The Meta-Politics of "Westworld"

The New Yorker

"This story line will make Hieronymus Bosch look like he was doodling kittens," Lee Sizemore brags. He's the head of the "narrative department" at Westworld, a frontier-themed vacation park where customers act out their darkest fantasies. A special little something I call the ourobouros." Self-cannibalism and the snake that eats its own tail: that's a fair description of "Westworld," a come-hither drama that introduces itself as a science-fiction thriller about cyborgs who become self-aware, then reveals its true identity as what happens when an HBO drama struggles to do the same. Created by the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, "Westworld" is explicitly, and often wittily, an exploitation series about exploitation, full of naked bodies that are meant to make us think about nudity and violence that comments on violence.

The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin

The New Yorker

Politics has been obsessing a lot of people lately, and Ursula K. Le Guin is far from immune to bouts of political anger. In an e-mail to me last winter, she wrote that she felt "eaten up" with frustration at the ongoing occupation of an eastern Oregon wildlife refuge by an armed band of antigovernment agitators led by the brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy. She was distressed by the damage they had done to scientific programs and to historical artifacts belonging to the local Paiute tribe, and critical of the F.B.I. for being so slow to remove these "hairy gunslinging fake cowboys" from public property. She had been mildly cheered up, she added, by following a Twitter feed with the hashtag #BundyEroticFanFic. The high desert of eastern Oregon is one of Le Guin's places. She often goes there in the summer with her husband, Charles, a professor emeritus of history at Portland State University, to a ranch on the stony ridge of Steens Mountain, overlooking the refuge. She has led writing workshops at the Malheur Field Station, a group of weather-beaten buildings used mainly by biologists and birders, and published a book of poems and sketches of the area, with photographs by Roger Dorband, called "Out Here." She likes the awareness the desert gives her of distance, emptiness, and geological time. In a poem, "A Meditation in the Desert," she imagines a stone being "full / of slower, longer thoughts than mind can have." She has roots in eastern Oregon that go back to the early days of white settlement. Not long ago, she told me excitedly that she'd rediscovered records in the attic of her grandmother's childhood: "My great-grandfather, with my grandmother age eleven, moved from California to Oregon in 1873. . . . They drove three hundred and fifty head of cattle up through Nevada and built a stone house on the back side of Steens Mountain. I don't think he made a claim; there was nowhere to make it. He was one of the very first ranchers in what is still very desolate country."

A Wildly Inventive Fantasy Series That Began on the Web and Became a Best-Seller

The New Yorker

Even if they made no difference to the history of Y.A. fiction, or fantasy fiction--and they do--Catherynne Valente's five Fairyland novels would matter in the history of publishing: "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Craft of Her Own Making," released in 2009, began as a crowdfunded Internet project, won a Nebula award from the Science Fiction Writers of America (the first bestowed on a Web-only novel), then jumped to trade re-publication and Y.A. best-sellerdom two years later. Four traditionally published sequels followed; the last, "The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home," came out this spring. The books are portal fantasy: a hero from our Earth--in this case, a "girl named September," just turned twelve as the first installment begins--finds her way into a world where magic works; quests and mishaps ensue. Fairyland's precedents are obvious and plentiful, as the books gladly acknowledge. Valente has said that her chatty, omniscient narrator descends from J. M. Barrie's "Peter Pan"; September belongs in a line of young Chosen Ones that extends back (at least) to Oz, via Narnia.