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.”
“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.