Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and the Religion in the Matrix

ISBN: 1932100024

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in The Matrix
by Patrick Burger

The Lord: Is never aught right to your mind?
Mephistopheles: No, Lord! All is still downright bad, I find.
Goethe, Faust

The Matrix Revolutions is out and it is proving to be yet a further intensification of the cult phenomenon generated by The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded and the animated offerings from www.whatisthematrix.com, which have recently been collected on VHS and DVD as Animatrix. Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in The Matrix is a collection of essays that looks at this popular phenomenon from as many different perspectives as the various essay writers represent. While a few of the essays are truly stunning and thought-provoking, some are uninspired and even grudgingly done. The best of the essays treat the films and the cult following around them as a cultural occurrence deserving of attention. Some of the essays attempt to hijack The Matrix for an ideological joy ride and the worst of them are thinly disguised complaints about the attention the film is getting.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the voices most bitter about The Matrix's success are those of established S.F. writers James Gunn and Robert Sawyer. Both Gunn and Sawyer begrudgingly catalogue everything in S.F. history resembling even remotely the ideas The Matrix consists of. If only there had been a point to this exercise (besides the obvious effort to downgrade the material in The Matrix)-some meta-observation that served to deepen our understanding of The Matrix phenomenon. Instead, both authors abruptly conclude their essays when their catalogue is complete. Although Gunn is right to give the spiritual godfathers of The Matrix- Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick-their due, his conclusion goes no deeper than "The Matrix is the heir to all this, although the film and its makers may not be conscious of it. What makes The Matrix unique is its integration of various elements of the science-fiction pantheon in a startling new way-the reality paradox, evil artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and, of course, lots of firepower." The anemic conclusion manages, twice in two sentences, to remind the reader that these ideas originate in the science fiction pantheon and that one should therefore not kneel at the altar of false gods.
Sawyer's resentment reaches even further. While he does make some interesting observations in his piece (about Star Wars, 2001 and Star Trek) he dismisses The Matrix, and takes a shameless moment to remind the reader, "That's (AI, i.e. artificial intelligence) what a lot of science fiction has been exploring lately. I did it myself in my 1995 Nebula Award-winning novel The Terminal Experiment." Sawyer's conclusion typifies his disregard for The Matrix (and, one assumes, this book too) for it's so hackneyed that one has trouble believing he actually left it in his final submission to editor Glenn Yeffeth: "as long as sci-fi authors continue to write about robots and AI, nothing can possibly go wronggo wronggo wrong"
Gunn and Sawyer's essays do serve a function in the book by reminding the reader that The Matrix is part of a tradition, and while they fail to come up with any substantive insights, they manage to whet the reader's appetite for the more satisfying analyses of the phenomenon that many of the other authors in the collection are able to deliver.
There are, for example, essays that investigate the Christian symbolism of the film and the excitement the film has generated among devout Christians. Other enlightening perspectives are presented by essayists like James L. Ford, who points out the Buddhist elements; Robin Hanson, who claims that we are already controlled by a meta-intelligence-our genes; Lyle Zynda, who looks at The Matrix's questioning of the nature of reality from the perspectives of both realist and idealist philosophy; Dino Felluga, who explores the film as an expression of postmodernism; Andrew Gordon, who criticizes the film's postmodern poseurism; Peter B. Lloyd, who explains, in detail, the technological feasibility of the film's scientific extrapolations; and Nick Bostrum, whose calculations concerning the odds that we are already in the matrix remind one of Carl Sagan's mathematical theorizing about the possibility of intelligent civilizations in the universe.
Economist Peter J. Boettke and inventor Ray Kurzweil give only token nods to the film before going off on their respective tangents. Kurzweil, for example, joyfully expounds on how technologically possible the world of the film is while blithely ignoring its cautionary aspect-and that of his own work. He does, however, succeed in thoroughly disturbing the reader by inserting the word "hopefully" into the conclusion of his sunny forecast of the future. All his confident prognostications on how the future's possible technological terrors will not happen are undone with his last sentence: "We'll be able to recreate the world' according to our imaginations and enter environments as amazing as that of The Matrix, but, hopefully, a world more open to creative human expression and experience." Channeling this vertiginous momentum, editor Yeffeth masterfully uses Kurzweil's essay to set up the book's most powerful piece.
Paradoxically, the most powerful essay in the collection makes no mention at all of the film and yet strikes into the heart of our fascination, revealing the deep-seated fears of technological change that power the phenomenon. Bill Joy, Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, originally wrote his essay, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us", for Wired Magazine, but it is a perfect fit here. Joy's presentation of the potential (and likely) horror to emerge from the technological trajectory so explicitly mapped out by Kurzweil in the previous essay makes the world of The Matrix almost seem benign in comparison. What Joy's essay does in this book of essays on The Matrix is to reveal-without ever mentioning the film-why it has struck such a nerve with the movie-going public: because, to use a popular American phrase, it is founded on clear and present danger. While the full extent of the technological threat may only be clear to men like Kurzweil and Joy, the notion also appears to be sufficiently plausible (very like the phenomenon of the 101 Monkeys) to draw masses of people to The Matrix and now The Matrix Revolutions. And, in the tradition of the Romance genre, the promise of a hero and of a final victory to counter the threat-with both hero and victory coded with religious and philosophical signifiers intrinsic to a wide spectrum of cultures (as the symbolism of the conclusion of The Matrix Revolutions reaffirms)-leads a varied audience to identify with the story.
And it is this universal human hunger for meaning and rescue that drives The Matrix phenomenon. As several essayists in the book point out, the Terminator films stake out much the same territory as The Matrix, but have failed to achieve the same cult following. Writers like Read Mercer Schuchardt and Paul Fontana, who look at the film's Christian dimension, demonstrate why this is so and come closest to expressing the yearning at the heart of movie-goers' identification with this film. Both men are able to equate almost any scene in the film to Christ's passion and Christian theology, and their observations about the Christian and Jewish coding of the film by the Wachowski brothers reveal the extent of longing among today's young people for a messianic liberation from slavery. This longing, even against all logic and expectations, has led the Wachowski brothers, in The Matrix Revolutions, to paraphrase the salvational ending of Goethe's Faust II, where Mephisto has actually succeeded in dooming Faust to hell-only to have the divine still intercede on Faust's behalf. Schuchardt concludes his essay authoritatively by saying, "The message of The Matrix is that we are already pawns in a modern technological society where life happens around us but is scarcely influenced by us. Whether it is by our choice or unwillingness to make a choice, our technology already controls us. In an attempt to wake us up, the movie asks us to question everything we believe about our present circumstances. the challenge has been made to open your eyes and seek true reality, and ultimately to escape from the matrix."

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