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tom moody

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The instant popularity of the first Matrix movie inspired not only a plague of clones (Underworld being the sorry latest) but a land-office rush to retroactively claim precedents from the science fiction genre. Critics often cite Philip K. Dick's body of writing as a progenitor for the "things are not what they seem" aspect of the story, and John Carpenter's Dickian They Live (1988) has also been mentioned for its vision of a consumerist sham earth uncovered by a hapless member of the underclass (this little-seen film was recently rereleased on DVD and should be mandatory viewing). For my money, though, the definitive Matrix forerunner is a novel that appeared 40 years before the Wachowskis' epic: the amazing Wolfbane (1959), by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. If "ex-batteries fight in crevices of machine planet" is the pitch, then Pohl & Kornbluth deserve some arbitrated credit.

The action starts on a future Earth that has been hijacked from the solar system and revolves around a tiny sun that barely puts out enough energy to keep the population alive. Believing that Sol has simply lost strength as some form of divine retribution, humans have devolved into a society of Puritanical calorie-counters. Periodically people simply disappear, which keeps superstitious fear running high. Unbeknownst to the humans, their kidnappers are robots--enormous, pyramid-shaped floating beings called Omniverters, who inhabit a dark planet orbiting the same tiny star. The humans who disappear are teleported to this bleak mechanical world and used not as batteries (a ridiculous element of The Matrix considering the meager kilowatts of bio-energy a human could be expected to produce) but rather organic microchips. Eight living brains wired together in series represents substantial analog computing power; when a mind wears out the Omniverters simply harvest another human from Earth.

The protagonist of the story is, for all intents and purposes, a "snowflake," one of those octabrains slaving away crunching data for the Omniverters. Fully conscious, mingling all the thoughts and personalities of its human subcomponents (representing a range of ages, sexes, classes, and geopolitical origins), the snowflake is a highly evolved genius entity that is nevertheless powerless, because the motor functions of its inert constituent bodies have been dedicated by the Omniverters to typing code all day. Until, that is, the snowflake realizes that one digit of its 80 typing fingers is never used, a kind of built-in margin of error. Below the radar of the Omniverters' attention, the snowflake begins tapping out a rogue line of code with that "spare finger," enough command line instructions, at least, to teleport a crowd of naked humans to the Omniverter planet, put them in an enclosed space, and then begin starving them.

From that point forward, these "mice" behave much like the free humans in the Matrix, scurrying around in the tunnels and heat vents of the Machine planet. Instead of recruiting more batteries, however, the mice start breaking things, under the snowflake's omniscient guidance. The big satirical payoff of the novel is learning what the Omniverters are: essentially labor-saving devices (described in ancient tapes that sound like '50s advertising pitches) that have killed their alien master and then spent untold millennia trying to revive his corpse. Despite such touches of McCarthy-era existential bleakness, the book bursts with ideas: the truly mind-blowing collaboration here isn't the snowflake's but Pohl's and Kornbluth's, whose tale remains a potent intellectual drug decades after its writing. Will the same be said for The Matrix forty years hence, I wonder?

- tom moody 1-21-2004 9:25 pm [link] [1 comment]