Science Fiction and Fantasy in Dune

Many of viewers have come away from Dennis Villeneuve’s acclaimed adaptation of Dune with the idea that Dune is a science fiction story. After all, Dune is full of spaceships, forcefields, drugs, and lasers. Yet genre is far more than just technology. In a famous essay, science fiction and fantasy author George R. R. Martin has argued that science fiction and fantasy have no meaningful difference.

We can make up all the definitions of science fiction and fantasy and horror that we want. We can draw our boundaries and make our labels, but in the end it’s still the same old story, the one about the human heart in conflict with itself.

The rest, my friends, is furniture.

The House of Fantasy is built of stone and wood and furnished in High Medieval. Its people travel by horse and galley, fight with sword and spell and battle-axe, communicate by palantir or raven, and break bread with elves and dragons.

The House of Science Fiction is built of duralloy and plastic and furnished in Faux Future. Its people travel by starship and aircar, fight with nukes and tailored germs, communicate by ansible and laser, and break protein bars with aliens.

George R. r. Martin, The Furniture Rule

I certainly agree that  consumers of science fiction and fantasy tend to fixate on the ‘furniture’ over deeper ideas, but I think the difference between the genres is deeper than GRRM suggestions. The difference stems not from furniture or fundamentals, but from the self-selecting types of stories authors choose to tell.

Fantasy authors, since its modern roots in Tolkien, or Tolkien’s own inspirations of Beowulf and Sir Thomas Malory, fixate on the fantastical and transformational journey. Grade-school kids will know this as the hero’s journey, and while not every fantasy story adheres to the hero’s journey, they share a fixation on heroic individuals in a world of wonder and romance. The journeys fantasy heroes tend to undertake are just as much emotional and spiritual as they are physical. Even contemporary fantasy, which often focuses on deconstructing the hero’s journey, simply critiques the tropes, rather than rebuilding the whole system. 

Modern science fiction, on the other hand, tends to be more interested in systems and grand questions about society. Science fiction has been called the “literature of ideas” because authors tend to approach their stories from the perspective of big questions. H. G. Wells asked, “what if aliens invaded earth?” Isaac Asimov asked, “what if humans turned history into a science?” Phillip K. Dick and Ridley Scott asked, “what if we could create human-like replicants?” In these stories, the protagonists are relatively ordinary individuals without any sort of transformative journey or even much agency. Critics might describe them as impersonal and flat. They exist as witnesses to the complex political and social questions the author asks. 

A still showing the impersonal, quintessentially science-fiction world of Blade Runner (1982)

Now, these are of course conventions, rather than hard and fast rules. You can write a fantasy story using science fiction furniture (Star Wars, for example) or a science fiction story using fantasy furniture (like George R. R. Martin’s own A Song of Ice and Fire). Yet for reasons of marketing, convention, and personal preference, authors tend to stay in their lanes. Authors interested in big questions about humanity will lean towards science fiction, and authors focused on a transcendent quest will instinctively seek out fantasy. 

That brings us, at last, to the subject of Dune. In my mind, the most amazing thing about Dune as a work of genre fiction is that it brilliantly combines the central ideas of both science fiction and fantasy into a single work. Every aspect of Dune serves both to create a heroic journey and a world in which complex systems limit human agency. Consider the all-important spice. The spice is simultaneously an incredibly important economic resource that is vital for the mutated navigators of they spacing guild to plot paths through the cosmos, and the wondrous substance that enables Paul Atreides to transform from a young aristocrat to Muad’Dib, the prophet. That transformation is only possible, however, because the idea of the prophet was only created by a millennium-long program of societal manipulation performed by the Bene Gesserit. The spice both creates wondrous power and crushes agency through dependency.

In Dune, the themes of science fiction and fantasy mix together until it is impossible to extract one from the other. The titanic sandworms of Arrakis are both a metaphor for the treasure-guarding dragons of fantasy, while also a vulnerable and integral part of the complex ecology of the planet Arrakis. Often, critics accuse science fiction of lacking humanity, and accuse fantasy of naivety and immaturity. Leaving aside the validity of those criticisms, Herberts fusion of the two creates a work that is simultaneously personal and epic, rich in social and historical allusions while also focusing on one individual’s transformative experience. The two genres complicate and complement each other.

All this brings me to Dennis Villeneuve’s recent adaptation of the first half of Dune. While I thoroughly enjoyed the film, I couldn’t help but notice that Villeneuve somewhat upsets the balance between science fiction and fantasy that Frank Herbert created. Villeneuve prefers to view Dune as a kind of heroic fantasy, while underplaying its broader themes of science fiction. 

The first half of Frank Herbert’s book focuses on establishing the complex and aging galactic system and all its various actors, from the spice-coveting Spacing Guild to the scheming Bene Gesserit. While Paul Atreides is an important character, he is not the focal point of the entire story. Perspective shifts constantly between over a dozen characters, as the reader comes to understand Herbert’s world.

In Villeneuve’s movie, however, Timothee Chalamet’s Paul is everywhere. I went through the movie and calculated that in its 156 minute runtime, only about 29 minutes are scenes not from the perspective of Paul. That means less than 20% of the movie lies beyond the viewpoint of our central protagonist. Viewers, therefore, will get a great sense of Paul’s epic journey, but don’t understand the context that makes Paul’s journey special. We don’t see the way that the economic dependency on spice takes away the agency of everyone in the Dune universe, so we don’t appreciate how truly amazing it is when Paul eventually redefines those bonds later in the story.

None of this is really a criticism of Villeneuve’s movie. Film adaptations will and should always reinterpret their source material. In fact, my biggest critiques of Dune are not the things that Villeneuve changed, but the things he kept in (Yueh’s betrayal, Shadout Mapes). Film is its own medium, and perhaps fantasy themes are more suited to the big screen. All the same, I think it is important that fans of the Dune movie know what they are missing.

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