Sexual Pleasure, Sexual Skill

Image: Mattia Ascenzo

You may be (very much not) surprised to hear that we talk about sex, and the ways people engage in sex in both the real world and in the world of the Passionate Pantheon, on a fairly frequent basis. As we compare and contrast the two, we noticed one major difference, and it becomes immediately logical the moment you think about it even a bit.

In the real world, multiple studies aimed at examining differences in gender approach to casual sex have arrived at the same conclusion: Women are less likely to accept offers of casual sex than men are.

This might seem obvious. In fact, it’s so universally assumed to be true that Sigmund Freud argued, and some people still argue, it’s a fundamental biological difference between men and women. Something to do with hormones or ideal mating strategies or whatever else is the latest evo-psych theory du jour—wired, in other words, into our very DNA, as much a part of the differences between men and women as ovaries or facial hair. (Which, if you pause to think a moment, clearly aren’t necessarily as set in stone as many people like to believe either, but since when has that ever stopped an evo-psych theorist?)

That seems implausible to us, to put it mildly. It seems to us that sociological differences between men and women (starting from the fact that men who have casual sex are admired as ‘studs’ whilst women who have casual sex are castigated as ‘sluts’) might be pretty powerful disincentives for women to say yes all by themselves. Culture is a powerful tool for developing unconscious assumptions, after all. 

Just look at how historically, women were often portrayed as more prone to giving in to the flames of irrational lust, and more likely to lead men astray, where men have been perceived as more rational and less prone to giving into the temptations of unreasoned passion. Consider how many of the mythological creatures and divine beings associated with lust and sexuality were portrayed as female.

But there’s also another part of the equation, and it’s even simpler than biology or DNA or reproductive strategies or social double standards.

Women who have casual sex are just less likely to have a good time than men are.

At least, that’s the conclusion of a 2022 study by Terri D. Conley and Verena Klein, appropriately titled “Women Get Worse Sex: A Confound in the Explanation of Gender Differences in Sexuality,” and sadly behind a paywall (if you happen to have a copy, we’d love to read it!). It’s also the conclusion of a WebMD article about casual sex as well.

Women are, in other words, likely to get the raw end of the deal when they have casual sex. They bear more of the risk but are less likely to have a good time. Is it surprising that doesn’t really seem like such a great offer?

Ah, but what if that wasn’t true?

What if we lived in a society where most people were skilled at sex and invested in a lover’s pleasure, where there was no (or almost no) risk associated with sex, and where sex carried absolutely no social stigma?

The result, we think, might be interesting.

In the City, men and women are about equally likely to offer, and accept offers of, casual sex.

Wait, hang on, let’s take a step back.

In the City, the distinction between ‘men’ and ‘women’ isn’t really all that clear-cut. Citizens in the City can change their bodies at will. Want a body different from the one you grew up in? No problem! Want to change your body for a party tomorrow night? No problem! Want breasts and a prehensile cock? No problem! Want multiple sets of genitals? Hey, if you can figure out how the anatomy works, you do you, just hop in a medpod and dial up what you want.

So already, it gets a bit hard to talk about differences between ‘men’ and ‘women.’ Those terms barely have any meaning in the City as it is. And when sex has no shame or stigma—indeed, it’s part of the civic and religious structures of the society you live in—there’s no social pressure for people who wear one type of body not to have sex whilst people who wear a different type of body are praised for having sex.

One of the things the two of us recently found ourselves musing—because, of course, we often muse about the worlds we create together—was that if a person from the real world were to be transported abruptly to the City (and can we just say ‘yes, please!’ to that idea?), the average sexual encounter with an average person in the City would quite probably be…well, a lot of fun.

A typical person with average sexual skill in the City might very well be in the top one percentile of sexually skilled lovers in the real world. An above-average lover in the City, perhaps in the top one tenth of one percentile. Even someone who in the City might be regarded as a rather uninspired (although maybe not going as far as mediocre) lover would probably be pretty sexually savvy by real-world standards.

A lot of people in the real world settle, we think, for some pretty pedestrian sex.

It’s not just that people in the City live in a society that attaches no shame or stigma to sex, though of course that’s part of it.

It’s not just that people in the City live for hundreds of years, so have plenty of time to up their game, though that’s part of it too.

It’s not even that people in the City can, and frequently do, freely change their bodies on a whim, so have the experience of having sex in multiple bodies with many different sets of genitals, though that also plays a role.

It’s that people in the City are often formally trained, usually in the context of religious training, in the sexual arts.

And not just in sexual techniques. A lot of folks make the mistake of assuming that sexual skill is about learning how to move your tongue or how fast to thrust or how and where to kiss and stroke. Which kind of misses the point, because people are different, and have different tastes and different subjective experiences of sex.

The thing that makes you good at sex isn’t knowing how to move your tongue, it’s knowing how to pay attention: how to read your lover’s responses, how to see what gets them hot. It’s also openness and communication—not just telling your lover what cranks your motor (although that’s important), but learning how to hear your partner talk about what cranks their motor, without fear or judgment. How, in fact, to encourage them to talk about it.

“She is one of the loveliest Fountains in my time as a priest of the Quickener. Would you like to pleasure yourself with her?”

“Is that allowed?”

“Yes. It is one of the nice things about being in his service.” He laughed at Marisem’s expression. “Not until you learn to read the signs, Initiate! You must take care not to allow the Fountain to reach ecstasy. When you have learned to do that, you may perform your duties in whatever manner you choose.” His fingers strummed Terlyn’s clit. “You’ll learn to read a person’s body very well. You may also be called upon to excite the Fountain during days of heavy worship, which means you will learn how to touch a person to evoke excitement again even after an orgasm. There is a reason we who serve the Quickener are in such high demand as lovers.”

—from The Brazen Altar

This ability to pay attention is one of the keys to being a good lover:

Rainshadow read Yaeris’s body with an uncanny knack bordering on telepathy. She took note of every slight quiver during her patient, methodical exploration, until it seemed she knew how to touch Yaeris better than Yaeris herself. Yaeris soon lost track of how many times she’d come, as she drifted into a fog of pleasure, carried away by long, slow, gentle orgasms, so different from what Euryale had given her. The orgasms blended into each other until Yaeris floated beyond awareness of anything except Rainshadow’s hands and lips and tongue.

She came back into herself some timeless time later, guided by Rainshadow’s body on hers and Rainshadow’s voice in her ear. When she opened her eyes, the shadows in the tent told of a sun that had moved noticeably in the sky. “Ah, there you are,” Rainshadow said. “Did you enjoy yourself?”

Yaeris stretched and discovered she was no longer bound. “You are extraordinary.”

—from The Hallowed Covenant

Hear that? Extraordinary. High praise indeed.

In the Passionate Pantheon novels, we’ve created a world where sex is ubiquitous, an ordinary and accepted part of casual social discourse—yet the part of sex we want to highlight, the part of sex that makes the act of sex extraordinary, is connection. Sex, even casual sex, is best when it’s connective—when the people involved pay attention to one another deeply, and invest in the experience of their partners.

In all of the novels, characters wonder why the AI gods they’ve created demand worship through sex. The answer is complicated, and nuanced, and every character who asks receives a different answer (perhaps we will write about that in the future!), but ultimately, the answer is connection. Connection to each other, to your community, to the gods, even to oneself. Sex is best when it’s connective, even when that connection isn’t expected to endure past one encounter.

In a society where that’s a baseline standard, perhaps casual sex might become a more appealing proposition for everyone.

The Literary Roots of the Passionate Pantheon

Image: Rabie Madaci

Mark your calendars! On April 23, 2022, Eunice and Franklin will be presenting a live-stream of the start of a new Passionate Pantheon novel. If you’ve ever wanted to write a novel but don’t know how to get going, or you’ve wondered how co-authoring a book works, or if you’d just like to see the birth of a new book, show up! Bring questions! If you’re really really lucky, Eunice may pull out the chocolate eclairs! (Franklin is very onboard with this idea. Eunice is very onboard with chocolate in general.)

Ahem. Anyway…

With a new novel on the horizon, we recently took a step back to talk about the literary roots of the Passionate Pantheon. They’re unusual novels, to be sure, with feet in many different worlds.

By now many of you probably know the origin of The Brazen Altar: Eunice and Franklin met at an orgy in France in 2010. At another orgy in Lincolnshire in 2018, we decided to write together. Franklin wrote the opening paragraph of what would become The Brazen Altar on Eunice’s naked back, and thus the Passionate Pantheon was born.

But that doesn’t tell you a lot about why the books look and feel the way they do. Where did the inspiration come from? What influenced them stylistically? What inspired the world of the Passionate Pantheon, beyond Eunice’s sexy imagination (and inability to let a good wank alone, if you know what we mean)?

Terry Pratchett coined the term “white knowledge” (a play on “white noise”) to describe “the sort of stuff that fills up your brain without you really knowing where it came from.” In other words, the cultural and mythological equivalent to white noise that forms the largely unconscious background to every literary reference you catch, every little nerdy in-joke that thrills the heart when you notice it.

This is what we mean by white knowledge—the cultural myths and ways of viewing the world that float around your deepest subconscious, built over years and decades by the people and media around you, until it becomes hard to see the reality beyond the lens of story itself. We are the storytelling ape, and we tell ourselves all sorts of stories about how the world should work—how justice and morality works, how society works, how people work. 

What we’re trying to do here is to be conscious of our own white knowledge. We’re trying, you might say, to pick out the individual threads that make up the tapestry of our own inner worlds.

Part of our aim in writing these stories, like all good sci-fi, is to wonder “What are we missing? What doesn’t have to work like that? What is the lens, and what is the deep dark forest where the wolves were hunted into extinction centuries ago?”

This, too, is a gift from Sir Terry Pratchett.

One early reader of The Brazen Altar said something along the lines of “it’s like the Culture, but even more hedonistic.” That’s not far off the mark; there’s a lot of Iain Banks’ Culture novels in the Passionate Pantheon, in the sense they’re both set in far-future societies that have transcended scarcity, where there’s no such thing as money (in the Culture, there’s a saying, “money is a sign of poverty”), where people live long lives (centuries, if they like), where there’s no disease or war, and where pleasure is considered good and proper as its own end. The Culture novels aren’t the only sci-fi series that has these elements, but there is a strong resemblance to the Culture’s specific flavor of these elements in the Passionate Pantheon.

There are differences, of course. We don’t see any spaceships in the Passionate Pantheon novels. In the universe of the Passionate Pantheon, faster-than-light travel isn’t a thing. The characters arrived on our world on slower-than-light generation ships, after a long fall through the inky void. The people who started the journey from Earth knew they would not live to see the journey’s end. They did it not for themselves, but for the sake of their descendents.

Iain Banks famously said he set most of the Culture novels outside the Culture because it’s hard to write a story where there’s no conflict and people live lives of peace and prosperity. We set our stories within our post-scarcity society, partly because we think there are plenty of stories to be told within the backdrop of peace and prosperity, but partly because there were topics that we could only really explore to their fullest in the context of that ability for our characters to make almost totally unconstrained choices. 

What you’ll notice, though, is that the Passionate Pantheon stories aren’t Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. They don’t follow the cycle of the classic monomyth—the sheriff or lone ranger doesn’t ride in from out of town to save the day, Neo doesn’t discover that all reality is a lie when he’s yanked out of his existence into the real world to take part in the unending secret war against the machines.


The stories we tell are more akin to coming of age stories, explorations of characters finding their place within and among the society they live in. The first three novels (The Brazen Altar, Divine Burdens, and The Hallowed Covenant) follow characters becoming Sacrifice to their chosen AI gods, reaching the highest level of prestige among their peers. The fourth novel, Unyielding Devotion, centers on characters who aren’t highly placed in their society, who don’t earn the recognition and admiration of their peers for attaining high status.

In a sense, though, the stories we tell really aren’t science fiction. Well, they are; they’re set in a City with molecular nanoassemblers, medical pods, radical longevity, antigravity float fields, shield generators, strong AI, and fusion power. Thing is, we’ll never discuss in the text how these things work; they’re all backdrops for the stories, since we both believe good stories are about people, not technology. (We know how it all works, of course, we’re just not telling you. Buy us some chocolate eclairs, though, and we might consider it!)

Rather, in many ways, the people of the City are a modernist reinterpretation of the fey from mythology…but the fey as they see themselves, from within their own society, not as they are seen by human outsiders. We’ve written about this before: the characters of the Passionate Pantheon are reinterpretations of the fey, humans seen through a glass darkly, an exploration of what we might become if we were granted the powers from those old fables.

In that sense, then the Passionate Pantheon stories draw upon the narrative archetypes of the old fairy stories—not the kinder, gentler fairy tales for children (well, the adult conception of children anyway—actual children love a bit of gore and blood), but the wild fey, the dangerous fey. The fey for whom names have power, beauty is a foundational virtue, a promise is a sacred thing (the upcoming novel The Hallowed Covenant explores in depth what happens if you break a promise in the City—or at least one of the Cities—and how the City handles transgression and wrongdoing without police or even a codified set of laws), and you and those around you will live for centuries.

So we use a setting that calls back to the Culture novels, with narrative structures that derive from ancient stories about the fey. But that’s not all you’ll find in the Passionate Pantheon gumbo!

We use the stories in the Passionate Pantheon, particularly the darker even-numbered books, to hold up a mirror to modern society. In that sense, the stories are a bit like the Discworld books (of which we’re both huge fans), though we don’t do it quite the same way Terry Pratchett does. (But then, who can?)

Our social commentary is far less text and far more subtext. We explore themes of consent and agency in a society which has inverted modern-day social taboos about sex and volence—where violence is casually accepted but sex is a forbidden topic in the real world, sex is a normalized part of social interaction in the Passionate Pantheon, but they regard violence with uneasy horror.

We use this inversion as a literary mirror to confront ideas about self, agency, consent, and coercion: why do people in the real world regard, say, sex work with a degree of horror they don’t apply to boxing, for instance? Why is it considered acceptable for people to sell access to their bodies to receive a beating, but not an orgasm?

Whilst we’d never try to compare ourselves to the inimitable Pterry, we do, like he did, use the Passionate Pantheon as a vehicle for looking at some things in the real world that make us go “hmm.”

Of course, in addition to these three major influences we mentioned here—the Culture novels, Discworld, and old fairy tales—there are a countless myriad of other elements and inspirations we didn’t mention that came before us and influenced the way we write. Hopefully we will also bequeath some small measure of the same to those who come after us. This is a cycle that could—no, will—continue as long as humans exist.

We draw inspiration from all over. No creator is an island. No literature stands alone; all stories draw on universalities of the human condition. There are endless ways to mix the gumbo, though, and this is our particular flavor. Not only that, it is the particular flavor that we, as writers in combination, and at this particular stage of our lives and our writing careers, have produced in this specific setting. If or when each of those elements changes, the flavor will change a little again. Every extra bit of knowledge or experience is another ingredient in the pot. 

If you’re interested in writing, you too will have your own special pot, with your own unique, yet culturally flavored, style. We’d love to know what your influences are, if you’d like to share that with us.

We hope you’ll join us on April 23 as we start a new pot going. The fifth book will delve deep into parts of City life we haven’t explored yet, including family, childhood, and death. Come along with us! The writing is a fun ride.

On Sonder and Writing

Image: Daniel Hehn

Sonder (‘son • der), n

the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

— John Koenig, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

Have you ever found yourself walking down the street or sitting in a coffee shop and been struck by the sudden, dizzying realization that the person who just walked past you—the person you saw only as a vague blur, and will likely never see again—is a complete human being, with a life just as complex as yours? With joys as rich, and sorrows as deep, as those you love and know intimately? And that to them, you are the vague blur barely glimpsed from the corner of the eye?

Weird, huh?

We share a world with nearly eight billion other people, and yet, despite that (or perhaps because of it!), we can sometimes have trouble remembering that all those other people are people, with their own dreams, ambitions, goals, hurts and heartbreaks, fears and hopes…all the things that go along with being a person. When the numbers get so big, people become abstracts. At its worst, that leads to tragedies, or even atrocities. 

Eight billion people, eight billion stories, all of them just as rich as yours. Humbling, isn’t it?

Our last few essays about the Passionate Pantheon novels have all been on rather meta topics, and this one is no exception. We didn’t entirely intend for this to happen, but as our books have trended more towards the philosophical, so too did our thinking about the world of the novels, and in particular how we (and you!) as readers interact with the culture of the Passionate Pantheon as people who still have to live in the real world. 

There is a reason we recently got to thinking about sonder—really!—and it has to do with the novels, our approach to characters, and the reason we accidentally started working on the sixth novel in the series before we had even started the fifth. (As the kids today say, we accidentally a book.)

In the first Passionate Pantheon novel, The Brazen Altar, we meet (briefly) a minor character who appears on stage only to give one of the protagonists ritualized oral sex.

She didn’t have long to wait. The door opened with the same eerie noiselessness. A man entered, bare-chested, dressed in a simple loincloth of red and blue. A small round drone made of gold metal elaborately ornamented with beautiful traceries of silver and blue followed him in. 

Kheema’s eyes traveled down his smooth, clean-shaven body. He wore his long brown hair tied in a ponytail with a gold ring. His pupils were two tiny black dots in a field of orange. As her eyes moved downward, she realized that the loincloth was cut in front in a deep V, exposing an erect cock. It, too, was entirely hairless.

He smiled beatifically. A musical voice sang out from the tiny drone. “Greetings, Potential! I am Novice Hassen. I have been assigned to help you with your recitation. It is an honor to meet you.” The man bowed.

Kheema squirmed in her restraints. She was acutely, embarrassingly aware of how exposed she was, splayed wide open in front of this man, dripping with need, nothing hidden from view. She was also aware of his arousal. Her gaze lingered on his erection. Her body flushed. Her head filled with carnal thoughts of bodies entwining.

He knelt on the padded bench between her legs, hands clasped behind his back. “It is time to begin the recitation,” the drone sang.

Kheema tried to summon the memory of the words Janaié had coaxed from her body with her fingers. Her skin tingled with desire. “I—I—” She closed her eyes. “In the beginning was the Darkness.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Hassen said. He leaned forward. The tip of his tongue flicked against Kheema’s swollen clit.

That’s it. That’s why Hassen exists in the context of the novel: he gives the protagonist oral sex while she recites the litany of the City’s history. He speaks through a drone, not through his own vocal cords. There’s a reason for that…and it’s probably not the reason you expected.

Hassen, when he isn’t performing his duties teasing the main character while she struggles to remember the Litany, is a historian and a linguist. His area of specialization is psycholinguistics, and his sub-specialty is historical psycholinguistics. When he’s not going down on a bound Potential, he spends a lot of time searching the few historical records that remain in the City’s archives, trying to understand the language spoken by the colonists who first fled Earth-That-Was, and tease out how that language may have shaped their views of the world around them.

He chooses to speak through a drone because as an adult, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to hear and reproduce the sounds that exist in a language you didn’t grow up with. (Think how Japanese speakers struggle with the English l sound, or how English speakers encounter difficulty with the Hopi gḥ or Sanskrit Ṛg, which English speakers tend to pronounce something like “rig”.) Hassen has found a way to circumvent this problem: he can learn the language, and then use the drone to ‘speak’ sounds that don’t exist in his native language.

Of course, being able to speak when his mouth is occupied makes his role as the giver of ritual oral that much easier, which is the role we see him in, but it’s not all there is to him. It’s not even the most important thing about him. For him and the temple, it’s merely an incidental fringe benefit, no matter how appreciative of his tongue Kheema is.

Hassen, by virtue of the fact he speaks through a drone, can also make sounds the human vocal apparatus can’t do at all. He is, in the entire Passionate Pantheon series, the only human ever to take part in ‘drone choirs,’ the songs drones sing to mark sunrise, sunset, and the passage of important moments. (Even if only crudely and with little true understanding of the deep complexity of their melodies. It would take him many lifetimes to truly learn, even with many hundreds of years per lifetime.)

Drone choirs themselves also don’t appear in any of the novels (so far). A character in the fourth novel, Lanissae, mentions them in passing, but that’s it.

So a minor character who appears in only a few sentences in the novel has a rich life off-screen, one that involves the rather remarkable accomplishment of being the only human ever to participate in something that also occurs off-screen.

He has a life beyond his appearance in this one room, in this scene. In this world, he briefly brushes up against a future Sacrifice, and it’s a pleasant and fulfilling moment for him but it’s not life changing. If asked to name the things that are important to him, he wouldn’t even think to pick his duties with the Potentials as a major part of his life. In another book, he could have been the protagonist, and Kheema the passing blur.


That happens with many of the ancillary side characters. We’ve talked before about Ortin, a minor character with a scar who appears in a couple of scenes in Divine Burdens. We know why he has a scar (a very strange and unusual thing indeed in a world with nearly unlimited biomedical nanotech), and a few months back we set out to write a 3,500-word short story about why he has that scar.

Those 3,500 words bloomed into a 40,000 word novella, then we started finding interesting threads of other lives that wound through and around his, which we really wanted to explore as well. So we started writing about that, too. Soon we realized that this story needs to be an important part of the sixth novel, which is set in the same City as the second novel, about twenty years before the events of Divine Burdens.

We do plan at some point to write a short story about Hassen. His research touches on some really interesting bits of the City’s history. Life in the City is a little like life in the Church in 19th century Britain, in the sense that being a clergyman was just a job, it wasn’t the whole of what you do the way we think of it today—many clergymen were also scientists, mathematicians, writers. Hassen is a novice of the Temple, and has duties he performs as part of that role, sure…but he’s also a researcher and historian, and those are just as important to him as his liturgical roles.

 With a pinch of luck, the short story we tell about him won’t blow up into a novella too! (We make no guarantees, apparently we cannot be trusted not to accidentally a novel.) Of course, once we realized that the 3,500-word short story about Ortin’s scar had blown up into the seed for a book, we set it aside, because writing the sixth novel in the series before the fifth is just plain silly. (Though we will have a head start on book six, given we’ve now written close to 50,000 words of it!)

Sonder applies to fictional characters just as well as real people. The minor characters live in our heads and take up space in our thoughts, just as much as the protagonists do. Ask us a question about one of them and odds are, we’ve probably got an answer for you.

We know their histories, their motivations, their intentions, their joys and pains. For us, one of the things we seek to do when we write is convey a sense that the world is fractal: you can zoom into any part of it, any tiny detail (Ortin’s scar, Hassen’s drone) and find there a whole story waiting to be told. (And sometimes those stories hammer on the inside of our eyelids as we sleep, demanding to be told. Who are we to refuse?)

Now that we’ve set aside the sixth book, we’re really looking forward to the fifth. We’re itching to get started on it because, as the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett put it, our usual reward for finishing a book is that we get to start a new one. We’re putting a moratorium on that, and discussions about the book plot, characters, worldbuilding, etc, because we want to start that totally from scratch on a livestream where people can join us and ask their own questions, give their own thoughts, maybe add to the discussion.

We’ve picked a date we want to do this livestream—April 23, 2022, at 11AM Pacific/2PM Eastern/7PM GMT. Maybe if it gets enough interest, we might even consider doing it a few more times! 

Whether you’re a fan of the Passionate Pantheon series and want to get a behind-the-scenes peek, or you’re just interested in learning how to co-author a book remotely or start writing a novel, we hope we’ll see you there…and feel free to bring questions! Sign up on our mailing list for notifications before it happens! 

Erotic Science Fiction vs Science Fiction Erotica

Image: stanciuc

The first four Passionate Pantheon books are wrapped up! Books one and two, The Brazen Altar and Divine Burdens, are in stores now. The third, The Hallowed Covenant, publishes in a few months; the fourth, Unyielding Devotion, is out next year.

This feels like a good moment to chat about the direction the series seems to be taking.

When we started writing the Passionate Pantheon novels, we thought of them as science fiction erotica. In fact, that’s how we described the books: far-future post-scarcity science fiction theocratic erotica.

Or, if you like being provocative like us, scifi porn. (Although ‘porn’ is generally associated with the visual stuff and ‘erotica’ is usually assumed to be written, we tend to use the terms interchangeably in private. There is an undeniably classist, elitist element to that split—written erotica as somehow superior, classier in some way, whilst ‘porn’ is considered crass and crude and ‘lower class’. Well, that’s a load of rubbish and we refuse to subscribe to that newsletter, thanks. Anyway, back to topic and off this soapbox!) 

With the third book, something happened. The novel started shifting from science fiction erotica to erotic science fiction—and that became even more apparent in the fourth.

So what happened? And what’s the difference between the two?

Let’s tackle that second question first. 

The difference comes down to: when your wordcount is getting perilously close to “we’re not writing War and Peace here, we need to cut it down”, what do you cut? If your answer is “some of the worldbuilding and philosophical exploration”…hurrah, you’re writing erotica that is set in a scifi world. If your answer is “some of the sex scenes”…congratulations, you’ve just set course for sexy scifi. Basically, it comes down to ‘what is your priority?’—is it the sex or the worldbuilding?

We discovered that our answer to that question has been gradually changing over the last year. Considering that we originally set out to write porn together…that was a deeply weird mental switch to happen, simultaneously and without prior intentions, to both of us at once.

The first two novels are basically coming of age stories, they’re just coming of age stories set in a world of radical longevity where sex permeates nearly every aspect of social, civic, and religious life. Sex is woven into the fabric of the City in a way that touches nearly every facet of every person’s existence. The first two books lay out a foundation, and starting with the third, we begin to build much more complex stories atop that foundation.

But something weird happened with The Hallowed Covenant: as we wrote, we found ourselves cutting sex scenes in order to make room for more exploration of the society and technology and philosophy of the City. What are the gods? What do they look like? What does it mean to be an avatar of a god? How do civic celebrations work? In a post-scarcity society with no police and no law, what happens when people do wrong? How is the process of atonement handled? 

In Unyielding Devotion, we expanded on those ideas: How is the process of handling transgression and wrongdoing handled in a dark City? How does the City find a place for people who don’t fit in? What do the people of the City do when they aren’t having ritualized kinky group sex? (Unyielding Devotion is the first book with major protagonists who aren’t highly placed in the religious hierarchy of their chosen religion, who don’t become Sacrifice to their chosen gods.)

For book five, which doesn’t even have a title yet, we’re planning a deep dive into some things we haven’t touched on at all yet.

How do families work? How do you raise children in the City? If you have radical longevity and can live as long as you want, even if that’s centuries, how do you choose to die, and how is death handled? What role do the City’s AIs and drones play in raising and educating children? What do families with children even look like, and how does that affect the physical layout of homes with children? How are young adults who’ve barely taken their first adult name (for clarity we should note that this typically refers to 30 to 50 year olds) different from, say, 250-year-olds? When everyone generally has the body of a 20-year-old unless they decided they didn’t want to for aesthetic reasons, how does that affect the difference in the way you would interact with a young adult versus an experienced elder? How would you even tell?

The short answer to many of these questions (except the ones about children, naturally) is ritualized kinky sex. Sex touches nearly everything in the Passionate Pantheon. Even the civic structures around transgression and civil justice are handled through ritualized kinky sex.

But we couldn’t help doing a much deeper dive into some of the more technological and civic aspects of life in the City, and writing stories with far more complex narrative structures. There was just so much to explore! As we did so, we started recognizing that shift from science fiction erotica to erotic science fiction. (Fear not, these are still very porny books…there’s a lot of sex in them, much more than you’ll find in most written erotica, simply as a consequence of how the world works.)

Faced with the choice between exploring the world in a scene that doesn’t involve sex and keeping a sex scene, we’re leaning more and more often toward cutting the sex scene. That just became unmistakable over time.

In fact, we recently tried to write a 3,500-word short story about a minor character from Divine Burdens that blew up into a 40,000-word novella…and that was after we cut 3,039 words of sex we felt didn’t contribute to the story. Which means we cut a number of words almost equal to the total number of words we’d originally planned for the story.

In The Hallowed Covenant, you’ll find plenty of sex, especially in the first third of the book. But you’ll also learn more about what the gods are, find out a lot more about how the civic structures of the City work, learn more about the City’s important festivals…the setting for the Passionate Pantheon has always been extraordinarily complex, with a lot of nooks and crannies we simply didn’t have room to squeeze into the first two novels.

The benefit of moving to erotic scifi, of course, is that you can explore these topics that typically wouldn’t have a place in erotica. How often does porn talk about the philosophy of religion (and no, we’re not including ‘sexy nun or kinky priest’ porn in here!) or about the complexities of family dynamics in a communally based post-scarcity society? (If you know any good examples, please do throw us suggestions, by the way. We’re always up for more deeply philosophical porn!)

We have a ton of ideas we plan to introduce in the fifth novel…and we want to invite you along for the ride!

For Book 5, we’re planning something really unusual. (Fitting, because our writing process is also unusual.) We’ve had countless people ask how we work together, and countless more ask “how do you even write a novel, anyway?”, and one of the rules of good writing is “show, don’t tell,” so…

Beginning in April, we want to live-stream the start of Book Five. That means you can ask questions, see the conversations we have before and as we’re developing a book, and see how the story changes from concept to final printed book. If it goes well, we might even consider making this a repeated event.

Whether you’re a fan of the Passionate Pantheon series or just interested in the process of how co-authorship works, or you simply want to write a book but don’t know how to start, we hope you’ll find the live-stream interesting. We’re just starting to plan it, so watch this space for more details!

What’s in a Name…and How Do You Pronounce It?

Image: Etienne Girardet

Names have power, especially in the City. Names are intimate, names are personal, names are expressions of the self.

The people of the City have a much more intimate connection with their names than most people in the real world (usually) do. Adult names in the Passionate Pantheon novels are always self-chosen; when a person chooses to become an adult, the transition from childhood to adulthood is marked by a naming ceremony where that person takes their first adult name and announces it to the community. A person who has undergone some major life event or grown in a significant way might also sometimes mark the occasion, and the transition from old to new, with a public ceremony where they take a new name. As you have probably guessed, this means that people will often gather more names over time, each one a representation of important moments in their history.

We’ve talked before about how names in the Passionate Pantheon work, and where they come from, with a detour into the language of the Passionate Pantheon (tl;dr: we come up with names by either taking modern-day names from the real world and applying linguistic drift to them, so for example Donovan becomes Donvin or Ashley becomes Ashi, or we invent them using what we know about the way the language sounds, such as Janaié or Calaïas).

However, we haven’t talked much about how the names you’ll see in the novels are pronounced. With the first two novels now out, the third coming out soon, and plans in the works for an audiobook (very early days, all hush-hush, don’t tell anyone yet, it’s a secret!), we figured…maybe it might be time to do something about that. Time to produce a pronunciation guide, before the confusion sets in.

Pronunciation in the Passionate Pantheon

The language spoken in the City is quite unlike Romance or Germanic languages. The world of the Passionate Pantheon is a second-generation colony, settled by a slower-than-light generation ship launched from an earlier colony that was itself settled by a slower-than-light generation ship launched from Earth.

A lot was lost during those two journeys through the vast cold dark. The first-generation colonists, the ones who left Earth and whose descendents would later go on to find the planet of the Passionate Pantheon, left in a hurry (that’s a long story, and we’ve talked about writing it one day, though it would not be a Passionate Pantheon story). They spoke a wide range of pan-Asian languages, most of them mutually unintelligible. The language of that colony ship started out first as a pidgin and then acquired its own grammar and syntax, becoming a creole at the intersection of all those languages. It developed further, as languages do, on the first colony, then gained yet more complexity when a group of colonists left that world to make a new home for themselves. Along the way, they created the first AIs, the kernels that eventually would grow into the gods of the Passionate Pantheon.

What does that have to do with names?

Names in the Passionate Pantheon that aren’t derived from real-world names with blurring applied to them—names like Janaié and Calaïas—frequently contain long vowel chains, which you don’t normally see in Western European or North American names.

In Romance or Germanic languages, the presence of multiple vowels usually indicates modification to a sound: if you see a name like Keith, the -ei vowel chain simply reminds you that the e is long. The name “Keth” would be pronounced with a short e.

In Passionate Pantheon names, this isn’t the case. Each individual vowel is often pronounced independently, which is quite different from the way Western names work.

Let’s look at Calaïas, for example. Confronted with a name that looks like “Calaias,” a Western reader might scratch her head and end up saying “kal-ACE” or “kal-ICE,” or perhaps “KAL-iss” or “KAL-yiss.”

We tried to offer a bit of a hint with the diaeresis; as with, say, Brontë, it suggests there’s something special about that vowel; “Brontë” is pronounced with two syllables, BRON-tee, not a single syllable with a long O, BRōNT.

All the vowels in Calaïas are voiced: kal-ay-EYE-ass. The same applies to Janaié: it might look to Western eyes like jan-EYE or perhaps JAN-ee, but it’s a three-syllable name: jan-eye-AY. (Yes, we’ve considered going all JRR Tolkien and including an appendix with a pronunciation guide, but really, who publishes porn with pronunciation guides? Who would read porn with a pronunciation guide? [Ed note: Eunice puts up her hand.])

This holds true even for people who live outside the City, in the ‘Wastelands’ beyond the shield dome. A character who appears briefly in Divine Burdens, Taín, pronounces his name with two syllables, TAY-inn, not one, TANE.

To be fair, the names in the Passionate Pantheon novels are more approachable than some real-life (if rare) British names, like Cholmondeley or Featherstonehaugh (pronounced CHUM-lee and FAN-shaw, respectively, though the latter can also be pronounced FEE-sən-hay, FEER-stən-haw, or FES-tən-haw, according to Wikipedia. Notice how none of those versions are possible to arrive at by spelling out the name letter by letter, and none of them are similar to each other. That’s English for you…). Welsh is even more brutal if you’re not familiar with the rules of written Welsh: Dafydd is pronounced something like Dav-i-th, or /ˈdævɪð/ in IPA. So it certainly could’ve been much worse.

Once you pick up the rules for pronouncing names in the City, they’re fairly consistent and easy to say. They’re unfamiliar-looking to English readers, but there is an underlying logic. More logic than in many current English names, let’s be honest. The same logic applies to consonants, too: Tsimbar, a protagonist in Unyielding Devotion, pronounces his name TSIM-bar, not SIM-bar. The consonants are all voiced.

Western Names in the City

So that’s the way names that don’t have roots in real-world words work. But what about other names, like Donvin or Ashi? How did we end up with names derived from contemporary Western European and North American names? That goes back to the history of those first generation ships. The one which became the ancestor of the ship that landed on the planet that we now find ourselves exploring was the very last ship to leave the Earth-That-Was—the last, remaining, final, desperate attempt to get as much of the population out as possible. 

Thing is, the majority of people on that ship (crew included) didn’t even speak English. 

So what happened? How did these names stick around when English, and all the other Germanic and Romance languages, burned themselves out in the vast pool of the pan-Asian languages spoken around them? 

Names stick around when languages die. There were some Anglos in the crew. Not many, but enough. People cling to the names of their ancestors, their grandparents and great-grandparents, in memory of the people they admired—even as they lose the language they spoke. 

Most immigrant families with children have personal experience of that. Eunice may, haltingly, speak a little Cantonese still, but the next generation is unlikely to speak any. It takes active work and effort to maintain that knowledge—it takes energy that most immigrants would rather use to build a new home for themselves and learn the vagaries of a different culture. By the time that first generation ship landed on that first planet, English was gone. But the remnants of those names stuck around, and sometimes other people heard those names and replicated it, or at least evolved it. And over time, some spread through the population. When the majority of people have multiple names, you end up with plenty of opportunity to try on an unusual name. And make no mistake, those Western names were exotic and unusual—that’s why they didn’t drift quite as much as the more common Asian names, and so remained just about recognisable, if you squint. There’s plenty of Asian names that drifted too, they’re just harder to spot because a living language drifts much further than a dead one.

(Of course, this is the Watsonian, in-universe interpretation. The Doylist view is that we used those names because we, as native English speaking authors, were more familiar with the linguistic drift that would be likely to happen to names in English, so that’s what we used. But that’s boring, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you much rather have the more complex, thought-through explanation?)

So if some of the names look a little familiar, you’re not imagining it. There are names in the Passionate Pantheon that carry a little bit of the history of a desperate population’s journey to a new homeworld, even if time and distance have worn down the edges a little.

The other names, the ones that will seem awkward and a bit hard to approach to many of our native English speaking readers: There’s a reason, we promise. We’re not just making the names difficult to make them difficult. The novels are porn, yes, but they’re porn we have put enormous thought, time, and attention into.

The first two books plant some seeds that grow in the later books. As the series goes on, you can expect to see a lot of this detail and complexity start to emerge. We’ve both really enjoyed the work we’ve put into these books, and we hope you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we’ve enjoyed writing them. Even if the names are sometimes hard to pronounce.

Trust us, it’s worth the effort.

Telling the Story that Wants to be Told

Image: Nong V on Unsplash

A few hours ago, we finished a new novella in the Passionate Pantheon universe. When we set out to write, we had an idea of the story we wanted to tell, which we expected to be somewhere between 3,500 words and 3,700 words long.

The first draft of the novella weighs in at 40,133 words.

It’s safe to say we overshot the mark a bit…and 40,133 words is after we deleted 3,039 words of sex that we felt didn’t add to the plot or the world. In other words, the deleted sex scenes alone are nearly as long as the entire story we’d planned to tell. (If you’re very good, we might share those snippets with you!)

So what happened?

When we wrote Divine Burdens, we introduced a character named Ortin, who we describe in a single sentence as having a scar. People in the City can sculpt their bodies however they want (subject only to the constraints of physics and biology), and any injury that doesn’t instantaneously kill you outright can be fixed without fuss by spending the evening in a medical pod, so scars are very rare, bordering on non-existent. Divine Burdens doesn’t explain why Ortin has a scar, but we, the authors, know how he got it and why he keeps it.  As we’ve talked about before, we know our characters very well, and we’ve had hours-long conversations that become a sentence or two in one of the books.

So we set out to tell the story of how Ortin got his scar. As it turns out, sometimes the story you want to tell isn’t the story that wants to be told. We discovered whilst writing a short story about Ortin’s scar that the interesting part of the story, the most significant to him as a character, isn’t how he got it, or even why he kept it, but rather what that says about him, the impact those events had on him, and his relationship with the people around him. (Spoiler: It’s a lot. He only appears for a few paragraphs in Divine Burdens, but he’s a complex character and his relationships are even more complex.)

As writers, we have quite different ways of approaching the blank page. Eunice is what George RR Martin calls an “architect” and some other writers call a “planner”—she sits down and constructs the world of the story, building each part of it before the first word is written. Franklin is what GRRM calls a “gardener” and other folks call a “pantser”—he creates some characters, sets them loose in the world, and sees what happens. It’s the difference between planned writing vs discovery writing, a “let’s decide what happens” approach vs a “let’s see what happens” approach to the empty word processing file.

You might think this clash of styles would make writing together hard. We have nearly diametrically opposed ways to think about the mechanics of storytelling! Yet, paradoxically, that might be precisely what lets us write together so well.

Eunice builds the world and setting of the Passionate Pantheon with meticulous care. She’s drawn sketches of the City, spent countless hours working out the mechanics of the rituals in the various temples, even devised the hierarchies of the priests and priestesses and how their social interactions work.

Franklin drops characters into this crafted environment and lets them loose, then watches to see what they’ll do. It’s a process of discovery: What happens when this character appears in this world? Given these goals, desires, and motivations, what will the character do?

The stories we write together are constructed both top-down and bottom-up. We both put a huge amount of care into the world—we know how the language spoken in the City evolved (even though we don’t know it ourselves—neither of us are conlangers!), how the first colonists arrived on the planet (technically, they’re second generation colonists, but that’s a story for another day), how the generators that feed the voracious energy needs of the City work (those on-demand molecular assemblers require prodigious amounts of energy!), even how the Blessings do their magic in the brains of the folks who use them. None of these details are part of the novels, because the stories we want to tell are, ultimately, about people, not technology. But we know. We need to know, for consistency.

That rich, detailed world lets us set characters free. The fact that we know so much about the world means we aren’t trying to create both the world and the characters at the same time. That gives us the freedom to explore what Terry Pratchett calls “L-Space,” that abstract space where every potential story exists. And every so often, we discover that the story we think we want to tell…isn’t actually the story that needs to be told. The characters tell us who they are, and we find the parts of their story that make up a book.

We don’t write the way most co-authors write. Every set of co-authors has their own style of working together, of course, but frequently what you’ll see is something like what Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett did in Good Omens: they’ll lay out the plot, and then each go off and write a chapter, then come together to merge the bits into a whole. Of course, in order to do this, you need to figure out your plot first. This is, we suspect, part of why pantsers are typically less likely to co-author—it must be very frustrating to co-author if your writing partner comes back a week later saying “I know you’re already writing the next chapter, but it turns out this chapter I’ve just written actually totally changes the way the plot works because the characters disagreed with what we’d decided to do.” Or, alternatively, “I know you do discovery writing, but you need to write what we agreed, no matter what the characters are trying to tell you, because we already decided the plot.”

For us, this really isn’t an issue. We will often write in the same file at the same time (right now, as we work on this essay, Franklin’s cursor is seven lines away from Eunice’s cursor in the Google doc where we’re composing this!), but generally speaking, the world, the gods, and the social structures are Eunice, the characters are Franklin. The plots are some hybrid mashup of us both. We start with a high-level, bird’s-eye overview of the story as we want to tell it, decide who our characters are, and then place them in the world. And occasionally, they make choices that surprise us.

We live on opposite sides of the globe, but the miracle of videoconferencing and Google Docs means that matters not at all; functionally, when we write, we might as well be in the same room together. (It helps that Eunice is a real nightowl, given that London is an inconvenient eight hours ahead of Portland.)

A key ingredient to the way we work together is trust. Not just trust that we have similar ideas about what the world looks like and how it works, though that’s part of it. (We do have remarkably similar ways of viewing the stories, to the point where we consistently bring up a point that the other person was just about to mention.) The major factor, however, is trust that if one of us comes up with an idea and the other says “no, I don’t think that really works,” that’s okay. Our first instinct is always to say “Ok, let’s change that,” and ask questions after, not “you need to persuade me before I agree to change anything.” That small difference, that level of trust, makes a huge difference to the feeling of safety we built together and the confidence you need to be able to co-write.

We also trust our characters. They will do things that surprise us. They will let us know what story they want to tell. The stories don’t always end up the way we planned them…which is precisely why it’s so important that we both understand the world and the society so well. The world is a living thing, and the characters have as much freedom of action in that world as real people have in the real world.

We’ve had a character in The Hallowed Covenant break up with a long-term partner. That wasn’t part of the plan, and it took us both by surprise, but then when we looked back and saw the trajectory those characters were on, we both realized that, actually, it was inevitable. But we didn’t plan for it to happen; the characters told us it happened.

That’s part of the magic of creating in this world. The characters feel vivid and real, independent of each of us. They all have stories to tell. We have a list (in Google Docs, of course) of minor characters from the novels whose lives we want to return to, whose stories we want to learn more about. The backstory of Arjeniza, a very minor character in the upcoming novel Unyielding Devotion, is complex, poignant, and a bit heartbreaking. She damaged herself in the pursuit of service to her chosen god many years before the events in Unyielding Devotion, and that informs her interaction with the protagonist in a subtle way that isn’t at all obvious in the novel.

It’s a good story, and one we want to tell. Or perhaps, one she wants us to tell.

Conversely, there’s another character in the same book, Jakalva, who has such an impact on the book that Eunice compared her to a stone tossed into a still pond: the book is about the ripples. The entire novel is, in a sense, her story, even though she barely appears in it. The novel explores how she affects the lives of the protagonists, even the ones she scarcely crosses paths with. She is old, enigmatic, powerful, and has a very, very interesting history. We would love to write her story…but she won’t let us. We tentatively tried exploring her, but she is so private that she practically skywrote Do Not Touch across our attempts, and we have to accept that. She just doesn’t want anyone to know her.

The novels changed as we wrote them—structurally, narratively, thematically. The first two novels, The Brazen Altar and Divine Burdens, are structurally simple: we’re presenting an entirely new world, after all, and there’s only so much we can show of that world without overloading the reader. They work to establish a foundation, and set the “tick tock” pattern of Utopian-themed and dark-themed stories.

The third book, due out later this year, builds on that foundation; it’s both structurally and narratively more complex, with much more intricate relationships and characters. The fourth novel, Unyielding Devotion, is even more complex still…and the most important character in the novel, the one who shapes the decisions of all the protagonists, is barely present in it. It’s also the first Passionate Pantheon novel with a nonlinear timeline.

We knew the first two books would likely be the most straightforward, but we didn’t explicitly set out to write a nonlinear story with Unyielding Devotion or to write a novel in The Hallowed Covenant about seven friends whose lives intersect in ways that sends all of them off on a different trajectory. We created a high-level overview of the landscape, and then let the river flow through it, establishing its own twists and turns as it did.

Funny thing about rivers: the landscape may shape the way the water flows, but the water also reshapes the landscape.

We have had to make peace with the idea that there will always be more stories we want to tell in the Passionate Pantheon universe than we will ever be able to tell. We set out some months back to start writing short stories in the universe, just to set free some of the ideas that are in our heads, which is what we’d planned to do for Ortin’s story. The reason he has a scar is interesting, we think…but it turns out that the effect the experiences that gave him the scar had on him and the people around him, not the way he got the scar, is the story that wanted to be told. What else could we do but buckle in for the ride?

And since we don’t intend to stop writing together any time soon, hopefully you’re up for following us on this ride. Trust us, sometimes we’re as surprised by what comes out as you are. But then, that’s the fun of co-authoring—you never really know what will come out at the other end. But then, what’s life without a few surprises?

What Is Degradation?

Image by Bianca Berg, Unsplash

In a flash, Marel lunged at Lija. Her stick blurred through the air to strike Lija hard in her ribs. She let out a cry of pain, even as she whirled to grab it. She tucked the end of the stick under her arm and charged at Marel, driving her backward. Marel stumbled and went down heavily on her back.

Someone grabbed Lija from behind. She kicked. Her foot hit something gratifyingly soft. She heard an equally gratifying cry. Then two more people had her, a man and the pale-skinned woman. Marel wrenched the stick from Lija’s grasp. The man to Lija’s left hit her in a flying tackle, hard. Lija went down, buried beneath three bodies. 

Lija exploded into a fury of fists and feet. The short, pale woman atop her—Janli, judging by the sound of her cry—flew backward. Lija squirmed free of the two anonymous men. She had almost regained her feet when someone tackled her again. She fell face-first to the ground. Marel stood over her and used the forked stick to press Lija’s face into the dirt. “Stay down!”

Lija flailed helplessly, the dirt cool and damp against her face. She heard a chuckle behind her. Someone—she couldn’t see who—pulled up her skirt. Marel held her face to the ground with her stick while one of the men lifted her hips and shoved himself into her. Lija cried out in impotent fury. She grabbed for Marel’s legs. Marel stayed safely out of reach.

The man took her from behind in fast, rough strokes. Lija came a moment before he did, in a shuddering orgasm so intense it left her lightheaded and breathless. He roared as he spent himself in her.

Marel held her down until the last twitches of his orgasm faded. He slumped sideways. She kept Lija there, pinning her face against the ground, while another man took his place. Lija let out a cry of shock when his hard shaft thrust into her. She grabbed for Marel again.

“Help me hold her,” Marel said.

Faraie and Janli each grabbed one of Lija’s wrists. They pulled her arms out to her side and held her against the dirt. Lija felt her breasts press into the soft, damp earth. She howled with rage. Faraie laughed triumphantly.

—from Book Two, Divine Burdens

The second book in the Passionate Pantheon series, Divine Burdens, is now out in the wild, flittering free through the world. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking for an author to pass a book into other hands; it’s hard not to look at it and say “oh, but maybe I could have done it better!” Books are perhaps a bit like children that way. They hold a little piece of you and carry it to further shores, for good or ill.

Divine Burdens is the first even-numbered book in the series, a ‘tock’ in the tick-tock cycle of upbeat, happy Utopias and dark erotic horror. It’s not an easy read, and it’s not intended to be. We set out to explore ways the happy post-scarcity Utopia of The Brazen Altar might be twisted into something much darker.

One reader, Christine Gilbert, seems to think we hit the mark:

“So, I finished Divine Burdens. And I think I identified why it took me so long to finish it. It’s a deeply uncomfortable book. I think it’s more uncomfortable for readers who really enjoy their own rape and non-consent fantasies, yet place a high emphasis on consent in actual practice. Essentially I had to keep putting the book down in order to think about my own self and reactions and reconcile them in my own head. This is one of the few books I’ve ever read that forced me to do that sort of self-examination that I did NOT find ultimately annoying or preachy or otherwise frustrating. So overall, the two of you have produced something really remarkable here.”

High praise indeed for porn.

There’s a lot of sex in Divine Burdens, and we do mean a lot. And much of that sex is, yes, deeply uncomfortable (sometimes uncomfortably hot as well, we hope). The first part of the novel follows a character named Lija, a top athlete—one of the best the City has to offer—who spends nine months competing with the City’s other best athletes for the honor of being Sacrifice to the god called the Hunt. During her time as Sacrifice, she will spend three days being pursued without sleep through a vast forest by Hunters seeking to overpower her by force so they can use her body for their own pleasure.

Deeply uncomfortable stuff. 

During the Hunt, Lija endures painful, violating experiences at the hands of the Hunters, some of whom have modified their bodies to make her experience that much more intense. Since only one who has previously been a Hunter can compete for the position of Sacrifice, she knows exactly what she is signing up for—she has engaged in the same activities from the other side.

And she competes for this position, with other people equally ferociously determined to be that Sacrifice who will be stalked through the forest. 

In conversations about sex, particularly about non-traditional forms of sex such as BDSM and even sex work (although let’s be honest, there’s no form of sex that hasn’t existed since long before our modern definition of ‘traditional’), people will frequently use the word ‘degrading.’ Bondage is degrading. Commercial sex is degrading. Kink is degrading. Oral sex is degrading (yes, there are people who say this). Anal sex is degrading. And on and on.

But here’s the thing:

There is, we would argue, no such thing as a sex act that is inherently degrading. Degradation is always, always contextual. Anyone who’s been part of the kink scene knows that one person’s “degrading” is another person’s really fun Friday evening. In some cases, the “degradation” is the fun.

Degradation is contextual.

This nuance is missing from a lot of contemporary real-world conversations about sex. Those who oppose certain kinds of sex (and often favor laws that would prevent anyone from engaging in those kinds of sex—think kink, sex work, porn, anal, and so on) will often say the kind of sex they don’t like is “degrading,” as if that settles it. 

But what does ‘degrading’ even mean? Frequently, people call something “degrading” when they actually mean disgusting—that is, it creates a repellent emotion—without seeming to be aware that “disgusting” is merely a subjective personal opinion. (Franklin finds eggplant, what Brits call aubergine, disgusting. Eunice has the same opinion about cucumber. That’s not a reason for anyone else not to eat it. The world would rapidly run out of food options if everything that anyone had ever found disgusting was taken off the table. Starvation does not seem like the better option.)

The dictionary defines “degrading” as “causing a loss of self-respect; humiliating.” Leaving aside the fact that many people in the BDSM scene find it hot to be humiliated, under the right circumstances and with the right partners (see, even that is contextual!), this seems to be the core of what a lot of folks mean when they call something degrading.

But what causes loss of self-respect for one person doesn’t necessarily for another, and what causes loss of self-respect in one context doesn’t necessarily in another. Consider the difference in the way many people think of “Michelin star restaurant chef” versus “burger-flipper”—and yet, some junior chefs in some very expensive restaurants are constantly, deliberately, humiliated by their head chefs, whilst some people working in fast food enjoy the environment. Again, context, including environment, is important.

Think about the most ‘normal,’ ordinary, plain-vanilla sex you can imagine: heterosexual missionary PIV intercourse, for example. Is that degrading? When it’s consensual, no. If it’s not consensual, yes. The context, not the activity, is what matters.

Are the things that happen to Lija in the forest degrading? She is pursued, frightened and exhausted and incoherent, for days. Her pursuers force themselves on her, and if she is not able to fight them off, satisfy their lusts in graphic and uncomfortable ways.

Yet she fought, hard, for this—against a number of opponents who fought equally hard to be there. And the ones who lose this competition are emotionally crushed. (We’ll be exploring that more in book six; stay tuned!)

Why? What’s in it for her? Why would anyone want any of this?

Ideas about sex are complex, and informed both by our own tastes and by the attitudes of the society around us. Society tells us, often with considerable pressure, what forms of sex are acceptable and what forms aren’t (typically this can vary by your status, and in some cases it can be actively self-contradictory). Sometimes—often, in fact—it’s possible to internalize those ideas so strongly that we literally cannot imagine it’s possible to feel any other way.

The society of the City is not like society in the real world. Sacrifices to the Hunt are venerated. They’re recognized as the best of the best—the strongest, the most skilled, the most capable athletes the City has to offer. Only those who have already proven themself the most proficient are considered able to take up the most extreme form of worship. 

And the thing is, veneration of non-sexual activities that might in a different context be ‘degrading’ isn’t unusual, even in the real world. People are often venerated for enduring physically violating, uncomfortable, even dangerous things…and sometimes are willing to risk death for it. (We talked in an essay on post-scarcity horror about how the citizens of Lija’s City would be utterly appalled by the grotesquery of the boxing industry. And we think a strong argument can be made that the sport of boxing—or many others, for that matter—can be more abhorrent than what happens to Lija, if you see sex and violence as equally primal, visceral activities.)

The society we live in is deeply uncomfortable with sex, which means using sex to illustrate these ideas is deeply uncomfortable. That’s part of the point; that’s why we write the even-numbered books the way we do.

We aren’t saying that Lija endures degradation to win the admiration and kudos of the City, though. That’s not it at all. The point we’re making is much deeper: For Lija, what happens to her in the forest is not degrading. She would not in any way characterize her experiences as degradation. Just the opposite: for her, they are an act of ecstatic religious worship.

Throughout history, deeply religious people have endured all kinds of things that might be considered degrading by outsiders in their quest for religious expression: self-flagellation, scarification, starvation, self-crucifixion (warning: link contains graphic images). Even the annual ritual in which the Pope washes other people’s feet on Holy Thursday—in a different context, this might be degrading; in this context, it’s considered a showing of piety and humility.

None of this is seen as degradation by those who do it—just the opposite, in fact. If you take the reflexive reaction many of us have been taught to feel about sex out of the equation, some of these activities are, we would argue, actually much more intense than what Lija experiences. Certainly the isolation alone would make it so. Lija, at least, has the support and admiration (and oftentimes envy) of the entirety of her society and community to encourage her in her worship.

And, let’s be honest: there are people in the BDSM scene right now who would, if their safety were 100% assured, volunteer to be in Lija’s place in a heartbeat, even with no religious element to the Hunt at all. Absolute safety changes what people are willing to consent to.

Hell, there are people in the real world who would sign up even without a guarantee of absolute safety. But that does illustrate an important point: Lija knows, absolutely knows the way you know that you exist at all, that she will not be permanently harmed by being Sacrifice to the Hunt. Anything, short of instantaneous death by destruction of the brain, is totally fixable—and without even a scar or extended healing time. She knows that, as uncomfortable as the experience is, she will be okay. That matters. Context is everything.

Degradation is contextual. Recognizing that is important, we feel, to nuanced, ethical conversations about sex.

An unconventional panel on tentacles!

Last week, Nobilis Reed, the tentacle erotica author and host of the Nobilis Erotica podcast, invited us to do a convention-style panel on the many wonders of tentacle sex. (In the Before Times, back when the world wasn’t ravaged by a global plague, people would go to these things called “conventions.” Those days are now a dim and distant memory, but why not have a panel…without a convention?)

In this sadly brief but unexpectedly far-ranging conversation, we talked tentacular AI gods, the care and feeding of pet tentacle monsters, and the morphological differences of different species of tentacle monsters. We even threw in a reference to the Iain Banks Culture novels.

Have a listen below!

On the subject of tentacles, we’ve also been playing about with the WOMBO Dream AI image generation software, which spits out some pretty peculiar (and sometimes suggestively, if horrifically, fleshy) images if you feed it with tentacle-related prompts.

Let us be the first to welcome our tentacle-generating AI artist overlords…

The City at night

Image: Rene Böhmer

The City at night is a particularly beautiful place—and also, to our Western urban eyes, probably quite alien. Compared to Western cities in the real world, the City inverts the use of space and light. In the real world, we illuminate spaces at night. If you stood at the edge of the atmosphere and looked down at a real world city at night, you would see a glimmering net of lights stretched across every corner. From orbit around the planet of the Passionate Pantheon, this is not what you’d see. The City illuminates not streets or walkways, but people. Every glimmer and twinkle represents a person, an individual going about life. Clusters of light move and shift as people gather and then disperse.

This isn’t just a different way to think about illumination, it’s a different way to think about space—about the distinction between public and private, about how people are expected to use space, about how space is controlled, even about what is and is not acceptable access to space, and for whom. In our real world, access is often dependent on your status — the more power and privilege you have, the more spaces you can access, and the more you live your life in the light. Light is, and always has been, symbolic of existence, of acknowledgement.

They reached a pathway, paved with smooth brown stone that was entirely clear of snow. As the darkness grew, a tiny flying dronelight zipped down from overhead, its light switching on as it approached. It glided just above their heads, lighting their way.

They walked for a time, following the meandering path through a series of small parks. At one point, they passed three people sitting on top of a large marble cube in the corner of a tiny triangular cluster of trees. A woman sat nude on one of her lover’s laps, impaled on his erection. The other figure kissed the back of her neck while he caressed her breast with one hand.

She waved languidly to them as they walked passed. “Hi! Would you like to join us?”

Terlyn looked at Donvin. He shrugged.

“No thanks,” Terlyn said. “Maybe next time.”

“Okay…oh!” the woman said. She moaned, her face buried in her lover’s neck. Ice crystals glittered in her hair.

They continued on, the enormous ziggurat of the temple of the Sun God behind them, the great towers of the housing district at the outer edge of the City before them. Eventually, they reached a float tube that ascended to the stacked tracks of the high-speed transport system overhead. The dronelight zipped away.

Hand in hand, they stepped into the illuminated float tube. After a brief moment of vertigo, they ascended in weightlessness to the first track, three stories above the ground. Another track ran parallel to it three stories above, and another above that, all following the curve of the City’s outer edge.

The transparent tunnel of the transit system was warm and dry. Through its curved walls, they could see the City spread out like a vast jewel, glimmering in the gathering darkness. The rows of great black towers glowed with warm yellow light through tens of thousands of windows. Tiny dronelights bobbed and weaved, illuminating the way for the people who walked the meandering paths below.

—From Book One, The Brazen Altar

The Cities at night are, like an empty stage, invitingly dark places. There are no street lights, no architectural lighting system. Aside from the lights from the windows of living towers and other buildings, and the shimmering, glowing tracks of the transportation network, darkness is allowed to take the City. Lighting is provided by tiny dronelights that fly above people, lighting the way as they wander about at night, and departing with dawn or when the people enter a lighted space. Light is not connected to the space; it’s connected to the people. Where people are not, there’s no need for light.

In fact, there’s a beauty to unlit spaces. Unlit spaces are a blank canvas, a place upon which to explore new forms of artistic expression.

There’s something almost fanatical about the City’s approach to beauty, as you might expect from modern-day fey. The people of the City don’t really have what we would call a survival drive, because they never have to fight for their survival. Survival in the City is almost effortless; there is no fear of death, no struggle to stay alive. The people of the City, even in the darker novels, live lives far more comfortable than ours, as we’ve talked about before.

In place of a drive for survival, citizens of the City are driven toward beauty. Beauty is expansive; it fills every available niche. The dronelights that flit about the City are not identical manufactured commodities. Every one of the tens of thousands of dronelights is unique. Every one is beautiful, and all of them have their own designs: mythological creatures with iridescent scales, tiny floating airships, birds with delicate metal feathers, golden insects with stained-glass wings, sinuous flying serpents, tiny clockwork machines with spinning gears—every dronelight is different.

And yet, you almost never see those details; they leave the skies during the day, and at night you can only see their light as you look upwards into their steady glow. Each one is beautiful because everything in the City is beautiful. Beauty is its own purpose—it need not serve an additional function. 

In the real world, darkness is an inconvenience, a hindrance, an obstacle to be dispelled by street lights. Often it is even a danger, with the light an unceasing, fearful talisman against the treacherous things that go bump where we cannot see. We blind ourselves with light as a defense against that unknown and menacing gloom.

In the City, darkness is a canvas for creating beauty. You’ll see glowing flowers, for example, that stand out against the backdrop of night, specifically engineered for their beauty:

They spent hours wandering aimlessly along the grassy spaces between the ring of towers and the Temple District. Lanissae smiled often and chatted easily. She paused at the edge of a path of white hexagonal tiles near a small bubbling fountain to pluck a light pink, six-petaled flower with a yellow and black pattern in its center. “Legend says this particular species accompanied us all the way from humanity’s ancestral home in the time of Darkness. Isn’t that amazing? We think of our ancient ancestors as savages, but even they valued beauty enough to bring these along when they reached for the stars.” She knelt in the soft earth at the edge of the path and stroked a small plant with dark green leaves. “This will send up flowers as the sun sets that glow with their own light. The flowers drop off at sunrise, and new ones appear again at sunset.”

“Did that also come from our ancestral home?”

Lanissae shook her head. “No. The gods created this one. It didn’t evolve naturally. You won’t find these anywhere outside a City.” She rose and tucked the flower into her dress. “In the City you’ll find a mix of natives, plants we brought with us when we settled this place, and plants designed by the gods, or by people working with the gods. Out in the Wastelands, you see mostly natives, though there are a handful of plants we brought here that have adapted and spread.”

—From Book Four, tentatively titled Unyielding Devotions

Citizens of the City aren’t afraid of the dark. Darkness isn’t a place that hides terror, as it is for people of the real world; it’s a backdrop, a place for expressions of the creative urge. A fear that is not reinforced, or is consistently undermined, throughout childhood will over time lose its power. To be taught that light and dark are fundamentally just different textures of the same space is to be given the freedom and permission to explore both equally. Family groups model that lack of fear, and the drive towards beauty, for their children over decades and generations.

The use of light can be a tacit indicator of what is and is not permitted. In the real world, the difference between illuminated and unlit spaces can communicate where you are and are not permitted to go. Illuminating a space gives permission for people to use that space at night; unlit spaces are spaces where you’re expected not to be. And certain types of illumination—window displays, display cases, and so on—indicate a ‘look but no touch’ rule. They lay out space you are permitted and expected to admire from afar, but not permitted to actually enter or interact with.

The City turns that idea upside down. By opting out of the decision of which spaces to light (and, therefore which spaces to leave unlit and inaccessible), the City also makes no decision about what you can and can’t see, what you can and can’t access—the choice of where the light goes is up to you. By illuminating the people and not the space, the City is implicitly suggesting that people are permitted to be anywhere they choose to go. The City follows, not leads, that choice. All space in the City, with the exception of places that people have claimed as their living quarters (and even that is complex; in the City, nobody ‘owns’ their living space, and people can and do choose to move with some regularity!) is community space. Every park and garden, all the Temple grounds, all the woodlands between living towers and Temple District, all are available all the time to anyone who lives in the City. Wherever you choose to go, the dronelight will accompany you to light your way.

The way a society treats space tells you something about the permissible use of that space. In the Passionate Pantheon novels, we explore a new way to think about light because we explore a new way to think about space. The City chooses not to illuminate itself the way cities in the real world do, and that reveals something about how the City thinks about public and private space.

Yes, part of it is also the City’s ferocious drive toward beauty, and its exploration of the ways darkness can be used as a backdrop to create—or admire, in the case of the stars and the moons—things of beauty. Contrast can enhance and embellish, it can highlight beauty that would otherwise be missed. But a lot of it is the fact that the City doesn’t differentiate between the public and the private in the way it thinks about open spaces, and that’s reflected in the way the City thinks about light.

Even at night, the City is a place of beauty and wonder. Maybe especially at night.

Monogamy as an Artifact of Scarcity

Image: Franklin Veaux

If you’ve read any of the Passionate Pantheon books, you’ve probably noticed that monogamy is not really a significant part of the City’s social structure. In fact, the concept of monogamy as a norm doesn’t really exist in the City; the idea that partnerships should be sexually exclusive (at least the way we think of exclusivity) is something that would leave the characters in the Passionate Pantheon scratching their heads. Imagine if someone told you, out of the blue, that you should only ever eat food in front of one person, and never in the presence of anyone else, and this was self-evidently the only morally correct stance—that’s about what sexual exclusivity as a social norm would seem like to the residents of the City.

So why is monogamy not part of the expected social fabric of the City?

The obvious, Doylist answer is “we’re the authors and we are not monogamous so we wrote the stories to fit our own relationship models.” But there’s more to it than that. Every part of the society in the Passionate Pantheon books is carefully considered—nothing is arbitrary. And we think a compelling case can be made for the idea that monogamy as a social institution is inherently linked to scarcity, and unlikely to be part of a deliberately designed post-scarcity society.

Before we get into that, we aren’t saying there’s no such thing as a monogamous person in the City, of course. In the fourth novel, tentatively titled Unyielding Devotion, we meet a character named Jakalva who is canonically sexually and romantically exclusive to one person.

“What do you want?”

“What do you mean?” Kaytin blinked owlishly at Jakalva. “Do you mean what do I want from you?”

“No, I mean in general. What motivates you? What do you want your life to look like?”

They sat on a stone bench in a small sheltered nook where a slow-moving stream made a sharp bend. A utility drone floated just over Jakalva’s head. Behind them, a tree spread broad branches to the sky. Thin lines of violet light pulsed along its bark. A lanky woman with skin the color of brass sprawled on a small raft that drifted along the stream, watching a holographic video projected from a terminal. Days after her party, Jakalva had asked Kaytin to meet her, but now their conversation left Kaytin confused.

“I want to understand people. I want to know why everyone seems to know the rules but I don’t. I want to stop saying and doing the wrong thing.”

“No.” Jakalva shook her head. Her hair, trussed up in a series of narrow braids that fell to her waist, shimmered in the light. “Those are means to an end, not the end itself. Dig deeper. Why do you want those things?”

“I don’t know. I guess…” Kaytin scrunched up her face. “I guess I want to stop saying and doing the wrong things because I want people to like me.”

“That’s more like it,” Jakalva said. “What you want is connection. You feel like you don’t have it because you don’t understand the dance people do to get it. But it’s not the dance that’s the thing, it’s the connection the dance brings.”

“Why does that matter?”

“There are things we all want, and things we’re all afraid of. The dance exists because we want to move toward the things we want but away from the things we’re afraid of. If you want connection, that makes you vulnerable to rejection. So the dance, then, is a way to offer connection without demanding it from others, or exposing yourself to the risk of rejection.”

“I don’t understand.”

“When you realize that other people are not so different from you and that they also have things they want and things they’re afraid of, you’ll come closer to understanding.”

“Oh.” Kaytin stared out across the sparkling water. “What do you want?” she said. “Connection?”

“No,” Jakalva said. “I only need one person in my life. That’s enough for me. When I have that, I stop needing it from others.”

“Do you have a person?”


“You never talk about it.”

“No. We share a home. We’ve been together for…oh, I don’t even know. Longer than most of the people who come to my parties have been alive, I expect. We exchanged private names more than a hundred and eighty years ago.” She smiled to herself. “It doesn’t seem like that long. Time flies.”

In her case, Jakalva’s sexual exclusivity includes choosing not to engage in religious worship via the medium of orgasm-oriented activities. This is unusual in the City, although fortunately there is no social stigma attached to unusual choices. Jakalva receives no negative consequence from her preference. Most people who considered themselves monogamous would categorise ritualized, religious group sex differently from social sex for pleasure or personal connection, and therefore it doesn’t really count. This is what makes it possible for even self-identified monogamous people to be fully connected into the religious life of the City and the temples without any impact on their personal relationships. The society of the City rests on a foundation of worship of AI gods through ritualized group sex, yet in spite of that, there are monogamous and even asexual characters, and some of them have risen to high levels within the City’s social hierarchy. In Divine Burdens, we meet two characters, Tatian and High Priest Jevin, who are canonically ace (although those terms are never used).

A lot of folks fuss about whether monogamy is “natural” for people or whether we “naturally” gravitate toward plurality in our sex lives, as if this tells us anything about how we should behave. This is the wrong question. In reality, a tendency toward exclusive or inclusive sexual relationships in different people is just part of ordinary human variability. Some people naturally seek connection with only one person; some seek connection with many people; some, under certain circumstances and contexts, can probably be happy and fulfilled with either.

You see some of that variability in the City. From a social perspective, the City has no expectation of monogamy. You can, like Jakalva, be monogamous if you choose, but there’s no pressure to limit your sexual connections to just one partner, and in fact the social expectation is that you probably won’t. Monogamous people in the City are unusual.

Why? To answer that, let’s look at where monogamy comes from.

For a long time, anthropologists adopted a ‘child-rearing’ model of monogamy in humans, arguing that because human infants are born so weak and require years before they are able to care for themselves, investment by both parents in helping to care for our young led to the adoption of monogamy.

This hypothesis ignores evidence that many nomadic, non-agrarian societies don’t appear to be monogamous, and that entire social groups can cooperatively raise children just as effectively as two parents. (In fact, the idealised nuclear family model is surprisingly new, only decades old, and hasn’t been the social norm for most of humanity’s existence. Historically, we see communal raising of children across multiple cultures, usually in the context of large, multigenerational, extended families living together.)

A more modern hypothesis, based on mathematical modeling of different reproductive strategies, suggests that monogamous mating behavior is more likely based on mate-guarding and female scarcity. This hypothesis suggests monogamy is intrinsically linked to scarcity.

The anthropological record seems to suggest that monogamy really took off with the Agrarian Revolution, when individuals began accumulating wealth for the first time. One of the key factors driving the adoption of monogamy was the idea of primogeniture— men who accumulated wealth desiring to pass it along to their male children. It’s significantly easier to determine who birthed a child, since a woman is generally present for the entire time, whilst men can’t know (in the era before paternity tests, at least) that the child was their blood unless they controlled access to the woman. So men began engaging in mate-guarding behaviors, largely to prevent having their estate pass to an heir not related to them by blood. Women became, in effect, a means by which men produced male heirs. (This is why throughout history, social penalties for women who stray have tended to be much more severe than for men who stray—something that still exists in the “men with lots of sexual partners are studs, women with lots of sexual partners are sluts” double standard so common today.)

But what happens when you have a society where there’s no privation, no concept of financial value (sentimental value is significantly more important), and anything anyone desires can be called forth from a Provider at will? (The closest thing to the concept of ‘personal property’ in the City is gifted representations of expended labor; in many ways, the culture of the City is a gifting culture—perhaps we’ll write about that soon!)

And what happens when child-rearing is seen as a group commitment, a responsibility chosen and shared by intentional family and AI drones?

Mate-guarding becomes a lot less likely when you have no wealth to pass down to your children, and technology has rendered bloodlines irrelevant to family ties. (Of course, mate-guarding behavior can also emerge from jealousy and possessiveness, but the prevalence and expression of those feelings through mate-guarding is a cultural phenomenon, largely  determined by the socially sanctioned ways you are expected to demonstrate emotional commitment within your culture. Perhaps we’ll write about that, too!) Inheritance doesn’t matter if you have nothing to pass down, and no particularly compelling reason to pass it down to people related to you by blood.

In such a society, would monogamy be a cultural value? We think the likely answer is ‘no.’ The factors that gave rise to monogamy as a social norm simply don’t exist in the City.

And for most residents of the City, sex is not strongly connected to having children. The people of the City have voluntary control over their fertility; accidental pregnancy is literally impossible. Residents have very long lives—hundreds of years, typically—and choose to have children only rarely, and only within conscious, intentional family groups that invariably include at least three adults (typically around 6 or 7 adults, sometimes as big as a dozen adults caring for one child). So the normal mating strategies anthropologists talk about when they discuss reproductive game theory in social species just don’t apply.

Our technology changed our reproductive strategies during the Agrarian Revolution. It seems plausible that new technologies, especially in the bioengineering field, combined with the resultant development of a post-scarcity society, would do the same again.