Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Media Review: Westworld

This review first appeared in October 2016 on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.

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David: Today we’ll be discussing the new HBO series, Westworld, based on the 1973 feature film written and directed by Michael Crichton. This may involve spoilers for the first four episodes of the show, so just be aware of that.

I’m joined by three guests. First up, we’ve got our producer, John Joseph Adams. He’s the editor of Lightspeed and Nightmare magazines, and he also oversees John Joseph Adams Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s the series editor of Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, and he’s also edited many other anthologies including a book of weird west fiction called Dead Man’s Hand. John, welcome back.

John: Howdy, partner!

David: Next up we’ve got Theresa DeLucci making her seventh appearance on the show. She’s written about Hannibal and Twin Peaks for BoingBoing, and she’s also a frequent guest on Den of Geeks’ “You Still Know Nothing” Game of Thrones podcast. She’ll be reviewing Westworld for Tor.com, and you should all go check out her Tor.com article “Six Guns and Strange Shooters: A Weird West Primer.” Theresa, welcome to the show.

Theresa: Hi, thanks for letting me join your posse again.

David: Also joining us today is Rajan Khanna making his sixth appearance on the show. His first novel, Falling Sky, a post-apocalyptic adventure with airships was released in 2014 from Pyr Books and a sequel, Rising Tide, is out now. His weird west story “Card Sharp” appears in John’s anthology The Way of the Wizard, and a sequel story, “Second Hand,” appears in John’s weird west anthology Dead Man’s Hand. Raj, welcome to the show.

Raj: Let’s saddle up.

David: As I mentioned in the intro, this new TV show is based on the movie Westworld from 1973. Theresa, you told me that you saw this movie—what did you think of it?

Theresa: I just watched it for the first time about two weeks ago in preparation for the show. Definitely looks like it was made in 1973, but it’s still pretty good. Michael Crichton directed and wrote it, and you could see some elements he’d explore later in Jurassic Park, but really the TV show is so different that you definitely don’t need to watch the movie to enjoy the show.

David: I’d also never seen the movie before. People had talked about it growing up, so I kind of knew about it, but I’d never actually watched it. After I watched the TV episodes, I went back and watched the movie . . . and the TV show is a vast, vast improvement over the film. It’s a pretty low budget thing. It’s actually at 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, which kind of surprises me. I can only assume there’s a healthy dose of nostalgia at play there.

I think that the movie has two things going for it. One is Yul Brynner, who plays an amazing robot. That guy was born to play a robot. I also thought that the way they portrayed the amusement park was quite interesting. But the big liability of the film is that the two main characters, the human characters, are completely uninteresting. It’s really slow, and I think that I wouldn’t particularly recommend it except for kind of historical interest at this point.

Raj: Are the themes similar at all?

David: No, it’s completely different. It’s basically “evil robots go crazy and try to kill people.”

Theresa: I felt like I knew it from that Simpsons episode where they parodied Westworld with Itchy and Scratchy World. If you’ve seen that episode of the Simpsons then you’ve basically seen Westworld.

Raj: So, basically, dinosaurs kind of escape and try to kill people.

David: Yeah, it’s like Jurassic Park with robot cowboys.

John: When I was watching the show, I was thinking, “How did I never realize this before?”—that Westworld was basically Michael Crichton’s dry run for Jurassic Park. It totally is. Come up with a crazy theme park and then have the draw of the theme park turn on the guests. It’s like he literally just did the same plot over again.

Raj: I’m surprised no one has done cowboys riding dinosaurs attacking people at a theme park.

David: Well, there’s always Jurassic World 2, right? One thing that’s interesting about the film, though, is that Westworld is just one of three areas in this park. There’s also “Medieval World” and “Roman World.” And the characters end up going to all three in the course of the movie.

Theresa: Yeah, I wonder if they’ll ever open it up to more worlds, or if they’ll just stay in Western World.

Raj: They could reuse the Game of Thrones set.

Theresa: And the sets from Spartacus.

John: I wondered about that. With a TV show you have much more flexibility and time and space to move around and check out other facets of this world. When I was doing a little bit of research into Westworld, I discovered that there was a sequel called Futureworld. And there even was a TV show called Beyond Westworld, which apparently only aired three episodes and was not well-received.

It’s so crazy that I’ve never even heard of either of those because I was a huge Michael Crichton fan. He got me into science fiction, basically. That’s essentially the context in which I watched Westworld. I hunted it down originally because I was trying to read and/or consume every bit of entertainment produced by Michael Crichton.

David: Everything I read suggested that those are dramatically inferior to Westworld, and since I just barely made it through Westworld, I’m not in any hurry to go looking for those.

John: Dave, you’d asked us if any of us had seen the movie, and I have, but I blocked most of it out of my head. I didn’t really like it very much. I do remember that I definitely agree with what Theresa said, that it feels like it was made in 1973. And like you said, Yul Brynner was great, but I don’t really remember the rest of it. I think that’s always a bad sign.

David: Raj, what were your overall impressions of the new Westworld TV show?

Raj: I actually have this weird affinity for the concept of Westworld. I haven’t actually seen the movie, but I always wanted to, and for some reason I just never did. I’ve seen little bits and pieces, but I don’t know why I never got around to watching it, because it’s right up my alley—early ‘70s science fiction, western, robots, Yul Brynner: that’s all right in my wheelhouse. But when I heard they were remaking it for HBO, I thought, “This will be interesting because this is a modern take, and if it still hits the same points, that will work for me.”

Honestly, the pilot episode didn’t really completely win me over, but as I went through the additional episodes, I started to appreciate it more. I’m a big fan of westerns, and I’m a big fan of science fictional concepts like artificial intelligences, or robots on the verge of artificial intelligence, etc. Those two things together worked really well. I’ll say that I feel like all the concepts worked, actually, and intellectually I was really invested in it, but there was something lacking in terms of me connecting with it on an emotional level or some kind of personal level. Maybe that’ll change as the series goes on, but there are very few characters that I felt connected to.

David: Theresa, I mentioned that you’ll be reviewing this for Tor.com. Overall, what’s your review going to look like?

Theresa: Well, the review for the pilot is going to be pretty glowing because it left me with so many interesting questions that I was dying to know more. I haven’t felt this excited after a first episode since probably Lost, and that scares me because I know how Lost ended up.

I think the show is going to have quite a few comparisons to Lost because it seems like they’re coming up with their own Dharma Initiative mythology and a central mystery, but overall, I love the first episode. I love the first four in general, but the very first episode was my favorite just because everything was so new, and it was so different from what I was expecting—partly because I’d seen the movie, so I had some expectations that they definitely flipped around. Overall, I enjoyed the look of it, the scenery, the music, the costumes, the little attention to detail, and then all of these interesting questions about humanity’s next evolutionary step, which I thought were handled in a pretty sophisticated way.

David: I agree. I really liked the first episode. I was totally on board afterward. Why was it not working as much for you, Raj?

Raj: Maybe because my expectations were too high. That’s always possible. I think a pilot always has to do a lot of work, and it’s obvious that it’s trying to do too many things at once to give you the sense of what this world is about. I think that was the thing.

The first episode was trying to sell the world. But then as they went on, you got to relax a bit. Like there’s an episode where a character is introduced to the theme park aspect of Westworld for the first time, and I felt like that was a way better introduction to the audience member because it shows exactly what this experience is about.

I think honestly it was just high expectations and thinking, “Can they do this justice?” And it wasn’t until I was two or three episodes in that I saw where the plot was going, and I think that’s what I was looking for.

David: John, where do you come down on this?

John: I really liked it. I didn’t have very high expectations at all. Like I said, I wasn’t a fan of the movie, though I was encouraged by the trailers that I’d seen of the show, so I was hopeful. But I was careful to temper my expectations.

The reason I was hopeful was because of a lot of people involved. Jonathan Nolan is one of the creative team leading the show, and science fiction author Charles Yu1 is on the writing team as well.

So I was hopeful, but I was very cautious. And it really did exceed all my expectations. I’m really excited about it. I can’t wait to watch more of it. It was one of those situations where, after we watched an episode, me and my wife would really discuss and dissect it. After we watched all four, we actually had an hour-long conversation in which we put forth our various theories of where things might be going.

I think that’s always a really great sign. It’s kind of an obvious comparison, but I think the last time I had those types of conversations was when Battlestar Galactica was on and was really firing on all cylinders—before everything got ruined. Hopefully this won’t get ruined like that.

David: You mentioned that Jonathan Nolan is co-writing the show with his wife, or they’re the main people behind it, anyway. I saw one review that was making the point that there’s a lot of Memento in this where all of the robot characters constantly have their memories wiped and are just baffled all the time by things that they don’t remember. Did you like that? The way that it portrayed these characters whose memory is constantly being yanked away from them?

John: I thought that was really interesting, and I like the way they were really focusing on Dolores, really drilling into that one character, and having her be the one that’s coming to this realization that what she believes may not be reality. I thought they did a really good job.

People might only know Jonathan Nolan as the brother (and collaborator) of director Christopher Nolan, but Jonathan Nolan actually wrote the story “Memento Mori” that Memento was based on, so obviously that theme goes way back for him. It’s not surprising that he would want to explore that more here. I think it makes a lot of sense in this context, and I think it’s a really interesting way to explore that idea.

David: I saw that Nolan said after going back and reviewing the original Westworld movie the take he wanted to put on it was, “What if we make the robots the good guys and people are the ones who are horrible and fucked up?”

Theresa, you could see that’s pretty much what this show is like, right?

Theresa: Oh yeah, absolutely. The rich inner lives of NPCs. I’ve played so many Rockstar games, and I remember what a big deal it was in the press when Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’s A.I. was updated to make all of the nonplayable characters more lifelike. The traffic patterns changed based on time of day. Little pixel Californians jogged, ate burgers, talked to each other . . . That’s kind of like what we see with Dolores and these other androids. They’re on these loops going about their day and the human players, the human park visitors, are there to mess up their storylines and get involved in ways that they see fit. I thought that was really, really interesting.

The humans that we met—at least the ones going to the park—largely seem horrible. I really hate Logan. He’s awful. I don’t think I really need a show to show me how depraved humans can be. There’s plenty of that on TV. The robots are way more interesting. I’d rather watch them work out their flickering of sentience. That’s much more interesting.

John: Just to piggyback on what Theresa was saying about the relation to video games, I really like that aspect of it as well. I think it was important to try to integrate that into a show like this that’s being made now, today, as opposed to 1973. I would feel very weird if they didn’t try to parallel that video game notion, where you’re walking through a town and a random person comes up to you, and it’s like, “Oh no, he’s just trying to give me some bullshit quest. I don’t want to do that.” It’s just like in a roleplaying game. I really like that aspect of it, and it made it feel realistic to me.

One question that I have about the realism of it is that I would like to understand how the guns function, because there’s something unusual about how they work.

For instance, we see Ed Harris’s character, the gunslinger, we see him get shot, and it’s like nothing happens to him. So, clearly, if a person can get shot, there’s some sort of protection that keeps them from getting hurt, right? I’m really curious, how is that supposed to work? I assume however it’s designed to work is going to be subverted on the show somehow, but if so, what’s going to be the method of that subversion?

Raj: I agree that I love that they picked up on what the modern technology is, because I was watching with my girlfriend—who doesn’t play video games—and I was explaining to her that if you’re playing Skyrim, there are people going about their business, talking to each other . . . I guess the more recent games, they have their own little scripts, they’re doing their own little things, and sometimes you interrupt that and it influences what you can do.

But what I found completely horrendous [on the show] as a video game player is that generally in those games, if you kill somebody indiscriminately within the logic of that world, the police or the guards or whoever will come after you. In Grand Theft Auto you can ride it out, and you’ll be fine in a little while. Or, in Skyrim, you could escape and no one really remembers it. But the fact that this park caters to people to the extent that they don’t care if you go around shooting people or torturing people or whatever with these non-realistic people kind of drove it home even more to me.

David: That’s not the wild west theme though?

Raj: It is, but nobody else ever reacts, or they’ll look, but they don’t actually say, “Oh my god, he just shot that guy, let’s go after him.” Or, “Let’s tell the sheriff.” Or whatever. I think that’s fine because it shows that the park is catering to wealthy people who have possibly very disturbing appetites, and that’s what it’s about. It’s not about providing an adventure. I mean, it is, for those people who want it, but for other people it’s, “Let me go shoot a bunch of people,” or “Let me go do horribly depraved things in this non-real universe.” That made it even darker for me.

David: Theresa, I thought you were going to mention Red Dead Redemption because I know you’re a big fan of that.

Theresa: I was getting ready.

David: I saw that Jonathan Nolan said explicitly that was an influence on this show. Did you see that influence?

Theresa: Oh my god, absolutely. Even down to Westworld’s main town being called Sweetwater. Red Dead’s main town is Blackwater. There’s an Escalera in Red Dead. There’s an Escalante down in Mexico in Westworld. The look of it. The outfits.

Raj: That pseudo-Mexican city looked exactly like one of the towns in—

Theresa: Chuparosa. It was totally Chuparosa.

Raj: Yeah, exactly.

Theresa: Which is really interesting. Again, just thinking about the NPCs and that A.I., in Red Dead—they boasted like over two hundred random encounters with NPCs programmed to live these frontier lives. You could kidnap the whore and tie her to train tracks for a trophy or you could bounty hunt and play high honor.

In the second episode of Westworld, there was a scene where Ed Harris gave a speech, and it reminded me of a random encounter in Red Dead where a randomly spawned man wept over the corpse of a loved one. You’re alone on the plains at night, and this guy appears, and he’s just weeping on the side of the road over this dead body of his wife, until he pulls out a pistol and shoots himself in the head. It’s like, “Why program a suicide?” Why have Dolores’ parents get murdered every night or her lover get gunned down all the time? And these events happen even if no guests are watching? So are these droids supposed to be more sophisticated versions of the pedestrians I run over in GTA or is it like Ed Harris’s gunslinger says: “When you’re suffering you’re most real.” Would anyone as a guest buy a constructed world as authentic if there was no pain in it?

David: What do you think, Theresa, about Raj’s point that in Westworld you’re allowed to kill people indiscriminately in a way that you couldn’t in most games. Is that true of Red Dead Redemption? That there would be more consequences to just gunning down random people?

Theresa: Oh yeah. The posse will come after you, like a posse of marshals, and as it gets more serious, eventually the army will come.

John: I think what would make it somewhat more realistic, or more analogous to video games, is if in the show the park would fine you for each indiscriminate murder that you did that wasn’t part of a narrative. There’s one scene where this guy just shoots up the bar for no reason. He just shoots everybody. He’s not roleplaying. He just decided to go blast everybody away. If the park would fine you, then at least there would be some consequence—that’s how it would happen in most video games. Like, in Skyrim, if you went and murdered a bunch of people in a town, you could escape, and you’d be fine if you were outside that town, but if you went back into that place, you’d have this bounty on you, and guards would recognize you as soon as you walked in, and you’d have to pay that bounty or they’d try to kill you on sight. You can make it go away by paying this bounty, but depending on how bad you were, it might be significant. I thought that would actually help the show explain some of the culture that they’re playing with.

One thing that bugged me about the way the park works is that I was saying how the human guests can’t be killed, right? Which, obviously, that makes sense. One guy gets shot who’s a human, and he discovers that he didn’t get killed, but it did hurt a little bit, and he was surprised that it hurt a little bit. It wasn’t just pain-free. So, that’s good, but on the other hand, you don’t have a health meter or anything, so you can just run into a building full of bad guys guns blazing with no regard for your personal safety. Maybe you’re going to get shot a few times, and maybe it’ll hurt a little bit, but you’ll be fine in terms of the narrative. I wish that there was some way that they could actually “take damage” like in a video game so that you can’t just run in shooting indiscriminately. Like, you’ve got to play the game. You have to play. Otherwise it makes it seem a little bit pointless to some degree.

Theresa: Yeah, it’s like you’re playing a game with a cheat code.

Raj: It’s not a game, though. That’s the thing. And it’s not a roleplaying experience. If that were the case, you would have police. You would get thrown into jail. Maybe if you got shot you would have a time out for a little while.

It’s more of a whorehouse that reaches beyond sex in the sense that you can do violence, and you can go on adventures, and you can do all kinds of things, but it’s catering toward base desires for the most part. Obviously, there are some people who they’ve shown in the show who want to play the bounty hunter—they want to do those things—but how engaged can you be if you know you’re never going to get hurt? You know what I mean? That’s the thing about games. I think, if you’re a gamer, you play for the challenge. You don’t want to walk in and just be able to do anything because you’re trying to figure it out. Or, in roleplaying games, I think a lot of people are trying to play a character. How do I get into this sealed place? Do I stealth into it? Do I just run in attacking? It’s fine that’s what this park is about, but, to me, it makes it so much more of a dirty place.

David: I want to pick up on John’s thing about the guns. I could go on for an hour about logistical questions I have about this. But just a couple of things:

I was never sure how often they reset the robots’ memories.

For a place that’s supposedly safe for the guests, it seemed just ridiculously dangerous, even when they’re having the horse pull the safe out of the bank and run it through town. Like, how can you have robots just doing that kind of stuff without the unacceptable risk that guests are going to be injured in the middle of this?

Raj: What’s interesting to me is that all of this is happening at the same time, and the timing is very unclear about how this stuff loops. Because let’s say I’m in Westworld and John is in Westworld, and I’m going to be sadistic and just start shooting up people, but he’s there to go on an adventure, and he wants to talk to the old prospector, or he wants to talk to somebody who’s going to send him on an adventure, and I just go ahead and shoot that dude in the head. Isn’t that interfering with his experience? I know that the park is catering to everybody, but you think that they would have some rules in place so that one guy doesn’t ruin everything for everyone else.

David: But that kind of comes up in one scene, right? Where two of the guests are at loggerheads, and they can’t shoot each other, but they can threaten to shoot the robots that the other one wants for their storyline, right?

Raj: That’s true.

John: I think Raj makes a good point. It’s also confusing from an economic standpoint, because if this one guy goes off and shoots up the bar, he paid the same daily fee to get into the park as anybody else and yet he just caused an extensive amount of damage to all of these androids. You see the behind-the-scenes shots where the park staff are basically rebuilding these androids almost from scratch when they get all shot up. If one guy can just do that without any repercussions, then it’s kind of ridiculous. It also comes into play when, like Raj says, it’s going to interfere with the fun of everybody else who want to come in and not just indiscriminately murder people.

Theresa: What if Westworld is like a cruise? You think it’s all inclusive, but at the end they hit you with the saloon bill and then they hit you with a “dead robot” bill. And it’s like another $40,000 right there. That’s what the gunslinger is about. He’s the most disgruntled character.

Raj: But what would be interesting is, say you’re a regular. You’re one of those guys who goes to Disney World all the time, and so you’re like, “Oh god, I hope Dolores is free this time because I really want to do that storyline.” But somebody else got to Dolores first. You have to wait your turn. But, I agree, logistically I think it starts breaking down the more you look into it on a certain level.

John: I’d kind of like to see them pull back outside of the park at some point so we can see what the perception of this park is in the real world. I don’t know if that would be an interesting episode, but I’m very curious about it.

I can only imagine that hundreds and hundreds or maybe thousands of people have died at this park. Even with all the safeguards that they have. I can imagine other safeguards we didn’t get to see, like when they’re going to pull the safe out, they could have had certain background character androids who are programmed to make sure that the street is clear, or something like that. But still, even with that protection in place, people are going to get trampled.

So I’d be interested to see how the real world perceives this park, because it seems crazy.

David: From a plausibility standpoint, they try to have it both ways. This is like Disney World where people come on a lark and bring along the wife and she’s not that into it and stuff like that. But it’s also like a big game safari hunt, or climbing Mount Everest where it’s super dangerous, and you’re paying a lot of money to do it, and only people who are really, really motivated, it seems, would be interested in it. I think it should be more like the latter. I could believe you’d be signing all sorts of waivers where you’re risking getting injured.

Raj: But they did say that if you stay in the center of town then you’re probably going to have that kind of relaxed “I’m in the wild west experience,” and the farther you went out of town it got more dangerous and more risky. To me that’s how they set it up. So, if you come with a family, just stay in the center of town, and maybe one day the husband goes off to do some kind of risky thing or the wife goes off to do some risky thing. I don’t know exactly how that’s clear. In the first four episodes, we’ve obviously seen some dangerous stuff happen out in the wilderness, but on the other hand, I agree that in town seems pretty dangerous too.

John: Yeah, in the middle of town is where the safe thing happened. I totally get what you’re saying, though, Dave. That would make more logical sense to me.

David: Another thing that just doesn’t seem to work in this show to me, from a science fictional standpoint, is that everybody comes here and doesn’t seem to understand how Westworld operates at all even though they’ve paid all this money to do it. And the idea of having sex with a robot . . . to a lot of them that possibility hadn’t even occurred to them. They’re like, “Really? You can do this?”

It also seems like this is the only place in world you can have sex with a robot. I just don’t understand how this park could exist in a world where having sex with a robot isn’t something you could do outside the park. Why would that be the case?

John: The only thing I can think of is that this guy pioneered these robots, and he’s got some sort of patent on whatever makes that artificial intelligence work, thus Westworld would be the only place, but I don’t know. It does seem incredibly hard to believe that people would go there and not realize that that’s a thing you can do at Westworld. That’s probably the main selling point for like half the population. It is a little bit ridiculous.

Raj: Do you think, based on what you’ve seen, that the androids are made out of living tissue or something approximating living tissue, or do you think it’s all simulated?

John: It seems like it’s very realistic tissue, if not actual flesh. I think that’s one of the things that wasn’t clear in the preview episodes we watched because I think that maybe those visual effects were not yet final. So when they were building the androids, we couldn’t quite tell how that was happening. I was imagining that was a stand-in, and that it was actually going to look like they were building real flesh onto these robots. Because when they get shot up and stuff, it has to look realistic, right? I was imagining that they were more like biological . . . sort of like the humanoid cylons in Battlestar Galactica.

David: I want to go back to the sex thing for a second. Theresa, what did you think about the robot sex and nudity and all that kind of stuff in the show?

Theresa: I had heard a lot of talk about the portrayal of rape in this show before I watched any episodes, and I was kind of warned about it by the blog manager at Tor.com. Like: “Hey, you cover Game of Thrones, I’m hearing Westworld is kind of rapey. Is this something that you want to cover? If you’re tired of that from Game of Thrones, it’s cool. You could just say you’re not interested.”

But I think the show handles rape and consent and sex in a really interesting way because it’s asking you to ask these questions, like “What is intelligent?” “Are they living?” “What are they?”

The nudity in the Westworld universe, like in their dream, behind the scenes—it’s really creepy to see them so matter of fact nude. A robot doesn’t feel modesty, it doesn’t feel shame, so they’re naked and we’ll stack them like cordwood and hose them down at the end of the day. It was very disturbing imagery. I thought it was handled very nicely. It made it feel more creepy, and it made you ask why? Why does this storyline for Dolores exist? It was interesting.

David: Did you guys follow this controversy about the consent agreement with the extras? All the robot extras in all of the backgrounds were all naked all the time. There was this controversy because of the consent agreement that they all had to sign came out. It’s pretty amazing. It says, “This document serves to inform you that this project will require you to be fully nude and/or witness others fully nude, and participate in graphic sexual situations. By accepting this project assignment, you may be required to do any of the following: if you’re fully nude wear a pubic hair patch, perform genital to genital touching, have your genitals painted, simulate oral sex with hand to genital touching, contort to form a table-like shape while being fully nude, pose on all fours while others who are fully nude ride on your back, ride on someone’s back while you are both fully nude, and other assorted acts the project may require.”

John: Whoa.

Theresa: And this is why Spartacus hired adult entertainers. We’re four episodes in. I didn’t see any kind of nudity like that.

John: Yeah, as far as the nudity goes, that document sounds shocking to me, and it’s honestly hard to imagine that many people signed it.

In the storage facility where they had the non-functioning robots—that made sense to me; they’re going to store them nude in there because they’re just robots, and they’re powered down. There’s no reason to have them all dressed up, and they probably need those outfits to put on some other robot. But when they were working on them, and they were sitting down and talking to them face-to-face, like a bunch of the conversations with Dolores, they’re just sitting there naked and that seemed a little bit weird to me. Like, “Hey, guys, this is HBO, we have to have a bunch of nudity. We have to have as much nudity as possible because people like to see them titties, you know?”

It was really confusing to me that they would do that. Even to the extent where, Anthony Hopkins’s character, saw somebody who actually had one of the androids covered, and he goes over and takes the covering off of them—I guess just to make the point via infodump that robots have no shame. They don’t have any modesty, so there’s no reason to cover it, which obviously you would understand.

I just thought it was weird that they emphasized that they had to be there naked all the time. Because, well, if they’re just going fix them—

Theresa: Maybe their clothes are in the laundry. Or getting mended.

John: I mean, maybe.

Theresa: It is weird.

John: It felt a little exploitative.

David: Raj, what did you think of the robot sex and the nudity?

Raj: I think that it got better as we progressed through the four episodes. I think in the first episode it felt not only a little gratuitous in places re: nudity, but it felt very gratuitous in terms of violence. Then I think from episodes two to four, it got better. A lot of the violence was done off screen. A lot of the nudity, again, became that weird kind of uncomfortable situation—these are androids treated in an almost off-hand way.

I’m probably the one person here who thought it was still a bit too rapey, and I think part of that is I understand what they’re going for, but I also found it hard in some places to pick up on who is supposed to be a real person and who is supposed to be part of the park. So, I’d be more willing to say, “Oh, they built a bunch of rape into this western fantasy because they figure that’s what the west was all about,” or whatever, but then obviously the humans who come in are kind of rapey. I think part of it was just, well, they had the whorehouse, and they have these androids who are willing to sleep with any of them if they want. Obviously, the idea is they’re trying to show there are some really sick people who go to this place to experience really sick fantasies.

I think I’m just fatigued by rape in television because it’s so omnipresent that it just felt like more of the same. Maybe if that hadn’t been a factor it wouldn’t have bothered me so much.

David: When you say the guests are all sick, I thought the show really hit that pretty heavily. They just go into this park and are shooting people and having sex with robots . . . it’s just inherently degrading to your humanity. It made me wonder—people play Grand Theft Auto and run over people and all this kind of stuff in the game: Is there anything different about going to Westworld and shooting robots? Do we think video games are for sick people?

Raj: I think the difference would be that if you saw somebody that seemed human on every level and reacted in a human fashion that your empathy would automatically kick in, whereas when you’re watching a pixelated human on a screen, it’s a very different experience. The other thing I want to say is many people who are not depraved and not terrible people and who would never rape somebody play out rape fantasies in their healthy sexual lives. I do see that you could make the case that if they don’t think these are real people then maybe they’re just playing out fantasies that they could never express in real life. But I think there’s one thing from imagining that in your head and then being confronted with a person who looks, to all intents and purposes, real.

I think that’s an interesting thing about the show. Even if somebody tells you, they’re not real, they’re not real, they’re not real, what does it take to overcome that? Because, obviously, there are some characters who we’ve seen in the show who react as if they’re real people. They’ve talked about how people fall in love because they react as human beings. Does the fact that you can see these people as non-human beings make you smarter or does that make you more depraved? I don’t know. It is an interesting thing to think about.

David: Theresa, what do you think? Is it worse to do something in Westworld than in Red Dead Redemption?

Theresa: Hmm, well, in Red Dead, you go into it as one set character, and you can play him however you want. You can be a black hat or a white hat; with his backstory and experience, I usually play high honor.

But if it’s something like Grand Theft Auto—no, I’m a psychopath. I’m bad. I’m a very bad person in Grand Theft Auto. In Westworld, I would say there’s not as much difference between that and Grand Theft Auto. What makes it different now watching Westworld and knowing that the androids are starting to come into consciousness, makes it absolutely wrong to be treating them like you do.

David: Right, because that was actually one of my issues with the show. I think it’s good. I would recommend everyone watch it. It’s really well-acted, and well-written, and dramatic, and good visually. But as science fiction, it was a little less interesting to me.

I saw a comment years ago that I think is really true, where it said that science fiction movies in particular can only see robots in one of two ways: either they’re killer monsters or they’re an oppressed minority. There are so many other ways that they could be handled, but it seems like they always fall into one or the other, or both.

That’s kind of the case here. Obviously, if the robots are sentient then the ethics are all determined, right? They’re victims and everyone who is doing bad things to them is horrible. It’s very black and white and simple how we feel about this.

Whereas, if the robots aren’t sentient, or at least we have no good reason to think that they are, then how people treat things that look human but aren’t sentient is a much more interesting question. It’s a big problem for this park that people are constantly falling in love with the robots and trying to save them, even though they’re just like characters from Grand Theft Auto. They’re not sentient at all. And people get into fights over them. That just seems more interesting to me, and the ethical things that come out of that seem more interesting to me. Now that we know that the robots are sentient and they’re basically like humans, and they’re getting their memories back, there’s only one place where this story can go, and it’s where stories have gone millions of times before. I would rather have seen something different.

John: That’s a really interesting point. Definitely the show doesn’t explore it with a real science fictional lens. It’s kind of using the furniture of science fiction to tell this interesting story, and what it’s doing, it’s doing pretty well. But as a piece of serious science fiction, it doesn’t really work. I think that’s the frustrating thing about it, but I think it’s firing on enough cylinders otherwise that I find it really interesting, and I’m curious to see where they’re going to go. But I agree it would be great if somebody would do something with A.I. at some point that broke that mold a little bit, but until then, I’m happy to get something that deals with the trope as well as this does.

David: I’ll just mention the Spike Jonze movie Her as an example where the A.I. in that is intended to be sentient, but it doesn’t fall into that killer monster or oppressed minority trope. If people are reading this and wondering, “Well, what could Westworld do that’s different?”—Her is an example of how you can tell a more inventive story.

Raj, do you agree or disagree or anything?

Raj: I mostly agree. It’s not treading much new ground. I think what’s more interesting are the motivations of the people who started this park because I think that seems to be one of the underlying mysteries or plot threads. What are their intentions? Why are these things happening? Is there an ultimate reason behind them? It seems like some people are invested in this evolutionary growth in the thinking of the androids, and some people are opposed to it. I think that’s more interesting to me. Also, because I think we all probably have a sense of where the main plot thrust is going. How do they intend to sustain this if it’s going to last beyond a season or two seasons or three seasons?

David: I don’t know if you saw, but James Marsden was quoted as saying that they’re talking about five or six seasons for this show. They have some sort of long-term plan in mind.

Theresa, what do you think about the ambitiousness of the show as science fiction?

Theresa: All right, so, first off, this week as it happens, I’ve been rewatching some Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I got to the episode where there’s a trial about Lieutenant Data. Is he a man? Is he property?

John: That’s the best episode!

Theresa: It was fantastic. And I’m like, wow, it’s really funny that I got to this episode while I’ve been watching all this Westworld because I thought in their one hour episode they summed up this great quandary.

The judge in that episode says, “It [Data] sits there looking at me, and I don’t know what it is. This case has dealt with metaphysics, with questions best left to saints and philosophers. I am neither competent nor qualified to answer those. I’ve got to make a ruling to try to speak to the future. Is Data a machine? Yes. Is he property of Starfleet? No. We’ve been dancing around the basic issue. Does Data have a soul? I don’t know that he has. I don’t know that I have. But I’ve got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself.”

Which is something that I thought was really interesting as we’re looking at Doctor Ford and that he sees humans in this world as having reached their evolutionary peak, that the only thing left to challenge is death, really, to make ourselves immortal. So, it would kind of stand to reason that humanity’s next step would be to make a version of ourselves that cannot die. But what are you actually making? Is it real? Is it independent?

Westworld is working very well at that level, and I’m really curious to see what’s up with Doctor Ford, because he’s a really strange guy, and I wonder what his ambitions were when he started to build the park with his partner Arnold, and where they are now.

David: John, it sounds like we’re getting into the section of this discussion that we previously agreed we might want an extra-super-special spoiler warning, so if anyone really doesn’t want to read details about episodes three and four, wait until after you’ve watched them to read this.

There’s the issue of what is the main project of this secret group within the park hierarchy. There are some people, obviously, who want to create sentient life. I also have a feeling they might want to be getting these robots good enough before they can release them to the mass market, and so they’re planning to just mass produce these robots now that they’ve got them perfected, and have them in every house. That’s going to have profound ethical implications. It’s not just going to be a few hundred of these things. It’s going to be potentially millions of them being mistreated by humans.

John, you said you have some ideas about where you think the story might go?

John: I’m just going to throw this theory out there. I feel like I have a bunch of the puzzle pieces, but I’m not sure about how they go together quite yet, so if it doesn’t really quite make sense, keep that in mind.

So, Ed Harris’s character—the gunslinger—I actually thought that he was an android until a guest in the park recognized him. A real person recognized him as being some famous philanthropist. He’s never named, but up until that point, I thought he was maybe an android, possibly partly because his character is the most analogous to Yul Brynner’s character from the movie, a gunslinger that goes crazy and starts killing guests. I was thinking that Ed Harris was maybe that same character, but he had discovered some way to protect himself against the guns the same way real people have that protection.

I got derailed along those lines when somebody recognized him, but then I was thinking, well, what if Arnold, the mysterious missing park co-creator—I think he killed himself, or he died, anyway, he’s gone now—I was thinking that perhaps he figured out a way to download his consciousness into this Ed Harris robot and enabled it with some capabilities that make it a “super android.” And this whole maze thing that he’s hunting around for is somehow going to allow him to “discover himself.”

I felt like there were a lot of pieces that supported that theory, but a lot of it is all just guesswork at this point. I still feel like there’s something not right about that guy. He’s not just a regular person as he seems to be.

David: Even on Wikipedia he’s just called “The Gunslinger.”

Theresa: I’m with you, John, because at first I thought, “Oh, surely Ed Harris is going to be badass enough to step into Yul Brynner’s shoes and do this role.” Then you’re like, oh wait, no. So, he’s not an android. Then I thought, what if he’s like a manifestation of this contagion malware that’s short-circuiting the robots in this existential way? Is he the one who painted the picture? Planted the gun by Dolores’ ranch? He’s wanting everyone to remember, and he seems to be going after the older robots in the park. Ones who have had really long running stories—several iterations.

I think of Dolores’ dad. That actor was fantastic. When he’s so flummoxed by this picture of a woman in modern times, he can’t even get out his sentence, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” He just stumbles over it. Then they decommission him. He had that old story that was part of a cult in the hills, and it seems like there’s something to that horror narrative that’s starting to come back, and it’s one of the older storylines in the park, and the gunslinger was around for that for some reason. Was he like a third partner or something? How does he know all of this? Until a human from the outside world recognized him, I thought maybe he was a virus.

David: Interesting. I don’t remember a lot about Arnold, but the impression I was left with was maybe that he had killed himself because he had discovered that the robots could become sentient and was consumed by guilt by how they had been treated. Maybe Anthony Hopkins knew that? Maybe he killed him? Or maybe he kept secret the reason he killed himself because obviously he cares about the park more than he cares about anything else.

John: I hadn’t actually thought of this until you just said that, but that kind of fits with my theory. What if he tried to stop Anthony Hopkins from continuing down this line of advancing the androids and continuing to use them this way even though they’re becoming sentient, and he finally got to the point where trying to destroy it from the inside was the only way he saw that he could save everybody? So, he would create this version of himself, and then download himself into it.

Although, if he was going to do that, it doesn’t actually make sense that he would make himself look exactly like himself because then Anthony Hopkins would be able to recognize him. But that kind of potentially fits.

Raj: My first thought was that he was Arnold himself, and everyone says he died, but he actually just went deep into the world. He kind of went off. But why wouldn’t they be able to find him?

But I do like the idea of downloading his consciousness because I think that’s the aim of several people. For example, Jeffrey Wright’s character, Bernard—it seems like his ultimate aim is to recreate his son.

So if that technology is what people are playing with, then maybe Arnold could download himself. But the things that are giving me pause are what you mentioned: (1) Somebody recognized him, and (2) that QA guy, the gunslinger came up two times to him, and at one point he said “He gets anything he wants.” Maybe he’s from outside and has just contributed a lot of money. I mean, we know from the asshole brother-in-law guy that there are people who have investments in this company.

I think the Arnold connection is too blatant. I would be surprised if it was anything other than that. But the question is, what’s going on here? What’s the maze? That’s actually the most interesting thing to me. I’m interested to see where it goes. But it sounds like Hopkins wants to keep these things as just servitors and non-sentient creatures, whereas Arnold, it sounded like, wanted to give them more. That was my interpretation.

David: I strongly suspect that they’re going to get to the center of the maze and there’s going to be a button that you have to push every hour.

Theresa and Raj: Nooo!

Theresa: Then I’m out. I’m out.

David: J.J. Abrams is a producer on this show.

John: That’s true.

Theresa: He is, but this show, the way it’s treating its mythology, at least in the first couple of episodes, reminds me a little bit of the other Lost creator’s, Damon Lindelof’s, his drama The Leftovers.

I don’t really know what else Lindelof has done since Lost except for this other HBO show, The Leftovers. It kind of approaches its center mystery in a similar way to Westworld. It’s like, okay, what caused the rapture event in The Leftovers? And they answer it with this restraint and basically ask you to ask a different question: Does it matter what caused the rapture when no explanation will cure the characters of feeling like utter shit?

So, there might be a larger dream within a dream at Westworld, and perhaps maybe that’s what Ed Harris wants, but will any revelation be as interesting as watching the androids next evolutionary step as it’s happening from their point of view? I don’t think it will.

I think maybe a lot of Lost and Galactica and a zillion other shows have made me lower my expectations, just a little bit, and not try to hope that anything will ever be answered in any satisfying way. Ever.

David: I think that’s a good note to end on. We should wrap this up because we’re pretty much out of time. Do you guys have any other final words? Raj, any final thoughts on Westworld?

Raj: Just that I’m interested to see where the story goes, and I’m slightly annoyed that I have to wait a month until new episodes air.

David: How about John?

John: I’m really happy with it so far. I’m really curious to see where it’s going to go. I’m not too tied onto my theory there so if it goes in some other direction, I’m not going to be disappointed, but I’m really curious to find out if I’m right. I like it a lot.

David: And Theresa, anything else you want to add?

Theresa: I’m really curious to see where Doctor Ford is going with his big narrative that’s taking over the world, and you’re getting a little hint of him as a very powerful designer. At first, I thought he was kind of the sad Vincent Price inventor in Edward Scissorhands. We’ve seen that character before, but now that he’s demonstrated some of his power over the world that he’s created, I’m really interested in seeing what this bigger, deeper storyline is.

It’s an HBO show. This definitely has that HBO pedigree of cast and acting and music and visuals. It’s good. It’s giving me a lot to think about, and it’s pretty fun too. I think once I get a better handle on some of the characters, I’ll definitely find some more charm in it.

David: I really loved the first four episodes. I blazed through them, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more. I think that I’ll probably be totally on board for the first season. I’m a little skeptical about this going to five or six seasons and me sticking with it, but if it does, they’re going to need to mix things up a lot more than just robots good, people bad.

John: I will say I am a little worried that it’s all going to go terribly awry somehow because it has that type of plot, like you described, comparing it to Battlestar Galactica or Lost. I’m worried. I’ve been burned before. I am concerned, but I like it so far.

David: I think we’re going to wrap things up there. We’ve been speaking with John Joseph Adams, Theresa DeLucci, and Rajan Khanna. Thank you so much for joining us.

Raj: Thank you.

Theresa: Thank you. Let’s play some Red Dead.

John: It’s time to giddy-up on out of here, folks.


1. Lightspeed published a short story by Charles Yu way back in Year One called “Standard Loneliness Package(Lightspeed, November 2010).

 

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.