Foundation and Dune are about to debut adaptations. Both have a very similar, very cynical message about the future of human civilization.
Classic sci-fi has reoccurring iconography and themes that resonate throughout the various works. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and Frank Herbert’s Dune are chief among these, introducing philosophical discussions centered around human civilization, our religious ideologies, as well as what keeps society functioning.
The two are vastly different works, but both have one thing in common: adaptations debuting in 2021. Before Foundation comes to Apple TV+ or Dune hits theaters and HBO Max, you will need a primer on how both works tackle similar subject matter and themes, and how they differ from one another in essential ways. Granted, you won’t be seeing Sandworms in Foundation or two bases at opposite ends of the galaxy preserving history in Dune, but the two works are cut from the same philosophical cloths.
The Fall of Civilization
In both Dune and Foundation, we see the infrastructures that hold civilization up, as well as how these structures can ultimately falter and crumble, given the right pressures.
With Foundation, Asimov creates an intergalactic empire similar to that of ancient Rome. The central city, Trantor, is a gigantic planet-wide metropolis, holding a massive empire together. However, Hari Seldon, the developer of the theory of psychohistory, predicts that the empire is going to fall. The only way to mitigate the dark age to follow is through specific action. This is the reason why Hari creates the Foundations – two settlements on opposite sides of the galaxy, designed to preserve human culture and civilization. Seldon becomes an almost religious figure, as his predictions increasingly have a greater impact on society as it develops.
Dune, on the other hand, centers on another intergalactic empire. The plot focuses on the pursuit to control Arrakis, a desert planet where the spice Melange can be mined. The spice is essential for space travel, which keeps the empire from collapsing. The first novel focuses on the battle between House Atreides and House Harkonen over Arrakis, culminating in Paul Atreides gaining control over the spice. From there, Paul triggers a religious fervor that threatens to tear the empire apart from within.
In both cases, the series centers on civilization teetering on the edge with a figure of key importance standing in the center of it all. In both, the stability of the empire crumbles as separate factors overthrow the status quo. In the later novel God Emperor of Dune, we are introduced to Leto II, Paul’s son turned undying sandworm, whose tyrannical rule gears the Empire into a prosperous future, much like how Hari Seldon managed to gear history to a favorable endpoint in the Foundation series. In this sense, the two works say the same thing: society is unstable and prone to collapse, especially as it increases in size.
Dune and Foundation Are Not the Same
However, in other respects, Dune and Foundation are wholly unlike one another. Foundation is a world grounded in logic, whereas Dune is one grounded in large, philosophical ideas. Isaac Asimov is very disinterested in the individual characters of Foundation, choosing instead to focus on how society changes over a broad period of time. Herbert, however, centers his story on specific key figures, developing them as monumental within the culture. We see how normal people are deified by legend and rumor. Paul goes from just the son of a Duke to the cornerstone of a destructive religious movement.
Foundation instead focuses on the shifting nature of an entire empire over a thousand years, with each segment functioning as a short story that builds the narrative onward. The human element is less important than the broad, sociological ideas. Again, the story boils down to a compelling flow of science, not people being people.
However, the perspective on empires rising and falling remains very consistent between the two works. In many ways they are the individual author’s perspectives on human civilization. The lasting influence of their works can be traced back to the fact that these works serve as the pure distillation of how the writers applied history to the future. Foundation is inspired by Rome, while Dune was inspired by the spread of religious belief and the infiltration of the Middle East by western forces. All of that resulted in a narrative that resonates due to feeling grounded in familiar reality.
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