The world as you know it is not real. It is an illusion, a cage without bars: the perfect slave believes he is free.
That idea—the basic premise of The Matrix—is not new. From Plato’s Cave to Descartes’ malicious demon to Philip K. Dick’s Black Iron Prison, the nagging feeling that all is not as it seems has been with us for some time. This nagging doubt about the goodness—or even truth—of reality, has been the seed of many a religion and a few revolutions. You might say it’s in the nature of man to question reality.
And sometimes, when you’re in a Philip K. Dick story or Thomas Anderson in The Matrix, you find out reality is a lot darker than you imagined. The Great Oz pulls back the curtain on a world cratered and lifeless, where the air is ash and the skies blackened.
Where do you go from there?
In The Matrix, you take your pick of realities. Side with the freedom fighters who want to free humanity and give them a lifeless world, or the machines who offer a pleasant unreality in exchange for a little human warmth (or BTU’s of body heat). Once the choice is made, though, the storylines are much more limited.
Which is why, in The Matrix Comics, the first volume of stories based in the Matrix universe, few tales focus on awakening from the Matrix. The movies have told that story already—there’s not much more to be said, aside from arguing the details. The best of these short episodes—vignettes really—focus on the more human conditions of life with the Matrix, moving way from the super-heroics of the films.
One story, Ted McKeever’s “A Life Less Empty”, takes a unique look at the question of whether ignorance is bliss. Cypher, the Judas of the first film, made sure that he would never remember a world outside his techno-womb. McKeever’s main character is a hacker who stood in Neo’s shoes, at the crossroads of red and blue pills, and chose to return to her ordinary life. Unlike Cypher, she knows she is ignorant, still feels the pull of something outside her life. She flinched in the face of truth and can’t forgive herself for it.
Rocket, the hacker in Dave Lapham’s “There Are No Flowers in the Real World”, chose to leave the Matrix, but left behind his only love. Now, trapped in the Matrix after his ship is attacked, he seeks her out for one last grasp at a human connection. To do so, though, means plugging back in to his old life; he can’t resist one adolescent tantrum, screaming, “You’re all slaves!” like Jim Morrison on a bad night, using his kung-fu to make the point that it’s all in your mind. His casual disregard for the people still hooked into the Matrix addresses a point glossed over in the movies—the people killed within the system, while enemies, are still people who die in the real world. Collateral damage had no effect in the movies; in Lapham’s story it has poignant consequences.
Neil Gaiman’s contribution to the volume, “Goliath”, is prose with several accompanying illustrations by Bill Sienkiewicz and Gregory Ruth. Similar in concept to Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”, but with a sci-fi twist, the story benefits from greater space in which to develop characters. If there’s a consistent shortcoming among the other stories, it’s a lack of development, which is difficult in such short length. Gaiman’s story, though, envelops the reader in a different kind of Matrix, one that seems beyond good and evil—the machines just do what is necessary to survive. They’re even capable of something that seems like humanity, an idea that Philip K. Dick would be proud of.
The majority of the stories in this volume are interesting, offering little snippets of lives lived inside the Matrix, among the revolutionaries, and even in our “reality”. Few, though, have much impact after the initial reading, limited as they are by short length and a lack of development. For Matrix completists, who’ve probably already bought the volume anyway, they’ll make a good addition to the already-impressive collection of DVDs, videogames, and books. For the rest of us, however, this book is something akin to the movies: lots of flash and a bit of philosophy that taunts the eyes and piques the mind, but ultimately leaves one feeling unsatisfied.