Film

Once Upon a Time in the Singularity: ‘Westworld’ and the Gamification of Who Gets to Be Human

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A wall of white and black hats. Terrifying darkness. A woman staggering through a medical facility with her guts ripped open. And always, in the background: the player piano ticking along according to its programming, playing modern-day ballads to the denizens of a future world.

Welcome to Westworld, a slick new HBO production that promises the expected laziness of the network’s usual sex-and-violence narrative but delivers so much more. Westworld is a Wild West theme park where the ultra-rich can pay to engage in shooting, torturing, and screwing the park’s human-appearing resident robots, or “hosts.” Imagine a live-action video game where all the people you engage with are synthetic. The very concept sets the expectation that this will be another tired “men make robots; robots turn evil” story that invites us to decide when robots become people and whether or not men should feel guilty for abusing them. We have seen this story sliced and diced a million ways, from Metropolis to 2015’s Ex Machina.

Laurie Penny’s astonishing essay “Why Do We Give Robots Female Names?” argues that this obsession with stories about the creation of women robots has its roots in the male preoccupation with whether or not women are human, a discussion men have been having in the Western world since at least the time of Aristotle. But Westworld doesn’t tumble into that cozy narrative pit. Its starting assumptions are different. It asks us not to consider whether the hosts are people, nor whether what’s being done to them is all right. It starts with the assumption that the hosts are people, and what is being done to them is not okay.

Our first glimpse of the world is through the eyes of its oldest resident, Dolores, played by Evan Rachel Wood. Dolores, in her current role as a farmer’s daughter with a flair for painting, shows us beautiful sunsets, true love, and a heartbreaking yearning for a future we know she’ll never see. And again, and again, we see her life destroyed by the park’s rich “guests” for their own selfish ends. If you get to the end of the first episode without rooting for Dolores to burn this whole place down, perhaps it’s time to question your own humanity.

Something is, of course, rotten inside the park. A virus or programming “error” is causing hosts to stutter out of the narrative tracks they should be sticking to — leading them to seize up, utter unscripted dialogue, and run away from the quests they should be engaging in with the paying clients. The virus may also be causing a genuine awakening of sentience in the hosts, starting with Dolores. There is a telling scene in the first episode in which Dolores explains what a “Judas calf” is. It’s the cow that all the other cattle follow. Change the direction of that one, and the whole herd will go.

Burn it all down, Dolores.

Her partial awakening is soon followed by that of a second female host, Maeve, played by Thandie Newton. Maeve is currently in the role of one of the park’s sex workers, and if you read that sentence and expect the show to portray her in endlessly prostrated positions in various states of undress and call it “character,” think again. Newton is given a complex and nuanced part to play here, and she drives the story without relying on “hooker with a heart of gold” clichés.

This refreshing re-centering of the “sentient robot” narrative on the robots themselves (women robots, even!) means that the most human, emotional characters in the show’s universe are its synthetic people. The park’s human characters are fascinating, yes, but obsessed by power and control — from the arrogant young writer of the interactive storylines programmed into the hosts to the chain-smoking head of Quality Assurance, all the way up to the founder, played by Anthony Hopkins. To work with the hosts closely without going mad, they must constantly endeavor to deny the hosts’ personhood. They must Other them. And, just as in real life, to achieve the othering of another person has required that the masters lose some of their own humanity. These aren’t the heroes. These are the bad guys.

It must be said that one cannot spend too much time thinking about the logistics of the park. As a writer of broad and complicated narratives myself, I can tell you that trying to control what is in effect a live-action roleplaying game on this scale with real bullets would be impossible as portrayed here. The costs of repairing and wiping dozens of partially organic robots every day — even with the aid of futuristic 3-D printing — would be mind-boggling. And despite multiple viewings I’m still not sure how long a single narrative in this park is scheduled to take. But it doesn’t really matter. This is not a story about narrative logistics any more than Jurassic Park was a story about DNA extraction. The science is scenery.

The promise made in the first four episodes of Westworld is one of (proletariat, dare I say, or even feminist!) awakening and bloody revolution. Watching Dolores and Maeve begin to see their world for what it is resonates with our own awakening to how power structures and hierarchies really work in ours.

Whether the “burn it all down” promise will play out remains to be seen. The park’s founder still has one grand narrative left to unleash, and he has made it very clear that there is nothing that happens in the park of which he is unaware. Dolores and Maeve may not actually have any autonomy; they may be at the mercy of higher forces after all. The park’s board may stage a coup and upend the balance of power. And who knows what is lying in wait for our female heroes at the center of the park’s mysterious maze — a promise of freedom, or the official stamp of citizenship? Do all of those who reach the center become the masters? Is anyone or everyone human at all? Who gets to decide?

It’s up to the show’s creators, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan — now dedicated to crafting their own endlessly complex narrative — to deliver on these promises. All I ask is that I get to see a lot of this world burning down before the end. And I hope Dolores holds the match.

Westworld airs on HBO.

Kameron Hurley is the author of the science fiction and fantasy series Worldbreaker Saga and The Bel Dame Apocrypha, as well as the essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution.

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