STEPHEN PALMER: VEGETABLE COMPUTERS, NARCOLEPTIC SNOW, AND THE EVOLUTIONARY HISTORY OF LIFE an Interview in Three Parts by Teresa Edgerton for sffchronicles PART ONE I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen Palmer: writer, space-rock musician, artist — and a member of these forums. 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? Stephen Palmer 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. (continued in next post) . . .