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

Image: Jon Tyson

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.

from The Brazen Altar

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?

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