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‘Dune’ and ‘Foundation’ have a patriarchy problem

The scope and scale of the two adaptations of classic science-fiction are gripping but it’s dispiriting to note as a fan that they don’t question patriarchal stereotypes

Why is the powerful Lady Jessica veiled?
Why is the powerful Lady Jessica veiled? (imdb)

The Foundation TV series on Apple TV+ deviates from its source, the Foundation novels and short stories by Isaac Asimov written between 1940s-80s, in many important ways but the most striking of all is the invention by the series, implicitly set millions of years in the future, of a clone dynasty that rules the Empire controlling the known universe. 

The dynasty element is a major source of all the medieval mumbo-jumbo that brings the show dangerously close to becoming Game Of Thrones in space: a bloodthirsty emperor dressed in sweeping gowns, public hangings, scenes set in a castle where, despite access to modern technology that allows intergalactic travel, people must climb endless gloomy staircases. But the most problematic aspect is this—the cloned emperor is male, and will always be so, which effectively means that millions of years in the future, humankind is ruled by a dynasty, democracy is dead, and a woman can never be the head of government. We might as well give up now.

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It’s just a show, yes, and the makers do insert many new female characters into the narrative (often switching male characters from the books to female ones here, good job, well done, etc.) but ultimate power always rests with a man—isn’t that a spectacular failure of imagination?

This medievalism problem haunts Dune as well. In one scene, when Duke Leto Atreides arrives on the desert planet Arrakis, his “concubine”, Lady Jessica, walks two paces behind, her face improbably covered by a veil. Through the movie—and in the books as well—women take a secondary role to men in the deeply patriarchal world created by Frank Herbert in the 1960s. The women of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood are important to the narrative but they always control it from behind the scenes—always the kingmakers, never the kings. Indeed, one of the major plot points of the first book (and the film) is the fact that the shadowy emperor figure of this universe doesn’t have sons and his inheritance is in jeopardy.

It seems incredible today that these writers from the golden age of science fiction could imagine intricate worlds with their own ecosystems, politics, religions and technology that surpass anything we have even today (space has been colonised!) but they could not imagine a non-patriarchal universe. And it is even more incredible that movies and shows based on these works made in 2021 follow these same inevitable patterns, with a few minor tweaks like a gender swap here and there.

I agree that most sweeping, millennia-spanning world-building inherent to science fiction of this kind would be boring if it were to all follow some sort of woke template, and yes, the medievalism does inject a dose of drama to the proceedings that we have come to expect from adaptations of SFF novels in a post-Game Of Thrones world, but it is dispiriting, as a fan, to note that even as they question more complex issues like colonialism, the patriarchy is still firmly in place. Worse still, it is even mined for spectacle—in the Dune books, the wife of a man vanquished in hand-to-hand combat offers herself to the victor to do with as he pleases.

It is telling that film-makers today are choosing these source books to base their multimillion-dollar franchises on. I'm not trying to deny here that they contain big ideas, and many of these ideas formed the foundation, so to speak, for a vast majority of contemporary science fiction, but it’s not as if there isn’t excellent stuff being written today that takes those ideas forward in spectacular ways: the Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin; the fresh, optimistic space saga of Becky Chambers’ The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet; Martha Wells’ The Murderbot Diaries about rogue AI; the dystopian sci-fi of Hilary St. John Mandel’s luminously beautiful Station Eleven.

No one can deny Dune and Foundation their space in the sun, and it’s difficult not to be seduced by their scope and scale, but science fiction is not just spectacle. It is a way for us to imagine better futures, and a harking back to restrictive medievalism is not going to get us there.

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