A Reading List Inspired by the 20th Anniversary of The Matrix (and That Sequel Announcement)

In 1999, The Wachowskis unleashed their stylish cyberpunk-action movie masterpiece The Matrix upon the world, and changed the landscape of mainstream filmmaking for at least the next decade. The film has aged beautifully in two decades since its release, still delivering slick action and style for days, even if the techniques it innovated (from “bullet time” to the iconic rotating freeze-frame) have since been abused by other filmmakers to the point of parody, and despite the mixed reception that greeted the sequels.

Speaking of: last month, Lana Wachowski announced she had started work on a fourth Matrix film, working from a script penned with with the aid of novelists David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon. The novelists seem a natural fit; The Matrix franchise has always taken a rather literary approach to its ballet of nonstop action and philosophical sci-fi worldbuilding. That’s also why we decided to showcase eight readalikes to help keep the spirit of The Matrix alive until the release of the new movie….

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell
Award-winning novelist David Mitchell is best known for Cloud Atlas—a mind-bending, time-spanning, nigh-unfilmable work that the Wachowskis nevertheless managed to film fairly well—and though there’s nothing particularly cyberpunk about his most recent full-length novel, it does explore plenty of ideas that are right in the filmmakers’ wheelhouse: shifting identities and mutable genders within a single soul, a secret clash between powerful forces playing out behind the veil of everyday life, dark predictions for the future of humanity that are not without a belief in the chance of overcoming them through unity. That might be why Mitchell was brought onboard to co-write the fourth Matrix film, though we won’t know how many of these themes will feature until the movie comes out. In the meantime, enjoy this ambitious, multi-part novel tracking the lives of a host of characters across the 20th and 21st centuries as they come into contact with dueling supernatural forces seeking to defeat death itself.

Escapology, by Ren Warom
Ren Warom’s debut novel is probably the closest you can get to reading The Matrix—its villains are a trio of Lovecraftian AIs known as the “Hive Queens” that are hellbent on trapping humans in the virtual space; the “real world” has a definite used-future aesthetic with thousands of people packed together in cities overloaded with malfunctioning technology;, and the fight scenes and hacking sequences are as acrobatic and slick as anything The Wachowskis ever dreamed up. It’s also got pretty strong trans and LGBT+ representation, and the climax resembles The Matrix in one important aspect. But Warom’s world is even stranger and more gruesome, blending together cosmic horror, trippy visuals, sadistic villains, and a certain comic-book aesthetic to create something wild and altogether new.

The Destructives, by Matthew de Abaitua
While it doesn’t exactly feature humans trapped in a computer simulation, there’s still a strong theme of AI supremacy throughout The Destructives, a novel that uses the idea of artificial intelligence as gods and a human rebellion against them to tell a story so deep and thoughtful that you might call it a classical tragedy with robots. It’s the story of Theodore Drown, a former drug addict turned academic who accepts an archaeological assignment investigating a house in a lunar cavern. Beneath the official record, he discovers something that could jeopardize the fragile balance between humans and the godlike AIs who accidentally caused the apocalypse. With a terrifying view of the Singularity (here called the Seizure, an event that killed four billion people and destroyed society as we know it) and a secretive enclave of human terrorists attempting to fight the machine supremacy, there are definite parallels with the film franchise, as well as some absolutely insane visuals and the sort of dense worldbuilding that made The Matrix a sensation.

Simulacron-3by Daniel F. Galouye
This list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Simulacron-3, the classic proto-cyberpunk novel about simulated realities and the true nature of virtual worlds. After helping they construct a digital city full of simulated consciousnesses unaware of their existence as computer programs (to better assist with market research), Douglas Hall’s coworkers are murdered. As Hall investigates, suspecting it has something to do with their simulation, the lines between the real and virtual blur; soon, it becomes clear the “real world” might not be as real as he thought. While Galouye’s novel is a little dated in spots, its themes still resonate, and have wormed their way into other works—including The Matrix itself.

Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway
In the midst of a high stakes struggle between the government and a shadowy organization bent on ruling the world, an apocalyptic device falls into the hands of a mild-mannered clockwork repairman, kicking off a wild chase involving an octogenarian secret agent, a terrifying southeast Asian dictator, serial murderers, monks, and numerous other colorful factions. While it doesn’t have the virtual-world/real world interplay and it isn’t all that cyberpunk (clockpunk, perhaps?), Harkaway’s sophomore novel does check a lot of the same boxes as The Matrix— strong existentialist themes, stylish action setpieces, a ton of action, and erudite villains hellbent on subjugating humanity. At the very least, it’s a stylish and hilarious science fiction novel, displaying Harkaway’s gift for dynamic fight scenes, unique characters, and a narrative that doubles as a crash course in epistemology.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
This one’s a bit of a left-field pick, given that it’s a space opera, but hear me out: Leckie’s far-future SF in set in the Imperial Radch, an empire that makes use of artificial intelligences who house their consciousnesses in human bodies. When one of these linked hiveminds (the warship Justice of Toren) is destroyed, its sole surviving flesh and blood avatar embarks on a quest to find out what happened and bring those responsible to justice. Leckie’s depiction of AI hiveminds manages to raise some interesting questions about individuality and free will—even as it makes for truly inventive action sequences that play out from a plural perspective—and the idea of humans housing AI consciousness does dovetail nicely with The Matrix—especially when Agent Smith starts copying himself into human bodies. Apart from those parallels, it’s a fantastic space opera with interesting world design that make it well worth a read. 

Neuromancer, by William Gibson
While not, as is often stated, the book that coined the term “cyberpunk,” Gibson’s work certainly codified it, and definitely heavily inspired The Matrix. The movie draws visual references from the novel (Morpheus might as well be Armitage with more leather and a philosophy degree, and Trinity’s wardrobe would be right at home on Molly Millions), and it features more than a few similarities in plot. Neuromancer follows Case, a disaffected hacker drawn into a war between artificial intelligences with some unusual ideas on what’s to be done with humanity. Gibson even used the term “Matrix” to describe his fictional internet, which might cause some cognitive dissonance for modern readers. Gibson’s novel is a lot more downbeat and also much, much weirder than The Matrix, delivering an odd existentialist meditation peppered with stealth-suited terrorists, spacefaring Rastafarians, corporate ninjas, a psychotic artist, and a series of mind-bending heists, as each new twist or shift of loyalties endangers Case further.

Paprika: A Novel, by Yasutaka Tsutsui
Fans of anime will likely already be familiar with Paprika, as it was the basis for Satoshi Kon’s masterpiece of the same name, but the novel deserves just as much recognition. It follows Atsuko Chiba, a psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatric Research, who uses an experimental device to dive into peoples’ dreams and help them resolve their past issues and traumas. When several prototypes are stolen and used to drive people insane, Chiba and her fellow researchers must dive into the dream world, even as peoples’ subconsciousnesses begin to spills out into the waking world and a terrifying villain seeks to control all of reality. The blurring between the waking world and the world of dreams recalls the way the virtual and real worlds begin to blur within The Matrix, and the cyberpunk setting, megalomaniacal villains, and battle for human consciousness lie along similar line.

What books give you that Wachowski feeling?

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