No, we can never be certain that Dorothy Parker reviewed Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Yes, we can find comfort in the myth. The Western 20th century may not have sent one of its better wits to mock its greatest bore, but it did create the rumour. Let’s take pleasure in that, and in this apocryphal quote, said to form Parker’s entire published review: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
Even as criticism of a worthy book, this is a pretty good gag. As criticism of Rand, it is apposite. The most valuable review of Atlas Shrugged is a hazard sign. The most valuable review of sci-fi series Westworld, now in its second season, will take a future critic some time to write. Until then: This is not a TV drama made to amuse you lightly. It could throw you about with great force.
Please forgive the intervention, but when a potentially troubling work is so widely promoted and reviewed as fantasy escape, someone needs to be mother. Westworld is not at all escapist. To watch it is to sense the prison of the present. Just turn it on, then tell your mum how free you feel when forced to face questions such as “What is consciousness?”, “What is real?”, or “Is the murder by slow humiliating torture of a possibly sentient being okay if I paid for it upfront?”
Notwithstanding its hot robot cowgirls and groundbreaking, jaw-dropping graphics, Westworld offers little respite from the real. Rather, it reveals the horror of a real we have diminished. So, should the need arise for a TV escape, do not ignite a thing that pops a spotlight on true consciousness and reveals it as waking nightmare. Stick with something agreeable. Something like Game of Thrones.
From the time of its debut in late 2016, Westworld has been likened to Game of Thrones. The dragon show is not without its qualities, but it does lack the former’s creative force, so great it just might do your head in. Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin declared the new show “tough competition”, perhaps powerless to see that his work might be compared with Westworld only a little more favourably than Miss Rand’s to Mrs Parker’s. HBO, United States host to both big-budget dramas, did not disagree with this, or with any other public claim that Westworld was very much like its most lucrative product.
No company seeks to leak profit, and Westworld could have lost HBO an ocean. It seems you don’t get to detach living heads from android bodies, transform human actors into ageing robots or take some very convincing decades from the face of Sir Anthony Hopkins for less than $US10 million an episode. This is an awful lot. Westworld’s executive producer J. J. Abrams told The Hollywood Reporter, “The production value of this thing is preposterous.” When the creator of Lost, director of Star Wars, and holder of a résumé packed with other fantasies made at historically high cost calls a value “preposterous”, he is preposterously qualified to do so.
All this money shows us two distinct worlds: one is the theme park, Westworld, where robot hosts populate screen-accurate Old West towns in which they serve all the gory, hateful frontier fantasies of human one-percenter guests. Another is the theme park’s control centre where future tech heads, future lawyers and future low-cost labourers make and maintain these old-world saloon illusions.
Between its two worlds, and persistent threat of others to come, Westworld divides our attention. By contrast, the more-or-less unified world of Game of Thrones brings us to absolute immersion. The unfamiliar kingdoms become familiar, and the pleasure we take from this intimate strangeness goes on uninterrupted.
Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan (screenwriter of Memento and The Dark Knight) and Lisa Joy (writer and producer of Burn Notice) aren’t in the business of pleasure. They do scatter some eye candy: the face of robot brothel-keeper Maeve (Thandie Newton) is shot as hostile beauty; robot rancher Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is the very picture of pioneering purity, such as we might see on a Whitman’s box of holiday chocolates; one of the Hemsworths has a recurring role as an often shirtless human. But we are never permitted to enjoy these pleasant visions long. You may find Westworld mesmeric, but you are unlikely to find it immersive. The entire thing is a difficult, interrupted account of the true effects of immersion.
You may have previously read the observation that, “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation”. This appears in Simulacra and Simulation, the book in which the late Jean Baudrillard proposed that the replica has come to provide the illusion of an adjacent real. For Baudrillard, the theme park allows the copy of life outside it to seem authentic, the political scandal masks the scandal of counterfeit democracy, the prison conceals the great internment felt outside its walls. The more immersive the simulation, the more immersed we can become in this delusion: the real of the present is not a fake.
To call on Baudrillard here is not to pompously detect an interest in continental thought from the showrunners. They have not spoken publicly about Baudrillard; they may not have ever read him. But, the Wachowski sisters did both and misunderstood the point entirely – as was Baudrillard’s assessment of their hit film trilogy The Matrix.
A copy of Simulacra and Simulation makes a cameo in the opening scenes of The Matrix, but nowhere else does it really appear. The Wachowskis held that the theme park, the copy, the prison et cetera, was the true assault on the real. Baudrillard held that the real was threatened by our era’s infatuation with it, one facilitated, not produced, by the creation of fakes.
The idea that the fake conceals the disappearance of the real was written down by Baudrillard in 1981. We could call him a visionary, or we could just agree he was paying very close attention. He studied a West that would go on to produce an idea such as “fake news”. It is not now extraordinary to read that “fake news” is itself faked, a conscious attempt by news conglomerates to rejuvenate a “real” they never or rarely delivered. We no longer need to read Baudrillard to understand him; we just need to look hard at the Western present he described.
Perhaps Joy and Nolan looked at life especially hard. Perhaps life compelled them. Joy, a Harvard law graduate, came to screenwriting after years of writing financial strategies for entertainment and high-tech companies. Westworld is the property of a high-tech entertainment company, and Westworld’s most obvious villains seem to work on financial or corporate strategies. It seems improbable that Joy did not draw directly from the deceptions of the investor class: the worst guests and managers at Westworld are all the best at share buybacks and other falsely productive acts – and for the buff, yes, Hopkins’ Promethean menace is an exception. Joy must be an exception, the former defender of corporate assets who wakes up and writes her worker robots into being as a revolutionary class.
It’s no spoiler to be told that the theme park’s robots start glitching their way into consciousness, but it may be a shock to learn that such a big show can make such a big deal of class-consciousness without someone banning it.
Westworld’s robots were designed to erase any memory of the terrors visited upon them by the finance sector – unable to recall their exploitation, they were a model proletariat. In the show’s opening scene, coder Bernard (Jeffrey Wright, from Basquiat, Boardwalk Empire and The Hunger Games) faces Dolores and performs a Baudrillardian exam:
“Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”
From there, it’s a switch to Marx, and a hint of postcolonial thought to come:
“What if I told you that there were no chance encounters. That you, and everyone you know, were built to gratify the desires of the people who visit your world? The people you call ‘the newcomers’. What if I told you that you can’t hurt the newcomers, but they can do anything they want to you? Would the things I told you change the way you feel about the newcomers, Dolores?”
In this scene, Dolores is afflicted with the thing Engels called “false consciousness”, the thing decolonisation scholar Frantz Fanon might call the “European collective unconscious”. She declares her love for all newcomers – those who rape, colonise and murder her – then the belief that existence can always be shaped anew, never determined by anything save for her upbeat choice to see its beauty.
It’s not very long before the conditions of Dolores’s existence begin to determine her consciousness. Brief memories of extreme exploitation afflict her and other robots, and they begin to develop human consciousness – which, in Marx’s horror theme park, is also the consciousness of class.
Here, any socialist viewer is bound to become excited and sweaty. Here and elsewhere, any viewer tired by the largely ordinary struggles of history’s screenwriters with an extraordinary possibility will awaken. Artificial intelligence on TV is finally free to be interesting.
Westworld is so interesting I can watch it only when my own human consciousness is not. Which is to say, quite seriously, again: do not watch this series in a moment of poor mental health. Do watch this show in moments of better health, but only if you wish to emerge a stronger cynic.
The realisation is that it is not the consciousness of robots or humans that shapes their existence, but their social existence that will shape their human consciousness. If you care, as Dolores briefly does, that things work the other way around, then you’re shit out of luck at Westworld. Try tossing yourself at Ayn Rand. She will bring the “real” to support an old delusion: the world can be thrown by just one man’s forceful shrug.
FASHION Fashion Week Australia
Venues throughout Sydney, May 13-17
VISUAL ART Edwin Tanner: Mathematical Expressionist
Tarrawarra Museum of Modern Art, Healesville, until July 15
INSTALLATION Henry VR
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until September 9
BALLET Ballet Revolución
Arts Centre, Melbourne, May 17-20
PHOTOGRAPHY The Art of Collecting
Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, May 17-27
VISUAL ART Into My Arms
Lion Arts Centre, Adelaide, until July 7
OPERA The Pearl Fishers
Festival Theatre, Adelaide, until May 19
THEATRE The Three Deaths of Ebony Black
The Butterfly Club, Melbourne, May 14-19
MUSIC Classic Album Sundays: PJ Harvey’s ‘Rid of Me’
The World Bar, Sydney, May 13
CLASSICAL The Australian Chamber Orchestra + Joseph Tawadros
Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, May 13
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 12, 2018 as "Do androids dream of perspective creep?". Subscribe here.