Telling stories about the future

Published on 2024-03-03

Yesterday I watched "Dune: Part Two."

Begin: spoilers for the first book in the Dune chronicles

I love the Dune chronicles. The series has an incredibly rich lore, and it uses it so well. It has a lot of things to like, as well:

Dune is a story about colonial oppression, and an oppressed people (the Fremen) rising up to remove extractivists and take their land back.

But... they're being lead by a white guy, or as close as you could get within the Dune universe. In the film, they refer to him as an "off-worlder" and "foreigner" many times. It's been a while since I read the first book, but they had a similar characterization. Not to mention, he is of "noble blood."

But! The Fremen earnestly believe, as a part of a well-known prophecy in Fremen culture that they will be united against their colonial oppressors by an off-worlder.

But... this prophecy was actually planted in their culture by a conniving cohort of other off-worlders seeking to gain dominance over the galaxy through a hilariously convoluted eugenics scheme to create a sort of Übermensch.

But! The Übermensch was actually created on accident! Our off-worlder messiah was a fluke who exists in defiance of the conniving cohort of eugenicists, and who has derailed their plan.

But... our messiah knows, as a part of his Übermensch powers to see the future, that he will bring untold devastation to the galaxy if he fulfills the prophecy. He knows that if he accepts his fate, billions will die.

But! He doesn't actually have a say in the matter. My reading of the books was that he was basically compelled to put the prophecy in motion, and that once it was in motion it was entirely out of his control. The films seemed to put him more in the driver's seat, but I felt they equally made it feel more tragic because of this. It didn't seem like it was handled poorly, per se.

It probably shouldn't be too surprising. I suppose this is what happens when you let a white man write about land back, if it can be characterized as such.

Dune has a complicated relationship with its own story. That complicated-ness, I feel, was explored even better in the movies than it was the books, and I would even go as far as to say that complicated-ness was used to make the Dune chronicles feel even more compelling as a story.

End: spoilers for the first book in the Dune chronicles

I don't really like Foundation anymore.

CollapseOS is Foundation for climate doomers

So, why do I still like Dune?

They're both about galactic feudalism, essentially. I suppose that Foundation has this central idea, that is, that progress is Good. We should, in fact, want a galactic civilization. At least in the first book of the Dune chronicles, the value of a galactic civilization is seriously in question. There are many threads that are constantly in tension with one another, all of which have their own thing to say about "progress" as an ideal.

Unlike a lot of science fiction I've read, Dune likes to look backwards. It features the famous Butlerian Jihad, an obvious allegory to the Luddite movement, where people rose up against so-called thinking machines and proclaimed "thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind." The Fremen messiah, despite being a foreigner, despite being at least broadly in league with the colonizers of their world, will not shut up about how deeply he respects the Fremen's tradition; it characterizes pretty much everything about him throughout his role in the series.

And, of course, it doesn't downplay the fundamentally religious nature of science.

Scientific apostasy

Yesterday was the first time I've been to a bona fide movie theatre in years. Usually I just watch movies on my laptop. Interestingly, while I was there, I watched something like seven or eight movie trailers and all of them were about either an apocalyptic event or the downfall of the American empire. It's as though that's the only story we have left to tell.

I've written a bit about my complicated relationship with anything that invites a former glory:

Spectres of What Came Before (re: "Reverberations of What Came Before" by winter)

Nature is a network of mostly steady-state systems. Things are constantly changing in a way that generally creates similar conditions over time. Always new, but generally always the same. In geology, we have this idea, once highly controversial, of uniformitarianism: the idea that the geological processes of the past are the same as those of today, that the world is billions of years old, and despite how much it's changed, it all works in more or less the same way.

Positive feedback loops are rare in nature, but they're actually quite common when humans arrive. We disrupt steady state systems. It's strange, because humans are a product of nature, and yet we behave in this seemingly unique way.

"Looking forward" is at once both a fundamentally natural and unnatural way to tell the story of our future.

I guess the simplest way of looking at it is that I find it kind of boring when science fiction authors use the medium to tell stories about present, Earthly geopolitical conflicts. Particularly ones I don't really care about. If nothing else, the conflict of Dune is analogous to the one between the Global North and the Global South. That, I find, is interesting, even if it has this aroma of white saviourism. It's a conflict I feel is missing from a lot of the science fiction I've read. Usually, when it is told, a lot of the real world nuance gets covered up. I didn't feel like Dune tried to hide the fact that its colonial powers saw the Fremen as an inferior race, the way the Global North historically and presently treats the many peoples of the Global South. The movies went extremely far with this idea, repeatedly using the very weighty word "rats" to describe them. And, of course, this idea comes back to bite them hard when they realize Fremen are, in fact, the strongest fighters in the galaxy.

I'd be remiss to have not mentioned solarpunk by this point in the article. I've seen solarpunk art but admittedly I've never actually read any solarpunk literature. I haven't really read any hopeful speculative fiction. Maybe I've got to change that.

I suppose I am a writer. If I want hope, I should be writing hopeful stories: flying trains, solar on every roof, decentralized, autonomous communities working together. I understand the push for more things like solarpunk in the public awareness. We do need something to be hopeful for, and I do think that solarpunk could fill that aesthetic role. But equally, we need stories of how to get there, and I wouldn't be surprised if that demands as much looking back as it does looking forward.

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