Oct 2, 2016

Wild West

The wild west (source)
This blog post can be viewed as a non-review of the new Westworld television show. More accurately, this post should be seen and judged in the context of my long-standing struggle with violence in science fiction. I'm just using Westworld as an excuse to engage in more introspection about my own emotional reactions to depictions of fantasy violence.

I've been reading online descriptions of Westworld written by people who mostly describe this show as being science fiction (or, often, "Sci Fi"). However, As far as I can tell, HBO is not marketing their Westworld television series as science fiction. Intriguingly, HBO itself is actually an existing virtual reality entertainment environment where customers indulge their fantasies by paying $ to watch simulated acts of violence. With companies like HBO around, who needs a Westworld? Here is how Lisa Joy put it: "it’s not really science fiction, it’s science fact".

I become physically ill if I must watch depictions of asocial violence and other types of dehumanizing behavior. I'm less strongly impacted by reading about fantasy violence, but I still prefer to read written fiction that avoids violence. For example, I'm not entertained by military science fiction.

However, violence is part of life and one of my favorite authors, Jack Vance, provides a good example of a writer who did not shy away from building violence into his stories. What exactly is the difference between 1) the fantasy violence found in a Vance novel, a type that I can tolerate, and 2) the type of graphic video violence that HBO has produced for many years?

Michael Chabon put it like this: "Vance has the narrative force, the willingness to look very coldly at violence and cruelty, to not shy away."

Although I can tolerate Vance's style of written violence, I don't read his stories because of the violence. There is some sort of litmus test for "tolerable violence" lurking nearby that I find hard to put into words. I think Vance knew that an effective way to sell his stories was to make sure that they included a damsel in distress and a stoic leading man who will duke it out with the bad guy and his evil henchmen (and, ultimately, win). Cut. Now shift this story-telling formula to the darker world of HBO where, "Every violent act we see is something that a person chooses to do for fun".

Curse of the West
I'm fine with how Vance's formula plays out on the printed page, but during my lifetime, there has been a steady pushing of the boundaries towards increasingly graphic violence in television programs and films (and let's not forget that other screen and all the video games that have desensitized millions of children to fantasy violence). I have not found it possible to go along with the trend towards increasingly explicit visual depictions of violence.

Game of Powns
Westworld quickly trots out it own version of a damsel in distress (a farmer's daughter, she's "The Original"), but "she" is a programmed machine, designed to entertain sadistic humans by playing the role of a victim. HBO cu$tomerS pay for this type of hyper-violent "entertainment", a type which in this case is explicitly presented as mindless (Dolores is just a mindless machine; the memories of all the robots are "reset" at the end of each day). Intriguingly, in this virtual reality couch-potato-shooter game of porns powns, we are teased with the provocative possibility that HBO's sexbots are on the verge of being endowed with minds and agency. Dolores begins to remember things that she should not remember and she starts to become a person.

2001: kill or be killed
I long ago gave up on most of Hollywood; I don't find the product entertaining. The last television show I routinely watched was MASH, an anti-war television comedy. The more books that I read, the more I lost interest in television.

It has been 10 years since I paid to watch a movie in a theater and during the past 10 years there have been no Hollywood films that I wanted to see. For entertainment, I much prefer to read a good book. My preferred style of movie is PG-rated fare such as Bicentennial Man. My favorite quote from Asimov is the one about violence as a tool of the incompetent.

 “... as a piece of serious science fiction it doesn’t really work.”
the original Westworld
I once tried to watch the original Westworld movie. It struck me as typical Hollywood non-entertainment, designed for a typical movie audience that was not seeking intellectual stimulation. Crichton's story about robots run amok was not a convincing or believable story from the perspective of a fan of written science fiction.

Observation: I'm not entertained when watching Hollywood's silly and contrived excuses to portray a horror tale involving the hunting of people.

Here is a question I need to answer: what magic pixie dust did Jack Vance sprinkle into his Demon Princes saga that allows me to be entertained by his 5 volume saga about hunting people?

"The science doesn’t hold up at all on this show, so if you like hard sci-fi, that’s going to bug you."

Westworld: the next Game of Thrones?
There is very little chance that I'll ever watch the new Westworld television show. I've never watched Game of Thrones, nor do I have the slightest interest in watching it or, particularly, sending any $ to HBO to reward it for its video festival of gratuitous sexual violence.

Even if the new Westworld show has something interesting to say about artificial intelligence, I'm not going to wade through an absurd Michael Crichton fantasy setting and HBO-style violence just for a chance to see some mildly-interesting topic about artificial intelligence that I probably already explored decades ago in the works of thoughtful writers of science fiction such as Asimov. Of course, I'd be pleased if HBO dashed my negative expectations and actually turned Westworld into an interesting science fiction saga. I'm not holding my breath.

cover illustration: Gersen kills Bel Ruk
I suppose it is inevitable that some humans can develop a fascination with violence and murder. Research on primate murder rates (example) can be interpreted as indicating that humans might have genetic predispositions that allow them to murder. Certainly history shows that some people can become violent murderers if they live in a violence-promoting environment.

In modern society, there is a very low murder rate among healthy normal people, but some people still develop a perverse fascination with violence. Hollywood seems to attract more than its fair share of people who are desensitized to violence and these social parasites entrepreneurs are perfectly happy to $ell an endless blood-colored river of fanta$y violence to paying cu$tomers. Dismayed observers of this phenomenon are told: don't argue with succe$$.

That's Entertainment
One of Asimov's favorite science fiction stories;
with no violence: The Last Question
I'm particularly distressed when I'm told that violence must be included in science fiction. For example, see "Why Science Fiction Needs Violence". Ryan Britt seems to have been telling us that without violence, science fiction stories do not seem real. How have we reached the point where violence is seen as essential for entertainment? Yes, people are adaptable, but there is nothing glorious about a society where people have been fed shit for so long that they've turned into coprophilic inhuman monsters, unable to enjoy their entertainment literature unless it includes "realistic" violence.

Bicentennial Man
I stand in opposition to the idea that "science fiction needs violence". Isaac Asimov, one of the best selling science fiction authors ever, gave us some great stories with no violence.

The End of Eternity
When Asimov included violence in a story, he did so for a good reason, not just out of some absurd belief that his work would be ignored if it did not include violence. That standard was good enough for Asimov and it is still good enough for me. As a science fiction fan, I feel that we loose the real value of science fiction story telling when people just try to exploit a science fictional theme for profit.

The sure fire way to profit from science fiction is to be lazy: you certainly don't need to have a new and interesting idea. And in Hollywood, you don't want your story to make sense, you just need your cu$tomerS to keep coming back for another hit of dopamine.

No, just show lotsa shapely boobs and splash a bit of blood across the screen; that's all it takes to entice a few million voyeurs to pay to see your "new" show. Many fans of written science fiction will shake their heads at $uch $cam$ and return to the book they were reading.

Answering my own question (from above)
Araminta Station
For me, the difference between a readable story (with violence) by Jack Vance and an unwatchable Hollywood depiction of violence begins with the fact that when I read a story by Vance I have the opportunity to be transported to a place that sprang from Vance's fertile imagination, a place where I will want to spend some time being entertained while watching Vance wield the magic of the English language. For me, some of Vance's stories and depictions of violence, tame as they may be by modern television standards, are still too intense. However, when reading, I can skip over the revolting parts of a story and move on without some horrific and sickening image having been burned into my brain.

In contrast, while reading about HBO's Westworld, I was shown lots of guns and warned that the show would give me nightmares. Westworld is being advertised as "dark", which I take to be fair warning that someone as squeamish as I am should not even try to watch it.

Sessily just before her death
In Vance's Araminta Station, there are 100 pages of creative world building before the murder of Sessily, which, thankfully, happens "off stage". Sessily's murder becomes a mystery to be solved, a process that takes another 400 pages. Vance makes clear the gruesome reality of Sessily's murder, but he does so with the tact that he learned back in the Golden Age of science fiction. I don't need HBO or anyone else crafting a video depiction of Sessily's murder and splashing that across the screen. Vance's verbal account of her fate is vivid enough for me.

In the case of Kirth Gersen and his life-long quest to hunt down and kill the men who destroyed Mt. Pleasant and killed his parents, Vance takes pains to show readers Gersen's humanity and his own inner doubts about his murderous quest. Vance's story has a completely different dynamic than what Crichton created in Westworld: a blood-thirsty dinosaur android that starts mechanically hunting people.

Glawen, Sessily and a friend
In contrast, Gersen frets that he might be an inhuman mechanism simply carrying out the programming for revenge that was instilled in him by his grandfather. Gersen decides that he is not a mechanism, that he must destroy the evil men he is hunting in order to put an end to their on-going evil exploits. Crichton created horror stories with either mindless androids or killer dinosaurs that were acting out their instinctive hunting behavior, stories that are well suited to Hollywood's lowest-common-denominator entertainment.

Vance often created stories about young people who grew up to be competent and thoughtful people who fought against the dangers and evils that they were confronted with. I prefer a cleverly written heroic adventure over Hollywood'$ dark and contrived fanta$y gore, but that's just me.

Foundation and HBO
Use, Asimov
Fans of science fiction are still waiting to see what HBO will do with the rights to develop a video screen adaptation of Asimov's Foundation saga. My best guess is that HBO will never produce any Foundation video. My worst cast scenario is that HBO will create some "dark" and steaming mess and slap the name "Foundation" on it, with no real attempt to tell Asimov's story.

Related reading: "Levels of violence in science fiction"
Do Better: Sexual Violence in SFF
One month later: reading Westworld
Next: the mathematics of mind 
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