Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Narcissism Week, Day 1

Narkissos was the son of the nymph Leiriope and the river-god Cephisus. Leiriope consulted the great seer Teiresias about her son, to be told mysteriously that ‘he would live to a ripe old age provided he never knows himself.’

As he grew up Narkissos made many young admirers unhappy, for he stubbornly refused to return their affections. One of his admirers, the nymph Echo, who had been doomed to repeat the words of others as a punishment for colluding with Zeus against Hera, followed him on a stag hunt, approaching him when he happened to distance himself from his companions. But roughly he spurned her advances; then strode away.

Narkissos was sixteen when, because he was keen on hunting, he wandered onto the divine mountain Helicon, in the Thespiai region of Boeotia. As he travelled he chanced upon a spring with a shaded lake that had no ripples upon its surface, and, as he threw himself down in exhaustion to quench his thirst, he saw his own reflection for the first time. He was entranced by the sight of the beautiful face, and fell in love, though only a little later did he realise that the face was himself. So he found himself unable to move, enraptured with his own reflection, pining away.

Echo, still following him, grieved as he took a knife and stabbed himself to death. But from his body and his blood sprang the white-and-red narcissus flower, from which unguents are prepared.


Narcissism is a normal feature of human development. All human beings are born narcissistic.

A general (not clinical) definition of narcissism is: living life in such a way that the real, external world is experienced as unreal, with the self alone as real. The narcissistic person does not accept that the real world has autonomous existence and is populated with real independent human beings; rather, all is some construction of their own mind, experienced only in terms of their own thoughts and feelings, hopes and desires. And when the real world demands some response, they either fail to respond, disconnecting themselves from it, or respond solely in terms of themselves.

Narcissism is universal in primitive cultures. Human social evolution could be represented as the gradual overcoming of narcissism.

The universality of narcissism as an aspect of psychological development is due to the fact that everyone is a conscious human being. The self, which is to a person the most important thing in existence, is not a fixed entity since it is created over time from millions of interactions with other people: in other words, it evolves. But consciousness is experienced very soon in a person’s life, beginning between the ages of one and two (before this time an infant is not separated from reality, experiencing no ‘I’). So, since consciousness is not first experienced at the end point of psychological development, it is experienced by a person during the creation of their self, when they are not yet authentic and whole. In this situation, of consciousness simultaneous with development of the mental model, the self is at first experienced as more real than reality – more important too, since it cannot be allowed to fall apart. If it did collapse, the person would die, becoming insane from self-annihilation. Narcissism can therefore be seen as an inevitable consequence of human consciousness, and an essential one in the early years of life.

It is the urgency of constructing a conscious self which gives rise to narcissism. Human narcissism is the experience of consciousness by the inauthentic, undeveloped self, one not complete, one with a less than whole understanding of itself.

Narcissism is therefore an inevitable and unavoidable part of psychological development. An evolving self is incomplete except at its full flowering (if it achieves such a thing), and is therefore more self-directed than reality-directed. Narcissism is both survival method and therapy for the fragile self. Narcissism is the force bringing fragmented parts of a conscious self together when they are not yet composed into a whole; and the more fragmented the parts the stronger the required force, and thus the more intense the narcissism. But the penalty – the necessary penalty – of making the self more real than reality is that reality is demoted.

Narcissism can therefore be envisaged as the ‘force of gravity’ holding together individually chaotic fragments which would otherwise drift apart, fragments which have not been synthesized into a whole by experience and natural development, and which, since they must somehow be made whole to create a coherent entity – a conscious self – have to be forced into union. This artificial conglomeration into an inauthentic, incomplete entity results in the narcissistic self.


Bryan Wigmore – guest conversation

‘Ancient terror, modern error, future era.’ Otter shook himself. ‘Mean much to you?’

Two years after being washed up on a remote beach, freedivers Orc and Cass still have no idea who they are or where they came from. Worst of all, they feel like lovers but look like brother and sister, and must repress their instincts for fear of committing a terrible mistake.

Now at last they’ve tracked down a psychic artefact powerful enough to restore their memories. But others also seek its forbidden magic. To reach it, deep within a sunken ruin, they must flirt with a ruthless occult conspiracy, one intent on summoning an ancient goddess to destroy the dreadnoughts of the Empyreal fleet.

The depths of the sea, of the past, of the world’s collective mind: down there are truths, but also madness and despair. And a power that will plunge the world back to a new dark age, if it can’t be stopped…

New author Bryan Wigmore is a member of the SFF Chronicles forum, with many friends and fans there. Bryan and I chatted over the course of a few weeks about his Snowbooks debut novel The Goddess Project.

Stephen: To start with, what characters do you have for this novel?

Bryan: The two main characters in The Goddess Project are Orc and Cass, a young man and woman of about twenty, victims of magical amnesia. They feel like they used to be lovers, but can’t act on that because there’s a suspicion they might be siblings. As part of their search for the truth, Orc develops a dangerous relationship with the psychic residue of an ancient goddess, which Cass, the more rational one, has to try to rescue him from. Then we have Tashi, a young warrior from a mountain monastery sent with his ascetic master on a mission to the “lower world” they see as being ruled by the Witch Mother; Martin Seriuz, a naval officer intent on saving his country from war by physically manifesting a powerful goddess to act as peacekeeper; Lucian Daroguerre, magician and Seriuz’s co-conspirator, who also has plans of his own; and Hana, a shaman interested in the Great Mother figure and what she meant for human development. Plus various animal spirit guides and whatnot.

Stephen: What led you to write in this particular world?

Bryan: Partly, I was interested in exploring why we might have switched from female gods to male (if indeed we did); the figure of the Great Mother; shamanism; and the division/war between what have been called the Apollonian and Dionysian (broadly, definition versus dissolution, or I guess order versus chaos).

Would any of those tie in with your own interests/writings, for instance matrilineal societies?

Stephen: There’s evidence in Homer’s Odyssey of matrilineal arrangements. But the whole ‘-archy’ thing began with men taking over by force. It’s a very interesting area, and there’s been many super books written, mostly by women historians, on how and why men took control. I used a lot of these ideas in my 1996 debut Memory Seed. But you only have to look at the hate, disgust and fear of women expressed by every single religion since 3000 BC to grasp how men think; it could hardly be more obvious.

How will you be working in the prehistoric “Great Mother” concept into your books?

Bryan: I agree the evidence for women-dominated societies is slight (though I think there is evidence that something with much greater equality was around on e.g. Thera, now Santorini). But it’s a powerful idea.

I first came across it in Riane Eisler’s book The Chalice and the Blade, and worked the concept into a previous story which involved a semi-sentient planet trying to work itself out from under the oppressive heel of colonists from Earth: effectively earth goddess versus sky god, a dynamic that has always interested me. I see the “great mother” as a primal force of both nurturing and destruction – the embodiment of the cycle of life – as Nature might have been seen at the beginning of language development. Other later goddesses are more developed parts of her, but not truly differentiated. As I said, I’m interested by the switch from this kind of earth-goddess worship to mountain/sky-dwelling gods, and what drove that switch. You cite the triune of male disgust/hate/fear of women. Of those three, I believe fear is the driving force, as it leads to the others. In fact I realised quite late on that what I was seeking to do in The Goddess Project (or more perhaps in the rest of the series) is to ponder the question “why do men fear women?” – not on an individual level so much as one of collective myth and symbol. How would you answer that?

Stephen: Blimey, where do I start!

Bryan: Do you accept the premise, though? If so, well, we could take the advice of surely one of the most feared women in fact or fiction, Maria von Trapp: “Let’s start at the very beginning: a very good place to start.” At what point in a man’s or boy’s life does this perhaps begin, and why?

Stephen: There’s strong evidence that basic gender stereotypes are in place by the age of 2, which is a pretty frightening thought. I think most men fear women because they believe they have a lot to lose if they lose their masculinity, which, in my opinion, most women would like them to do. The whole patriarchal concept is a stack of lies created to make a mythology of male superiority. But any boy would do that, given the chance… Boys are socialised to remain boys at any age.

Tell me more about the set-up of your novel.

Bryan: The set up of my story-world is based on an exaggerated split between female earth deities and male sky deities. Thousands of years ago in the world’s history, there was a successful and peaceful agrarian society based on the worship of an earth goddess, in which her consort, the Sun-King, willingly sacrificed himself at the end of his seven-year reign in order to ensure her fertility. (You’ll probably recognise the idea from Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, etc.) Until he refused. I’ve tied that in with the ideas of a Buddhist mystic writer Ken Wilber, who correlates the phases of growth in societal human consciousness with those we all undergo as individuals growing to adulthood. The phase I’m most interested in is the growth from unconscious to ego. He roughly relates this to the phase of moving from goddesses of vegetation/earth to gods of mountains/sky. So in my book, this is where humans move from body-focus to mind-focus. What drives this is complex and I haven’t quite worked it out, but it might have something to do with men wanting to escape the feeling that they are inferior because they cannot create life. By moving away from body-focus, indeed almost to body-denial, they reduce the importance of child-bearing, which is beyond them. The present-day story (set in a world roughly equivalent to ours of about 1900, partly so I could include a recognisable patriarchy like the Victorians or Prussians) in part deals with the consequences of that split, which in my world has been widened by such things as an actual god of technology.

Does that make sense, and does any of it chime with your own ideas?

Stephen: Yes, it does – interesting stuff. I think there’s a lot to the idea that men were envious of women’s child-bearing ability, but I suspect there was more to it. I think that was probably a symptom of something still deeper in the development of human (for want of a better word) psychology. We’re much more constrained by our environment than we realise, I think.

But the whole notion of moving to ‘The Word’ as the principle of creation mirrors the arrival of patriarchy. I’m currently reading The Discovery Of Death In Childhood And After by Sylvia Anthony, and it’s reminded me how much amazing work was done through the 20th century by child psychologists. So much yet to learn!

Bryan: I think there was more than envy of child-bearing too, and I think it might have something to do with separation from the idea of the body and from nature, a process of which language is part, as you point out. I think it’s actually part of a larger tension between what we might call “order” and “chaos”, or what Nietzche and Camille Paglia term Apollonian and Dionysian – definition versus dissolution, ego versus id, man versus nature, mind versus body. Our society, over thousands of years, has swung very markedly towards the Apollonian, and increased gender equality hasn’t swung us back; we’ve just adopted different ways of keeping it there. Maybe we can come back to that, though my ideas aren’t definite. I could mention a couple of books that helped shape them.

Having mentioned my main characters’ amnesia, the title Memory Seed, and some things I’ve read about The Girl With Two Souls, suggests memory is an important theme for you. Is that the case, and if so, why do you think that is?

Stephen: Not really. Consciousness is the main theme for me. Those ideas of separation that you mention are comparatively new – post-Descartes.

I’d be very interested to discover your reading list.

Bryan: Well, your Memory Seed for one! I remember your mentioned it before as having something to say about gender dominance, and a quick look revealed vegetation as a major element, so I’ve been reading it. I think I mentioned in the reading thread that it reminded me a bit of Winterlong by Elizabeth Hand. Have you ever read that, or anything by her? I certainly can’t say Memory Seed reminds me of anything else I’ve read (and I mean that in a good way).

Stephen: I think I have read Winterlong; I certainly read one of hers, and loved it. I think it was Aestival Tide? It was quite like Memory Seed.

Bryan: As for my reading list relating to these topics: The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler was what introduced me to the main idea. Up From Eden by Ken Wilber then developed it and gave it a Buddhist/ mystic/ consciousness angle that I found very interesting. Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia introduced me to the idea of the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy and how it might relate to gender relationships and how they’re expressed in art. Male Fantasies by Klaus Theweleit was a hugely interesting academic study of fiction and memoir produced by members of the Freikorps, post-WW1 proto-fascists, and showed how men of a rigid and militaristic patriarchy perceived themselves and their bodies, and women and theirs. Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand is a novel that draws on the ideas of the ancient matriarchal society as outlined in The Chalice and the Blade.

What’s yours?

Stephen: Women In Prehistory, Margaret Ehrenberg, The Myth of the Goddess, Anne Baring & Jules Cashford, Rosalind Miles, The Women’s History of the World, Merlin Stone, When God Was A Woman.

Bryan: I was interested to find on reaching the end of Memory Seed that nature didn’t seem to have reacted against human activity by a process of evolution as we understand it, but as a decision by a planet with some level of sentience. Is that a fair interpretation? The idea of a sentient planet doesn’t really come into The Goddess Project, but it will become important later in the series. What were your thoughts behind your decision (if I’ve interpreted it right) and do you think a sentient planet is a useful image or concept in terms of viewing our own planet and its relationship with us?

Stephen: It’s really the people of Kray who give their interpretation of “what Earth is doing” more than anything else. I’m a strict Lovelockian, so don’t go in for any ‘sentient planet’ stuff, despite being of the hippy persuasion. I did use artistic licence a bit though, I have to confess… (Having said that, in Urbis Morpheos I did have a go at trying the notion out, by using extremely long time-scales.) The storms/rain etc are a result of global warming, i.e. the massive input of human-created energy into the atmosphere. The oestrogen-mimicking chemicals are pollution, as is much else. I do think though that evolution can work, in certain circumstances, on the short time scale, the classic example being moths in the Black Country.

Bryan: The thing in Memory Seed that made me think sentient planet was the way nature reverted to what we might call benign after the humans had gone. Now, I guess we don’t know (or you might!) how much time had passed, but I assumed the fact that it had happened during the Cowhorn Tower’s lifetime meant it must have been thousands of years at best, rather than millions. Given that everything before that had been scientifically explicable (with maybe some licence) it surprised me.

By the way, is Kray on Earth? I assumed it was, but then in a recent post somewhere you say that Flowercrash moves “back to Earth” or something.

Stephen: Yes, Kray is on Earth – in Wales, in fact! The Welsh clues and context are all there…

Bryan: I thought it might be Wales when there was the Men Eye bridge, but I didn’t spot other clues. Because there seemed to be what I perceived to be a lot of Dutch-style naming, I wondered if it was South Africa. What did I miss?

Stephen: My original idea was to have three distinct cultures in Kray, one “vaguely exotic,” one “vaguely European” – I did German at school, hence the kinda German/Dutch thing. The other culture was the Krayan one, where everybody spells their name with a y. I developed this three-culture thing from reading Mary Gentle books…

Bryan: You said you were of the “hippy persuasion”. Can I ask, did you ever give any credence to what we might call ley-line-type stuff?


Bryan: I take it that’s a yes? No, seriously, I’ve been having some thoughts about how to reconcile a classic “hippy mindset” (of the 1970s variety) with a firm belief in proper science, and if you are a person who’s moved from one to the other, I’d have a few questions for you.

Stephen: I’ve always been a scientist, but I love the alternate/counter/hippy way because of the environmental concerns, general humanity and liberalism, and of course the FANTASTIC music! I must say though, a lot of my more cosmically inclined friends find my inability to believe in crystals, ley lines and healing by hot cats on the back a little odd… Recently I annoyed a former member of Ozric Tentacles by posting on FB a link to an article on how cannabis cures absolutely nothing at all… He didn’t unfriend me though!

Bryan: I wonder how many people adhere to such beliefs because they have a deep psychological need, maybe a genetic one, for “meaning”. The problem is, perhaps, that we’re supposed to have only one reality, which should be objective, so in someone whose need for “meaning” is strong, this could make them reject scientific evidence that counters their beliefs, and thus lead to a diminishing in their eyes of science generally. This is the kind of narcissism you mentioned in your recent blog post, I think. I’ve been pondering whether it’s feasible to have a meaningful relationship with a “god” one does not believe objectively exists, by some kind of “magical” exercise, and whether this might help those predisposed to the mystical lose the contradiction between the objective and subjective worlds.

Stephen: Everyone has an innate need for meaning, I think, it’s a – perhaps the – fundamental part of the human condition. But because of the way consciousness works, we find ourselves at a comparatively primitive stage of development – only 500 years of effective scientific understanding of the universe – yet with not much progress within ourselves. Our understanding of ourselves lags way behind… only 120 years since Freud’s discovery of the unconscious/subconscious, which kicked off so many developments. People lose the contradiction by simply compartmentalising thinking, or by sheer self-deception. There’s plenty of thinkers who’ve shown how most people, religious, atheist, hippy or scientist, compartmentalise thinking in order to keep contradictory aspects of life in their minds all at the same time. You and I both do. We all have stuff in our childhood that sets this off. One of the tasks of life is to overcome all this.

Thank you, Bryan! Fascinating conversation, and very best of luck with the novel.

The Goddess Project by Bryan Wigmore is out now from Snowbooks.

Find it here (UK) and here (US).


Ten Bowie faves

Bowie… gone, but never forgotten.

1 Oh! You Pretty Things
2 Andy Warhol
3 Changes
4 Starman
5 Golden Years
6 Ashes To Ashes
7 Sound & Vision
8 Space Oddity
9 This Is Not America
10 Kooks

Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci top 10

A personal top ten from the masters of Cambrian psychedelia – one of my favourite bands!

1 Sometimes The Father Is The Son
2 Heywood Lane
3 Starmoonsun
4 Iechyd Da
5 Miss Trudy
6 Faraway Eyes
7 Spanish Dance Troupe
8 Freckles
9 This Summer’s Been Good From The Start
10 Let’s Get Together (In Our Minds)

10 Julian Cope faves

Julian H. Cope! A long-time favourite of mine, and most deserving of a top 10…

1 The Mystery Trend
2 Fear Loves This Place
3 Soldier Blue
4 Beautiful Love
5 Leli B
6 Highway To The Sun
7 Planetary Sit-In
8 Strasbourg
9 Greatness And Perfection
10 World Shut Your Mouth

History Not Repeating Itself

“We think as progress being a straight line forever upwards,” said Atwood. “But it never has been so, you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then – bang – you’re Hitler’s Germany. That can happen very suddenly.” – Margaret Atwood, The Guardian, 13 February.

In this blog post I want to write about a couple of the points made above – (i) that progress is a ‘straight line upwards’ and that (ii) a fascist dictatorship could suddenly appear. Margaret Atwood is of course the highly lauded author of such classics as The Handmaid’s Tale (in which context she was speaking in the above quote), The Blind Assassin, Oryx & Crake, and other excellent books.

A “bubbling up of Puritan values” as Atwood put it in the Guardian article isn’t quite the same thing as preparing for the arrival of a fascist dictatorship, but I don’t think she was necessarily saying one will lead to the other. What interests me is the notion – widely discussed and widely believed in liberal, free-thinking democracies – that it is possible for a new fascist dictatorship to arise. I think the chances are massively against this.

Admittedly, I was thinking of the West when I began pondering. China is hardly a model of democratic values, as are many other countries around the world. But Atwood’s outstanding work The Handmaid’s Tale is American through and through.

I think there is one main factor stopping a new fascist dictatorship from getting power – the post-war shrinking of the world and the subsequent arrival of the internet.

In other blog posts I’ve been quite negative about the internet, but I don’t think it’s all bad. What makes the big change for the West since 1945 is the improved condition of politics, media and social life. We as individual nations are much more intimate with one another than we used to be. In the 1920s and 1930s the internal state of Germany or France was far less knowable to the average British or American person. There was no television and little radio, the main news source being newspapers, all of whom were as biased (or opinionated) as they are today. But now any small political event in France is immediately known around the world. We have billions of photographs of such countries, of their landscapes, peoples and cultures. As individuals we know far more about France or Germany than we ever did when Hitler was consolidating his position. There are more words, more images, more video clips, more webcams.

I think this is why a fascist dictatorship will never again rise in the West, unless there is some catastrophic event like a nuclear war involving us. In this post-1945 case, I do think the lesson of history has for once been learned. The irony is however that the increase in ‘national intimacy’ has been accompanied by a reduction in individual, human connection – with other individuals, with communities, with societies; and this I think is to do with the increasing role of technology, not least the internet, in our lives.

Could Atwood’s first point be wrong though? If progress is not a ‘straight line upward’ then a new Dark Ages (not that the original Dark Ages were dark, but let’s use the term generally) could lie in the future. But might that be the case?

In my opinion progress is a straight line upward if you look over a long enough time scale. The time scale I’d like to suggest is 40,000 years.

That may not seem a particularly relevant time scale, but hold on a moment… The aspect of human cultural development that I want to focus on is how we interact with the real world – what sort of relationship we have with it. 40,000 years ago this was likely a shamanistic, animistic, magical-thinking kind of relationship, when human beings imagined that objects, aspects of the environment and imaginary places were full of spirits. Much later, after the end of the Ice Age and with the arrival of agriculture, animal husbandry and settlements in the Near East, those religious notions changed. Later on they changed again, to the Abrahamic monotheistic religions of the modern West. Then, about half a millennium ago, the crucial change occurred, as the scientific method led to an understanding that the real world is independent of human imagination. This change freed human beings at last to view the real world as it is – through their own filters, yes, but on the assumption that the real world is independent of human beings and has to be tested in order to find things out about it.

This is what I mean by a line of progress. We’ve gone from imagining that spirits exist in trees, rocks and rivers, through imagining that gods live in the skies and beneath the ground, through imagining one god somewhere in the universe, to realising that the universe came about regardless of our myths and legends. We know that the universe is independent of us.

We can apply this progress to thinking about the long-term future. I personally don’t think cultures, when taken over long periods of time, do revert to more primitive (eg fascist) states, though I think that might, perhaps, be possible in some limited circumstances such as nuclear war. But in a nutshell – we can’t unlearn what we know now. We know too much, even though what remains unknown is vast. We know too much to revert to imaginary concepts. We know too much about human biological evolution and human cultural evolution – and most importantly of all, we are at last beginning to understand the true nature of consciousness and the human condition. All this, I think, can never be unlearned.


10 Byrds favourites

A jingle-jangle brand new week of the Music Miscellanea trek…

1 Mr Tambourine Man
2 All I Really Want To Do
3 Eight Miles High
4 Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season)
5 The World Turns All Around Her
6 Mr Spaceman
7 My Back Pages
8 So You Want To Be A Rock’n’Roll Star
9 Wasn’t Born To Follow
10 Ballad Of Easy Rider

10 Mike Oldfield faves

The trek into Music Miscellanea continues… Mike Oldfield has long been an important part of my musical heritage and playing, especially (of course!) his early works. But there was good stuff afterwards too…

1 Hergest Ridge Part 1
2 Incantations Part 4
3 Ommadawn Part 2
4 Incantations Part 2
5 Hergest Ridge Part 2
6 Tubular Bells Part 1
7 Moonlight Shadow
8 Ommadawn Part 1
9 Return To Ommadawn Part 1
10 Harbinger

The Discovery Of Death In Childhood And After by Sylvia Anthony

I read this as research for a short novel, but I would likely have read it anyway had I stumbled across it. A fascinating (albeit slightly old-fashioned) look at how the concept of death is acquired by young children, which then sophisticates as they get older. There are plenty of accounts of real children and their thoughts and sayings, plus a good deal of psychological and cultural work. The former is a bit limited, being mostly centred around Freud and Piaget, but it is interesting nonetheless, while the cultural sections are very interesting. All in all, this was well worth tracking down.


Kate Bush favourites

A new week, a new addition to the Music Miscellanea trek… Today it’s ten favourite songs from the outstanding, unique Kate Bush.

1 Army Dreamers
2 Egypt
3 Strange Phenomena
4 Moving
5 Oh England, My Lionheart
6 Suspended In Gaffa
7 Deeper Understanding
8 Hello Earth
9 Misty
10 The Sensual World