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I just finished reading through the original six Dune novels by Frank Herbert. I’ve read them before, but reading them back to back allowed me to notice a profound shift in theme. With the first three novels, the theme seemed to revolve around prescience and the use of power (both political and supernatural). The latter three novels – especially Heretics of Dune – focused more on the nature of choice and the uses of sexuality. These latter three books also seemed to have a more feminist bent, although I’m unsure if the two changes are related.

This really leads me to two separate, albeit related questions:

  • Am I imagining this shift in theme, or have others noticed it as well?
  • Assuming the shift in theme is really there, why did Herbert do so?
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    I don't know, but it's not an uncommon change as an author gets older and/or more successful; Robert Heinlein and Piers Anthony spring immediately to mind. Even Asimov's later works have noticeably more sexual content than the earlier ones, though that wasn't difficult. :-) – Harry Johnston Dec 30 '17 at 5:42
  • Sex isn't power? – WOPR Dec 30 '17 at 8:04
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    @HarryJohnston I call it Old Science Fiction Author Syndrome. So, so many SF authors get to a certain age and start to indulge in their sexual fantasies through their writing. – Broklynite Dec 30 '17 at 11:31
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    I actually think the Honored Matres are a fairly reasonable consequence of the Scattering. Their destructive misuse of sex comes into play with the general theme of the preservation of mankind. – Shamshiel Dec 30 '17 at 13:32
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    @Broklynite Perhaps expand that to "horny old man syndrome" - authors just have a conveniently public outlet. – Steve-O Dec 30 '17 at 15:44
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One of Herbert's themes throughout his works is "women are powerful". You see this in Dune of course, how Reverend Mothers are basically the most gifted people in that universe. You also see it in The White Plague:

At the end of that novel the ratio of women to men is 1 to 10,000, and women are left pretty much holding the future of humanity in their hands. They choose multiple husbands, assign whatever importance to them they wish, and family names become matriarchal rather than patriarchal as they are now.

So since the main idea in the last 3 books is the Golden Path, which in Heretics is described as:

"They ignore the species at its work, Sheeana. I think you can already sense this. The Tyrant certainly knew about it. What was his Golden Path but a vision of sexual forces at work recreating humankind endlessly?"

The entire point of the series is that all of humanity has come to a crisis. Life may end everywhere. Leto figured out a way out of that trap with his Golden Path. And all that is, is humanity going on forever rather than becoming extinct.

The entire series is about this crisis - what leads up to it, how it is solved, and what are the repercussions after. And since sex is how you procreate (if you discount the Tleilaxu, that is) one could make the argument that the entire series is about sex.

So that being said, it would be a typically Herbert thing to do to make the women more powerful, and have women lord the Golden Path over men. Which is exactly what the Honored Matres wind up doing.

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Since the lead motive of the whole series is genetic memory and a breeding program leading to very specific type of human being (down to gender), it is ludicrous to think this can be in any way separated from sexuality.

I do not believe there is a change of focus between the books. First three are setting up the universe, while following tomes are logical expansion of the concept in that universe.

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