Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

New blog interview

There’s a new blog interview with me and space opera author Ralph Kern just gone up on Juliana Spink Mills’ blog.

BI full art

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

A terrific book – very well written, a flowing narrative, logically organised, and, most importantly of all – very thought provoking. This is one of the best human history books I’ve read for a long time. I would have liked a little more on the Cognitive Revolution, but, hey, you can’t have everything. The sections on capitalism, religion and empire were excellent – shades of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel, but that is no bad thing. Highly recommended.


Recent positive news

I’ve written a few short stories recently, and even had a couple (provisionally) accepted. The one I really wanted accepted was for an anthology set in Greater Manchester – Gasoline Alley. This story is a surreal exaggeration of the feud between Manchester and Liverpool. I also had my story provisionally accepted for the Eco-Tones anthology promoted on – A Theft Of Flowers.

Finally, a lengthy short story of mine called Monochrome (technically a novella I suppose) is going to be published in a collection of three space opera ebooks from the Tickety Boo Press. I originally wrote this with Ian Sales of Whippleshield in mind. Tickety Boo are doing great things with various authors, not least Ian Sales.

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The Queen’s Necklace by Teresa Edgerton

In former times, many many years ago, the Goblins were the masters. After being overthrown, all except a few of these rulers are gone, with those few surviving driven into hiding. But now the time has come for the Maglore Goblins to repress and rule humanity once more. As they pull strings of power and advance their plans, it is a number of “jewels,” that are in fact weird devices, that are the key. But only a covert order called the Specularii believe that the Goblins still exist – and one other character, Wilrowan Blackheart…

Romance of a sort is also on the menu, in the form of Wilrowan and “Lilli” (Lilliana), with the latter being a member of the Specularii. As the Goblin conspiracy is revealed to be far wider and deeper than supposed, this romance twists in many directions.

Teresa Edgerton has pulled together a complex tale, sometimes a little twisty-turny perhaps, elsewhere with lots of pace and fun. The characters are broad-brush (“Will’s principle {sic} failings have always been his love of danger and an almost insatiable sexual appetite.”), although I have to say the women characters are better, or so it seemed to me. The cast though is large, and it’s a big task to keep track of them all.

The writing quality is really good, action and dialogue are well merged, and there are very nice descriptive passages. Though the royalty and toff quotient is high, I strongly suspect the author prefers the rough and tumble of her taverns and muddy streets, which have an even more vivid quality to them.

As with her super recent book Goblin Moon, this fantasy is a mixture of Regency era society – dancing and deportment, betrothal dinners, kidskin gloves, golden guineas – and also strange magics and one overarching quest. It is a standalone, however, which (to me) felt slightly odd, having read first and much enjoyed Goblin Moon. One is tempted to place the two novels together. But this one is its own book.


The Queen’s Necklace

The Inner Eye

In 1986 I was lucky enough to watch the complete first broadcast of Nicholas Humphrey’s The Inner Eye, which introduced his social intelligence theory of consciousness. It was an extraordinary series, which recently appeared on YouTube – apart from episode 1, alas – on the author’s own channel.

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6 

Nicholas Humphrey began his lengthy, varied and influential career researching perception and other aspects of animal behaviour. In the 1970s he went to Africa, having already worked for some years as an experimental psychologist. In the mid-1980s he was asked to make the television series, which, in his introduction to the book, he describes as “difficult.” Simultaneous with the television series came the book, which I bought pretty much as soon as I grasped how exceptional the programmes were. The book asked some fundamental questions: What is human consciousness? How did it evolve? In addition to the inspirational text, cartoonist Mel Calman provided illustrations, but, unusually, he was asked to respond to the text rather than specifically illustrate it.

Nicholas Humphrey’s answer to the main question is very much set in the landscape of evolution. He says consciousness – the inner eye – allows us to feel and to understand what it is like to be ourself, and, crucially, to be somebody else. In other words, via our inner eye we use ourselves as exemplars to understand the behaviour of others. Tens, and probably hundreds of thousands of years ago that behaviour was becoming very complex, as the social life of our ancestors mushroomed into something never before seen on the planet. Consciousness was the unique evolutionary response.

After summarising the sheer complexity of our extraordinary social lives (which we all underestimate because we’re so used to the social environment) the book continues with a chapter on how consciousness might make a difference in our lives. Because it evolved, as did shells and eyes and wings, it must come with considerable benefits. The inner eye is the given answer. This inner eye allows us to make realistic guesses about the mental state of others; and therefore allows us to lie, to feel compassion for, or to trust others. The author then ponders whether any other animals have this inner eye, looks at children’s development, and looks at dreams. The book concludes with a chapter on how our extraordinary abilities allow us to be cruel beyond belief.

Alongside Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society this book was a launching pad for my own thoughts about consciousness and the human condition. Nicholas Humphrey is still writing remarkable books, and every one of these I can recommend.


The Inner Eye, Nicholas Humphrey

Must write better women characters

Note to self: must write stronger women characters.


Guest blog: On The Cusp, by Jo Zebedee

In this guest post the tireless Jo Zebedee, esteemed author of Abendau’s Heir, talks about her new self-published novel Inish Carraig, which is soon to be available (link below).


On the cusp – on characters, and why they don’t stay in their box.

I write stories which are hard to neatly categorize. Stories that have teenagers in them, and adults. I often write about characters on the fine line that divides childhood and adulthood, about the connections that reach across ages, about what adults can learn from the young and the young from the old.

Cat Stevens made a fortune doing that. I find myself in publishing limbo for the same.

Firstly, I can’t define why I write stories with so many characters in their late teens. I can’t tell you why I often bring an older point of view to that story. I know, hand on heart, I know, it does not make my stories an easy sell. Agents want a book that they can sell as YA or adult. Publishers want a book that goes on a shelf in the bookstore where it fits and everyone knows just what’s so.

What I can say is that the inter-relationships between my characters are part of what makes my writing tick. It doesn’t seem to be putting readers off (publishers, take note) – the first reviews on Inish Carraig have been tremendous.

So, why does it work for me? Well, firstly, we live in a society. I talk to teenagers – and children – all the time. They’re part of my life, and not just because I have kids but because we don’t – yet, anyhow – have little glass houses for us all to sit in our groups in. To not show that interplay between generations makes a story one-dimensional to me. It lacks the pathos of life, where we get taken from our comfort zone and forced to confront concepts and people we don’t know.

At the centre of Inish Carraig is a relationship between a teenager and a policeman. There are other relationships, adult to adult, teen to teen, child to teen. It’s the mish-mash of interactions that happens in life. But at the very, very centre, this is John and Henry’s story.

When I subbed the book to agents, a clear message came back. Many loved it. Nearly all liked the setting. But not one could sell it as it was – I had to go either YA or adult with it.

I went YA. John is the main protagonist. It’s his story. And I thought it was right, and that Henry could go. Having revisited it, I can see how wrong I was. Cutting one out, sidelining their point of view – I write big, meandering point of views with thoughts and feelings – lost the power of the story.  Sure, the plot stood up, and the characters were still there, but the part of the story that was human, that translated the horror to the personal level, was gone.

At one point, I wondered if I had plumped for the other option and made Henry the focus, if that would work. Perhaps I had chosen the wrong point of view?

I hadn’t. Neither character stands alone. And so, when I got my sticky mitts back on my story after subs had run through, I put both of them back in. John, in all his feisty, pissed off at life, teenage glory (and he’s right to be pissed off, life’s dealt him a bad set of cards). Henry with all his guilt-laden, conflicted thoughts. Together, they work. They strengthen each other. They understand each other, in an odd way. They drive the pace and the story forwards, keep the momentum up, and support each other’s story when it flags.

So, um…. Lesson learned, yes? I write one or the other, but not combined, right?

Well, no. My work continues to be invaded by these mixed up ages. Abendau has the teenage Kare, and then the adult. In the sequels teen povs are as important as the adults – and add depth to the world portrayed. In my next book, a fantasy in the Antrim glens, Amy is 18, on the cusp of adulthood but it’s her mother’s actions that drive the plot and add the depth and danger. Even the book I’ve just embarked on, a supposedly YA story is becoming a little older, creeping to the top end of teen. I see an adult in it who might become more important. I see the tendrils of connectivity growing as I write, the importance of people around us, not just our tiny adult or teen world.

So, I’m resigned to it. I can’t help myself writing stories that cross definitions nor do I want to. What that means for me as a writer, whether I will find a niche that accepts what I write, I’ll wait and see. All the indications to date are that I will. Either way, I’ll write it. I’m not sure anyone intent on an agent and publisher should.

Unless, of course, they can’t help themselves.

The novel is here on amazon.


Inish Carraig

Great new review for Beautiful Intelligence

Great new full review from Jerry Kranitz (long-time fan and super chap) for Beautiful Intelligence.


Cartesian Theatre

I’m pleased to say I’m currently at 25 words or less in the Cartesian Theatre…


Oracle by Susan Boulton

Susan Boulton’s Oracle is a fantasy set in an imaginary land with distinct similarities to nineteenth century Great Britain. A long time supporter of SFF forums and a keen participant in online discussions etc, this is Susan’s debut novel, published by the increasingly successful Tickety Boo Press.

Pugh Avinguard is detailed to aid and protect noted political heavyweight Lord Joshua Calvinward. Meanwhile, a special bill in the land’s Forum is setting the classes against one another, a bill which will impact upon those suffering bond labour. In this respect there are noticeable echoes of class struggle following the Industrial Revolution in Britain, and this makes for an interesting scenario. Most characters come from the upper classes, or from a curious Goddess-centred religious order, but one noble man at least is disenchanted with the upper classes…

When a railway accident of dubious origin changes the lives of some of the main characters – Pugh and Joshua not least, but also Emily Manling and Mathew Howorth – a chain of events is set in motion that leads to social turmoil affecting those at the lowest end of the chain to those in the Forum. Added to this mix of class politics are a couple of personal tales, not least the relationship of Pugh with his former wife Claire, who has become a Glimpser – the Oracle. Returned as if from the dead (a situation which intriguingly mirrors the tale of Mathew and Emily), Pugh has to reconcile his feelings for his ex-wife, his thoughts on their messily annulled marriage, and the events whirling around him. The aspect of Claire and her abilities is particularly intriguing, asking that question: what happens to political turmoil if there is someone around who can glimpse the future? Can even an assassination be stopped…?

This is a good novel, with lots to recommend it. It does have a few flaws that perhaps arise from its “debut” nature. Some of the prose is set in paragraphs with lots of short sentences, which is great for action, and if used sparingly, but which on occasion can interfere with reading. Also, the events seem to take place over a variable time period, but there is too little in the prose or speech of the characters to indicate this. I would find myself thinking, “How many days or weeks have passed since…?”

These are small points however, and they can be amended. As a scenario, as a tale of events with twists and turns to satisfy the reader, and with a good few intriguing characters, Oracle is well worth a read whether you like fantasy, alternate-world fantasy or historical fantasy. I myself would class this as alternate world fantasy, but the ‘historical’ atmosphere does give it a British hue.


Oracle, Susan Boulton


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