Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

The Vital Question by Nick Lane

Nick Lane’s four books (Oxygen: The Molecule That Made The World; Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria & The Meaning Of Life; Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions Of Evolution; and now The Vital Question: Why Is Life The Way It Is?) have deservedly won plaudits from scientific and lay readers alike. Lane is a biochemist with a particular interest in questions of the early evolution of life, how life is “powered” (the thousands of mitochondria in your every cell), and the nature of life’s use of oxygen over four billion years of evolutionary history. In his new book, this award-winning author asks the biggest question of all.

A certain amount of scientific understanding is required to read this book, but not a huge amount, and any scientifically literate reader should be able to follow it without difficulty. Lane begins by outlining what he calls “the black hole at the heart of biology,” which are the baffling, apparently contradictory characteristics of all eukaryotic life (a eukaryote is a cell with a nucleus containing DNA – bacteria, archaea et al are prokaryotes, ie lacking a nucleus and holding their DNA loose inside their cell). For instance, what is the meaning of some of the eukaryotic cell’s inner bodies (mitochondria, chloroplasts) having their own DNA? What is the reason for the existence of sexual reproduction and the universal appearance of only two sexes? Why do cells die? And, of course, the biggest question of all – how did life begin from mere chemistry, 4 billion years ago?

It is this latter question that Lane begins with. Having dealt with the deficiencies of some current theories, he builds up a scenario of warm, alkaline hydrothermal vents which create geological formations full of microscopically tiny pores. He then shows how these inorganic volumes, if in the presence of warm water (energy), carbon dioxide, hydrogen and naturally occurring catalysts – essentially compounds of iron and sulphur – can easily and inevitably create proton gradients across membranes. From these first principles all the later inventions of prokaryotic life can be deduced: the use of hydrogen/sodium antiporters (essentially chemical ion movers that actively work across phospholipid membranes); the use of lipid membranes; energy requirements, motion away from the pores, and so on.

Lane then goes on to build up another crucial part of his case. It has been observed that the eukaryotic cell has characteristics universally conserved across all life forms on Earth. That fact has certain consequences; there must have been a single, unbelievably rare instance of one prokaryotic cell – likely a bacterium – engulfing another – likely an archaea – to the mutual benefit of both, from which the whole panoply of eukaryotic cells evolved. He then goes on to detail all the consequences of this symbiosis, not least its extraordinary evolutionary instability in very early times, a fact with consequences to all life that we now know.

The latter chapters of the book draw on Lane’s earlier work, specifically the energetics and dynamics of mitochondria, the evolution of eukaryotic characteristics, the nature of oxygen, anti-oxidants and free radicals, and much more.

I don’t think “absolutely fascinating, and most likely ground-breaking” is too strong a summary of this book. Towards the end Lane discusses the ramifications of his theory for life in the universe, in a section that will appeal to all SF writers.

Highly recommended to all fascinated by life on Earth and its origins.


Pulp BI

Pulp-O-Mizer_Cover_Image BI

“Still selling steadily.” – Infinity Plus.

The Ego Trick by Julian Baggini

I liked this book a lot. Written by a deep-thinking author with great skill at “popularising” (for want of a better word) various psychological topics, it covers the various flaws and mistakes we can make in characterising ourselves as single entities, unchanging over time. Really fascinating stuff. Interviews with experts, ordinary people and people in extraordinary situations all add to the mix. Definitely recommended for those who want to know more about the human condition…

ego trick

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Well… it was okay. I didn’t much care for the wisecracking American style of writing, I didn’t see any reason for the wonky narrative order, and I didn’t much like the characters. But a lot of the incidents were interesting, and as a whole it was certainly thought-provoking. It was okay.


The Considerable Importance of Crappy Reviews


There is an assumption in the world of writing that the more 5* reviews an author gets the better. Many authors, editors, punters and marketers think this. But I think the assumption does not serve authors well.

There is in mathematics a thing called the normal distribution. The normal distribution in its most general form says: under some conditions (which include finite variance), the averages of random variables independently drawn from independent distributions converge in distribution to the normal, that is, become normally distributed when the number of random variables is sufficiently large. This leads to the so-called bell curve. In other words, this is a statistical variation occurring in the natural world and elsewhere, describing the average distribution of variables. A distribution skewed in one direction – for instance a shed-load of 5* reviews – is not normal.

bell curve

My hope for my reviews is that they follow the normal distribution at least to some extent. (A review, of course, is technically not a random variable, since it might be the case that an author really is good.) But I never feel comfortable until there’s at least one 1* review come in. Sometimes these can be really funny; sometimes odd, sometimes baffling. But they’re usually instructive – I like to highlight them on this blog in the Naughty Step section. I don’t think an author should want tons of 5* reviews, and I personally don’t highlight them if they come in. That’s not to say I don’t like a good review – I do, especially if the reviewer has got something constructive to say; and then I might possibly highlight it. But I want to read what people really think, not what they suppose I’d like to read in a review of my work.

I was recently asked whether I acquired “a thick skin” during my development as a writer, or whether I had it to begin with. The former is true – I was just as sensitive and shockable as any newbie when presented with the truth of the rubbish quality of my early work. But I got over it and continued to write. I wanted then, and I want now, to know what people really think. It’s not really a case of having a thick or a thin skin, it’s a case of being open to reality and accepting what others think – and then of moving on, and improving.

You learn from failure. A stream of never-ending 5* reviews is not only unrealistic, it’s not in my opinion something that an author should hope for, should expect or should encourage. Endless 5* reviews make the whole system meaningless; only the true greats deserve them.

As another friend observed recently, there’s a wide range of readers out there for every novel. That should be reflected in a wide range of stars: 1,2,3 and 4.


I almost put down the book for good at 15% through

Beautiful Intelligence…


Festivalized by Ian Abrahams & Bridget Wishart

Although a few books have dealt with aspects of the alternative/free festival/underground scene – “The Battle of the Beanfield” edited by Andy Worthington comes to mind – none has provided the reader with quite such sumptuous detail as Ian Abrahams and Bridget Wishart’s Festivalized. Covering a period from the hazy, early days of free festi culture in the 1970s through to the last true free festival at Castlemorton, the book tells its tale with a sympathetic, yet never rose-tinted viewpoint, via the recollections, opinions and stories of many from the scene – famous individuals and ordinary punters alike. It’s a terrific read, and everyone who has come across the scene, whether tangentially, or in its entirety like the numerous musicians, artists and travellers who lived on the road, will want to check the book out.

The work not only follows the general flow of free festival history, it covers numerous aspects of the scene, from smaller things like the food, through larger considerations such as the politics and the drugs situation, to major events like the Battle of the Beanfield. Contributors come from all sides – musicians such as Joie of the Ozrics, Nik Turner, Swordfish of the Magic Mushroom Band, Cornish troubadour and all-round 12-string wizard Nigel Mazlyn Jones, Simon Williams of Mandragora… and many more: counter cultural free-thinkers like Penny Rimbaud and Mick Farren; plus a huge array of folk who were there… Oz Hardwick, Michael Dog, Jake Stratton-Kent to name just three. It’s a glittering array of contributors.

Particularly moving are the less pleasant memories. Many contributors dwell on likely reasons for the demise of the scene, not least the Brew Crew, the immense amounts of drugs, and a change in some communities’ perception (fuelled by a demonising right-wing press) of so-called New Age Travellers. Bridget contributes a sad epitaph as she recounts battling her particular demons (albeit with a happy ending). There is lots of positive stuff too of course, not least the cultural contributions that, alas, only underground types would recognise, and which Tory grandees in their great big houses failed even to recognise, let alone understand. Thatcher’s brutal inhumanity will never be forgotten in this country. Then there’s the music, the coming together of common people in mostly peaceful circumstances, the veggie curries, the buses, the wigged-out conversations around the camp fire…

This work could have been a freaked-out howl of rage against the rigidly class-structured, prejudiced conservatism of Britain. Instead it’s a measured, superbly put together, moving, funny, serious, thought-provoking account of a wonderful time in the alternative culture of our country. It deserves to be recognised as a historical document.

Highly recommended to all who have lived, learned from, or just admired at weekends British alternative culture and the magical promise of the free festival.


The Girl With Two Souls trilogy – main characters

Images of the four main characters, with Frank Darwin his real photo.

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Recent winner of the overall Costa Book of the Year, Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree is a YA novel set in mid-Victorian times, following the story of Faith Sunderly, daughter of the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, whose fossil discoveries have been causing controversy. Forced to depart decent society owing to scandal, Faith and her family find themselves on the isolated island of Vane, where, almost at once, strange things begin to happen. Faith is forced to endure the death of her father as well as much thrown at her by the locals and a number of competing archeaologists, resulting in a web of lies being cast… but who in the end will suffer, and who will break free?

It’s a super set-up, with great characters and a strong plot. The writing is quite “intense” in places, and perhaps the author did put in a few metaphors and similies beyond what might have been required; minor points, though, and this is an element of her style after all, so my comment is just personal taste. This highly-wrought style does suit the Victorian setting, I think. The great characters and plot are supported by a forward-thinking attitude – science versus religion not least, plus much by way of what a women can do and can’t do in Victorian times. (We are talking here about a main character called Faith, a Tree of Knowledge and a snake…)

There’s lots to enjoy and lots to think about. I really enjoyed this one.


What’s To Come In 2016

The Girl With Two Souls / The Girl With One Friend / The Girl With No Soul
The Conscientious Objector

In September 2013 I was watching the Channel 4 news one evening when I began thinking about a writing project that had been bubbling up from my subconscious. Unusually for me the title had come first, and I’d had it for quite a while – The Girl With Two Souls.

Who was this girl? When and where did she live?

Suddenly a few ideas popped into my head. I grabbed an empty notebook and began jotting down the ideas as they arrived. Soon it was a deluge. When I looked up, two hours had passed by – in a subjective twenty minutes. I had outlined the entire structure of the trilogy: all the main characters, what would happen, how, where, when and why.

It’s great when these things occur. As I fleshed out the trilogy in the months that followed I began to get really excited about the work. I decided it would have a steampunk flavour (I was reading a bit of steampunk at the time) and would be set in 1910. The characters were alive and ready for the work; every last one of them.

By the time I reached the final day of the winter term at the college where I’m employed I was very keen to get going. I wrote the first fifteen chapters over the two week holiday – an exhilarating experience – then finished up during the following fortnight. I sensed at the time that I might have something a little different to my earlier books – the novel leaped out of my mind as though fully formed before writing. I’ve only had that experience a few times in my writing life (the first being the novel that became my debut Memory Seed).

During Easter I wrote the second volume, The Girl With One Friend, then during the winter holiday of 2014-15 the concluding novel The Girl With No Soul.

During the year I’d had a feeling that a supplementary novel was required, following the story of one of the two main characters, so I prepared, and have just finished writing, The Conscientious Objector; a long novel for me at 150,000 words, which is set in WW1 times.

Infinity Plus Books tentatively hopes for publication of this trilogy around autumn, with the fourth novel a little later.


So, what’s it all about?

Kora is the main character: the girl of the title. The illegitimate daughter of Victorian Britain’s greatest engineer – the man who designed and builds the human-like automata who do much of the work in the British Empire – and one of his African servants, she is first encountered by the reader in Bedlam, where she has been thrown by her father. For Kora, it seems, has two souls: she and Roka alternate day by day, each following the other, each waking in the morning. Two in one.

Rescued from Bedlam by the enigmatic Dr Spellman, who admits to once being her father’s closest confidant, Kora begins a journey into her past, hoping for the truth about her father and his automata. But her father is desperate to find her, because of a terrible secret that exists inside the Factory where all his automata are manufactured…

Although the novel closely follows the story of Kora and her best friend Erasmus Darwin (grandson of Charles Darwin), the underlying theme of the books is the specifics of the human condition, a theme carried both by the main characters and by the nature of the automata who populate Edwardian Britain. A book-within-a-book also carries this theme – a work by one Reverend Carolus Dodgson, taken to heart by Kora, which she carries wherever she goes…



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 33 other followers