stephenpalmersf

Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Conjuror Girl to be published

I’m delighted to announce that I have sold my steampunk trilogy Conjuror Girl to Keith Brooke at Infinity Plus. The books will be published under the Infinite Press imprint on Thursday 4 Nov, 18 November and 2 December. The three novels – Monique Orphan, Monica Orvan and Monica Hatherley – follow the story of Monique, later Monica, a young woman residing in a particularly grim orphanage in the Shrobbesbury of 1899. Shrobbesbury is a twisted, gothic version of my home town of Shrewsbury. Monique however is no ordinary girl. She seems to have a power, Reification, that only men should have. Should she deny this gift and stay safe, or should she risk being noticed and captured by the Reifiers’ Guild, whose devious and callous deeds include sinking Paris in the Inundation? Alongside her best friend Lily, also an orphan, Monique has to walk an impossible tightrope, as the net closes around her and she struggles to find out who and what she is…

Cybergone

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve sold my near future SF novel Cybergone to Rick Moore at White Cat Publications. Special thanks to Rick and to Jude Matulich-Hall. Cybergone is a novel of later this century in which an enigmatic illness called Empathy Negation Disorder, found only in China, is laying waste to the Chinese people. This illness has been denied and concealed by the Chinese Communist Party. The novel takes two strands, one of which follows the story of Zhou Qi, whose seven-year-old son has END, but who has insight into the possible causes of the illness because of his tech background. The other strand follows three Anglo-Chinese musicians undertaking a tour of China, dates which, as they progress, reveal far more sinister motives than just entertaining fans. This novel was inspired by my increasing unease at how the online world and social media in particular is altering the brains, and therefore the minds, of children…

The tank man vs the CCP.

FCC Video Event

Here’s where you can watch the recording of the FCCs event which I, Keith Brooke, Liz Williams and Anne Charnock attended on Wednesday.

FCC Author Event Today!

The FCC author event is today. In preparation, here’s an interview with me by the FCCs Jenny Sims, in which I talk about my three stories for the Fictions: Health & Social Care Re-imagined project.

76 – 79

They were such special years for electronic music.

Some concatenation of new keyboards and new visions in a new audio milieu propelled Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Jean Michel Jarre and Michael Hoenig to create some of the loveliest and most extraordinary electronic music ever recorded.

Though their LP Stratosfear was wonderful, Tangerine Dream first represented the particular qualities of this magical period with Encore – still one of my favourites of their albums, for all that it was a studio lash-up created as a parting gift to the group by Peter Baumann – with its shimmering strings sounds and eerie, sometimes gothic atmospheres. There is a brightness about it, especially on the opening track, and a confidence too. That confidence is even stronger when we get to Cyclone and Force Majeure, two albums which manage to merge progressive and electronic music in a way rarely achieved since. These two albums have at their heart the joy of discovering new musical forms: new collaborations, directions, structures, possibilities. The sound world is open, European, direct, engaging. New territory has been explored and new creativity discovered as a consequence. I listen to all three of these albums now, forty years after I first heard them, and they retain their capacity to delight and to enchant.

Klaus Schulze meanwhile was producing the greatest albums of his analogue years. Having broken new ground that not even Tangerine Dream had covered, working with Moog sequences and the brilliant drummer Harald Grosskopf to create the spellbinding work of genius Moondawn, he went on to create two of the most extraordinary albums of electronic music ever released, to this day revered as masterpieces: Mirage and “X.” The former was a work of sublime beauty inspired in part by the death of his brother, an album of dense, incredibly atmospheric synth washes, one half full of winter weather, the other, built around mesmerising sequences, full of ice. The latter album though was his finest achievement, ranking alongside Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon for sheer range and vision. “X” is an album of unique complexity, range and depth, its opening track one of the most extraordinary achievements in all music, not just electronic music, with its evocation of the power, the joy, and the rushing, headlong sensation of movement. The other long tracks were hardly less ground-breaking, including through the use of a string orchestra.

More commercially-minded perhaps, but no less trailblazing were Jean Michel Jarre’s first two albums, especially the gorgeous Oxygene, still loved today, 45 years later, as one of the most beautiful uses of analogue synthesizers. Jarre’s sense of melody combined with the technical state of the synthesizers he used, creating an album that seemed to come from nowhere. Even in the context of European electronic music it stands alone – not so dense as Schulze, less wedded to sequencing than Tangerine Dream, with an airy, bright, in places simple, almost crystalline feel to it. Equinox meanwhile continued the journey into melody and sonic luminosity with more complex, considered compositions.

Yet the beating heart of this brief period of electronic music is perhaps Michael Hoenig’s beloved album Departure From The Northern Wasteland. I can listen to this work and still be awed by it. In fact, today I did – in the car driving to the day job. Hoenig had a gift like no other electronic musician of the period for weaving together synth lines and ostinatos, creating a hypnotic tapestry of music. Not even Chris Franke could beat that, live or in the studio, though he came close on side one of Rubycon. Created during 1976 and the following year, Hoenig’s solitary offering to the Berlin School is one of its towering achievements, its merging of repetition through sequencing and the overlaying of multiple keyboard lines unparalleled since its release in 1978. Alas, it was a solitary work of genius.

There were other outstanding musicians working in this field at this time, though their names are not quite so well known. In a small studio in Germany for instance one Robert Schroeder-Trebor was creating (and trying to have released) one the best albums of the period, and one of its greatest debuts, the gorgeous Harmonic Ascendant. Recorded and released with the assistance of Klaus Schulze, to whom Schroeder had written on various occasions about his home-made synthesizers, its use of sequences, unique synth sounds, vocoder, acoustic guitar and even a few New Age tropes led to a truly wonderful album, followed a year later by the equally remarkable Floating Music. This latter album, released in 1980, was one of the first LPs I bought at the Virgin Music Store in Oxford Street, London. Attracted by its cover and the description on the back, I loved it from first listen, and it, and Schroeder’s debut, stand up today as works worthy of mention in the company above.

All these albums were discovered by me at that period in my life when music makes an indelible impact. I remember something Don Falcone said in the Mooch documentary Twenty Year Trip. The music we listen to in our teen years and a little beyond is somehow different, he said. We don’t know how it is made, though later, if we become musicians, we find out. But when we mature, especially if we get involved with recording and mixing music, that innocent, bright-eyed wonder is lost, never to be recaptured. Knowledge erases some of the wonder of music. Perhaps this is why the music we musicians and music-lovers listen to in our teenage years and into our twenties has such resonance through our lives. I was born in the 1960s and am therefore a musical child of the later 1970s. Perhaps this is why the period 1976 to 1979 is such a special one for me.

Yet to my mind the electronic music produced in those three or so years does have a special quality – of the joy of exploration, of confidence, of the love of using new machines to make new sounds, of the merging of melody, sound, rhythm and noise into works of great and progressive beauty. These are not just albums on the frontier of electronic music, they are a unique, never to be repeated collection of creations inspired by a one-off musical and social milieu. In 1977 ten years had passed since Sgt. Pepper. The album was paramount. There was still time to break ground, to blaze a trail. None of that could be done in years following because the territory was already covered and because synth technology made making music easier. No struggle, no effort: no magic. The early Mooch albums sound so different precisely because I had no synths and had to use other sound sources for sonic texture. Obstacles made me struggle, yet all the time I had my mind set on a goal: progression, exploration, discovery, beauty, music, album. These are the watchwords of all the works mentioned above.

It does matter when you make and release music. You have to get in first. You have to be lucky. Most musicians aren’t. I wasn’t.

Those were indeed special years for electronic music.

Blindsight, Hypnotism & Social Media

For some time I’ve been convinced that, for all social media’s benefits, which I have enjoyed and made use of, they are on balance outweighed by the disadvantages and even harmful effects on human beings. In this essay I’m going to compare two brain/mind conditions with what is known about the psychological effects of social media.

Blindsight is an obscure but fascinating mental phenomenon which offers us a unique and deeply significant view into consciousness itself. It was first dealt with in depth by the American neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita, whose most notable work was in the field of neuroplasticity – he was an early researcher into it – introducing in perhaps his most famous work the idea of sensory substitution as a tool for treating patients suffering from neurological disorders.

Blindsight is a very strange thing. Some patients suffering from brain damage or brain disorders believe they are blind when in fact there is no damage to their optical systems at all. When the gifted psychologist and philosopher Nicholas Humphrey approached this phenomenon, he realised there was a deeper level to understanding it. A human being with blindsight, he noticed, believed they were blind despite being able to navigate a room filled with objects, a task for which they felt profound ambivalence. A monkey with blindsight on the other hand simply navigated the room filled with objects. So human beings with blindsight have to invent explanations to give meaning to this unsettling experience, such as possessing ESP powers. Animals do not need to do such a thing – no ambivalence shown.

This experimental observation caused Humphrey to hypothesize that the sensory pathway and the perceptual pathway in conscious human beings are separate entities. In his ground-breaking book A History Of The Mind he explained that because we experience sensation and perception simultaneously (or, at least, almost simultaneously – there is an element of temporal juggling to consciousness) we don’t realise the two are separate. We believe we are navigating the real world when in fact we are relying on our mental model of it. It is only through blindsight that the two systems are revealed to be separate. In his subsequent book Seeing Red Humphrey developed his idea, showing how it might have evolved, and giving a full philosophical and psychological basis for the theory, including sensory modality, which complemented Bach-y-Rita’s work nicely.

When recently I was reading Robin Waterfield’s excellent book Hidden Depths about hypnotism I was struck by an extraordinary similarity. Some hypnotised subjects, when hypnotised into believing they cannot see, still navigate rooms with chairs placed randomly as though they can see. These were called chair/no chair (real/simulant) experiments, the results of which are identical to blindsight experiments.

Could this be coincidence? Possibly. But let’s think about what hypnotism is. Hypnotism has three distinctive properties: focused attention, impaired or reduced peripheral awareness, and vastly increased suggestibility. The first two conditions in particular relate to circumstances in which the subject is making significantly less use of sensory pathways, allowing the perceptual pathway to dominate. In such circumstances, when the real world is not being checked hundreds of times a second as with normal consciousness, the subject is susceptible to being made to believe suggestions imparted to them by the hypnotist. In other words, although the dynamic of the situation is different to blindsight – diminished use of sensory pathways instead of none – there is an emphasis in their subjective experience of perception; and perception, based in a mental model, is essentially a meaning framework, for most if not all people a belief or set of beliefs. But beliefs can be suggested, even “crazy” beliefs, which is why stage hypnotism is often so strange a thing. The subject’s sense of disbelief is suspended.

This phenomenon however is familiar to us from advertising and politics. When you see an advert for, let’s say, a beer, and you feel thirsty, what’s happening is that the advert’s sensory design, lifestyle assumptions and narrative are subtly tapping into what are termed emotional buying triggers, hypnotising you and all other viewers with the explicit desire of making you accept and act upon suggestions. In any other field – education, for instance – such techniques would be banned as deeply inhumane, yet because we live in a corporate, capitalist, individualistic and misogynist (80% of adverts are targeted at women) society it is permitted. Repetition and context complete the technique. And the same happens in politics. Those politicians with charisma are the ones who draw you into their world, taking you to a political worldview of their own or their party’s, but which actually exists inside your mental model. Their desire is to suggest to you that if you vote for them you will gain a suite of life advantages, and even though you return to normality afterwards, even knowing that the speech or party advert was disingenuous, that sensation of belief remains. Repetition completes the deal. Repetition and suggestion make you one of them.

What advertisers and politicians are doing is tapping into that part of the human subconscious which deals with emotional response. This is done deliberately, regardless of the fact that it is psychological manipulation.

So far, then, we’ve decided that consciousness is a user-generated experience based on the simultaneous operation of the sensory and perceptual pathways, which makes us believe we’re interacting with the real world when in fact we’re utilising our mental model. In various kinds of hypnotism the sensory pathway is diminished, so that consciousness’ normal mode of operation, in which it compares reality with its mental model hundreds of times a second, focusing on what has changed, is altered. This alteration allows the perceptual pathway – the subject’s belief system – to dominate, with the proviso that it is subject to suggestion because of the lack of feedback or change emanating from the real world. It’s a bit like taking a person from solid ground to the middle of the ocean – foundations lost, no way of orienting yourself.

The title of my essay adds social media to this scenario. There are two aspects of online life that I want to focus on: the sense that the digital world is an environment, and the structural organisation of social media in particular.

We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in a wide variety of environments, and it was change in those environments, as with all living things, which made evolution by natural selection change us from primates into homo sapiens. Intelligence is the evolutionary response to environmental change which is too swift for evolution in body design to cope with.

We start off in life assuming that everything we deal with in the world is an environment, since it is all physical, as solid as rock, as buoyant as water and as ethereal as air, with laws governed by physics; and so it has been for hundreds of thousands of years. The real world is consistent, since it operates by the laws of physics, chemistry, biology etc; and it is independent of our minds. However, research has shown that we approach the online world in exactly the same way. Despite the fact that the digital world is abstract and entirely manufactured, we work with it as though it is a real place. As a consequence, we bring to the digital world all our usual assumptions.

This is incredibly dangerous. It is one of the main reasons people have been so easy to exploit by the small number of American companies, dominated by male, white, middle class individuals, who currently control the vast majority of the internet. We are being exploited. Well, most people know that, and mostly they don’t care. Or they don’t know and they don’t care.

The dangers are obvious. The online world is the advertising world on steroids, made hyper-real by glittering visual illusions and a huge array of psychological tricks. But that’s only one part of the peril. Digital life is addictive like no other form of living because it taps so comprehensively into our subconsciouses.

But it was designed to be so. It is in fact a particularly vivid form of hypnotism, with the sensory pathways we rely on perverted from real world and realistic to digital and illusory. Online we stop checking the real world, relying on the illusory world presented to us. Should this experience of the digital world – as yet only conveyed by screens and earbuds – be conveyed by augmented reality through glasses and implants then the task of reaching out to human minds via hypnotism will be complete. At that point, any reality can be substituted into the perceptual pathway, and the subject will believe it. People won’t have to carry the inconvenient knowledge that separate screen and earbuds are part of their environment. They’ll feel inside the environment, no separation, and they’ll be powerless to disbelieve whatever is placed in front of them.

I used some of these ideas in my novel Muezzinland, where a culturally active cyberspace – unlike the passive (albeit structured) digital substrate we have at the moment – works to deceive individuals’ perceptions, so that they believe they are following folk tales, legends and so on, behaviour which then affects the real world, and so on back into the virtual, in a multitude of snowball effects. Yet if the digital world is controlled by a tiny number of corporations, what then? Everyone will be a slave, and they won’t even know that. They’ll believe they are free.

There have been many prophets of doom over historical times. Many, like Cassandra, were mocked, fobbed off or ignored. Myself, I think the arrival of the digital world, online life, and social media in particular are more dangerous than any tool human beings have so far invented, for the reasons given above. Most likely I’ll be mocked, fobbed off or ignored for saying such a thing though. After all, the human race hasn’t yet bombed itself out of existence, has it? It hasn’t even managed to damage the planet’s biosphere enough to wipe itself out of existence.

No. Not yet.

Robin Waterfield

Religion Week, 5: The Scientific Method

There is one abyss between science and religion. Often, people try to link the two, placing science within religion or the other way around, or taking modern science and finding a place in it for religion, e.g. the so-called god-of-the-gaps. This is just window dressing however.

The abyss is this. Religion’s stance to the real world is to impose the human imagination upon it. When the world acts in ways different to an imaginary doctrine, that novelty is presumed to be a test of faith. In other words, faith takes precedence over reality, regardless of what imaginary doctrine that faith represents. The real world is not allowed its independence. The real world is not allowed to show its truth. The scientific method (as opposed to science, which is a human endeavour) is different in this regard, which is why religion and science can never be reconciled. The scientific method grasps that the real world is independent of human imagination. This is why it uses the test and experiment procedure. Testing and experimentation alongside the use of hypothesis allows the real world to be investigated according to the laws of that real world. This is the precise opposite of faith, which imposes imaginary doctrine upon the world regardless of what the world displays.

It is futile and meaningless to mix religion with the scientific method. Religion is an imaginary construct forced by faith upon the real world. When the real world pushes back, that is assumed to be a test of faith, making the religious person even more faithful. When however the scientific method shows reality, science, unlike faith, has to adjust. Science reflects reality. Religion reflects imagination – specifically juvenile boys’ imaginations.

In other words, religion is a specifically and explicitly narcissistic construction. It bears little or no relation to reality. Science, via the scientific method, is a specifically and explicitly non-narcissistic construction. Though science itself is a human endeavour, and thus is susceptible to mistakes, especially at the cutting edge, its basis in the scientific method always brings it back to the bedrock of reality.

This, then, is why science and religion can never be merged.

In my opinion, there is a clear progression over tens of thousands of years from imaginary beliefs – that the ground is flat and the sun moves around it, that animals have spirits, that trees have spirits, that there is a deity up there in heaven, that Jesus lived after dying – to real beliefs. The religious cannot prove their deities exists, and science cannot prove they don’t. Human beings therefore have to take one step back and ask which narrative on the balance of probability is more likely: that a being of some sort was responsible for creating the universe, or that it created itself; or, in any event, followed some quantum mechanical/gravitational process explicable by testing reality. This latter is a belief of course, since, ultimately, it can never be proven. But if you look at the history of human thought and creativity over 40,000 years then compare it with the history of spirituality, religion and then science, it’s obvious what is going on. Human beings have over those vast time scales acquired an ever more realistic understanding of the world. In the beginning, they imagined a whole story, cosmic spirits, sun, moon and all. Then men took over and became vile misogynists, offering a new story – but the Earth was still the centre of the universe. Then people actually started taking account of reality, eschewing imagination, and began the process of scientific enquiry. This allowed them to grasp the real world – at last.

In my view, over similarly large time scales in the future, and on the assumption that we don’t destroy the human race, religion will fade away, followed, some time later, by spirituality. If human beings can stop ruining the planet they live on they will all evolve into scientists.

Religion Week, 4 : Men

All religions despise women. All religions fear women. All religions are disgusted by women. All religions make women second class. All religions exploit, dominate, bully and oppress women.

Religion – the urban, masculine form of spirituality – is intimately linked with nation and patriarchy. Religion tells the stories men want to tell, stories of spare ribs, of snakes and apples, of women either as mothers or whores. Two available identities: a very deliberate dehumanisation.

Even Buddhism separates men and women on the false assumption that the two are intrinsically more different than similar. But as with every other major religion, the fluffy, pleasant, written-down theory is different to the practice. Nuns are subject to far stricter rules than monks. According to the eight Garudhammas, women must respect monks, even those newly ordained. Nuns have to undergo extra training in discipline, and they can’t worship in a place where no monk is present.

But it is with the Judeo-Christian religions that misogyny reaches its nadir. Hate, disgust and fear are the bedrocks of these three religions. It’s encoded into every law, every pronouncement, every image. Every story tells men what they should know about women and women’s place in the world. Every story is a prison cell, every book a jail. In the beginning was the word, and that word was spoken by a man.

Women entering religion is turkeys voting for Christmas. God is never going to come off his cloud and turn into a woman. He’ll be a man for as long as Christianity continues.

Actions speak louder than words. Watch what men do, not what they quote from texts.

Religion Week, 3: Explanation

No human being can live without a meaning framework. Such frameworks are essential to our conscious lives. For the overwhelming majority of our species’ time on this planet, these frameworks have been spiritual or religious. Atheism however is also a meaning framework, as is humanism.

Our method of creating frameworks of meaning is explanation. Human beings cannot remain passive in the face of some unexplained fact or experience. Consciousness requires them to augment their model of reality with this fact or experience: it has to be explained. Explanation is an essential ability, since our minds have to survive by creating a model of reality, and this model has to be as complete as possible. Snippets of reality cannot simply be ignored.

This is why human beings became such good pattern recognisers. Pattern recognition is the construction of whole explanations by knitting together smaller facts. We build explanations up into stories, which we then believe.

It is the case however that cumulative processes of explanation begin in the main with imagined explanations – for instance, the notion of a deity creating the universe, or of celestial and infernal realms. The complete absence of evidence for such imaginary explanations was, for early and all subsequent societies up to around the middle of the second millennium, not a problem. All that mattered was that the explanation worked for them.

From the twin dynamics of explanation and framework comes meaning. Meaning is coherence: wholeness. It is the experience of a consistent mental model. Yet a self-consistent model is not necessarily one also consistent with reality. Meaning in the past was a narrative generally agreed by a community which explained to their satisfaction fundamental, universal questions: how the universe began, how it will end, how human life begins, what happens when human beings die, and what the purpose of life is. Most traditions also have a strong sense of how life should be lived – a moral component. In almost all known cases these answers and traditions are couched in terms of myths, which, before the takeover of men and organised religion, were stories of life and living, essential to all. Karen Armstrong wrote the best introduction to the structure, meaning and purpose of myths in her book A Short History Of Myth.

So, human narratives did not in the distant past have to correspond with reality. At the very beginning, this was because we knew so little about the real world. Five thousand years ago we still knew very little. A thousand years ago we knew little, but things were changing by a process of cumulative understanding. A hundred years ago we had a new method of understanding the world, one which, unlike spirituality and religion, assumed the independence of the real world, and which therefore asked questions of the world rather than imposing an imaginary narrative upon it.

This may be the great redemption of humanity. True understanding is a one way process.

Religion Week, 2: Soul

The idea of human beings having a spirit or a soul is humanity’s oldest lie. But it was an inevitable and essential lie. We could not have survived as a species after about 100,000 years ago without it.

The first people to bury their dead, the Neanderthals, were fully conscious, and must have had a concept of life – of self-awareness, aliveness, of the importance of other people – to have had a concept of death. They were aware of themselves as unique individuals with unique identities. This posed one of the deepest of humanity’s problems: how to understand what happened when life stopped.

Given two observations made by every human being, there was only one answer for early humanity, one that became entrenched in thought for tens of thousands of years. These two observations were that individuals were conscious and unique, and that they died. Understanding that human beings were self-aware, and that they died, decayed, and disappeared after a few decades of life, early humanity had no option but to assume that this uniqueness was not in fact annihilated; that some non-physical part, some symbol of the uniqueness of every human being, of their personalities, did survive death. It was an unavoidable conclusion for those early peoples with their restricted understanding of the world; and it was the only explanation, it being impossible for them to imagine non-existence. It was inevitable that they presume the existence of an ethereal spirit which seemed to reside within the body. This explanation did away with what at the time was the inconceivable dilemma of not existing. They believed physical death could be transcended by continued mental life.

Other feelings would have led them to this conclusion. Those early conscious peoples would have felt emotions and love, and their relationships would have been crucial for sane survival. It was thus inevitable that, upon the death of somebody, they wondered what had happened to that unique and irreplaceable character. In such an atmosphere, the notion of an immortal non-corporeal component was inevitable.

Burial rituals were the social answers to these problems. They expressed the fact that people mattered to one another, that everybody wondered what happened after death, and that some generally held, communal explanation was required. Ritual was also vital. From these basic ideas came many others: the idea of an after-life or a spirit realm, which was required for the dead spirits to live in; the idea that ethereal spirits resided inside earthly bodies as a separable entity; the idea that spirits had knowledge not attainable by people, and that they could influence earthly life. All these ideas grew, over time, into religious concepts.

It was not possible for early humanity to know the truth of consciousness and existence. So important were their selves the idea of never letting go came into being; they would not die. Given such incomplete understanding of their selves and of the external world, it was impossible for early humanity to conceive the idea of life ceasing after death. They could not let their selves go. Spirit, they decided, was immortal.

It did not occur to them that spirit was a lie. What mattered was that spirit narratives helped them survive sane.