The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Humanity needs big plans. ‘Dune’ and ‘Foundation’ show how hard it is to make them.

Actors Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in a scene from the motion picture "Dune." (Chia Bella James/Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures)
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It’s been a depressing autumn for anyone who hoped that government might be able to accomplish big, forward-looking things — or really, anything at all. President Biden’s agenda is imperiled by splits within the Democratic Party. Congress’s main accomplishment seems to have been pushing back a fearsome confrontation with the debt ceiling by a whole two months.

Given this creeping sclerosis, even in the face of urgent threats such as the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, it’s intriguing to see a recent wave of science fiction storytelling that revolves around extremely long-term planning. But as much as these stories have some optimism about the success of such attempts, they’re also cautionary tales about the complexities of devising big solutions to hard problems.

For instance: It’s hard to know how any given intervention will turn out in the long term. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 novel “The Ministry for the Future,” the Indian government unilaterally dumps huge quantities of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere after a heat wave kills 20 million people. They gamble, successfully as it turns out, that this intervention will lower global temperatures. But they can’t know for sure until they try.

Such experiments are a staple of Robinson’s novels. And they’re often carried out not by bodies like the United Nations or wealthy governments, but by individuals gone rogue or countries desperate enough to defy international institutions that might otherwise slow them down. And they don’t always work, or at least not as expected.

Sometimes, that’s because science is uncertain. But there are also plenty of variables, human and otherwise, that pose disruptions.

In Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” short stories, lavishly adapted by Apple TV Plus, mathematician Hari Seldon develops a method to predict the downfall of the galactic order. While Seldon is largely proved right over a long period of time, at least one pivotal character manages to evade his predictions and manipulate outcomes.

The same empire Seldon hopes to influence is governed by a rotating set of clones meant to provide continuity. But even clones, it turns out, are subject to eccentricities and differences of opinion. Individuals are unpredictable, and while it’s rare for one of them — or any given event — to knock history off its course, “rare” doesn’t mean “impossible.”

It’s easy to get exasperated at some individuals in our present context — consider the obstructionist Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). But the fictional stories take a more sympathetic view: It’s hard to ask people to act on a scale that defies normal human understanding.

Such a limitation could be condemned as a form of denial. One of Robinson’s “Ministry for the Future” characters describes “the tragedy of the time horizon” as the assumption that “future generations will be richer and stronger than us, and they’ll find solutions to their problems. But by the time they get here, these problems will have become too big to solve.”

More than that, though, most people simply aren’t capable of suspending all human desire in service of plans they won’t live to see carried out.

“Foundation” suggests that’s true even among people committed to a one-way mission intended to stave off full-scale civilizational collapse. Crew members on a journey to Terminus, the desolate world where they intend to establish a repository of vital human knowledge, start complicated romantic relationships. They get pregnant even when they know the risks to a fetus from radiation exposure during space travel. And they give in to old grievances, sometimes with catastrophic results.

In Denis Villeneuve’s forthcoming film adaptation of “Dune,” as in Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, that same tension is expressed in Jessica, both consort to Duke Leto Atreides and a member of a powerful religious and political sisterhood.

Jessica gives birth to a son rather than to the daughter her superiors had planned for, as part of their millennia-long effort to breed a messiah. These Reverend Mothers assume that Jessica has acted out of an arrogant assumption that she’s capable of giving birth to the chosen one. They can’t seem to understand that she has acted out of love for Leto, who yearned for a son.

At least these characters have grand destinies to fulfill. Most of us don’t have that calling or that certainty, which is why the idea of fighting climate change by giving up meat — or, more dramatically, by not having children — has such limited appeal. It’s difficult to convince individuals that these sacrifices will bring about much except a weak aura of moral purity.

None of these challenges mean we shouldn’t act to protect the future, whether that involves investing in our children’s education or taking steps to ward off climate disasters. Instead, Robinson, Asimov and Herbert suggest that we recognize the awesome nature of the tasks before us, and be kind with ourselves when we come up against the limits imposed by our humanity.