In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is an everyday space kid dealing with everyday space kid problems. Then, he finds out that he is special and that only he can save the universe.
In The Matrix Trilogy, “Mr. Anderson” is just some computer programmer/hacker until he learns he is the “One.” Whoa…
In The Lord of the Rings universe, average hobbit after average hobbit is drawn out of their comfortable hobbit holes to go on some great adventure because, for whatever reason, it has to be them. No one else can be trusted.
The examples go on…
The Mass Effect series is, in many ways, similarly the story of a reluctant hero. Or more specifically, a reluctant hero race.
Humanity finally takes to the stars, derps its way into a war it cannot win against an all-around superior foe. Humanity recovers from this early setback and seeks to assume its “rightful” place in the galaxy. If you aren’t sure what that place is, it’s the top, of course.
We are special.
This idea is drilled into our heads by our parents from the day we are born. Then, our teachers and schools pick up the mantle from our very first folded-paper snowflake.
Of course, we’re not special. At least not in the way we think.
We are unique. We are the only person who will be, well, “us.” We are the only person with our perspectives. But we are not special. Anything we can do, a million others can do too. A million people who can run as fast. A million people just as smart. Even for the thing at which we are best, there’s probably plenty of others out there who can do that thing just as well, if not better.
I suspect this is the inspiration for the reluctant hero archetype. Somewhere, probably buried deep inside, we know that we are closer to unique than special. This terrifies us, mostly because we seriously undervalue uniqueness.
So, we create a story where we, or someone just as average, mundane, or normal as we are, can be special. Truly special. Literally the only person who can do what must be done.
The idea that humanity has a special place in the universe is not a new one in science fiction.
By the end of Stargate SG-1, humanity has taken its place as “The Fifth Race,” rising to the level of the universe’s four most advanced races. In Enterprise, only humanity can unify the Vulcans, Andorians, and Tellarites to combat a Romulan threat. In Babylon 5, humanity unified the galaxy against the Shadows.
Time and time again, races older and more advanced need humanity to remind them of principles we have yet to master or embrace. This makes sense in good science fiction, which generally uses a fantastic setting to comment on modern problems and issues.
However, the unerring belief in our specialness has caused more than a few problems. It has caused nations to colonize and oppress. It has caused religions to spread their message through the sword. It has caused societies to develop prejudices. It causes us to see each other as obstacles to be overcome on our heroic journey towards money or fame or power or whatever else we are after.
Mass Effect definitely falls prey to the “chosen race” tropes. However, it does so in the best possible way.
Throughout the Mass Effect Trilogy, humanity isn’t special because we’re human. We’re special because we are diverse, adaptable, and tolerant.
Humanity defeats the Reapers because we allow for different ideas and perspectives, unlike the doomed Protheans. We think outside of the box, unlike the rigid Turians who eschew unorthodox strategies or ideas. We have moved past our prejudices, unlike the Quarians and Geth, and we discuss opposing viewpoints instead of killing one another, unlike the Krogan.
In Mass Effect, humanity is special because it is able to see beyond the trappings of “specialness” that plague our world today. If we can make it that point, then we’d be pretty damn special.