I think science fiction is one of the most powerful genres ever devised; It’s a medium, particularly poised to ask questions about not only about our place in the universe, but about ourselves as well. As a genre, it provides perfectly suited backdrops for complex, deep discourses to play out at a pace that’s digestible for most of us; Sometimes with grand undertones. The genre opens the door for questions that try to probe the human condition; Human condition as we have come to define it.
One of my favorite science fiction series of all time, Dune takes one of those notions and stretches it beyond what we as a society are ready to reckon with. In Dune, humans have colonized far reaches of the galaxy and faster-than-light travel is the primary infrastructure that upholds human civilization in the stories. The catch of the story is that the substance that enables FTL travel, Melange is found on only one planet, and pretty much everything about the story revolved around that planet. Frank Herbert’s seminal work doesn’t dwell on the specifics of technology, or the scientific aspects of futuristic lifestyle, but on politics of the time. In Herbert’s society, most people are thirsty and poor, scraping by under feudal lords and emperors; The difference of wealth is staggering, vastly beyond what you and I are accustomed to witnessing. In the stories there are secretive sects who control gene pools by selective human breeding, there are space pilots who are slaves to the drug-like substance, Melange. There are human computers, whose only role in society is to compute. There are rebels, conformists, betrayers. There are clones, clones with memories, genetically engineered clones. There are matriarchs and superhuman engineers, shapeshifters and religious zealots. The novels have an absolute disregard for what we have come to associate with modern literature. Romance in the stories is shallow and dry; Most notable individuals are driven by either something primal or something bigger than themselves. From rebellions to scraping for survival; The social agenda is incredibly different from what we expect from a futuristic society; Entertainment is scarce, and free speech is stunted with impunity. There is no cyberpunk human augmentation or a grand utopia of equality and justice; Society in Dune is raw, unjust, full of superstition, and plain medieval.
The question would be why did Frank Herbert choose to write something of the sort in a science fiction novel. He could have written something fairly similar in a historical setting. One could argue, that the sprinkles of tender human touches & anecdotes of grandeur wouldn’t have been possible without the futuristic & alien backdrop. I can’t say for sure; I haven’t read much about Frank Herbert and his work, but from what I have observed, even though he disregarded aspects of modern literature, the novels themselves don’t read dated. Written in the style of old epics, it’s full of quotes, and quotes inside quotes, stories spanning generations, mythical references, and self-fulfilling prophecies. It doesn’t tell stories of people, but mostly about privileged individuals. In my crude understanding of literature, Frank saw society through the lens of the past; stripped humanity to its bare essentials, and flung it into far off future; He wrote of a future where common people aren’t revered in stories, but stories are told of grand emperors, their cohorts and their lives of prophecy & wisdom. It’s described as if they, and only they hold the key to humanities’ salvation.
Such plotlines are very reminiscent of classical literature. However, Dune still feels fresh and relevant. Even Denis Villeneuve is attempting to create a film adaptation of the first novel; Following a long string of older film and TV adaptations. It could easily be argued that Dune is a textbook example of a Hero’s Journey; But, I think Dune shines as a reflection of human civilization at large, albeit from an obtuse perspective. Big corporations, regulated under a thin veil, drilling and scalping lands of the people; Big tech injecting unfathomable amount of information, twisting and mangling the human psyche, lumbering machinery of governance crushing the underprivileged to their bones. Dune’s unmistakable and cynical tone, though mildly horrifying, talks to the nonchalance we all harbor in this day and age. An age, where we have to look up to feudal corporations running amock in the stock market for salvation, to cull hate speech and dogma. An age, where incessant cries of plastic strangled turtles and starving polar bears don’t make us move. When every bit attention is an incentive for institutionalized growth; An age, where we have truly been domesticated; By lords of the few to the lords of the many. The desert planet of Dune seems closer than ever.
The problem of leadership is inevitably: Who will play God?
— MUAD’DIB, FROM THE ORAL HISTORY, DUNE