Rick McGinnis

The biggest news since the tentative re-opening of movie theatres is the smashing success of the movie Dune – nearly $400 million worldwide for a film that only tells the story of half the novel it’s based on, and which was delayed for release for a year during lockdown. Critics are predicting the movie could create a franchise to overtake the flagging Marvel Cinematic Universe, and some are going so far as to say it might have saved movie theatres from extinction.

More importantly – to me at least – the movie is a successful adaptation of a story that was filmed twice before with results that range from flawed but interesting (director David Lynch’s 1984 movie) to garish (the 2000 miniseries). This is partly because it took until now for digital effects technology to catch up to the epic world created by writer Frank Herbert in his 1965 novel, but mostly because the story needed a tasteful director with the narrative and technical skill of Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049).

But the whole time I was watching and enjoying the film, I couldn’t help but wonder how horrible it would be to live in the world imagined by Herbert and Villeneuve – a feeling I have all the time when watching modern science fiction on TV and at the movies, and when reading contemporary sci-fi novels. 

Dune’s story is a classic hero’s quest set in a world where faster-than-light travel coexists with slavery, scheming religious orders, blood feuds and trade guilds in an empire that spans galaxies and pits noble families against each other to retain power. The hero, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) is the son and heir of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), the apparent good guys of this universe, especially when you compare them to the beastly, black-clad Harkonnens, their sworn enemies.

A glimpse at the home worlds of each family – impressively depicted by Villeneuve and his team – tells you everything. The Atreides live on Caladan, a verdant, Earth-like planet covered in oceans that break against rocky coastlines (filmed in Norway.) The Harkonnens, on the other hand, operate from Geidi Prime, a sunless planet covered in factories and mines. The Emperor’s shock troops, the Sardaukar – essential in his conspiracy to betray the Atreides at the hands of the Harkonnens – are trained on Salusa Secundis, a harsh, rain-soaked prison planet where his soldiers are seen being baptised before battle with the blood of failed recruits, bled while crucified upside down. It’s a universe full of horrors.

Scrape away the spaceships, force fields and other standard sci-fi technology and you get a feudal world, medieval in structure, with aristocrats dressed in uniform regalia, rivalries telescoping from clan to fiefdom to kingdom to empire, Byzantine court intrigue, private armies and elite palace guards. If you’re just a little acquainted with a history book while watching Dune your memory will recall Normans, Teutons and Franks, Ottomans, Hanseatic Leagues and Holy Roman Empires, Crusades, Janissaries and Free Companies. 

The same futuristic-but-medieval world is the setting of Foundation, a big-budget miniseries adaptation of the classic Isaac Asimov novels whose first season streamed this year on Apple+. Once again we have an empire spanning galaxies that pits its worlds against each other to maintain stability and allegiance. The twist is that the leader isn’t a hereditary ruler but a trio – the living representatives of a “genetic dynasty,” clones of the original emperor: a youth (Brother Dawn), a man in his prime and the dominant member of the trio (Brother Day) and an old man (Brother Dusk.) It apparently takes three men to oversee the administration of this far-flung empire, which was created after humanity triumphed in a war against robots. (Dune takes place long after a similar rebellion against computers and artificial intelligence; the neo-Luddism that comes up over and over in modern sci-fi is a subject for a whole other essay.)

The three clones – referred to collectively as “Empire” – live in a vast palace on the Earth-like capital city/homeworld of Trantor, and struggle to deal with feuds between worlds, religious heresies that threaten their rule, and incipient rebellions. Like any great ruler, they have palace guards and armies of servants and take on the authority of a deity with the power over life and death. The social order of this world is laid out with glaring visual clarity – troublemakers and inferior races are exiled to distant planets, while the inhabitants of Trantor, almost all of whom seem somehow employed in the business of Empire, reside in stratified layers of a vast subterranean city, your class and status demarcated by your proximity to sunlight.

There’s nothing new about this. Science fiction has a longstanding love of building worlds that evoke caliphates, Mongol hordes, popes with destabilizing temporal power and Charlemagne-like rulers; they were a staple of Buck Rogers and the cheeseball space opera Saturday morning serials that inspired George Lucas to create Star Wars. As Lucas’ franchise evolved over decades, it spent more time elaborating on the ebb and flow of the conflict between the despotic Empire and the underdog Republic, which was at least notionally democratic in structure if largely cash-strapped and ineffectual in administration.

Many of these neo-medieval futures share a founding myth centred on humanity’s ancient origin on Earth; the implication is that technology somehow didn’t advance the project of civilization as we understand it today, as a relentless progression away from tyranny towards a more perfect enshrinement of equality among not just races but interplanetary species. (This is the pseudo-utopia that forms the foundation for the Star Trek universe, in opposition to the worlds of Dune and Foundation.) We are basically doomed to export our historical barbarism outward into the galaxy, recreating every pre-Enlightenment model of constant conflict, colonization, trade wars, resource-stripping and serfdom on distant planets.

The Expanse is a sci-fi dystopia that abjures the medieval trappings in favour of a recognizable setting where, nonetheless, technology has done nothing to ameliorate our civilizational woes. Set three centuries in the future, the Amazon Prime series is based on a series of novels by James S.A. Corey (the collective pen name of writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), and is currently streaming its sixth and final season.

The story is set in a near-future where humanity lacks interstellar travel technology but has managed to colonize much of our solar system, and Earth is run by a global government based at the United Nations. (This alone would qualify it as a dystopia.) The planet is a giant in decline, its society considered decadent by off-world humanity, its environment in decline thanks to pollution and climate change (the twin horsemen of the apocalypse in secular theology).

Mars is home to a militaristic and Spartan breakaway government engaged in a cold war with Earth, while the third centre of humanity in the Sol system is the frontier-like Asteroid Belt, where generations of humanity has evolved its own creole language and a skeletal and muscular aversion to Earth’s heavy gravity. The “Belters” are a spacegoing underclass, doing the hard work of resource extraction for Earth and Mars for few of the benefits, primed for rebellion.

There isn’t much in the way of recognizeable religion in these sci-fi worlds; and every faith we encounter – the conspiratorial Bene Gesserit of Dune, the Luddite fundamentalists on Synnax and the neo-pagan Luminists of Foundation – are depicted as political actors as much as spiritual ones. The only remnant of 20th century faith in The Expanse are Mormons, who are building an interstellar “century ship” at great expense in the first season only to have it expropriated by the Belters, after which we never hear from them again.

Unlike Star Wars and Star Trek, the interstellar worlds of Dune and Foundation don’t include aliens; this might be evidence of how thoroughly the Fermi Paradox (In a nutshell: there are alien civilizations, but they are either too far away or have already died out long before we make contact.) has been absorbed by modern sci-fi. The big conflict in The Expanse begins when an alien artifact is discovered by Mars on a moon of Saturn – a self-replicating piece of intelligent nanotechnology that initially looks like an aggressively lethal bioweapon. Clumsy attempts by military and business factions to control the “protomolecule” end up bringing the solar system and humanity to a state of civil war when the alien tech opens up a gateway to distant planets for reasons unknown.

By sticking close to the present day and relying on plausible technology and timeframes, The Expanse is by far the most realistic of all of these space operas. But that doesn’t make it any less dystopic. Even if we aren’t performing arbitrary and punitive public executions as a display of a ruler’s authority, turning a blind eye to planetary genocides in the hope that it will speed up resource extraction or decimating whole worlds to punish both sides in a distant planetary conflict, we’re still unable to solve economic equality despite wild technological advances, and easily devalue human lives on the balance sheet of expedience and pragmatism. 

As imagined by modern sci-fi creators, the future isn’t better, just exponentially bigger in scale, even if it manages to avoid looking like the 14th century with lasers. Even the most obvious good guys in these stories – the Atreides of Dune – live in coolly distant aristocratic isolation on picturesque Caladan, where we see no other people besides soldiers and servants, and have to assume that the population works in service to the Atreides much like the people of Trantor labour to serve Empire. A benign despotism is still despotism.

I’ve been consuming science fiction in print and on screen since I was a boy, but I’ve never been able to fool myself that it’s done anything but darken my imagining of a future that’s become less appealing with time. Even the so-called utopias (Star Trek, H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come) imagined by sci-fi creators seem only marginally better than the dystopias with utopian trimmings in Brave New World or Logan’s Run.

In an article titled “Can science fiction map a positive future?” published last year on Polygon, a gaming website, Tasha Robinson notes that “in the long history of science fiction, virtually every story about a utopia has really been a disguised story about utopias’ hidden dark side. A privileged elite may enjoy themselves in a post-scarcity, post-misery society, but they’re probably sacrificing their freedom or their humanity in the process.”

As presented in modern sci-fi, even Star Trek, the best future we’ve come up with so far, has a bland, conformist, collective nature loaded with virtual distractions and a soulless culture only notionally different from the obviously fascist one created by Robert Heinlein in Starship Troopers and slyly satirized in Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 movie adaptation. At its worst, the future is imagined over and over as the Thirty Years War with jump drives and anti-gravity belts. If there’s any comfort in these sci-fi futures, it’s that the future steadily moves away from us day by day and, if we’re lucky, we won’t live to see it.