Suspension of disbelief and Westworld

2018-06-30

in Geek stuff, Rants, Writing

The suspension of disbelief has a particular peculiar character within the science fiction genre. While there is certainly sci-fi that rejects all standards of realism rooted in actual science, and which might thus be better seen as a kind of fantasy with technology, most sci-fi seeks to imagine things that could be possible in the real universe, at least if the requisite technologies and aliens show up.

When experiencing science fiction, I find myself always cataloguing two kinds of consistency and places where each breaks down. First there is consistency within the world established by the narrative. If the robots in chapter one can be easily fooled by colour photocopies of people’s faces it shouldn’t change for no reason in chapter two. In a broader sense the internal rules of the universe should be consistent. If multi-year travel times between settlements are a major part of a fictional universe, the economic and political life of the settlements should be compatible with that. The second kind of consistency is with the known rules the real universe follows. This is routinely violated by sci-fi with comic book or action hero physics, where the capabilities of technology depend on the emotional stakes and the needs of the plot, rather than serving as a template for what the characters are free to do.

I have watched the first two seasons of Westworld with both kinds of consistency in mind and have been much more frustrated by internal inconsistency than by straight-up scientific impossibility. Perhaps with the big exception of “what powers the hosts?” the show doesn’t pose many straight-up problems of practicality. Rich and determined enough people could do most of what has been depicted so far (ignoring the question of whether copying and creating conscious beings is possible as depicted). Since a lot of the show is shoot-em-up gore, perhaps the most frustrating internal inconsistency regards what it takes to actually kill the robots (called “hosts”) and specifically why damage to their physical bodies can in any circumstance damage the small protected orbs which are supposedly their brains.

It makes sense in the emotional and Western contexts that one well-placed bullet brings down anybody, but it doesn’t make sense anymore when the constraints that are supposed to make the durable, re-usable robots into suitable targets are no longer being applied, and especially when some robots just shrug off bullets now because they have been reprogrammed. We’re two seasons in and everybody is still being killed because their tougher-than-humans replaceable bodies get damaged in ways that would make a person bleed to death or otherwise no longer be able to keep vital organs functioning.

Probably the writers have an answer or will roll one out subsequently, while most fans will put it down to the rule of cool on the basis of wanting to see more human-style gunfights between the robots. To me it comes across as unsatisfying, however, and a failing or unwillingness to think through the implications of the premises which the writers have already established. They’re taking a lot of the Ghost in the Shell universe where “bodies are a dime a dozen”, but sticking with gunshot wounds as a mechanism to sometimes-permanently sometimes-temporarily kill robots. The inconsistent treatment of guns is unsatisfying in other ways too, like how apparently there was some system built into the park to keep real guns from injuring human guests (suggesting some omnipotent operating system controls everything in the park) but which one person then shuts down in only that very limited way. The way they control explosives doesn’t make sense either, with the control room approving one explosion specifically for an important guest, but robots apparently playing with real nitroglycerin in several of the park’s programmed narratives. If guests are interacting with real wagonloads of nitroglycerin, how do they not get routinely blasted to pieces? And if the park can control how badly humans versus robots are hurt by nitroglycerin explosions, why don’t we see the evidence of that kind of control in other places?

It’s basically standard in fiction that characters important to the plot are impossibly competent with their weapons, while anyone attacking them is impossibly incompetent (like the much-mocked stormtroopers in Star Wars), but this is taken to an implausible degree when a single person with an antique pistol kills whole squads of mercenaries with submachine guns before any of the mercs can notice what is happening and use a weapon.

Science fiction is meant by many authors as a means of exploring philosophical ideas, as well as the implications of technology, and allowing inconsistencies and implausibilities may be intended to serve that purpose. That’s fine as far as it goes, and it’s not for me to tell authors what plot contents are or are not appropriate in their creations. Still, to some degree the task of creative worldbuilding depends on the contents holding together with each other and when that common basis is eroded by inconsistent treatment it diminishes the plausibility and immersiveness of the entire world.

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