Why science fiction matters

Photo by Dani Sisson Student Publications

With the release of “Dune: Part Two,” science fiction has seen a massive resurgence into the public sphere. Book stores have sold out of copies of “Dune,” and social media has taken to commonly making jokes about the Shai-Hulud and Muad’Dib terms that were entirely foreign to most of the population
a few years ago.

However, with the massive surge in viewership, it feels like science fiction is once again being relegated to its shiny exterior, without looking at the rusted internal parts the story is really trying to highlight. For example, the internet has been abuzz with praise for Frank Herbert’s intricate world building, cutting dialogue and complex characters; less spoken about are the questions of the ecological concerns and politics that Herbert, who was at one point a speechwriter for politicians, is trying to bring our attention to. In the prelude to “Dune Messiah,” Brian Herbert, Frank Herbert’s son, talked about how the story had been received very poorly in the science fiction community because “readers wanted stories about heroes accomplishing great feats … not stories of protagonists with ‘clay feet.’” However, Brian further explained that this was the story his father wanted to tell — not a story of heroes, but a story of how power corrupts, governments lie and societies fall at the hands of those we put on a pedestal — a sentiment that was lost on many who didn’t believe it fit stereotypical notions of science fiction. 

I believe a large part of the reduction of science fiction to just stories of heroes in mystical words is caused by what science fiction we choose to put on the pedestal of the public eye. Oftentimes, these are the same tried-and-true novels by the same tried-and-true white authors, and I believe that the uniformity of the field is a large part of why the genre has been reduced to just fantastical stories for nerdy fans.

I subscribed to a similar perspective until my junior year of high school when I had to take a class on the genre. I was ready for another year of aliens or flying cars, but I was pleasantly surprised when we started the semester with “Kindred” by Octavia Butler.

“Kindred” tells the story of Dana, a Black woman in modern-day America, who is randomly transported back to the antebellum South at seemingly random moments. The first time she is called back, she saves Rufus, the son of the plantation owner, and after this, she is continuously called back to the past by an unknown force. Each time she is called back, her stays grow longer and more dangerous as Dana is forced to reckon with the horrors of a time period she had only heard about in history books or family stories. The time traveling trope is a common one that is usually explored through wacky hijinks; Butler’s “Kindred” takes a completely different approach to it. She explores how the more explicit, physical forms of racism follow Dana into the future, and how the actions of past generations  still live on today. This is not Butler’s first foray into science fiction; she has also been critically acclaimed for her book “The Parable of the Sower,” a book about the dangers of climate change. Butler uniquely leverages her experience as a Black woman with fantastical mechanisms to force readers to face topics they would rather shy away from. While our next book in the class was incredibly different, it still left a profound impact on my understanding of the genre. “The Canticle of Leibowitz” by Walter Miller Jr. follows a Catholic monastery in the desert for thousands of years as civilization tries to rebuild in the aftermath of a nuclear war. The synopsis might sound deeply generic, but this book was one of the most harrowing accounts of war I had ever read (and I took a war literature class). The book flashes through generations of the global powers building and destroying themselves while decimating its own populations, asking tough questions such as whether  assisted euthanasia is acceptable when the act of living is considered painful because of irradiation from the aforementioned nuclear war.

Even though I read both of these books almost four years ago, I still think about them and the rusty interiors of our own world that they forced me to stare at. I believe “Dune” has the potential to do something similar if we are able to look past its sandworms and thopters and see that tyrannies and waterless, burning planets may not be as dystopian as we think.