The Origin of the Matrix
December 24, 2009 12:30 AM   Subscribe

Origin of the Matrix relating to a Science Fictional setting...

I am reading Neuromancer by William Gibson and the main character mentions "the matrix", as something he "jacks in to". Now this is my first foray into sci-fi and I am only about 20 pages in but I was wondering where the term originated. Did The Matrix movie steal this term and its meaning from Gibson or was it already being used in previous sci-fi works? I have only ever heard it used in a sci-fi context so that's why I;m wondering. I'm admitting my lack of knowledge in this area, so please don't make me feel like a ding dong if the answer to this question is blindingly obvious to you! Also, while on the topic of Sci-fi, the last book I read in the genre was Ender's Game in junior high and I loved it, so please suggest any sci-fi reads I should check out.
posted by madmamasmith to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
As to the second part of your question, this page at the MetaFilter wiki lists a ton of previous sci-fi book recommendation threads.
posted by Rhomboid at 1:19 AM on December 24, 2009

Matrix is a pretty common mathematical/computer term. Plus it's kind of cool sounding, so you can see how it would get used a lot. It can mean a lot of different things, but in particularly it usually means items arranged in a grid. If you think of a computer network, it's easy to see it as a matrix.

Matrix can also mean "small grains between larger grains" or essentially the material that things are 'in', like soil.

I'm not sure when the first use of matrix was to refer to a computer network in sci-fi was, I think it was earlier then Gibson
posted by delmoi at 1:23 AM on December 24, 2009

A Dr. Who episode from 1976, The Deadly Assassin, has a virtual world creating computer network called The Matrix. This was mentioned very recently on MeFi, but I can't remember the context..

There are almost certainly earlier examples.
posted by Chuckles at 1:30 AM on December 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

Well, the term "matrix" is a mathematical term. It's also a term meaning "an enclosure within which something originates or develops (from the Latin for womb)". It also has a geological definition relating to the dreg rock that interesting stuff (gems, gold, etc.) is found in. Furthermore, it has an 'x' in it. That makes it sound cool.

So the use of the term "matrix" to mean "cyberspace" always seemed natural and obvious to me. Especially given that Gibson's matrix is not the photorealistic virtual reality that's found in the movie; it looks more like Tron, with primary shapes representing data. Like, other than the machine/mind interface, I could program you a passable Gibson-style matrix before Monday.

But to more precisely answer your question, as a sci-fi geek, I have yet to find an earlier reference to cyberspace as the "matrix" than Neuromancer (well, actually, some of Gibson's short stories may be older, and mention it; I never paid attention).

The movie The Matrix absolutely lifted the term from Gibson--as well as the cyberpunk/neo-goth tone. But by the time that it was being written, plenty of other people had lifted the term before. Amongst sci-fi geeks, it was immediately recognizable even by people who'd never read any Gibson.

As for other sci-fi. I like Rudy Rucker and Robert A. Heinlein. Rucker's last couple of books have been painfully Christian-preachy (he apparently found Jesus). And some people read Heinlein as sexist and/or racist; but I don't believe he is, and that his views are far more nuanced than simple prejudice.

Larry Niven is also excellent, but is more what we call "hard sci-fi". What this basically means is that while he has his literary conceits (faster-than-light travel; life-extension; etc.), he also tries very, very hard to make sure that he's got his math right. But his work is not for some people. The biggest complaint is that his characters are fairly wooden; which is fair, as they mainly exist to provide an excuse to show you around this neat thing he built.

I like Asimov okay. Especially the I, Robot books and stories. I can do without Clarke, though. He's a brilliant dude, whom I like personally; but his writing has too much magic, and not enough science, to interest me.
posted by Netzapper at 1:32 AM on December 24, 2009

As far as I know, Neuromancer was the first book to use the word in this context. Gibson was breaking some serious ground with Neuromancer, and it was same book that popularized the term 'cyberspace' (a term he originated in Burning Chrome).

If you enjoy Neuromancer, I would recommend checking out the rest of the Sprawl series: Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, as well as his second series: Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow's Parties. His later work (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country) is somewhat different, although perfectly good in its own right.

Bruce Sterling was a contemporary of Gibsons who continued to write in the cyberpunk style, and cowrote a steampunk novel called The Difference Engine, with Gibson. I would personally reccommend some of his other novels instead, particularly Distraction, Holy Fire, Zeitgeist, and Heavy Weather, in that order.

Gibson's legacy can clearly be seen in Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash, which is a must read along with pretty much all of his other work. Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon is a great cyberpunk / noir-detective mashup, and a decent collection of Phillip K Dick's stories will round out your introduction to this variant of sci-fi. For a slightly different style I can recommend check out David Brin's Earth, M. John Harrison's Light, and a great intro to Metafilter's own Charles Stross would be Accelerando or Halting State.
posted by sophist at 1:35 AM on December 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

Actually, here. That's a pretty excellent representation of your file system as it would appear in Gibson's matrix. There are other 3D file browsers as well.

Plug it into your brain, and you've got what he was talking about.

Gibson's simstim, on the other hand, is far more like The Matrix postulates.
posted by Netzapper at 1:37 AM on December 24, 2009

Oh duh! How the hell could I forget Stephenson!? Put down my vote for him too. Snowcrash and Diamond Age are the two closest to Neuromancer. With the bonus that Stephenson was actually an excellent programmer who really understands computers far better than Gibson ever could. But my favorite Stephenson novel is Zodiac, about a cigar-smoking ecoterrorist environmentalist in Boston.

(And where's my three-minute edit window?)
posted by Netzapper at 1:41 AM on December 24, 2009

Netzapper: Wouldn't the 3D interface be "Cyberspace"? I think cyberspace is the more clearly defined term, "matrix" just sounds like the network that cyberspace runs on (like "the internet" and "the web")

Or who knows, he talked more about "Cyberspace" then "the matrix"
posted by delmoi at 2:30 AM on December 24, 2009

From the OED entry for matrix,n:
"5. Science Fiction. Also Matrix. With the: = CYBERSPACE n.

1976 R. HOLMES Dr. Who: Deadly Assassin (BBC TV script) 50 Engin. How can you intercept thought patterns within the matrix itself? The Doctor: By going in there. By joining it.

1984 W. GIBSON Neuromancer II. iii. 51 The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade early graphics programs and military experimentation in cranial jacks.

1990 J. S. QUARTERMAN (title) The matrix: computer networks and conferencing systems worldwide.

1999 (film title) The matrix.

2007 R. J. PINEIRO SpyWare 51 She thrived inside the matrix, surfing the Web armed with the latest generation of virtual-reality software."

So the OED agrees with the two earliest uses suggested by chuckles and sophist. The first recorded use of matrix in its mathematical context was in 1850 (by JJ Sylvester), by which time it had already ben used to refer to `a supporting or enclosing structure' for a few centuries.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 2:43 AM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

sophist: “As far as I know, Neuromancer was the first book to use the word in this context.”

Well, maybe that's the first time it appeared in print - but I want to expand a bit on Chuckles' mention of the Doctor Who series that appeared eight years earlier than Neuromancer.

For those not 'in the know,' Doctor Who (for most of its run) has typically appeared in four-episode series, each of which covers a story arc and has a title. 1976 was a really great year for Doctor Who - arguably the greatest, in fact: the most iconic and charismatic (and my favorite) of the eleven actors who have so far played the Doctor, Tom Baker, was on the show, and probably the finest script-writer the show ever had, Robert Holmes, had the editor's chair. (The one and only Douglas Adams took over a few years later, by the way; he himself contributed some classic scripts, too.) What's more, Robert Holmes actually wrote the series in question, The Deadly Assassin, and I think it's one of the best series the show has ever had.

What I wanted to point out is this: in the Doctor Who serial, The Matrix is pretty much precisely what it is in later science fiction, fully-formed. The series takes place on the Doctor's home world, Gallifrey, the planet of the Time Lords. Before Robert Holmes took over, Gallifrey and the Time Lords had always seemed very friendly, but Holmes injected a good deal of darkness into the show. The Matrix is a computer bank containing the stored personalities and inner lives of all the Time Lords who have died; a secret and special privilege of the President of the High Council of Time Lords is the right to access The Matrix and enter it. During the series, it is discovered that someone else has hacked into The Matrix and taken control of it.

What's interesting is that, thematically, all the essentials of later sci-fi representations of "matrixes" are there. When the Doctor enters The Matrix, he finds himself in a strange and shifting world, and several times he finds himself on the brink of some perilous death when he realizes that the key is that what he's experiencing isn't real, and that what he has to do is riddle out the mind of whoever has hacked into The Matrix. So it's pretty clear that the notion of a Matrix inside which fact and fiction, reality and illusion, are shifting, a Matrix which really turns out to be a computer-based world, is evident in these episodes from 1976.

In fact, I'm convinced that William Gibson was probably thinking about them when he wrote Neuromancer. I might be wrong, but the similarities are too big to ignore; mathematical matrices aren't really anything like computer networks that create another reality. I'll go further and say this: I think the popularization of the concept in sci-fi in general came from William GIbson's groundbreaking work, and that Doctor Who was really the source of the use of 'The Matrix' in science fiction. Robert Holmes was always willing to pick up an idea from somewhere else, but somehow I feel as though he wouldn't just grab the name and concept whole like that; it's an idea which is closely related to a lot of themes he explored, in fact, so it isn't beyond the realm of reason that he might have invented it himself.

Anyhow, that's my take.
posted by koeselitz at 3:48 AM on December 24, 2009 [10 favorites]

Ah. Thank you, OED.
posted by koeselitz at 3:49 AM on December 24, 2009

By the way:

If you're interested, here is an in-depth discussion of the Doctor Who serial The Deadly Assassin. (I hadn't remembered, but it points out that the villian of the series, trapping the Doctor in the Matrix, utters another later-popularized sci-fi phrase: "Resistance is futile!") If you're interested in Doctor Who but have never known where to start, this serial is a pretty great place. And has the four episodes in streaming format, broken up into three-part chunks.
posted by koeselitz at 4:10 AM on December 24, 2009

The roleplaying game Shadowrun also uses the term "Matrix" and most certainly borrowed it from Gibson.
posted by jozxyqk at 4:37 AM on December 24, 2009

Hmm, William Gibson has a twitter account, maybe someone can @msg him and ask if how he came up with the term "matrix" in Neuromancer.

(to be honest, I didn't even notice the use of the term when I read the book. "matrix" is so common for network it must not have even registered)
posted by delmoi at 4:39 AM on December 24, 2009

I strongly recommend Philip K. Dick's final three books, known commonly as his VALIS trilogy, which were written after Dick experienced a brain event which he interpreted as a signal from an otherworldly intelligence. The first, VALIS, is a semi-autobiographical account of that experience. The second, The Divine Invasion, is an acrobatic work of religious intensity seen through the lens of wacky sci-fi. The third, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, was published after Dick's death, and it is a remarkably subdued, chillingly cynical final evaluation of reality and human error.
posted by hermitosis at 6:35 AM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

The term is recent, but the idea of virtual reality is pretty old. At least the 1960s.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:51 AM on December 24, 2009

Electrical grid -> information grid -> information matrix.
posted by smackfu at 11:35 AM on December 24, 2009

A "matrix" is also what a honeycomb is constructed on, so there may be some sense of that in the metaphor as well--people, like bees, laboring in cells to produce for the good of the whole.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:52 PM on December 24, 2009

Or, as in the case of kept bees and the Warshawskis' movie, producing for the good of the more powerful alien beings who steal stuff from you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:53 PM on December 24, 2009

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