Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Carolyn Hillyer & Nigel Shaw

I first saw Nigel Shaw playing live in 1994. My then wife had been told by a colleague that he was playing a gig in Bedfordshire, quite close to where we lived and worked, so we went to see him. He played solo: synthesizer and Native American flute. I was captivated by that flute, which must have been one of the earliest ones that he played. After the gig I chatted to him about it. He was friendly and approachable – a lovely chap.

I liked the music on CD, but it was only after we moved to Devon a few years later that I really got into his music, and that of his equally extraordinary partner Carolyn Hillyer. We used to see them at local gigs in Devon and Cornwall, and soon his influence affected my own music – I bought a Native American flute from him, not one of his own, but one made by Guillermo Martinez, a Californian he worked with. It’s a gorgeous instrument, that I still play. I got to speak with them quite a few times, which was always a happy, positive experience. Nigel is open and friendly, with a charming manner; he has the same obsession with and love of musical instruments that I have. Carolyn is I think more serious, perhaps more intense, and she has a distinct ‘mystical’ quality about her. I remember watching her preparing for at a gig by the River Wye a few years back; she seemed to be staring into some other world.

Over the years I realised just what special talents these two were. Nigel had begun in New Age circles, but he was by far and away the best musician in that genre, and really not part of it at all, except perhaps in the early days. Dartmoor, the land, and tribal societies were strong influences on them both, which gave their music a deep foundation.

Over the last twenty-five years their music has diversified, progressed and deepened. Some of the music is like Nigel’s early stuff – haunting flutes, synth washes and other light instrumentation. Meanwhile, Carolyn has produced an amazing series of tribal and song-based albums, a really extraordinary part-improvised album using just her voice, and there is a strand too of what they call ancient folk, which are my favourite works.

Their music I find deeply soothing, not just because of the quiet, ambient quality of much of it, but because of that foundation in land, seasons, weather, nature. It anchors me. Nigel’s Dartmoor trilogy is particularly strong here, but so are other favourites – the icy/upbeat Ancestors, and the beautiful Nocturnes. Each album has its joys and delights. When, a decade or so ago, my personal life was a wreck I listened to their music for weeks – it helped get me through. I bought all the CDs I didn’t have from Shrewsbury’s alternative shop.

Nigel and Carolyn both make their own instruments, for themselves and their music, and for others; they run instrument-making courses too. They have played with many musicians from across the globe. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to receive one of Carolyn’s shamanic drums, made with her own fair hands from sustainably sourced deer hide. It’s a lovely thing, and records beautifully. Hopefully I’ll have one of Nigel’s flutes in due course.

Even though they make a living from their music and all their other activities, and are well known, I’m still amazed at the lack of public recognition. Why isn’t some production company making a documentary about them and their lives? They’re well known in Devon of course, and in alternative/underground circles, but I’d love to see some sort of national recognition – a film would be perfect.

Where to begin if you don’t know their music? Songs Of The Forgotten People will always be a favourite of mine – truly an inspirational album – but also Ancestors, Weaving The Land and Riven. Carolyn’s Ice is a favourite, as are Nigel’s Nocturnes and Dartmoor Journey.

You can find them at Seventh Wave Music. Happy listening!

c & n

The Smart Neanderthal by Clive Finlayson

The Smart Neanderthal is an important work which aims to reappraise Neanderthal hunting abilities, their grasp of the natural world, and their cognition and ability for symbolic thought. In the majority of cases the author is not only convincing but should be congratulated for knocking down some of the crude mistakes and generalisations made by earlier anthropologists and archaeologists. I do have some reservations, however.

The misleading strapline is: bird catching, cave art and the cognitive revolution. There is plenty on bird catching, almost nothing on cave art, and little on the cognitive revolution. However, unlike other reviewers, I don’t have a problem with the emphasis this author places on the natural world. Such emphasis is vital.

Essentially, this is a book which does not knock over prevailing views of the cognitive revolution, but which does almost as valuable a service in clearing away absurd black-and-white generalisations about the Neanderthals (especially their hunting skills) in favour of something much more nuanced and accurate, which the author provides by way of his decades of bird watching experience.

His main thesis is that we have to understand the Neanderthals via natural history. Across Europe, Neanderthals lived in very different environments and had very different diets, so they must be understood on this basis. The book spends a lot of time detailing bird species, their distribution, their distribution in confirmed Neanderthal sites (notably caves in Gibraltar, which Finlayson has spent decades excavating), and their habits. All of this is vital, albeit a tad long-winded. The main point of this book is to open our eyes to the variety of food sources many Neanderthals had access to, which the author does superbly.

Linked to this is Finlayson’s other main point, that the Neanderthals were the same as us cognitively. He rightly opposes earlier, cruder interpretations, and gives his own speculation, all of which is welcome. But here I think there is not enough supporting evidence. The material on feather colour and raptor talons is absolutely fascinating and will surely stand as a testament to Finlayson’s work, but the evidence for symbolic thought like ours seems slight. Of course, as is noted, lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.

My main worry with this second strand of the book is that speech and anatomy evidence suggests a qualitative difference in cognitive ability, not a quantitative one. As Lieberman & Crelin showed in their ground-breaking work, Neanderthals would have had great difficulty or been unable to pronounce the [i], [u] and [a] vowels, in addition to being unable to pronounce g and k consonants. The inability to pronounce [i] is particularly significant, since it is used in all human language as the main intelligibility marker. In addition, Neanderthal speech would have sounded nasal compared with ours. All these factors limit the ability (unconscious in all modern humans) to recognise the formant frequency of heard speech, which reduces speech capacity. Neanderthals undoubtedly had complex speech, but they would not in my opinion have been so exceptional as homo sapiens. This, to me, seems a qualitative difference not a quantitative one, acting against Finlayson’s hypothesis that there was effectively no cognitive difference between the two species.

Having said that, this book is significant, valuable and well worth reading. The author’s skill and experience in understanding birds translates well into his archaeological work, bringing a deep new insight into Neanderthal life. This emphasis on placing the Neanderthals into their environment is particularly brilliant – a welcome new aspect to our understanding of human origins.


21 Lessons For The 21st Century

21 Lessons For The 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

I loved Sapiens.

I did not love Homo Deus.

I love 21 Lessons For The 21st Century.

This is a massive return to form for Yuval Noah Harari. All the clarity and wisdom of Sapiens is here, with almost none of the partisan moralising that spoiled Homo Deus. Essentially, the book is about the challenges humanity faces now and during the century to come. It’s pretty depressing in places, though there are sections of optimism. But in general, especially with regard to AI and algorithms, the author is pessimistic.

The book has a few main sections: the technological challenge, the political challenge and, distributed in other sections, the ecological challenge. Other main areas covered are the nature of truth, not despairing (for instance because of terrorism), and, in conclusion, the importance of human resilience. Elsewhere there are fascinating chapters on nationalism and religion, liberty, and humility.

The last two chapters are particularly significant. The penultimate chapter deals with the fundamental importance of meaning, pointing out that humanity has rather lost its way here. In a telling analogy which is used elsewhere in the work, Harari points out that in the 20th century humanity told itself three stories: the fascist story, the communist story, and the liberal story. After WW2 the liberal story was the only show in town. But in the 21st century the problem is that we have no story. I think this is a particularly telling analogy, which should give concerned people much to think about.

What follows is a personal conclusion relating the author’s early life and his discovery of meditation. As he points out a few times, most people hardly know themselves and pay very little attention to their own minds and bodies. Change here would be good – perhaps vital.

A terrific book by a remarkable man.

21 less

The Autist arrives…

Book arrival day!


The Autist reviewed

Reviewed in The Guardian today by Eric Brown.

The Autist front cover

Fear Of Melody

About fifteen years ago I began thinking about melody. I’m not sure what the motivation was for this; perhaps a personal need to go back in pop history when songs seemed more tuneful. At the time, my band was going, so it seemed natural for me to understand melody by trying to write it. And, of course, that wasn’t easy. In the end I found that what worked for me was what I called the Neil Young Method. Young basically goes with what comes to him first thing in the morning, when his subconscious dreaming mind is close to his conscious mind. In such a way he wrote gorgeous songs with amazing melodies like After The Gold Rush, Only Love Can Break Your Heart and Heart Of Gold.

Whether I found myself able to write a unique melody is a question best left to those who remember the band and bought the albums. What I can say is that using Young’s method I found many melodies that seemed fresh and original to me, and after a while I had more than I needed.

One of the themes of The Autist is the loss of melody from music being symptomatic of some deeper malaise. It has struck me during the last couple of decades that more popular music now than that of, say, the 1960s or 1970s, is lacking those wonderful, sometimes extraordinary melodies: I’m thinking of Paul McCartney’s classics, many Motown classics, The Byrds, the Beach Boys, John Phillips’ songs, Paul Simon, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, and so on. Did something happen around the turn of the millennium that sucked some of the melody out of popular music in the West?

It seems to me that such a thing might have happened. As a practicing musician I used to wonder if it was something to do with the increasing use of computers in the recording studio. Using software rather than analogue tape can channel musicians in a certain direction: loop-based music using samples for instance. Some groups – FSOL stand out here – can use loops and samples in an original way, but for me something is lost around this particular time. But perhaps there is more to it than computer software.

What, then, is melody? Melody for me is a direct connection to the emotional heart of human existence. With melody, feelings can be evoked without the need for words – you only have to think of instrumental themes like Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1, or many themes from famous films, like Francis Lai’s unforgettable theme from Love Story. Melody is our path into feeling, emotion and mood – think of the theme from The Snowman…

So I can’t help wondering if the loss of melody from popular music is diagnostic of a deeper problem. We live in a world where computers are the environment, not just some handy thing in the environment. Our world has become one of calculation, algorithm, statistics. The analogue age is over: this is the digital age. Could it be that the loss of melody in popular music is a symptom of emotion, and therefore of human values, receding from our world? Could the reported increase in ennui, in numbness, in the Western world also be symptomatic of such a lack?

This was the thesis I had Mary Vine put forward in The Autist. Mary has been working on a case involving Tarrington Smith, a brilliant melodist – “… a Mozart, a McCartney…” – murdered in mysterious circumstances. The case leads her thinking in a certain direction. I wonder if she was on to something when she spoke about the loss of melody from the world? Because, if so, that’s scary.

The Autist front cover

The Uncanny Valley

The uncanny valley is a human cognitive phenomenon in which robotic or CGI human-like creations which are very realistic, yet not so accurate they are indistinguishable from reality, elicit feelings of disgust or eeriness in the observer. The phenomenon has been known for a few decades since being reported by a Japanese robotics engineer. Many directors of animated films now have to make a decision between ‘obviously animated’ human characters and 100% realistic in order to avoid their audiences being repelled by what they see. This is the reason for the notably ‘cartoonish’ quality of many modern CGI animations, for example The Incredibles.

There are a number of hypotheses as to what might be causing the uncanny valley effect, for instance disgust helping to avoid bugs and germs (i.e. originally evolving to help avoid potential sources of pathogens), or as a threat to our distinctiveness (the more a robot resembles a real human the more it represents a challenge to our social identity – there is also a hypothesis based in the same thing on religious grounds). Then there is an interesting hypothesis based on violation of our psychological norms, i.e. if an robot appears sufficiently nonhuman its human characteristics become noticeable, which brings empathy; if the robot looks almost human its nonhuman characteristics become more noticeable, giving us the uncanny sense of strangeness: repulsion. A related theory concerns the conflict of perceptual cues, i.e. the repulsion or eeriness associated with uncanny feelings is produced by a conflict in cognitive representations, uncanniness happening when somebody perceives conflicting psychological categories; for instance when a mostly accurate humanoid figure moves like a robot, or has other obvious robotic features.

Much discussion surrounds these various hypotheses, and none are generally accepted. Some have a lot of evidence weighing against them.

As a reader of books about human evolution, I would like to add my own hypothesis. It seems to me that the uncanny valley effect is strong and universal, and therefore must have an evolutionary basis. There are similarities between it and emotion, which has a deep evolutionary history and is essential to the conscious mind. It must be a cognitive effect, perhaps because modern human beings (homo sapiens) are profoundly aware of and sensitive to faces. Infants recognise faces at an incredibly young age. So, given that our consciousness is rooted in empathy – in our use of ourselves as psychological exemplars by which to understand the behaviour of others – it strikes me that if, during the evolution of homo sapiens, we encountered species remarkably similar to ourselves yet not quite the same, there would perhaps be an eerie, uncanny, negative effect. This effect would have evolved in homo sapiens specifically to keep similar species apart.

Of course, it could be argued that there was no particular need to keep similar species apart. We now have proof that interbreeding took place between Neanderthals and homo sapiens, with about 1%-4% of non-African human DNA being Neanderthal. Our species coexisted in Europe; that arrangement however, judging by the archaeological evidence, was more like a mosaic than any other arrangement.

But what if the need for species separation was cognitive and could be acted upon by Darwinian natural selection? Nicholas Humphrey in Soul Dust convincingly argues that for consciousness to evolve to the degree present in us it must be highly visible to natural selection; in other words, there must be a strong selection pressure in favour of consciousness, with natural selection acting upon cognitive attributes once the expansion of the neocortex is well underway. Perhaps that selection pressure not only brought consciousness to homo sapiens, it also created a cognitive abyss – a kind of abstract version of the species abyss across which no fertile offspring can be created – which the various psychological world-views could not bridge. Such an inability to bridge the cognitive gap would be felt – as an emotion is felt – by homo sapiens: the uncanny valley.

Perhaps our modern robots have accidentally stimulated this ancient cognitive effect, returning the eerie feelings of the uncanny valley to homo sapiens.

The Autist full cover

Decoupling Consciousness From Intelligence

In recent months I’ve noticed a few mentions of something that was at the heart of my theme for The Autist: decoupling consciousness from intelligence. One of the mentions was in Yuval Noah Harari’s new book 21 Lessons For The 21st Century.

Why should we be very worried about this decoupling? Well, there is one main reason. Modern human beings 100,000 years ago had millions of years of evolution behind them. Their conscious minds evolved in bodies, and those minds existed in vibrant, intense societies. Consciousness evolved to answer the problem of humanoid primates facing increasingly complex and difficult to understand behaviour. By using the self as an exemplar, individuals both understood others and made their societies far more effective and likely to survive. There was a strong evolutionary selection pressure in favour of consciousness.

Consciousness therefore exists in unavoidable synchrony with other human attributes: compassion, insight, and especially empathy. I would argue that empathy is in fact an inseparable part of human consciousness, unless absent through genetic illness or other rare factors (e.g. as in psychopaths). Our ability to feel the pain of another by imagining their personal experience is vital for human survival.

Human intelligence, then, exists only in parallel with insight, compassion and empathy, and that union comes about because our mental experience exists inside our own bodies. To use Nicholas Humphrey’s term, the experience is privatised. Because of compassion and empathy, human beings of 100,000 years ago and earlier healed and otherwise cared for their tribal kin; this we know from archaeological bone finds where serious injuries have healed over time. Chimpanzees show no empathy, and have for instance been observed eating meat from the still-living kills of their own kind. But because we understand the terrible consequences of pain, normal human beings in normal circumstances don’t do such things. (Of course, we can be trained to be sadistic by a process of dehumanisation, i.e. suppressing natural empathy, as in standard army training for soldiers.)

AI by contrast exists as isolated abstract structures. Algorithms do not have a body. You can put a primitive AI inside a robot body, but its sensory equipment is a minuscule fraction of what we have, and at a much lower resolution. But it is with AIs and algorithms that the real danger lies, not in some robot apocalypse.

My new novel The Autist extrapolates from where we are now. Unlike Zeug the solitary AI android of my novel Beautiful Intelligence, or the society of bi entities created by Manfred Klee in the same work, in The Autist I wanted to write about something much more terrifying. An AI without a body cannot be conscious. Such an entity is a partial model of the world lacking all our natural humane attributes. It is intelligence alone, without insight, compassion, empathy. It exists as a remorseless learning entity: all perception and no sensation. It can never understand human beings as we understand one another. It sees us as individual mathematical entities, or, in societies, as sociological aggregates.

I agree with Yuval Noah Harari when he says that the decoupling of consciousness from intelligence is one of the main three perils of the 21st century. We are creating isolated, abstract intelligences and we are giving them the power to control human beings through economics (which therefore means politics), and even via culture. To me, that does not seem wise. Perhaps we over-reached when we named ourselves sapiens.

The Autist front cover

New interview with me

Recently I did a full new interview with author G.J. Stevens, which has recently been published on his blog.

The Autist full cover

Speculation SF Got Wrong Part 4

In this series of four daily posts to accompany my novel ‘The Autist’ I’m going to look at a few interesting bits of speculation that in my opinion SF got wrong. In fantasy you can suspend disbelief without worries, but I feel SF has a different foundation; and, while it’s a truism that SF futures are really about the present (e.g. William Gibson’s eighties-with-knobs-on Sprawl trilogy), we should perhaps expect a higher bar than in fantasy, where, delightfully, anything goes. My focus here in on themes of AI, the mind and consciousness.


Having covered consciousness not being a factor of computing power, the impossibility of extracting or linking to parts of consciousness, and the impossibility of uploading or downloading into new bodies, I want to cover a final aspect of SF speculation – the impossibility of creating sentient virtual minds or copies of minds.

This is a staple of much SF, including for instance certain books by Julian May in which Jon Remillard experiences an evolutionary jump, discards his physical form and metamorphoses into his final state as a disembodied brain. But a brain/mind without a body is effectively nothing. Early episodes of Dr Who did a similar thing with the species known as morpho, and the concept is regularly used in much cinema SF. Consciousness however is founded on sensory input, as shown by Nicholas Humphrey (amongst others) in his books Seeing Red and A History Of The Mind. Without sensory input there is nothing supporting the mental model we all carry in our minds. We continually update our model of the world, mostly without being aware of it. Lacking such input there is nothing for consciousness to work with. Sensory deprivation experiments have shown how quick the mind begins to disintegrate if sensory input is missing. “What each species knows of reality is what its senses allow it to construct,” as Dorothy Rowe put it in The Construction Of Life & Death. In other words, any post-death disembodied existence is impossible.

Similarly, in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the AI known as Neuromancer attempts to trap Case inside a cyber-construct, where he finds the “consciousness” of his girlfriend from Chiba City, who was murdered by one of Case’s underworld contacts. But without a body Linda Lee is nothing. The intertwining of body and mind cannot be undone. Such undoing is a false belief, again founded on the religious notion of a separable spirit or soul; it is a mistake to think that consciousness could be extracted and live on after a body’s death. (We can blame Descartes for many modern misconceptions as well as all the modern religions.)

Of course, even though all private mental activity is forever beyond the boundary of external acquisition, public information about such activity is not – just as we have indirect access to other minds but no direct access. I used this point when creating the metaframes of my novel Muezzinland. Metaframes are complex entities of data, but they are not records of minds, rather they are records of the public activity, history and observed character of minds. So, for instance, there could be a metaframe of Mnada the Empress of Ghana, which would collect all her public utterances, her observed character, appearance and her entire life history. This could be animated in the virtual reality of the Aether to create the impression of a copy of the Empress. But such a copy would contain none of the Empress’ private thoughts, and it would not be conscious. It might appear to be conscious through sheer realism, but it never actually would be.

Similar creations exist in my new novel The Autist, where they are known as data shadows. A data shadow is an entity created from the online activity of an individual: personal records, medical records, gaming records, surveillance camera data and so on. As is observed during the novel, such entities can become complex, depending on the amount of data gathered. But a data shadow could never be conscious. It can only exist as an approximation of an individual built up over time from public data.


In The Autist, one of my intentions was to speculate on what might happen should the development of AI continue as it is presently. In this series of blogs I have tried to show that consciousness is a result of evolution by natural selection acting upon physically separate biological creatures living in intense, sophisticated social groups. SF speculation about minds, souls, spirits, software etc being separable and transferable is based on an antiquated, false, imaginary concept, which, because human cultural evolution is slow, still remains to trouble us today.

My speculation takes as its starting point the notion that the sensory channels of the brain and the perceptual channels are separate. Sensation is our creation. There is no chain of causation beginning with something out there in the real world and ending up in the mind with qualia: the redness of red, the pain-ness of pain, etc. This separation and associated processes have been shown to be the case by Nicholas Humphrey’s work on blindsight (as described in the novel by Lara Vine), and by Paul Bach-y-Rita’s work on neuroplasticity, for instance using the tactile sensory channel to bring visual perception (Wombo’s camera/shirt set-up, designed by Lara).

As Mary Vine points out in her summation, the Autist could never be conscious. It is one massive, heuristic, perceptual network. It entirely lacks senses, relying for input on data provided by AIs, and from an occasional human like the Master at Peng Cheng Wan Li, Mr Wú. It is, in other words, a vast, isolated model of the world with its roots forever locked in earlier social values, encoded into it by the male, narcissistic, capitalist programmers of our times. And because it cannot sense and has no body, it is utterly devoid of fundamental human values: feeling, empathy, insight, compassion.

Is this the kind of entity we wish to create?
The Autist front cover