stephenpalmersf

Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Happy Anniversary Elton & Bernie

While a few people today are celebrating the anniversary of a couple of grotesquely rich British parasites, others are celebrating something far more important – the fiftieth anniversary of the songwriting team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin.

When, thirty or so years ago, my good friend Pete Wyer told me that Elton John was his favourite songwriter, I was surprised, imagining Elton to be some kind of light pop music act. Of course, my naive thoughts were proved hopelessly wrong in subsequent years of musical discovery. Elton John is one of the all-time greatest writers of melody, up there with Paul McCartney and Paul Simon, and others of their ilk, while Bernie Taupin is a great lyricist. When I listen to Elton’s albums, especially the classic ‘seventies albums, it’s always the melodically gorgeous or otherwise musically beautiful songs which move me. My own favourite albums are those such as Elton John, Madman Across The Water, Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy, Blue Moves and Songs From The West Coast, all of which have a high proportion of exceptional tunes.

Last night, ITV showed a ‘Top 20 Elton Songs’ tribute (which clumsily opened with a song written by Pete Townshend), and many of the songs would be on my top 20. I have to admit, I was a tad disappointed that Elton’s melodic gift wasn’t mentioned – though there was brief reference to unusual chord changes – but, hey, at least the anniversary has been recognised and celebrated on popular TV and radio.

So here’s my own favourites – thirty wonderful songs by a man of timeless musical genius.

Skyline Pigeon
Your Song
Sixty Years On
Come Down In Time
Tiny Dancer
Indian Sunset
Rocket Man
Blues For My Baby And Me
High Flying Bird
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
I’ve Seen That Movie Too
Grey Seal
Harmony
Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me
Someone Saved My Life Tonight
We All Fall In Love Sometimes/Curtains
Tonight
Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word
Idol
Shine On Through
It Ain’t Gonna Be Easy
Song For Guy
Blue Eyes
I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues
Sad Songs
Nikita
Sacrifice
I Want Love
This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore
The Captain And The Kid

elt

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Imaginary Companions by Marjorie Taylor

Imaginary Companions & The Children Who Create Them,

by Marjorie Taylor

A fascinating book, read as research for my upcoming work Monique Orphan, but well worth it in its own right. Marjorie Taylor, a psychologist by training, looks at the phenomenon of imaginary companions from a broad perspective, and right from the beginning she picks away at the cultural idea that a child with an imaginary companion must necessarily be a loner, alone, or have some underlying mental condition. She is blunt about the world of media – film especially – getting the phenomenon of imaginary companions wrong. In fact, as her thorough research shows, children with imaginary companions are slightly better at navigating the social world than those without. Imaginary companions are common, a sign of a normal and active, albeit relatively unformed imagination. There are many reasons why children create imaginary companions, all dealt with in depth here. An interesting digression is the gender difference between girls (who tend to create independent companions) and boys (who tend to impersonate their own creations). Subsequent chapters deal with the phenomenon in older children and in adults, with a particularly revealing section on the nature of adult creation – eg. that of the author.

Properly researched and referenced, this is a terrific book, both academic and thorough, but also easy to read for the non-academic reader, who might be interested in memories of their own childhood or who can see their own children creating imaginary companions.

m taylor

The Age Of Bowie by Paul Morley

I was never a huge fan of David Bowie when I was young, but even then I appreciated that he had something utterly unlike other artists. But I didn’t know then what it was.

I do now, of course, like so many others who have looked back at the man’s extraordinary career following his untimely death. A quote of his I remember in particular: “the place for an artist to be is just outside their comfort zone.” I’ve tried to follow this in my career as an author, at first without realising it, but now with a kind of Brit-ironic shrug. An artist is an explorer, and there were very few explorers like David Bowie.

The Age Of Bowie is written by one of the most experienced of authors, who, as he explains at length in the opening chapters, loved and followed Bowie from the early days. This work is mostly about Bowie, but it is also about the way Morley found and appreciated Bowie, which serves as a template for all of us around his age.

Paul Morley can be rather wordy, and some would call his style in books and on screen pretentious. In this book however, despite in a number of places there being three paragraphs where one would do, the wordiness is impossible to criticise, because part of the deal here is to present Bowie in his times. It is not pretentious. Rather, the exuberance of words stands for Morley’s sincere love of his subject. Everything matters.

A book for fans of Bowie, and for fans of music, but perhaps above all for those who want an insight into the truth about creativity and everything surrounding it.

d b

Davie Bowie

Aragorn

“Few other griefs amid the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man than to behold the regard of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned.” – Aragorn, Lord Of The Rings.

 

Haikus, updated

Some new ones added!

 

Memory Seed

Last city on Earth,
Pummelled by rain and verdure.
Enigmatic doom.

 

Glass

Same, but alien.
Two artificial creatures,
Struggle for closure.

 

Flowercrash

Back on Earth again,
Pro embodied existence,
Not abstract. The end.

 

Muezzinland

Century two-two,
Deep in cyber Africa,
Dreadful betrayal.

 

Hallucinating

Written for psych folk,
Free-flowing and musical.
You’ll need festi-chops.

 

The Rat & The Serpent

A dark gothic twist,
Like ancient black-and-white film,
No colour at all.

 

Urbis Morpheos

Mushrooms a-plenty,
Million years in the future,
Totally weird, man.

 

Hairy London

London gentlemen,
Do that Jules Verne thing – for love.
Extremely silly.

 

Beautiful Intelligence

Still selling okay,
Cyberpunk and Afro-punk?
Ending needs some work.

 

No Grave For a Fox

Musicians and dog.
Staple it onto BI,
Like new plastic wings.

 

The Girl With Two Souls

Taken from Bedlam,
Chased, frightened, then all alone,
Kora’s in trouble.

 

The Girl With One Friend

Twist following twist,
Darkness pierced by dark lanterns,
You only live once.

 

The Girl With No Soul

Erasmus, Roka,
Side by side in a landau.
Is there a God? No.

 

Let’s…

Let’s write men out of history.

History is written by controllers.

Let’s refuse to believe the lies of the last 5,000 years.

Men lie to protect an entitlement gained through violence.

Let’s start telling the truth about the last 5,000 years.

Women’s voices are ignored.

Let’s look at how the structures built during the last 5,000 years not only fail women but fail men too.

Patriarchy is inhumane to everybody.

Let’s call out the lies of monarchy, solitary leaders, authoritarianism and identity-via-nation.

Structures invented by men perpetuate and protect their juvenile attitudes.

Let’s call out the lie that men and women are more different than similar.

We’re all human.

Let’s refuse to believe the lie that men’s behaviour is down to genetics and hormones.

A lie propagated so that, like children, men can avoid responsibility.

Let’s focus on the perpetrators of prejudice, because they are the problem.

Men are the problem.

Let’s state who are the boys and who are the men.

Patriarchy allows women to become human beings, but arrests boys’ development, so that in most cases what appears to be a man is actually a boy.

Let’s call out the stereotype of the male monster who is the exception to the rule.

The great majority of men worldwide are incapable of relating to women as human beings.

Let’s point out that all modern religions reinforce and perpetuate prejudice against women.

The opium of the people for men and women.

Let’s point out that in the liberal West there has been a glacially slow change in attitudes to women.

It’s a start.

Let’s point out the more nonsensical of male inventions.

‘Honour’ – disconnected connectedness caused by fear of friendship. ‘Stiff upper lip’ – probably does more damage than any other male invention. ‘The buddy’ – fear of empathy.

Let’s call out the lie that what a ‘strong’ person does is dictate what happens in our lives.

Strength comes from maturity, empathy and understanding, not power via entitlement.

Let’s call out the lie that being emotional is being ‘weak.’

Emotions exist for a reason.

Emotions exist for a reason.

Women know this – that’s why they’re mature human beings more often than men are.

Strength comes from maturity, empathy and understanding, not power via entitlement.

Understanding, empathy and maturity are nothing to be afraid of.

‘Honour’ – disconnected connectedness caused by fear of friendship. ‘Stiff upper lip’ – probably does more damage than any other male invention. ‘The buddy’ – fear of empathy.

Lies, lies, lies.

It’s a start.

We need a fourth wave of feminism.

The opium of the people for men and women.

All world religions without exception treat women as second-class citizens.

The great majority of men worldwide are incapable of relating to women as human beings.

Pretending occasional male monsters are the issue takes responsibility away from all the other men doing the same thing. “Violence against women” is actually “violence done by men,” and it is pervasive.

Patriarchy allows women to become human beings, but arrests boys’ development, so that in most cases what appears to be a man is actually a boy.

When you next look at a male politician, remember his emotional age is teenager or less. Men negotiating right now in the political arena are those psychologically least able to negotiate.

Men are the problem.

They get away with it unless they are called out.

A lie propagated so that, like children, men can avoid responsibility.

We are not animals – we are social animals. Men work hard to keep that concealed.

We’re all human.

The similarities are surely obvious by now.

Structures invented by men perpetuate and protect their juvenile attitudes.

Nothing changes if the system does not change. Revolution comes only from personal change.

Patriarchy is inhumane to everybody.

A system designed by the selfish for the institutionally selfish.

Women’s voices are ignored.

Women’s voices need to be heard loud and clear, right across the world.

Men lie to protect an entitlement gained through violence.

Male narratives are designed only to keep them in control – but they can be ignored.

History is written by controllers.

History is written by controllers – men, who are the problem.

Dedicated to Harvey Weinstein and all his kind.

Womens history

The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

Meh.

(Same problem as Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem).

silk roads

Globe: Life In Shakespeare’s London by Catharine Arnold

Super book about the history of the original Globe Theatre, opening with the state of theatre and drama when Shakespeare was young (almost non-existent), through plans for various theatres in London (mostly controversial, if not actively opposed), and closing with the great period of drama in London that ended with the demise of James I and the approaching Civil War/Commonwealth period.

I liked this a lot. Great on character and period detail, it’s superbly written and very readable. The sights and sounds of the period are well evoked and the narrative, given in chronological order, is excellent. Highly recommended for pretty much anyone!

globe cover

How To Make A Human Being by Christopher Potter

This book describes itself as “a body of evidence,” which is a very good description, but it is also intended as a way to “escape the net of scientific reductionism.” I must admit, I bought this book because it was about the human condition, but I was as much attracted to it because of the above tag-lines.

The book is divided into three sections, the first concerning the physics of the universe, the second on the nature of life and consciousness, and the third on various aspects of human life. The first section deals with quantum mechanics and many other theories, but it is presented in an easy-to-read way. In fact the entire book is composed of short reflections on a topic – some just one line – intertwined with quotes from various luminaries. This technique works brilliantly, because one of the author’s wishes is to make his book a platform for mental jumping. This is a work intended to provoke as much thought as possible. The second section deals with the nature of bodies and of minds, detouring into perception, free will and human behaviour; and this a particularly fascinating section, as is the third, which looks at such topics as nature, deities, love, faith, eternity, death, and – in a particularly telling conclusion – humility.

I really enjoyed this book: thought provoking, superbly put together, sometimes amusing. As befits an author who wishes us to escape the net of scientific reductionism, there are plenty of digs at Richard Dawkins, all of which I was glad to see. But the overall range of quotes and sources is huge, making the book much more significant than it would otherwise have been. Highly recommended to all who want to think about the questions of life.

 

On Imagination: Part 3

3. How is imagination?

My experience of writing the Factory Girl trilogy was different to that of my other novels, with the exception of Memory Seed and Hairy London. In the case of The Girl With Two Souls in particular, the book seemed fully formed before I began writing, emerging at 5,000 words per day as if all I had to do was take dictation from my unconscious mind.

I think that is likely how it happened, albeit with some conscious editing along the way. I’ve long thought that much of the work of the author is done without them realising it. In the case of the Factory Girl trilogy the entire scenario came together in a two hour burst of inspiration, and little changed afterwards in the structure and plotting. The first volume was written similarly, in about twenty days. This kind of inspiration is great when it happens, and is an indication that a lot of work is happening behind the scenes.

Human beings have an unconscious for a reason. It would be impossible to live and remain sane if we remembered all our experiences; the amount of information would soon become overwhelming. Instead we lay down long-term memories, we generalise, and we use the model of the world created in our minds, a model which can be very sophisticated (if you are lucky enough to live a life that allows you to grow). In my case, that mental model included the structure, characters, plot and style of the entire trilogy. It was in my mind, waiting to be written.

While I don’t think there is much individual authors can do to make significant changes to their imaginative powers, that being dependent upon genetics and upbringing, I do think there are many tactics which can be used to improve what creativity an author already has.

The first tactic is essentially what I have written so far – let your unconscious do its work. Did a novel scenario burst forth as if already formed? That means it was lurking in your mind, waiting to come out, and you will benefit from following its lead. Is there a previously overlooked character who is clamouring to become more significant? Many authors experience the odd sensation of a minor character becoming much more important than they had planned – it means something in the author’s unconscious is at work, signalling to the conscious mind. I had this happen to me in The Girl With One Friend, when Pastor Richardson emerged as a foil to Kora and Erasmus. I’m not sure he was even in the original conception, in fact. But he turned out to be significant for the development of Erasmus as a character.

Bertrand Russell dispensed this advice to authors about to begin a novel: go to Canada and be a lumberjack for three months. What he meant was, give your unconscious time to sort out the structure of the work.

The second tactic is to trust yourself. This applies more to experienced authors, but novices too can learn to work with their unconscious, and should do. I think however that it is more difficult in this latter case, since the less experienced author is bombarded with advice about writing technique and so on. But, as I’m suggesting in this trio of blog posts, I think it is more important to focus on imagination. Amongst the best advice from an author that I read when I was a tyro was: “If you’re stuck, don’t think about words. Imagine it better.” That advice is a cornerstone of my own writing life.

Trusting yourself also includes allowing yourself the freedom to make mistakes. Actually I think mistakes are more rare than authors realise. We live in a society where there is constant scrutiny of work and an atmosphere of mild anxiety, not helped by the pressure to succeed if you ‘out yourself’ as an author, for example on writing forums. It could be argued that Gwyneth Jones’ notion to use acronyms and an oblique writing style was a mistake in Escape Plans (a few commentators have suggested this), but I think it is more a feature of her unique vision, which she had the good sense to follow. Being an author is a solo activity, not a group activity informed by the tenets of social media. Following the lead of your unconscious means letting yourself say “bollocks to public opinion, this is the way the book had to be written.” My novel Woodland Revolution is written in a particular style, an unusual style perhaps, but I know it could not have been written any other way. It is what it is.

A third tactic is another author staple, but it bears repeating. Although many of my novels are written quickly in a burst of inspiration I do get stuck along the way, usually as a result of minor plot details. In such cases I allow my unconscious to work by going out for a walk. Because I live on the edge of a small town in the middle of the Shropshire countryside this is easy, and relaxing, but it doesn’t have to be a walk. It could be any analogous activity that takes you away from the problem and allows your unconscious mind some freedom: cooking, gardening, listening to music. I have to admit though, I’m still amazed at the efficacy of this tactic. It works for me every time.

So, if you are stuck, it’s best not to think about the problem in front of your computer screen. Take yourself away, allow yourself some freedom, let your unconscious flex its muscles.

A fourth tactic, which again works for me but which I haven’t seen elsewhere in online discussions, is to read more non-fiction. These days I read fiction far less often than non-fiction. I find that my interest in the real world is an inspiration for much of what I write, for instance my thirty year fascination in the mysteries of consciousness and the human condition, which led me to write Beautiful Intelligence and No Grave For A Fox, although the former of those two books was also inspired by the appalling record SF has when dealing with AI and the human mind. The novel I’m working on at the moment – The Autist, a novel of AGI and Big Data – is similarly inspired by the real world. And if I had not read Karen Armstrong’s A Short History Of Myth, Woodland Revolution would have been a very different book. Non-fiction allows the mental models we all carry in our mind to expand and develop. In the long term, this is a powerful aid to imagination. For me, fiction less often has this effect.

So the best stance to take is one of experiencing. As I said earlier, reality needs to be seen very clearly. The clearer reality is seen and the more vividly it is experienced, the more intense the desire to transcend; in other words, the more creative you are. It isn’t that being creative allows you to see more clearly, in some special human way, rather that seeing and experiencing in a special way, in a human way, brings creativity as a consequence.

And this stance is one of union with reality, not of separation via reductionism. It is a delusion to believe that observation-at-a-distance is the best way of experiencing the world, a delusion created by centuries of male scientists and philosophers. “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom” – Gandalf the Grey.

Amy noticed that the garden was being enjoyed by people; but there was a grey mist upon the garden that meant she could not see them, except as the kind of blurs one sees through spectacles (when spectacles are not needed). To the Parrot she said, “I wonder who all these people are? They seem to be enjoying this garden.” And she looked at the late afternoon sun, whose warmth she still felt upon her skin.

“How will you discover who they are?” asked the Parrot. Amy glanced up to see that the Parrot also was a grey blur, which – because they had become acquaintances – she found quite disturbing.

“I do not know,” Amy replied. “Nor do I know how to discover who you are, since you also are a blur.”

“Perhaps your best course of action would be to mingle with these people,” said the Parrot, “as you did in the first walled garden that you visited.”

“Very well,” Amy replied – for she truly admired the courage of the Parrot, and knew that its remark concerning her timidity approached the truth.

So saying, Amy walked along gravel paths and down moss-covered steps to reach the central sections of the garden, where she could see most of the blurs. Though she knew them to be people – because of the way they walked, from the snatches of conversation that she could hear, and from the fact that the parasols she observed must surely be carried by ladies – she did not know who they were.

Amy began to feel terribly alone. She enjoyed company, and did not like to feel left out of society; not in any shape or form! She particularly liked fairs, musical concerts, and long evening conversations before a log fire with her family. In this garden, however, she felt ostracised, because she knew the people only as blurs.

As she wandered amongst the crowd however she began to notice small details: a pleasant expression on a face, a golden ring on an index finger, a way of walking, a gesture, a laugh, all of which she recognised.

“In fact,” said the Parrot, “you do know some of these people!”

“Why, yes!” Amy replied, delighted. “There is my sister Alice.” And at once she rushed over to Alice to give her a great big hug, whereupon Alice changed from being half blur, half girl into the little sister that she knew so well.

“Hello, Amy!” said Alice.

Amy grinned, then studied the rest of the crowd of blurs, to see also her papa and her mama, who she also gave a hug; and as she hugged them they resolved from grey blurs into real people, enjoying the sunlit garden as much as she was.

Let’s allow Amy to have the final word on creativity and imagination.

When she finished her picture she showed it to the Land Whale and to the Parrot, eliciting their approval. “I did tell you the book required respect,” said the Land Whale, “for the beings within it are real. They themselves inspire the imaginary ones.”

“And thus the volume acquired its name,” remarked the Parrot.

“Why,” Amy said, taking her book of aphorisms from her pocket, “I do believe King George the Fourth had something to say on that subject. And here it is!” – There are no natural laws that cannot be broken in your imagination.

And that’s the great advantage of daydreaming.

tgw1f

The Girl With One Friend