Some Musings on Consent, Part 1

Imagine for a moment that from the day you were born, you had a benevolent spirit watching over you. A friendly spirit that you could see and hear and talk to, keeping an eye on you wherever you went. This benevolent spirit has the ability to heal you within hours of any injury that didn’t kill you outright, no matter how severe. Your benevolent spirit would intervene—physically if necessary—if anyone tried to do you harm against your will or coerce you in any way. Your benevolent spirit always had your back, keeping you out of harm’s way. And imagine your spirit would never judge you or hold you back, but instead would support you in your dreams and desires.

Would that change your limits and boundaries? How would it affect the choices you made? How would it affect your decisions—especially your sexual and romantic decisions? If you always felt safe no matter what circumstance you found yourself in, how would you live your life?

There was a twitter post recently, where someone asked women “if you were in a world without any men for one night, what would you do?” One answer that kept coming up was “go for a night time walk alone.” We say ‘recently’, but it’s an evergreen topic. We live in a world where this is a perennial consideration for many people. 

The world of the Passionate Pantheon is a world where benevolent AIs watch over the people, always ready to intervene should some non-consensual harm befall anyone.

You can, if you choose, engage in any manner of dangerous pastimes or extreme sports; they won’t interfere in your choices. They will, however, act to prevent situations that might harm you without your express consent. (Mind you, the definition of ‘dangerous’ or ‘extreme’ changes rather a lot when you have medpods available!) 

We wanted to explore the idea of what consent might look like in a world of near-absolute safety. Absolute safety has never existed in history before. It was a rather interesting challenge, as people who have grown up in societies that are not truly safe, trying to wrap our heads around the ways it might impact society at the deepest levels.

In many ways, consent is a social idea. It’s affected by the norms and customs of the society you live in, and also by your perception of risk. You may consent to something if you feel safe that in a different circumstance you would not. (If that idea sounds strange to you, ask someone the question “can one pre-consent to allowing a lover to have sex with them whilst they’re asleep?” You’re likely to get loads of different answers…and you can make strong arguments to defend all of them even when they’re totally opposed. Consent isn’t always black and white.)

But what does ‘safe’ even mean in such a world? And what happens if we ride that train to the last station? When nearly any choice you make can be safe, if that’s what you want? If you can say “yes” to any offer that interests you in absolute knowledge that no harm will come of it, what might your life, and the society you live in, look like?

How would that change if, on top of all that, you knew you could live for hundreds of years if you wanted to, so you had plenty of time to explore?

But wait, there’s more! What if there were no STIs? And what if you, and everyone else, had conscious control of fertility all the time—the only way a pregnancy could happen is if the people involved both agreed to it? What might consent look like then? How would it change the sexual choices you make?

And, after we had pieced together what we thought it might look like, we asked an even more complex question: How can all this go horribly, horribly wrong? Without changing the letter of the law, how might that spirit of absolute consent and freedom be twisted until it’s near unrecognisable—without breaking?  

The books in the Passionate Pantheon series do a back and forth thing. Odd-numbered books are wondrous Utopias; even-numbered books are dark erotic horror. We wanted to see how the idea of near-absolute safety could change norms around consent for good…and for evil.

One of the things we wanted to explore in the darker even-numbered books is the differences between enthusiastic consent, technical consent, and transactional consent.

Enthusiastic consent probably doesn’t need a lot of explanation. It’s the kind of consent you give freely and openly, with full information about what you’re agreeing to, because it’s something you want to do.

Technical consent is where you do, technically speaking, agree to something, but perhaps you don’t really know what you’re signing up for, and maybe you’re not really sure what’s going to happen afterward. The AIs and drones are smart—but they can’t read your mind. If you say yes to something, they tend to take it at face value, assuming no obvious coercion (and actively lying to someone about a likely outcome counts as coercion, but lying by omission…well, that can get murky).

Or perhaps you’re doing it because you’re expected to. Social expectations still exist, after all. In a world where everything is safe, you probably don’t expect anything particularly bad to happen, so you might be a little more willing to accept technical consent.

Transactional consent is something we explore through the concept of “bondslavery.” The Cities that serve as settings for the even-numbered books permit bondslavery—voluntary terms of slavery, always for a pre-defined period of time (typically only for a matter of days, never for a period beyond one day less than a year), entered into because the people agreeing to a term as bondslave expect something in exchange, or have lost a bet. 

In a post-scarcity society with no concept of money or valuable goods, if you fancy gambling, pretty much the only thing you have to wager is your body, time, or labour (although obviously, access to a loser’s body really gets you all three.) And in an erotic horror genre, of course we decided to pick that first one! Not to be predictable but… 

There are norms and expectations that build up around that subculture, of course (and even in the even-numbered books, bondslavery is a minority subculture, not necessarily an inherent part of everyday society.) Bondslavery is voluntary, and qualifies as consensual by a sufficiently loose definition of “consent,” but bondslaves are treated as property for the term of their bond. Permanent damage to a bondslave is not permitted…but just about anything else is! (And in a world of near-unlimited biomedical nanotechnology, that “anything else” includes quite a lot. You want to radically reshape your bondslave’s body or mind? Totally permitted, as long as you put it back the way it was at the end of the bond.)

Would individual people be willing to consent to things in an environment of absolute safety that they might not consent to in the real world? We think the answer is yes, probably. Yes, but. And it’s that ‘but’ that’s interesting, right? 

Yes, but how would this impact society, even as society impacts you?

Would society as a whole take a looser view of consent in an environment of absolute safety? That’s a big question, and it’s the reason the even-numbered books are as dark as they are. There are so many ways that could play out. If you volunteer to put yourself in someone’s hands, and they have nearly unlimited power to change you physically and mentally however they like and put you back the way you were afterward, that can go in some dark directions indeed. (We omitted some of the darkest ideas we came up with from the second novel because they weren’t relevant to the plot, but if you buy us a drink sometime, maybe we’ll talk!)

Good science fiction, we think, is not just fiction about teleporters and drones and spaceships, it’s fiction that asks “what if?” What if a society has near-unlimited biomedical technology? What if that society professes to value consent, but only in the strictest technical sense of the word? What if respect for autonomy extends so far that people can choose to give up their autonomy, and even personhood, completely? How can those things interact with each other?

What do you think? What would you do, if you could be absolutely sure that no permanent harm would come to you because of it? And what dark scenarios could you see coming out of that environment? We’d love to hear from you!

Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On

There’s a lot of sex in the Passionate Pantheon novels, and we mean a lot. The residents of the City see pleasure as good and sex as entertainment, worship, and connection, so there is quite a lot of shagging going on:

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.

—from Book 1, The Brazen Altar

With sex such a common part of society, integrated into almost every aspect of social life, one might be forgiven for thinking that everyone is shagging everyone else all the time.

But that isn’t necessarily true.

With these books, we wanted to explore the sexual and social mores of a culture that’s vastly different from our own. How would radical longevity and lack of scarcity change social mores? What would a society deliberately built on the bonding effects of sexual interactions look like? How might an absolute rock-solid safety that comes from knowing from earliest childhood that benevolent, superintelligent entities are always looking out for you change what you’re willing to do? We could write for days about that (and we will!), but one of the many things we wanted to explore is the difference between religious sex and personal sex, and what that means to people who are monogamously, monoromantically or monosexually inclined.

Characters in the City see a distinction between sex for worship, which is a big part of most of the religions, and sex in their private lives. This is possible in part because advanced biomedical technology means people have a great deal of control over their state of arousal; for example, a drug called the Blessing of Fire, consumed as part of many religious ceremonies (and sometimes just for fun!), creates a powerful, almost overwhelming sexual arousal. 

But even with the ability to control when you feel aroused and how aroused you feel at will, not everyone necessarily wants to shag all the time. Or have sex with just anyone. And not everyone, even in erotic fiction, is necessarily into casual sex at the drop of a hat, either. Plus, even in a far-future post-scarcity society where sex is freely available, some folks just might not want to have sex, or might not want to have sex with more than one person, right? I mean, different people have different tastes, after all. Even in a fictional world of kinky sex. Or maybe especially in a fictional world of kinky sex?

We wanted to explore a world where the sexual norms were different from those in our world, where sex and sexuality served many roles in society…but where those norms weren’t coercive. The gods are worshipped through sex…but you don’t have to worship that way if you don’t want to. Sex is easily available…but you don’t have to participate if you don’t want to. (Fun fact: two characters in the second novel, Divine Burdens, are canonically asexual…and one of them has risen to the very top of one of the major religions. See if you can figure out who they are, once the book is out—answers on a postcard!) Sex serves many roles…but it’s not the only way to connect or worship, and you don’t have to engage in it if you don’t want to.

The characters in the Passionate Pantheon novels often draw distinctions between religious sex and personal sex. A character in the third novel, for example, serves a god called the Blesser, and as part of her service, she has a wide variety of lovers…but in her private life, she prefers a much narrower range of lovers. For her, the people she has sex with during an act of worship aren’t sexual partners; they’re a conduit for her expression of service to her chosen god. Just as she is for them.

This distinction is common, but it isn’t mandatory. People can choose religious roles where they might have sex with partners they wouldn’t otherwise have sex with (and the various Blessings that give them control over their own libido can help), but they don’t have to.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying: even in a world steeped in sex, not everyone is having sex all the time, and there’s plenty of room for people who only want sex with one other person (we have a character like this in the fourth novel!), or only solo, or who don’t want to have sex at all.

In the quote unquote ‘real world,’ we’re accustomed to living in a society with coercive ideas about sex. “Don’t have sex outside of marriage.” “Have sex for procreation; making babies is your duty.” “Don’t shag people of the same sex.” “Group sex is bad.” Society has strong rules about when sex is forbidden and when sex is compulsory. Plus these rules keep changing over time, and vary between cultures. It’s practically impossible to perfectly keep to all the rules, all the time. That’s what they’re there for, of course. Shame is a mighty powerful tool of control.

When we envisioned the Passionate Pantheon, we didn’t want to create yet another fictional society that was just as coercive about sex but in the opposite way (“you have to have sex all the time,” “you must worship the gods through sex”) Instead, we wanted to create a society that integrates sex into nearly every aspect of public and religious life but doesn’t tell people they have to do it to be a part of a community.

That’s a lot more interesting, we think. What if sex is open, freely available, and a normal part of civic structure, but it isn’t compulsory at all? What if it leaves people absolutely free to have, or not have, sex in whatever combinations they might choose, without expectation?

Most people like sex, so we think most people in such a society would probably have rather a lot of it—vigorously and in a wide range of ways, and probably with rather a lot of people. But not everyone would, and that’s okay.

Because a society that makes it safe for adults to have sex in whatever ways they want, also needs to make it safe for people not to have sex if they don’t.

But how to encourage and enable free sexual expression, without enforcing it? What would that even look like?

In the Passionate Pantheon novels, people are encouraged to worship the gods, but it’s not required. Children (meaning those who haven’t yet taken their adult name, a process that usually happens somewhere between the ages of 30 and 50 years old) don’t participate in worship and aren’t inculcated into any particular religion. Young adults, as they move into adulthood, are encouraged to experiment. They’re expected to explore different religions from the ones their parents belong to, at least as their first; it’s quite normal for people to move from one religion to another throughout their lives. While most religions have rituals of sex as worship, the rituals look very different, and are ideal for different personality types: introverts might, for example, be drawn to the quiet worship of the god called the Quickener, while extroverts might find the public worship of the Fiery One in the courtyard at the center of town more fitting. 

And, of course, someone might choose to engage in a form of sexual worship that isn’t their personal preference as a dedication and offering to the deity they support. Substances  such as the Blessing of Fire allow complete voluntary control over libido, so people can participate even if they aren’t aroused (or at least, not aroused yet!).

But even in these erotic novels where sex is the main thrust (pun absolutely intended) of the story, there’s room for people who don’t want their sex to be a matter of public participation…or just plain aren’t interested in sex at all. 

The Blessing of Fire and similar libido enhancers can be part of religious worship, for those who wish to use them. (For volunteers who choose to be Sacrifice to their chosen god, use of these Blessings is part of the process; being Sacrifice is optional and voluntary, and sometimes even highly sought after.)

If you have no interest in sex and you’re fine that way, the society around you is not going to pressure you into it, for religious or personal reasons. Your choices are your own and not to be externally forced. A core part of the culture of the Passionate Pantheon novels is you can always say no if you like. Yes means nothing if no isn’t an option, after all. This is a society where your yes means something.

We wanted to show a range of different approaches to sex amongst the characters of the Passionate Pantheon. While we never use words like “asexual” or “monogamous” (and they wouldn’t actually have the same meaning to people from the culture of the books anyway), you’ll meet characters in the Passionate Pantheon books who are part of a religion but don’t have sex. You’ll meet characters who have sex for religious purposes with many partners, but in their private lives have only one close, intimate relationship. You’ll meet characters who span a wide range of chosen behaviors—some who see sex as recreation and don’t care about emotional intimacy, some who choose ony one emotionally intimate relationship, some who choose many.

We won’t explicitly tell you, “Hey, so-and-so is polysexual but monoamorous.” We trust our readers not to need everything spelled out for them.

So, we show characters going about their lives, and leave you to figure it out. Let’s call it a challenge to our readers—one we hope you enjoy as much as we enjoyed exploring those characters in a genre that’s ‘supposed’ to be all about the sex. But who wants to be predictable, right?

Sexual Orientation, Mutable Bodies

Let us ask you, dear reader, a question. This is a question that cuts right to the core of your identity, so think carefully before you answer.

Are you a vassalage monarchist, or a confederated monarchist? 

If that question doesn’t make sense to you, no surprise. That’s not the way our societies are set up to function these days.

Now imagine someone asking about your sexual orientation in a society where bodies are mutable, easily reshaped at will to whatever you might imagine. Do you want external genitalia? Internal genitalia? Both (oh my!)? Neither (eh, mood)? A prehensile tail (or two)? A prehensile penis (or two—or more! Let’s go full tentacle hentai on this!)? Eight-fingered hands with extra joints? Wings? In the world of the Passionate Pantheon, no problem! Hop in a medical pod for a day and whatever you want is yours.

Okay, so the wings won’t let you fly. Probably. They’ll be beautiful and impressive, but that’s about it. Human physiology isn’t set up for that (unless you want to make a lot of changes, some fundamental enough that you probably wouldn’t be human after that, even in a world where that designation is pretty loose). Even in our fictional world, we’re still bound by physics and molecular biology. But anything else? No problem. It might take you a bit to learn to work your new body, but if you want it, it’s yours, at the snap of your new five-jointed fingers.

What do sexual identity, gender identity, and sexual orientation look like in such a world? Would they still be fundamental parts of our identity, or would they seem as quaint as the difference between a vassalage monarchist and a confederated monarchist to a modern-day New Yorker?

In the Passionate Pantheon novels, we set out to create a playground of the mind where we might explore some of these ideas. (Spoiler: the anwer, we think, is “it depends; it’s complicated.”)

Let’s start by saying: there are people in the novels who feel strongly attached to their bodies, and don’t change. They’re rare enough that when one person in the first novel says he’s never changed, others are surprised—but they do exist.

Marisem shivered. “Have you ever wondered what that would be like? I mean, to wake up that way, over and over.” 

Sedhi smiled. “Many times. I have often imagined the experience of being a Fountain.”

“And?”

“The Fountain must be in a female body. I’ve never been curious enough to change. I’ve never changed at all.” 

“Really?” Marisem looked surprised. “You’ve never changed your body in your whole life? Not even once?”

Sedhi looked down at himself and shrugged. “I’m comfortable in this body.”

—from Book 1, Divine Burdens

Most people, of course, do change themselves, but those changes are often relatively minor, such as a different eye colour or skin colour, fatter, taller, more muscular. The equivalent of a haircut for us.

So what does a society look like when people change their bodies so casually, and there’s not necessarily a clear distinction between “men” and “women” in a physical sense (and let’s be honest, there’s barely even a proper scientific distinction in our current society)? Does sexual orientation as we currently think about it even make sense?

We do think there’d be people who have a preference for certain body types in their lovers. Technology isn’t going to change that. But it might play out differently, and the social conventions around sex and orientation would likely be very different.

In the third novel, you’ll meet a servant of the god called the Blesser who welcomes worshippers with all body types during her religious service, but has a distinct preference for one body type in her personal sex life (and yes, we have an essay coming about the distinction between sex as worship and private sex). You’ll meet another character with a distinct preference who nevertheless chooses to remain with her long-term lover when he changes.

“When he changes.” He? She? They? Pronouns are…complicated. Some characters in the novels change their pronouns when they change their bodies; some don’t. This affects the way people think about sexual orientation. If you live in a society where you can easily change your own body at will—say, you want an outie instead of (or as well as!) an innie for tonight’s party—it makes less sense to think of identity in terms of “I am a man who prefers sex with other men” than in terms of “I prefer lovers with external genitals.” They don’t really have an equivalent  term to ‘sapphic’—instead, they have terms that refer to your preferences regardless  of your own current body shape. Not so much ‘orientation,’ more just plain ‘direction’—nothing is being oriented in relationship to your own body. That is, your sexual orientation isn’t about your own body, it’s about the bodies of the people you’re attracted to.

These things make language really complicated. The characters in the Passionate Pantheon don’t actually speak English, and the language they do speak probably has a wide range of different pronouns and terminology to express the kinds of variety enabled by near-unlimited biomedical technology.

However, neither of us are conlangers, and the books are in English, so we’re limited by the language we have access to ourselves. We’ve tried our best but there are…difficulties in trying to convey the full complexity of what’s going on. (In fact, we’ll put more details about how language has shifted and developed into another blog post, since we don’t actually have the time or space for a full PhD dissertation on this. Sorry, this is all you’re getting! Although if anyone fancies doing that dissertation, we’d love to read it…)

Long story short: identity isn’t tied to genitals or even to societal norms. Identity and preference are complex things, and different for different people; some people have a sense of self that’s more…mutable than others, and some people have preferences that are fixed to greater or lesser degrees. All part of the normal variation of the human condition.

So OK, look. We’re a varied and individualistic species, with all sorts of influences. Technology influences culture (and is influenced by it in turn). Culture influences identity (ditto). We currently live in a society where our physical selves are much more fixed than the characters in The Brazen Altar, so it makes sense that our self-identities are more fixed as well (for most people, most of the time). In this playground of possibilities, we wanted to explore what might happen if assumptions about our physical selves change. What happens if you’re generally attracted to one sort of body but bodies can be changed effortlessly at will? If neither sexual orientation nor gender expression can be entirely separated from culture, what might they look like in a society where culture was completely supportive of the full range of consensual adult sexual expression?

The distinction between private and public sex raises, we think, all kinds of interesting philosophical points. How might the sex you have for fun or for intimacy as part of your private expression with your lover (or lovers!) differ from the sex that you might have in your public life? Does engaging in group sex as part of a ritual of worship necessarily mean you’ll be interested in group sex in your private life? (Spoiler: We think the answer is no.) What does that partition between public worship and personal sex look like?

There’s another part to this, too. The brain is a physical organ. If our interests—not just in certain types of bodies but to activities like, for instance, sadism and masochism—are a physical part of us, wired into our brains and bodies by our genes or hormones or environmental conditioning, can we change those, too? Could someone hop into a medical pod and choose to become a masochist? (We think the answer is yes, but. This opens a whole can of worms about consent, agency, identity, and Ship-of-Theseusing.) Would that mean you wouldn’t be the same person any more? (Maybe, but as long as the change is what you desire, is that bad? Ooh, another blog post topic there, I think!)

And yes, we’re aware that this one single blog post doesn’t cover everything. It can’t cover everything, there’s not enough time or space to explain how sex, gender and identity expressions work in this culture. We really, really, really don’t have time for that PhD, or that full book (seriously, not kidding here. Take us out back and knock us over the head if we try to take on another project, please!). We’re not Tolkien, no one is going to buy our Silmarillion. 

Besides, that’s not the point. When we set out to write the Passionate Pantheon novels, our purpose was to tell stories. The stories in the books touch on these ideas, but the ideas are sort of the backdrop of the story, not the foreground. A reader (that’s you!) might enjoy (we certainly hope you do, anyway) the novels without even noticing these elements. This blog gives us the opportunity to talk about some of these ideas more explicitly, but these are big topics. This is just a starting point for a conversation—hopefully a long and interesting one—between us as authors and you as readers about how we think this would work in this fictional society and, we figure, by extension, how humans work. Because that’s something that we can all be fascinated by, even if you’re not that interested in the kinky kinky porn.

What’s in a name? Intimacy in a Post-Scarcity Society

In the Passionate Pantheon novels, most characters only use a single name. The Brazen Altar, the first novel in the series, follows a character named Terlyn, who worships the god called the Quickener. But what’s her surname? In fact, how do names in this universe even work?

That’s a complicated question with deep roots in the society and culture of the City. Nothing in the post-scarcity society of the Passionate Pantheon is ever mass-produced, so gifts have a special meaning (we’ll talk about that more in a later blog post). Families are complicated, and don’t look at all like families in our world (we’ll talk about that more in another post, too).

The Passionate Pantheon novels take place in a far future, post-scarcity society. Some of the names you’ll see are unique to the people of the City; others are modern-day names blurred by centuries of linguistic drift (for example, Donovan has become Donvin; Thomas has become Tomash).

Names in the Passionate Pantheon universe have a lot of moving parts. With the exception of the family name and childhood name, they’re all self-chosen. The journey into adulthood begins with giving up one’s childhood name and taking a first adult name, usually during a naming ceremony surrounded by friends and family. A new adult chooses a private name and a public name. The public name is the equivalent of a contemporary Western first name, the name others use for you.

As life circumstances change—which can happen a lot in a society where people live for centuries—people can take new public names. Old names are not abandoned, they’re just added to the list. A particularly adventurous person might end up with a long, long list of names, after many centuries of life. 

For example, Terlyn’s full name is given once in The Brazen Altar:

She fell upward toward those impossible points of light. For a time beyond time, she wandered among them, feeling the music of the spheres resonating within her. Far away, on an insignificant speck floating through the void, the woman who was Ikanni Terlyn Relan Verinas of the Everessa family caressed her breasts and slid her fingers between her legs.

Names in the Passionate Pantheon are built of a private name, then the current public name, then past public names, then a family name. (Family names, like families, are…complicated. We’ll get into that in another blog post, promise.)

This character in the Brazen Altar currently uses the public name Terlyn. Her private name, which she would never share with anyone except a long-term intimate partner in a deeply committed relationship, is Ikanni. She’s changed her public names several times; her past public names are Relan and Verinas. And finally, she was born into and raised by the Everessa family.

Why do characters have private names, and what does that have to do with post-scarcity society, mass production and gifting culture?

In a post-scarcity society where any material thing can be assembled from its atoms at will, gifts aren’t meaningful because the material they’re made from is rare (you can make diamonds or gold or platinum all day long from the atom up). The only kind of gift that matters is an investment of the one thing that isn’t unlimited: time.

(Yes, even people who can functionally live forever, if they choose, only have so much time in a day.)

In the Passionate Pantheon, gifts are investments of time and energy and attention. A person might create a gift of a painting, for example…painted  by the giver, using pigments mixed by hand by the giver, on paper or canvas they also created by hand, displayed in a handmade frame.

Many traditional marriage symbols, like rings, are deeply rooted in scarcity and economic wealth displays. An engagement ring with a giant diamond is both a wealth display and, historically, financial security for a wife or fiancée left behind with no other way of earning a living. Why would traditions that center around displays of wealth and financial insecurity continue to exist in a society that doesn’t have any concept of wealth or privation, and why would outward tokens of exclusivity be meaningful in a society that doesn’t base relationships on exclusivity? (Indeed, you might even argue that monogamy in many ways is a cultural artifact that rests on a foundation of both individual resource hoarding and sexual exclusivity, and is therefore unlikely to be a major part of a post-scarcity society…actually, that might be an interesting essay on its own! Watch this space, I guess.)

Instead, people in deeply invested relationships exchange something far more personal and intimate: their private names. A commitment ceremony in the City can take many forms, and might be public or private, but in most cases, the people committing to each other will exchange private names. These names are valued as symbols of the shared commitment. Material things have little value; intimacy is expressed through the sharing of the private self. 

But what happens if the relationship breaks up? Not all relationships last forever, especially in a world where you will probably live for hundreds of years. A person might be in a relationship for eighty or a hundred years with an intimate partner they’ve exchanged private names with, and then for whatever reason the relationship ends. In that case, a person might change their private name, though that’s very rare—people seldom change private names, and when they do, it’s usually for reasons that have nothing to do with their relationships, such as a life change so significant they don’t feel like their old private name really fits them any more. (A character in the third Passionate Pantheon novel, The Hallowed Covenant, changes her private name when she feels her life has changed so much she no longer connects with the person she used to be.)

Far more often, they’ll keep their private name. The history of the relationship isn’t wiped away, the past still exists; a former intimate is still someone who you cared about a great deal at one time. They may very well still be that, if in a different way. The end of that particular form of your relationship together doesn’t change that. You may end a relationship and still know your ex’s private name.

However, you would never, ever use a former partner’s private name, even when it’s just the two of you alone. Doing so would be a huge breach of social norms—as great as posting a former partner’s private nude photos online without their permission might be in our world. A private name isn’t a nickname—it’s a symbolic representation of the very core of who you are. It is never given out lightly. Previous permission is not permanent permission.

And revealing someone’s private name to others, especially for private gain? That’s an offense that will call down the wrath of the AI gods and the religious leaders, possibly to the point of having the offender’s memory of the name erased without consent (something that is practically never done). In a world where it’s likely that only a handful of people in your long lifetime will ever know your private name, a betrayal of that magnitude is not easily forgiven.

In post-scarcity societies, physical things—especially physical things made by impersonal, mechanical mass market processes and bought only to be a wealth display—lose their meaning as tokens of affection or symbols of intimacy. In such a society, what might replace the things we normally think of as relationship symbols? We think one possibility is private names but we’d love to hear your ideas too. In a world without mass marketing, how would you express intimacy?

Evolution of a Design Language

When we started producing The Brazen Altar, the first of our series of weird far-future post-scarcity scifi porn novels, we wanted a book that was lush and beautiful. The world of the Passionate Pantheon is lush and beautiful; the design of the book should be the same. 

In the world we’ve created, beauty is a core value, and everything—even things that are intended to be used only once—is aesthetically designed. In a post-scarcity society, nothing is mass-produced. Everything is unique and designed, not for profitability or ease of manufacture, but for aesthetic perfection.

Form and function. For us, they were inseparable. 

The covers, we think, are some of the prettiest porn covers you’ll ever see, so we wanted typography that reflected that glorious beauty, more akin to the radiant covers of classic scifi than the dark edginess of modern erotica.

The typography of the Passionate Pantheon novels is also carefully designed to reflect the themes of the stories we tell. We started, of course, with The Brazen Altar, the first book. Over a period of several weeks and many iterations, the cover type gradually evolved and emerged.

We wanted a sans-serif typeface that suggested science fiction without being too Star Trek, and departed from the swoops and curls you’ll often find on erotica. Sleek, not overly fussy, slightly reminiscent of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Not a simple task. After a lot of thought and searching and exploration, we found it.

The first cover concept used a typeface called Bank Gothic, a Bauhaus-inspired face whose simple geometric designs suggest a 1930s sort of retrofuturism.

The concept for the book came from a single striking image: a woman bound to an altar atop a great ziggurat on the summer solstice, forced to endure a continuous string of orgasms all day long, from sunup to sundown. The “why” behind this scene became the story of Kheema, and her eighteen-month-long study, meditation, and competition to become that woman.

So we modified the “A” in the word “Altar” to suggest a literal ziggurat:

That instantly made it more distinctive in one swoop.

The next problem became the word “The.” A lot of book titles start with the word “The” (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The Player of Games), and what to do with the word “The” is always a challenge.

We didn’t want to just stick it on the title like a lumpy outcrop; we wanted it to be integrated without being too overpowering. And so, the first book’s typography was born (and it was a tedious labour indeed – that placement is far more delicately balanced than you might believe).

The second book in the series, Divine Burdens, keeps this same stylistic language.

Again, we wanted a title that suggested the theme of the book, so we reworked the V in “Divine” mirroring the way we’d done the A in “Altar,” to suggest a physical vessel, carrying its burden.

The third book, The Hallowed Covenant, was even more challenging.

This is the final design we ended up with, after a great deal of tweaking and adjusting.

We used the same treatment for the A and the V in “Hallowed” and “Covenant” as we did in The Brazen Altar and Divine Burdens, but we also spent a lot of time and effort carefully tweaking the letterspace and line space to integrate the two letters into one seamless line. .

We made sure that the right-hand leg in the A precisely continued into the left-hand leg in the V. If you mentally extend the letters, they meet exactly.

The Passionate Pantheon series is written so that odd-numbered books are upbeat and Utopian, while even-numbered books are dark erotic horror. We were delighted that the title of the third book offered this very subtle opportunity to unify the first two books in its design language.

We also modified the first O to suggest a container with a lid, as the image most people (in the West) first think of when they hear the word “covenant” is, of course, the Ark of the Covenant.

And yes, all of that was exactly as fiddly as you would think. And no, we did not expect that most people would notice it.

That’s not why we did it. 

But if you happened to notice, and that made you pause for even a moment in admiration…well, all we can say is: yeah, us too. Us too.