stephenpalmersf

Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Goblin Moon by Teresa Edgerton

In which various Gentlemen and Ladies of Society become involved in Fee Occurrences

In an alternate Teutonic land somewhere near an alternate Russia, inhabited by persons of gentility, some craftsmen, tradesmen and such, and by a dirty, uncouth underbelly of peasants and sundry unmentionables, Francis Skelbrooke – Lord of much that is not initially revealed – finds himself entangled in a plot hatched by various nonhuman characters. These latter persons are stock of dwarves, gnomes, and even the Fee (fairy) races, not least a Duchess with an indigo ape. There are also trolls, but they are concealed most cunningly.

Goblin Moon was first published some time ago, but has now been reissued in a smart new cover by the fledgling Tickety Boo Press. The novel received plaudits for its faux-Regency setting, excellent characterisation, and all-round bonhomie and readability.

I generally don’t read fantasy with magic and suchlike, so I approached this novel with slight trepidation, but it turned out to be a most enjoyable romp through various tangled plots, via pale young women with mysterious illnesses, feisty young women elsewhere, lads trying to better themselves, lords and ladies, and, at its heart, a dark plot to create a miniature homunculus carried through by a river worker (read – scavenger) and a book merchant (read – dabbler in dark magics). The characters are all lifelike, well drawn and attractive, with the not so attractive ones also drawn with skill. I sensed a distinct hint of Jack Vance in some of the magic and nonhuman races, and also in the black/white morality of the Fee races, exploited so well in the Lyonesse books; but this, of course, is no bad thing.

There is very little to say against the novel. Perhaps the ending was a little rushed, with Skelbrooke taken off scene temporarily, and the book was a little slow to start, but these are minor quibbles against a whole set of virtues. Fantasy fans who like a bit of medieval-style muck, moon, sass and spit in their milieu (think Terry Gilliam’s early films, especially Jabberwocky) will love this enjoyable read.

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Teresa Edgerton – Goblin Moon

Guest blog: Teresa Edgerton, Mouse Sandwiches and the Vegetable Phoenix

In 1726, British newspapers published accounts of one Mary Tofts, who gave birth to seventeen rabbits, three legs of a cat, and portions of the backbone of an eel. Nathaniel St. André, physician to the royal family, was sent to verify this story. He concluded that the rabbits were bred inside Mary’s Fallopian tubes. This seemingly miraculous event was explained by the wide-spread belief in “maternal impressions”— that any strong stimulus received by the mother during pregnancy might in some way mark the child, particularly the sight or fear of an animal. By the time the story was revealed as a hoax, several prominent doctors had been taken in.

Research can be tedious, but then sometimes you find resources that make you feel like you’ve walked into a candy shop, there’s such a delicious selection of details you can use to make your story more real— and more fantastical at the same time. The past is much stranger than any fantasy world and it was populated by people who viewed that world in ways that were sometimes, genuinely, stranger than anything the mind of a fantasy writer could create. And when you can get these delightful glimpses into the way they thought and the things they did, then you can just jump off from there and let your imagination fly where it will.

Let us take a brief trip around our metaphorical candy shop. In one glass case, for instance, we find the story of Robert Fludd, medical man and Hermetic philosopher, who early in the seventeenth century, while distilling blood, reportedly pulled from the vessel a screaming human head, complete with hair and all the requisite facial features.

On the shelf below: the rural practitioners who prescribed a meal of mouse on toast (fur and all) as the cure for such various ailments as stammering and bed-wetting, also lice, the sexual organs and excreta of animals, human perspiration, saliva of a fasting man, cuttlefish, and scorpions regularly used in medicines. Next to them, the country folk who kept bottles of urine, in order to monitor the health of distant loved ones by observing the appearance of their piddle.

Here is something meant to satisfy your sweet-tooth: Theriacs— antidotes for poisons or the bites of poisonous creatures, viz. apes, snakes, dogs, and human beings— were in use from the time of the Roman Empire through the nineteenth century. An antidote originated by Nero’s physician contained sixty-four ingredients, including cinnamon, viper’s flesh, honey, and opium. These sugar-based antidotes, which came to be known as Venice treacle eventually became, in a debased form, the common syrup we know today. This in turn led to the brimstone and treacle (or in the United States sulphur and molasses) prescribed as a tonic by our own grandmothers and great-grandmothers. As for viper’s flesh, it too remained in use into the nineteenth century.

And another confection: In the sixteenth century, the renowned physician Paracelsus (a.k.a. Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim) not only claimed to create a homunculus, or miniature human being, he also published the formula. Other formulas, by lesser-known philosophers, cited such ingredients as wax, soil, human sperm, and egg white. Mandrakes pulled from the earth beneath a gibbet were also popular, nourished as they were by a hanged man’s tears. (We might bottle them for our own use.)

A century later, natural philosophers occupied themselves with the resurrection of plants, most particularly the “spectre of the rose” in all its glory of petals, leaves, and stem. Many notable scientist of the era experimented and some, according to their own writings, were successful at calling up this apparition, reviving the “vegetable phoenix” by heating the ashes, which had previously been burned, then treated with a salt reduced to a fine blue powder. Continuing to extend our metaphor, we might characterize this historical snippet in the nature of a bonbon.

Here at the back of the shop, almost hidden, is a grotesque little story, the kind of thing not to be taken in excess, unless you are writing horror. It is said that a certain physician obtained the body of an executed criminal, for the purpose of dissection. Completing his work, he ordered his assistant to pulverize the brain case, a popular remedy. Afterwards, the student went to bed, leaving the powder in a paper on a table. At midnight, he was awakened by a noise, the source of which he could not immediately ascertain. At last, going to the table he was horrified to discover a small head staring at him from the paper with the powder. Two arms sprouted, and then the hands. A ribcage developed next and the musculature. After growing legs and feet, the tiny figure stood up, wearing the very same clothes the hanged man had worn to his execution. One can scarcely imagine the assistants terror— but perhaps a certain scientific satisfaction at achieving such a remarkable result?

If the clockwork figures beloved of steampunk readers and writers stimulate your appetite: long before the Victorian era and as early as the ancient Greeks, people were fascinated by mechanical figures and automatons. According to the poet Pindar, on the island of Rhodes automatons were so common that:

“The animated figures stand

Adorning every public street

And seem to breathe in stone, or

move their marble feet.”

During the Renaissance, in Augsburg, Hans Schlottheim built a mechanical galleon made to sail up the dinner table during a banquet, cannons firing and trumpets blowing. By the eighteenth century, spectators were charmed by clockwork flying pigeons and digesting ducks, a rooster powered by means of a bellows, a mechanical chess-playing Turk, and dolls that wrote or played musical instruments. Personally, I find the duck a little daunting.

And these are just a few of the treats available to the fantasy author with a strong stomach, a taste for whimsy, and a craving for the grotesque.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________

Many thanks to Teresa for these insights into her writing life. I’m currently reading her Goblin Moon novel, just out from Tickety Boo Press, and it’s really good (review to follow soon).

I am currently preparing a guest blog on my own research for Teresa.

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Teresa Edgerton – Goblin Moon

The Road To Middle Earth by Tom Shippey

Thorough, fascinating and readable investigation of the themes, background and the personal challenges of Tolkien writing The Lord Of The Rings. Shippey often appears on Tolkien documentaries, and this book supports that – he knows his stuff and is never less than articulate, opinionated and interesting. Really enjoyed this one.

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The Road To Middle Earth

How We Feel, by Giovanni Frazzetto

An interesting read, for sure, and well written, but some things to be disappointed with: trotting out the formula that emotions affect reason (ie negatively), and the usual stuff about crying as a state of “confusion” and “paralysis”, when actually the opposite is true. Also, an empty, bland and very disappointing final chapter. But full marks for teasing out the importance of the communicative importance of emotion. A welcome book, then, but one to argue with.

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How We Feel

Quiet, by Susan Cain

Interesting book about the differences between introverts and extroverts, focussing on what it’s like to be an introvert. Opening with the crucial point that “introvert” does not equal “shy” and “extrovert” does not equal “social butterfly” (very important distinctions), the book goes on to discuss how introverts react to the world around them. There’s perhaps a little to much psychobabble, and the book, written by an American, has an American style and feel, but it is undoubtedly interesting and a good read. I felt that I learned a few things from it.

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Quiet

Another FB meme…

So… I was tagged by Em Tett for the “10 Novels That Have Stayed With You” meme… and here we go for mine.

Gene Wolfe, The Book Of The New Sun

Brian Aldiss, Helliconia

Frank Herbert, Dune

The “big three” of my SF, if you like, these are books I really enjoy re-reading from time to time, and which I think have made a huge impact on SF. I’m also a big fan of the film of Dune.

Tolkien, Lord Of The Rings/The Hobbit

The first and the best, never to be surpassed.

Peter Dickinson, The Weathermonger

Lewis Carroll, Alice In Wonderland

There is something about The Weathermonger (the first novel of The Changes to be published, although it turned out to be the third in the trilogy) that for some reason resonates with me. I re-read it about once a year. I think it must be something to do with the scenario of opening up England to pre-industrial forces, removing cars and machines from the land… a fantasy of mine! It’s a wonderful book.

Richard Adams, Watership Down

Jack Vance, Lyonesse

China Mieville, Perdido Street Station/The Scar

Three marvellous fantasies that never lose their appeal. Lyonesse is for me Vance’s best work, although in volume three he did lose the thread a bit.

John Wyndham, The Day Of The Triffids

Looking at this list, I see that the authors are all white Western men. But all the books above, with the single exception of Perdido Street Station, I read as a much younger man, when there were fewer women getting genre fiction published and almost no non-whites. My reading has broadened considerably since then, and I am a keen supporter of non-Western authors. But I think the theme of “books that have stayed with you” does tug you down the path of books that made an impact when you were a teenager, or even younger – and the list above is almost entirely of novels I read when much younger.

 

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The Weathermonger by Peter Dickinson

The latest FB meme…

I was asked to contribute to the latest meme!

 

a. What am I working on?

I usually have a few things happening at the same time, and that’s true at the moment. My main WIP is a YA trilogy set in an alternate 1910/1911. It’s set mostly in Britain, but does head off to West Africa. The first two novels – The Girl With Two Souls and The Girl With One Friend – are written as first drafts, and I hope to write the concluding volume over winter. I think this is amongst the best work I’ve ever done; certainly from the point of view of plot and character. The main character is a fourteen year old mulatto girl who (it is thought) has two souls – on alternate days she appears as two different people. Her appalling father is the leading industrialist of the age, who has created a race of automata from his vast Factory south of Sheffield. I’m really looking forward to writing the final volume of this work, The Girl With No Soul.

In 2011 I wrote the first half of a near-future SF novel called Beautiful Intelligence. The setting for this is a race between two informal artificial intelligence research teams. Due to personal circumstances I was unable to complete the novel, but recently I’ve gone back to it, honed the written part, and prepared the concluding half. I hope to write this second half over the summer. As someone who has been interested in human consciousness, evolution, AI and related issues for decades, it has always bothered me how negligent (accidental or otherwise) some authors are with their work in these areas. There are any number of SF books where computer networks mysteriously “become sentient,” or where people “upload aspects of their consciousness or personality,” or things similarly impossible in my opinion. Beautiful Intelligence compares and contrasts this traditional view of AI with an alternate view, set amidst an exciting plot of betrayal, social decay and African cultures. Some time ago I wrote a novel called MuezzinlandBeautiful Intelligence is a volume 1 to Muezzinland’s volume 2. When I wrote Muezzinland I hoped to work on a sequel, and I think now that I will do this, writing a volume 3 to complete my tale of futuristic network/AI themes.

 

b. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

That’s difficult to say. I’m aware that some of my work is viewed as “challenging,” and I suppose with novels like Urbis Morpheos that is true. But it wasn’t intentionally challenging, I just wanted to write a deep, allusive, mysterious novel about environmental issues in the very far future. I also had a phase of using characters both as real people and as archetypes, and I got some flack for that – for example in The Rat & The Serpent. I think my focus on environmental issues – which was mentioned by John Clute in the SF Encyclopaedia as the reason for my lack of success! – is something that sets me apart from many other authors. I also tend to focus on socially apart, suppressed or otherwise mistreated characters – I do like a good “outsider” as a character. Often I use female characters (I much prefer to write them rather than male ones) and often non-white races. Africa fascinates me in particular. The “outsider” thing is certainly true of the disabled Ugliy in The Rat & The Serpent.

 

c. Why do I write what I do?

All my stuff is inspired by the real world – social injustice, environmental issues, etc. There are usually large scale and small scale beginnings. Often I’ll have an idea for a character or a scenario that takes some big theme as its focus – the environment, racism, sexism, etc. Certain aspects of these themes will form the basic theme of a book. Then there’ll be the small things, the pebbles that start the snowball. With Memory Seed, I had a couple of mental images come to me one day as I was walking around Virginia Water in Surrey – a row of moss-covered roofs going down to an ocean, and an ultra-posh brothel that was a cover for something else. For Muezzinland, I was inspired by tales of Princess Diana and her dysfunctional relationship with the Royal Family to create the Empress of Ghana and her two daughters. Unusually, Hairy London, my most recently published novel, began as the title and nothing else; and once I had that title appear in my head I began thinking about what a hairy London might be like…

 

d. How does my writing process work?

I write fast. I always have been able to, though it doesn’t always work like that. These days I try to write mostly in school holidays (my day-job is in education) so that I can really concentrate on writing the first draft of a novel and getting it as good as possible. I can usually do 5,000 words a day when it’s really flowing. Afterwards, I collapse from exhaustion!

As I’ve mentioned in various interviews, I suffer from writer’s volcano, which is the opposite of writer’s block. It can be tough going! It does mean however that I can have a number of books and stories out there. At the moment I have four novels out in the wild – The Girl With Two Souls, Humani (a far-future environmental/philosophical novel), Vinland (YA alternate America/Britain) and Bad King John (a children’s novel set in the Westcountry).

 

Now, I’m going to reverse the flow of this blog-hop by linking to…

EM Tett

heh heh!

 

The Serpent’s Promise by Steve Jones

Quite enjoyed this, but it is one of those “lists of related stuff” books, which sometimes work and sometimes come across as a list. This one, interesting though it often is, is a bit of a list. I’m not sure it was a great concept either. Having said that, SJ tells it like it is, and is often interesting and wise. Bit of a mixed blessing, this one (pun intended). He’s written some fantastic books though.

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The Serpent’s Promise

So totally boring!

This is a bona fide classic for the Naughty Step!

Memory Seed

Memory Seed

The Self Illusion by Bruce Hood

Very good book indeed, covering the idea that our sense of self is a kind of narrative illusion devised by the brain/mind to make life in an exceptionally complex social world viable. Well written and fascinating. The last chapter on social media/internet is a bit of a damp squib, but all that goes before is excellent. Definitely recommended.

The Self Illusion

The Self Illusion

 

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