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  • Sean Dougdale-Martin

A Summary on Queerness within Dune

Spiced up by Sean Burnett Dugdale-Martin 

CW: Spoilers for Dune extended universe

I recently read Frank Herbert’s Dune, much like many others would have after the release of the films. However I didn’t stop with the first one! I read through all six of Herbert’s original sci-fi saga and, even though the first three were quite queerless, the last three books actually kinda slayed? I became excited reading them—I started to think the queerness explored in the second half of the series was almost a critique on how queerness was depicted in the first half of the series. There was a non-binary sandworm emperor, a lesbian army, and hot takes on homophobia in the military. After I had finished all six I ended up doing some sleuthing about the author and… Turns out Herbert was a homophobe. How did I get such a misguided idea from Herbert’s work?

In the Dune universe, the two films currently released tell the story of the first novel. From here there are two sequel novels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. Then, there is a three and a half thousand year time jump into God Emperor of Dune, and another one and a half thousand year jump into Heretics of Dune—which flows immediately into Chapterhouse: Dune. Sound complicated? It is. 

Within the first three books there is only one example of queerness and, considering the historical context in which it was written, it’s not a great one. The Baron Harkonnen (character) was a homosexual paedophilic sadist who had young boys sent to his room where he would have sex with and torture them. Not great! In the film this was shifted into a heteronormative dynamic, but the torturous aspect was kept. Boo!  Since this was written in the 60s I can imagine that the character was given this queer spin as a way to make them seem more immoral. Think Ursula from The Little Mermaid!

That was pretty d-buzz to read, particularly because I could understand where it came from. As I continued to read I had accepted it as a huge flaw in a classic novel (which pretty much all age poorly) and largely ignored it, so that it wouldn’t frustrate me. That was until the big time jump into the second half of the series.

God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune are huge novels, spanning continuations of the universe Herbert created. These three books, for me, served as a detailed response to many of the flaws in humankind set up in the first three books. Fair warning: from here on out I will refer to characters by their actors (if they have been cast) since that’s the only way my partner (and probably you) will know who I’m talking about. What follows is my initial reading of these final three books.

God Emperor of Dune is about Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya’s kid, Leto II. They moulded themselves with a million little sandworm babies at the end of Children of Dune, and have since lived for thousands of years, because of the regenerative benefits of the baby worms. It’s explicitly mentioned that Leto II is a very large “more worm than human” creature, with no genitalia. As a child of Timothee Chalamet, Leto II also has the ability to predict the future. Timothee Chalamet wasn’t great at this, but because Leto II has had it since birth and has lived with it for thousands of years they have achieved omnipotence and can see entirely into the future. Herbert, strangely, uses he/him pronouns for a genitalia-less worm-person. I know genitalia does not designate gender, but it’s interesting to note that, while Herbert and his characters refer to Leto II as he/him, Leto II refers to themselves as other, or without binary. 

Another consequence of Leto II's omnipotence is that they also contain every consciousness from every ancestor in their head. It’s explained that the consciousnesses communicate not just to Leto II, but to each other, and are a way of keeping dead ancestors alive. Think Avatar the Legend of Aang! (is anything original?)

So, to recap: Leto II is a gender-morphing genitalia-less omnipotent God Emperor of the universe who controls all the spice on Dune and can see into the future. Herbert, by my reading, built this character as a response to the errors of Timothee Chalamet. Leto II, being able to see into the future and know all, is orchestrating a galaxy in order to correct the mistakes of his father. This is referred to in the books by Leto II, when they mention humanity would be extinct without Leto II’s intervention. This is where my interest really started to kick in. As a genderless person myself I began to relate to Leto II in a weird way. I wondered if Herbert was perhaps suggesting that to know more about the world and the future is to end up abandoning gender and its binary. I started to allow myself to engage, as my hope grew in the final three instalments.

In this, the fourth book in the franchise, Leto II has an army of women called Fish Speakers, and routinely brings back to life Jason Momoa to be his personal friend and bodyguard. Jason is quite challenged by how much lesbianism is going on in the army, and it’s explained to him that suppressing homosexuality was a tool used by ancient militaries in order to make their soldiers more powerful, since those who are being tortured or suppressed emotionally are more cruel because of it. The God Emperor, by virtue of their omnipotence, has no real enemies—so there is no reason to have a strong army, and no reason to suppress homosexuality. 

The thing is—I misunderstood.

I had misread the conversation between Jason Momoa and the right-hand of Leto II. I had read Leto II as a non-binary true leader who I thought was the omnipotent saviour correcting the tragedy set in motion by Timothee Chalamet.  I wished I had not learned more about Herbert. 

Hell, in the fifth and sixth books Jason Momoa outlives Leto II and is trained in the ways of sex magic so that he can defeat (have sex more ‘powerfully’ than) sex witches from deep space. That isn’t a joke. It got very weird. I have never read a sex scene so explicit as the one at the end of Heretics of Dune. Why does it have to be written by some homophobe? 

It was a bitter taste to realise I had misinterpreted his writing so badly. I have since resolved to look upon the books as I wish to. Herbert may have been homophobic, but I guess since he’s dead now he won’t be getting any royalties from me! The author is literally dead, so our queer readings of Dune can be as valid as we want.


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