Monday, 19 September 2005

Taking the Red Pill – Glenn Yeffeth (Ed.) ****

It’s an odd one, this. The book is a collection of essays inspired by the 1999 movie, The Matrix. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it can be appreciated by a much wider audience than just movie or science fiction fans. That’s because The Matrix itself is cleverer than the average SF action film, and is an ideal starting point for popular discussions of science and philosophy. Having said that, it’s pretty important to have seen the movie first before reading the book (see links for DVDs below).
As is usually the case with a collection of essays, it’s a mixed bag, so the impressive four star rating includes some 5 star gems, some 3 star so-so pieces and at least one dud. Even so, overall it’s a good mix. There are fascinating explorations of the different themes and inspirations that the writers very cleverly wove together in the The Matrix. Perhaps most interesting are the science/science fiction themes, particularly around artificial intelligence (don’t be put off if you don’t like science fiction – think of this as speculative science). A number of authors point out that the most obvious enormous hole in the science of the film (using human beings as living “batteries”, where actually the net energy flow would be in rather than out) could be interpreted as a misunderstanding – we are told this is what is happening by one of the characters, but he could have got it wrong, and the suggestions in the book are much more sensible. (Of course, what actually happened is the writers got their science wrong, but it doesn’t mean you can’t unpick the situation after the event.)
Also surprisingly effective are a couple of essays that go into the post-modernist influences of the movie. They are strongly present when explained, but won’t be noticed by most in the audience (this reviewer included) – but why should they? What’s great is the essays provide the first explanation of aspects of literary post-modernism that make sense, rather than the usual, much-mocked flow of meaningless jargon lifted from science with little comprehension. You may not agree with the ideas about modern society being obsessed with models of reality rather than reality itself, but it is understandable and interesting, and obviously of very direct relevance to The Matrix.
Perhaps less successful are a couple of religion-oriented essays. The Matrix certainly has strong religious overtones, both in the central figure as reluctant messiah, and many of the discussions that take place – but this is religion as story or myth, rather than driving force for living. Particularly weak is the Buddhist entry, partly because about half the long essay is just explaining Buddhism, and partly because the parallels drawn are so vague you could apply them to practically any movie. And there’s also a piece on the selfish gene (suggesting that our genes control us in the same way the Matrix controls its human inhabitants) that totally misunderstands genetics – perhaps because it’s written by an economist. But, of course, the great thing about an essay format is you can skip over a chapter and it makes no difference to the flow of the book.
Taking the Red Pill was published between The Matrix and its two sequels hitting the screen, so some of the speculation is a little out of date. For instance, it’s pointed out that one of the possible interpretations of the original movie is that even the “real” world outside the Matrix could be another computer simulation – how could they tell? This potential storyline comes up in the second film, where a strange event suggests it is true, but then the writers lose their bottle, and never make use of it. Similarly, there is a lot made in the book about parallels with messiah figures, but it isn’t obvious until the final movie that the writers were very strongly influenced by Frank Herbert’s Dune books, where the central “chosen one” figure suffers the same injury as Neo, the hero of The Matrix, an injury that should cripple him but in fact seems to make him stronger.
Despite this, though, it’s a fun collection of essays that help bring out aspects of a very cleverly constructed film and inspires thought on aspects of science, philosophy and morality – which can’t be a bad thing!
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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