The Literary Roots of the Passionate Pantheon

Image: Rabie Madaci

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

Ahem. Anyway…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Sonder and Writing

Image: Daniel Hehn

Sonder (‘son • der), n

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

— John Koenig, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

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

Weird, huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erotic Science Fiction vs Science Fiction Erotica

Image: stanciuc

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s tackle that second question first. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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