Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Cogheart by Peter Bunzl

I spotted this last week in the Windsor Waterstones, and because it looked similar to my upcoming The Girl With Two Souls – though also because it did look like it might be a good read from the blurb on the back cover – I bought it. And it is a good read!

The setting is an alternate Victorian England, where concealed inventor’s daughter Lily and vertigo-suffering clockmaker’s son Robert both live. Following a bit of a to-do at the school she has been sent to (under an assumed name), Lily finds herself caught up in a fast-moving plot involving two nasty toughs, Roach & Mould, and a mystery sourced in the mechanical marvels devised by her father. After a terrible set-back, she meets Robert and snooty mechanical fox Malkin, to begin a helter skelter chase across a dark Victorian Britain. The plot basics are flagged up, but not obviously, and there is plenty to think about along the way.

This is a really good debut novel. The plot rarely lets up once it’s got going, and the steampunk tropes are light and well used. It’s aimed at readers around 9 to 12, but this shouldn’t stop you reading it if you like a page-turner. Flaws are few – the opening quarter is a bit slow to get going, and Mrs Rust’s “cogwheels and conundrums!” do become a little wearing – but these are minor faults and can be fixed in the sequel Moonlocket, which is out next year.

All in all, an auspicious debut, which I much enjoyed. It seems steampunk still has a lot going for it; and given that the author is a film maker, we should probably expect a pretty stunning film version at some point.


Out & About

I’ve been out and about for a few days. On Tuesday I met folk from the Hull SF Group, who I’d not seen for twelve years – far too long… Estelle and Dave Roberts were super hosts, and everyone else was jolly nice. We discussed some of my work, also topics such as genealogical research (really fascinating), the origins of fairy tales, religion, and how very annoying it is when people don’t put apostrophes in the right place, or use them where they shouldn’t!

On Wednesday evening I attended the Arthur C. Clarke Award event, held at Foyle’s bookshop in Charing Cross Road (my novel Beautiful Intelligence had been long-listed, along with 117 others). I stepped out of Euston railway station into what seemed to be a dusty sauna crowned with thunder-threatening clouds. The event itself was excellent, and I am especially grateful to Ian Whates of NewCon Press for his kindness. Also good to meet some of Ian’s friends, and also Andrew M. Butler, who was the chair of the judges. Adrian Tchaikovsky was a much-feted winner. I had to leave slightly early to catch the last train back to Shrewsbury, eventually dragging myself into my house at about 1.30 am… Well worth one late night though!


Home by Francis Pryor

A very enjoyable, erudite and all-round super book from a major figure of the field… and of course a regular on ‘Time Team’.

Opening with life in the Continent-connected Britain of just after the end of the last Ice Age, the book covers a lot of ground in stages, ending with Celtic Britain and a bit about the time of the Romans. But the heart of this book – maybe I should say hearth – is the crucial role played in prehistoric cultural evolution by the family and family life. This is why the book is called Home. Pryor is unusual amongst archaeologists in allowing his natural humanity to inform his scientific discoveries and understanding. It is this willingness to add human common sense to science that makes the book so appealing.

I’d recommend this book to pretty much anybody with a brain and the desire to use it. Although – especially in the first half – the writing style is peppered with mental diversions, as if Pryor is attempting a little stream-of-consciousness, those distractions depart as the style settles down. But all the main stuff is there: wisdom, experience, insight, and the willingness to say what lesser men of archaeology are too stuffy to say.




I’m presently enjoying a summer holiday.

Work continues in due course! And the autumn will be busy…

teign pier

What Is Palaeolithic Art? by Jean Clottes

Jean Clottes has worked in the field of Palaeolithic art for most of his life, and is an acknowledged expert. In this volume he gives an overview of what he thinks this extraordinary art signifies. First, he gives an overview of older, less sophisticated European interpretations, before giving his own, which chimes in with the work of David Lewis-Williams, who strongly supports the shamanic view of such art. A longer section on ethnographic comparisons follows, and it’s notable that Clottes is very careful to disentangle inappropriate comparisons between modern “primitive” tribal peoples and human beings of 40,000 years ago. However, he does think that useful comparisons can be made, not least in the area of constantly being surprised as to what certain aspects of rock art might mean. A final section ties everything up and gives the man’s credo. This is a fascinating work; thoughtful, sophisticated, and imbued with much experience.


Advertising – The Joseph Goebbels Of Capitalism

To my mind, it is amazing – if you take a longer, wider perspective – that advertising is permitted at all. It deliberately, explicitly and freely hypnotises millions of people into believing the myths of capitalism, which thereupon proceeds to exploit those same people. Propaganda or polemic is easily labelled as such, even by the zombie scions of the capitalist system (“enlightened self-interest” anyone?), yet advertising is viewed as a necessary, and even a fun or clever aspect of the whole system.

One of the ironies of all this is how people think subliminal messages can be sent via advertising – something proven to be false in recent experiments – whereas the actual cloak-and-dagger stuff is that advertisers are allowed to get away with shocking psychological manipulation, which in the political or military sphere would be little short of brainwashing.

For brainwashing is undoubtedly what advertising is in its modern, media-savvy form. Goebbels would admire what technology-fuelled capitalism has done to sculpt the minds of consumers since the 1950s. The television, the cinema, and across the internet – these are the deadly mouthpieces of capitalism.

I am tempted to use the phrase idiot consumers, as, to me at least, the sheer juvenility of television advertising (for instance) is so easy to see through it’s comical. The invention of fake problems, the incessant use of the word new, “celebrity” endorsement, the imaginary and entirely unrealistic lifestyles… surely these should be techniques utilised by more dystopia writers? I’m surprised only a few have used such ideas. Well, Terry Gilliam at least grasped their power in his film Brazil (whose working title was 1984½) if the endless vistas of advert-plastered roads is anything to go by.

Modern media advertising is psychologically acute, in the same way that a torturer is psychologically acute. With great perceptiveness it exploits the natural weaknesses of some people, then adds a whole new set.

Don’t believe the hype.


A Basic Income – Guaranteed

Is the living wage a good idea? Yes…? Well, what about a guaranteed basic income?

Decades ago, far-sighted humanist author Erich Fromm suggested the idea of an unconditional basic income (not the same thing as the living wage) in one of his many outstanding books, but he was not the first. Thomas more in Utopia wrote: “No penalty on earth will stop people from stealing, if it is their only way of getting food. It would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood.”

The notion of a living wage has recently reappeared in response to the turmoil unleashed by the continuation of capitalism, with all its expected results, such as the increasing gap between rich and poor; but the idea of an unconditional basic income is more radical. In 1795 Thomas Paine wrote in Agrarian Justice: “Agrarian justice, opposed to agrarian law, and to agrarian monopoly. Being a plan for meliorating the conditions of man by creating in every nation, a national fund, to pay to every person, when arriving at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, to enable him or her to begin the world! And also, ten pounds sterling per annum during life to every person now living of the age of fifty years, and to all others when they shall arrive at that age, to enable them to live in old age without wretchedness, and go decently out of the world.” In other words, a basic income was to be given to every person in a society, regardless of their position. It is, Paine said, “… a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for.” He wanted the funds to come from a ground-rent paid by property owners. This was just because the Earth is “the common property of the human race,” and so everyone deserved a share on which to survive.

Still later, Bertrand Russell wrote in Proposed Roads to Freedom: “… a certain small income, sufficient for necessities, should be secured for all, whether they work or not. A larger income… should be given to those who are willing to engage in some work which the community recognizes as useful.”

And there is much more. The idea of a negative income tax was first proposed by Juliet Rhys-Williams, a British public servant and political activist – people who earned less than some set amount would receive money from the government instead of paying taxes to it. Another British guaranteed income advocate was James Meade, who received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 1977.

To return then to Erich Fromm, who was one of the most brilliant analysts of the human condition. He wrote: “Aside from the fact that there is already no work for an ever increasing sector of the population, and hence that the question of incentive for these people is irrelevant. … It can be demonstrated that material incentive is by no means the only incentive for work and effort. First of all there are other incentives: pride, social recognition, pleasure in work itself, etc. Secondly, it is a fact that man, by nature, is not lazy, but on the contrary suffers from the results of inactivity. People might prefer not to work for one or two months, but the vast majority would beg to work, even if they were not paid for it.”

This is not to mention Marshall McLuhan, Margaret Mead and Martin Luther King Jr… and many more.

Of course, there is one main obstacle to such common-sense schemes – the self-regarding narcissism of those who exploit in order to aggrandise themselves. Alas, there has not been much movement in lessening their influence on us all during recent centuries.


A Local Currency For Local People

What is the future for local currencies?

A local currency (eg the Totnes Pound or the Lewes Pound) is money that can be spent in particular local establishments. (Usually it acts as a complementary currency, to be used in addition to the national currency). The idea is to encourage spending within a local community, especially with locally owned businesses. This helps to reduce the environmental footprint, amongst many other advantages. Local currencies however aren’t necessarily backed by a national government, and they might not be legal tender in some cases. Local currencies can also raise awareness of the state of the local economy, which is of particular help when it comes to food production.

Can local currencies work in the real world? One of the main supposed problems is security. But the Brixton Pound is as secure as a sterling bank note, with nine features, including holograms, micro-printing and watermarking. Meanwhile, Paybytext is even more secure, using well established, secure and resilient web technology. So far there have been no reported fraudulent transactions.

Meanwhile, in alternative-friendly Lewes, 5p in every pound goes into a community fund. Some have argued that this means traders who sign up are essentially accepting a discount on their goods for the good of the community. Well, the good of the community is the idea – the traders are part of the community after all – but this levy is a tax, not a discount. As for the idea of locality, the whole process means shops in the scheme have a captive customer base – the main point of a local currency.

One of the other advantages of a local currency is how it provides what Manfred Max-Neef called economic invisibility, by which he meant a combination of independence and self-support inside an environment of capitalist exploitation, with that exploitation mostly arriving through national or international corporations. These independent communities, and the individuals in those communities, are free from the perpetual exploitation that is the most significant hallmark of capitalism.

Over in western parts of Britain, the Bristol Pound – backed by a credit union – promises to be even more tech-savvy than its Lewes counterpart, with the possibility of paying by smartphone as well as with real-world notes. Also included is online banking, with deposits backed by the Financial Services Authority (because the currency is backed by the Bristol credit union). This is the first UK scheme where businesses will be able to use the money to pay tax, including business rates – they won’t be stuck with ‘savings’ in currency none of their suppliers accept. Moreover, the mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, as of 2013 takes all his salary in Bristol Pounds, while the chief executive takes ₤5,000 of her salary in local. The city also earns local currency from market traders who use their ₤B earnings to pay their pitch fees.

During the Depression, many British local authorities created their own local currencies to help put people back to work. They were eventually closed down by central banks and central governments – a more obvious deed of exploitation could hardly be dreamed up. But humanist/green policies like local currencies do work today, and their future, albeit in the long term, look positive.

So if you want to do one thing to extricate yourself from the economic disaster of globalisation and continuing capitalism, go local. The only other thing as powerfully effective is to become a vegetarian!


The Growth Illusion

Every Western government, and quite a few elsewhere in the world, base their economic policies on the following paradox. The stated goal of their economies is growth every year. Without growth, there is recession, and possibly depression, with all its associated aspects, of which the most feared is unemployment. Politicians (the zombie servants of economics) hammer this point home week after week after week: “We must have growth.” And yet a glaring paradox exists. We live on a finite planet. The population is expanding, and will continue to expand for a few decades yet, but how can a finite planet sustain perpetual economic growth, even if population increase levels off? Such growth is clearly an impossibility.

Capitalist economics assumes – sometimes explicitly, more often as a hidden assumption – that there is no limit to economic growth. Nature, by contrast, operates in the opposite manner – there is always a limit to natural growth. Sometimes, as in the case of an individual, this is genetically programmed, but elsewhere natural growth, for example amongst a population, is constrained by the rest of the ecosystem. All such populations of species are constrained by the circumstances of their environment. They are not entirely free. Such “freedom” in the human world is an illusion caused by an inability to look further than one’s own nose. We are not entirely free, and that lesson could do with being learned by certain nations of the West.

Economic growth must therefore fail at some point in the future. That is an inevitability. The ecosystems of the planet, on which we survive, and which economists never factor into their calculations, will either fail through breakdown, or because they have vanished through diminishing to the point of being gone forever. Capitalist, growth-driven economics assumes that unsustainable resources are in fact sustainable, which leads economists to factor them out of their calculations, or not even notice them, as though they were effectively invisible.

The obsession with economic growth has pushed the natural environment beyond its capacity to function. It is not just James Lovelock who has warned about the foolishness of taking out swathes of the environment so that the planet’s self-regulating processes can’t continue to operate; there are others, such as Richard Douthewaite. Economic growth at the expense of the planet is literally madness, in the sense of denying the reality of what is happening around us in favour of the blinkered, unreasonable fantasies of capitalism.

It will all end in tears.


How Interesting

Let’s imagine the entire scale of wage earners in Britain, from the very highest to the very lowest. Allowing for local variations, a striking fact emerges. The lowest-earning ten percent of the population pay out more in interest than they receive. The middle eighty percent of the population pay out roughly as much as they receive, while the highest earning ten percent receive more from interest on savings than they pay out elsewhere. Within that top ten percent, the top ten percent likewise “perform” at an even more outrageously exaggerated financial rate.

You would expect this. Since the time of the first residents of Sumerian temples 5,000 years ago, people with more money have lent people with less their funds on the understanding that payment back would include a small percentage extra. In other words, the interest rate mechanism is a way of the rich funnelling money from the poor.

But there is a consequence of this scheme which isn’t so obvious. The almost universal use of the interest rate mechanism means that money is not being used to benefit humanity out in the real world; it is instead being stored, useless and motionless, simply so that a minority of lucky winners or landed gentry can make more off it. What this does is massively restrict the ability of money to do good for the largest number of people. It means a huge chunk of accrued potential to do work in the real world is lost to those who through luck happen to have more than anybody else.

Various ecologically minded thinkers have pointed out that a far more reasonable approach – from the point of view of humanity in general rather than individuals – would be to charge a small rate for people to store their money, should they want to. In other words, there would be a small levy on the act of keeping money out of general circulation.

Of course, with greed and selfishness a major factor in all contemporary life, this suggestion is unlikely to come about in the near future. But still… makes you think. How much money is wasted in this world, inactive like so many dull stones, simply to allow a tiny number of people the ability to funnel more towards themselves?



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