This past weekend, Westworld began its second season, promising 10 more weeks of enigmatic plotting, biomechanical heroes and villains, corporate intrigue, player piano Radiohead covers, and the long, twisted path to consciousness. That also means 10 more weeks of waiting between episodes, a problem for which, as always, science—or science fiction anyway—ofers a solution. Here are six books loaded with the same mixture of existential weirdness, artificial consciousness, and killer machines.
All Systems Red, by Martha Wells
In the future, the Company requires its contractors and researchers establishing outposts on colony worlds to travel with a security android, complete with a behavioral governor unit to ward off unfortunate “incidents” should the heavily armed security droid get ideas of its own. Unlike its peers, “Murderbot,” the narrator of All Systems Red, hacked its own governor, allowing it to contemplate its own existence and become more and more independent, then promptly using its newfound freedom to…binge-watch TV dramas. Systems is probably the closest Westworld readalike on this list, as its bio-mechanoid murderbot narrator spends equal time exploring its own developing consciousness and its relationship with humans,. Its organic components draw a nice parallel to the construction of the show’s Hosts, as does the way humans and the Company treat Murderbot, in that if they realized it had become self-aware, they would first question it, then strip it for parts. There’s one big difference though: Murderbot is funny as hell.
Clockwork Girl, by Athena Villaverde
One Christmas, Marisol is given a clockwork robot named Pichi to be her perfect companion. Pichi is a wide-eyed and loving little robot with one quirk— to keep the human brain in her head alive, her clockwork innards must be wound every day. At first, Marisol doesn’t want Pichi, viewing her gift as a slave of sorts, but soon, she grows to love the clockwork girl, who also seems to love her. When Marisol outgrows Pichi, the construct is left to navigate a merciless world entirely on her own. There are definite similarities to Westworld, especially in exploring a universe where humans see creations like Pichi as nothing more than their playthings; the toll that takes on a sapient being is heavy. In spite of the dark places Clockwork Girl goes, Pichi is likable enough that you want to see her persevere, and the story takes on a hopeful cast that acts as a balm to all the darkness.
The Red Men, by Matthew de Abaitua
In the future, a corporation digitizes its workers into “red men” who can interface with their proprietary AI and access a large gestalt consciousness. When one of the company’s overworked staff asks for her red man to be downloaded into a body so she can have a babysitter for the night, it kicks off a bizarre, terrifying power struggle between the red men, an AI residing in psychotherapy robots, a sinister gas-masked cult, and the two former political dissidents who caused the mess in the first place. If you like all the existential weirdness of Westworld but feel like it gets too bogged down in weird worldbuilding, this book is for you— it’s every bit as out there in its exploration of artificial intelligence ethics and the interplay between humans and technology, but the slightly unhinged narrator keeps everything relatively easy to understand, and there are some heartbreaking moments when the trustworthy “Dr. Easy” robot decides it’s had enough abuse, and starts fighting back.
vN: The First Machine Dynasty, by Madeline Ashby
Amy is a von Neumann android, a kind of self-replicating artificial human. Amy’s parents—a mixed-species couple consisting of a human father and a von Neumann mother— do the best they can to raise her as a normal child and shield her from the darker elements of the world. But when Amy’s “grandmother” appears at her graduation from kindergarten, Amy suddenly devours her and grows into an adult form. It turns out Amy is a “predator unit,” a von Neumann designed without the usual safeguards protecting others from their more dangerous aspects. The idea of an artificial human becoming more self-aware when the safeguards on them are disabled draws interesting parallels to Westworld‘s Dolores—though Ashby’s kinetic thriller offers entirely its own take on machine independence in a human-dominated world.
Brain Thief, by Andrew Jablokov
Upon receiving a cryptic message, Bernal Haydon-Rumi finds himself chasing a series of increasingly bizarre clues involving a defunct cryo-storage facility, a disgraced scientist, and his boss Muriel’s suddenly “eccentric” planet exploration AI. As he travels down a rabbit hole that sees him harassed and aided by a wide cast, including an anti-AI activist, a former cryonics researcher, and a local serial murderer, he movers ever closer to finding the key that will unlock the mystery of Muriel’s disappearance and the AI’s newfound eccentricity. It’s a bit of a left-field pick for Westworld fans, but the theme of developing robotic consciousness, the twisted web of storylines, and the SF-infused murder mystery do vibe nicely with the series, even if the book takes a more offbeat and darkly comic approach to its vision of not-too-distant future.
The Blinds, by Adam Sternbergh
Sternbergh’s western noir doesn’t look to have much in common with Westworld at first glance. It’s about a small southwestern town where a handful of dangerous criminals have submitted to an experimental procedure that wipes their brains and gives them newer, more harmless personalities, and what happens when that town experiences its first murder. There’s nary a robot or AI to be seen, and the town housing the Blinds isn’t exactly a theme park, but the central mystery of Sternbergh’s novel also revolves entirely around the idea of memory, consciousness, and buried subconscious cues rising to the surface in an enclosed space. The Western theme also definitely has parallels to the robots’ reverie programming and the ultimate goal of the Maze in the TV series. The climax even recalls the end of Westworld‘s first season.
They’re good readalikes, Brent. Any we missed?