From Cowboys and Indians to Androids and Simians: Recommended Reading for fans of Westworld
Found this article relevant?Marc McEntegart, Marwan Toutounji, Jonathan Dagher and 9 others found this witty
Caution: I have been advised that this article is 'too long.' If you would rather just trust us on our recommendations for Westworld fans, then you can find all of the books discussed in this article condensed into this Reading List.
Now that Westworld’s first season is over, many of us are finding ourselves interested in the genre-crossover of science fiction and western for the first time since we watched Firefly (and that wound runs deep). Maybe now, in the light of Westworld, we can move on. For some of us, that may mean realising that our love of science fiction needn’t preclude the occasional dip into westerns. For those of us who just love westerns, we’re asking the kinds of questions about the nature of consciousness and what we might consider “humanity” that sit at the heart of science fiction.
In order to properly examine Westworld and determine a list of recommended reading for fans of the series, it’s important consider it in terms of some of its core thematic components. Some of those themes are underpinned by philosophical musings, like the age-old science fiction question of, “Where exactly is the dividing line between the inhuman and the human?” or the inherent inhumanity of man in a world without consequences. Others are less profound, but no less interesting, like the age-old science fiction trope of the unexpectedly-ominous-theme-park-that-seems-inevitably-set-to-destroy-its-attendees.
We understand that that might sound oddly specific, but it’s a surprisingly common trope in science fiction. For those of you for whom the theme-park-with-sinister-undertones itch has only begun to be scratched, there’s oceans more out there. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes deserves an honourable mention at the very least, as it has the feel of a sort of urtext from which all other creepy amusement parks are derived. It differs from Westworld in that it feels far closer to a dark fantasy than sci-fi, but the thematic similarities are strong.
Obviously, there is more going on in Bradbury’s carnival than meets the eye. Conceptually, the carnival and the amusement park have a lot in common, between them they have the atmosphere of a place in which the normal rules are somehow suspended. In the case of Something Wicked This Way Comes, we are allowed to enjoy, the strangeness of The Shadow Show, while in Westworld, people are free to enjoy acts entirely forbidden in day to day life, but the relative 'safety' of the space is central to both. Within its borders, that strangeness is simultaneously permissible and contained. In both cases, the fascination and the plot begin when that sense of carnival strangeness breaks free of its containment, and begins to feel somehow threatening. Stephen King’s Joyland probably deserves a mention here too, being a mystery novel set in an amusement park., though it's less clearly related to Westworld.
If Something Wicked This Way Comes sounds too far from Westworld for your tastes, the novel that follows the Westworld model closest is Jurassic Park. This is perhaps unsurprising when you consider the original Westworld was also a Michael Crichton project. On the face of it, Westworld may appear to grapple with grander ideas and questions than Jurassic Park, particularly if you’ve more recently seen the movie adaptation than read the book, but Jurassic Park is considerably weightier than its summer blockbuster would have you believe.
Though he was marginalised a little for its cinematic outing, in the novel professor Ian Malcolm is at the core of Jurassic Park. Indeed, there are portions of the book given over to his discussion of fractals and chaos theory, the mathematical reason that he believes (from the outset) that Hammond's Jurassic Park is bound to fail. For those of us whose understanding of mathematics is what we’ll politely call “shaky,” there’s just enough plain-language elucidation that you don’t need to be chaos-theory-inclined to understand it.
The upshot of this is that Jurassic Park renders some frankly baffling maths in the most approachable terms possible. In this way, it’s not entirely dissimilar to the questions of agency raised in Westworld, which might have been thorny philosophical questions in any other circumstances, but abstracted and projected onto the androids, they become immediate, human issues with which we can readily identify.
For those who watched Westworld and just fell in love with Anthony Hopkins' Ford, Jurassic Park has even more to offer. Just as we learn about the history of Westworld’s “park” and its “hosts” from Ford’s rambling, expository speeches, we often learn about the history of Jurassic Park itself from Hammond’s introspective moments. In both cases, we’re given fragmented glimpses into the early years of a spectacular project, the faltering first steps that are the doddering and repetitious first-generation hosts or Hammond’s weird pygmy elephant. It’s an odd parallel, but one that highlights the other similarities between Jurassic Park and Westworld neatly. Moreover, when you read Jurassic Park, you can just imagine that Anthony Hopkins is also playing John Hammond, which may be the only way to one-up the Richard Attenborough casting of the movie.
Of course, for readers for whom futuristic technology, questions of identity and conceptions of the self are the most important aspects of Westworld, Jurassic Park won’t hit quite the right note. If you’re more concerned with what exactly constitutes a “self” as a discrete entity, but also want that ellusive foreboding a futuristic ‘theme park’, then you could do a lot worse than Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is set in a world in which humans have effectively achieved immortality by means of backing up their consciousness and dumping it into cloned bodies if anything happens to their current one. Its protagonist, Julius, informs us early on that there had once been people who saw this as a poor kind of immortality, viewing the death of each individual body as a kind of death in itself, but it is also explained that those people are no longer around, simply because those who enjoy the idea of living forever through a series of clones outlasted them.
As in Westworld, issues only arise when an otherwise unquestioned view of what constitutes the self start to unravel. In this instance, that happens when Julius’ clone develops a fault that prevents it from creating stable back-ups of his consciousness, meaning that the next time his body dies he’ll effectively lose the memories and experiences formed over the course of the book. All of this unfolds with Julius working feverishly on a project in a future incarnation of Disneyland, fitting the book squarely in the theme park section of our post.
In a very meaningful way, it’s the opposite scenario to Westworld’s, in which we watch the hosts’ nascent sense of self borne out over the course of many deaths. Instead, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom presents us with a character whose sense of self is now a discrete entity somewhere between body and consciousness. This sense is born out of a sudden fear of death, despite the fact that he has already died many times. Julius is a character just beginning to learn to fear death for the first time.
If Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom’s blend of theme-park weirdness and a cast of well-meaning immortals caught your attention at all, then you’d do well to check out Robert Silverberg’s Sailing to Byzantium, which also depicts a future in which humanity has achieved practical immortality. In their agelessness, the humanity of Sailing to Byzantium entertains itself by reconstructing the civilisations of bygone eras, happy to experience life in those ages. This earns some bonus points for fans of the original 1973 Westworld movie, which also includes a “Medieval World” and a “Roman World.”
Where Sailing to Byzantium is most like Westworld is in the fact that its five cities (Alexandria, Asgard, Changan, New Chicago, and Timbuctoo) are populated by a mix of immortals and “temporaries.” When they are first introduced, they are described,
“The temporaries had confused and baffled him at first, and there was still much about them that was unclear to him. They were not machines—they looked like creatures of flesh and blood—but they did not seem to be human beings, either, and no one treated them as if they were. He supposed they were artificial constructs, products of a technology so consummate that it was invisible. Some appeared to be more intelligent than others, but all of them behaved as if they had no more autonomy than characters in a play, which was essentially what they were.”
This is at its most unnerving when characters encounter temporaries whose behaviour is out of the ordinary. There is often a profound discomfort in the writing around the temporaries, but it is seldom with the same sense of menace as the dawning awareness of Westworld’s hosts. Instead, it is a dull-eyed sadness that can be discomfiting, but which is well worth reading.
For those who particularly enjoyed Westworld’s feeling of things running just inches from going off the rails, we should also recommend Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Veldt” (which you can find in the collection The Illustrated Man). “The Veldt” differs somewhat from the others mentioned so far, in that the amusement park is instead replaced by a futuristic virtual reality nursery given over to the entertainment of two children. Over the course of the short story, their parents become concerned by fact that the nursery’s projections seem always to be focussed on Africa, presenting them with a landscape in which a pride of lions feasts on an indistinct figure. The nursery takes on an increasingly threatening aspect when the parents venture into it, and seems unwilling to relinquish the children.
Here again the tone is of something that we expect should be a safe space for education and entertainment, taking on a subtly menacing aspect. In this instance, as is the case occasionally in Westworld, the presence of children in what is otherwise presumed to be a safe environment, renders the sense of underlying threat somehow more unnerving.
Larry Niven’s Dream Park is another near-future amusement park adventure, and another book in which the players take part in a role-playing game, complete with holographic weapons to allow them to engage in staged combat with one another. In that respect, it’s not a million miles away from Westworld, though the two are otherwise very different.
In truth, Dream Park is hard to recommend. It's a little all over the place, and certainly not Niven's best work. The biggest reason to give it a look is to see how much the approach to this kind of story has changed in the last 35 years.
The most interesting divide between the two is not in their approach to character or conflict, but in their understanding of ‘games’ as a format and a vehicle for entertainment. If nothing else, Dream Park serves to highlight the extent to which Westworld is informed by modern videogames. Where Dream Park’s “Game Master” seems to draw more on pen-and-paper RPGs, Westworld exhibits a more modern understanding of how a game’s environment and writing operate. It might seem like a minor distinction, but it is a distinction that casts Dream Park as a kind of pre-videogame precursor to Westworld. If there is an alternate reality in which videogames never existed, then that reality's Westworld is far closer to Dream Park.
This difference in the relationship between the player and the designer brings us to another of Westworld’s uncomfortable themes. If there is one thing that we learn from the structure of the park and how its hosts are cleaned, repaired, and maintained, it is that human beings seem to trend inevitably towards evil. Ford even remarks on this early in the season, when he comments that he had expected the park’s attendees to split roughly evenly between those who pursued good and evil, only to be surprised when many of them chose “black hat.”
While this hints at the state of humanity and the world beyond Westworld, questions about man’s inherent inhumanity to man and our tendencies for violence have long been staples of science fiction. One of the most interesting explorations of this is Robert Sheckley’s "Seventh Victim" (which you can find in the Store of the Worlds collection). Set in a distant future in which humanity has achieved world peace and largely lives as a post-scarcity society, "Seventh Victim" postulates that there is a proportion of humanity that simply cannot progress beyond a thirst for violence.
In Westworld, we're led to the impression that this implicit thirst for bloodshed is funnelled into the “safe” diversion of the park, where people can take their frustrations out on the non-human hosts, which can later be repaired to be used by other patrons. In "Seventh Victim," the “safe” outlet for that instinct towards violence is to turn it on itself. Individuals can sign up to take part in a government-managed “hunt” that sees them assigned a target from the list of other sign-ups. In turn, they agree to serve as someone else’s target. It is perfectly legal to kill your target, just as it is legal for you to kill someone who is targeting you.
While the fundamental tension of this short story is in the relationship between the hunter and the target, as well as the knowledge that the hunter is someone else’s target, the real interest is in the world itself. As in Westworld, the individuals we meet on the hunt often seem oddly dedicated to violence, but in both cases we understand that this murderous streak is only one aspect of their character, and does not affect the rest of their lives. These are human beings who live and work alongside everyone else, but who also happen to have a violent streak that they feel compelled to indulge.
There are few other science fiction books that hit quite the same note, though Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale is a strong comparison. Like Westworld, Battle Royale is set in an isolated, relatively rural location, with some degree of separation from many of its character’s “regular lives,” though in this case that setting is an island. Here, the killings are externally motivated; the students are brought to the island against their will, and then told that the only way out is to be the last one alive.
For the comics-inclined, Battle Royale also has a beautiful manga adaptation:
Again, as in Westworld, students seem to break down into two rough categories: those who seek to work together to find a way to overcome their situation, and those who immediately take to the idea of murdering their classmates in an effort to be the sole survivor. It’s just different enough to keep you guessing, but just similar enough to slake some of that post-Westworld thirst.
For those who absolutely love Ed Harris' role in Westworld, it's also worth noting that Battle Royale includes a character who is at least broadly similar to the “man in black.” From the outset, prodigious student Kazuo Kiriyama, like the man in black, seems to be operating on an entirely different set of principles to the rest of book’s characters, most of whom are just muddling through to the best of their abilities. Every interaction with him is loaded with menace, though it would be a shame to give away anything more about him here now.
Perhaps the strangest similarity between the two is the plight of those written off at the beginning of the story. Where Westworld's cast of android hosts are barely seen as people, the students of Battle Royale are treated almost as though they are already dead by the soldiers and officials who interact with them at the beginning of the book. It’s a cold, distant feeling, and brings the reader face to face with the dehumanisation of a group of people who are clearly deserving or more consideration.
This brings us quite naturally to the last of the major themes of Westworld, that of the park’s hosts slowly coming to realise their own humanity, creating a sort of nightmare combination of Firefly and Dollhouse. This theme is perhaps the most thoroughly explored in science fiction as a whole. While some of these might go without saying we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least mention Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, Robot Dreams, or even his longer collection of short stories, The Complete Robot (which gathers an enormous amount of his short fiction about robotics).
For those with an interest in the human/robot divide, those books are probably familiar ground. Instead, we're going to look at books that consider questions of the divide between human and machine from a slightly different angle. The first of those is Robert Venditti's The Surrogates. Beginning in 2054, The Surrogates is set in a world in which an increasingly risk-averse and beauty-obsessed society sees people staying at home at all times, only experiencing the outside world through remote-operated mechanical doubles called “surrogates.”
The comic series begins with the execution-style murder of two of these surrogates in an alleyway and then follows police lieutenant Harvey Greer as he investigates the strange case. While he’s working the case, Greer’s own surrogate is destroyed, forcing him to continue his investigation in person. As he encounters the danger and excitement of physically being somewhere, he begins to sympathise with those who see the world without their surrogates.
For those of you who feel compelled to see it on screen, The Surrogates was also adapted for cinema, starring Bruce Willis, but it’s almost ironically middle-of-the-road. As in the case of people’s android-surrogate-stand-ins in the comic, the movie is a second-hand experience that lacks much of the charm of the comic series.
On a similar tack, Ghost in the Shell addresses questions of the self from almost the opposite direction. Where Westworld is concerned with the awakening of consciousness among the park’s hosts, Ghost in the Shell questions what is left behind when a human brain is encased in a robotic body. Like The Surrogates, this is a police drama, following Major Motoko Kusanagi as she investigates “the puppeteer,” linked to a series of crimes committed using other people as proxies after hacking the portions of their brain adapted for direct human/machine interface.
It would be just a little too much of a spoiler to say exactly why here, but the reasons for the puppeteer’s crimes will resonate with Westworld fans.
If Westworld is a western artificially produced by its science fiction setting, then C. L. Moore’s Northwest of Earth is almost the polar opposite. Set on the dusty colonies of Mars, it’s science fiction whose setting is almost naturally a western. Northwest of Earth is a collection of short stories revolving around a man named Northwest Smith. In some ways, it's very of-its-time, but that serves only to reinforce its western feel. It’s hard to do the setting justice, so we’ll offer a taster with this quote from early in one of the stories,
“Northwest Smith heard it coming and stepped into the nearest doorway, laying a wary hand on his heat-gun’s grip, and his colorless eyes narrowed. Strange sounds were common enough in the streets of Earth’s latest colony on Mars—a raw, red little town where anything might happen, and very often did. But Northwest Smith, whose name is known and respected in every dive and wild outpost on a dozen wild planets, was a cautious man, despite his reputation.”
Science fiction tends less and less to be the story of one man out on the frontier, meeting strange women in new towns and almost connecting with them. In reality, the genre is probably better for it, but there’s still room in our hearts for the story of one man in a dusty red town with only his heat-gun to keep him warm at night.
It’s hard to describe what it is about the combination of sci-fi and western that works so well for Moore where it so often falls apart for others, but there is an undeniable joy in her writing. It would be a dismal failure if we didn’t recommend a novel that introduces a character with lines like, “something in her hopeless huddle at his feet touched that chord of sympathy for the underdog that stirs in every Earthman.”
For those of you who’ve made it this far without anything taking your fancy, then the last book we’d recommend taking the time to consider Stephen King’s The Gunslinger and the rest of The Dark Tower series.
The Gunslinger is set in the distant future, in a post-apocalyptic world in which little of civilisation or technology seems to remain. We’re told often that the world has “moved on.” When we’re first introduced to the setting, the only two characters involved are Roland, the eponymous gunslinger, and “the man in black,” with Roland chasing the man in black across a seemingly endless desert. The resonance with Westworld are obvious enough.
While The Gunslinger has a strong hint of fantasy to it, at the centre of The Dark Tower is the strange feel of a western blended with a rake of science fiction elements. Characters frequently travel to alternate earths, or encounter machines clearly from a distant future. It’s strongly implied that many of the worlds they visit are postapocalyptic, whether due to war, disease, or some other unidentified calamity.
There are even encounters with sentient machines over the course of the series, but to describe them would only spoil things for you. Instead, let’s just leave it at that tantalising hint for the moment. Suffice it to say, if Westworld captured your attention for its careful blending of western setting and science fiction questions, then you’ll be very well served by The Gunslinger.
Hopefully, something in the enormous volume of text above will have struck a chord with you. If the recommendations seem a little haphazard, then you’ll have to bear with us. After all, Westworld’s great triumph is in its blending of very two very different genres in a manner that preserves all the strengths of both. As a result, the recommendations necessarily bounce around between genres and themes a little, but with any luck there will be something here for all fans of the series.
There were also a few books we'd have loved to recommend, but explaining why would have spoiled some of both Westworld and the other books. If you're willing to take a bit of a leap of faith, then you'd do well to read Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake, which has a beautiful, understated resonance with Westworld that's almost impossible to explain without undermining both.
If there are any books that you feel really hit the right note but aren’t included here, then please leave a comment so that we can read them.*
*Except for Pastworld… we're not reading Pastworld again.