on their numbers that couldn’t have been accounted for by the Salarians.
Note that the Salarians developed the Genophage, but they didn’t want to use it. They believed that the threat would be enough to deter the Krogan attacks. The Turians disagreed and unleashed it.
I think history has proven the Turians correct. Note that stopping the attacks required doing something to bring about the required social and cultural changes to make Krogans less warlike. They’d need to find a non-destructive outlet for their aggression and embrace some sort of contraception, or they would end up overpopulating their worlds. The Salarians must have thought the Krogans would move in this direction once they were threatened with the Genophage.
But the Krogans never did settle down. If they didn’t change their behavior when faced with the Genophage in full force, then I don’t think the abstract threat of the Genophage would have made a dent.
The Gordian Knot
The genophage is a great story idea. I think most would agree that introducing a biological agent to make a sapient species have difficulty reproducing would constitute an atrocity. It’s a morally repugnant solution to an intractable problem.
It reminds me of the atomic bombs that ended World War II. A reasonable person take take up either side of the argument as the more humane. You can do the ends justify the means route:
“Dropping the bomb ended the war with fewer losses than if we’d had to do a full-on invasion.”
Or you can go the Captain Picard path of the idealist:
“I refuse to settle this with arithmetic.” AKA: We’re the good guys, so we won’t go that route no matter what.
I’m not endorsing one position over the other. I know this is a hot-button topic, but I’m bringing it up precisely because it’s a real-world analog to the situation we see in Mass Effect.
This is made more vexing by the nature of history. You can’t prove that a less objectionable solution wouldn’t have presented itself if the problem was given more time. But you also can’t easily dismiss the lives that would be lost in waiting for that solution. You can’t examine various historical paths, watch them play out, and then pick the outcome you like best. You have to make snap decisions and take actions with unpredictable outcomes using imperfect knowledge of the present.
And even if you do somehow hit the optimal solution, other people will always second-guess you and claim the other path would have been better, because they can’t see the alternate futures either. You will still be called a monster or an idiot, even if you saved lives in the end. Life is a bitch like that. Sometimes the path of the idealist will be the optimal one. Sometimes the darker road proves less destructive. And no matter which way you go, you often can’t know if the other one would have been better.
In any event, you could argue that the genophage was a horrifying crime so evil that it should never have been used. You could argue that it was a regrettable but necessary step that saved billions of lives. You could argue either of these as someone genuinely interested in preserving lives and fostering harmony. And even now that we’ve seen the genophage play out, it’s impossible to prove there wasn’t a better solution out there.
This is what the unsatisfying paragon / renegade system of Mass Effect should have been about. Idealism vs. Pragmatism. (And to be fair, sometimes it is. ) It should be taken as a given that you’re a good guy trying to save the galaxy, and the paragon / renegade system just exists to show your methods. Sometimes it did this. Other times it was just a measure of how rude you were. And sometimes it was a measure of how big an idiot you were. I would like to see this personality stuff divorced from the worldview stuff. I think it cheapens the decision and the conversation by suggesting that pragmatism is inextricably bound to being a cruel sneering jackass. In fact, there’s a great example of one in the game…
Dr. Mordin Solus
Mordin is a pragmatist from the start. He’s also a great example of a pragmatist who isn’t a cruel sneering jackass. He’s empathetic, generous, and brave, but very practical about it. During his recruitment mission he even states that (paraphrase) you can save lives by killing Problem People, even if the Problem People aren’t directly in your way. Not because he enjoys death, but because he wants to protect the innocent. And he’s living in a den of corruption and cruelty where this kind of thinking is very likely to pay off. He’s not bitter or cynical. He’s just pragmatic.
I’d love if we could dispense with jerk Shepard / nice Shepard and have a Shepard approach his renegade thinking the way Mordin does. “It’s not pretty, but this is what we have to do if we want to help people.”
Which brings us to his loyalty mission…
(The next entry will wrap this series up.)
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