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Flickering Reality










Flickering Reality
Comparing Sophie's Transformation into Promethea to Neo's Awakening in The Matrix
By The Despoiler
originaldespoiler@yahoo.com
May2003
Note: At the time of this writing, the Promethea series is not yet concluded and a sequel to the Matrix has just been released. This essay compares the first twelve issues of Promethea with the original 1999 movie The Matrix. Later developments in either story line have not been considered.
Stories. Stories that evolve and change to shed new understanding. Stories that define their times. Some stories so powerful and important that they absolutely must be told, so complex and abstract that they cannot be adequately explored from a single vantage point. Whether through the spell binding prose of Alan Moore or the action packed visuals of the Wachowski Brothers, whether the medium be witchcraft or cyberpunk, whether the hero be male or female, some stories can only impart their message through successive retelling. These are the stories that lie at the core of the human experience.
Such a fundamental story lies behind the tales of Promethea and the highly adapted [1] blockbuster The Matrix. These are clearly two immensely different works, one portraying a nightmare future where machines wage war on mankind and the other a fantastic realm full of Magic, Deities, and Demons. Dig deeper, however, and you find at the core of each the tale of a struggling young champion, Sophie Bangs and hacker alias Neo respectively, and their discovery of a new reality so unbelievable that their minds have trouble accepting it.
Both Sophie and Neo undertake mental journeys into higher levels of consciousness. The pattern of these journeys is the same, beginning with a discontent over the perceived real world, illuminated by the teachings of their mentors, strengthened by a mission to save humanity, and punctuated by attempts to let go of the physical completely.
I am Promethea, the child who stands
between fixed earth and insubstantial air
a thought who yet treads matter's rain-swept strands
and mortals are the sandals that I wear

- Promethea
What is the Matrix?
It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth...
What truth?
That we are slaves, born into prisons that we cannot see nor touch nor smell nor hear nor taste: Prisons for our minds...

-The Matrix
At the heart of each story is a discontent with the real world. Neo finds no joy in the illegal software he traffics nor in the challenges of his real job. Similarly, Sophie resists wearing the fashions of her day and scorns her friend Stacia's interest in all current art and music. Both heroes find themselves disillusioned with the modern world, they seek escape from the contemporary.
Their search for greater meaning becomes obsessive. Sophie delves into the past, scouring libraries and ancient texts, tracing storybook characters through the ages. Neo scours the Internet in search of flaws and inconsistencies in the information presented to him. Although, both sense they are delving into dangerous areas, neither can resist investigating deeper. Almost against their wills, they become caught up and drawn into their obsessions: Neo into an apocalyptic future of scorched earth and mechanical madness, and Sophie into an ancient myth fraught with demonology, and witchcraft.
Neo and Sophie are not alone in their quests, both encounter a series of mentors to help them with their search. First, they meet those that have already walked the same path. Neo is guided to freedom by Morpheus and his crew, joining the growing fellowship of people that have been able to break out of the machines' mind prisons. Similarly, Sophie discovers she is not the first to have channelled Promethea and finds new friends among the former vessels.
Later, both heroes must seek out wiser sources to answer their questions and address their doubts. Neo consults the Oracle, an encounter which leaves him with even more questions. Sophie is driven into the arms of the sorcerer Jack Faust, paying his price to gain more understanding about her transformation. The teachings are simple, free your mind and erase your doubts to reach your full potential. Driven by the encouragement of their mentors, Sophie and Neo discover new powers beyond their wildest dreams.
We're trapped, there's no way out!
I hope the Oracle gave you some good news...

-The Matrix
But... I can't be Promethea.
We'd better hope otherwise.

- Promethea
Perhaps fuelled by a need for identity and purpose, both adopt pivotal roles in their alternate realities, roles where the fates of millions rest in their hands. Their power is only limited by their imagination and the strength of their belief in their own divinity. Neo becomes able to destroy and recreate the Matrix around him as he sees fit, while Sophie learns to summon and control the shifting substance of the Immateria. Doubt is the only true enemy they face, skepticism of their growing mental powers.
Having themselves shed the physical shackles that were holding them back, they each embark on a mission to free the rest of humanity from the mental prisons they have just escaped.
They want you dead because you're going to end the world.
Am I?
Oh yes...

- Promethea
Let me show you a world without rules or controls,
without borders or boundaries,
a world where anything is possible...

-The Matrix
Although they seek to share the message, to share their discovery, neither Sophie nor Neo have themselves become completely free. Their minds remain partially shackled to the Physical. Although each perceives their potential for Godliness, deep down, they remain the same delicate mortals that they were, doomed to eventual destruction.
In the ultimate irony, Neo breaks all his bonds with the world only to find himself in another physical reality, one in which the suffering of humanity is even worse and each day is an even greater struggle for survival. Meanwhile, Sophie perceives Promethea as an altogether different person, continually returning to her weak mortal body after prancing the cosmos like a Goddess. Neither has been able to accept their transformation altogether, both keep trying to invent physical reasons to explain their god-like powers.
At the heart of both stories is the quest for enlightenment and ultimate escape from the vicious cycle of life and death. Both stories are in fact clever interpretations of Eastern philosophies. Arriving at the threshold of enlightenment, Neo and Sophie get a brief taste of Nirvana but at the last moment fail to embrace it completely and are thrown back into the physical world, thrown back into the pleasure and the pain. Having failed to undergo their mental journey to completion, they have nevertheless become all powerful in their own way, Zen masters driven to spread the word about what lies beyond.
Footnotes
1 Many artists have contributed to the Matrix storyline. Among them William Gibson, the father of cyberpunk, who first introduced the term the Matrix in 1984, describing it as a shared virtual reality accessible by all humanity. The deserted subway station used for the Matrix's final confrontation is a homage to David Goyer's "Dark City", which appeared the preceding year and also posed the question "What is real?". In 1995, Tasmanian author Stewart Wochen wrote "The Protector", a story about a man born into a simulated reality who discovers he is in fact a prisoner and sets out to free himself and the rest of humanity from virtual slavery.