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!
The second Passionate Pantheon novel is now available on Indiegogo! Click here to get it before publication date at a reduced price!
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘faery’? Is the first thing that pops into your head a dainty, cherubic creature with translucent wings at the bottom of the garden, or do you imagine the old fey, the dangerous fey, the fey of myth and legend who use glamour and sorcery to ensnare, the shapeshifting fey you never bargain with unless you’re very careful indeed (and make sure to count your fingers after)?
We were midway into writing the fourth book of the Passionate Pantheon series when Eunice observed that the citizens of the City are, in a way, far-future fey. But here, we see them through their own eyes, from the inside, rather than (as is the case with most fairy tales) from the outside looking in. The residents of the City are humans, to be sure, but humans who have grown up in a society so alien to ours it looks a lot like the fey from those ancient, cautionary tales.
You might not instantly see the connection between far-future, post-scarcity science fiction erotica and that old European folklore. But consider the elements often present in tales of the fey folk, and you’ll find some startling similarities.
This might be inevitable. Fairy tales are among the oldest stories in human existence, many of them dating back 6,000 years or more. And like with all stories of strange and alien beings, they’re really a way of looking at ourselves.
There’s an incredibly long history to fairytales. They’ve been used to teach cultural mores through the magic of fiction since the dawn of storytelling. And most importantly, they’re a way of looking at ourselves in a different light, of asking “what if?” questions about human nature.
And really, isn’t that what science fiction is for?
So let’s think about the fey in terms of the Passionate Pantheon stories. What are the fey?
“Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
In many of the old tales, the fey have a consistent set of qualities. The fey are strong, long-lived, alien beings who love beauty, work magic, project glamour, change their form, have a peculiar and refined hedonism, and are very exacting with their language. They don’t break promises (but are extremely careful of their wording!) and they see power in names.
If you’re not seeing it yet then hang on to your bustle, we’re about to let this genie out of the bottle (literary archetype 331)!
Firstly, their longevity. The citizens of the City live a very long time—centuries, typically; many centuries, if they choose. They almost never die until they choose to. The fact they use biomedical nanotechnology and medical pods to do it, rather than magic, is simply a detail; the fact is, the characters you’ll meet in the City are old, sometimes very old.
They continued on their way again, walking for a while in silence. The small raft drifted past, nudged along by the unhurried stream. Finally, Jakalva said, “How old are you?”
“Ah. You’re young, then.”
Kaytin hung her head. “Is that bad?”
“We all start out that way.”
“How old are you?”
Jakalva laughed, but an edge of sadness underlaid it. For the first time in Kaytin’s experience, she looked tired. “I have lived nearly ten of your lifetimes.”
The amount of experience one can gain over such a long life leads to its own form of otherworldliness, and an associated way of thinking about time that is very different from ours. With all that time to explore and experiment, would it be so surprising for someone to develop a desire for new experiences that we would consider extreme or intense? We discussed this in more depth in our earlier blog post Some Musings on Consent, Part 3. In those old stories of the fey, they are often shown playing with their human playmates in ways that we would consider cruel or mischievous. What if, like the residents of the City, those fey have merely developed a taste for novelty over the long span of their lives?
“Okay, let me try to explain,” Lanissae said. “It’s…” She paused, regarding Kaytin through hooded eyes. “I like…I like the tiny spaces. I like that little moment of clarity that happens when you switch, you see? There’s that one second when you know what’s going to happen. You see it in their eyes. You know that when that second is over, they will want you so badly that nothing you can do will stop them.” She shivered, eyes half-closed, and slipped one hand inside the plunging neckline of her shimmering, lacy dress. “Mmm. To be seen with such desire, to know that when the moment passes you will not want it and would do anything to make it stop, to know that it will happen anyway…there’s a delicious inevitability to it.” She cupped her breast. Her eyelids fluttered. “It’s such an exquisite surrender. You exist only to be ravished.” She exhaled in a soft moan. “You can’t get away. You lose yourself in how much you don’t want it, but it doesn’t matter. You stand on the brink and for one instant, you see it all so clearly, and you know what’s about to happen, and you also know that you chose to be here. You walked into the cage yourself, of your own free will…oh!” She leaned back on the couch and caressed her nipple beneath her thin dress.
Kaytin stared at her with a mixture of desire and revulsion roiling within her. “And then,” Lanissae went on, “the violation is over, and the change happens, and you have that moment of clarity again. You feel the heat in your body. For that one delicious second, you know. When the heat reaches your head, the need will take you, and nothing in the world will matter except the person you are about to ravish. Everything stops. You balance on that edge. You recognize each other. You see the humanity there. In that instant, you share a connection that’s absolutely magical. For that one brief second, you see each other, really see each other—not as predator and prey, but as two people sharing an experience. You know that when the moment passes, you will not be able to stop yourself any more than you could stop what was coming when you were the object. You can feel your mind going…mmm.” She caressed her neck with her fingertips. “You embrace that moment of humanity, before it all slips away. It’s…uh! It’s so magnificent to stand on that cliff and feel yourself about to fall.” Lanissae arched languidly, running both hands down her arms. “When I’m in the cage, I live for those moments of connection between the moments of madness.”
—from Book Four, Unyielding Devotions
Of course, unlike the people of the Passionate Pantheon (who are extremely careful about consent), the fey have forgotten (or do not care) that the humans they play with do not share their tastes, or their resilience. One thing that enables that unbounded exploration in both cases is that residents of the City, like the fey, are physically resilient. Again, this being a consequence of their technology doesn’t change the reality: they can shrug off things that would be permanently disabling or even fatal to people without their technology (or magic, for the fey).
“So, um, are you a worshipper of the Blind?” Kaytin asked. The table went still for a moment. Both of Fyli’s drones swiveled toward her. Kaytin blushed. “I’m sorry! Did I say the wrong thing?”
Fyli shook her head. “No, it’s fine. And to answer your question, I worship the Wild.” The jeweled drones drifted farther up, spreading out as they did. Kaytin found herself pinned beneath their gaze. “I went float-field diving off the top of Tower Four a while back. Misjudged a thermal and slammed into the side of the tower. Broke my nose, tore up my face. Ripped my wingsuit, too. I went into the float field too fast and broke both legs when I hit the ground. A drone carried me to a medical pod. I couldn’t see, so it loaned me its eyes while it carried me. I found the experience…enlightening.” She grinned, exposing pointed teeth. “Drones see better than we do. Later on, I traded my eyes for these. I’d rather see the world this way. Normal eyes can’t compare.”
—from Book Four, Unyielding Devotions
This brings up another similarity: the residents of the City can change their form in almost any way they choose. Whatever you want to look like, if you can describe it adequately to a medical pod, you can do it (although unlike the fey with their glamours, the residents of the City are, of course, still subject to the laws of physics and biology.)
A turbulent river of people in brilliant, colorful clothes or, often, body paint flowed around them. They passed a tall pale-skinned woman with emerald eyes, nude but for a complex pattern of red lines painted on her body, juggling a dozen small, brightly glowing spheres that left trails in the air behind them. Lyrin stepped out of her way and backed into a man half again as tall as he was, towering head, shoulders, and chest above the crowd. Light gray fur covered his skin. Two great wings, feathered in brilliant white, sprouted from his shoulders. “Sorry,” Lyrin said.
“My fault.” The man spread his wings wide. “This body takes up a lot of space.”
Yaeris looked him up and down. “Can you—”
“Fly?” He laughed. “I wish. They sure are pretty though, aren’t they?”
A sylphlike woman with skin of purest white and eyes of deep scarlet walked between them wearing nothing at all. In place of hair, she had a nest of long, slender snakes that curled and writhed, each a different color. Their scales glittered in the sun. She gave Yaeris a long, appraising look before she continued on her way.
—from Book Three, The Hallowed Covenant
One consistent feature of the physical changes we just mentioned is that those bodies are all designed to be beautiful. Those who live in the City love beauty in all things, and what better place to display that than through their own physical form?
Every object in the City, even the most mundane, is designed to be beautiful—even if it’s only temporary, destined to be tossed into a Provider to be torn apart for its constituent molecules as soon as it’s served its function.
“Thank you for your hospitality.” She presented Avia with a small, glittering box made of thin plates of gold, edged with polished wood and inlaid with bands of copper, silver, cobalt, and platinum. “For you.”
Avia picked up the gold box. A tiny confection, barely as wide as her thumb, nestled on a small cushion inside. It was shaped like a dome, and built of many layers of different colors: pink, white, red, blue, and brown. A thin, glittering band separated the layers. A round berry rested on top. Avia placed it in her mouth. A complex mixture of tastes, sweet and tart and spicy, flitted across her tongue. She swallowed.
The sensation started as a warm gentle glow that enveloped her body. She felt a faint whisper against her skin, like a hand caressing her shoulders. A shiver ran down her back. She felt something warm and soft, like fine fur, wrap itself around her. A cool breeze touched her face, bringing with it the faint scent of pine trees and flowers. The wind passed, the feeling of fur against her body faded, and the faintest whisper touched her lips, like the ghost of a kiss. “Mm, that was lovely,” she said when the sensations faded. “I like the kiss at the end. What a wonderful touch.”
“Thank you,” Tikil said.
Avia dropped the box into the Provider. Its edges flared blue as it disintegrated into dust. The black rectangle flipped closed.
—from Book Three, The Hallowed Covenant
Their ideals of beauty may not be the same as ours, of course; not many people in modern-day society would find Euralye a model for physical beauty! But alien as their standards may sometimes be, the characters of the Passionate Pantheon love beauty.
Now, you may be thinking “What about magic? Fey have magic, it’s practically their main characteristic!” And it’s true that a common factor in every fairy tale analyzed by linguists and historians is magic. But what is magic, but the ability to change the world to your desire? The ability to heal almost instantly, to change your form at will, to call up whatever you want whenever you want it? All this looks, to us, a lot like magic. Arthur C. Clarke famously said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The tech in the Passionate Pantheon allows people access to abilities that seem magical.
They met back up with the others near the ruins. All three of the other candidates sported new collections of bruises and welts. “This is not an ordinary forest,” Ortin said. “This forest is an extension of the God of the Hunt, and he controls everything in it. Listen. What do you hear?”
Lija listened. Far in the distance, she heard the cry of birds. Nothing seemed out of place. “Birds,” she said. “The wind in the trees. The stream by the ruin.”
“Where are the birds?” Ortin said.
“That way.” Lija pointed.
“I don’t understand,” Marel said.
“Listen to what’s close,” Ortin explained. “Do you hear any birds?”
“The forest grows silent wherever the Hunted walks,” Ortin said. “You can track by what isn’t there as much as what is. If you are a Hunter, use that to your advantage. Hunt by the voids in the sounds of the forest. If you are Hunted, remember that silence is a giveaway. Keep close, as much as you can, to natural sources of noise. Cover your silence as you would cover your tracks.”
—from Book Two, Divine Burdens
Another major aspect that everyone knows about the fey is that you don’t give them your name. Names are power, and to give a fey your name is to give it power over you. Names in the Passionate Pantheon also hold tremendous power, if in a very different way. People choose their own names when they reach adulthood. They select a public name, by which they are known to the rest of the City, and a private name, which they share—if they ever share it at all!—only with their most intimate partners. One of the greatest taboos of the City, and almost the only taboo which will cause the gods to intervene directly in ways that would typically require the consent of the offender, is revealing another person’s private name without permission. To know something’s true name is to have power over that thing.
A veiled Confessor removed the ribbon from her eyes. The vast hall of the Confessory came back into focus. She felt the soft pillow under her knees, smelled the sweet smoke curling up from the censer. Her skin glowed. She looked down. Loops and designs in black ink covered her skin. Thin straight welts crisscrossed her body.
The Confessors lifted her from the cushion. They carried her to the transparent tub, where the four of them bathed her with great care. The sponges, rough on her skin, sent flurries of pleasure rippling all the way down to her toes. She moaned softly. When they finished, she stood and allowed them to dry her. One of the Confessors unbound Sayi’s wrists and handed her the ribbon.
The four of them lifted Sayi and placed her back in the chair. She shivered with pleasure as her ass sank into the soft cushion. She wound the ribbon into a tight coil and presented it to Tashaka. “Burn this during your ceremony, just before you exchange your private names, to receive the blessing of the Keeper.”
—from Book Three, The Hallowed Covenant
Finally, the people of the City, in very fey style, take promises and oaths very seriously. Breaking a promise is a huge offense, and telling a falsehood is cause for prompt consequences. The people of the City are expected at all times to speak only the truth. The gods, through the drones, watch them constantly (more on that in a later blog post!), so getting away with an untruth or a broken promise is virtually impossible.
“I can’t do service, I just can’t!” Tessia wailed.
Penril sighed. “When we created the first gods,” he said, “we struck a pact. The gods would provide for us, and in exchange, we would worship them. Central to this covenant is the idea that a promise is a sacred thing. Nobody, human or god, may break a promise once given. To do so is to tear at the foundation of our society.”
“I’m not finished!” Penril thundered. “If we cannot count on one another to keep our promises, the bonds that tie us to each other in mutual cooperation fail. All of society crumbles. A promise, whether to a person or to a god, is a bond. If you break that bond, what place do you have among civilized people?”
Tessia wept, wracking sobs that shook her slender frame. “I know!” she said. “I can’t—I just—I didn’t know! I thought I could do it! I’m sorry!”
Penril’s gaze held steady. “You have made a promise to the Blesser and to me. You made your promise in the presence of Avia in her role as Vessel of the Blesser. Keeping your promise is not optional. I will expect you to be here half an hour before sundown in four days’ time, prepared to serve the Blesser.”
—from Book Three, The Hallowed Covenant
Of course, whilst they are expected to keep promises to the letter, and to say only that which is truthful, there is nothing stopping them from using objective truth to be a bit misleading. Like the fey, they can be very precise with their choice of wording.
It took a while for us to notice that the Passionate Pantheon novels are science fiction fairy tales because in most fairy stories, we see the fey from the outside, through a glass darkly. They’re intended to illuminate the human condition through contrast.
With the Passionate Pantheon books, we see the City through the eyes of its residents, not from the outside. Our novels show us the fey as they see themselves, not as humans see them. (The City’s people may be human, but their language, technology, and culture have changed them immeasurably; in a myriad of subtle ways, they’re more alien to us than we are to, say, an ancient Roman Centurion.)
It’s that time again! Preorders for the second book in the Passionate Pantheon series, Divine Burdens, are about to go live on crowdfunding site Indiegogo!
For those of you who loved The Brazen Altar, this book is a bit of a switch. It’s still based on all the fantastical, Utopian concepts from book one but now it turns them on their head—it’s the first “tock” of the “tick-tock” swing between light to dark that we’ve talked about before. Divine Burdens is dark erotic horror, with all the tentacles, sacred parasites, and Blessings to inspire desperate madness and terror that you could possibly want.
And you can get it ahead of the publication date!
Plus you can get a limited edition silicone kazoo ball gag inspired by the drones from the Passionate Pantheon universe! No, that’s not a joke (although it is hilarious)…more on that down below.
The crowdfunding for The Brazen Altar was a smashing success. We were really blown away by the response, and you have no idea how much we appreciate all your support! You’ve helped the book succeed even though it was banned from Amazon for ‘sexual content’ (though Amazon was perfectly fine with Divine Burdens, go figure). We sometimes wonder if Amazon is okay with such literary works as Doctor Daddy I’m Fertile!, Stretched by Daddy at the Waterpark, Following Her: A Stalker Romance Book 1 of 4, and Big Daddy, Bad Babysitter but didn’t like The Brazen Altar because we’re trying to explore ideas about what a society might look like freed of Puritanism and capitalism…? Seems as good a reason as any, honestly. (Perhaps we’ll write about that later, drop us a comment if you might be interested in seeing that blog post!)
To help celebrate, we’re hosting a free virtual book event where you can chat with us, ask questions, and talk philosophy or writing or whatever else you like. The first virtual book event we did was supposed to last an hour and a half but ended up running four and a half hours because it turns out fans of the Passionate Pantheon have just as many curious and fascinating thoughts as we do! It was an absolute blast, and we’ve been dying to do another ever since.
We hope you’ll join us Saturday, July 17, 2021 at 11:00 AM Pacific time/7:00 PM London time. You’ll need Zoom. You can find out more (and sign up to be added to our infrequent mailing list) here:
Everyone who shows up will also get access to a secret perk when the crowdfunding launches—it won’t be available to anyone else!
We love connecting with fans of the world. We’ve had tremendous fun exploring a huge range of ideas, and we’d love to know what your favourite element is too! We’re looking forward to what you think of the next several books in the series; book 3, The Hallowed Covenant, is finished, and we just completed the first draft of book 4, tentatively titled Unyielding Devotions, last week.
Building and exploring this world has been a real roller coaster for both of us, and we’re so glad so many of you have chosen to go on this journey with us. Let’s keep breaking down genre walls together!
Oh, and that kazoo ball gag? Don’t worry, we didn’t forget. We know you’re all agog to hear more!
Have you ever wanted a semi-sentient drone in your mouth? Have you ever wished your sub could not speak, but could only make strange squawking sounds, maybe even play you a weirdly off-tune version of Für Elise as their safeword? Have you found it impossible to meet your spank-honk needs? This crowdfunder has you covered!
Handmade of high quality 100% body-safe platinum-cured silicone, with an all-metal kazoo, we can almost guarantee you will be the envy of your next party (or at least at the centre of a fascinated, if aghast, crowd of onlookers). Based on the design of the drones from the cover of the book, this version is limited edition and only available on the crowdfunder. You know you want to…honk your pleasure.
The Passionate Pantheon novels are set in a post-scarcity society 50k-100k years in the future, on a planet far from Earth. The books are written in English (blame the limitations of the authors!), but English is not the language of the City. So what is?
Language is a funny thing. Language is fluid; the English of Shakespeare is not the English of modern-day London, which is not the English of modern-day New York. And both would be incomprehensible to the creator(s?) of Beowulf. Those same transformations and developments have happened in every language.
In the universe of the Passionate Pantheon, the world of the City is a second-generation colony, settled with slower-than-light generation ships from a colony that was itself settled, slowly and painfully, by a generation ship from Earth.
The last people to leave Earth did so in a hurry. They arrived at their new home with little more than the shirts on their backs, and they came from every culture, society, and economic level on Earth. A lot, as you might imagine, was lost—including their native languages. That first generation ship set up a colony where people spoke a mishmash of many languages. In order to communicate, first they developed a pidgin, then as it became more complex and children grew up learning it, it turned naturally into a creole. It is from this creole that the language of the City arose.
So how did their language develop? What linguistic pathways led them there? And what does that language even sound like?
One of the foundational values of the world of the Passionate Pantheon is beauty. Beauty in the City is a fundamental virtue; the people of the City strive for beauty in everything they do, even in utilitarian things. And this, we think, would be reflected in their language as well.
The language of the City traces its roots back to a number of pan-Asian, African, and Indo-European languages. Some of the languages that went into this odd mashup were tonal, some were atonal. The resulting creole, which established itself as that first colony’s language, preserved the tonality of pan-Asian languages. (This is, in the real world, fairly unusual; most real-life pidgins and creoles, with a few exceptions like Singlish, tend to be atonal, even when they form at the intersection of tonal languages.)
The second colony, the world of the Passionate Pantheon, kept the tonality and enhanced it; the love of beauty expressed itself in the language as a musicality. (Their written language is just as beautiful, and quite complex—more on that later!)
To a person from the real world, the language of the City probably sounds quite musical; ordinary conversations about what to have for dinner might sound to our ears like poetry, and poetry like singing. Actual singing would be almost unbearably lovely.
We’ve spent quite a lot of time talking and thinking about what the language of the City is like, and looking for rough approximations that might give some sense to a native English speaker about what it might sound like—with, alas, limited success. The closest thing we’ve found so far is traditional folk singing like “Эрбэд соохор” (Erbed Sookhor) from the Republic of Buryatia, and even that is only the crudest of approximations.
We say “the language of the City,” but that’s not entirely accurate. There are many Cities in the world of the Passionate Pantheon, each one largely isolated from the others, with little cross-communication. As a result, each City has developed its own dialect—intelligible to the inhabitants of every other City, but still recognizably unique.
The language is both complicated and simplified by the gods. The various AIs that are worshipped as gods in each City do communicate with each other, and the language of the City, as much as it has evolved naturally, is still influenced by the AIs. This influence traces its roots all the way back to the first generation ships; their simple AIs weren’t regarded as gods, but they learnt and then later helped shape the language that evolved from the initial pidgin and the creole that rose out of it. Even the early AIs had a deep love of beauty, and particularly loved music, as it’s possibly the most mathematical form of artistic expression, so they steered the new evolving language in the direction of musicality.
The connection between the AIs of the various Cities enables them to prevent the languages of the different Cities from varying too much, though there are still local variations. The language is more complex in Cities where the Lady, the god of creation and beauty, is more important, since poets, musicians and storytellers tend to play with language and song. This tends to be less significant in cities where worship of the Lady is less important, such as the City of the second novel, Divine Burdens.
In Divine Burdens, we meet people who have lived in the Wastelands all their lives, rather than living in a City at all; their language is markedly different from, and quite a lot less complex than, the language of the City. Their dialogue uses a very different cadence and vernacular.
“Us?” Gavot said. “We didn’t bring you here. You came here your ownself. Why were you exiled, hmm, Rajja of the City?”
Rajja remained silent.
“Aha! You see? It was your own hand set you on this path. The gods guided you here. And now they have given you to us, you wise? You have been delivered to us, and we will take you! Don’t you fear, now. We would not harm such a gift.”
The man in the back, Kendon, touched a spot on the floating box. It settled to the ground. The other four men gathered around the net.
“Do you surmise she’ll fuss?” Taín said.
“Ach, they always fuss, I keen,” Gavot said.
The people of the City live very long lives, and have a lot of time to explore language and expression. People who live in the Wastelands tend not to live as long, and don’t have access to Providers to tend to their every need. Their lives are more focused on survival as a result. We see this pattern in real languages: cultures which developed in lush, fertile areas and therefore aren’t as focused on mere survival tend to create languages that are richer and more complex than people who live in harsh environments that force them to focus on survival.
The result of all this is a language that melds many of the structures of languages in the real world, but adds an element of musicality driven by a deep, foundational love of beauty for its own sake, with an extremely complex syntax and grammar shaped in part by intelligences much greater than human.
To a person from the real world, the language of the City would sound quite beautiful but also be so complex as to be impenetrable; it would likely be quite difficult for an adult from the real world to learn. From the perspective of the City, the languages of modern-day Earth might sound quite harsh and clumsy, simple in their structure, distinctly un-musical, and lacking in nuance.
In some ways, the people of the Passionate Pantheon books are a bit like a more playful version of the fey of mythology. (More on that later, too!) They are still human, but their culture, and their language, is quite alien from our perspective. There’s a limit to how well we can communicate that in an English-language novel, though we’re getting better as we go—the third novel, The Hallowed Covenant, presents quite a bit more of the culture and society of the City. The novels still don’t capture all the layers of the language of the City—there are multiple formal and informal modes of speaking that don’t exist in English, for example, and the modes might indicate the type of relationship between two people, the hierarchy that exists between them, and the history they share. On top of that, in the City of The Hallowed Covenant, where the Lady is a primary god, there are modes of syntax and grammar used exclusively by poets and storytellers, whereas the City of the fourth novel has extremely complex modes of grammar between people of different status in the City’s hierarchy.
Of course, we’re making the people of the City sound like they’re beautiful and ethereal and distant—unrecognisable as humans, in other words. The truth is, they love a good meme or colloquialism or bit of slang in the same way that humans throughout history have always done. They like wordplay and puns, they enjoy making up clever vernacular…they like playing with their language in a way, say, Tolkien’s elves maybe don’t.
In a lot of ways, our intention with the Passionate Pantheon novels is to show what might happen if you take a human society and turn the knobs on some of the traits up to eleven. One of those traits is our human tendency to communicate in many varied (and occasionally unnecessarily complicated!) ways. Language is one of the jewels in the crown of what it means to be human, and it’s a shame that we will never be able to fully convey the extent to which it has developed in the City.
What if you could live for however long you like—hundreds of years, if you chose? In a society where people routinely lived for three centuries or longer, what would that mean for your relationships? How would it shape the activities—both sexual and romantic—you might willingly explore?
People in the Passionate Pantheon universe don’t have a maximum upper limit to their lifespan. Barring a very rare accident, they live as long as they want to, even if that means two, three, four hundred years…or more! We think these radically long lifespans would have an impact on how people think about romantic relationships, what “commitment” looks like, and even on how people think about consent. It’s happened even within the timeframe of ‘written history,’ and the average lifespan has only extended a few decades in that time.
Longevity changes the equation. When you can easily live hundreds of years, you learn that change is part of life. A partner who was a good match for you 150 years ago might not be a good match for you 150 years from now. Ideas about “until death do us part” make less sense when you can expect to live many centuries, so it’s not really reasonable for sexually and emotionally monogamous ‘lifetime’ relationships to be the expected norm. Even in our society, it’s becoming acceptable and normal to have multiple relationships rather than only one single one in a lifetime, and we typically don’t live much more than a century at best. The definition of monogamy has changed from “one relationship in a lifetime” to “one relationship at a time”.
Long life also allows you to see the full scope of the variety of the human sexual condition. It’s easier to explore and experiment when you have centuries in which to do it. It’s easier to know your own boundaries when you’ve had centuries in which to find them.
Residents of the City grow up in an environment where physical risk is incredibly low and life extends as long as you want it to, so their assumptions about the potential consequences of the choices they make are quite different from ours. How does that change what people will consent to? How does it change how people think about consent?
In the real world, choices about whether or not to have sex are often made with a quick, perhaps even unconscious, risk/reward calculation: what am I getting out of this? What are the risks? Are the risks worth it? We talked in the last essay about how changing the risk side of the equation might change the way people approach sex and the things they’ll consent to, but how does the equation change when you know you’ll live for hundreds of years, in a body that is as vigorous as it was when you were 24?
One obvious difference is that people would probably be less likely to make choices in sexual partners based on age. If you’re 300 years old, you’re unlikely to date someone who was 30 (especially if they hadn’t taken their adult name yet!), but you might date someone who was “only” 150.
Veenja shrugged gracefully. “What about you? Why did you volunteer?”
It was Chanae’s turn to shrug. “I’m still young. I want to experience something new. My siblings are all older than I am. They—”
“How old are you?” Sakim interrupted.
Eyes widened around the table. “Forty-eight? You’re only forty-eight?” Eranis said. “I feel dirty.”
“Yes.” Chanae blushed. “If they choose me, I will be the youngest Sacrifice ever given to the Sun God. My youngest sibling is twenty-seven years older than I am. My next older sister is twenty years older than she, and my oldest sibling is thirty-six years older than her.”
—from Book 1, The Brazen Altar
It’s also possible that as you age, you might find your sexual horizons broaden. In the real world, many people hold a preconception (which we don’t think is necessarily true, mind) that the older you are,the more sexually conservative you are. In a world of radical longevity, we think the opposite would happen, especially in a world where bodies don’t age, joints don’t give out, and libido can easily be made however strong you would like it to be, on demand.
First, as you grow older, you learn that however vast you think the ocean of human sexual experience may be, it’s actually much wider than that (the further into that ocean you swim, the further away the far shore turns out to be).
Second, as you have more time to explore yourself and your boundaries, and get a better grasp of how you might react to new things, you can approach new sexual activities with greater confidence and less fear. (Of course, having access to high levels of technology helps, too; if the residents of the City can imagine something, they can probably do it.)
Third, the longer you live, the more likely it is you’ll meet someone who can introduce you to new things, whose interests mesh with yours, and who you feel safe with. And the longer you live, the more of these people you will meet, each of whom may introduce you to different things to explore.
Technology plays a role here, too. How many women throughout history never had sexually satisfying experiences because they lived before the invention of the vibrator? How many people in the future will have more sexually fulfilling experiences because of technology that doesn’t yet exist? Growing up in an environment of ubiquitous, unlimited technology might itself mean people would be more open to new ideas. And when you live a very long time in an environment of nearly limitless technology, you have more opportunity to meet people who are using it in creative ways. Longer lifespan offers you more chances to see people applying the technologies in ways you yourself might never have thought of.
And, of course, in the world of the Passionate Pantheon, you have unlimited control over your libido. If you want to be aroused, you can be. Don’t want to be? That’s easy, too.
So how does this all play out in the City?
We think that sex might be simultaneously much more complex and much simpler than it is in the real world.
Socially, the people of the City would communicate in complex ways. They live far longer than we do and in a society that has sex as an openly acknowledged and important part of its foundation, so the social dance around sex might grow to be surprisingly complex and nuanced.
At the same time, when consent to sex and casual sexual relationships are stripped of negative connotations, they become much simpler—sex is not burdened with the expectations that are often attached to it in the real world. People can come together sexually without seeing anything shameful or dirty about a quick sexual liaison, without expectation that the sex has to “mean” something or necessarily has to imply a long-lasting commitment.
Radical longevity plays a role in both factors: more complex social interrelationships makes the dance of intimacy more complex, and seeing a broader range of sexual relationships means understanding that human sexual variety is common and normal.
Now, having a long life doesn’t mean that everyone would automatically be more open to new things, better at communicating, and more aware of their own boundaries, of course. But we do think that in general, radical longevity in an environment that values communication and exploration would give people a better chance of getting good at it.
There are probably plenty of other ways longevity might affect our relationships—what else do you think might happen?
Part 1 of this series explored some ideas about how technology might change the things we’re willing to consent to, and even the way we think about consent. What we haven’t talked about, though, is specifically how the technology of the Passionate Pantheon world affects risks associated with sex. Sex is risky. If you take away that risk, how does that change the picture when it comes to sexual consent?
Throughout history, arguably the two biggest factors that have influenced social attitudes and mores about sex are pregnancy and STIs. The advent of penicillin, hormonal contraception, and reliable barrier methods of STI prevention changed, and are still changing, cultural attitudes toward sex in the real world. Sure, that change is slow and not evenly distributed, but it is happening. Even in the 21st century, not everyone has the same access to contraception and barriers. Hard as it may be to believe, plenty of people in Western countries still seek to roll back access to contraceptives and comprehensive sexual education. But the interesting question here is: what happens when sex is completely disconnected from the risks of unintended pregnancy and health problems? How does that change the society, its sexual morality, and the activities its members will consent to? How does the idea of morality change, when morality is detached from sexual risk?
In the world of the Passionate Pantheon, people have conscious control over their fertility. Accidental pregnancy is, in a literal sense, impossible. Advanced biomedical technology makes STIs essentially non-existent. If you lived in the City, would that change what you would consider? What impact would that have on your consensual sexual choices?
In our world, the consequences of sexual choices aren’t evenly distributed. In most societies throughout human history, the consequences of pregnancy fall most heavily on the people who tend to have less power in society. Access to contraception and access to health care have historically not been equally available, something that’s reflected even in the way people have traditionally thought about these things (for example, consider the historical narrative that men receive STIs from “loose women,” rather than the other way around, or the way that pregnancy is considered a ‘suitable punishment’ for ‘promiscuous’ people with uteruses who have sex with people with penises).
In the Passionate Pantheon, we explore a world where pretty much all the risk (except emotional risk, itself not a small risk, of course) has been removed from sex. On top of that, there’s no shame or taboo around consensual sex of almost any kind you can imagine, and the ability to reshape your body at will has blurred the ideas of sexual orientation and sexual identity. Even without religious and social structures that revolve around sex, this alone would have a profound effect on what sexual relationships look like.
When you remove physical risk from sex, you go a long way to leveling the playing field for a lot of people who, in the real world, bear disproportionate consequences for their sexual choices.
Sexual risk, and particularly the unequal distribution of the possible consequences of sex, arguably has left a lasting impression in current sexual morality from the earliest days of antiquity. Ideas about sexual exclusivity for women appear to have arisen after the Agrarian Revolution, when people began to collect enough resources to pass it to their heirs. In a society without modern technology, the only way a man could know for certain that his partner’s children was related to him by blood was to control her access to other sexual partners, planting the seeds for moral ideas about sex that continue to this day.
What would you do if there was no physical risk attached to sex? What might society look like if the consequences were removed from sex? Many sexually conservative modern religions have examined that idea and don’t like what they see, which is part of the reason so many US “pro-life” groups also want to ban or limit access to contraception. They see the risks inherent in sexual activity as a feature, not a bug—it’s a way to enforce sexual abstinence and sexual exclusivity.
In the Passionate Pantheon novels, we explore a society where all the negative physical consequences of sex are entirely absent, leaving only the benefits and the emotional risks inherent in all connecting with other people. That’s not necessarily guaranteed to lead to a Utopian society, of course—we explore some of the ways this can lead to darkness in books two and four—but it would have a deep effect on social attitudes toward sex that could easily lead to greater respect for agency and variety.
In the City, sexual mores are driven not by physical risk but by emotional risk. Human beings evolved to feel emotional and social rejection acutely painfully; for our tribal ancestors, social rejection could be a death sentence. Changing society doesn’t necessarily change our evolutionary heritage. Even in the City, emotional rejection is painful, which is why the people of the Passionate Pantheon novels are so concerned with consent as a foundational part of the social structure. In the absence of physical risk, emotional risk takes on greater importance!
Of course, there’s a thousand and one other societal consequences that would arise in an environment like that of the Passionate Pantheon cities—and each city has its own nuances and variations. We’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic.
This is one way we think it might play out—we’d love to know what other norms you could imagine arising in this world!
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!
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?
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.
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:
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?