#2. The Matrix
When The Matrix first came out in 1999, a few things happened: Keanu Reeves became the default setting for 'White Man in a Movie'; every action director in the world wrote the words "bullet time" very carefully on the backs of their hands, so they wouldn't forget to copy it when they left the theater; and a million teenagers learned that Descartes wasn't just the practice of ordering things one at a time off the Taco Bell menu.
And that success sure as hell wasn't because of the plot or the characters. The plot of The Matrix is the most generic execution of "The Hero's Journey" outside of an NES game, and the lead character's two best lines are "Whoa" and staring. Seriously, if you extracted the masterfully constructed setting from The Matrix, you'd just have an arrogant, shiftless young man who meets an older master that teaches him how to fight and how the world really works, which the young man uses to win the girl and save the day. We already have that movie. It's called The Karate Kid.
"Take the red pill, Daniel-san. Then take your pants off and dance around a little for Miyagi."
But regardless of its flaws, The Matrix revolutionized and revitalized the whole genre. By combining virtual reality, reality, the apocalypse and spaceships, the movie was able to seamlessly flit between every possible combination of science fiction setting at a whim. A lot of people have tried that kind of mashup before, but most of them end up abysmal misfires whose theater audience consists solely of a handful of masturbating 12-year-olds and creepy older men just there to watch masturbating 12-year-olds.
But the Wachowski brothers actually pulled it off. And that's because they worked at it. If you've never seen The Animatrix, go do it: It's a compilation of animated short films that do nothing but relay all the details of the world of The Matrix that they never got a chance to show in the movies.
And all of the barely concealed computer- boobs they didn't get a chance to show. Hey, if it's good enough for Ridley ...
The first Matrix film gets a lot of flak for being dumb or ridiculous, but I think that's the rest of the disappointing trilogy retroactively weakening the source material. Taken on its own, The Matrix is lean, mean and viciously novel. The premise was so elegantly, simply and beautifully executed that the movie cuts back and forth between two goth/club kids jump-kicking a helicopter in present day New York to a shipful of post-apocalyptic holocaust victims strangling robots and nobody in the audience ever thought to ask "What the bloody fuck is going on here?"
I'm intensely worried that somebody will take this column wrong and think I'm trying to tear down or find myself somehow superior to these properties. That is not at all the case. Yes, I am saying that the only reason they're classics is their brilliantly realized settings; but no, I am not saying that's a bad thing. I actually don't get the people who ask for more than that: These artists sat down with nothing but their minds and a pencil and they built Rome. Now we're standing outside the gates saying, "Eh. I guess it's OK. Does anybody, like, fall in unrequited love in there or what?"
"Whatever. Call me when the city learns a lesson and emotionally grows from it."
And so, rolling his eyes the whole time, George Orwell gave us a bare-bones love story being acted out on top of the architectural masterpiece that is 1984. If you're only familiar with the 1984 universe from pop culture references, Apple commercials and Futurama parodies, just go glance at the book. Flip to any page, and you'll find that, at most, roughly 25 percent of it is somebody feeling some boring emotion, and the other 75 percent is telling you how the plumbing works in a dystopian future where we've abandoned the preciousness of privacy in the name of fear. (The answer: Not very well -- there's never any hot water because they're too busy burning dissenters with it.) Even more astoundingly, Orwell built this city not on rock and roll, but on phlegm and lungblood -- he wrote the whole damn thing while suffering from tuberculosis.
Nothing proves my point better than the work itself, however, so here's the briefest plot synopsis I could find that did not leave out any vital information:
"George Orwell's novel of a totalitarian future society in which a man whose daily work is rewriting history tries to rebel by falling in love."
Here's the briefest summary of the setting I could find that did not leave out any vital information:
Sorry it cuts off so suddenly. I zoomed out as far as I could, but my computer couldn't actually get all of it in there.
Again, nobody's knocking your favorite property here: I'm saying that sacrificing intensive plot or character development for a more complete understanding of the world is the best possible thing these works could have done to get their message across. See, literary fiction -- tragedies, romances, dramas -- they're about humans. Science fiction is about humanity. It has to lose a little bit of subjectivity in order to turn a more objective lens on the problems it wants to talk about.
That's not something I understood intimately myself, until I sat down to write Rx. The book has been received pretty well so far, but if anybody has complaints, they seem to be that its more about the setting -- the giant, self-sustaining, insular mega-building, and the society within that runs on officially sanctioned uber-drugs. And you know what? That's fair. Sometimes I get a bit caught up in the details. But sometimes, in science fiction, things are that way for a reason. And if you look a little closer, you might see that the setting is actually doing more than just giving all the characters a place to stand.
But even if I didn't pull that trick off myself, the first episode is still free until June 4th, and this latest episode revolves around huffing a time-travel gas, bartering with demented Sudanese rain gods and a character named King Big Dick. If you're looking for more in a book, sir or madam, I'm afraid that you and I simply have drastically different definitions of the words "fine" and "literature."
You can get the first episode of Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity right here, buy Robert's other book, Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead, or follow him on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook.
For more from Brockway, check out 5 Real Ways to Get High Straight Out of Science Fiction and 5 Bizarre Ways Video Games Are Screwing Up Your Health.