Writers: Westworld and “nothing is original”

One piece of advice for authors that gets bandied around a great deal is “nothing is original”. As a writer, your ideas are an expression of your own creativity, but they’re influenced heavily by your experiences and worldview, and you shouldn’t shy away from this – you should embrace it.

Here’s a recent example – Westworld.

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Westworld, as some will already know, is a re-imagining of a 70s movie.

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In that movie, people visiting a Western-style theme park crewed by androids are menaced when they go berserk.

Sound familiar?

“When the Pirates of the Caribbean malfunction, the Pirates don’t eat the tourists!”

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Recognise that line? Jeff Goldblum’s character speaks it in Jurassic Park. What’s Jurassic Park about? Well, people visiting a dinosaur-themed zoo are menaced when the the dinos get out of control.

Both the original sources of Westworld and Jurassic Park were written by Michael Crichton – so first off, Crichton was content to write two of his own works with a similar overarching premise (never mind worrying someone else might have made something similar), but the modern series of Westworld is, for all intents and purposes, the same premise again.

Why is this a good thing? Put simply, it’s because the premise of the three properties might match, but each of them is a very different take on a core idea.

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Westworld came at a time when people were first starting to become familiar with computers. By 1973, we were on the cusp of seeing how they were going to change people’s lives. Like all change, though, this brought fear, and Westworld tapped into the idea of runaway computers that go beyond human control. It might’ve been set in a Western-style theme park, but Westworld was really about the dangers of computing.

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Jurassic Park came at a time when the race was on to crack the human genome, and to acquire a greater understanding of genetics. The world of science was awash with science fiction concepts like gene therapy and genetic screening… But similarly, people were worried about designer babies and genetic engineering. Jurassic Park may have featured dinosaurs but it was really about the ethics of genetics and where that was leading mankind.

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The new Westworld borrows some themes from the older movie, but it blends them with its own ideas. As we now live in a world dominated by computing, people in general aren’t afraid of computers. We’re largely over that. Instead, it’s about the ethics of AI – not simply “AI could be dangerous” but rather, the responsibilities that AI places upon its creators. If you create a humanoid robot that is a perfect human replica, and you kill it, are you a murderer? Is it a victim? At what point does a mechanism become a person? Even this isn’t new; Ghost in the Shell asked it and it wasn’t even new then.

It doesn’t matter.

What matters is each generation of creators can take a simple common premise and use it to frame their own ideas, communicating hopes and fears that are unique to them, in their era.

Plagiarism is bad, but plagiarism isn’t writing something that has been broadly done before.

So write your own idea about a theme park that menaces the guests. Write your own story about 7 strangers who defend a town from bandits. Write your own story about a haunted house, a political conspiracy, or a suave super-spy. If you have something to say, then it’ll be yours and people will respect that.

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