Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Top 10 Steely Dan Songs

Another sidestep into music… Always loved the Dan, who in Becker & Fagan had two of the finest pop-rock songwriters ever.

1 Barrytown
2 Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me)
3 Any Major Dude Will Tell You
4 Do It Again
5 Deacon Blues
6 Josie
7 Gaucho
8 Babylon sisters
9 Almost Gothic
10 Rikki Don’t Lose That Number


A New American Faith

We should not be surprised that – as the journal Scientific American observed in a recent article – ‘… people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them. The reason is related to the worldview perceived to be under threat by the conflicting data. Creationists, for example, dispute the evidence for evolution in fossils and DNA because they are concerned about secular forces encroaching on religious faith. Anti-vaxxers distrust big pharma and think that money corrupts medicine, which leads them to believe that vaccines cause autism despite the inconvenient truth that the one and only study claiming such a link was retracted and its lead author accused of fraud… In these examples, proponents’ deepest held worldviews were perceived to be threatened by sceptics, making facts the enemy to be slayed.’

This is exactly how religious faith works. Contradictory, if not actually ludicrous beliefs are held by groups of adherents, and facts simply make them believe more – and more deeply. As someone interested in the world and our relationship to it I’ve long been perplexed by this process of “faith-testing,” and I used it in The Girl With One Friend, where Erasmus and Pastor Richardson duel over Erasmus’ growing apostasy.

When I was growing up, I didn’t have a world-view forced into me. My parents are both non-religious, and although I went to a C. of E. school from the ages of six to eleven I was an atheist even then, with Christianity bouncing off me. My world view accumulated slowly, based in what I experienced around me. In other circles this is called the scientific method. Of course, it could be argued that atheism is a world-view (which it is), and that it was forced into me, but that ignores the fundamental point – I discovered the world over a long period of time through a method which assumes the independent existence of that world, and which tests it. Science does not care what I or anybody else believes.

We see this odd phenomenon of “faith-testing” at work now in American politics, as the dread day Friday 20th January hoves into view. The overwhelming majority of Donald Trump’s followers support him using principles of religious faith, carried over to the political world. Facts simply make them believe more, because facts threaten them. The contradictory nature of the beliefs of these supporters is identical to the contradictory nature of the beliefs of religious people – in the case of Donald Trump’s supporters a hotch-potch of stuff based in incoherent anger at their ruling class, absurd principles of freedom, and the ugly narcissistic codes of misogyny and racism, which have always loomed large in America’s ultra-Christian culture.

So we should not be surprised at the teflon-coated quality of Donald Trump’s supporters. Just like him, they don’t interface with the real world, where facts reside. They interact with their imaginary construct, supported by everyone else around them and inspired by the man himself. The real world, with its inconvenient truths, is not for them. Donald Trump leads a new religious sect, and is its only source is him. He is the messiah of himself; and it seems quite a lot of people do actually believe in him.


Victoria R.I. by Elizabeth Longford

An enjoyable biography of an interesting character in remarkable times. It was a little more detailed than I realised when I picked it up, but that’s no fault of the book. Certainly the author knows her subject extremely well. I don’t imagine this could be topped in terms of coverage.


Tommy Catkins – a novel

Last autumn – three quarters of the way through my “year off writing novels” – I found myself pondering three possible works, one of which was to be written over the winter holiday. The first was a novel about a shell shocked solider returning to Britain in 1915 after his experiences in the trenches; the second was an uncategorisable novel with animal characters and a philosophical theme; the third was a YA novel set in Wales with a magic-realism feel to it.

One evening, I found myself winding down at the end of the day listening to an album. The lights were low and I was considering which of the three works might be the one to go for. The album I put on was A Trick Of The Tail by Genesis – I’d been enjoying their albums over a couple of weeks, having not listened to them for some time. As the beautiful songs passed by I began to realise that their themes matched the theme of the first work; the soldier returning to Britain. It was a remarkable fit, and so I began putting together in my mind the fundamentals of the novel.

Four songs stood out as somehow encapsulating the novel: Entangled (a simply gorgeous Steve Hackett classic), Mad Man Moon (Tony Banks’ finest moment I think), Ripples (a Rutherford/Banks collaboration) and A Trick Of The Tail, which is another Banks classic. Entangled in particular seemed to convey what I had in mind – a hospital setting, hints of Freud, hints of mental turmoil, and an environment of healing – I wanted to write a novel about a soldier whose shell shock was so profound it left him in an impossible dilemma. Mad Man Moon had the water/rain references that were an important part of what I was creating, while Ripples somehow encapsulated the “underwater” feel that also seemed a vital part of the setting. As for A Trick Of The Tail – that managed to encapsulate the “otherworldly” feel I was looking for. I later found out that the song was written by Banks after reading William Golding’s novel The Inheritors.

Although the album served to encapsulate a novel that was already forming in my subconscious, I did take two specific things from it – the idea of the underwater world characters having tails (A Trick Of The Tail) and the mythical monster the Squonk, which I’d initially rejected as a reference, but which during later research I found matched my scenario almost exactly.

By the time the album had finished playing that evening I knew this was the novel I wanted to write next. I felt that indefinable twinge of excitement within me which signified: “this is the one.”

Yesterday I completed the first draft of Tommy Catkins, and it seems to have gone really well. The novel has a slower, more lyrical, more melancholy feel than, say, the Factory Girl trilogy. I think it likely that it will be the last novel for the foreseeable future written in a WW1 setting. I do think however that I’ll return to Victorian/Edwardian times for new settings, as I much enjoy writing in that era.


Following a horrific experience at Verdun, Tommy Catkins – shellshocked and suffering head injuries – is sent to a private mental hospital on a river island in Wiltshire, where he is subjected to the primitive treatments of the era. But the island appears to be a portal to the mysterious world of Onderwater, where live a race of blue-skinned people with tails. Will Tommy be tempted by the lure of this phantasy, or will the love of Nurse Vann pull him back to reality, and recovery?


Top 10 Stranglers songs

Another lurch into the miscellany of music! The Stranglers were central to my musical upbringing; I loved them in the ’70s and ’80s and I love them now (I mean, that is, until Hugh left…). The gig I saw them play in 1982 at the Rainbow in London will forever be etched upon my memory. So, here’s my top 10 favourite songs.

  1. Toiler On The Sea
  2. The Raven
  3. Tank
  4. (Get A) Grip (On Yourself)
  5. Curfew
  6. Down In The Sewer
  7. Waiting For The Meninblack
  8. Always The Sun
  9. European Female
  10. No More Heroes

The Girl With No Soul, 1st review

Terrific, if somewhat breathless first review just in for The Girl With No Soul, at amazon:

‘Oh my goodness I am almost relieved this is over… I was reading till 3:30 last night… Stephen Palmer has written his life’s masterpiece… It’s amazing, I can’t explain why… you’ll just have to read it…’


The Girl With One Friend, 1st review

Super first review for The Girl With One Friend at amazon:

“Second book in the trilogy so my comments for the first all apply… This story does get better and better… what an adventure! I loved it! Major warning though… I have read many a book containing emotive subjects and have been left dry eyed… but this one really touched me… review reader… I cried!”


Tangerine Dream faves

Another lurch into the Music Miscellanea category, this time my top 10 favourite tracks by Tangerine Dream. TD were a big part of my musical growing-up in the late ’70s and through the ’80s, and their back catalogue up to 1985 still means a great deal to me.

  1. Madrigal Meridian
  2. Cherokee Lane
  3. Exit
  4. Force Majeure
  5. Thru Metamorphic Rocks
  6. Atem
  7. Ricochet Part 1
  8. White Eagle
  9. Poland
  10. Quichotte Part 2

The Mushroom Eaters

I made a rather startling discovery yesterday.

In 2006 I sold Urbis Morpheos to Pete Crowther at PS Publishing. For various personal and other reasons it wasn’t published until 2010. That version however was taken from a greatly amended draft, which was unlike the original draft – a novel then called The Mushroom Eaters.

Yesterday, quite by accident, I stumbled across the original files on my Mac, files I had thought long since lost. They were all labelled Unix Executable File (a term I had to have explained to me by the online hive-mind) and were all dated November 2001. To my surprise and delight I was able to copy & paste every file into two new Word documents, each coming in at around 90,000 words.

So… this presents me with the option of reconstituting the original, full novel: Urbis Morpheos and Astra Gaia. (Like the Factory Girl trilogy, this would be one long novel in more than one volume.) The 2010 reviews hovered between mixed and good – it is a complex, challenging novel – so I’m not sure I will go ahead and remake the original novel. But it is quite tempting…


Urbis Morpheos, 2010

Dedicated to…

Keen fans and casual readers alike may have noticed that instead of dedicating the three volumes of the Factory Girl trilogy to loved ones or good friends, I’ve chosen three “public figures” – Nicholas Humphrey, Dorothy Rowe and Erich Fromm, with the latter in memoriam (Fromm died in 1980). I thought I’d write a few words about why I chose these three people.

Although the narrative of the Factory Girl trilogy is one of adventure, tragedy, and quite a few nail-biting cliff-hangers and set pieces, the theme of the work is deeper – the nature of the human condition. I did have Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials at the very back of my mind when I was pondering how to judge this aspect of the books – I love that paradoxical mix of youthful outlook and human profundity (and I’ll very likely attempt it again). Set inside the narrative is a second book, Amy’s Garden by Rev. Carolus Dodgson, which the main character Kora uses as a kind of emblem of her inner humanity.

Since my early twenties I’ve been reading books on these deeper topics. I think initially this was because, as a retiring kind of person growing up in the middle of deepest, darkest Shropshire, I fell far behind when it came to such things. Most people find out about human strengths and foibles through general life experience, and I did also, albeit later than most – but the evolutionary and psychological aspects soon began to fascinate me.

I think the pebble that began the landslide was the broadcasting in 1986 of Nicholas Humphrey’s The Inner Eye, a six part series on Channel 4 which asked the question: why are human beings conscious? Humphrey – a gifted researcher of animal and human behaviour, and a profound thinker – asked questions that I would have asked myself had I had the wit and insight to. Yet I knew what I wanted to know, and I knew the vast amount that I didn’t know; and suddenly there was a compelling series of programmes to follow.

I bought the book as soon as it was published, and since then have bought everything the man has published. An exceptional volume followed – The History Of The Mind – in which Humphrey brought in matters of evolution, arguing that consciousness is ultimately rooted in raw sensation via our physical senses. His other work is equally as insightful, not least Soul Searching, which deals with matters of the soul and other mystical beliefs. A recent work, Soul Dust: The Magic Of Consciousness, describes how consciousness is a kind of show that we all stage inside our heads.

I rate Nicholas Humphrey as one the absolute pinnacles of thinking and writing on the nature of human consciousness. His ‘social intelligence’ theory is one of the foundations for my own thought on matters of the human condition.

It wasn’t long after The Inner Eye television series that I discovered Erich Fromm. Fromm is regarded by many as one of the outstanding thinkers in matters of human nature and the human condition, and his reputation will be secure for centuries to come. Originally a sociologist and a psychotherapist who worked in the Freudian tradition, and also by inclination a Marxist, Fromm began in the 1940s and 1950s to produce a series of remarkable books on the human condition: The Fear Of Freedom, Man For Himself, The Art Of Loving, The Sane Society, The Anatomy Of Human Destructiveness, and in 1976 his last great work, To Have Or To Be? I devoured these books, and many of the other, more specialised works that he wrote in the latter decades of his life.

For me, Fromm’s greatness derives from his book The Sane Society, although there was much else that was great about him, not least his grasp of the importance of narcissism in a full description of the human condition. In The Sane Society Fromm offered an analysis of the human condition (what I call a scientific description). It completely blew my mind that this could even be attempted, let alone achieved. I don’t think Fromm was completely correct, and, later in life, he confessed that he had missed some obvious points, such as his automatic ignoring of women as full members of society. But Fromm was a brilliant man, and we all owe him a huge debt. Many of his ideas have made it into the mainstream of Western thinking, where they will persist, not least in the struggle against irrational, faith-based thought.

The third main influence at this time of my life was Dorothy Rowe. An Australian by birth, Rowe arrived in Britain in the 1960s, where she went into psychotherapy and general mental health/counselling practice. Her early area of interest and expertise was depression, but soon her thought and reach expanded, and she began writing a remarkable series of books.

Of these books, the first one I read, and perhaps one of the most important in a long and marvellous career, was Beyond Fear. An exploration of how individuals respond to fear, and how they turn it into afflictions of the body and into painful, self-limiting or dangerous behaviour, its sheer common sense, expanse and clarity of thought, and its profundity marked it out as something important. Later books looked at human responses to the nuclear arms race, to success, to money, and to religion. Much of Rowe’s best work revolves around the methods we use and the mistakes we make in constructing meaning throughout our lives, with The Construction Of Life & Death being a particularly good example. Rowe, formerly a Christian, is religious no longer.

As Fay Weldon observed in a front-jacket comment, “She sets us on the road to personal and political utopia – if only we would take it.”

These three people, alongside many other writers and thinkers including Daniel Dennett, David Lewis-Williams, Robin Dunbar and Douglas Hofstadter, have set me on my own particular paths of thought. I am thankful for that.


The Inner Eye, Nicholas Humphrey