stephenpalmersf

Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Beardy Marx, Hairy London

In Hairy London – a very silly novel with a very serious theme, which is set somewhere in Victorian/Edwardian times – I used a few real people as fictional characters, including Karl Marx. One of the main characters, Velvene Orchardtide, scion of the landed gentry and rather fond of stealing from his parents, is forced to leave the bosom of his family home and undertake the Suicide Club quest initiated by Sheremy Pantomile, which is to find the true nature of love. Early on, Velvene and Marx have an inconclusive meeting in Highgate Cemetery, where Velvene has crashed his bovine balloon:

Velvene described as best he could the purpose of the Suicide Club and Pantomile’s wager, concluding, “I found myself short of funds, and so put my name forward. I mean to uncover the true nature of love and win the money.”

“Huh,” Marx grunted. “A waste of time. You are a crippled man in a crippled society, journeying around your Empire as if it were a playground, while the common person, the authentic person, struggles against the oppression of the upper classes.”

“So you say,” Velvene retorted, “but some of us who find ourselves, through no fault of our own, born into wealth become philanthropists-“

“An illusion! What use is some? You are alienated from everything in your world. You know nothing of real life, of poverty, of work, of struggle, of disappointment, of the crushing of opportunity. And here you are now, jousting with me and daring to tell me you seek the truth of love? You would not know love if it clung on to you with the passion of a young woman.”

Velvene at this point has little understanding of himself, of his curious circumstances and of the nature of the struggle suggested by Marx, but as the novel progresses he does gain understanding, and in the end becomes something of a hero. But what was Marx on about in the cemetery scene above? What was Marx’s concept of humanity?

In Beyond The Chains Of Illusion the radical humanist, Marxist and former Freudian psychologist Erich Fromm noted that one of Marx’s fundamental points is that the nature of “man” (i.e. human beings) is comprehensible, a concept which at the time went head-to-head with the prevailing idea that we are all a blank sheet for culture and other forces to write upon:

Marx, in assuming the existence of a nature of man, did not concur in the common error of confusing it with its particular manifestations. He differentiated ‘human nature in general’ from ‘human nature as modified in each historical epoch.’

Yet even Erich Fromm at this stage in his life’s work would add:

Human nature in general we can never see… what we observe are always the specific manifestations of human nature in various cultures… In his earlier writings, Marx still called ‘human nature in general’ the ‘essence of man.’ He later gave up this term because he wanted to make it clear that ‘the essence of man’ is no abstraction inherent in each separate individual… For Marx, the nature of man was a given potential, a set of conditions, the human raw material, as it were, which as such cannot be changed, just as the size and structure of the human brain has remained the same since the beginning of civilisation.

In my own work I’ve made a few changes to this stance, using the term ‘human condition’ to mean the unchanging, biologically/evolutionary-determined aspect of ourselves, and ‘human nature’ to be the historically dependent, ‘visible’ aspect. The human condition in my view is inviolate, and leads, according to cultural conditions, to various types of human nature. I also disagree with Fromm in that in my opinion there is no bar to what I’ve called a scientific description of the human condition. Fromm was insistent in all his later works on humanity assembling of a full understanding of the human condition, a process he was very much a part of and which he memorably contributed to in his seminal work The Sane Society.

Marx, then, grasped that human nature at least could be assessed and discussed, if nothing else. And of course he saw the consequences of not understanding the true needs of human beings:

Marx chuckled. “You’ve read Montesquieu then,” he remarked. “If a person becomes active, productive and independent, then yes, they may be counted authentic. But it involves releasing themself from chains of illusion. And you? Look at you. You wear clothes created from the subjection of the masses in Lancashire. Your chronoflam is gold removed from a foreign country that your King rules but has never visited. Your club for the idle rich employs servants who make the myriad delicacies upon which you feast, and all for a few pennies. Wager? I wager this – that you have never done a full day’s work in your life.”

Such is Marx’s early challenge to Velvene Orchardtide.

What then of love? Is it something forever beyond grasp, a phantasm, an illness, a spiritual affection perpetually enigmatic? Or did it evolve over hundreds of thousands of years, along with emotion and a host of other aspects of the human condition? Hairy London presents three possible answers to the question at its conclusion, but Velvene and Marx had a second encounter much later in the book, where the two are somewhat more courteous to one another:

“And what of love?” [Marx] asked.

“My research continues.”

“Who then have you questioned?”

Velvene, annoyed again, decided to oppose Marx by attacking. He replied, “Tell me, do you believe, as Freud and Reich do, that man is a tabula rasa, or do you side with Jung, who believes all men are born with unconscious personality already within him?”

Wrongfooted by this question, Marx peered long and hard at Velvene, then glanced away and said, “I suppose I side against Jung.”

“Then we are born, effectively, a blank sheet of paper?”

“Yes.”

“Well, where then do our personalities come from?”

Marx considered, then replied, “I suppose they come from the real world, from our experiences, placed inside us through memory.”

As this conversation develops, I take Marx away from his real stance:

Do you suppose that more might be placed inside us, perhaps through the actions of our parents, our siblings, our family, eh?” [Velvene said.]

“I suppose that to be perfectly possible.”

Velvene considered. “Then it must be that love, and all the other psychological templates, are also placed inside us, in such a way as to chime with the theories of the estimable Mr Darwin.”

Again Marx considered this point, before answering, “You mean, because we are all of the same species, descended from apes, we all partake of the same mental template?”

“Yes, sir!”

Marx… said, “What a remarkable idea. What then shall we decide about love?”

Velvene felt ideas flooding his mind as the implications of his notion arrived. He replied, “Though we all partake of the same mental template, we all grow up in different conditions, eh? The working class man has a different experience of life to the imperialist. Therefore, it must be that we all approach love from different angles.”

“And yet every man and woman across the world experiences love in the same way.”

“Well, true, true…” Velvene murmured. He thought for a moment, then said, “You must be correct, Mr Marx. Though we are all different in the circumstances of our lives, love is universal. It must therefore be an aspect of our mental template.”

“Moreover, it must be a deducible aspect – as with any scientific theory.”

Velvene nodded, intrigued. That was a notion he had never considered. “By reasonable extension of what he have decided so far,” he said, “love must be an aspect of the process of placing experience inside us as we grow up.”

“But what aspect?”

This takes Marx well away from 19th century thought. Although the idea of different classes of people in, say, British culture approaching life differently is in accordance with Marx’s historically-dependent ‘essence of man’ notion, the pair do agree that love is essentially a universal experience.

“But my point is this,” [Velvene said.] “If a man truly… loves a woman, would he not want everything possible for his beloved, eh? Including her freedom, her happiness, her enjoyment of life.”

“He would want that,” Marx replied. “I certainly wanted that for my wife.”

“Then this surely is what love must be. It is the way we most profoundly understand the beloved, so that they may experience the best of what life has to offer. After all, we enter this world knowing nobody – yet we, as a social animal, have no option but to know the people around us.”

“Indeed!” Marx said. “Then love, understanding, and freedom must all be words for the same thing.”

Velvene felt excitement course through him. “They must be! And though I have heard it said amongst cynical, and often very young men that love is blind, the opposite must be true. Love is like spectacles. We see better through it.”

“A remarkable analogy, sir! I believe I may put that in my pamphlet.”

And so it is a universal experience. In The Art Of Loving, Fromm wrote:

… mature love is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality. Love is an active power in man; a power which breaks through the walls separating man from his fellow men, which unites him with others… In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two.

Love, understanding and freedom are all words for the same experience:

“There exists however,” Velvene said, “a dilemma in the experience of our lives. We, ourselves, are most vividly and continuously experienced. We know our own deeds and wishes, our every idiosyncrasy and foible, feeling, thought, hope and desire. But no other human being, however close, is experienced in this intimate manner, eh? There is always the impossibility of feeling precisely the same feelings as another, of having different thoughts, of remembering different experiences – in short, of being different people. This dilemma is resolved by the experience of union.”

“What do you mean by union?” asked Franclin.

“Well, I mean love. Our need for communication and our need for union are similar in the sense that they draw people together through society. But union has a more profound quality. Communication between people is an aspect of living, though it can in some cases be deep… But union does not have any aspect of chance. We do not live, as it were, casually creating union with others. Union has a different meaning. Union relates, as Marx pointed out, to the actual experience of the human condition, to the experience of living a human life. Union is the exchange of the experience of life, whereas communication is the exchange of information relating to life… union, by which I mean love, is the experience of understanding others. Union indeed is an inevitable part of life, because we simply have to understand others.”

“Love is inevitable, then?” Franclin asked.

“We are born,” Velvene replied, “without any knowledge of the world, and so we have to create our memories by learning about life. At least, most [psychologists] think so, Mr Jung being the notable exception, eh? Love, therefore, was an inevitable consequence of our evolution from apes.”

“What then is your wager presentation?” Lord Blackanore asked.

Velvene turned to face him. “The purpose of love is to facilitate the appearance of other human beings in our minds. It is our method of bringing other people, wholly independent of the self as I have explained, into our minds, to be understood. The experience of love is the experience of union. Indeed sir, loneliness is unbearable precisely because true understanding of the self and of life is inextricably bound up with the true understanding of others.”

“I do not follow.”

Velvene nodded. “… Love is indeed a paradoxical experience, eh? It preserves the integrity and independence of those involved. Love requires freedom to exist, for without freedom, Blackanore, why then it would be but a tie of necessity, eh? Love and freedom and understanding are therefore conceptual equivalents… You see, love is not blind. In fact it is the very opposite, eh? Love gives us an improved experience of others, since it is the very experience of the truth of these others, not just the perception of some surface quality.”

Thus does Velvene Orchardtide redeem himself.

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Hairy London – cover

The Largest Lie

The largest lie of politics is back in play again, and the full lie will be told on June 9th.

This lie is: your political act as a British individual is voting in a general election.

The overwhelming majority of British politicians want you to believe this lie because politics in Britain, as in most Western countries, is a passive activity – indeed, it is now a spectator activity also. Politics would become an active procedure if your vote mattered: if you felt that, by casting a vote, your activity was relevant and meaningful. But it is not, for several reasons. The main reason is that, in a first-past-the-post electoral system, any vote cast in a safe seat for any of the political parties is meaningless, with the exception of votes cast for the ruling party where the voter genuinely wants that party to win. Only in marginal seats – the minority in Britain – does voting have any general human meaning, since in those seats there is a direct connection between the act of voting and the outcome. The majority of people in Britain are disenfranchised by this archaic and ludicrous system.

The second main reason your vote is not meaningful is that we are organised on the national scale, as we shall be for the foreseeable future. This means we operate a partial democracy. We individuals do not vote actively and democratically – we elect our rulers, then sit back to await events. This system automatically halts any chance of politics being relevant to individuals in communities, and, at least as important, meaningful to them.

To quote Erich Fromm: “Democracy can resist the authoritarian threat if it is transformed from a passive democracy into an active democracy – in which the affairs of the community are as close and as important to the individual citizens as their private affairs or, better, in which the well-being of the community becomes each citizen’s private concern. By participating in the community, people find life becomes more interesting and stimulating. Indeed, a true political democracy can be defined as one in which life is just that, interesting.”

In other words, the media-spread lie that somehow a “national voice” is being expressed in a British general election is nothing but delusion. There is no such thing as a national voice in a country of 60 million people: the idea is utter fantasy, designed in the main to divert attention from the paralysing lack of activity inherent in the current system. A national voice could only be heard by some sort of abstract national entity. But there is no such thing. We are human beings. We are small, and we live in communities. Voter apathy exists in the main because of the lack of meaningful connection between voting and politics as it is done in Britain.

In my opinion (and I’m aware that this opinion is shared by few), no meaningful change, with the exception of occasional historical accidents, can take place within a political system which is authoritarian, passive due to scale or type, or which in other ways acts directly against the needs of human individuals. The only alternative is to reject such systems and lead by example.

If voting is a meaningless activity, what do you do if you live in a safe seat such as North Shropshire, or if like me you find the entire charade a sick, ridiculous, pointless waste of time? The lie is: voting as a British individual is your only political act. Politicians want you to believe this lie. But it is not true. Politics in such flawed situations can be other things, which the “leaders” you elect do not want you to consider. The British system expects you to place all your faith in one single leader – a typical conceit of patriarchy. The system expects you to accept the status quo. The system in fact expects you to manifest the status quo as part of national duty. But the system in 21st century Britain is designed for a male-dominated economic elite and nobody else.

Your alternative political acts include: consumer strikes, consumer choice (eg going vegetarian and buying Fair Trade), and refusing to accept the “right” of stockholders and other management forces to control the economic agenda. When I was an employee of Waterstones in the early 2000s, Waterstones became a company with stocks and shares, and all employees were given free shares as a consequence of this change. I was the only member of staff in my store to refuse these shares on moral grounds, a decision which iirc lost me about £300. Other alternative political acts are more long-duration and nebulous, and include exposing patriarchy in all its forms, rejecting and exposing the lies of capitalism, and so on. This can be done by communication. In the age of the internet that is much more difficult than it used to be, but it is still a meaningful activity, especially if through chance you have a louder voice than others. Of course, not everybody is comfortable with only long-term activity.

Idealists locate the directions of paths. Realists find the paving materials. But we do need both.

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The Employment Problem

In recent months much has been written by various media publications about the likelihood of jobs being “taken” by robots and other automated systems, including by AI (or AGI – Artificial General Intelligence – as it is often called now). There are various possible scenarios: hyper-rich individuals owning AGIs and thereby removing the need for employees, resulting in mass unemployment; a huge change in the types of jobs being done, as with the change from manufacturing to services in the case of Britain over the past few decades; or perhaps a strengthening of the exploitation effects inherent in the capitalist system. In my novel No Grave For A Fox I had the latter option prevalent, with the nexus embodied in various android-type bodies. In Beautiful Intelligence the effect was not so obvious, the main employment effect being a decentralising one.

But in the Factory Girl trilogy I also considered these options, despite the 1910-11 setting. The automata (or horas as they are sometimes known) which are one of the mysteries of the novels are owned by Sir Tantalus Blackmore, a classic Victorian entrepreneur who exploits everything and everybody to become as rich as possible – or so it seems at first glance. But, whatever his motives, Sir Tantalus does own outright the ability to utilise the automata made by his Factory. In this regard he is deemed one of the sources of the wave of mass unemployment affecting my alternate Britain, as shown in this early conversation between Kora and Dr Spellman:

They stepped out of the hansom cab, waiting on the pavement while the automaton lifted Dr Spellman’s luggage off the rack. “Will you pay it?” Kora asked. “No.” “Why not? You paid the one in London.” “Yes,” said Dr Spellman, “but he was human.” “That is not fair. How can the Factory make money if nobody pays the automata?” Dr Spellman chuckled. “A very good point! You’re not daft, are you? Well, you see, the local Council pays your father for the automata who do all the work.”

In other words Sir Tantalus has a monopoly, which even extends to public use, as exemplified by the Sheffield Town Council having to pay him.

Although there was unemployment in Edwardian times, I did have in mind future possibilities when I was preparing the scenario for the three novels. Sir Tantalus is a private individual. He has broken the link between people giving their labour in return for a salary. Labouring individuals can associate into unions, which gives them power, since, if the business is dependent on labour, they can go on strike. This is not the case with Sir Tantalus or with any private individual who might use an AGI. If, rather than changing the mode of employment, an AGI owner bypasses labour entirely via their AGI then that labour loses its power of strike; and this is perhaps the worst danger of future AGI use. Such an owner would have the ability to accumulate capital without any hindrance – and that has never happened before.

Sir Tantalus enjoys exactly this option. Although there is mystery behind the creation of the automata, he in essence – especially in the early days of his operation – can accumulate as much capital as he likes, since the automata, like AGIs, have no power of strike.

And Sir Tantalus does what any self-obsessed Victorian entrepreneur would do in the circumstances – he sucks up to nobility:

Roka … nodded. “Is [Sir Tantalus in Parliament], then?” “Not in Parliament, no. What he does is far more cunning. He influences from behind the scenes to get what he wants. Why, he’d like to be a lord, you know, but…” “But what?” Dr Spellman shrugged, standing up to continue walking. “He was born into a poor Yorkshire family. Real lords don’t want him anywhere near them.” “That’s not fair.” Dr Spellman chuckled. “It’s one of his weak points, his obsession with nobility. His envy eats him up, Roka.”

Regarding unemployment, there are two sides to the argument in the Factory Girl novels, one which sees the automata as beneficial (pro-hora) and one which sees them as usurping (anti-hora).

Rather surprisingly, Sir Tantalus stands in the latter category:

Sir Tantalus continued, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder whether the achievement of hora emancipation – of Abolition, as Parliament would have it – would in fact be a hollow victory. In Sheffield you perhaps do not see the cruel tide of unemployment that affects London, Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. My Factory gives work to more people than you can imagine, and I am glad for that. But as an older man, with little time remaining to him, I can see that there are too many horas in the world today. They do all the work we ask them to. But what of the little man? What of the ordinary man? It is for them that I worry.”

Later in the trilogy the reason for this becomes clear. But others are pro-hora:

“Regardless of the origin of the hora,” Lenin continued, “the hora is a worker, and as such acquires rights such as any worker should enjoy. Though we use the hora as an automatic worker to do tasks such as we do not wish to do, the hora is part of the great commonality of the working class – and it is being exploited by capitalist masters. In the essential regard about which I speak, the hora is akin to the man.

The above speech by Lenin should not perhaps be too surprising. (Lenin lived in Britain for a few years from 1902, so I thought it would be appropriate to have him play a small part in my novel.) But there is another aspect to these considerations which I wanted to use as a main part of the plot, and that is the way capitalism, unlike nature, posits no limit to growth. Though Lenin rightly saw automata as workers, he did not in my novels grasp the dangers of their mode of manufacture. He only saw the end result – employment in Sir Tantalus’ Factory for the men of south Yorkshire, and a force of hora workers who deserved rights. But the danger becomes clear in the third volume, The Girl With No Soul:

Agricultural fields lay littered with inutile horas, thousands of them, their steel exteriors glittering in the sunlight. In distant lanes he saw hundreds more walking apparently at random. The sheer quantity horrified him, and he realised that the Factory was still over-producing. What was Sir Tantalus doing inside?

The outer streets of the city were also strewn with horas, and with hora parts, as if a kind of grisly mechanical fury had ripped through the place. Through a gap in the blinds he observed lines of men at soup kitchens, elsewhere rubble and shattered glass; and everywhere a chaotic press of people with pale, starved faces. Police patrolled the streets in groups – never alone – and there were even a few army officers in uniform.

Over-production – a small, curious, and mostly ignored effect in the first novel – has by the time of the third novel become an overpowering concern. As Erasmus later says:

“Roka – you already know this to be true. You, a Marxist, can see the madness of capitalism, which uses resources as if they are unlimited. Capitalism posits no natural limit to economic growth, and therefore dooms the culture in which it exists – and its environment too. Now do you see?” She nodded. “Capitalism is cancer…“

This is the equivalent of the first option presented in the introduction to this post. A proliferation of automata, like a proliferation of AGIs with nobody to control their creation or use, swiftly gets out of hand. Humanity is blithely doing itself out of an existence. At a time of global population explosion that’s not wise…

The second option is a change in employment styles. In Edwardian times, with severe social stratification, there was little chance for such ‘portfolio careers’ as they’re known today. Most people, especially on the lower rungs of the ladder, had a trade for life. It is in fact the far-sighted men of the Malthus Brigade who change the options for the malformed horas which they collect and adapt:

AutoRoka continued, “Malthus wrote about a future where disease and famine checked the growth of population, suggesting there was a limit to such growth.” Roka said, “Do you believe then that people will all die of starvation in the future?” The man [Ernest] shook his head. “Not people. We’re talkin’ about automata. Thee not noticed ‘ow many of them there are these days?” Roka shook her head. “It’s why the police waste so much time gatherin’ up the loose ones. Soon we’ll be drownin’ beneath them.” Roka grimaced at the image. “You really believe that?” “Oh, aye. It’s inevitable. So we’re takin’ malformed automata, which otherwise would do nowt, to make a force.”

And Ernest sees further, albeit under the spell of mass unemployment:

“ … The whole bloody Empire is built on automata labour, thee sees. No automata – no Empire. No nothin’, in fact.” “I suppose so,” Roka agreed.

Employment not only brings a salary to an employee, it offers far more. Human beings live in entwined worlds of meaning, and employment is one of the main sources of purpose in life. In previous centuries it was obvious to some that making an individual perform the same task over and over again militated against humanity. We cannot do production-line work and remain sane.

If we create a future in which AGIs dispense medical diagnoses, direct trade deals and trade itself, drive cars, trains and planes, or perhaps run all our personal finances, we are creating a future with far less space for meaning. We’ll be making stressed, anxious zombies of ourselves – and there’ll be billions of those.

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The Girl With Two Souls

Black & White

The Rat & The Serpent was another of those “characters used as real people and as cultural archetypes” novels. It was inspired by an experience I had in Exeter one summer evening. I was standing on a roadside pavement, waiting to be picked up from work, when an intense thunderstorm began to lean in over the city; and it was moving straight towards me. As it approached, colours began to leach out of the city around me, as the storm-dark clouds neared. It wasn’t raining yet, but everything I could see seemed to be in black-and-white because of the drastic reduction in light and because of the density of the clouds. As I surveyed all this, a thought popped into my head: would it be possible to write a novel entirely in black-and-white, just as a black-and-white film might be made? I watched people running this way and that with their black umbrellas and I thought: what if it was soot falling from the sky, not rain?

Those were the basic thoughts which I began with. Later, I devised an upwardly mobile plot and created the four main characters. The novel focuses on Ugliy, who is a disabled street beggar living in the dark, soot-shrouded city of Mavrosopolis. After some unpleasant experiences he decides to attempt to climb into the lowest of the formal social levels, that of citidenizen, where he hopes to find a just and bearable life. He has one unusual advantage however: he is a shaman of the black rat. Using his native guile and his special abilities, he makes the attempt, and succeeds.

But once he is a citidenizen he finds more social levels above him. He also sees worse stratification, worse inequality and worse corruption. So he decides to rise further, buoyed by his friends and by his social conscience. Eventually however he finds himself in the dilemma of not knowing how far to progress, since a particularly vile and secretive cabal exists at the top of the social pyramid.

The first chapter was difficult to write, but once I’d got the hang of imagining only in monochrome the rest flowed quite nicely. In fact, once I got going it was surprisingly easy to do: I wanted to write a gothic novel, I have quite a gothic imagination, and the whole black-and-white thing helped a lot.

I employed a few carefully devised writing aids. The novel is set at night – so no blue sky and yellow sun. All the food mentioned in the novel is black, grey or white. The most difficult thing however was not mentioning blood. There are a few hand-to-hand fights in Ugliy’s ascent, and all had to be of the sort where no blood is shed. I not only had to imagine the novel in black-and-white, I had to avoid anything with strong colour associations that would break the monochrome spell: sky, blood, apples, butter, and so on.

Reviews were mixed. One reviewer commented that the novel was an uneasy allegory, which in retrospect is a fair point, though at the time of writing there was no such sense in my mind. But it does read as something of an allegorical tale. It is in fact a variation on the Little Prince folk story, a point made plain in the book’s introduction.

One reviewer said: … Some style choices made it difficult for me to follow… [The film] ‘Metropolis’ was a blend of mythology with technology in what might be described as a Dystopic environment written in a style that tried to emulate some epic classics. And that’s what you get from The Rat and the Serpent which almost becomes something of an anachronistic style of writing.

Would I write it differently now? Yes I would. But not too differently perhaps.

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The Rat And The Serpent

Natural Limits In Flowercrash

Flowercrash was the third novel in my “loose trilogy” which began with Memory Seed and Glass. It was intended to follow the stories of the noophytes (the ‘electronic characters’) from Memory Seed and Glass – Tanglanah and Laspetosyne especially – but also some human characters, these latter people being the descendants of the original survivors of Memory Seed. In the many centuries between the first and third volumes, the noophytes had jumped into the Spaceflower, travelled to the planet of the gnosticians, failed there, and returned to Earth.

My intention was to make Zaïdmouth – the environment of the urbs of Flowercrash – a lot more welcoming than that of Memory Seed (the topography of which it exactly copies since it is the same place). However, there are limitations there, and these were an important part of the background to the characters’ stories.

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One of the drawbacks that humanity has with its technology is the sense of being able to do anything, any time, anywhere. This attitude breeds a sense of freedom that we do not actually have. Fossil fuels for instance have allowed us to achieve remarkable things, but the greenhouse effect limits us. We are not free, we are constrained, and until we recognise that situation we will continue to destroy irreplaceable parts of our planet. No capitalist, technophilic economic system however has any interest in such constraints, and in fact ignores the unsustainable foundation of its mantra of continuous, unlimited growth by not factoring that foundation into any of its calculations.

The urbs exist under one particular limitation, which I used to constrain and modify the plot. Hidden deep beneath the ground is a vast network of electronic systems, some of them left over from Memory Seed, some new and devised by the noophytes. These networks however have an annual rhythm that follows the progress of the seasons:

“… The electronic networks mustn’t be disturbed during the winter, when Our Sister Crone renews her strength.”

Public networks come online in the spring, like flowers appearing:

People began to notice an increase in the numbers of insects, but as yet they were only odd bees, hoverflies and groups of butterflies acting in concert. And night flowering networks began to attract moths, so that in one district it was difficult to come home from inn or Shrine without some hairy-winged creature flapping into a face.

And:

The next warm spell, expected in days, would catalyse the process of growth, and soon packets of data in their trillions would be navigating the matted networks of Zaïdmouth.

One of the main characters, Nuïy, grasps the link between artificial bees and the networks:

Lit by the afternoon sun he saw fields of shining domes, and above them what seemed at first to be smoke, but which he soon recognised as bees of the autohives that lay north of Aequalaïs. For a few minutes he watched. There were thousands of domes. The bees of this vicinity operated under mysterious laws devised by the deepest flower networks, combining to form a kind of social entity.

This apiaristic system is also dependent upon ecological conditions, which the bees follow.

My intention with all this was to make working with the networks difficult, i.e. limited. Human beings had to accede to the real world and its limiting ecology. They could not and should not impose their own will upon the situation:

Manserphine sat at the nearest flowers and examined their screens. These being winter blooms, the screens were granular, as if she was looking through frosted glass, and the data windows below were somewhat difficult to follow. From an inner pocket she withdrew her insect pen, a device made to mimic the pollen gathering attributes of a species of insect, which allowed for network manipulation without the presence of actual insects. Like most pens, the end was shaped as a generic bee, which lacked the precision of a pen made to mimic a particular insect but which made for ease of use amongst more than one species of flower.

Here Manserphine manages a limited use of the winter networks by utilising a device. But, overall, the networks are ‘down.’ These networks are also ecologically varied by urb; that is, characterised by local variations, like an ecosystem:

If the networks she wanted to explore were in Aequalaïs then there she must go, and if her own life was somehow linked to that urb, then all the more reason.

Here, Manserphine is unable to access Aequalaïs’ networks without being in that dangerous urb – another natural limitation. She is aware of those limitations, albeit rather annoyed by them:

The miniature screens inside the newly opened flowers were insensitive to her insect pen, so she was forced to resort to the old standby of anther tickling… “This is going to be difficult,” she said. “To find out important things I would have to get inside the Shrine. The flower networks around here are just too strange, not to mention quiet because it is winter.”

The urbs of Zaïdmouth however are no hippy-dippy paradise. To the south, masculine values still have some sway:

In connecting drum sensors to the networks, the clerics of the Green Man had devised a method of influencing the traffic of data independent of flower technology. Under suitable trance conditions, usually achieved by means of Deomouvadaïn’s herbs, a talented enough drummer could transfer immense quantities of data, or change procedures, even entire systems. But the concentration required was too much for even the best drummer, and perfect precision was impossible to attain.

The women of Veneris are more receptive to the idea of following the seasons, but the men of Emeralddis still think imposing their will upon nature is a good idea:

Nuïy could not help himself … “If the flower networks crash, everything created by the un-men will collapse. Then we can take over! The un-men will not want the flower crash. Therefore we must have it.”

(Un-men is the male term at the Shrine of the Green Man for women.)

The general theme of this novel is the physical embodiment of the formerly abstract (and not conscious) noophytes, who in Glass realise their mistake. In a lengthy conversation with Manserphine, Zoahnône says:

“The flower networks constitute a local ecology unique on this planet. If the balance of this ecology is upset by careless behaviour, sourced in humans or in gynoids, then the flower networks will die, and with them all the knowledge that presently they hold. The beauty of this knowledge is alone a reason to save it, quite apart from its utility…”

“I still don’t see the link between remaking gynoids and saving culture,” interrupted Manserphine.

“This is the link. As I said, the flower networks comprise an ecology. Part of this ecology is abstract. The metaphors of knowledge contained in the networks can be influenced. If those metaphors become overly cold and intellectual, concerned with simple power or selfish acquisition, then the flower networks will fade. If on the other hand the metaphors become warm, emotional, concerned with moral value and the joy of existence, then the flower networks will survive.”

“But why?”

“Because each network flower is a proto-gynoid,” said Zoahnône. “We enjoy the benefits of an ecological technology… If these proto-gynoids are predisposed to embodied existence, then the metaphors of the networks will over time evolve to account for that, bringing about the result I desire. They will do this because metaphor and physicality act upon one another in a never ending cycle. But if the proto-gynoids are predisposed to the temptations of interchangeable existence, then the intellectual metaphor will over time come to dominate.”

Here Zoahnône points out to the naïve Manserphine that the networks and the people using them exist in a self-reinforcing unity, not unlike the negative feedback/positive feedback mechanisms of Earth’s Gaian system, or Douglas Hofstadter’s ‘strange loops.’ The women of Veneris understand some of this through their Shrine of Our Sister Crone, but the men of the Shrine of the Green Man do not. Their attitude is explicitly narcissistic: they intend to domineer, to impose their will upon the reality of their environment. They can’t even see women as people in their own right – in calling them un-men, they describe them only in terms of themselves.

As I suggested in my The Freedom Delusion blog, the idea that we can do anything we like on our planet is a dangerous, self-destructive delusion. We are not free, and those political and cultural systems which emphasise freedom at the expense of everything else are arrogance personified. The planet limits us through natural ecology; and the time has come to recognise that.

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The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron

This book is related to Susan Cain’s Quiet, which I first read about five years ago, and which I recently added to my Inspirational Books category. The Highly Sensitive Person was written a decade and a half before Quiet, but it is a sibling book; and it is mentioned a lot in Quiet…

Elaine Aron is the research psychologist who reframed the rather negative interpretation of sensitivity as “reactivity” or similar, so that a more compassionate attitude could be taken to people with the trait. The highly sensitive person has no choice about their stance. Sensitivity is a matter of brain biology and chemistry. My own experience suggests there could be a genetic element, i.e. it could run in families, if only as a recessive characteristic. But whatever the sources, being highly sensitive is both a blessing and a curse.

The book opens with a call to change the sense that something is wrong with the highly sensitive person into something being right (or at least, okay). The trait is analysed in itself, then in infants and children, before the author tries to reframe it in the context of making your way in the world. Highly sensitive people have character traits – for instance a need for peace and quiet, for reflection, for solitude at the end of a long day – which most other people either don’t want or don’t understand: Aron estimates that around 15% of people are highly sensitive. She goes on to explore shyness, the highly sensitive person at work and in relationships, and in life generally.

Later chapters focus on counselling and even medication, and here the book does get a little “American psychobabble” for my taste, although that could just be my reserved Britishness coming through. But the author’s heart is in the right place, and she’s spot on with most of her observations.

This is another great book for people who find the world overwhelming a lot of the time, who need space and peace and quiet nature and periods of solitude. It is written with much compassion and understanding.

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Why I Wrote Glass

After I sold Memory Seed to Tim Holman at Orbit Books I faced the next novel. I had prepared this second work before the two book deal was struck over the winter of 1994/5: it was called Glass and it was the sequel to Memory Seed. Tim seemed happy with the idea and the book, although we hit a problem about half way through where the plot wasn’t working too well; but its recapitulation of Memory Seed concepts was hardly mentioned. Tim liked the darker flavour of Glass and he liked the dark ending:

Then: a sound, as of abstract trees moving under the breath of an abstract breeze. ‘That is it,’ said Dwllis. ‘That is the Gwmru broadcast, the whisper of all those shifting memories.’ But it was faint. The sound of Gwmru was barely audible over the cycling, phased white noise of the carrier wave. For almost half an hour they listened, before the sound faded, crackled, and then, with a resonant sound as of a door closing, died for ever.

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Although Tim didn’t know it at the time, I had plans for a third and final part – Flowercrash. This novel wasn’t finished when we worked on Glass, but it was on the way. Alas, it wasn’t published by Orbit. We decided to go with Muezzinland instead, which, later, also wasn’t published. But Flowercrash found a home a few years later with the Cosmos Books imprint. The whole thing was a trilogy in a loose sense, bound together by theme and by a trio of artificial characters: noophytes in Memory Seed and Glass, embodied gynoids in Flowercrash.

Glass however was not popular with its readers, and today receives the lowest average score on Goodreads of any of my novels. The commonest remarks were along the lines of “waste of a novel,” because of the recapitulation of main theme: an isolated city, an advancing plague, a slow reduction in scale and a ramping up of tension to the end point of the book. This was a deliberate ploy, but at the time I didn’t realise it would be viewed negatively. The idea of recapitulation is one I use a lot, so to me it didn’t seem to have any problems. And it was clear from the latter sections of Memory Seed that the noophytes were leaving and had a plan to go somewhere; there were plenty of clues in Glass as to who or what some of the mysterious beings were, most notably Tanglanah; and the gnosticians, an obviously alien race, showed that Glass was not set on Earth, which matched the noophytes’ plan.

I think the main problem with all this is that most readers had no idea there could be a continuing plot after Memory Seed, which does have a pretty definite ending. I suspect most readers thought I was copying my own debut through a lack of ideas. They knew nothing about Flowercrash and perhaps didn’t have the time or the inclination to pursue some of the mysteries in Glass. I like a good mystery, but probably many of my readers don’t.

If I was to have published something along these lines again I might be tempted to go along the Factory Girl route, i.e. publish the whole work in one go. Factory Girl is one book in three volumes in a way Memory Seed/Glass/Flowercrash is not, but at least simultaneous publication would set the idea in my readers’ heads that the work is a whole…

Anyway – lesson most definitely learned.

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Glass ebook

Emoji, Pictsym & Muezzinland

So it’s official. We are evolving backwards. Emoji, the visual system of communication that is incredibly popular online, is Britain’s fastest-growing language according to Professor Vyv Evans, a linguist at Bangor University.

The comparison he uses is telling – but not in the way the prof, who appears enthusiastic about emojis, presumably intends. “As a visual language emoji has already far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop,” says Evans.

Perhaps that is because it is easier to go downhill than uphill. After millennia of painful improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and beyond, humanity is rushing to throw it all away. We’re heading back to ancient Egyptian times, next stop the stone age, with a big yellow smiley grin on our faces.

As tends to happen in an age when technology is transforming culture on a daily basis, people relate such news with bland irony or apparent joy. Who wants to be the crusty old conservative who questions progress? But the simplest and most common-sense historical and anthropological evidence tells us that Emoji is not “progress” by any definition. It is plainly a step back.

In other words, there are harsh limits on what you can say with pictures. The written word is infinitely more adaptable. That’s why Greece rather than Egypt leapt forward and why Shakespeare was more articulate than the Aztecs. (Jonathan Jones, Guardian, 27/5/15.)

When in around 1996-97 I was putting together the world for Muezzinland, I wanted to present a future similar to William Gibson’s Neuromancer but with a much stronger ‘cultural’ aspect to cyberspace, which I called the aether. To me, Gibson’s cyberspace seemed neutral; antiseptic, almost. I also wanted to imagine futuristic developments of humanity as a whole in my decentralised, aether-suffused world. One of the aspects of life that intrigued me at the time was the precise use of written language, which we all take for granted, and which has allowed humanity to make immense advances over the last five thousand years. I, however, wanted something less masculine and more imprecise – a kind of fuzzy language which required interpretation within a cultural context. I imagined women as the originators of such a language, and perhaps its main users.

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As a convert to Apple Mac computers from 1995, I found myself thinking about a possible graphical language, or perhaps one based on the ideographic languages of the Far East – in Muezzinland, the world was going to be dominated by the Pacific Rim nations. So I invented pictsym (pictographic-symbolic), which was not read but ‘followed,’ and which in nations like China, where there is a tonal aspect to language, might have a musical quality.

Here’s Nshalla in the Golden Library of Ashanti City:

A circular bookcase two metres high and stacked with a few hundred books greeted the disappointed Nshalla. She found the history section and pulled out a volume at random. The pictsym was spidery, but artistically done, though Nshalla noted the regularity of marks that showed a machine had pictsymed it. Nothing about Muezzinland, however. Nor did the next volume mention Muezzinland, nor the next. Eventually, at the end of the section, she came across a Coca le Cola World Atlas, edges pummelled from decades of use, but clean enough inside. There was a chapter on fables. Taking the book to a table, she went through this chapter. It was easy to follow; transputer pictsym lacked identity, lacked flair. It was like following scientific reports. She had to turn the sound off, however, since it confused her. Aphrican pictsym was always accompanied by tonal phonemes.

In the Golden Library she muses:

Pictsym had evolved through transputer culture from the ideographic writing of the original Chinese and Nippon cultures, and from the icons of computer lore, replacing writing over the years.

A pictograph is defined as: a picture or symbol standing for a word or group of words, as in written Chinese. An ideogram is: a written symbol that represents an idea or object directly rather than a particular word or speech sound, as a Chinese character.

What attracted me about the idea of pictsym was exactly the quality Jones in his Guardian article loathes: its imprecision. Whereas written language as we know it is precise and global (or at least potentially global), pictsym has to be interpreted. I really liked that aspect, though I recognised it meant less accuracy and possible confusion. But in Muezzinland, which is radically decentralised because of the aether revolution, that seemed fine. In fact, it seemed better than fine, since it would reinforce small-scale human activity. In my future scenario there were no more large nations, although plenty of international corporations did remain in this half local, half capitalist world.

Emojis are remarkably similar to pictsym. An emoji is defined as: a small digital picture or pictorial symbol that represents a thing, feeling, concept, etc., used in text messages and other electronic communications and usually part of a standardized set. [Example: he texted me an emoji of ‘money with wings,’ which may mean he’s out shopping.]

The emphasis on interpretation means the characters in Muezzinland are forced to think culturally; and this means locally. They can’t refer to a giant global dictionary, rather they have to think how the pictographic symbol might relate to the local culture – and that to me seemed a wonderful, humane thing quite unlike the sterile ABC we use.

Later on:

The symbols were variations around some basic theme. “What are we looking at?” Nshalla asked, not recognising anything. “These are transputer generated variations on the theme of muezzin,” the librarian replied. “Look at the symbol without trying to understand it. What image does it represent?” Nshalla looked. The basic theme seemed to be circular, with dots, short lines, and a gouge in one side. “A fruit?” “A head?” countered the librarian.

But then Nshalla has an idea:

“Play Gmoulaye the phoneme accompaniment,” she told the librarian. This was done. “Do you recognise anything?” Nshalla asked her friend. Gmoulaye hesitated. “Possibly… it is not a musical snatch I recognise, but it has a certain feel, a barren quality, perhaps. Are those the graphics?” “Yes.” “But they are singers.” As Gmoulaye said this, the image slipped into Nshalla’s mind. Of course! Each symbol was an upturned head with its mouth open. Singing. She said, “Muezzinland must be a land of singers.”

And indeed Muezzinland itself is the land of the Arabic muezzin singer.

The example above is one in which pictsym is not appropriate. Ideally, the muezzin pictsym would only have been used within its local culture. But the Golden Library holds many old volumes from the 21st century, and some of these books are “fish out of water”…

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The first emoji was created in 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita (a couple of years after my first draft of Muezzinland). Researchers at various Japanese mobile phone companies, including NTT DoCoMo’s Kurita, were working on mobile internet platforms. Kurita was inspired by weather forecast symbols, Chinese characters and street signs, but also by Japanese manga, which uses stock symbols such as a lightbulb to mean ‘inspiration’ (much as our graphic artists use the same symbol). Emojis were meant to aid electronic communication. Kurita created the first 180 emojis based on the expressions that he observed people making in their day-to-day lives.

Let’s look again at the ire poured by Mr Jones upon the emoji language: … there are harsh limits on what you can say with pictures. The written word is infinitely more adaptable. Leaving aside the imprecision of that word “infinitely” (unless he was using it as a metaphor to mean “much larger” – hmm, but that’s just how an emoji is used…), what stands out is Jones’ fury against the supposed limitations of the emoji language. But in my opinion, that language will evolve into something just as wonderful as what we have now. Emoji is only eighteen years old after all. Jones’ attacking the “harsh limits” of emoji is like criticising a child’s painting for not being the Mona Lisa. Yes, Mr Jones, you are right… but that child could one day make something as good as the Mona Lisa.

I think Professor Vyvyan Evans is correct. Emoji is a language. And it is just as adaptable as any language, including, by the way, British Sign Language. The “harsh limits” mentioned are undoubtedly limits – but they could lead to another flowering, a flowering of culture, of deep and rich context that we feel today only in local dialects, many of which are dying out. I don’t want English or Mandarin Chinese to become the world’s dominant language, I want it to be emoji. But not a solitary, global emoji language; I want to see a huge interdependent ecology of local emoji languages. That would be a global force, yet on the human scale.

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Quiet by Susan Cain

There is a difference between extrovert and introvert, but it’s not the difference most people think of when they hear those descriptions. The standard view is of party animals versus non-party animals. Dorothy Rowe explained that extroverts feel a more real outer world, and are uncomfortable with being on their own since their inner world is more insubstantial, whereas introverts feel a more real inner world, and are often uncomfortable in the hurly burly of social life. Introverts can be happy in times of solitude: extroverts alone feel a void inside themselves, and seek company.

This is one useful explanation, given by a master of the field. Susan Cain’s equivalent in her remarkable book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking is based around the concept of sensitivity, which is in the main a biologically determined quality. We all have different types of brains. Our brains, linked to our many senses, operate at various levels of sensitivity – introverts tend towards maximal sensitivity, extroverts towards the norm, or less.

“The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic… They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive… They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions – sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments – both physical and emotional – unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss – another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.”

When I was younger I wondered for a long time why I was so different to most of my friends and colleagues in this regard, and it all comes down to my high level of introversion. In fact I got a triple dose – one dose from each parent, plus being right-brained. That’s a hell of a lot of introversion to have to cope with.

“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”

Is this starting to ring some bells with you…? Then you’re an introvert, and you should stop trying to fit in with the extrovert world that we have in the West. (One of the most interesting chapters in Quiet is the one contrasting the Western ideal of extroversion with the Eastern ideal of introversion – although there is more to it than that dichotomy.) Susan Cain is strong and determined in her critique of Western extrovert standards:

“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

Many people in the literary world will grasp all this; we literate types are quiet thinkers. If you feel likewise, then Quiet is for you.

The book is split into four sections. The first deals with what Susan Cain calls the extrovert ideal, and this is done mostly from an American perspective. Part two deals with the tricky subject of nature versus nurture – biology versus self, but also the role of free will in changing behaviour, and the roles of risk and reward. Examples given include the Roosevelts and Warren Buffett. Part three is a single chapter on Asian-Americans and how they deal with the American cultural standard of high sociability and constant conversation. Part four deals with strategies for the introvert, and for the extroverts who live with them.

This book is also great because it features some brilliant and pithy quotes:

“Solitude matters, and for some people, it’s the air they breathe”

“Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”

Another crucial aspect of this book is Susan Cain’s separation of shyness and introversion, which many people use as interchangeable concepts. But they’re not:

“Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.”

In a nutshell, for anybody who has gone through social hell or even just anxiety, and who wonders why they feel exhausted at the end of a whirl of socialising – even if that’s spending time with friends or family in the most relaxed of circumstances – this is the book for you. It made a big difference in my own life, as I was finally able to explain a few of my own puzzling character traits. Understanding introversion is the first step on the road to coping with it. I spent a long time not coping, but, luckily, now I do.

“Now that you’re an adult, you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favour of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much”, a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral. Or maybe there’s another word for such people: thinkers.”

This was for me one of the most inspirational of books. It was given to me completely out of the blue by a friend of mine. I still thank him for that kindness when occasionally I see him.

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Mythos & Logos In Urbis Morpheos

Around the middle of the 2000’s I went through a phase of writing novels where the characters were individuals but also representatives of cultural or social archetypes. In retrospect, it was a slightly flawed phase of my writing life, and I look back on it with mixed feelings.

Two novels were published of this type: The Rat & The Serpent (initially as ‘Bryn Llewellyn,’ because my editor wanted the book to seem like a debut) in 2006, and in 2010 Urbis Morpheos. This latter book was written and re-written over a lengthy period of time, and is sometimes quoted as representative of my work. I think it is representative of my mid-period work, but not generally. Chris Pak in his Foundation review described it as “a failed experiment,” and I think there is an element of truth to that description. (I recently found the original files of the two-volume novel, and I am pondering the wisdom of re-editing them for possible publication in the novel’s original form.)

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Urbis Morpheos, 2010

Urbis Morpheos is a far-future novel of environmental themes. I conceived it as a work set so far into the future virtually nothing of our present Earth survives, a place of strange and beautiful horrors, of a manufacturing ecosystem and of the remains of a natural, or Gaian ecosystem. But it isn’t only a novel of two competing ecosystems, it also depicts the opposition of mythos and logos – myth and the word.

Mythos and logos before the Enlightenment were perceived as complimentary spheres. It is only latterly that the meaning and importance of mythos has been diminished, to the great advantage of logos, of pure rationalism, and of science and technology under the thrall of capitalism. In Urbis Morpheos the power and meaning of mythos is restored to a place which it could occupy in human life:

Activated in the mouth, the chemical complexes held within the body of the mushroom would have their most profound effect on the brain. Psolilai popped it on her tongue. Bitter, but not inedible. Hoss approached, opened his mouth and began keening, a sound that started like a thin wail, but became thicker as new voices were added to create a complex, almost musical sound. Psolilai took a few steps back. She chewed for as long as she could before swallowing. The eerie sound was having some effect on her, making her receptive to the meditative thoughts emerging within her mind. Then the land around her seemed to come into focus as fragments of the knowledge represented by the mushrooms clicked into place; she knew where she was. Hoss wandered off… Psolilai said, “That was music, wasn’t it?” Gularvhen nodded. “Hoss has six voiceboxes, hence his bulging neck. These enable him to create polyphonic music when the occasion demands.” “But why?” Gularvhen held up the stalk of the mushroom he had eaten. “This fungus contained a vast suite of chemical complexes relating to different types of knowledge. To a certain degree, Hoss can select for specific types, maximising the efficacy of the mushroom.” Psolilai frowned. “That implies he understands what is going on.”

In this scene, the ability of Hoss to provide the ritual aspect of myth is described. The word myth we use today to mean something untrue, but its original meaning suggested ‘something at once timeless but with a single origin’ – something that spoke of an inner human truth in fact. In pre-literate societies mythos was a vital component of meaning, and this original use of myth always had a ritual component. In Urbis Morpheos, logos however has no such component:

Amargoidara stood up and walked to a plinth, pulling the cloth off it to reveal a scarlet globe a yard across – one of the three Analytical Tendencies that formed the foundation of the triple split haven. His voice hissed from behind the mask, which showed an angry face. “This Analytical Tendency tells us how to live in our world. It is a specialised wreality, assembling historical knowledge then giving us advice.” The frown on the mask grew deeper. “It is not to be ignored. No other source of knowledge is superior since it accumulates human knowledge. But this Analytical Tendency, and the other two, have been ignored by one person.” Psolilai let her expression remain neutral, as yet unsure of the purpose of the session. Best not to let them know what she was thinking.

Sad face [Amargoidara’s mask]. “It is always unfortunate when our moral sources are ignored, and, worse, when an alternative theory is put forward.”

For Amargoidara, word equals rule. He lives in a harsh environment of abstract rationality, which has no ritual component.

The notion that a myth is a general cultural meaning which has a possible origin in a unique past event can be baffling. One of the purposes of a myth was to convey the meaning of such events or experiences, in a way that guaranteed their general applicability. Myths were guides. The myth of the Garden Of Eden for instance has a particular meaning, one stretching right back into Palaeolithic times, yet archaeologists waste a lot of effort trying to find the actual one; their strictly chronological view of history leads inexorably back to a supposed original occurrence of an event. There may have been such an event, but that in times past was not the point. Mythology was a variety of contemplation of the human condition. Myths were a form of understanding of the human mind, when true understanding was negligible yet the world shone numinous with vivid experiences.

This notion of a particular origin can be seen when Psolilai questions the pool wreality about the origin of the Constructor:

“The Constructor. It is too old to find an origin, implying fabrication during the final phase of the rise of the manufacturing ecosystem, when evolutionary pressure caused individual species of artificial life to lose their utility. In appearance it is a gold disk, diameter five inches, half an inch thick, engraved with designs that dance before the viewer. Unknown purpose, possible intergalactic origin.”

While these subsequent words convey the omni-temporal nature of the artefact:

After a pause the wreality said, “The Constructor is a device for the direction of the innumerable processes that constitute the manufacturing ecosystem, from the indeterminacy of the quantum level to the ebb and flow of the aeons. Its makers are unknown. No subtlety is lost to it, no flight of sticky cloud nor rush of nano swarm, no clunking metal machine nor even any wreality. It sees all and can move all.”

Whether or not the Constructor and its partner artefact the Transmuter are real is not the point (though they are real). What matters is how they might be used, and how that relates human beings to their environment – manufacturing with the Constructor or recycling with the Transmuter. This is one of the grand oppositions presented in the novel.

The majority of myths we know about are rooted in death – the ultimate baffling experience. There is strong evidence that by the time of the Neanderthals human beings were aware of themselves as unique conscious individuals, but aware also that they died at the end of their lives. An explanation was required for this, one which soothed their minds but also told them what to do in the circumstances. In Urbis Morpheos I substituted death-of-environment for death-of-person, but the mode is exactly the same. The preferred method of acquisition of knowledge – imbibing fungi – has its own sacred place and culture: the Church of the Parasol Cap or the Boletus Shrine.

Psolilai was shocked. The irreligious were rare. The majority might hold sacred neither the Church of the Parasol Cap nor the Shrine of Boletus, but they all trod the unstated path of Analytical Tendency. Earlier he had claimed to be a shaman: surely he was a shaman of something?

Of course, the lore of Analytical Tendency has been usurped by logos in my future world. Psolilai describes above the standard plebeian position, which is adherence to tradition – a path well trod through human history…

The fungal ecology was a global form available to all human beings regardless of background, the knowledge it represented inviolate.

In Urbis Morpheos, the ritual of myth and the wisdom it represents has been reified into the fungal ecology. It is a vast, natural mythology. When Karakushna and Psolilai try to locate an ancient wreality, they use a suitably ancient technique – the ritual of the fishing rod:

In reply Karakushna extended the rod so that it was twice as long as before, then took a fibre disk from her pocket, attached it, and from it paid out a length of line, tying to the end a white wire. “That wire is a piece of new cable I plucked from a shoreside wreality after I saw you come in. It attracts, you see? The wrealities all want to join up.” Psolilai nodded, then shivered. “Always wanting linkage,” she murmured. Karakushna cast the bait out into the Pool, then sat on the seat, legs crossed. “Now we wait,” said Psolilai, sitting beside her.

Merely to grasp the words of the wreality is to miss the point of mythos. The re-enactment of a myth is always accompanied by a ritual. As author Karen Armstrong noted, myth without its ritual is like reading an opera libretto without hearing the music.

But it is not only the natural world which is experienced in this way by the human beings of Urbis Morpheos. I wanted to utilise a large range of artificial beings, from sentient beings all the way down to morphic motorcycles. The agens – conscious artificial creatures – enact an apparently inexplicable “attack”:

The agen balloon closed, so that she was able to see crystal whiskers on the faces of some [agens], above others swarms of luminous flies attracted to their oily fragrance. These were typical agens, then. She stared, never having been so close. “What do they want?” Gularvhen asked himself. Kirishnaghar’s fear became brittle anger. “They will attack us. We must get away before it is too late. Crouch down, do not let them know you are interested in them.” Psolilai knelt down, but peeped over the edge of the basket. There was a flash, a snap just after, then a spray of liquid over her. “Are you hurt?” Gularvhen asked, leaping to her side. Psolilai felt nothing. “It is just water,” she said. Kirishnaghar flattened himself against the opposite side of the basket. “Make sure,” he said. “Check any non-natural clothes.” Psolilai congratulated herself on wearing no artificial fabrics, but then she saw Gularvhen’s face change. “What?” she said. “Your ear-rings.” In two moments they were off and lying in one hand. They were silver and silicon. Before her eyes they expanded, became factories like froth creating tiny insect devices that flashed red as they flew away on some unknowable migration of the manufacturing ecosystem. Ten seconds, and her jewelry was gone. “Nanofluid,” Kirishnaghar said. “Not water.” Gularvhen jumped upright, glancing across at the agens. “But they are already moving away,” he said. Psolilai also looked out, then sank to the base of the basket. The attack, it seemed, was over. “They went for me,” she said. “Are they really going away?” “Yes,” Gularvhen replied. “But to make so brief an attack is pointless. Doubtless they will return.”

Gularvhen here is rather out of his depth, unaware as are all the occupants of the “attacked” balloon that the agens, suffused in mythos, are enacting a ritual. It later transpires that their actions are not pointless, but are in fact an observance dictated by the Constructor.

Myth is a guide to extreme situations. It aids human beings through the traumas of life, which can happen at random, though in prehistoric times such an idea would have been inconceivable.

Gularvhen stirred his long limbs, swirled the fluid in the can and poured it into two mugs, one of which he handed Psolilai. An odour arose from the brew redolent of spring spaces, of dew, of morning. Tugging at her memories, fleeting glimpses pale green, of nature. Hoss began to create music: drifting chords, rich, reedy, almost too heavy in timbre. She drank.  Knowledge arrived in her brain, half remembered dream, images returning; deja-vu. Return to her mental landscape. She realised that the fungal ecology, from yeasts and moulds, through morels and truffles, to mushrooms, toadstools and boletus, to all the larger, more frightening growths that swamped dead vegetation, were aspects of Gaia, a global system of memory and inspiration, a repository, yet also a rock, and a hint of the soil that rock would become. The understanding of process receded. Cold, damp face, tired body. The bitter taste of mushroom tea on the back of her tongue. The music faded into sighing breeze. She bit her lip. She had acquired this wisdom already. Hoss moved his head so that one pale eye was fixed upon her.

It is an undercurrent of the novel that Hoss is not all he appears to be. Later, it transpires that he is made of fungal material; and thus, alongside the metafungi, the reified mythology has its own system of myths:

“Do you not comprehend? Mushrooms are part of Gaia, dispensing Gaia’s wisdom. They comprise a natural ecology across the planet. But these mushrooms we found growing upon fungi of a different species. Logic suggests they should provide knowledge of the knowledge system itself… Why should they appear at this time? There lies a mystery. But perhaps they have simply come here to greet us.”

But even the great peripatetic mycologist Gularvhen struggles to interpret this particular manifestation…

I agree with those who describe Urbis Morpheos as challenging, but I didn’t want to write a straightforward novel; that didn’t interest me at all. I wanted it to be wreathed in layers of mystery, enigma and myth. Like a lot of my work, not everything in Urbis Morpheos is apparent on first reading. The SF novels that have stayed with me over the years have been those into which I’ve had to put a lot to get the maximum out. In some of my work, especially Urbis Morpheos, that maxim applies.

PS Urbis Morpheos demo