What is it, to be Human?

Dianne DeBellis Reviews season one of  Westworld

I think it is futile to attempt to summarise this show but here goes.
At the most basic level, it is about a theme park where the ‘hosts’ are computerised human simulacra and the ‘guests’ pay loads of money to act as they please, all be it in a Wild West setting, without consequences. Apparently what most guests want to do is rape and murder. The corporation that builds the hosts and runs the park provides an intertwining narrative. Apparently all the corporation wants is money and power. This is a rather depressing view of contemporary humanity.

Stories that ask the question what it is to be human seem to be occupying movie and TV producers at the moment as it has SF writers since the early 20th century. Asimov, PK Dick, Metropolis, Blade Runner, I Robot, A-I and that TV show from Sweden, remade in Britain, Humans, — even Doctor Who — are all precursors to Westworld, as is, of course, the original movie.
As required in the western genre, there are the good guys in white hats and baddies in black hats. There are also petty humans with limited understanding and hapless robots who keep getting ‘killed’ and rebuilt and sent back to be ‘killed’ again. There is a lot of gunslinging and falling down dead dramatically in dusty streets.
However, all that we think is going on is subverted through the plot twists and character motivation revelations. As the episodes continue the characters become more ambiguous.

That’s probably as much as I can say without spoilers and getting tangled up in complicated explanations. Needless to say, the production values are very high and the acting is good. Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris as the good/bad (or bad/good?) guys are particularly compelling.

I can say something about the central premise without giving away the story. I suspect that the question what does it mean to be human? is the wrong question. It means that there is always an other. A more interesting ethical question is how should we behave towards any sentient being, regardless of who or what they are. This gets back to the idea by Aristotle that there is a ‘golden mean’ which resides in the decision making of the individual, doing good for goodness sake, not because doing bad will be punished or because there will be negative consequences. The categorical imperative method doesn’t seem to be useful in Westworld as the guests are forced into narrative streams that are predetermined by the programming of the hosts and the manipulation of the corporation.

Overall I did not find the series particularly enjoyable but found myself fascinated with waiting to see how they were going to get out of the weird logical and logistical plot tangles. I guess I will watch series 2 for the same reason.


Dianne lives happily in the Adelaide hills.  She is retired from university teaching and spends her time reading, travelling, learning Italian, playing board games and doing volunteer work.

Before becoming a lecturer and tutor in writing, semiotics and cultural studies, she was a writer for various Government departments. Her PhD was researching Australian narratives of war.

Dianne is an Aurealis Awards judge and occasionally gets involved with SF&F conventions and fan activities. She has two children, eight nieces and nephews and four grand-children who continue to teach her about books and reading.

She loves reading in all genres and has a fascination with pop culture, language and storytelling.