While most students probably hit snooze on their alarm at quarter to nine on Wednesday morning, lecturer Etienne Augé is already standing fit as a fiddle in the lecture hall in the Theil building. The screen behind him shows an illustration of the film Dune, the subject of today’s lecture.

Lecture course: Science Fiction and Media (Wednesday morning 9am in C2-2 Theil building)

Lecturer: Etienne Augé, practically a PP-er (Popular professor, ed.)

Subject: Soft science fiction and diversity in science fiction

Audience: According to the lecturer, this lecture is attended by bachelor students who are either sincerely interested or need five credits and think that this course is an easy fix. Twelve students are in the room, quite an accomplishment for a hybrid lecture given early in the morning.

Reason to follow it: 1) You are going to learn a lot -really an awful lot -about science fiction and its relevance to the world. 2) You will receive plenty of film recommendations. 3) You get a cinematic experience by watching lots of film clips; the only thing missing in the lecture hall is popcorn.

The lecture is being broadcast live and recorded. “So, if ten students turn up, it’s quite a treat,” says the lecturer somewhat sarcastically. “You can quote me, of course. I’d be happy if you did,” he adds. “Hybrid education doesn’t work at all.” Students trickle in over the next ten minutes. Eventually, there are twelve students in the room. The party can begin.

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Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

Soft Sci-Fi

The curtains of the lecture hall are drawn and the lights dimmed. “Let’s go to Seattle,” says the lecturer. “Who has been there?” On his Google slideshow is a picture of the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, a building that looks like a crumpled piece of paper. Inside this museum is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. A whole host of famous science fiction creators are listed there, from Terry Pratchett, Leonard Nimoy, George Orwell to C.S. Lewis. But Frank Herbert as well, the author of Dune.

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Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

“Now I would like to talk about Dune a bit more in depth,” says the lecturer. “Because it is a perfect example of our theme for today: soft science fiction.” In soft science fiction, the science part is less important to the story than the humanities. “Another reason I want to talk about Dune is because it is one of the best works in science fiction,” the lecturer states. “Dune is made up of 26 books, so if you have just started reading science fiction, I wouldn’t recommend that you start with Dune.”


The lecturer explains the complexity of Dune, from multiple storylines of diverse Houses inhabiting their own planets, to the various themes found in the books. Unlike most science fiction, technology barely plays a role in Dune. Some notable themes include ecology, strong female characters, and the Middle East. ” Because in Dune, Arabic words such as ‘jihad’, are used,” the lecturer explains. “However, the word ‘jihad’ has been left out in the latest film version, because people immediately associate it with 9/11. They’ve replaced it with ‘crusade’.”

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Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

The lecturer plays a clip from the first film adaptation of Dune made in 1984. It is an introduction to the beginning of the film by the character Princess Irulan. Augé then talks about the many attempts to film Dune. After the book was published in 1965, director Alenjandro Jodorowski wanted to bring the story to the big screen in 1974. None other than Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles were to play a role in it. Unfortunately, the film was never released owing to financial problems. In 1984, an adaptation was released by director David Lynch. With a budget of $40 million, Dune only managed to make $30 million at the box office and was a flop from a financial point of view.

“Who has seen the latest Dune?” the lecturer asks. The most recent film adaptation, starring Zendaya and Timothée Chalamet, was released in 2021. A number of hands go up. “What did you all think of it?” A student replies: “I didn’t get it. I mean, it’s a beautiful film with stunning visuals and music and everything, but I don’t understand the story.” The teacher nods with a smile. “Exactly! As I mentioned, Dune is a complex work. Many critics believe that Dune is unfilmable because the extent of the story is too far-reaching.”

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Linked to reality

Student James follows the lecture attentively. As it happens, he is reading the first book of Dune, he says. He fishes the book out of his bag. “That’s why I find today’s lecture incredibly interesting,” he says. “Now I have a better understanding of the book.”

Student Jan also finds the lecture captivating. “I wasn’t really a fan of science fiction, but now that I’m learning about the whole genre, I find it fascinating,” he says. The underlying ideas of the stories are of particular interest to him. The use of a nuclear weapon in Dune, for example, was a reaction to the atom bomb strikes in 1945. “The people in Dune are afraid of the weapon. That’s a kind of monster in the story,” he notes. “Before taking this course, I didn’t realise how relevant science fiction is when it comes to understanding the world.”

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Not a prediction

After the break, a number of other creators of soft science fiction are discussed. These include François Truffaut (of the film Fahrenheit 451, in which the government burns all books because reading books ‘doesn’t make you happy’), Ursula K. Le Guin (winner of 35 science fiction awards) and Octavia E. Butler (a black writer who deals with inequality in her work).

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Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

After the break, a number of other creators of soft science fiction are discussed. These include François Truffaut (of the film Fahrenheit 451, in which the government burns all books because reading books ‘doesn’t make you happy’), Ursula K. Le Guin (winner of 35 science fiction awards) and Octavia E. Butler (a black writer who deals with inequality in her work).

Augé emphasises that science fiction does not predict the future. It is a metaphor of the present, a mirror of reality. “You can clearly see the spirit of the times in science fiction. This is also one of the reasons why soft science fiction flourished after the Second World War. Through the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people saw how atrocious technology can be, so they focused on the human side of the story.”


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Student Alice is not actually a fan of science fiction, yet she attends the lectures faithfully every week. “I chose the course because of the lecturer,” she laughs. “I had followed one of his courses and it was fantastic. Everything he says is so intriguing. He cites interesting examples, asks thought-provoking questions and cracks a lot of jokes.”

Student Niels agrees wholeheartedly. “The way he gives his lectures is impressive. Every week he tells a coherent and interesting story, incredibly well-prepared with pictures and videos. It all keeps grabbing your attention!”

After showing an excerpt from the film Brazil, the 137-slide-long presentation, comes to an end. Closing music resounds through the auditorium. The curtains are drawn up again. The sun streams through the windows and student Hsiao Ting looks slightly disappointed. For three hours, she has sat mesmerised in her chair listening. “Why can’t this lecture last longer? Three hours is too short!”

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