Sooner or later, science fiction comes down to the question of what it means to be human. The situations and settings vary, but the question is one of the oldest we have: the ontological debate between free will and determinism. Philosophers, religionists, and scientists have all approached the problem in various ways. We are biologically programmed by our DNA, or we are subject to external forces, or we are living in a simulation governed by algorithms, or we are at the mercy of a god or gods…
Or, we see (not necessarily connected) chains of events and join them with narrative, which we fill in after the fact, or we are given free will and make choices, or we are driven to achieve goals but make choices along the way. God is watching us, or not watching us, and the devil is in the detail, and we are blown like fallen leaves by the forces of fate, or nature, or our programming.
The debate is endless, and circular, or linear, and science fiction reflects all that variety in its many manifestations.
Take Westworld (Sky Atlantic), and Devs (BBC iPlayer), which ask similar questions about free will and programming and have similar ideas about an “afterlife”, which other shows, like The Good Place (Netflix), or Upload (Amazon Prime), or Forever (Amazon Prime) also ponder.
Westworld started strong, with a first season more closely based on the Michael Crichton source, a theme park where people could act out their fantasies, wear different hats, and torture, rape, and kill robots with impunity. Or could they? The show has gone on to ask the question: is the persona you adopt in the theme park an aspect of your true character, or your true self, or simply a role you play? Did William, the Man in Black, start out good (white hat) and end up bad (black hat), or was he always the black hat? Or did the experience of the park itself, the games he played, turn him into the Man in Black?
In other words, do we begin life as pure and unsullied, perfect individuals, and does the game of life and the quest for meaning turn us into something else? And, asks Season 3, what if there was a controlling intelligence, who could predict and know our every move, who could use what appeared to be fate and chance to steer our lives?
The show asks other questions, too, about who deserves to live, and who deserves to be treated as human. Is an AI a person? Can a robot be a person if that robot is self-aware? What if that robot bleeds: should it have the same rights as a human? And what if it doesn’t?
Westworld was flawed, and confusing, and sometimes frustrating, but I loved the way it nagged at those questions, and didn’t look for easy answers. I felt that Season 3 was a better watch than Season 2, although its eight episodes tried to contain a ten episode story, which didn’t help.
Meanwhile, Devs is a much slower-paced, better shaped, but equally thoughtful show that asks similar questions about programming and algorithms and prediction and fate, and, yes, outliers, those people in Westworld whose actions were unpredictable, and so seen as dangerous to the smooth running of society.
Devs looks gorgeous, toned in gold, and takes its time to reveal its mysteries. Like all American shows it turns to violence at the earliest opportunity as the solution to but also cause of all the problems that drive the plot. But its questions – about life, the universe, and everything – were pure science fiction and I feel lucky, really, to live in an age when so much production money is being thrown at ideas like this.
While Devs and Westworld were asking similar existential questions, and pondering related issues of morality and ethics, Devs also wondered about the Everettian (“Many Worlds”) interpretation of quantum physics, and gifted us with several scenes that visualised what such a universe might look like. Decisions, decisions…