WE ARE ALL HARKONNENS
IN FRANK HERBERT’S “DUNE” SERIES, THE KEY TO POWER LAY IN CONTROLLING “MELANGE,” AN ADDICTIVE DESERT SPICE. SWAP “OIL” FOR “SPICE,” AND YOU’VE GOT A CAUTIONARY ALLEGORY THAT NO ONE, APPARENTLY, HEEDED
The trance state of prophecy is like no other visionary experience… It is an infinite pragmatism in the midst of Infinity, a demanding consciousness where you come at last into the unbroken awareness that the universe moves of itself, that it changes, that its rules change, that nothing remains permanent or absolute throughout all such movement…The things you see in this trance are sobering, often shattering.
—“The Stolen Journals of Leto II”, God Emperor of Dune
Every good science fiction writer should be prescient. All our tomorrows lay out in front of us, there to see if you know how to look; each more or less probable, each more or less desirable. The skill lies in choosing the right paths and following them to their most logical conclusions. Where will our technological hubris, or our animal greed, or our susceptibility to diversion lead us? How bad can it get?
The answer usually is: pretty bad. Almost everyone slows down at the scene of a grisly accident, and the best sci-fi writers make the prettiest car wrecks of our futures. Our contented possible tomorrows don’t interest us as much as our possible discontent. It’s worrying that our most popular visions of the future—from Brave New World (1932) to Neuromancer (1984)—are so dystopic. Are we just congenitally disposed to be negative—or do our nightmares just make for better stories?
To be clinical about it, one of the functions of science fiction is to warn us. Something about now troubles a writer, and wanting to sound the alarm about the folly of a particular course of action, he or she sits down and tracks it to the inevitable ashes. They’re like prophets that way.
What are Orwell’s 1984 warnings but prophecies? He has shown us the end result of the all-seeing eye, how useful the concept of endless war is, how easily a scared population of proles can be placated, yet we still inch closer to the dangers he warned lay in wait. Prescience is not a prophylactic, as Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) antihero Paul Muad’Dib learned the hard way, and it can feel like a prison. Some futures trap us.
- OK, Star Trek is pretty optimistic. But while Sixties idealism had its impact, observe the changes in storylines since Gene Roddenberry’s death. The Borg? The Dominion? Clearly, even Star Trek’s writers have come to realize that the world’s problems won’t be solved by keeping phasers on “stun.” ↩
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