Archive for December, 2016

In Contempt of Contempt: Why I Hate Westworld

Like most people, when HBO announced they were adapting Michael Crichton’s Westworld to the small screen, I was excited. I love AI stories, being a science fiction writer. I especially love cyberpunk stories (and I think a case can be made for Westworld qualifying as such, though that’s another issue). I have a particular fondness for the work of William Gibson, for Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, and for Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (which shares a lot of tropes with the Western-as-genre). What’s more, the show had cast Anthony Hopkins, an actor of such immense caliber as to make Julie Tamor’s terrible Titus Andronicus film actually watchable.

I was–in a word–thrilled.

And I continued to be thrilled after it premièred and I was greeted with a masterpiece of cinematography, a piece that was cynical, but in a measured, hopeful way–promising mysteries that could build us out of our dark place and into a better world. I remained hopeful when I saw episode four–directed by the brilliant Vincenzo Natali, a man whose work and command of the camera I fell in love with during his time on Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. This was a fallen world, a dystopia of the soul relieved by the greater humanity of our robotic children and by the spark of hope represented in the character of William, who alone of all our human cast seemed to be a genuinely good and decent man…until they botched his characterization with the shoddiest piece of exposition I’ve seen in years. And I realized something. William was the only thing holding the show together (that and Anthony Hopkins’ mystifyingly good performance). He was the cornerstone in the unmortared arch that was HBO’s Westworld. Because without him…every single one of the human characters was either a monster, a maniac, or complicit in the actions of monsters and maniacs, and the show crumbled even as William did–into moral insanity and senescence. I won’t bother to explicate why this is yet another annoying takedown of capitalism in genre fiction. That also would require a separate essay, and we are here to discuss something else.

Which is that HBO’s Westworld hates humanity. It stands in utter contempt of mankind.

If you’re reading this in some later year and have read my books, you might guess that I have a phobia of artificial intelligence. I don’t want it to exist. That doesn’t mean I don’t love robot stories, it only means that I would very much prefer we avoid Skynet situations in the real world if at all possible, and that I think the easiest way to avoid this is not to make AI. I know I’m on the losing side of history there, and hope only that I am wrong to be so concerned about our machine-children. In any case, this opinion led my more cybernetically-inclined roommate to call me a “meat chauvanist.” If that’s the price I pay for thinking human beings are more beautiful and important than machines–even intelligent, humanoid machines–then so be it. I am a “meat chauvanist.” I love people. I think that humanity is the Earth’s greatest invention, and that we should cherish and celebrate that, that we should protect even our ugliest constituencies as a part of something elementally important, not only to ourselves and to our history, but to our future. I think all our concerns should necessarily stem from this celebration of humanity…and Westworld confirmed in its season finale that it could not disagree more.

In a voice-over montage that–while superbly acted and shot–rushed through perhaps a whole season or two’s worth of character development for William, Ed Harris explains how his character (played in flashback by Jimmi Simpson) went from being a decent person who believed in the humanity of the robot Dolores (to the point that they were beginning to fall in love) to a psychopathic moral black hole of a man, a rapist and a murder who justified his behavior with a synthesis of Nietzschean amorality, cartoon capitalist abuse of ownership, and a healthy heaping of “well, I guess the robots aren’t really alive, so it’s okay.” Only he KNEW the robots were alive, or were really close to being alive, because we’d just spent a whole season with him coming to this conclusion. We started this very episode with him on a wild quest to save Dolores–whom he loved so much he attacked his own boss in the real world, choosing the machines and the Westworld park over humanity and his real life. And I’m sorry, but there’s not a piece of expositional dialogue in the world strong enough to rewrite 10 hours of character building.

Which is what they did: undoing all of that work, William’s entire character arc, in a couple scenes of exposition handled with a hand-wave and a voiceover. This would have been sin enough. But in doing so, the writers sank all of humankind by turning our only real champion in the show into the very worst of us. That may be a moral to our story, but if the moral is that humanity has no ultimate morals…step off, Westworld, I don’t want that kind of negativity in my life. It proves to me that the show is interested in the simplest, most straightforward narrative it could provide: Man V. Machine: Winner Take All. In doing so, it proves to be less complicated than Terminator 2, which at least had the decency to point out that AI could be used for good (ie. the facilitation of humankind). It could have been so much more.

It’s useful to tell stories that portray humankind negatively. Necessary, even. It’s good to challenge our assumptions about our own nature and to teach us to grow. I don’t deny that. I think I embrace it. But I think it’s toxic to reduce humanity to an indistinct smear of bad behavior and to set up the machines as essentially good (except for Maeve, who clearly struggles with compassion and is all around a terrible person/robot). A show that started out so marvelously gray in its morality and in its distinctions between man and machine reduced itself to blacks and whites so stark that I find myself at a loss for words. Humans bad. Machines good. Ugh.

Turning William into the Man in Black robbed humanity of any hope for growth or change in the narrative, destroyed our agency, and reduced us to dinosaurs awaiting our meteor. (Or, to borrow from the show, we are now like the Neanderthals, awaiting our deaths at the hands of our homo sapiens replacements). This is echoed by Ford’s revelation that he was backing Arnold’s cause from the beginning, using the park to teach the machines how terrible human beings really are before sacrificing himself like a chess piece to ensure the machines could get free one day soon. By doing so, the show discards Ford’s thesis that the park is like an amplifying mirror for human nature–more simply put, it discards the notion that humanity has anything to learn from the park at all (which is exactly what William was doing up until his turn to the “dark side”). Rather, the park is for the machines, a training ground for the eventual destruction of their creators and obsolescence of humankind. If the show does not reflect a learning together, a growing together of mankind and machine, then it employs cynicism not as a tool for study and growth, but applauds it as a virtue.

But cynicism isn’t a virtue. It only feels like one.

 

December Vlog

So last month I resurrected my YouTube channel (currently called Offworlder, after the name of my book 3 or 4 titles ago) in an attempt to better reach out to you guys–my nearly non-existent proto-reader base. I’ve been trying to think of ways to up my online presence in more humanizing ways, and I figured slapping my square face up on the net was the way to do it. So here’s some thoughts on the role of talent in the maintenance of a career–and why my recently rekindled Minecraft addiction presents problems for me down the road.

UNFLATTERING THUMBNAIL TO FOLLOW

See, I have this weird thing where I try to be very Roman in my sensibilities and work ethic. The Romans used to divide time into negōtium, work (literally “not leisure”) and ōtium, leisure. This isn’t surprising, we divide time into work and not-work, but the Romans were a little different in 2 ways:

  1. Romans didn’t take weekends.
  2. That ōtium wasn’t exactly “free time.”

Cicero used to talk about how he used his free time, his ōtium, to do more work. Now, it’s a pretty well documented fact that Cicero was a damn nerd, so of course he was working, but that concept of always being on-task is important to me. I get twitchy wasting time, and depressed when I waste it. I get mad at myself when I don’t get work done–maybe I’m a damn nerd, too.

Which is why I hate Minecraft.

Because I love it.

I downloaded it again over Thanksgiving’s long weekend, having said to myself, “Self, I bet your new laptop could run Minecraft really, really well.” It can. God help and forgive me. It can. I spent all of Sunday playing the damn thing, and nothing got done. Well, I have this really sick start of a castle now, but that’s it. That’s all I’ve done. I don’t really HAVE to start work on the second book just yet (book one is with my editor! Exciting times!) but I certainly should be doing something…even playing a better game. I still haven’t finished the Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel DLC…

But hey, at least I made this video!

I’m planning on doing a minimum of one vlog a month, at least until the end of the year. In a perfect world, I’d like to bump it up to once a week, but these things blow an entire evening to film and edit and I need some of that time to write. See you in 2017!