Sometimes life in the 21st century feels like a weird science fiction movie — one so unnerving it’s difficult to distinguish reality from nightmare.

Here are some science fiction-y nightmares well-known scientists, writers, and bloggers brought forward this week:

  • The possibility of being able to take a sailboat to the Arctic in 2020 or 2025, according to a leading British scientist.
  • The idea that we live in an insane economy based on a suburban way of life destined for ruin … something that has already been seen in the Antelope Valley.
  • A White House that — according to a prominent right-wing reporter — while going through the diplomatic motions with Iran, is all the while gearing up to launch a military strike.

Doesn’t it seem just a little too futuristic?

It does to me. And all the trouble made me read a little more closely this week, when I stumbled over an interesting passage in a new science fiction novel currently on the bestseller list.

Here’s the passage, slightly trimmed:

Murbella walked farther from the fortresslike Keep, putting it behind her, and all her responsibilities with it. She identified the passing rows of dying trees: apples giving way to peaches, cherries, and oranges. She decided to order an active program of planting date palms, which would survive longer in the changing climate. But did they even have years? …

For some time now, the desert had been approaching, killing all growing things in its path. Windblown dust painted the normally blue skies with a constant brownish haze. As the sandworms grew out in the arid belt, so did their desert to accomodate them. An ever-expanding ecosystem.

In the encroaching desert ahead of her, and the faltering orchards behind her, Murbella saw two great Bene Gesserit dreams crashing into each other like opposing tides, a beginning absorbing an ending … melange was both a blessing and a curse.

Melange, in Frank Herbert’s epic “Dune” series of novels, is a drug that gives users extraordinary powers — prescience, hundreds of years of life, and the ability to steer through space-time.

But the more you look at melange — which is found in the desert, is the source of perpetual conflict, and has almost endless uses — the more it resembles another earthly substance … oil.

In this novel, the mostly benign Bene Gesserit tribe planted orchards for their fruits on a new planet, but brought sandworms as well for the melange they produced, which the Gesserit needed to survive as a civilization. But soon they found that the need for melange was changing the climate, ruining the Eden they loved.

Sound familiar?

Of course! Now I get it. Melange, also known as spice, is a metaphorical stand-in for oil, complete with its psychological dimensions. Spice can make us all powerful; and it can give us the illusion our civilization can live forever.

Okay, I think. Maybe it’s true. Maybe “Dune” really is a masterpiece. I honestly don’t know. What do you think?

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