Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

The Construction Of Life And Death by Dorothy Rowe

OK. So this is the biggie. Life and death.

One of Dorothy Rowe’s early books (1982), The Construction Of Life And Death takes a look at how we factor the meaning of death into our lives, delivered with the author’s clear-sighted compassion but also through her talks with various of her patients.

Unlike a lot of other authors in this field, Rowe allows lengthy conversations to make her points, conversations which sometimes go on for pages. She talks to patients (many of them suffering from depression, which is her area of specialism), to religious people, to members of religious hierarchies, and even to another counsellor – one of her colleagues, who gives a particularly enlightening interview. Anxiety is a particular symptom of many of her patients, and there are positive outcomes and negative ones; and Rowe is disarmingly honest at the end of the book about her own early foibles.

For people like me, fascinated with how and why spiritual ideas and then organised religion have dominated human affairs for the last 40,000 years – at least – this is a must-read. Rowe has a clarity of thought and a humanity rarely seen amongst authors of books like these, which are most often found in the self-help section of bookshops.

If you’ve grappled with these issues, check this book out, then any of her other works. Highly recommended.


Narcissism & Donald

With the focus in recent months on Donald Trump and his increasingly absurd campaign, there has been much talk about the mental condition he suffers from. It is generally recognised that he is an intensely narcissistic person, and there have been several enlightening assessments in the serious media about him and his condition. But what is narcissism, and are there any aspects of it that have been missed in all the febrile political discussion?

I’ve been interested in the human condition for decades, and some of my work (not least the Factory Girl trilogy) has touched on various aspects of our essential qualities. Narcissism is a particularly interesting aspect because it is entangled in so much of how we as individuals and societies interact with the real world. Narcissism is commonly thought of in terms of the Greek youth Narcissus, who was “in love with his reflection” in a pool of water. But that visual metaphor is only one comparatively minor aspect of the condition. In fact narcissism is all-encompassing, especially when we are young.

Erich Fromm defined narcissism thus: The narcissistic orientation is one in which a person experiences as real only that which exists within themself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous.

In other words, our entire attitude to the world is characterised by how real we conceive it to be; that is, how narcissistic we are. Human beings, uniquely lacking the great majority of instincts utilised by the rest of the animal kingdom, make sophisticated mental models in order to survive. These mental models are incredibly flexible at the beginning of life – a human infant can become almost anything, and overwhelmingly this depends on their quality of parenting and other social bonds. But an infant has almost nothing of a mental model when they are born, and has to painstakingly piece one together through experience of life.

All human beings are born 100% narcissistic. Narcissism, in the general, Frommian sense of the word, is the essential glue that binds together an infant’s inchoate sensory perceptions, memories and experiences. Without it, no human being would be able to create the essential mental model required to survive in the real world. A human life, on this view, is thus a gradual process of the sophistication of the mental model, including the reduction of and eventual overcoming of narcissism.

That, of course, is a very difficult process. We all have our personal convictions, our personal “absolute truths” as Dorothy Rowe called them, and the only way to overcome them is to listen to the views of others – in other words, to see yourself through the eyes of others. Yet narcissism specifically militates against that option. We all have to hear difficult truths about ourselves, yet our unconscious attitudes act against such realisation.

Amongst the standard symptoms of narcissism – that in Donald Trump are malignant, where in most others they are benign – are an obsession with and a drive for power, an inability to accept criticism, an inability to see “other” people and cultures from their particular perspective, with a consequent leaning to racism, misogyny in men, prejudice, etc – and a notable lack of empathy, an inability to be sensitive or compassionate, and a tendency to black-and-white, ie infantile or juvenile thinking. Narcissistic people commonly believe in Destiny or Fate too, and often are unusually superstitious. Most of these symptoms Donald Trump, like other “leaders” who suffered from his extreme form of the narcissistic condition such as Napoleon and Thatcher, shows in profusion.

It is important to realise however that Donald Trump’s condition is not something that developed out of nothing during his lifetime. It is not something that he created, or even aimed for. Rather, the intense narcissism we see in him is that of the child, which in this 70 year old man has never been overcome through normal experience of life. There are likely many reasons for this, but the quality of his parenting must come very high on that list of reasons, if not at the summit. Donald Trump’s outlook on the world is most similar to that of the small boy.

This then is the great adventure of life. Through evolutionary necessity we are all born utterly self-centred, and through our relationships with others and by accepting the reality of the world external to our imaginations we have to rid ourselves of all vestiges of the narcissism we were born with. But it is not easy…


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Tommy Catkins

Tommy Catkins : following a horrific experience at Verdun in 1916, Tommy – 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?


Crows by Candace Savage

In this short work, various elements of science, observation, folklore and legend are woven together into a very enjoyable tapestry. The science is light, the observation is fascinating, and the folklore suggests kernels of truth about these fascinating and highly intelligent birds. Photographs, drawings and works of art illustrate the work. All in all, an enjoyable book.


Beyond Fear by Dorothy Rowe

In my twenties I spent a lot of time in second hand bookshops, where I hoovered up works by Nicholas Humphrey and Erich Fromm, amongst many others. Dorothy Rowe’s books were placed in the same section, and so it was inevitable that I discovered her in the end…

An Australian by birth, Dorothy Rowe first worked as a teacher and child psychologist before arriving in Britain in her forties, working at Sheffield University and later as the head of Lincolnshire Department of Clinical Psychology. She spent much of her time working with depressed patients, and came to reject the medical model of mental illness, instead working within personal construct theory. Rowe believes that depression is a result of beliefs which do not enable a person to live comfortably with themselves or the world, notably the belief in a “just world” – that the bad are punished and the good rewarded – which exacerbates feelings of fear and anxiety should disaster strike. Part of recovering, Rowe says, is accepting that the external world is unpredictable and that we control relatively little of it.

Beyond Fear, the first Rowe book I bought, was published in 1987. It comprehensively sets out the various reasons why fear – whether consciously felt or not – affects our lives, and what the behavioural consequences are.

The opening sections deal with fear, how it is denied, and how we use our bodies as both reasons for fear and explanations of it. This chapter in particular had resonance for me, as I strongly think Western patriarchal society refuses to acknowledge thoughts and feelings in favour of the more obvious, more “present” physical explanations – thus, men are deemed to be violent in the main because they have a lot of testosterone, not in the main because they are taught by society to follow a particular gender identity.

The second section deals with how fear changes us mentally: turning fear into anxiety and phobias, into obsessions and compulsive behaviour, into depression, into mania and into schizophrenia.

The final section shows how fear can be turned into courage. All three sections use case studies to illustrate the main points Rowe makes.

I’ve read many of Dorothy Rowe’s works, but this one had the most to offer when I was a younger man. Its sheer clarity and insight regarding the human condition was an eye-opener to me. I read many of her other books afterwards. As Fay Weldon pointed out in the cover comment, “Dorothy Rowe shows us the path to personal and political, if only we would take it.” For compassionate humanity too, Rowe is exceptional; her compassion shines out of every sentence.

Readers of the Factory Girl trilogy will note that my three books are dedicated to Nicholas Humphrey, Dorothy Rowe, and Erich Fromm in memoriam. These three thinkers were my main influences as, many years ago, I began to ponder the world around me.



Jo Zebedee on losing a world

Today I’d like to present a new guest blog from Jo Zebedee.

By an extraordinary coincidence – and I promise you this was not designed – Jo’s piece describes something that I am this very day wrestling with, since yesterday I completed the copy edit on the Factory Girl trilogy. So I greatly sympathise with Jo, and am feeling a bit melancholy myself…

Anyway; I hope you enjoy what she has to say.


Last night, I lost a world. Which sounds careless of me.

It went like this. In the morning, I looked over the final copy edit of the last book of my Inheritance Trilogy. I changed four sentences around and sent the document back. I can’t tell you what was the last word I typed. I can tell you it wasn’t The End.

That evening, around 10, I got a message back to say the document was good. It was gone to the publisher for formatting.

Gone. I wouldn’t be working on Abendau again. No more deciding if Kare was over-thinking things (probably) or Sonly too waspish (she had her moments). No more musing over whether it’s data pad or datapad, and where commas should go. It is done. I have no more input into the book.

Now, this is my fourth book release, so I am used to that sense of completion. But this is the first time I’ve finished something with the expectation of never returning to the world. In book one and two, I always had the next one to keep me busy. Inish Carraig, although a standalone, is crying out for a companion book (as are many of the readers). But, at this stage – and, of course, time might change this – I have no plans for another Abendau book.

Which means the world I’ve been developing since I was 16, the characters I’ve spent so many hours musing on, are gone. And I’m feeling….

I’m proud, first and foremost. Novels are hard to write – hell, short stories are hard to write – but a trilogy? From the off? That’s harder than I ever anticipated (or I’d never have started the process. I’m determined, but I’m not a masochist.) It’s not just the words, it’s learning to tell a story, to stay close to the characters. It’s learning to find my voice, if I have. (I think I have. Except that in each story it goes for a wander in the woods and comes back with pine needles hanging off it, looking a little older and more thoughtful.)

I’ve had – mostly – good reviews. Some better than others, but overall, I can’t complain at all.

So, yes – proud. I wrote a quarter of a million words that people mostly enjoy.

I’m also a little sad. I won’t be the writer of Abendau anymore, but the author of it. That change of status, moving from being active to passive, feels bigger than it should. Abendau is now my back story. I will be releasing new stuff and, whilst I will of course continue to talk about Abendau, it will be in the past tense. In Abendau I tried to create a very human hero. I tried to. I did. I’m not trying to anymore.

All writers have to do this. Release, promote, let go. Like sending a child out to the world, at some point stories must stop being a writer’s obsessional focus and find their own place.

There is a plus side to this process. I like discovering new writers. I will give most writers a go. But – whisper it – a writer’s first book is rarely their best. Already there are things I would change about Abendau’s Heir and no doubt a year or so down the line, I’ll feel the same about the sequels. But that first book often has an honesty* about it that gets lost as we learn the craft more. I’d like to think that people who read the Abendau books will see the freshness of a first idea and climb aboard for the ride of where my mind might go. (I can’t say for sure but spooky fairylands, deep lakes holding secrets, and a frontier fantasy world are good bets).

What I really like is finding a writer that I enjoy the book by AND who has a backlist. I can happily spend months trawling the goldmine that is a writer’s backlist.

In a year’s time, Abendau will be my back list. By then, the books will be out, and the audiobooks. It will be a project that is complete and contained. But it will not be a dead project, because in it is much of what shapes my current writing: great characters, fallible and likeable; some imagery that I love and will always keep with me; a storyline that grew enough to sustain three books; a world and planet that came from whatever part of my mind creates such things.

Which brings me back to my feelings, and I’ll end where I started. I’m very, very proud to be the author of the Inheritance Trilogy. I’m proud of my Abendau world. I hope it continues to entertain people for many years to come.


*Some early books that come to mind, for me, as defining an author in a fresh way are:

Shards of Honour, Lois McMaster Bujold. It’s not one of my favourite books of the series, but there is something in the portrayal of Aral that he loses later when he becomes more statesmanlike. Aral shrinks as the books go down, just as much as Cordelia grows.

Salem’s Lot, Stephen King. Not his first book (which was Carrie, which has a feel to it unique to that book), but his second, Salem’s Lot remains, for me, a masterclass in horror. In fact, I vastly prefer King’s early work. He had a fun side to freaking the hell out of me, and a certain ’70s/’80s cheesiness that I enjoyed.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffeneggrer. If there was ever a book and a character it feels like someone was born to write, this – and Henry de Tamble – is it.

The final Abendau book can be found here. I hope you enjoy it.



The N-word

This is a re-posting of a piece written for the Tickety Boo Press blog last year.

I have posted it here as a prelude to the Factory Girl trilogy, which is set in Edwardian Britain, when attitudes to non-white people were rather primitive. Alas, they are still rather primitive in some sections of British society…


Recently a well known scientist caused a media storm by suggesting that women scientists in laboratories were distractingly sexy and prone to fits of tears. He was rightly lambasted and mocked for having such an old-fashioned attitude.

This incident caused the most interesting recent tea break conversation in the staff room of the college where I work, between myself, two sociology teachers (for whom racism and much else is on the curriculum), a biology teacher and a psychology teacher. We covered sexism, racism, the youth of today – ie our students – and a few other related topics, and the conversation really made me think afterwards, not least about the use of offensive words in literature.

Last year Infinity Plus Books published my surreal, alternate-history fantasy Hairy London, a novel not to be taken at all seriously, but which has a couple of really serious themes – the nature of love, and the treatment afforded by white men of what used to be called the Establishment to non-British people, the “lower” classes and women. As somebody who is appalled by racism and sexism, and who has happily used a full human range of characters in his novels, I wanted to make use of some of the excesses of times gone past in order to allow two of my main characters – both of them men from wealthy English families – to learn from their experiences. To do this, I used the term darkie. I used it to make the point that racism is shameful and inhumane; and for no other reason. I felt my useage was appropriate.

This use of the word was noted in one of the novel’s reviews: … there is a boldness echoing the New Wave experimentalism of British SF in the 1960s. Bold to the extent that elements of the depiction of racism may prove controversial, not least some historically accurate language…

So, I asked myself: is it ever acceptable to use this term? And if so, what about the N-word?

I recently completed a trilogy set in 1910/11, the first volume of which is called The Girl With Two Souls, whose main character is a fourteen year old of mixed racial descent; technically, a mulatto. This word has its origin somewhere in the sixteenth century and comes from the Spanish mulato. Interestingly, the N-word is not much younger – a few decades perhaps.

You will note I haven’t actually spelled out the N-word here. But I did use it in full in The Girl With Two Souls, to enhance the sensation received by the reader that my main character was being treated with appalling inhumanity. I felt that, because the word was used in an appropriate social context, not to mention an obvious historical context, it was right to use it.

Some people today think the word shouldn’t be used in any context; they say it is always wrong and always inappropriate. I think this is misguided, and often unhelpful. To censor the attitudes of people in the past by not using their dialect is to ignore or conceal their deeds.

I suppose we’re all guilty of unthinking mistakes though. The tea break conversation mentioned above turned to the use of the word ethnic, which I’ve regularly used as an umbrella word – for example to describe my collection of musical instruments – to mean non-British. The sociology teacher pointed out to me that the word was meaningless, since everybody has an ethnicity, a point which had escaped me, even though I’m of Welsh extraction and have received anti-Welsh mockery (from an Indian – oh, the irony). Ethnic… it shows how easily we slip into unhelpful terminology when describing the wider world.

The sociology teacher went on to explain that the acronym BME is used by British police and other organisations to cover black and minority ethnicities, thereby collecting everyone under one label. But it is a meaningless label, and hardly helpful, not least when, for example, non-British refugees (eg from Somalia) are all housed together when they are from groups who in Somalia are at one another’s throats.

As an interesting addendum, none other than President Obama used the N-word during a podcast on 21 June 2015, showing that, in some circumstances, and from some people, there is a place for it.

It turns out we are all human, with individual circumstances of gender, race, culture, background, etc. So I think it would be good if our society reflected that fact.



The Girl Of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

In The Girl of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, young Isabella, daughter of a cartographer, dreams of her father’s mysterious maps as she lives on an unspecified island set in a great sea. This environment has nods to the real world – Amrica and Afrik – but is essentially an imagined place.

When her friend vanishes after an enigmatic killing (possibly by people, possibly by beasts) Isabella finds herself following an island myth as she disguises herself as a boy to accompany the expedition to find her friend. But this expedition is run by the grim Governer of the island (a man of Spanish, ie colonial heritage) and the task – not least because it heads off into the Forgotten Territories – is fraught with peril.

The novel is aimed at the younger end of the YA market, I think, and is a very nice read. The indigenous cultural elements are all handled with great sympathy, and, although there seem to be magical elements, it’s not immediately obvious whether they are real or not; and certainly towards the end of the book there is one obvious explanation for what is going on…

Overall: a really good read. Original and enjoyable.


Eva by Peter Dickinson

I was disappointed by this book. I’m a big fan of Peter Dickinson – his The Weathermonger is among my all-time favourite books – but this novel was not terribly engaging, and even in places rather dull, despite the potential of the scenario. In a nutshell: Eva, a girl of about 13, has a terrible accident, and the only way to save her is to “implant” her into a chimp body. The novel then details what follows.

I think the main problem I had with the book was the old-fashioned writing style, which had none of the zip and zing of the author’s other works. It was all tell and no show; and the tell was dull and in places rather vague. (I found myself increasingly perplexed by the rapturous reviews given by other readers.)

The novel in fact is more of a satire on advertising, money and media than anything else. There is little on the human/chimp “interface,” and what there is could best be described as trite. First published in 1988, it seems to be more of a reaction against gross Capitalism and the whole ‘eighties “loadsamoney” culture, with specific barbs against advertising and media manipulation.

A shame. Still, Dickinson remains one of the all-time great children’s authors.