Stephen Palmer Interview
VEGETABLE COMPUTERS, NARCOLEPTIC SNOW, AND THE EVOLUTIONARY HISTORY OF LIFE
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen Palmer: writer, space-rock musician, and artist. One of the most intriguing and eccentric writers on the Science Fiction scene ever since his debut novel Memory Seed first appeared in 1996, Stephen has released several albums with his band “Mooch,” performed under various “solo guises,” and has occasionally been known to create the cover art for his own books. His writing has been classified as “greenpunk” and “out on the far edges of New Weird.” It certainly displays a fertile imagination and an adventurous approach to his art. His books have been variously described as “brilliant,” “richly imagined, unusual and creative,” and “uplifting and shocking.”
What sort of man writes books than inspire such contradictory (if flattering) comments? Read on:
sffchronicles After reading Urbis Morpheos, Memory Seed, Glass and Flowercrash, I have to ask you: is your vision for the future really that bleak?
Stephen Palmer I’m afraid it is. Although, having said that, you’ve been reading my vision of what will happen to humanity – my vision of the future for life in general and the planet is very different. As James Lovelock has pointed out on many occasions, we are just one species who won’t last very long in the grand scheme of things. My favourite kind of book to read is anything about life on Earth, the evolutionary history of life, Gaia Theory, etc. For instance, The Life And Death Of Planet Earth by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee has inspired the writing of two novels, while James Lovelock’s Gaia books have inspired much of what I’ve had published so far, including Urbis Morpheos. I suppose my vision is bleak because so many core human ideas – the concept of a soul, the idea of God, hierarchical social structures, etc – have the kind of inertia that makes them very difficult to overcome. Despite what Carl Sagan said in Cosmos we’re still basically children as a species, which means narcissistic, and all that that selfish condition entails.
sffchronicles Are there any individuals (particularly historical figures that our members will recognize) that you would identify as rising above our basically childish nature to become truly adult human beings? If so, what traits or actions identified them as such?
Stephen Palmer You want me to name names, eh? Well, how about Sir David Attenborough? He has done more for Western culture than most people I could think of, and all because he has over sixy years made television programmes about the wonder and beauty of nature. He is as inspirational a man as I can think of. To be honest, the vast majority of the people that I would put forward in this category are ordinary people that I meet, for instance, at work, like teachers, who do an extremely difficult job then get criticised by people who wouldn’t last ten seconds in a classroom. Douglas Adams made the best comment on this topic, when in one of his novels he pointed out that those people most attracted to power and fame are those least suited to it.
sffchronicles What do you believe would happen if a great many of us … I won’t suggest some sort of spiritual awakening, because you don’t believe in that … but let us say that there was some great biological leap forward, or a philosophy that took hold, which transformed a great many of us into genuine adults at or about the same time? Would they become great leaders and attract many followers — or would the children turn on them as a reminder of their own shortcomings?
Stephen Palmer Well, much as I love this question, it’s not going to happen like that! Except in fiction. But let me give you an example. I never vote in British national elections (though I do vote locally if and when I know about local candidates) because there’s no point. In Britain we have a first-past-the-post system, which means, in my constituency, whoever I vote for the Tory gets in. But anyway, we have a top-heavy political system that attracts people who want fame and power, or who are borderline insane, like a certain ex-PM I could mention. So what’s the point of voting? I believe the only thing you can do in the modern world is persuade by example. I’m a vegetarian for that reason – I don’t want to be part of the cruel, mechanstic way of dealing with animals. But I don’t go on marches or liberate animals. I’d rather write about it all.
sffchronicles If allowed to do so, what sort of social structures do you think mature humans would put into place?
Stephen Palmer They would be decentralised, above all else. They would be representative of their populations – composed half of men and half of women, for instance. Also they would abandon the interest rate mechanism, which is a way for cash-rich people to take money out of circulation and use it to get more money off people with less money. They wouldn’t be obsessed with economic growth, either. I sound like a bleeding-heart liberal, don’t I? The immediate response will be, “that’s completely unrealistic and it isn’t going to happen any time soon.” But I’d agree with that. It’s not going to happen in a hundred years, nor a thousand. But if you look back at the history of human beings appreciating themselves and their cultures, if you take Gilgamesh, then Aristotle, then Robert Hook, then Sigmund Freud, you can see a clear sophistication in our understanding of ourselves. I do think that humanity is on a one-way trip; and the key is that understanding is irreversible. Once Freud had discovered the existence of the unconscious, our understanding of ourselves was immeasurably improved, for all the ridiculous things he wrote about afterwards. So although I’ll be perceived as idealistic, it is important to have signposts – goals we can aim for, however far in the future they might be. Interest-free money is one such.
sffchronicles By the end of any of your books, it always seems you’ve left a lot of questions unanswered: the nature of the connection between the two Psolilais, whether Kray and Cray are the same city (and if so, which came first) etc. It seems there is much more here than a desire to be artfully mysterious, but I’m not sure what. Is there something you could tell us about that, or would that go counter to the whole idea?
Stephen Palmer This is fundamental to what I do as an author. I hate it when in any novel I’m reading everything is explained; what I like is the joy of discovering hidden aspects of a story or a scenario. My narrative style has been like this from its beginning in the mid 1980s. You can imagine how excited I was to discover The Book Of The New Sun by Gene Wolfe, which encapsulated everything I wanted to do. People say my work is too influenced by Gene Wolfe, but really it would be better to say that Wolfe has a similar enjoyment in hiding the truth of things beneath the surface of his narrative. Despite the religious nature of Wolfe and his quintet, The Book of the New Sun will always be for me the greatest SF work. I’m also keen to have my readers come up with their own theories, because my version isn’t necessarily the only, or even the best one. One reviewer on amazon thought the two Psolilais might be sisters, which was a great idea, though not the one I originally conceived. I can see how it would work though, so the sibling concept has its merits. My personal feeling is that Psolilai and psolilai are both dream-works of Gularvhen. There are morphological clues in the last chapter (narrated by the “unknown” first person character) and in the rest of the novel, for example the flyer on top of the ziggurat and its equivalent in Theeremere (which is of course a parallel conurbation to Teewemeer). As for Kray and Cray, they aren’t the same city, though they have the same plan – the same map. The five urbs of Flowercrash exist in the location of Kray, on Earth, but far into the future from the perspective of Arrahaquen, deKray and all the rest. Cray is on an alien planet. Not everybody likes this sort of obfuscation and game-playing however. I remember a meeting with my then editor Tim Holman in London where I mentioned that, in Muezzinland, Mnada is a clone of her mother. “It’s not explicitly mentioned in the novel,” I said, “but there are some clues.” Tim replied with a big grin on his face, “Only you, Steve, could have said that,” which at the time I found quite flattering!
sffchronicles It seems, too, that you present reality as something very fluid, as something we can never quite grasp. Is this impression correct, and if it is, do you believe that’s true for us here, outside your books.
Stephen Palmer I think that is true, yes. None of us perceives reality as it is, we each of us carry a mental model of reality, which is what we deal with on a day-to-day basis. That mental model can at best be accurate, if the narcissism we have as children is overcome through growth. People whose mental models are damaged or otherwise faulty experience life differently to us – you only have to look at the childhood, upbringing and life of every recent dictator there’s ever been, from Napoleon to Colonel Gaddafi, to see that.
sffchronicles Apart from the novel Hallucinating, does your music influence your writing or vice versa? Is there a close relationship between them, only an indirect influence, or would you say little or no influence?
Stephen Palmer Very little influence. There are some sections in Muezzinland where I describe futuristic music, for example the approach to Fez City in Morocco, but generally the two worlds don’t coincide. My early music was in the SF mode, but as I’ve sophisticated as an author and as a musician the two worlds have parted. Hallucinating was originally a short story – part one of the novel – and not intended for my SF fans, rather for music fans. Then I got curious about what happened next, and wrote part two, at which point Sean Wallace, then with the Wildside Press, asked me to complete the book. I originally said no, but the scenario dragged me back and I did complete it. I’m glad I did, not least because it shows my less serious side. I’m happy to admit though that it’s rather an idiosyncratic novel and not to everybody’s taste. Anyone, however, who is interested in how we define “alien” and how we relate to music might like it, and it does have a proper plot and characters.
sffchronicles Do you listen to music when you are writing, and if so, what kind of music? Any particular style, or any particular artists?
Stephen Palmer I never listen to music when I’m writing because I wouldn’t be able to tear my attention away from it. Also, it would be an intrusion from the real world into the imaginary world I’m creating. I do occasionally have formless ambient music on when I’m at the revising or proofreading stage, but even that is quite rare. It’s far more important for me to have a window that looks out into the natural world. In every house I’ve lived in, except my current house, I’ve had a study from where I could glance up from my computer screen to see lots of green. I really miss that where I am at the moment, although I can see a stand of trees.
sffchronicles You say that it distracts you. Is it similar to reading a book you thought you were reading for pleasure and finding yourself editing?
Stephen Palmer Very much so! I think a lot of authors have that sinking feeling – especially, I suspect, at the outset of a novel – when they think, “I can see what the author has done there,” or, “that bit of plotting was well handled…” I also find myself doing this when watching films: working out how the director balances plot against background information. The biggest mistake I made when I started out writing was to focus too much on the scenario and not enough on the plot. I remember, some time in the late ‘eighties a few years after I began writing, I got half way through a novel and realised that all I had done was describe the world – I hadn’t got any action at all. And I hadn’t imagined a reader reading my work. That was a small turning point in my development. These days when I’m writing I try to have an imaginary reader at the back of my mind all the time…
sffchronicles Obviously, your stories push all sorts of boundaries. Is this a set intention, or are these simply the sort of stories that rise up in your mind, the kind of stories that you must write?
The latter. All the novels I’ve written have begun as ideas from other areas, usually from the non-fiction books I’ve read, though most have some other genesis as well. Memory Seed began as a couple of mental images I had one day when I was out for a walk, one a series of moss-covered roofs leading down to the sea, the other a bordello which masked a secret. Glass was inspired by looking at the beauty of glass, and Flowercrash by looking at plants. Those first three novels however, which are a loose trilogy and do follow a single, albeit complex story from the beginning of Memory Seed to the end of Flowercrash, have a common theme: embodiment and emotion versus disembodiment and intellect. Muezzinland was inspired by seeing the anorexic Princess Diana on television and hearing all the gossip about how the royal family disliked her. Hallucinating was inspired by my love of alternative culture and music. Urbis Morpheos though was a strange one. I wrote the original version in 1998, then different versions all the way up to 2006, when it was accepted for publication by PS Publishing. None of my novels has gone through quite such an extended gestation as Urbis Morpheos; the published version is half the length of the original, with the rest existing as a second and final work, Astra Gaia.
sffchronicles If your life or your philosophy were all summed up in one sentence (no, I’ll be generous and give you two) what would it be?
Stephen Palmer The most important occupation of life is understanding, not least the understanding of ourselves. My personal occupation is to show up religion, all religious ideas and all spiritual ideas as the nonsense they are, alongside a more general one which is to put forward ideas about the human condition. (Apologies if that upsets religious readers, but it is just my personal opinion.)
sffchronicles I have to ask … why the hat?
Stephen Palmer Well, here’s something I’ve never told anybody before… I was Bryn Llewellyn, unsuccessful dark fantasy author with Prime Books. The photographs were taken in 2005 for Bryn’s novel The Rat And The Serpent, and I’ve used them ever since because they’re so distinctive – I understand the importance of having a brand or image, so that’s why I’ve stuck to them. Also Pete Crowther at PS Publishing was keen to use the photos for Urbis Morpheos. The Bryn Llewellyn experience was curious, because the novel was written as a re-envisaged version of the “beggar makes good and becomes hero” story, but the reviewers assumed I was simply being unoriginal. We should have emphasised at the beginning of the novel, or in a subtitle, that it was heavily indebted to folk tale structures. It was more of a fable than anything. I’d like to try again with that novel because it has a unique central idea, which is that the story was imagined and then written entirely in black-and-white, like a director would make a black-and-white film. There’s no reference to any coloured object throughout. I remember that the first chapter was difficult to write, but once I got into the technique it became easier.
sffchronicles Females control the world, at least the human part of it, in most of your novels. You have said elsewhere that women are allowed to be human but men are constrained by “a box called masculinity.” Do you mean women act in a way that is more natural, or are you referring to some higher attribute of human nature? Is this what you were saying, or part of what you were saying, when you wrote about the entirely male society of the Green Man in Flowercrash?
Stephen Palmer Men (I’m speaking generally here) are forced to remain immature because society is large-scale and hierarchical. In my work I enjoy writing about human beings, so a lot of my characters are women. On the other hand, I do like a flawed idiot, male or female. It just depends on the novel… But it certainly isn’t natural for men to be less emotional and less mature than women, that’s just a characteristic of society at the moment. In Flowercrash I contrasted the almost autistic male Shrine Of The Green Man with the similarly extreme Shrine Of Our Sister Crone; neither of those organisations get it right.
sffchronicles Then besides allowing you to write more about female characters, how does this belief that woman are free to be more human than men lead you to write stories about societies that are, or nearly are matriarchies? If they are more human, they don’t seem more humane. Do you think it is human nature to be essentially humane or essentially self-serving?
Stephen Palmer I think the human condition means we are intrinsically humane, though we are born narcissistic, and have to overcome that self-serving view of the world in order to grow fully. Matriarchal societies are no more humane than patriarchal ones. In pre-history they would have been matrilineal anyway; there are hints of such ancient culture in Homer’s Odyssey, where pre-patriarchal attitudes to women are retained, and mentioned in passing.
sffchronicles What inspires you to write? What kind of reading or activity tends to stimulate new ideas?
Well, there are two major lines here. The large-scale ideas come from my own reading, or from major themes that interest me, like environmentalism. Reading James Lovelock’s Gaia books was a great inspiration to me, for instance. I was inspired by The Life And Death Of Planet Earth to write a novel set in an era when oxygen and carbon dioxide are at low levels in the atmosphere, as will happen in about a billion years time. The small scale ideas come at random from my subconscious, as they do for most authors. I’ll look at a horse chestnut and think, what if there was a computer inside? That kind of thing. A lot of Urbis Morpheos is set in the Britain/France area, but with sea levels reduced by a few hundred metres, so some of the ideas for the landscape are future extrapolations of real places – Mahandriana, for instance, is in what’s now northern France. I’m a sucker for anything involving an ice age, as some of my reviewers have noticed. The underwater biocomputers were inspired by looking at pumpkins. Also (and I didn’t realise this until recently, when somebody pointed it out) a major theme of mine is balloons and bath houses. I’m not sure why. Balloons feature in most of my novels.
sffchronicles Specifically, how did you ever come to think of your — for lack of a better term — vegetable computers?
Stephen Palmer The vegetable computers in Memory Seed and Flowercrash were inspired by looking at plants. Then I allowed my imagination to run riot. When I first created the world for that novel in the late 1980’s I was living near Windsor Great Park in the south-east of Britain, and I used to take long walks there every week. The landscape itself and the plants were my inspiration. I returned there last year for the first time in about fifteen years, and I had the strangest sense of déjà vu. I realised eventually that all the sights and sounds of the place were reminding me of my own worldbuilding scenarios from two decades earlier – not the books themselves, but the act of creating them. It was rather a magical moment!
sffchronicles What inspired the idea of narcoleptic snow in Urbis Morpheos?
Stephen Palmer That was stolen from one of my own unwritten novels called Bad Snow, and reused. I was walking through snowdrifts one day and idly wondering what chemicals the snow flakes might contain. This is typical of my inspiration, I’ll see something natural then begin to wonder how it might be in the future. I’m convinced that this is the reason I write SF – my need to know what will happen in the future. One of the most annoying things about dying is that I won’t get to discover how it all turns out.
sffchronicles Do you think there will eventually come to be a more intimate connection between the biological world and technology? How far do you believe it is genuinely possible to go in that direction. Will we really be able to do things as remarkable as bioengineering mollusc-buses (not necessarily those specifically, but join biology and technology to that degree)?
Stephen Palmer I should point out that the mollusc-bus was an especially silly creation that only appears in Hallucinating, which is not a book to be taken seriously – at least, in its various bizarre subcreations. Hallucinating was one of those books where I just let my imagination roam unrestrained. I think there will indeed be an interface between biology and technology, the onward rush of technological development makes it almost an inevitability.
sffchronicles Do you believe that artificial intelligences will progress so far as true sentience? Or will there, do you think, come a point where they simply can’t leap over the gap? What about the self-replicating and mutating machines in Urbis Morpheos, will we, as a race, someday have to compete with those?
Stephen Palmer My personal feeling is that it will happen, but not through the methods currently being tried. Only very recently have AI researchers realised that connecting everything up isn’t going to work. The whole point of human consciousness is that we don’t have direct access into one another’s minds, we have indirect access – through emotion, gesture, language, etc. It’s because we don’t have direct access that we have to use ourselves as exemplars for what others are feeling and thinking. This is the fundamental argument of Nicholas Humphrey and his social intelligence theory. But researchers are now getting AI’s to explore the world as unconnected individuals – create a society of such AIs and you have a chance of making them conscious. I’m exploring these themes in my ongoing current work Beautiful Intelligence.
sffchronicles What are you reading now?
Stephen Palmer I’ve just finished reading a very good book indeed called The Covenant Of The Wild – Why Animals Chose Domestication by Stephen Budiansky. It offers a theory of how and why domestication might have happened in a way that interfaced, at least at the outset, very little with Neolithic human culture. The author is a farmer as well as a noted science writer, and he puts forward the case that domestication was a natural, evolutionary strategy that came about because of environmental circumstances. Fascinating, and one of those books where you slap yourself on the forehead and say, “Of course! How did I miss something so obvious.” I’m about to begin The Ecology Of Eden by Evan Eisenberg, which is about how human beings have imagined nature throughout history – a similar kind of subject. Many of the books in my library are on these kinds of topics: Gaia theory, plants, evolution, anthropology, consciousness, psychology and philosophy. I suppose I read nine non-fiction books for every novel…
sffchronicles What as yet non-existent book would you like to read if it existed?
Stephen Palmer Here’s one I’d like to see. There is a superb author of books on human consciousness called Nicholas Humphrey – I’ve read everything he’s ever written, except his new one, which my parents are getting me for Christmas. Nicholas Humphrey is a very great man, he began as an animal researcher, working with chimps, then he wrote a book called The Inner Eye, which here in the UK had a television series also. Since then he’s written a number of groundbreaking books on consciousness, putting forward what loosely might be called the social intelligence theory. He’s well known in the field of consciousness studies, and is often mentioned in the same breath as people like Daniel Dennett. The book that I would like to see is a complete overview of his work so far, presented as a textbook that every school student would be given free. I’m sure the subsequent explosion of understanding would be beneficial…
sffchronicles Where do you think the SF and fantasy genres are heading? Where would you like to see them go?
Stephen Palmer I think SF is doing fine at the moment – it’s in rude health – but I do worry for Fantasy. Doorstop books in the sword ‘n’ sorcery mode, or rip-offs of Tolkien, do nothing for me. Unfortunately, they are popular and have an disproportionate influence in the wider world with regard to how our genre is perceived. If I tell somebody normal that I write SF and Fantasy I immediately have to qualify it by adding, “It’s not what you think, I don’t do space ships and lasers.” I usually blather on about my environmental SF before their eyes glaze over. I think that’s a shame, though it is inevitable, as a reading of Dave Langford’s Ansible illustrates. But I do admire people like Jeff Vandermeer and China Mieville who’ve made SF cool again. I also like some of Margaret Attwood’s “SF”, particularly novels such as Oryx And Crake. To be honest, I think the next revolution in SF and Fantasy is going to be the mode of distribution, not the style or sub-genre. The internet laid waste to music during the 2000’s, and ebook technology may do the same for fiction. I’m lucky, I have a fifteen year track record and pre-existing novels and fans, but I worry for new authors not yet published. The problem is shouting when the whole world is shouting too. It gets rather noisy.
sffchronicles How many hours a day do you write? Do you write every day?
Stephen Palmer It varies enormously. Last year, when I was looking after my dying cat and at home for the six week duration of the summer holiday, I wrote an entire novel. Other novels, like Urbis Morpheos, take years, then get ripped apart and put together in new ways. Memory Seed was like that too; the published version was the third one. If I’m in a writing phase I do write every day, usually for two to three hours, after work. The cut-off point is the last broadcast of the day of The Simpsons, which I now have to watch one episode of daily – either at six o’clock in the evening, or seven – or else feel that something bad has happened in my life. I suppose that means I’m an addict, as I’ve seen the episodes dozens of times each. Mind you, by six or seven in the evening I’m usually too tired to write coherently. At weekends or holidays (I work at a college of further education) I write in the morning and afternoon, often intensively, then collapse exhausted in front of the television.
sffchronicles What are you working on now?
Stephen Palmer That’s quite a difficult question to answer, in that I always have a number of projects simultaneously active. Of late I’ve been writing short stories, which until recently I was convinced I couldn’t write. I’ve enjoyed the experience much more than I thought I would, and sold a far greater proportion of my stories than I thought likely. I’m particularly pleased to have had work published by NewCon Press and by Eibonvale Press; also an acceptance for Ian Sales’ Rocket Science anthology. So at the moment I’m writing short stories. I’m hoping to crack Interzone, and also hoping to get Pete Crowther to accept a story – the last one I sent he rejected owing to it being incomprehensible, which was a fair comment. I’ve since revised it. As for novels, the only incomplete and active work at the moment is Beautiful Intelligence, which is a prequel to Muezzinland, and is my take on the artificial intelligence debate. That novel has hit a glitch, but I’m hoping to restart it soon.
sffchronicles What are your plans — in terms of your writing — for the future?
Stephen Palmer Gosh, where do I begin… Well, this year I wrote a brand new novel set in the same world as a short story I wrote for Allen Ashley’s Where Are We Going? anthology. I resisted the temptation to write this novel for a week or so at the start of the summer holiday, but the lure was too great. It’s called Hairy London and it’s very surreal. I had more fun writing it than I can tell you! Then last year I wrote Humani, which is set 800 million years in Earth’s future and which has the existence or nonexistence of souls as its theme. Humani was the first new novel I wrote after a bit of a break, and it is currently sitting on my computer with no destination. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. Ironically, my cat, who died a week after I completed it, was, in a way, the inspiration for it, as well as the reason it got written so intensively. I also have twin novellas Goodbye Earth/Hello Earth, which are currently being considered by Ian Whates of NewCon Press. These are very much in my environmental SF style, and look at how human beings might interact with nature in the near and far future. Then there is the second and final Urbis book, called Astra Gaia, which details what Gularvhen does after his conceptual victory over Amargoidara, Sukhtaya and Dezisserine. I’ve also got dark fantasy, alternate/historical fantasy, young adult and a children’s novel on my computer. All without a home.
sffchronicles Would it horrify you or please you if one of your stories were made into a movie or television series?
Stephen Palmer It would delight me! I often get comments about my work being made into films because my imagination is so visual. If I was to have a perfect fantasy on this topic it would be that Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli would make a version of Memory Seed. It’s right up his street. A couple of his films, Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind and Princess Mononoke, are very similar in style and theme to my early work.
sffchronicles Which are the writers who have influenced you the most?
Stephen Palmer My early influences would be Jack Vance for his unbridled imagination and baroque style, John Wyndham for his post-apocalypse scenarios (being British, I do love a good apocalypse) and Tolkien for his unmatched creativity. Then there is Gene Wolfe of course. I was also influenced by the work of Gwyneth Jones, who did the introduction to Urbis Morpheos; she wrote an outstanding novel under her pen name, Ann Halam, called Siberia. I absolutely loved that one. My second favourite SF work is Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia, which was much inspired by the then groundbreaking Gaia theory of James Lovelock. I’m also a big fan of China Mieville, who is now the only author I buy every book of, although I have to say Kraken was a disappointment. Hopefully I’ll enjoy Embassytown when it comes out in paperback.
sffchronicles You’ve said that you are turning toward fantasy, but you didn’t sound very confident about getting it published. Is your fantasy as “experimental” as your science fiction, or is it quite different. Since that interview was published, has anything happened to increase the probability that we will start seeing fantasy novels by Stephen Palmer?
Stephen Palmer I think I meant traditional fantasy. There was only one Tolkien, and nobody is ever going to write anything better than Lord Of The Rings. It is strange though how some artistic works generate whole genres, like Neuromancer begetting cyberpunk. The same thing happens in music – the three or four albums made by Tangerine Dream between 1974 and 1977 have created an entire genre called Berlin School, which essentially recreates the sound, too often without any originality. I’ve often wondered why Lord Of The Rings begat so many unoriginal, tedious children. Probably it was a combination of chance and culture. My own fantasy isn’t in the elves ‘n’ orcs mode, although one of my as yet unpublished works is a trilogy of dark fantasy novels with a moderately epic scope. I had to put my own spin on the worldbuilding though – it was impossible not to. Also, I am a big fan of young adult fiction, where there are some terrific fantasy writers: Sally Gardner, Philip Reeve, Philip Pullman to name three giants, but also Herbie Brennan, Nick Gifford, Ann Halam, Patrick Wood. When I worked for Waterstones (1998-2006) these were the authors who intrigued me. A fantasy novel by me would be warped, like my SF is. It would be a Stephen Palmer novel with no science in it.
sffchronicles What is the appeal of YA fantasy for adult readers?
Stephen Palmer I think it’s the stripped-down, no-nonsense writing of them. When you write a YA novel you simply can’t get sidetracked by anything complicated or unnecessary. It all boils down to plot and character. A great example of that is Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, which has a terrific scenario but which focusses on two main characters and their tightly plotted adventures. Of course, the novel that proves this theory wrong is the exceptional Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, but his other, non-Dark Materials work is economically written – The Ruby In The Smoke for instance.
sffchronicles From reading your novels, it seems to me that you have a great love and respect for nature, but also a certain fear. Which is stronger? Or is it simply that you think if nature destroys us it is no more than we deserve and for the greater good of the planet?
Stephen Palmer Very much the latter. Nature is my love and my solace. It will last long after we are gone, and that is one thing I explore in my work, but also I’m interested in exploring the fact that nature is something to be respected and loved in its own right. Even committed environmentalists have this attitude that nature should be preserved because, for instance, it can provide chemicals that fight cancer – this is an argument I’ve seen repeated many times for the preservation of the rainforest. You very rarely see people arguing that the rainforest, the Arctic or the wetlands should be preserved because they are beautiful in their own right. That would be my argument, but I’d be laughed at for being an idealistic hippy. I explored the dichotomy in Urbis Morpheos, as one of my reviewers noted. There is a passage where one of the characters says to psolilai, who is an unreconstructed Gaian, “… you will never return nature to sole occupancy, as you put it. There is always the question of sentience. Because we felins, like you humans, are conscious, we have the ability to manipulate our environment. We need tools. We need raw materials. Would it not be better to accept a minimum level of use? Given the opportunity to use sustainable resources, we could live with nature and still retain our required level of technology.” This is the problem we face now – living as a large population of conscious individuals on a planet that, as James Lovelock has proved, needs much of its surface area to undertake the feedback processes that keep Earth habitable for life. I also explored the idea that the human perception of the natural world is a narcissistic one in my twin novellas Goodbye Earth/Hello Earth. The second part of the first novella features scenes where Mostinian Jones, the Secretary of the Earth Departure Programme, kills a group of tribal cannibals because they are incapable of leaving the Earth. Mostinian’s companion is horrified and tells him he has committed murder, but Mostinian explains that he is acting on a different time scale and through a different morality, in which murder is not as simple a concept as it has been before. He is acting on a planetary scale, for the sake both of humanity and of the Earth. Those scenes were key in setting up the mood of the two novellas when I was writing them.
sffchronicles At the end of Glass it seems that it might be the end for humanity, or at least the humans in the story think they can’t live without their computers. Do you think we will eventually become so dependent on our computers that we really couldn’t live without them, or did you end the story where you did expecting readers to believe that the characters will, eventually, pull themselves together and find a way to survive?
Stephen Palmer We’re already dependent on computers. That future is here. But no, in Glass, nobody survives. The experiment of Cray is a failed experiment. In Flowercrash however the experiment is successful: “We must exist in bodies in order to experience the deep emotions that mark the conscious condition,” [says Shônsair]. “We must love our bodies, and disdain the lure of pure intellect.” “Yes,” agrees Zoahnône once more. “If we worship the intellect then we risk moving into a state of fracture, where we as individuals, and as a society, are alienated from our environment. For it is distance that breeds aggression and uncaring mores. Closeness brings unity.” These days I’m beginning to wonder if our computerised world is ushering in an era where individuality itself is reduced. I’ve noticed that it’s increasingly difficult to be a single, creative individual under the vast umbrella of the internet. Everything is shared, everything follows norms, everything is global. It’s a kind of electronic monoculture. I worry for human imaginative diversity.
sffchronicles In most of your work there is a sense of humanity being isolated; there is almost a feeling of claustrophobia. Do you think we will eventually come to be cut-off from the rest of the world in that way?
Stephen Palmer A lot of my novels have a claustrophobia about them, but that’s because I like reducing physical scenarios to a minimum – it forces me out of preconceived, lazy ideas. Memory Seed began the trend. I deliberately reduced the geographical scale of the novel as it progressed, until, at the end, the characters exist in a single street, with the rest of Kray too dangerous to approach. The alternate/historical novel I mentioned above is set entirely inside a roadside tavern (and its garden), which forced me to think differently about the characters, the narrative and the plot. As a result of this setting the novel is very tightly paced – it’s almost an action thriller. Everything superfluous was cut out, leaving only the plot and the people. Getting back to your question, it’s hard to say whether we will become more isolated from the world. Human culture is plastic – it could go either way, good or bad. Most likely though it will do both – good and bad.
sffchronicles Members of our forums here are always eager to hear about books they might enjoy reading, books and authors they might be unfamiliar with. Are there any new writers or specific books — in the genre or out of it – you would especially recommend?
Stephen Palmer There certainly are. Here are a few!
James Lovelock: anything. To my mind, Lovelock’s Gaia Theory is of the same profundity and importance as Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory. Outstanding books in every way, while his autobiography, Homage To Gaia, is moving and compelling.
Nicholas Humphrey: anything. A great scientist and a great author. His The Inner Eye was a groundbreaking work, but A History Of The Mind and Soul Searching are also excellent.
Erich Fromm: To Have Or To Be? Erich Fromm was an early humanist, who developed a number of ideas about humanity. A great author, though limited perhaps by his insistence on thinking about everything from a Marxist perspective. His The Art Of Loving however should be required reading for everyone. It was Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society that made me realise that the human condition could be analysed scientifically, while his The Anatomy Of Human Destructiveness is simply monumental.
Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee: The Life And Death Of Planet Earth. I found this to be an inspirational book, and to a reader such as myself, who already looks at things on an extended time scale, it was a joyous discovery.
Gabrielle Walker: Snowball Earth. Another book that opened my mind to the vast scale of our planet’s environmental evolution. A fantastic, mind-boggling read, with great significance to those exploring the Cambrian Explosion. David Attenborough’s recent pair of programmes about this era drew on Snowball Earth ideas.
David Beerling: The Emerald Planet, How Plants Changed Earth’s History. The story of plant evolution over billions of years, which is fascinating.
Rachel Carson: Silent Spring. A vital environmental text, and still relevant. I also liked her The Sea Around Us.
Nick Lane: Life Ascending. Nick Lane has only written three books, but he is one of the new masters of science writing. His award-winning Life Ascending describes the evolution of life in ten vital steps, while Power, Sex & Suicide deals with mitochondria, and Oxygen: The Molecule That Made The World details the history of oxygen on Earth. Outstanding books by an outstanding author.
Steven Mithen: The Prehistory Of The Mind. Steven Mithen took a risk with this one, but it stands up as a compelling read, describing a fascinating theory. His After The Ice: A Global Human History 20,000 – 5,000 BC is another fabulous work.
Douglas Hofstadter: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Difficult, sometimes impossible to read, complex, idiosyncratic, but a seminal text, especially to AI researchers.
Dorothy Rowe: Beyond Fear. Dorothy Rowe is a British counsellor whose many books of wise humanism inspired me in my earlier days. The Successful Self, Living With The Bomb and The Construction Of Life And Death are also important books.
I expect you’re wondering, where’s all the SF and Fantasy? Well, rather than list a few genre books that I like I decided to list only the ones I return to time after time to re-read. All of these are “essentials” for me, that I return to as the years roll on…
Gene Wolfe, The Book Of The New Sun; Brian Aldiss, Helliconia; Jack Vance, The Lyonesse Trilogy; JRR Tolkien, The Lord Of The Rings; Peter Dickinson, The Weathermonger; John Wyndham, The Day Of The Triffids; HG Wells, The War Of The Worlds; Steve Cockayne, The Legends Of The Land; Michael de Larrabeiti, The Borribles. China Mieville doesn’t make this list only because I’ve not yet re-read one of his novels! When I do, Un Lun Dun will be the one…
sffchronicles Could you share with us the names of any fiction books by new authors that have impessed you, and why?
Stephen Palmer Here’s some that I’ve encountered recently, and one or two not so recently. I’m a fan of Keith Brooke’s work, and his recent The Unlikely World Of Faraway Frankie (NewCon Press) is as good a YA novel as I’ve read in recent years. Keith has the ability to create unique scenarios based around dysfunctional families, which he then spins out into fantastic creations. I rate his work highly, not least the four Nick Gifford novels. I also liked very much the two novels by Mike Shevdon, Sixty-One Nails and The Road To Bedlam (Angry Robot), which were engaging and enjoyable. Another book that I wish was better known is Jan Mark’s last novel, Useful Idiots, which is an extraordinary read; it’s about a future plague, but with an anthropological/racism theme. Finally, here’s one from 2004 that I re-read recently called Curing The Pig by Liza Granville (Flame Books), which I loved for its extraordinary characters, Welsh setting and Faery subplot.
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