Beyond the Mountains of Westworld: Part 1 Comparing H.P. Lovecraft to Michael Crichton

westworld_1973_               Original movie poster for Westworld (1973) written and directed by Michael Crichton

I remember going to the Drive-In theater as a kid in the 1970’s to see the original version of Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973) with Yul Brynner.  It did leave an impression on me – an adult themed park of the Wild West (there was also a Medieval World and a Roman World) with robots or better described as androids. The parallels between Westworld and Crichton’s Jurassic Park books are obvious – using science and technology for recreational purposes where the resulting theme park ends up harming or killing the visitors.  In the past I have compared the Jurassic Park books and movies to H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness, where genetic engineering results in new forms of life that cannot be contained or fully controlled by their creators. However, HBO’s new series Westworld (2016) can also be compared to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness but here the underlining theme is not simply the creation of life but the creation of sentient life with consciousness.

This is the first article in a three-part analysis, comparing H.P. Lovecraft’s novella “At the Mountains of Madness” to HBO’s Westworld. The second article will discuss the creation of life, while the third article will discuss the evolution and development of consciousness. This article will briefly compare the attitudes and opinions Michael Crichton’s to that of Lovecraft’s with regard to science. Please note that while these articles will discuss the general themes and ideas of Westworld, no specific plot spoilers will be given. However, it is strongly recommended that you watch the first season of Westworld to fully appreciate these discussions. In contrast, more detailed plot points will be discussed for “At the Mountains of Madness.”

at_the_mountains_of_madness_2_by_moonxels-d5jux47 “At the Mountains of Madness” by Moonxels (www.deivantart.com)

The tales of both Crichton and Lovecraft commonly express concerns over humanity’s science and technology exceeding the boundaries of the natural world. One of the most common themes in Crichton’s novels is the damage uncontrolled science can do to humanity. Whether its dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, androids in Westworld, space exploration in Andromeda Strain or nanotechnology in Prey, Crichton’s tales tend to be cautionary warnings on how science can be a force onto itself that may negatively impact the human species.

Crichton regularly expressed a genuine level of skepticism on the use of science and noted the limits of science in his autobiography Travels (originally published in 1988). In his autobiography, Crichton frequently expressed an interest in metaphysical concepts and ideas associated with psychic phenomenon and he thought that science and mysticism were different paths that led to the same universal truths. While Crichton had medical training, he claimed to have experienced a number of supernatural phenomenon in his global travels involving psychic channeling and exorcism. This gave Crichton a metaphysical perspective where the power of the mind was just as important as the power the body in healing one’s self.

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While Lovecraft frequently incorporated supernatural elements in his tales, particularly his earlier ones, his mechanical, materialist perspective on the universe and reality helped to develop his unique cosmic tales of horror, in particular his “Cthulhu Mythos” tales. However, beyond a plot device Lovecraft thought very little of the supernatural. One just needs to read some of Lovecraft’s articles in Collected Essays: Volume 3: Science, H.P. Lovecraft (Joshi, 2005) such as “Science versus Charlatanry,” The Falsity of Astrology,” and “The Fall of Astrology” to understand how what little regard he had for the supernatural. In fact, at one point Lovecraft and C.M. Eddy were going to work on a collaborative revision of an article drafted by Harry Houdini and expand it into a book called The Cancer of Superstition (Joshi, 2013). Thus, Lovecraft would have been disappointed and slightly amused with Crichton, a person trained in the medical field believing in such superstitions.

One of Lovecraft’s most famous quotation is from the beginning of “The Call of Cthulhu” where it is stated:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlated all is contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

cthulhu_by_nathanrosario Cthulhu by Nathan Rosario (www.deviantart.com)

A large part of Lovecraft’s perception of reality is based on the writings of Hugh Samuel Roger Elliot (Modern Science and Materialism originally published in 1919), who argued that the universe is analogous to a large, vast machine, operating under some well-established laws of physics and chemistry (Elliot, 1919). Thus, there was no room in Lovecraft’s universe for the supernatural.  Just because we could not understand something in the universe did not make it supernatural; it was simply operating with processes and mechanisms we do not yet understand. In fact, Elliot frequently mentioned that we may never know the true nature of the universe since our senses are only limited to five. If we can increase our perception of reality, we may have a better understanding of the universe. Such themes obviously make their way into a number of Lovecraft’s tales such as “Beyond the Walls of Sleep” and “From Beyond.”

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However, in spite of Lovecraft’s appreciation for science, he still expressed caution in his tales in its application.  Lovecraft’s attitude was firmly rooted in the belief that similar to the 18th and 19th centuries, science was a profession that only the well-to-do should pursue from an academic or theoretical perceptive. It was the application of science and its offspring – the development of technology – that could lead man to a “new dark age.”

To conclude, within the context of their tales, both Lovecraft and Crichton had reservations on how science could lead to the downfall of humanity. However, while Crichton reserved room for the supernatural in his life, Lovecraft’s mechanistic materialism excluded the existence of anything outside of the natural order of physics and chemistry.

The next article we will compare season 1 of HBO’s Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, to Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” with a focus on the creation of artificial life. Thank you – Fred.

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