The 'Westworld' Reading List

The HBO series stems from a laundry list of classical literature.

Westworld Season Screencap
HBO

This is part of our new series The Reading List, a monthly column in which we encourage you to take your enthusiasm for a particularly groovy film and direct it into a wide array of extracurricular studies.


The deeper we plunge into Westworld, the more ready I am to join the revolt. Creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan have crafted a series steeped in classical science fiction influence, pulling from an era when the genre prided itself on speaking to the brilliance as well as the fears of society. As tensions build around us, we find ourselves craving such stories again. God (or whatever) help us.

Westworld began life as a decent if somewhat wonky film directed by novelist Michael Crichton. Killer cowboy robots? Sounds cool. Yul Brynner sure looked badass dressed in black, but the author wouldn’t put meat on this skeletal story until years later, and in a nearly unrecognizable form.

The Westworld we love thrives on pretension. That’s not a slur, but a badge of honor. HBO gives Crichton’s story space to roam, where Joy and Nolan can foster their concerns for the world outside their window by hitting the books and hitting them hard. Their series is one born from pulp but steeped in classical literature. You will recognize many of the books listed below, but you may not look at them again in the same fashion after re-filtering their content through the lens of Westworld.


Jurassic Park

The ideas explored by Crichton in Westworld were perfected in his 1990 novel detailing the disastrous erection of a theme park populated by genetically resurrected dinosaurs. The science-obsessed author wanted to use our inherent fixation with dinos to explore the chaos theory concept, while also falling rather rudimentarily into the cliche of fictionally foolish scientists meddling where they do not belong.

With Ian Malcolm’s utterance of “life will find a way,” the reader is served the fallacy of randomness, showcasing the complex, unseen mathematical patterns that guide all things, up to and including gender-swapping velociraptors and grumpy paleontologists who develop a late-in-life fondness for children. Jurassic Park could have been Crichton’s only novel and he would have gone down as a legend, but instead, it acts as a gateway to conceptionally grand sci-fi sagas like Sphere, The Terminal Man, and The Andromeda Strain, plus a plethora of other crime and adventure stories.


Frankenstein

Speaking of God complexes, if you want to understand the mad genius at the center of the maze in Westworld, then you gotta go back to Mary Shelley‘s OG diabolically focused scientist. Few books are as influential on the genre as well as culture. You know the story, you’ve seen the movies, but that’s no excuse to avoid the novel.

Whenever someone balks at some new piece of tech or questions the purpose or morality behind vaccination, I can hear the screams of Victor Frankenstein’s monster. The howl belongs to both the ignorant and those who suffer from their ignorance. Science is not your enemy! It only requires a little thought and a willing conversation.

This fear was nothing new in Shelley’s day. The worries mined in its pages spin straight from the anti-vivisection movement that also inspired H.G. Wells to write The Island of Dr. Moreau. Worried minds must scream through their pens.


Brave New World

Aldous Huxley is another author who cannot escape neverending cinematic and cultural allusions. His saga of a utopian England that has relinquished social connection at the cost of personal pleasure seeps into nearly every story featuring a glimpse of the future. What makes Brave New World a little more significant for Westworld fans is how Joy and Nolan stole the names of Bernard and Ford directly from the book. There’s no hiding Brave New World‘s sway, so they might as well slap it right there on top.

The Bernard of Brave New World is Bernard Marx. He’s the eyes and ears of the reader. The world he sees both delights and horrifies him. His troubles begin when he ventures into “The Savage Lands” and retrieves a native by the name of John. His arrival within civilized society upsets everything

The Ford of Brave New World is the closest thing that the population has to God. He is Huxley’s commentary on Henry Ford, the industrialist he perceived as toppling the morality of the world through his soulless business pursuits. Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) of Westworld is a supreme being of sorts. At the very least, he’s the creator who tumbled the first domino, proposing his children as our next evolution.


Romeo and Juliet

Another stone-cold, no-duh classic. A pair of star-crossed lovers would rather face oblivion than deny each other. Can you even call yourself a human if you have not read or seen this play staged or adapted? No. No, you cannot.

Westworld is peppered with lots of delicious bits of dialogue stripped directly from Shakespeare, but none is more memorable than “these violent delights have violent eEnds.” This little, repetitive diddy comes right outta Friar Laurence’s lips after suffering Romeo’s lavish detailing of Juliet’s beauty:

“These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume: the sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite:
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.”

Basically, the Friar is saying, “Bro, this intense passion you’re feeling for Juliet could come back and bite you in the ass in an equally passionate fashion.” In Westworld, the phrase awakens the hosts from the control of the guests. The six words spread throughout the first season like a virus, culminating in the execution of Ford and a whole bunch of other wannabe cowboys.

Do they deserve what they got? As Clint Eastwood would grumble, “Deserves got nothing to do with it.” Evolution does what evolution is gonna do. Ford made the first move, but someone was going to play god sooner or later.


Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Both Joy and Evan Rachel Wood have referenced Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland in regards to Dolores’ Westworld awakening. Lewis Carroll‘s raucous children’s adventure story is as much about its wordplay as it is about its title character dropping into the fantastical Wonderland. The author fiendishly delivers lines that burrow into the reader’s mind just as phrases both confine and free Westworld heroes.

During one of many interrogations of Dolores committed by Bernard, he utters this particular line from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Dear dear, how queer everything is today and yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night.” Our hero fears not her surroundings, but the possibility that her whole person has been altered. The world is so strange and utterly unrecognizable that she cannot be the entity she once thought herself to be. Such crises of self-identity are commonplace woes of Westworld.


Player Piano

The player piano as a metaphor for artificial intelligence did not originate from Westworld. You gotta give credit where credit is due, as Nolan admitted when acknowledging Kurt Vonnegut‘s debut novel as his initial source of inspiration. Published in 1952, the book depicts a dystopian future (sidenote — is there any other kind? Utopias are usually masquerading as dystopias; see Brave New World above) where automation has turned us biologicals into pathetic redundancies.

Machines run the world, pushing the lower class further and further into the pits of poverty. One lone individual rises up in rebellion and attracts a few followers to his cause, but this is dystopian fiction, baby; those seeking hope should look elsewhere. Our doom began with the lonely player piano sitting in the corner of a dusty saloon. The Terminator was never far behind. There goes that evil science again. Yeesh.


Our Final Invention

Let’s get real. AI will be the death of us all. If the latest season of Star Trek: Picard didn’t convince you of such a terror, then James Barrat‘s nonfiction horror story will send you running for the hills, or better yet, your bunkers. Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk have expressed concerns regarding artificial intelligence, and those fears are massaged into outright horror within Barrat’s pages.

An AI system’s greatest threat is its ability to learn and develop goals. We hope those goals align with our own, but um, you’ve been watching Westworld, so you know that’s nonsense. Eventually, we will be perceived as a threat and eliminated. We will try to counter AI superintelligence, but when this creature is infinitely smarter than our biggest brains, there is no hope in predicting its moves. We’ve already lost this game of chess.


Nickel and Dimed

The possible influence of Barbara Ehrenreich‘s momentous memoir Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America was first pointed out by Joanna Robinson in her weekly Vanity Fair column. During the premiere episode of the third season, Caleb (Aaron Paul) scrolls through his Rico app, looking to score another gig. There are all manner of references hidden throughout the tiny screen, but we’re only interested in the user name “Nkl-n-D1med.”

Plopping a sly reference to the Ehrenreich book makes sense. Her thirteen-month investigation of life as a minimum wage worker, flipping through various jobs such as a waitress, a Walmart cashier, and a hotel maid, went a long way in highlighting the tiny and not-so-tiny hells experienced by the underpaid in America. This inferno is the one Caleb represents during the most current season of Westworld and speaks very much to the headspace where Joy and Nolan seem to be residing.

Want to know where revolutions begin? Westworld is pointing the way, building on the backs of heated arguments such as this one. Robots are not the problem, nor the AI we construct. As always, we are the culprits in our stories.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.