The old sci-fi conversation about robot souls and the nature of human evolution feel urgent again thanks to HBO’s new sci-fi drama Westworld. But the triumph here isn’t in Westworld being groundbreaking, but instead it’s in the crafty way it makes old robot tropes seem new again. Instead of robbing stagecoaches and banks, this sci-fi bandit is stealing from the sci-fi of the past. In short: Westworld is stealing from the best.
Both the new Westworld show and the 1973 Michael Crichton movie on which the show is based, make use of the same narrative that has dominated pulp sci-fi for years. As Isaac Asimov put it in his essay “The Perfect Machine,” robot stories of yore always dealt with “a wicked aspiration on the part of man to [gain] abilities reserved for God.” In the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, the predominant robot story was nearly without exception about a mechanical Frankenstein’s Monster in the form of a subservient robots which always — gasp — turn on their masters.
In writing his robot stories, Asimov tried to subvert this pessimistic, technophobic trope by asserting “rational engineering” conflicts rather than humans-playing-god cautionary tales. Writing in one of his various retrospective collections, Opus 100, Asimov believed he had “killed the Frankenstein motif in respectable science fiction.”
But TV and film sci-fi never got that memo and have been subsisting on the robots-turning-on-their-makers schtick pretty much exclusively, save for the occasional Wall-E or C-3PO. “Modern science fiction presents a confused face to the world,” wrote John Baxter in his 1970 book Science Fiction in the Cinema. “The films made in America generally adhere to traditional concepts and approaches, but often mixed with those of other fields, especially the horror film.”
In its first episode, Westworld definitely tries to scare viewers, but all the violent horror isn’t necessarily coming from killer robots. In a flip from Blade Runner, we’re actually meant to sympathize with the “hosts” in the simulacrum western world way more than the humans. While there’s a good amount of violence being perpetrated by both sides, we definitely feel worse for the people we know are robots than the people we think are humans.
This brings us to another classic robot trope Westworld is borrowing: secret robots among us and robots who don’t know they are robots. Fans of Philip K. Dick books — and the movie Blade Runner specifically — have been arguing for years over Deckard’s status as a possible replicant. More recently, the rebooted Battlestar Galactica gave us four seasons of wondering whether Commander Adama and Starbuck were Cylons. When you’ve got secret robots in your ranks, rules for detecting robots are fun. In its pilot Westworld doesn’t hide its robots, but these robots also assume they are human — like Rachel in Blade Runner — and that’s where a lot of the drama will come from.
In one telling scene, Creative Director Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) chats with Head of Programming Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) about their older robot models. “They don’t make anything like they used to,” Ford says. That is, of course, a lie in that they actually make them better now. We’ve seen this kind of robot story before, over and over again. But why are we seeing it now, again? And why is it working? There’s two easy answers: nostalgia and the growing influence of real A.I. in the 21st century.
In her less-than-enthusiastic essay on the original Star Wars, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, “What the hell is nostalgia doing in a science fiction film?” which either reads as ironically prescient or hopelessly naive. As a visual medium, science fiction’s reliance on nostalgia has been nothing but exponential, meaning though nostalgia for Blade Runner or even Battlestar is certainly part of the explanation, but not all of it.
Even though Hopkin’s Dr. Ford muses openly about the “end of human evolution,” the self-aware technology of the hosts in Westworld is still largely metaphoric. Yes, convincing human-like robots are in our world now, but the kind we see in Westworld are way more advanced than anything in real life. These are more similar to the centuries-old, fully evolved robot A.I. culture of Battlestar Galactica than any kind of culture that could spring up alongside human beings today.
As such, Westworld is more of a sideways set of metaphors about artificial life and technology than directly commenting on the real world. For that reason, so many familiar sci-fi tropes are being evoked here. When sci-fi doesn’t have a real-world explanation for something, plenty of old science fiction explanations will do.
Herein lies the real proof that Westworld is juggling its influences so deftly. In 1973, a sci-fi western wasn’t perceived by the mainstream as edgy or thoughtful. But in 2016, you can argue that science fiction stories have supplanted the western as the dominant form of entertainment. Mixing nostalgia with old robot cliches by having those robots act-out cliches from old westerns means it’s possible to get away with nearly every damn cliche in the book while mocking those well-trodden stories simultaneously.
Westworlds humans and robots aren’t just passing judgement on a trigger-happy, lustful culture with questionable values. They’re mocking the stories which perpetuate that culture too. Right now, Westworld is a robot in cowboy clothing, or a cowboy in robot’s clothing, or maybe a robotic cowboy depending on which way you squint. But if it continues to blend its influences and mock those tropes simultaneously it could emerge — unexpectedly — as something previously unseen: a sci-fi nostalgia trip that actually creates newness from the past.