April 1, 2024 - 4:16pm

Dune Part 2 is even more successful than Dune Part 1. To date, it’s the highest grossing film of the year, raking in over $600 million in global box office receipts. Together, parts 1 and 2 have grossed more than a billion dollars.

Dune Part 3, based on Frank Herbert’s follow-up novel, Dune Messiah, is now on the cards. However, it’s unlikely there’ll be further adaptations. The next novel (spoilers ahead) in the sequence involves a giant man-worm ruling the galaxy for 3,000 years. Not even a genius director like Denis Villeneuve could turn that into a viable movie.

Luckily for Hollywood, there are plenty of other densely plotted sci-fi novels ready to be adapted. The Dune films prove that the audience is out there. So does the adaptation of Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem, currently on Netflix. Scenes of subtitled Chinese dialogue have not put off western viewers — nor has all the talk of particle physics.

Clearly, serious science fiction is having a moment. After decades of being overshadowed by superhero stories, fantasy and horror, the smartest of the genres is back. Audiences have grown bored with caped crusaders, wizards and vampires — and want something extra-terrestrial, yet plausible, instead.

That’s why the sci-fi revival is being led by the “hard” end of the genre. “Soft” SF doesn’t dwell upon how its fictional worlds work — it gets straight to the spectacle, action and human interest.

For hard SF fans, it’s gratifying to see niche obsessions entering mainstream culture, but why now? The new possibilities offered by CGI and streaming clearly play a part, but there’s something more important going on.

For the last 30 years, we’ve lived in an era of stasis — a combination of American hegemony and economic stagnation. Unlike previous generations, we mostly haven’t had our lives transformed by global events or material progress. With comparatively little going on in the wider world, our culture has become introspective, even solipsistic. The most significant technological advances — the internet and the mobile phone — have only served to facilitate the centring of the ego.

It’s no wonder, then, that genres that emphasise self-actualisation — like the origin stories of the superhero genre or the quests of fantasy literature — have dominated popular culture. It’s all about the “journey”.

Yet external reality cannot be ignored forever. Multi-polarity is undoing Pax Americana; breakthroughs in artificial intelligence could upend the global economy; and climate change is at work on a planetary scale. The realisation that we’re being swept along by events so much bigger than any of us will only grow in the years ahead.

It’s humbling and disturbing and we need to make sense of it. Political and religious philosophies which help people do that will prosper. The same applies to culture. After years of catering to main character syndrome — the delusion that one is the star in any situation — it is time to give the wider world top billing.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.