Recently, the pilot episode of the much anticipated new HBO drama Westworld hit our screens. Based off the 1973 film of the same name, Westworld tells the story of a cowboy/colonial-themed amusement park in the not-too-distant future where the occupants are synthetic androids believing they truly do exist in the Wild West. This theme park, open to only the obscenely wealthy, offers an experience like no other — come to Westworld and do whatever you like with no consequences.
You can be the hero, saving the township from evil banditos, you can live it up as a high roller — gambling, drinking and spending time with ladies of the night — or, you can be the bad guy, shooting up everyone in your path with no repercussions or threat of being harmed yourself.
Issues become complicated however, when the androids begin to show signs of self-awareness and a desire to be freed from their hellish existence, and it is at this point that the series takes off.
Episode 1 of Westworld was a fantastic introduction into the story, with brilliant actors and an unbelievably massive budget to match. Audiences were treated to some dazzling visuals of deserts, rocky Mountains and a fully functioning colonial town.
What is awesome about Westworld is that it is both very original AND steeped in literary tradition. To the untrained eye, you’ll look at Westworld and think:
To those of us with a background in storytelling, we look at it and see something equally as awesome; we see the arrival of speculative fiction to television at last.
While it is true that speculative fiction has graced our TV screens in the past, arguably no other show has had as much mass-market appeal as HBO's Westworld, and that is an important difference to note. Being championed as the next Game Of Thrones can do a lot for a show and the genre and solidify it in the collective consciousness of the public.
So what exactly is speculative fiction? For the uninitiated, speculative fiction is a category of storytelling that deals primarily with technologies that don’t currently exist but are “speculated” to exist in the future. This broad category can be broken down into several sub-genres ranging from fantasy all the way to superheroes. However, in relation to Westworld, we will be looking solely at the sub-genres of science-fiction and utopia, which is often juxtaposed with its counterpart of dystopia.
Some great examples of speculative fiction include the novels of Philip K. Dick. You might remember him for writing the books that have been adapted into Bladerunner, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly, as well as the Hugo Award-winning novel The Man In The High Castle, which has just been made into a show itself, now on Amazon.
Outside of Dick, we can find speculative fiction in George Orwell’s 1984, and Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, as well as the classic film Planet of the Apes, and the Star Trek series (although that last one is perhaps more in the realm of sci-fi than speculative.)
Themes And Concepts You Can Expect To See
Because Westworld lands itself firmly within the aforementioned genre, there are several classic themes that we can expect to see played out in the narrative over however many seasons the series runs for.
What Is A Soul?
A classic of the spec-fic genre, the question of what makes a soul is an important one. This theme frequents narratives that involve robots or androids in some way, shape or form, and is generally presented to the audience through an event that is known in academic circles as the singularity — the moment in history in which AI created by man becomes conscious and self-aware. This speculated event will cause all sorts of complicated implications, one such being: Are self-aware androids now human or — if you believe in this sort of thing — do they have a soul?
If an android is self-aware and starts expressing emotions like love, hate, happiness, pain, and fear, then what differentiates them from the rest of us? Have we managed to become Gods through the creations of these beings? Will they supersede us?
Westworld is obviously beginning to build on this classic theme. When we see Dolores’s father (Louis Herthum) begin to recognize images in a photograph dropped by one of the human visitors to the park, he begins to lose his mind and experience fear and confusion as the understanding begins to dawn on him. This suggests that we will see the android characters in future episodes become more and more self-aware, which will inevitably lead to this thematic question being explored in greater detail.
How Far Is Too Far?
The age-old question of scientific experimentation: How far can we, as compassionate human beings, push the boundaries? If we create a machine with self-awareness, can we still dispose of it as we see fit, or does that now become murder? Is it ethical to trap a human mind in the body of an orangutan or a mouse? These are the kinds of situations that ask this question.
Once again, HBO’s Westworld is all over this theme. Shooting up the robots with no repercussions is fine — until they start thinking for themselves, outside of their programming. At this point, what we are doing is nothing short of committing a massacre. The Man in Black (Ed Harris) gallivants around the park in Episode 1, killing pretty much everyone he comes in contact with, as well as raping Dolores’s (Evan Rachel Wood) character off screen. Sure, they’re “just robots,” but what do his actions say about him? Especially as the androids become more and more aware of themselves as “people,” is he nothing less than a psychopath?
Is Humanity The Real Monster?
Finally, the big question — the Holy Grail of speculative fiction: Are we, as human beings, the real monsters? This question can be found in pretty much every sub-genre of spec-fic, From the tragic tale of the monster in Frankenstein, to the mistreatment of the AI child David (Haley Joel Osment) in Stephen Spielberg’s Pinocchio-themed epic Artificial Intelligence.
This question, much like the other two, is tied into the treatment of non-human characters by the human ones. We will often find ourselves siding more with those of another species than ourselves, which presents us with some uncomfortable truths about our own human nature. If we can’t side with the actions that human beings take in these stories — while looking at it from an objective view point — then how bad, how broken is our species in reality?
I referred to this thematic question as the big one before, for a reason. This one is the mother lode, and what I expect to be the overarching theme of Westworld as the series continues over the next few weeks. Westworld is an example of perhaps a fledgling sub-genre of post-human narratives: Stories where we become the villains, or even worse — irrelevant to the plot, and our creations take center stage as the protagonists and players in increasingly complicated plots.
Overall, the arrival of Westworld is an exciting time for all us story nerds. It means that some of the more literary, lesser-known plots are finally getting some well-deserved time in the sun, and I for one, am very excited.
What Are Your Thoughts?
What did you think of the pilot? Let me know in the comments below!
Check out the trailer for Westworld Episode 2 right here: