The Dune Films Are the Most Important of the 2020s. But Not for the Reasons You Think

Technology isn't destiny.

by Aaron Bastani

20 March 2024

Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya in the desert in Dune
Photo: Warner Bros

Waiting for Dune: Part Two to play at a cinema in Portsmouth two weekends ago, I reclined in my chair, juggernaut Diet Coke cup in hand, to watch the trailers for other new releases.

First up was Furiosa, part of the Mad Max saga starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Chris Hemsworth. Then a Ghostbusters film – six-year-old me would have been overjoyed – featuring the Dorian Gray of Hollywood, Paul Rudd. Finally, there was Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, out in May. 

Other titles hitting the big screen this year include a remake of the 1996 hit Twister, where addicted storm chasers pursue a tornado; the standard Marvel fayre of Spiderman and Venom; and Kung Fu Panda 4. Reading that list of remakes and sequels, it’s hard to agree with anyone who claims ours is an age of extraordinary cultural innovation.

The biggest blockbuster of 2024, Dune, is hardly a break with the trend of increasingly derivative cinema. First published as a novel by author Frank Herbert in 1965, it was originally made into a film in the 1980s. Later came two TV series and innumerable board games and comic books. In 2021, Denis Villeneuve released the first of his two-part adaptation. The eagerly-anticipated second instalment came out this month. 

And yet it barely matters that Dune is unoriginal; it could not be more relevant to our times. As a genre, science fiction often allows us to imagine alternative futures – but Herbert’s masterpiece is rare in wrestling with the very biggest questions of the 2020s, from climate change to the ethics of AI.

A humanist revolt against a tech takeover.

Central to the book is the question of technology, and its relationship to the cultural and social choices humans make. In the Villeneuve films, this remains implicit, but it’s why the Dune universe more closely resembles fantasy than science fiction. Here is the distant future – only without robots, computers or aliens. And that is the point: rather than dreaming up weird technologies (though there’s some of that too), Herbert exploits the genre to highlight the historically contingent nature of how humans choose to live. Things will be different in the future, today’s assumptions and common sense will change, and what we view as permanent is temporary.

Indeed Dune is possibly the most eloquent critique of technopoly in literature. Coined by media theorist Neil Postman, technopoly’s central claim is that Western civilisation has moved from a tool-using society to a technocracy – a society whose relationships, values and even sense of political possibility are entirely determined by technology. This final stage is called technopoly.

Under technopoly, Postman wrote, “the idea of human progress, as [Francis] Bacon expressed it, has been replaced by the idea of technological progress. The aim is not to reduce ignorance, superstition, and suffering but to accommodate ourselves to the requirements of new technologies.” Here Postman is describing our world – of employee training over education, and politicians and business people declaring: “You can’t stop progress”. Unfortunately for us, such progress is entirely detached from human flourishing.

A critique of technopoly is central to the Dune universe, with events detailed in the book unfolding thousands of years after the “Butlerian Jihad” – an uprising by mankind against “thinking machines”. Yet unlike other sci-fi rebellions – like in The Matrix or The Terminator – here the cause of such insubordination feels eerily plausible. Herbert was not worried that our robot overlords might exterminate us, rather they would make us more dependent and stupid – and thereby less human. 

This is explained towards the start of the book when Paul, the novel’s protagonist, talks with his mother, Lady Jessica. The latter is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a religious order, and she speaks in suitably theological terms. “Men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free,” she says, “but that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.” In a similar vein, Postman wrote how a “bureaucrat armed with a computer is the unacknowledged legislator of our age”. He wrote those words in 1992. Now apply them to an era of machine learning and predictive algorithms. 

If you are worried that technology will alienate and disempower humanity, take heart that in the Dune universe, the situation was reversed. “The Great Revolt took away a crutch,” Jessica reminds her son, “it forced human minds to develop. Schools were started to train human talents.” As Herbert writes in the book’s appendix: “The god of machine-logic was overthrown and a new concept was raised: ‘Man may not be replaced’.” Here was a revolt inspired by humanist ideals.

After the Butlerian Jihad, Dune’s humans embrace a different kind of technological modernity, one where mentats – human computers – replace their silicon-powered forebears. To achieve their spectacular feats of computation, including the ability to navigate interplanetary journeys, such individuals require “spice” – a mind-altering substance only found on the planet of Arrakis. If our world is powered by oil and data, it is spice which powers the Dune universe. 

A techno-feudalist future.

Besides advancing a powerful critique of technology, Herbert’s world is an exercise in reactionary futurism. As with much else in his work, this was at odds with the zeitgeist of his own time – yet today it feels extraordinarily prescient.

In 1959 the economist Walt Rostow published The Stages of Growth – a book whose influence proved as widespread as its hypothesis was simple. According to Rostow, every society would follow the same inevitable trajectory of modernisation – from traditional to consumer society. Even for eastern bloc countries (Rostow called his book a “non-communist manifesto”), this stagist view of history was intelligible. After all, the core argument remained the same: tradition would be discarded, nature would bend to the whims of humankind, and a technologically driven modernity would prevail.

The genius of Herbert is to imagine a distant future of advanced technology, which not only centres human cognition over machines, but is also built on social relations closer to feudalism than liberal capitalism. In a universe of dukes, messiahs and princesses, we suddenly find that the secular modernity we presumed to be permanent was a blip – Rostowian modernisation a fleeting fairytale. It’s a reminder that post-capitalism need not necessarily be socialist. In our own time, the signs of this are already emerging.

In 2006 New York Times writer David Itzkoff noted that despite its status as perhaps the greatest work of science fiction, Dune had failed to influence popular culture like Star Wars. But perhaps it was simply a matter of time. In the 2020s, as AI goes mainstream in both our economic and cultural life, climate change increasingly shapes geopolitics, and we grapple with the West being overtaken by the rest, I suspect it’s a story whose time has finally arrived.

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.


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