If pop culture is supposed to be escapist, the current crop of science fiction and fantasy suggests that the real world must be truly unbearable.
Opinion | ‘House of the Dragon,’ ‘Rings of Power’ show pop culture’s pessimism
The idea of decline shows up most strongly in two hit fantasy prequels: HBO’s “House of the Dragon,” set before the events of its fantasy behemoth “Game of Thrones,” and Amazon Prime’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power ,” which takes place centuries before “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”
“House of the Dragon” chronicles the lead-up to a nasty civil war rooted in family dysfunction.
The Targaryens, once legendary conquerors of Westeros, are in decline. When a king more interested in studying history than ruling in the present dies, his second wife and her family move to usurp his chosen heir. Readers of the George RR Martin material from which “House of the Dragon” is adapted know what’s coming: a bloody, destructive conflict that does little but hasten the extinction of dragons and the Targaryen dynasty.
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“The Rings of Power” is also about the end of an age. As the title suggests, the show is an origin story for the pesky pieces of jewelry that cause so much trouble in “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. But the fatal misjudgments that lead to the forging of the rings are embedded in an even more sweeping arc about the dwindling power of elves in Middle-earth, and the events that will eventually see most of them abandon those shores.
The inclination toward downfall is, in some respects, inherent to prequels. A story intended to explain the mess other heroes had to tackle — be it the Galactic Empire from “Star Wars,” the end of the Targaryen dynasty or the scourge of some troublesome bling — will inevitably be a bit of a buzzer.
But this tendency is popping up elsewhere in pop culture, too. The two most recent science fiction epics to get glossy adaptations have the same gloomy air.
Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation,” recently adapted as an Apple TV Plus series, is about a mathematician who tries to preserve the collective knowledge of civilization in anticipation of the collapse of the empire in which he lives. In Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” interpreted by director Denis Villeneuve, calamity visits first the noble Atreides family, then the empire that targeted them; even the rise of a new regime is presented as a tragedy.
Elsewhere, Netflix has finished shooting an adaptation of Liu Cixin’s “The Three-Body Problem” novels, a story kicked off when a scientist convinced by China’s Cultural Revolution that humanity doesn’t deserve to survive invites a hostile alien race to destroy the species. Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe has an anxious tinge: Its superheroes have discovered the multiverse, but those branching timelines are a threat, not an opportunity.
True, new offshoots of the utopian “Star Trek” are in production, but they’re airing on minor streaming services; optimism is now a niche product, rather than a culture-wide phenomenon. Even the new “Star Wars” movies succumbed to stagnation. In the interests of giving fans something familiar, the most recent trilogy resurrected the Empire and Emperor and set its heroes to fight the same old battles, rather than explore how a victorious Republic might govern as it sought to reunite the galaxy.
These shows and movies don’t have direct political analogues in the most obvious sense. A family civil war isn’t a useful proxy for contemporary political polarization. Peter Thiel may have named his data analysis company Palantir, after the magic crystal balls in JRR Tolkien’s fictional universe, but the titular “Rings of Power” are an elite technology rather than a useful metaphor for social media’s corrosive influence. Unless I’m missing something, a secret society of hyper-powerful women is not secretly shaping world history, a la “Dune.”
And yet, the pervasive pop culture sense that things are getting worse is in sync with widespread real-world glumness. Residents of 15 large, wealthy countries told the Pew Research Center earlier this year that they thought the next generation would be worse off financially. People overwhelmingly believe that change climate will “harm them personally,” but are less than confident that their governments will act effectively to mitigate it, a Pew survey found last year. Millions of people died in the covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has renewed the specter of nuclear calamity, and the United States’ brief turn as a hegemon and guarantor of global stability is already coming to a close.
But there’s more to fiction, and to life, than the defeatism of a dwarf king in “The Rings of Power,” who tells his son: “The rock that lives within us hungers for the eternal, resisting the pull of time. But the fire embraces the truth: that all things must one day be consumed and fade away to ash.”
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It’s well and good to deconstruct old ideas and pernicious tropes. But there’s a difference between self-examination and an embrace of annihilation. Rather than lapsing into decadence and despair, pop culture should reclaim its power to show audiences what’s possible.
In worlds real and fictional, something remains after the old order has been worn away. Especially at a moment when real-world politics and governance feel at a particularly low ebb, fiction has a useful role to play in firing the creative imagination, too. That’s particularly true in science fiction and fantasy, genres that at their core assume that progress is possible and that human nobility can shape the world.
Take the example of “For All Mankind,” Ronald D. Moore’s alternate history of the space program. In his telling, the United States suffers a crushing defeat when the Soviet Union wins the race to put a man on the moon. But rather than giving up, Americans bring a new competitive fervor to space exploration, tapping the talents of previously overlooked people. What first seemed like disaster becomes fuel for dynamism.
And true epics can help give audiences perspective. Young adult author Tamora Pierce’s Tortall novels, which have been optioned by Lionsgate, tell a several-hundred-year story about social progress, backlash and renewed forward momentum. US activists concerned about erosions of women’s and LGBTQ rights could use an affirmation that even when the moral arc of the universe seems impossibly long, it can be made to bend toward justice with persistence and organization.
Maybe we’re at a point where the idea of optimism without corniness is more fantastical than dragons or elves and progress seems farther off than the moon. But fiction doesn’t have to play by the rules that burden reality. And it can remind viewers that, should we choose, it’s still possible for us to be the heroes of our own stories.