Trauma in the Passionate Pantheon

“That wasn’t nice, what you did to me during the Hunt,” Brin said. “I hallucinated for hours after I woke up.”

“You weren’t nice to me,” Lija said.

“Yeah, but I was a Hunter!” Brin protested. “Hunters aren’t supposed to be nice!”

Lija bit Brin’s bare shoulder. “Some prey fights back.”

Brin wriggled against her. “Don’t I know it.”

—from Divine Burdens
Image: Luis Galvez

The society of the Passionate Pantheon is built on a foundation radically different from anything in the real world, which is perhaps not too surprising when you consider it’s ruled (insofar as ‘ruled’ is an accurate term in a post-scarcity society where everyone has freely-available access to all the necessities of life and luxury) by hyper-intelligent AIs that are worshipped through ritualized sex. We wanted to explore what might happen in a society where the way we think about sex and connection are completely flipped upside down from the attitudes you typically see in the Western societies we’re both familiar with.

We’ve talked quite a bit about how the historical foundations and cultural expectations of the City might change the way people think about consent, particularly sexual consent. But there’s another huge difference between their society and ours: their views on trauma and responses to trauma.

Divine Burdens is erotic horror (with a strong emphasis on horror). We’ve talked about that before, but we need to put it up front: this book is not Utopian. It’s still post-scarcity, and it’s still built on a foundation of consent (albeit somewhat loosely interpreted; the difference between enthusiastic consent, technical consent, and transactional consent is one of the themes we set out to explore with this book.) However, characters experience things that would, in the real world, probably be traumatic. And, for the most part, they shrug them off. It’s a horror for us, not for them. And, perhaps somewhat strangely, even though this book is deliberately written as horror, the protagonists still have lives that are, by any objective standard, better, safer, and more comfortable than ours (perhaps that’s worthy of a blog post of its own?).

Why? How could that be? Is that realistic? We think it’s a reasonable premise, for at least two major reasons: trauma is often contextual—your society defines and describes what you might consider traumatic—and the citizens of the City have a cast-iron, bedrock assumption built on a lifetime of experience that the gods are—in a literal, tangible, physical sense—always watching out for them, and unlikely to allow them to come to real harm.

Which is not to say that it’s impossible to experience trauma in the City; far from it. In book four of the Passionate Pantheon series, tentatively titled Unyielding Devotions, we explore three characters who have the same experience that many people in the real world might find traumatic, and come away from it affected in radically different ways. One of the protagonists of Unyielding Devotions is traumatized by his experience, and that trauma becomes the driving force for his character arc. We don’t want to suggest you can’t experience trauma as a citizen of the City, only that the culture that surrounds you informs your perception of, and response to, trauma.

So what do we mean when we talk about trauma?

The dictionary defines trauma as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” Of course, one person’s deeply distressing and disturbing incident is another’s fun Saturday night, so there will always be wildly different individual responses to any experience.

But what would it mean if, from the day you were born, you had a literal, physical connection to the gods, in the form of a drone who was your friend, confidant, and guardian, who not only taught you to navigate life but also kept you safe from harm? Including standing up for you against your human carers, if that was necessary?What would it mean if, from a very young age, you had a much higher degree of autonomy than children do in the real world, where we effectively treat children as property?  What would it mean if you knew with absolute certainty that if you ever got yourself into trouble, or someone else ever tried to harm you, the gods would intervene promptly and decisively? What would it mean if you knew that you would never—could never—want for anything that threatened your survival? What would it mean if any injury that didn’t instantly kill you outright could be erased by a couple of hours, or in extreme circumstances, days, in a medpod?

This would, we think, change not only what you might be willing to consent to, but also your threshold for what counts as trauma.

In Divine Burdens, there’s a scene where a character is, totally against her will, bound in vines, injected with a massive dose of powerful hallucinogenic drugs, and then rendered unconscious for about a day. That would, to many people, probably be traumatic. But an important part of trauma is context—a person who breaks a leg by falling unexpectedly down a manhole cover on the way to the office will likely process this very differently than an extreme athlete who breaks a leg rock climbing or BASE jumping.

The character this happens to in Divine Burdens is an athlete (and not just any athlete, but one of the top five athletes in her society, their equivalent of an Olympic-level athlete). She participates in a sport where being dosed with hallucinogens, or breaking a bone for that matter, is something she knows might happen. In fact, being given mind-altering substances is an integral part of the very role she ferociously competes for.

Outside the cage, the room was packed with Hunters, most of whom Lija did not recognize. The Sacrifice attracted people from all over the City to participate. The ones she didn’t know didn’t worry her. They were amateurs; without training, they were unlikely to threaten her. Half of them wouldn’t even make it through the entire Hunt, but would end up twisting an ankle or falling and breaking a bone, and would have to be rescued by drones.

—from Divine Burdens

In the story, Brin’s experience with the vines and hallucinogens takes place during an act of religious worship. That, too, changes the way people perceive and process their experiences. Even in our world, people will deliberately subject themselves to incredibly intense experiences, up to and including mimicking the act of crucifixion or deliberately damaging their own flesh (without access to a medpod!), and the way they process that experience is completely different from the way they might process the same experience in a non-religious, non-self-chosen context. The Passionate Pantheon is a society where you choose your gods, consciously, as a fully-grown adult, and you choose which of your religion’s rituals you participate in. So how much more fervent and dedicated would someone like that be, in their spirituality? How much more willingly would they endure intense and extreme acts of sacrifice for the god they worship? 

Living in a society where you know the gods have your back, where you are free to participate or decline any experience (while we don’t directly address this until Unyielding Devotions, worship of any of the gods is never mandatory, and people can and do decline to participate in the religious rituals of the City), and where damage or injury can be wiped away by advanced biomedical nanotechnology, would (we think) contribute to making people highly resilient in the face of (certain types of) trauma. Not unbreakable, not immune to trauma certainly, but quick to bounce back, and secure in the knowledge they would be okay.

Trauma, we argue, is largely about context, expectation, and feelings of vulnerability versus control. In a society where all three of these things are different from our world, people might process things differently.

From the point of view of someone reading the novels who grew up in contemporary Western society, the citizens of the City might seem to possess superhuman constitution. And that’s perhaps what makes them seem a bit alien, like far-future fey folk. An argument might be made that a more comfortable standard of living could go the other way, making people more rather than less susceptible to trauma, because as people become more comfortable and society becomes safer, they have less opportunity for exposure to potentially traumatizing events.

But there’s a difference between experiences that are self-chosen, that you sign up for, and things that happen to you. There are experiences many of us in the real world experience every day and often brush off as insignificant or common that people of the City might find incredibly traumatizing. 

We accept a certain level of non-consensual access to us—in mind and body—that residents of the City would find absolutely horrifying. From servers at a restaurant being groped, to clerks being abused at the retail counter of a shopping mall, to the way that sex workers are treated as a matter of course, there’s a background level of…let’s call a spade a spade, violence…that is totally normalized in our society. In many ways we don’t even think about how awful this is, but those sorts of experiences would be horrific to someone from the Passionate Pantheon world.

Even surgery the way it’s practiced here, where you’re anesthetized and then sliced apart with a knife, would be horrifyingly traumatic to a resident of the City. Can you imagine, for a person who grew up with medpods, the trauma of being put to sleep and then waking up with the knowledge that someone else has physically cut into your flesh whilst you were unconscious, and you not only did not get to choose exactly what happened, but now you are expected to manage the pain and reduced mobility that you are left with? Often with the aid of medications that are, themselves, sometimes damaging, addictive, or whose side effects need to be mitigated with other medications? And on top of that, you are expected to be grateful to the people who did that to you!

So we’re certainly not saying that residents of the City have special immunity to trauma—their threshold of trauma might be higher in certain ways, but in other ways, because they don’t experience the kinds of small everyday violations we in this world are expected to put up with as part of the background noise of our lives, it might be lower. (The character Brin in Divine Burdens is, in an incredibly literal sense, a sexual predator—but an evening working at Hooters would probably utterly incapacitate her with trauma. In the City, her predatory activities are exclusively directed towards people who know the lay of the land and voluntarily sign up for it.)

And that’s only on an individual level. The residents of the City would also find horrifying and traumatic the idea that society as a whole treats certain classes of people—say, drug addicts, or sex workers, or racial or sexual minorities—as inherently lesser. Less valuable, less able to participate in civic institutions, less worthy of dignity and respect. People in the real world who are convicted of crimes, which is a situation that is viewed and managed in a fundamentally different way by the City, have their access to civic institutions revoked, something that the characters in the Passionate Pantheon would find shocking and appalling. (In Unyielding Devotions, we talk in more detail about how the City handles infractions of its rules, but one of the key points is that punishment for an infraction is immediate, short, appropriate to the crime, and truly wipes the slate clean—there is no lingering stigma, and no ongoing reduction in civic participation.)

In Divine Burdens, we wanted to tell a story that is, to our eyes, erotic horror, but explore how, in the context of that society, the characters normalize and accept the things that happen to them. One consequence of this is the characters in Divine Burdens would find our world, the real world, unacceptably, appallingly horrific.

And who’s to say that they’re wrong?

Thank you all so much! Now: Where does your crowdfunding money go?

The crowdfunding for Divine Burdens is now closed! Thank you all for your support (and for those of you who mentioned that you just missed out, we’re sorry—but fear not, we’ll be publishing the third Passionate Pantheon novel, The Hallowed Covenant, in 2022!).

With the Divine Burdens crowdfunding done and dusted, we thought you might be curious where your money goes. Here’s an inside peek into the process of book production (including a bit about what the money from the crowdfunder is going to be spent on!). We noticed that a lot of people were interested in writing their own books, but outside of the act of writing itself, it can all be a bit confusing. There’s a ton of work that happens between manuscript and paperback, and a lot of the process can seem pretty mysterious from the outside.

Let’s start with where we are now and work backward. The money from the crowdfunding will all go to the print run for Divine Burdens, which goes off to the printer in the next week or so (yes, every cent). Printing a book isn’t cheap, of course, but surprisingly, it’s not even the most expensive part of the process. (In fact, there’s a reason that eBooks are usually the same price as print books, even though eBooks don’t have printing or shipping costs—overall, printing and shipping costs are less of the total cost of book production than you imagine!)

Writing a book, as the saying goes, is easy. Ernest Hemingway put it best: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Or there’s the David Edding quote that Eunice particularly connects to: “When it’s going well, it’s like reaching up into heaven and pulling down fire. It’s better than any dope you can buy. When it’s not going well, it’s much like giving birth to a baby elephant.” We’ve experienced both ends of this spectrum, occasionally simultaneously. 

Once the metaphorical bleeding and labor stops and your beloved newly-birthed manuscript goes off to the publisher, the financial bleeding starts. The publisher prepares a cover brief that outlines the important elements of the cover and the “cover hierarchy,” which is a top-level view of the importance of the elements on the cover and how they’re perceived by a viewer (we’ll talk about that more in another blog post). The publisher then finds a cover artist, which can be pretty expensive. Good cover designs aren’t cheap—the generic stock photo covers you can buy online for $25 are, well, generic. Fine for many situations, especially in cases where someone is self-publishing and doesn’t have much technical skill or money to spare, but if you want your artwork to really catch the eye, that’s going to cost you. Good artists require good payment.

While the cover artist works, the book goes into substantive editing, which is the highest level editing—not of the words and punctuation, but of the story itself. Does it flow correctly? Are there continuity errors? Plot holes? Does it make sense?

The substantive editor works with the author(s) to revise the book, and it may come to pass that the book ends up pretty different at the end of the process than at the beginning. (Divine Burdens went through a total of nine drafts, and the first draft—especially of the Gleaner story—turned out very, very different from the last. Every single draft included a fairly substantial set of revisions. Major plot points and characters started out over here and ended up all the way over there.) For a 120,000 word book like ours, a substantive editor will probably cost you in the region of $2000-$5000.

Next comes copyediting, which is more the nuts and bolts, spelling and grammar stuff, and then proofreading, which is all about the tiniest, most detailed nuts and bolts. Like punctuation, for example—that has a bigger impact than you’d think. A misplaced comma can drive some readers to fury! This takes a lot of time, especially for a novel as long as Divine Burdens. The book by this point has been read and re-read and re-re-read so many times it feels a little voyeuristic. It’s shed every layer for you to run your eagle eyes over in detail. For this aspect (again assuming a 120k word book) we’re typically looking at $2000-$4500.

Then comes design and layout, and if you think the process of writing a book means sitting at the keyboard and bleeding, well… Book design is an extremely specific type of design practiced by relatively few designers, and it’s among the most difficult types of design—in part because the design of a well-made book should be invisible. Somewhat like a good movie soundtrack, if the reader is obtrusively aware of the book’s design, something has gone wrong. 

Page layout

Production of the eBook from the page layout files is, sadly, something that many publishers consider an afterthought. Often it’s just run through an automated bit of software. If you read eBooks on your Kindle from major publishing houses, you might find things like chapter titles broken across two pages, images that cut off at the bottom, and so on. We are blessed that our publisher takes eBook design seriously, and is willing to invest quite a lot of effort into making the ebook. (And a good eBook does take a lot of effort. More effort than you think. No, more effort than that. No, even more effort than that.) Unless you’re going the free software route (and there are a number of ways you can do that), the prices are likely to range from $50 (functionally identical to the free software, maybe with a little checking afterwards) to $2500 (top quality, properly designed by a layout artist manually). 

All this happens before a single page is physically printed on a press. In the case of Divine Burdens, all this happened before we even started getting ready to launch the crowdfunder.

So why do a crowdfunding campaign at all?

Part of it is to gauge interest. The publisher makes decisions about how many print books to produce based on how well the crowdfunding does. (Which, to be honest, with a book as niche as the Passionate Pantheon books, is rather important. It’s always a bit scary for a publisher to take on a project in a genre that doesn’t exist yet!)

And, of course, part of it is to get the word out. The most amazing book ever written won’t succeed if nobody knows about it. 

And the final aspect is that the money does help defray the costs of producing the book—not all of it, not by a long way, but the less risk the publisher has to take, the more likely it is that we’ll get to produce another book in the series!

Now, these prices are all indicative of what you might pay external freelancers. We didn’t pay costs out of pocket (because we’re authors) and often our publisher had the skills in-house so they were automatically included as part of production. (This is the job of a publisher; in legitimate publishing, money flows from the publisher to the author, not the other way. If you are approached by a publisher who asks you to pay these expenses, that’s a “vanity press.” Run.) 

Some authors hire their own outside editors or other freelancers on top of that, before even handing in the manuscript to their publisher. If you’re self-publishing, you’ll need to have those skills yourself, pay for them, or do without. 

Point is, by the time you see it, a huge amount of work, time, effort, and money has already gone into the book—in the case of Divine Burdens, nearly two years betwixt hither and yon. (We created the file that would become Divine Burdens on September 18, 2019.)

We are proud of this book and tremendously grateful for all the support you’ve shown for our work. This really has been a community effort. We can’t wait to find out what people think!

Things We’ve Learned Writing Together

If someone were to ask “what’s the most common question you get asked, as scifi erotica authors?” some obvious questions probably jump to mind. Like, for example, “Why worship AI gods through group sex?” or perhaps “What’s the wildest body modification a character makes in your series in order to get it on?” or even “That’s an awful lot of orgasming, isn’t it?”

“How do you co-author a book? What does the writing process look like?” are probably not the questions you would expect, and yet this is the most common type of questions we get asked. (Although the more sex-based worldbuilding questions do often display a remarkable intensity we can only admire.)

By this time you probably already know the origin story: Franklin wrote the first paragraph of the first draft of the first Passionate Pantheon book on Eunice’s naked back during an orgy, and yes, every word of that is true. It’s been a while since then, though, and that’s not what our system looks like any more. (Which is good, because writing with a fountain pen on naked skin is harder than you might think, and it makes edits and rewrites very difficult. Plus no one’s back is that vast, and no one’s handwriting is that small, that you can fit 120,000 words on a torso.) We haven’t even been in the same location for the majority of our co-writing, nor was travelling to see each other an option.

The first Passionate Pantheon book, The Brazen Altar, started with one character and one scene: the top of a ziggurat, an altar, a woman enduring nonstop forced orgasms from sunup to sundown. Hot, sure, but so many questions immediately spring to mind: Why? What is she doing there? What’s happening to her, and what purpose does this serve? Who is she?

Eunice, who (in)famously needs her sexual fantasies to have context and background in order to get horny, proceeded to create an entire world around this scene, which became the seed for the City.

The first draft of The Brazen Altar was written by Franklin. We would spend hours—occasionally eight or ten hours at a stretch, no exaggeration—talking about the world, the City, the people, the gods, the religions, the sex (of course), then Franklin would go away and write a few chapters. Then, once Eunice woke up (time zone differences are a real pain sometimes!), she would come back to rewrite, to add detail, and we’d have another long conversation. (At this point we were talking probably 15-30 hours per week.) And that’s how, several months later, The Brazen Altar was born.

Once the first draft was finished, Eunice did a deep read-through, making a number of changes. The book eventually went through five drafts betwixt the first version and the final printed copy that went out to readers.

Things changed a bit with the second book, Divine Burdens. Eunice wanted to take the ideas of the first book, which is a Utopian paradise (or as near as we can imagine according to our tastes, people being people), and keep the same setting but invert the themes: what if this post-scarcity society became erotic horror instead of erotic Utopia?

Divine Burdens was a struggle. That David Eddings quote, about writing feeling akin to birthing a baby elephant sometimes? Yeah, that was this book. It keeps most of the same structure of The Brazen Altar, but flips everything upside-down—you’ll find some stuff here that makes your skin crawl (in a sexy way of course), at least if we did our jobs right.

Divine Burdens required nine drafts, including a bit where we decided a large section of the book wasn’t really working, highlighted more than 40 pages of text, and hit Delete—no hesitation, just wham, gone. 

The Gleaner story in particular was hard, because we knew the themes we wanted to explore but had trouble making the narrative structure work. We rewrote, and rewrote, and rewrote, before we finally got something we felt proud of. (There are a lot of minor side characters in the Gleaner story that had most of their backgrounds trimmed from the final; for example, we don’t know how many readers will catch the fact that the character Sirchia is something like a shy, introverted, charismatic sociopath.)

Once we’d established the world with The Brazen Altar and then inverted that world with Divine Burdens, we knew that we’d laid the foundations. Now we could have some fun with something rather more challenging. The Hallowed Covenant, due out in 2022, is narratively and structurally quite a shift from the first two, and is a lot more ambitious. It also required us to change how we worked, in order to accommodate that switching up of gears. Our old methods were functional, but we wanted something more like electrifying. We wanted you to feel our shared excitement as we wrote.

The Hallowed Covenant follows seven friends as they experience a series of life-changing adventures, set against the backdrop of the Festival of the Lady, a month-long celebration of arts and creativity that culminates in the ecstatic Dance of Sacrifice to the AI god of creative expression.

We worked together much more tightly with this book, and spent countless hours videoconferencing between London and Portland. In the fourth book, tentatively titled Unyielding Devotions, we explored an even more complex narrative structure still. It’s set in a dark city—a city of erotic horror that pushes the genre boundaries even further than our second book. We worked yet more closely again on the fourth, often editing simultaneously on the same document.

Since then, we’ve explored actually writing simultaneously, from a blank Google Docs file, both of us typing at the same time. This probably isn’t a common way to co-author—it’s far more common that coauthorship looks like what we did with The Brazen Altar and Divine Burdens—nor is it an easy one, and it requires tremendous trust in your partner. But we’ve found it incredibly satisfying.

A couple of months ago, someone asked Franklin if he’d be interested in live-streaming a writing session, “to help those of us who want to be writers see the process.” At first he thought this was a terrible idea. (Watching someone type? Sounds as exciting as watching paint dry!) Plus our style of co-writing probably isn’t that informative to most writers, who are much more solitary creatures, often living alone in their own imaginations for a significant proportion of their time.

But we’ve been thinking about it more, and actually, it might be kind of cool to live-stream the start of a new book. There’s a huge amount of world and character building behind the Passionate Pantheon series—we have more than 50 pages of notes that will never end up in any of the books! They’re never referenced on the page, and no one will ever explicitly talk about them except maybe during some small fragments on this blog and during discussions at book events. The conversations we have about setting and world and plot and philosophy would give folks a good peek at the weird and convoluted inside of our heads. (You, dear reader, see some small part of the final product in our blog posts right here, but what you can’t see is the conversations where we hash out these ideas.)

A live stream where viewers could see us talking and also watch the words appear on the screen might, we think, be kind of fun to do. Two sets of cursors, spinning a story as it goes from nothing situated only in our individual brains, to ideas spun back and forth between us, to words on a page, might be interesting. At the very least, it might give you a glimpse into the ridiculous depths of the things we consider before we write. A sentence in the final book might have originated in a three hour conversation on the background of a minor character, or a choice of architectural design, or the way that this character’s family was structured—and most people never get to hear that stuff.

So now we’re looking forward to when we will begin the as-yet-unnamed fifth book of the series, a book where we plan to do a deep dive into much more philosophical topics: family, birth, and death in the world of the Passionate Pantheon. This is an unusual opportunity (we normally jump into starting a new book right away—as Terry Pratchett wrote, the reward for finishing a book is that you get to start a new one), and it doesn’t come around often. We are considering sitting down at our computers, creating a brand-new document, and live-streaming the start of the book. What do you guys think? Is that something you might like to see?

The second Passionate Pantheon novel is now available on Indiegogo! Click here to get it before publication date at a reduced price!

Know Your Characters

The third day after the Winnowing, High Priest Henlith called the four remaining candidates together in front of the arena, where a tall, gaunt man with gray hair and gray eyes waited. He wore a simple harness that left most of his chest bare, and long, tight-fitting pants in blue and green. He had a long, jagged scar on his upper arm, a rarity in a world where bodies were easily sculpted to their owners’ preferences.

“This is—” Henlith said.

“Priest Ortin!” Marel said. “Your Hunt was legendary. Such amazing control!” 

The shadow of a smile flickered across Ortin’s face. He bowed slightly. “It’s former priest Ortin,” he said. “And I thank you, though I am not here in an official capacity.”

“Ortin has returned to teach tracking, escape, and evasion,” Henlith said. “From now until the Selection, he will be available to teach you to track people while avoiding being tracked yourself. I would advise you to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Image: Дмитрий Хрусталев-Григорьев

Ortin is a minor character who appears briefly in Divine Burdens, the second Passionate Pantheon novel. He trains a small group of elite worshippers of the AI god called the Hunt for the ritual of sacrifice, in which the winner of the competition to become Sacrifice will spend three days running through a forest shaped and controlled by the AI, pursued by Hunters.

Ortin has a scar. The story we tell is not his story, so the reader never learns why. We, the authors, know—in fact we know most of the highlights of his background in far more detail than anyone might suspect.

This is the case with most of the minor characters throughout the Passionate Pantheon novels. Every character, however slight, has a story, goals, motivations, a personality, a whole rich history—which is one of the reasons the characters feel so dynamic and alive. There’s a sense, when you read one of the novels, that any of the characters, even if they appear only briefly, has a story to tell, and could be a protagonist in a book of their own…because they are. They’re the protagonists of their own books, the ones you won’t get to read. The ones that exist only in L-Space (yes, we’re both Terry Pratchett fans!). They don’t live only to appear on screen, they remain alive (and lively!) even when the reader isn’t ‘watching’ them.

We both feel that an important part of writing a rich story is knowing the characters we’re writing. They sometimes feel so real they’re writing their own stories, and we’re merely the conduit, not the author, of their experiences. In some cases, they know themselves far better than we can—and they do not hesitate to fight back if we try to make them act in a way that wouldn’t fit their personality. And they fight hard. We authors rarely (or, come to think of it, never) win that battle. Janaíe and Donvin in the first novel, Ortin and Sirchia in the second novel, Meesha and Sandian in the third novel, Arjeniza and Jakalva in the fourth novel…minor characters all, and yet we could easily write novels just about them. (There will never be any shortage of stories to tell in this world; it’s a rich and expansive place to visit.)

In Divine Burdens, a character named Mirim doesn’t end up having any real relationship with any of the protagonists. She appears early in the story during a scene in which several characters are being tested for their suitability to offer themselves as Sacrifice, and she turns up again near the end of that story, and that’s it for her on-screen presence. She doesn’t even end up talking much with our main character, Erianna. But she looms large in the subtext of the book; she’s referenced multiple times by various characters, we know a lot about her, and she has quite a strong personality. (She’s pestering us to write her story, and she’s quite insistent about it. If we turn up missing with a ransom note demanding a story and signed by ‘Mirim’, you’ll know she’s escaped the confines of our book and gone a-hunting!)

We also know the story of Tatian, an antagonist of the main character Lija (and her fiercest competition) in Divine Burdens. She’s the person who comes closest to challenging Lija, and the two spend a significant amount of time going directly head-to-head. Tatian has a strong personality, she’s intensely driven and competitive…but she also isn’t bugging us to write her story, because she’s an intensely private person. She knows her own story, we as authors are allowed to see (some of) her story, and she definitely, decisively, does not want anyone else to know her story. What could we do but acquiesce? 

The characters in the Passionate Pantheon, even when they’re a minor part of the plot, have richly realized histories beyond their role in advancing the protagonists from Point A to Point B. Lanissae, a minor character who appears in the fourth novel, is a great example. She’s a scientist (specifically, a botanist) who is fascinated by the drones and loves exploring the Wastelands outside the City…and none of that is relevant to the role she plays in the plot. Even the main character of that part of the novel, Royat, only learns this about her as a casual aside when he goes for a walk with her, and it totally changes his view of her because her actions up to that point have been all about another part of her personality entirely. But it’s there, and it’s an important part of her. She would not, could not, be who she is without it, even when it’s not a part of her actions up to that moment. She’s a fully developed character, not a mechanism to move the plot.

In a sense, writing the Passionate Pantheon novels can feel a bit voyeuristic, less like we’re creating a world and more like we’re watching what’s going on in a world that already exists. Franklin isn’t an exhibitionist, but there’s a scene where Mirim explains to another character—and to the authors!—what’s hot about exhibitionism. (At least, for her experience of exhibitionism, since there are many many possible reasons, not all of which apply to every exhibitionist.) That bit felt channeled rather than created—as though the character were telling us, rather than us creating her words.

The difficult thing isn’t coming up with new stories, or new plots, or new characters. It’s pruning the focus we give to the many characters that are fighting for our attention. We want to give them all fair time and attention…but we have limited space. Even in a 120,000 word book, which is fairly long for a novel, we regularly run out of space.

Many of the characters we mention above can be found in Divine Burdens, of course, but there you’re getting the merest, tiniest tip of the iceberg of their histories. If you’re anything like us, you’re probably interested in seeing more detail. So how to do that?

With the crowdfunding for Divine Burdens, we thought we’d try something new. With The Brazen Altar we created a reward tier that would let a backer choose a minor character and have us write a story about them, but we heard that the tier was more expensive than some of our backers could manage. So with Divine Burdens, we’re doing a referral contest instead!

When you sign in to Indiegogo, you get a unique URL that belongs to you. Use it to promote the crowdfunding, and whoever gets us the most backing can choose a character from Divine Burdens and we’ll write a short story (at least 3,000 words) about that character. 

We’re already moving on to the fifth novel, but the characters from the earlier novels are getting more and more insistent. Their requests to be heard are becoming…well, demands rather than requests. 

So just for the sake of our ability to sleep without the cattleprod of their histories being jabbed into the plotbunny filled crevices of our brains just as we’re trying to drop off….help?

Is the Passionate Pantheon “queer erotica?”

Image: Raphael Renter

We have described the Passionate Pantheon as “queer erotica.” In fact, if you look at the subtitle of this blog, it says “Thinky geeky kinky queer erotica” right there in the subhead.

But are we really? Does the “queer” label actually fit the Passionate Pantheon? And what do we mean by ‘queer,’ anyway?

For some people, ‘queer’ means ‘LGBT’, which means ‘gay’. So why not just say gay? Well for one thing, it doesn’t apply. It is totally and utterly inadequate. In the Passionate Pantheon novels, you’ll see relationships between people with the same general bodies, with the same basic sorts of genitals, but they’re not really ‘gay’ relationships because to the residents of the City, taking on an identity based on the genitals of the folks you have sex with (or refrain from sex with, as the case may be) would seem…rather weird, honestly.

When we call this series ‘thinky geeky queer erotica,’ we’re using the word ‘queer’ to cover a lot of territory. The characters you’ll meet don’t have sexual or gender or orientation identities the way we think of them in this world. You’ll see a lot of sex (and we mean a lot of sex) involving people with the same genitalia, or unusual genitalia, in bodies that may or may not match what they’re born with, in a wide range of contexts, and in the City, this is all completely normal. It’s not even just normal, it’s the most common scenario — everyone explores at some point in their lives, pretty much (well…okay, almost everyone! Even in the Passionate Pantheon, you get outliers.)

So there aren’t a lot of words that fit. ‘Queer’ comes closest, with its deliberate inclusivity, but is it a good match?

If you read the stories, you’ll find what many people would call queer sex. Women having sex with women! People with bodies that aren’t necessarily ‘male’ or ‘female’! Sexual partners coming together in ways that are, with the current state of biomedical technology, not even physically possible (and yes, we know that for a certain type of conservative person, they can’t even quite wrap their heads around how sex between two women works — if no one sticks a biopenis in a vagina, does it even count as sex??)!

You’ll consistently see relationships that are non-cis/het/mono/allo-normative (yes, I know, that’s a mouthful and a half, but trust me, it’s much more succinct than writing it out in full!). But is that enough to consider these novels “queer” fiction? What does “queer” fiction mean, in our modern genre categorising—is it just “fiction involving characters who aren’t cis/heteronormative”? Is it “fiction about the experience of being non-normative in a normative world”? Maybe it’s “fiction from queer writers, no matter what they write”? (And what does that mean for fiction co-written by two authors, one of whom is super super queer and one of whom is entirely the opposite in multiple ways? Do we balance each other out and form one ‘normal’ queer writer with leftover bits?)

And the more we think about it, the more we think maybe the label of “queer fiction” isn’t a good descriptor for the Passionate Pantheon at all, because the Passionate Pantheon novels are missing an element often found in other entertainment described as “queer”—the understanding that the sex and relationships the characters engage in aren’t normalized in their society. They exist in a world that is, at best, built on the barely-buried bones of a society that did not accept them, and at worst within a society that still does not accept them. Fear was a part of the experience of being queer for such a long time, in so many cultures.

The society of the Passionate Pantheon is not heteronormative, not cisnormative, not mononormative—in a lot of ways, it’s the complete inversion of 21st century Western sexual mores. In fact, the idea of sexual orientation doesn’t even apply to the world of the Passionate Pantheon. None of the characters in the Passionate Pantheon novels talk about, think about, or even acknowledge, the experience of being queer, because in the society they live in, there’s no such thing. It’s not a concept that would even make sense to them. Not the way it does in the real world.

So if a work of fiction has characters who aren’t cisnormative or heteronormative, and engage in sexual and romantic relationships we would label ‘queer,’ but in their society they’re simply relationships rather than queer relationships…is it really queer fiction? Is the existence of these relationships enough, or is one of the defining elements of queer fiction the background setting of non-queer identities as the norm?

When you look at fanfic, a lot of what you’ll find does try to create societies that don’t center cishetmononormative relationships, which makes a lot of sense when you consider that fanfic writers want to create worlds that expand beyond what we see in the real world. But even there, many of those stories are based in a world that is recognisably akin to our own (with its history of queer-phobia that we’re still fighting and struggling against) by the nature of the type of story they’re writing. And in published fiction, it’s even less common to see writing that normalizes non-mainstream relationships.

One of our goals with the Passionate Pantheon novels is to create a playground for exploration. Science fiction at its best has always been about asking “what if?” questions. Good science fiction isn’t about spaceships or laser guns or space aliens, it’s about people. The spaceships and aliens let us ask questions about the nature of the human condition: if we change this, what happens? What if we upend these assumptions? What if the environment looks like that?

We want to apply that same kind of “what if?” to human interpersonal and sexual relationships. The Passionate Pantheon novels are science fiction, but they’re not about the AI gods or the Providers or the drones or the shield generators, they’re about people. What we really want to explore is, what if we create a society where all the expectations about sex, connection, identity, and gender were inverted? What if we imagine a society with a completely different set of assumptions about what sex looks like? What if we totally remove any sense of stigma or shame from sex, and there’s no concept that the bodies of your lovers are part of your identity?

The answer, we think, upends a lot of expectations about what sex looks like. When bodies can be changed freely at will, and there’s no social expectation that your body or the bodies of your lovers matter (at least, no more than your choice of clothing), you end up with a lot of what in the real world might be called ‘queer’ relationships. But if you’re imagining a society where these are the norm and there’s no expectation that it should be otherwise, does the label ‘queer’ still apply?

There are a couple ways we might look at the label ‘queer fiction.’ Are the relationships in the fiction ‘queer’ (in the sense of being transgressive, unusual, or not normalized) for the society the fiction is set in, or are they ‘queer’ in the context of the society the reader lives in? You can make a compelling argument either way. In the first sense, the Passionate Pantheon novels aren’t really ‘queer fiction,’ but in the second sense, they are.

We’re aware that ‘queer’ isn’t a perfect descriptor for these novels, but then, nothing else really fits either. It’s the most appropriate word we could find right now, in our Western society, in English. Language changes, so it might not be the best word in a year, in five years, in ten years. For now it’s the best way we could think of to give people a sense of what they’re getting into. If you have a better word, we’d love to know!