With Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Dune having once again revived interest in the world's highest-selling science fiction novel, it is a worthy time to ponder the question of whether and how humanity might survive long enough to enjoy any kind of 'far future'. What kind of future life do we want? How might we prepare a path towards such a future? Which principles might we need to reach a worthwhile future together? All these questions can benefit from reflection upon the themes and significance of Frank Herbert's extraordinary science-fiction saga.
The story debuted in Analog magazine's December 1963 issue as the three-part serial "Dune World", and concluded the following year with the three-part "The Prophet of Dune" in the same publication. The collected edition - then entitled Dune - would go on to win the inaugural Nebula, and share the 1966 Hugo award with Roger Zelazny's "...And Call Me Conrad" (also later republished as a novel, This Immortal). Dune is a remarkable novel on many fronts, but considered from the perspective of world building it is especially notable for the creative manner in which Herbert ensures that human politics can provide the core to his saga by performing the opposite operation to most sci-fi writers: he imagines new technology in order to limit technology.
Dune is set in the year 10,191 AG, the tenth millennium after the founding of the Spacing Guild, which is generally taken to be roughly 20,000 years into our future. Herbert's interests in these stories are political, humanitarian, and ecological - but to tell the kind of tale he wishes to tell, he needed to ensure that a tale set this far into our imaginary future could still be grounded on humanity as we understand it today. This is a common theme in far future science fiction, but it is no means a given: H.G. Wells' 1895 novella The Time Machine is probably the most famous of the early flights of fancy to imagine a future for humanity that is not grounded in contemporary human experience. Wells projected the social circumstances of his time through the lens of evolutionary theory, and presents a future world where the child-like Eloi, descended from the Victorian upper classes, are preyed upon by the savagely bestial Morlocks, descended from the working classes. Political themes from Wells' day are transformed via scientific models into a new fictional setting.
Herbert takes the opposite tack to Wells, creating in his imagination a mechanism to preserve humanity as it is, so that his story can be about today's humanity for all that it is set in the far future. Pivotal to this process is the backstory of the Butlerian Jihad (not, unless Dune was even more prophetic than anyone previously thought, anything to do with Judith Butler). The Butlerian Jihad is a thousand year war against "thinking machines" leading to the zealously protected maxim that 'humanity must not be replaced'. This effectively removes computers, robots, and artificial intelligence from the world of Dune and ensures humans occupy all the key roles in the resultant society. The Mentat, or 'human computer', replaces the strategic role of computers. The Guild Navigators take over the complexity of space travel from computers. The Bene Gesserit take over social control from computers. In all cases, humanity is given centre stage, which means in all cases the political landscape is manipulated by the power-hungry.
Along parallel lines, the inclusion of the Holtzman Shield is a technological riposte intended to foil futuristic weaponry. High velocity projectiles cannot penetrate the shimmering blur of these shield generators (rendering conventional firearms obsolete) while futuristic weapons (lasguns in Herbert's world) cause a devastating nuclear reaction when fired upon shields - something that indeed happens during the escape from Arrakeen in the book, but that is elided in Villeneuve's adaptation. The result is that this imagined technology allows Herbert to set up a Feudal future universe where the vast armies of interstellar powers can still be required to engage with swords and knives, simply because a technological invention that the author has imagined serves the world building role of limiting the significance of future technology.
Dune should not be seen as an unprecedented change in the flow of science fiction, but rather a pre-meditated response to the previous generation of science fiction authors, often called the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Herbert's saga in this sense can be understood as a calculated reaction against Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, with both inspired by and underpinned by Edward Gibbon's 18th century history The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Foundation stories had also been first published in the very same magazine as "Dune World", but under its earlier title of Astounding - originally and revealingly titled Astounding Stories of Super-Science. Asimov's tales are the first to focus upon 'Galactic Empire' as a sci-fi setting, and the author consistently revelled in the unlimited power of scientific technique, especially by imagining a future social psychology so accurate that it can predict the future - at least until a mutant 'Mule' disrupts its presuppositions.
This imagined capacity of the sciences as future-tracking, as I have frequently pointed out, is not something plausibly possessed by any authentic scientific methodology - so much so that I might impishly dub such faith 'sci-dolatry'. This unwarranted fantastical power attributed to scientists has been stoked by science fiction for much of its two centuries of practice, and the trend is even more widespread today. The last few years have added a tragic irony to this unfortunate tendency, since nothing disrupts the ability of scientific work to inform decisions quite as much as premature certainty that the answers have already been revealed. It would be wrong to assume that scientific research didn't or shouldn't possess a pivotal role in informing political decisions - but it remains exceptionally dangerous to presume that politics can take scientific topics into its partisan realm without utterly corrupting them. Every attempt to do so destroys a scientific field's unique and collective capacity to assemble an objective description, which is to say, to uncover the truth of objects.
In its own way, this corrupting influence of politics on truth is at the heart of the parables central to Dune, and it is against Asimov's sci-dolatry that Herbert seeks to wage metaphysical jihad. Tim O'Reilly's 1981 book on Herbert's work quotes the author himself as he directly marks out his criticism of Asimov's Foundation:
History… is manipulated for larger ends and for the greater good as determined by a scientific aristocracy. It is assumed, then, that the scientist-shamans know best which course humankind should take… While surprises may appear in these stories (e.g., the Mule mutant), it is assumed that no surprise will be too great or too unexpected to overcome the firm grasp of science upon human destiny. This is essentially the assumption that science can produce a surprise-free future for humankind.
Throwing his gauntlet into the face of the Golden Age science fiction authors and their heirs, Herbert invites us to into an entirely different kind of science fiction, one that is much better suited to the needs of the present than its earlier rival. Far from Astounding Stories of Super-Science, Herbert's invitation is to ponder both humanity and non-humanity through clear scientific understandings without falling into the kind of decadent self-aggrandisement that marks the fall of both the historical Roman Empire and the future-historical Padishah Empire of Dune.
Nowhere is this invitation to think beyond the narrowed vision of sci-dolatry clearer throughout the Dune saga than in the role of ecology in the wider sweep of the books. The new field of ecology was gaining prominence at the time that Herbert was writing, and he had been commissioned to write articles about the subject that were instrumental in forming his thinking about Arrakis. On the one hand, Herbert realised that ecology entails the understanding of the interconnectivity of everything in any given environment. On the other, he recognised that the human attempt to steer processes for their own benefit comes with inevitable unseen costs. Thus, in the later Dune novels, the sandworms become endangered and even skirt the brink of extinction because the terraforming of Arrakis (the attempt to make it more Earth-like) destroys the desert and therefore disrupts the ecological balance.
Facing the challenge that Herbert's novels open up to us means thinking about the future differently. Whereas the world of Dune is conditioned by the narrative requirements of the story Herbert wanted to tell (as with any exercise in world building), our imaginary visions of our own far future are conditioned solely by the requirements we hold for those unrealised possible worlds. We can therefore confront ourselves with a question that flows inexorably from the story logic of Dune: what would we need to imagine in order for humanity to reach the Tenth Millennium?
If we say that civilisation (whether understood as cities, or as writing, or as both) dates back to roughly 3,200 BC, that would place our current time into the Fifth Millennium, some 52 centuries since civilisation begins. We are thus a little over halfway towards the one hundred centuries - a century century - that would bring us to the Tenth Millennium. What might we need to ensure that happens...?
This is a science fiction premise that bears some semblance of hope for a significant impact on the way we confront our political problems today. We face not only a rising factional distrust that threatens to overwhelm the narratives of human solidarity that inspired us just half a century earlier, but parallel threats to the very conditions of knowledge brought about on the one hand by the undermining of the open practices of scientific investigation, and on the other by a technocratic imperium that is laughably under-diagnosed whether we emblazon its banner with the name 'Big Tech', 'Capitalism', 'the West', 'the Global North', or indeed 'Sci-dolatry'. Arguing over the fault lines in contemporary thought is only making matters worse: we need to try to imagine a different way of coming at our collective problems.
To take on this sci-fi storytelling summons at its fullest extent is to ask more than just 'what if humanity's descendants survive the other half of this arbitrary temporal journey?' Such a vision is only to wonder whether our biological kin have another 48 centuries left in them, and in this regard even The Time Machine has already been there. But what if we up the ante. What if we are asked to imagine not only the survival of descendants of our own species, but the actual survival of this specific species, homo sapiens. What if we further ask how we might help ensure that this happens while keeping all the diversity of human existence we know today?
In other words, what if we were to try to philosophically unravel the world building exercise of Dune with an eye towards turning our imagination towards that least exercised muscle of the science fiction anatomy: utopianism. There is a danger in this word, 'utopia', in so much as it attempts to mark a rarely imagined 'good future'. What we need right now is not so much the fine details of any projected perfection, but rather a set of ideals that might guide us towards any possibility of future perfection. It does not even have to be perfect (it surely never will be). It would be enough to find some way of securing what is good now, such that we might still find that good in our imagined Tenth Millennium.
To begin with, our philosophical world building might benefit from establishing an opponent to spar against, just as Foundation sets the reactionary position of Dune. We have at least two options. Firstly, there are what we might call the extinctionists, who express the modest view that human extinction is inevitable. I'm sure that proposition is correct, but I join with the late Mary Midgley in suggesting that this inevitability is not some deep revelation but rather the most trivial of tautologies that has nothing to offer in respect of the important questions about how we should live. The extinctionists are not the enemies of whatever we might build in our imagination, though, they are merely realism's doom-appeasing offspring. They are people like German film-maker Werner Herzog who sees extinction as nearly unavoidable and somewhat imminent, without letting those beliefs undercut a desire to live for today.
Alternatively, we have the accelerationists. This term is often accused of crawling out of the dark corners Marxist thought, and there certainly is a history to tell there. However, I prefer to anchor this tangentially back to Dune via Zelazny's 1967 Lord of Light, where the term 'Accelerationist' first appears. There are so many fragmentary movements bearing this name, and nobody seems to agree what they are asking for, so I will simply take Zelazny's revolutionaries as the template: an accelerationist seeks to raise the pace of development for new technologies. They may do this because they seek a bizarrely mystical future salvation (such as the Singularity), or because they have fallen into some other kind of sci-dolatry, or they could be that subset of Marxists who schizophrenically believe that capitalism will certainly fail if we keep going like this, and therefore we should accelerate the collapse of civilisation in order to foster revolution. I don't find any of these positions convincing or appealing, but again, even the most reckless fools under this banner are not the enemies of what we might try to imagine, so much as they are Foundation to our Dune. Their mistakes might yet inspire us.
I propose to try to conceive of a third movement, a movement that does not exist and that need never exist, but that might through our imaginings give us another way to think about these problems. Following on from the Dune-inspired image of a Tenth Millennium, a century of centuries, I propose to call this phantasmal movement ascenturians, combining the theme of a hundred from 'centurion' and the fantasy of 'ascent' in the satisfyingly ludicrous sense appropriated by Jacob Bronowski in The Ascent of Man. The is pure teleology, that is, the ascription of purposes rather than causes, which is forbidden today. But our fictional ascenturians are invited to embrace this mythology for the same reasons that Mary Midley was forced to remark that the idea of purpose is not as dispensable as many have tried to insist. Arguing against Richard Dawkins' anti-teleological view of life, she wrote:
Dawkins’s claim that the universe contains “at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good” cannot be right. For it is obvious that our own planet - which is certainly part of the universe - is riddled with purpose. It is full of organisms, beings which all steadily pursue their own characteristic ways of life, beings that can only be understood by grasping the distinctive thing that each of them is trying to be and do.
The fictional credo of the ascenturians, these purely imaginary future people, is to seek to ensure that humanity - in all its diversity - will experience the Tenth Millennium together. What philosophical principles would such people want to consider? What attitudes to society and technology would they seek to foster? What images of equality or disparity might they evoke? These are the themes of ascenturian philosophy, utopian only in the sense that - quite unlike the extinctionists - they envision a future for humanity, and also - quite unlike the accelerationists - they do not place their bets upon provoking disaster in order to seek salvation.
This vision is dedicated to Frank Herbert's Dune, and is beautifully expressed in Tim O'Reilly's encapsulation of the science fiction author's guiding philosophy:
In the kind of universe Herbert sees, where there are no final answers, and no absolute security, adaptability in all its forms - from engineering improvisation to social mobility to genetic variability- is essential. Improvisation is the only security. It is not an absolute security, but relative. Life is always changing and demanding new adaptations.
Welcome to the limitless fantasy of the ascenturians, a joyous, optimistic, utterly unrealistic fiction of humanity arriving at the Tenth Millennium together.
Next week: Assembling the Future