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Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Kate Bush On Creativity

I spotted a few interesting quotes over the weekend while reading an interview given by Kate Bush for Mojo music magazine. I’ve been a fan of hers since hearing ‘Wuthering Heights,’ and have followed her fascinating and wonderful career since then.

In the interview she gave some insight into her take on creativity.

“I don’t like working in commercial studios… I don’t like the dissipation of the focus. ‘Cos you might be in the middle of doing a vocal and you look through to the control room and you’ll see somebody walking in looking for a pair of headphones or something. I think it’s very important to get the creative focus and it’s very easily distracted. The creative process is, I think, very much about trying to keep this focus throughout all these things that are trying to destroy it.

“It [her personal studio] is a quiet space that you create from. I think of it quite often as being similar to people who write books and stuff. It’s disciplined, and quite often they do it in the shed in the garden, because they need that quiet space.”

It’s fascinating to read about her stress on focus and discipline. Being an author – for all the wonderful perks – is extremely hard work. But you have to be focused and disciplined the whole time, not just to write a novel but to be an author over a period of years. I talk a lot about how I write a new novel intensively during a comparatively short period of time (see Tony Ballantyne interview), but it’s not just that, it’s the whole long-term slog that new writers so often struggle with.

Focus, imagination, discipline, extremely hard work – the stuff authors are made from.

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Seeing Red by Nicholas Humphrey

A slim book, but a brilliant and important one. In Seeing Red, Nicholas Humphrey expands on the ‘private sensory experience’ idea first discussed in his groundbreaking A History Of The Mind. The theme here is the knotty problem of deciding what exactly is the ‘stuff of consciousness’ – what is usually referred to as the hard problem, i.e. of what philosophers of the mind call qualia.

The book is taken from a series of lectures given in 2005, and, as observed in a wry introduction, its text echoes the chatty style of the spoken word. But it’s a terrific read for all that informality. Essentially, it sets out in greater depth Humphrey’s notion of the separation into two ‘channels’ of sensation and perception, with the former being something actually generated by the mind, not simply responded to. Using this theory, Humphrey finds himself able to explain much that otherwise is mysterious about consciousness.

The final two chapters seem a tiny bit rushed compared with the brilliant first few, but that’s a quibble. This is a marvellous, insightful, lucid and superbly argued book.

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The Lost Civilizations Of The Stone Age by Richard Rudgley

Prehistory is a difficult and potentially dangerous area to enter, even for an experienced archaeologist or palaeohistorian. Richard Rudgley has made a good career from debunking myths both historical and prehistorical, including in a couple of excellent television series, and in The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age he describes various aspects of Neolithic and Mesolithic life that he thinks need clarification. It’s all fascinating stuff, covering a wide range of subjects, from tallies and early astronomy, through art, sculpture, hunting equipment, understanding of environment and much more. The book takes a backwards journey through prehistory, a template which perfectly allows Rudgley to point out how much of what appears suddenly in the prehistorical record is in fact based on earlier, simpler beginnings.

On the whole, my feeling is that, although Rudgley has a few favoured authors whom he quotes and uses as support for his own ideas, he is fair-minded and reasonable in his outlook. Some reviewers (e.g. on Goodreads) have attacked him for setting up straw men and for trying to promote the notion of a Stone Age utopia. Although such criticism could be aimed at the book’s foreword and afterword, I think it’s well off the mark as a whole. Rudgley is scrupulous with the speculation of his chosen influences, for example the work of the American-Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, which he often quotes.

Overall, an excellent, insightful and fair book, recommended to all fascinated by human origins.

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Narcissism & Connectivity

I think it’s likely that Mark Zuckerberg genuinely thought his social media networking of the planet would connect people in a positive way, which ultimately would be for the good of the world. It seems an obvious point. How could linking people together have any downside? The benefits look clear: easy communication, bringing sundered families and communities together, and much more.

But Zuckerberg did all this on an inaccurate understanding of the state of humanity at the moment. He naively thought all our good points would be accentuated by connectivity; and it’s true that some of our more humane motives are aided by online connection. But what he failed to see was the underlying metaphor of humanity at this moment in history. We remain a somewhat primitive species, whose ethical development in some places hasn’t progressed much since eras BC. Some of the rest of the world retains at best a medieval outlook.

Before I continue, I just want to digress and emphasise that, unlike some modern commentators, I believe a clear trend of human ethical progress can be discerned over the very long term – let’s say twenty thousand years – which for one main reason will continue over similarly long periods, barring a global human catastrophe. People basically have two options here: either believe human beings are born good but need teaching, or believe that we’re born in sin and need saving. You won’t be surprised to learn that I think the former option is correct. My reason for saying that ethical progress will continue is that understanding – of our environment and of ourselves – is in the long term a one-way process.

In the first of my ‘Five Upcoming Mental Health Crises’ blogs I wrote: … social media style interactions increase narcissism. I use narcissism here in the sense I’ve used elsewhere – “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 precursor to psychological development.” Because narcissism acts through self-deception, the slow sophistication of ourselves via the viewpoints of all the people we meet throughout our lives does not happen via internet interaction. There is no time during such interactions for reason, for the viewpoints of others to manifest themselves. Commonly this is described as ‘internet bubbles’ or ‘echo chambers,’ but the effect is far more profound than merely pushing people away from one another. Narcissism is tough. Narcissism acts with brutal strength to protect itself. Human beings only overcome it because we are a profoundly social species. Social media therefore, with ultimate irony, is in fact the exact opposite. It is anti-social media. Slowly, it is fracturing and infantilising humanity. I say this because it seems to me that narcissism can act with far greater reach and depth through the internet.

What Zuckerberg failed to grasp was that our current, quite primitive mind-set is amplified online far more than any humane tendencies. He created an online environment in which narcissism thrives. It would have been far better for humanity if he hadn’t invented Facebook.

There are three main ways in which narcissism acts online. The first is via the perceived lack of authority, which encourages users to do what they like without fear of admonishment or judgement. This effect is the origin of trolling. Trolls are inadequate narcissists lacking empathy, whom the internet fosters. The second way is via behaviour amplification, which occurs because of the immediate, swift and intense qualities of social media especially. Because narcissism is so tough, acting through self-deception, it usually wins out over humane qualities. The third way is via non-reasoning. Because online behaviour is being internalised – especially by younger users – our natural abilities to think, reflect over time and use reason are being lost. This is the origin of modern social polarisation.

We currently therefore are living in temporary backwards-moving times, in which the progress of liberalism during the 1950s – 1970s is being undone. A similar thing happened during the 20th century because of the social consequences of mechanised industrialisation – in Germany, for instance – undoing a lot of the work of the Enlightenment and what followed. Online-mediated narcissism is fuelling the rise of extremes, of polarisation, of unreasoning thought and behaviour – behaviour which, as Dr Mary Aiken pointed out, then migrates back into the real world.

I do think this is likely to be a temporary blip, however. In the long term, ethical progress moves from primitive and non-understanding towards humane life, where understanding is the main foundation.

As many have observed, technology is a double edged sword. The problem is – as with nuclear weapons for example – that humanity has created something for which the negatives are too dangerous to remain unregulated. We regulate the use of nuclear weapons, so why not online life? At the moment that is a new, powerful and highly dangerous scourge.

We need to recognise this, both as societies and as individuals.

I never post anti-Daily Mail content for instance because such postings are exactly what the Daily Mail wants. They want polarised, irrational debate because it perpetuates their position as a beneficiary of such behaviour. I do think however that at last a sense of perspective is emerging regarding social media especially. Alas, the peril of deep (video) fakes is almost upon us, and ordinary people seem powerless to stop it, despite the fact that the developers themselves have remarked (eg on BBC News’ Click programme) on the obvious dangers. Yet, still the reckless, unregulated development continues…

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Evolving Insight by Richard W. Byrne

In Richard W. Byrne’s Evolving Insight, the author takes a rigorous, superbly researched and even-handed approach to deciding one of the most difficult questions in zoology – do animals have anything like human insight?

First of all, Byrne has to delineate his territory, which he does by looking at what insight might be, the role of cognition in animals, vocal and gestural communication, social complexity, cultural possibilities, theory of mind, and – crucial to his thesis – the different roles of technical and social understanding (i.e. insight). After all this, three quarters of the book is done, leaving the final quarter to the gist of the book, which is that insight evolved twice in our hominid ancestors, once as a kind of general social intelligence (in which the crucial work of Nicholas Humphrey is mentioned) and once as a particular form of technical insight related to complex feeding patterns in great apes.

As I’ve indicated, this is a brilliant piece of work – I wish all science books were as even-handed and rewarding as this one. Arguments are put with clarity, the writing is admirable and the whole work is fascinating.

Personally, I was hoping for a little more on the role of consciousness and on the social intelligence theory of consciousness, but that isn’t really the book’s remit. It’s actually quite a specialised work, albeit written with verve and clarity for the general reader. At the end I felt a little frustrated that the book’s argument wasn’t taken one step further, but, as I’ve indicated, that wasn’t the author’s purpose. I think this book would best be read alongside the outstanding Thinking Big: How the Evolution of Social Life Shaped the Human Mind, which I read and reviewed last year.

Kudos to Richard Byrne for this outstanding volume.

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Tales From The Spired Inn

I’m delighted to announce that a volume of collected and new short stories set in the Memory Seed world (the doomed city of Kray) has been acquired by Newcon Press, and will be published later in the year.

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Last year, Ian Whates, editor and head of Newcon, approached me regarding the possibility of this volume. I had many years before written and had published three short stories set in Kray, so with the addition of two brand new tales, each venturing into territory I wasn’t able to visit in the novel, the collection was formed.

Here’s what Ian says in his recent Newcon Press newsletter:

At the end of days stands Kray, “a coastal city surrounded by, and then invaded by rampant vegetation”, where the last humans on Earth struggle to survive in the face of nature striking back.

 I first encountered Kray in the novels Memory Seed and Glass (both from Orbit) and recall being blown away by the setting and the concept. Author Stephen Palmer has subsequently spoken of his love for the writing of Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance helping to shape his vision, and who could ask for better influences?

 Not until last year did I realise that Stephen had written three short stories in the same milieu, tales linked by association with the Spired Inn, an establishment considered neutral territory by the warring factions of Kray, where the word of landlady Dhow-lin is law, and where dark schemes are often plotted and set in motion…

 I contacted Stephen and asked whether he’d ever considered revisiting Kray and writing a new story or two. Thankfully, he loved the idea, and Tales from the Spired Inn was born. Contracts are signed; the deed is done; there’s no escape now…

The book’s cover design has been agreed; it has rather an Art Nouveau feel, which I thought appropriate to the setting.

I was really thrilled to be writing in the city of Kray again after so long (thirty years since the original inspiration and first draft), so many thanks to Ian for giving me this opportunity.

Memory Seed ebook cover

Memory Seed

Inside the Real China by Xu Zhiyuan

Xu Zhiyuan is an exiled Chinese journalist who writes on political and cultural life in China. Described by the perhaps better known dissident and artist Ai Weiwei as “the most important young Chinese intellectual of his generation,” his book Paper Tiger: Inside the Real China is a no-holds-barred look at the devastation caused by the Chinese Communist Party in his native land. But although this is a profoundly anti-Party book, the pieces inside also reveal the positives of modern Chinese life.

These pieces – loosely organised into themes – are all short, but each packs a punch. Xu is scathing about the damage done to Chinese individuals and to the people as a whole through totalitarianism, obsessive secrecy, domination and arbitrary use of power, including detention and theft. And although, as expected, the political aspect of all this is centre stage, Xu makes a lot of how some pseudo-capitalist changes (rooted in the leadership of Deng Xiaoping) have robbed the Chinese of their ethics and indeed their selves. China is revealed through his writing as mostly shallow, trite, money-obsessed and incapable of anything other than disconnected thought.

It is a melancholy book in places, but there is insight enough to make it very readable, often fascinating. China is revealed as a country unique on the planet, with what appear to be Western style freedoms knocking around in the worst kind of twentieth century dystopia. Xu Zhiyuan himself offers little hope, but he does at least show the direction in which hope could be found.
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Irish Independent 2018 Best Reads

Pleased to be mentioned for Tommy Catkins in the Irish Independent ‘Best Reads Of 2018’.

Tommy cover only 19 June

Next up

My next work…

cybergone Friday 14th

The People Vs Tech by Jamie Bartlett

In this excellent book Jamie Bartlett looks at the corrosive and malign effects of the internet on political democracy, and how online life affects the way people interact with government and authority generally. I bought the book having seen the author’s two part documentary on democracy and the online world, which made quite a few jaw-dropping assessments in its tale of political chicanery and corporate manipulation – not just Cambridge Analytica, not just Google, but much more. This book expands on what was conveyed in the tv programmes.

The book takes six crucial facets of democracy – including such things as independence of the political process, an informed electorate, civil society, a burgeoning middle class – and deals with the effects of social media and the internet generally upon them. There is little good news. Mostly the effects are malign and dangerous, causing democracy to buckle beneath the stress. In all cases the arguments are clear and well put; Jamie Bartlett is not only a good tv presenter, he can write very well. The whole book is concise, well argued and clear. And this is a worried author. After a fascinating chapter on crypto-anarchy, he states twenty things which could aid the great bargain made between people living in a democratic state and the state itself. Yet most of these statements seemed to me unlikely to come about. This book is in some ways a portent of danger, or perhaps even of dystopia. We are creating tools which will make us slaves, and because that is happening in an unregulated corporate environment nothing can be done to stop such tools appearing.

A highly recommended read.

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