Science fiction allows us to explore the human condition in ways that perhaps no other genre can. By imagining a world or reality beyond the scope or constraints of ordinary fiction, sci-fi weaves fabulous alternate realities that can serve as superb microscopes through which we can view our own world. Now let me admit early on that I am no sci-fi expert or even a connoisseur; my reading experience is limited to Philip K. Dick and a few of the staple classics.
Right now I am reading the masterpiece Dune by legendary Frank Herbert. I read it about 15 years ago and decided to make it my summer reading assignment for the Junior Honors class I'm teacher next year. Dune, most commonly known for David Lynch's 1984 film of mixed reviews, is commonly regarded as the greatest science fiction novel ever written, right up there with Frankenstein and the work of H.G. Wells and Ursula Le Guin.
The novel is about a desert planet named Arrakis exploited by feudal powers for its monopoly of a resource called spice which allows for interstellar space travel. Imagine Lawrence of Arabia in space. Sound familiar, a desert containing a valuable resource over which powerful forces battle for control? Hmm...
What's magnificent about Dune is its depiction of ecological exploitation in a way that precedes James Cameron's Avatar by about 35 years. The novel illustrates the vast interconnected web of nature, what Buddhists call Indra's Net, in which every being and atom is part of a carefully balanced web. This should come as no surprise since Herbert adopted Zen Buddhism in adulthood.
What I think Dune deserves so much praise for, and warrants new study, is how and where it places humans inside of this web. Western religions and culture teach us that the world was created for Man; Buddhism does not accept this premise. Granted, Buddhism recognizes that being born as a human is a unique opportunity to realize Buddhahood, but this does not privilege humans above other species. If anything, it places more responsibility on our shoulders for the sheer fact that we are capable of wreaking so much more destruction than other species. This can be seen very clearly in Dune where feudal noble Houses war for control of oil...I mean spice.
The other day in my classroom a student killed a harmless male mosquito perched on the wall well above arm's reach (only female mosquitoes bite). I was appalled at the sheer senselessness of the violence. The act bespoke of a violent elevation of humanity where humans rule the earth like monarchs, free to do as they please.
Science fiction offers us a unique lens to examine our lives, for the media of technology and science provide a safe distance to study the habits and patterns of contemporary life. Sci-fi is often regarded as being prophetic, in that it anticipates where humanity is headed, a fact I think is not nearly as important as its ability to examine the human condition as it exists today. By weaving an imaginary plot in the future, science fiction authors can reveal the human predicament now.
To my (admittedly very limited) knowledge, no novel does this as poignantly or powerfully as Dune. For not only does it caution us about the danger of ecological disaster, it demonstrates how people get there--namely, by selfishly placing our own desires above the good of others, including plants and animals. If you haven't read Dune, I highly recommend it for your summer reading.
I have attached a brief video clip of an Italian boy who understands this fact very well. If only the rest of humanity could learn this too: