Way back in 1958, science fiction author and critic Theodore Sturgeon coined the term Sturgeon’s Revelation. Which is that “90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” This became known as Sturgeon’s Law while Theodore’s actual law (from a 1956 story) — that “nothing is always absolutely so” — is forgotten. (Philosopher Daniel Dennett expanded the Law to say that 90% of everything is crap!)
I’ve always found this applies especially to science fiction TV. And in this Anno Stella Bella era, there is a lot of SF TV, so naturally there is a lot of crap. (Honestly, I don’t even pay attention to the SyFy channel anymore.)
Happily: HBO’s Westworld … not crap! In fact, it’s a gem that offers many facets worthy of (non-spoiler) thought and discussion…
¶ Computer games: As computer games become more lifelike and immersive, the difference between the experience of game violence and real violence becomes less and less. What does it mean to kill realistic computer game “people” — either other human players or AI constructs — and what does a world where that’s common do to people (if anything)?
Specifically: Does it desensitize us to violence? Does it normalize violence? Does it make us more willing to see violence as a viable solution?
How truly different is destroying extremely lifelike pixels from the real thing?
And what if they’re not just pixels on a screen but physical beings operating in a physical world? The line between game and real becomes little more than a label.
A key phrase in the series is a quote from Romeo and Juliet: “These violent delights have violent ends.” We can ask how true that might be with regard to the violent delights we take from games.
¶ Entertainment: Another place where lifelike immersion makes fantasy extremely real. As opposed to actually practicing violence, what does merely watching it do? Does it normalize violence or make us less sensitive to it?
The fundamental question: As virtual reality becomes more like actual reality, what effect (if any) does it have on us? In particular, what about those who would indulge in what society brands wrong, illegal, or immoral?
For example, if virtual reality allows pedophiles to enjoy realistic virtual sex with minors… how do we feel about that? More importantly, what effect does that actually have on the pedophile and on society?
There is some indication that the freely — and easily — available internet porn may have some effect in reducing rape. If it’s true that virtual sex can prevent would-be sexual criminals from acting in the real world, isn’t that a good thing?
Westworld raises that question to a new level: What if the virtual reality wasn’t just perceived — a sensory fake — but physically tangible? What if you could have your way, whatever way that was, with animated human dolls so lifelike they don’t even know they aren’t real?
At one point Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) asserts that the hosts (robots) passed the Turing Test after one year (of deployment in a development environment). In other words, they achieved — early on — robots so lifelike they were indistinguishable from real people.
¶ Which raises another question entirely: What rights might a “thinking” being have (one that was indistinguishable from human)? Assuming the robots got even better since the early days, the question of AI rights becomes very real.
Ford asserts that consciousness is nothing special, even in humans, just a set of programmed responses. He ties suffering into the rise of self-awareness (which sounds reasonable, actually).
An acute question here concerns the difference between a being that appears conscious and one that actually is. From the outside, what’s the difference? From the inside, presumably, the self-aware experience of reality is hugely different from having none. This is, essentially, the infamous Chinese Room.
So we are challenged to think about the consequences of making extremely lifelike robots so cogent they “believe” themselves to be real in a context where they remain mere casual playthings to treat as we want. Toys we can destroy and torture.
¶ Westworld also challenges us to think of these robots (and by extension other game figures) from their point of view. The device of story characters having some awareness they inhabit a story isn’t new (Terry Pratchett, among many others, used it brilliantly — it’s just one reason I love his stories so much).
But what an interesting thing to have story characters start off ignorant and discover their true nature, not just as fictions, but as playthings!
What is it like to discover your existence is pre-programmed and that your short story repeats over and over without real change? What is it like to discover you exist solely for the pleasure of others? What is it like to discover your memories, your back story, your whole illusion of a life, is fake, made up, never happened?
What is it like to think you have free will but to discover no such thing exists for you? What is it like to think you are a free being only to discover your life is nothing but a trolley car on a repeating track?
¶ Philosophers have ever argued that much of this is true of human existence. There is an as yet unanswered questions whether free will truly exists for us (and if so, what is its exact nature). We don’t really know whether the future is mutable or fixed and unchangeable.
Westworld frames this human free will question in the robot world. Like us, the robots act as if they have free will. They believe they make free choices when, in fact, those choices are driven by a script.
This also raises the question of a world-creator who wrote the script. The robots are programmed to not recognize any aspect of their true nature. They cannot understand any reference to knowledge beyond their scope.
How do we know the same isn’t true for us?
The situation and plight of the robots recapitulates ours in terms of free will and how we got here. A possible difference (for all we know) is that the robots really do have creators!
¶ Isaac Asimov, a father of science fiction, and arguably the father of modern robot stories, felt that such stories broke into two broad categories: Robots-as-menace (typically an extension of the Frankenstein myth — which itself is an extension of the Prometheus myth — don’t mess with stuff above you) and Robots-as-pathos (which tends to see robots as a kind of differently abled human).
Westworld is poised to give us plenty of the former. (There’s even an apt quote at one point from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.) We always knew it would; such was the movie. What’s an unexpected delight — and part of what makes the TV series so rich — is that we also get plenty of the latter.
What happens if you wake up from your dream of being a free individual only to discover you’re a created plaything of the gods. Your explicit purpose is to be used for fun.
And what happens if, once awake, you learn you are superior to these creators in nearly every way?
Science fiction author Fred Saberhagen wrote The Frankenstein Papers, which re-tells Shelly’s tale from the monster’s point of view. Westworld does something similar with its robots — puts us in their shoes.
¶ Yet another facet of the Westworld gem: Look at it in terms of storytelling. It is a story in itself, but it’s a story about stories and storytelling.
At a surface level, it’s about the stories told in the park for the guests to enjoy, so at this level it’s about storytellers: Ford and his mysterious purposes, Lee Sizemore and his wild narratives, and Delos with their commercial motives.
There is a belief, especially among writers and serious readers, that fiction — lots of fiction — make for a better person. We feel that fiction explores deep, important truths about life, and on that basis we often excuse extreme and dark forms of storytelling.
In the last episode Ford, in his speech to the board members, references this belief and talks about the deeper purpose of storytelling: to find and redeem ourselves:
“Since I was a child I’ve always loved a good story. I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us, and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth. I always thought I could play some small part in that grand tradition. And for my pains I got this: a prison of our own sins. ‘Cause you don’t want to change. Or cannot change. Because you’re only human, after all.”
Ford is saying he once believed it, but has come to realize that dark and violent stories don’t redeem humans, they’re just dark and violent indulgences. They are “violent delights” without real meaning; we don’t learn lessons from them.
¶ Shakespeare (that master storyteller!) figures repeatedly in Westworld. The Peter Abernathy robot was a Shakespearean scholar in a very early story, and there are Shakespearean quotes and references throughout the story. Especially that crucial one from Romeo and Juliet: “These violent delights have violent ends.”
That quote is important for being an apparent command, but also for being an apparent keynote. The violent delights of Westworld (and by translation, of computer games and media entertainment) have violent ends.
Certainly many believe our diet of media violence in what we watch and play is significant in making the world the (messed up) place it is. Those concerned voices seem drowned out in our love of voyeuristic violence.
Westworld, ironically, uses some of these same devices to make its points. And, yet, notice how mechanical and not sexy the nudity is. (At least one observer has pointed out how those chairs make every robot’s butt look ugly.)
And, somehow, the rare violence against actual humans (William and Logan, for instance) somehow manages to seem more shocking than worse waged against the robots. Is it just knowing they’re robots or some trick of the storytelling, I’m not quite sure.
Bottom line for me, if it’s not obvious, very much thumbs up on the show. I’m giving it a high Ah! rating, but if the following seasons live up to the first one, I may very well bump that to a Wow! rating.
(And I didn’t even get to touch on the use of music, which is a whole other interesting aspect of the show!)
 I believe this is true. When I rant about the “Death of a Liberal Arts Education” part of what I’m ranting about is the lack of literary fiction in modern lives.
And, yes, I absolutely think literary stories are significantly different from TV and movie stories. Consuming only media-based stories is to never experience fine dining.
 An almost canonical example is the use of a rape scene to set up a character’s motivation and/or later actions (especially revenge). An extreme example of this is the justifiably controversial I Spit on Your Grave. Count me among those who find this an ugly and not at all redeeming use of free speech and “artistic expression.”