Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Beneath Helliconian Skies

The sky has always inspired awe in human beings. Long before we were able to write down our myths and legends the sky was the great source of wonder and transcendence. There are echoes in some of humanity’s earliest myths – preserved in trace form in the writings of 5,000 years ago – of Palaeolithic beliefs, all evoking some kind of sky-awe. Later, as the Neolithic age arrived, that sky would become populated with human-modelled deities, while the original, abstract, ineffable sky paled into irrelevance. An example of this is the ancient Greek god Ouranos (Uranus) being castrated into insignificance by his son Kronos (who would later be overthrown and imprisoned by his own son, Zeus).

I read Brian Aldiss’ remarkable Helliconia trilogy (Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, Helliconia Winter) shortly after they were published in the early ‘80s, and they had an immediate effect on me. Their sense of grandeur, rooted both in the astronomical situation (a planet going around a star, Batalix, which goes around a hotter, whiter star named Freyr), and in the immense, richly imagined life forms that swept across Helliconia’s surface, was vivid in all three novels. But the characters were flawed and human-sized. This served even more to highlight the awesome nature of the Helliconian system, home to environmental forces immeasurably larger than the characters, who are all forced to submit to planetary grandeur as the micro-seasons and macro-seasons roll on. Alongside Dune and The Book Of The New Sun, the Helliconia trilogy would be at the top of my best-SF list. Critics spoke of “a masterpiece of world-building and storytelling” and “an astonishing trilogy.”


When I last re-read the trilogy a few years ago I noticed there were lots of dramatic descriptions of the Helliconian skies. Many were evocative one-liners, but others were more substantial:

The atmosphere was iron. Wutra, God of the skies, had withdrawn his shawls of light and shrouded his domain with overcast… Under this dark curtain, Freyr became visible only when it reached the horizon. Blankets of cloud rumpled back to reveal the sentinel smouldering in a perspective of golden ashes…

Marvellous! I think such descriptions were a deliberate ploy by the author. I think he wanted to evoke the sky’s massive panorama by appealing to its majesty – its clouds, its storms, and at night the astronomical wonders of the two-star system.

For four hours, Batalix worried at the flank of Freyr, as a hound worried a bone. Only then was the brighter light entirely engulfed. All the early afternoon, steely shadow lay on the land. Not an insect stirred. For three hours, Freyr was gone from the world, stolen from the day sky. By sunset, it had only partially reappeared. Nobody could guarantee that it would ever be whole again. Thick cloud filled the sky from horizon to horizon. So the day died…

But there is far more to Wutra than appears in the first volume. Though he is God of the skies, his appearance is unusual:

Wutra was depicted, head and shoulders, in a furry cloak. His eyes glared down from a long animal-like face with an expression which could be interpreted as compassion. His face was blue, representing an ideal colour of sky, where he dwelt. Rough white hair, almost mane-like, surmounted the head; but the most startling departure from the human norm was a pair of horns thrusting upwards from his skull…

He is in fact modelled upon a phagor, the alien race of Helliconia, but this is not at first recognised by the human-like inhabitants of the planet, who are co-residents. Wutra is an alien god. He is akin to Kronos, in that he has anthropomorphic attributes while at the same time being transcendent, terrifying and storm-wracked.

Although our gods of the sky were demoted as cultural evolution continued through the Neolithic, the sky itself, and its abstract quality of height, were always significant of sacred concepts. Just as mountains (mid-way between earth and heaven) have long been considered sacred for this reason, so the mighty winter-loving phagors descend from the stratosphere-scraping Nktryhk Mountains, against which our Himalayas are just foothills.

… in the Nktryhk daily temperatures showed wide variation, from minus twelve centigrade to minus one hundred and fifty degrees, about the temperature at which krypton turns to liquid… Jet streams were observed over Nktryhk travelling at speeds in excess of two hundred and seventy five miles per hour.

So high, the atmospheric effects are spectacular:

… livid clouds had drawn over the snowscape. Light was reflected back and forth between overcast and ground. In the diffused, nonpolarized illumination, where no shadows were cast and living things became spectres, human beings would have been lost. There was no horizon. Everything was pearly grey.

Aldiss makes much use of strange colours and atmospheric effects in his descriptions:

In the cool dawn light, colour had scarcely return to the world. Grey mist lay in strata, completely screening the old hamlet from their sight. The world lay in a succulent grey-green mist, characteristic of a Batalix sunrise in these days.


In Helliconia Winter, set at the other end of Freyr’s two and a half thousand year Great Year, the sky descriptions are just as epic:

… a watery sun emerged from scudding cloud to set in the west amid a dramatic display of colour. When it was quenched by the horizon, the world was not plunged into darkness. A second sun, Freyr, burned low in the south. When the cloud formations parted about it, it threw shadows of men like pointed fingers to the north.

Aldiss had a wide range of help designing this two-sun system, with all the astronomical configurations – and most importantly how those configurations would be perceived by inhabitants of Helliconia – ascertained in advance of writing. In this matter he had the assistance of Dr Iain Nicolson, the well known space scientist and author. The trilogy ends in Helliconia Winter with the ultimate event of sky-significance to those living near Kharnabhar at the polar circle: the day of Myrkwyr, when Freyr appears for just one moment upon the horizon, before vanishing for centuries:

The horizon itself was clear, and bright with dawn – with sunrise. Above its crusty line rose a rim of red, a red of heaviness, of congealing blood, the upper part of Freyr’s orb… A shaft of light spread upon the world, casting shadows, flooding a range of far hills with pink light ‘til they gleamed against the slatey sky behind them… The privileged glared upon that sliver of disc. It remained as it was, growing no greater. The most intense scrutiny could not determine the instant at which, instead of increasing, it began to shrink. Sunrise was an enantiodromic sunset… By now the giant sun had in actuality set: what remained was an image of it, a refraction through the thickness of atmosphere of the real thing below the horizon… The red image shrivelled. It divided itself into bars of light. Shattered… Auroras would unfold their mysterious banners in the skies above the mountain. Meteorites would briefly glitter. Comets would occasionally be sighted… For all who experienced it, Myrkwyr was a day of doom.

Enantiodromia is the word Aldiss used in the Helliconia trilogy to evoke the drama of things turning into their opposites. Sentient beings are limited by the environment they live in, and so the immense enantiodromic forces of Helliconia constrain their cultures. In Helliconian skies the process of enantiodromia is revealed.

hell winter

Symbiotic Planet by Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis’ Symbiotic Planet is another of those ‘pre Cambrian Explosion’ books which so inspire me. One of these days I really will get around to writing the Green Trilogy, which explores the very far future of life on Earth… but probably not for a while.

Symbiotic Planet is a wide-ranging, comprehensive, beautifully written and opinionated book about the way microscopic life evolved in the years between around 4 billion years ago and 541 million years ago. Central to Margulis’ case is the idea (radical and mocked when she suggested it) that small organisms entered into symbiotic relationships with one another over the course of immense periods of time. The mitochondria of eukaryotic cells for instance – which have their own DNA – were once free-floating organisms; but there is much more to her work than such observations.

This book covers the academic life of scientists, the nature of the classification of the kingdoms of life, the processes of incorporation, the possible origins of life, the nature and history of sexual reproduction, and a final chapter on Gaia.

Margulis has faced a few obstacles in her scientific life, partly because of being a woman, partly because of being married to Carl Sagan (at a very young age), and partly through her association with James Lovelock. None of this should make any difference to the reader. Her case is thorough, researched and compelling. Readers of Nick Lane’s work would particularly like this book I think, as the two authors have much in common. Short, but sweet.


The Buried Soul by Timothy Taylor

The origin of the human idea of the soul or spirit has always intrigued me. As an atheist I have no belief whatsoever in such an idea, and in fact think it’s ultimately a dangerous (though inevitable) notion. In recent years I’ve come to the conclusion that it is our most ancient ‘religious’ concept. Although some past evidence of Neanderthal burial rites (eg the Shanidar cave) have been reassessed and dismissed, there remains a strong body of evidence to show that Neanderthal people made special ritual at the graves of their dead, which means they had a concept of individuality, of self, and of the uniqueness of self. They would have been aware that everyone is a unique person, seemingly alive behind the eyes. An obvious, yet unanswerable question followed: what happens to that self when the person dies?

Timothy Taylor’s The Buried Soul offers many answers to this question, while tracing the history of the main idea from prehistoric to modern times. While strong on archaeological evidence and theory, Taylor to his great credit also imagines the thoughts and emotions of ancient people in these circumstances, for instance the Iceman of the Alps, Ötzi. Though alive only 5,300 years ago Ötzi still lived in a world numinous with supernatural forces, and these would have made his experience of death very different from ours.

The book passes through many cultural vistas: cannibalism in New Guinea, the ritual deaths of slaves in the Near East, embalming, and the European bog bodies. It’s in this latter chapter that one of the book’s main ideas begins to appear, that of death in liminal zones. A liminal zone is an area between two different geographical zones, for instance plains and woods. The peat bogs of Ireland, Denmark and elsewhere are in fact quite dangerous environments, and would have attracted prehistoric speculation and ritual via their status as liminal zones. That ritual includes the phenomenon of ‘multiple death,’ i.e. killing a person in two or three ways when such a process is apparently unnecessary.

Taylor also covers the famous Shanidar burial. Though the flower pollen ‘evidence’ is now discarded, there is no doubt that the individual was disabled, and therefore alive for social, cultural or humane reasons; and that means consciousness at the very least, if not compassion. In fact Taylor skotches any such ‘flower-people’ theories, as he calls them, and evokes a more ‘ruthlessly cohesive’ theory. But either way, the aeons of mere animal existence were hundreds of thousands of years in the past by the time of Shanidar.

This fascinating book covers much that we don’t wish to talk about in modern Western societies. Although I first read it as part of my own reading around the topic of the origin of ideas of the soul or spirit, it proved to be a more wide-ranging book than I expected – and certainly inspirational. This and other books were the subconscious foundation for the Factory Girl trilogy and some earlier works.


Gender & Hierarchy In Memory Seed

In a Guardian article recently, Germaine Greer said that aiming for equality was a “profoundly conservative goal” for women. She continued: “What everybody has accepted is the idea of equality feminism. It will change nothing. War is made against civilian populations where women and children are the principal casualties in places like Syria, whether in collapsing buildings or bombed schools. War is now completely made by the rich with their extraordinary killing machines, killing the poor who have no comeback. Women are drawing level with men in this profoundly destructive world that we live in and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the wrong way. We’re getting nowhere. If we’re going to change things I think we’re going to have to start creating a women’s polity that is strong, that has its own way of operating, that makes contact with women in places like Syria, and that challenges the right of destructive nations.” Women needed to: “aim higher and achieve more than simply drawing level with men and entering into traditionally male-dominated fields,” Greer said. “If what happens when women discover when they join the army is they discover it’s no place for a sane human being then they’ve learned something.” (Melissa Davey, The Guardian, 8/3/17)

Most reviewers of my 1996 debut novel Memory Seed remarked on the almost exclusively female cast, with just deKray and a hint of a couple of others as males. This was in part a reaction to reports I was reading about how environmental pollution is changing the biology of animals, feminising males, but it was also a response to patriarchy in all its forms, which I have argued against for over thirty years.

Germaine Greer’s point above is that by creating “equality feminism” women are divesting themselves of the same humane faculties that men – i.e. boys – divest themselves of in all patriarchal societies. To operate in a power hierarchy you have to lose most of your emotional connection – your human connection – with others. This can be observed in any male hierarchy, but it is particularly obvious in the army example quoted by Greer. To counter this lack, men devised honour – which is nothing more than disconnected connectedness – to bind themselves together. Honour is a joke: for boys. Buddy-ship meanwhile is just the matey, lower class version of honour.

Men make friends because of what they do. Women make friends because of who they are.

In Memory Seed I wanted to tell an exciting story of struggle against phenomenal forces, but there was also some philosophy behind the verdancy. The main theme was that of rejecting the possibility of salvation through others. All those who succeed at the end of the novel get to their position by their own efforts.

There are two main examples of failed, male-style structures in the novel: the temple of the Goddess and the Red Brigade. The former is a classic male hierarchy, with a lone figure at the top (Taziqi), a number of lesser figures beneath her including Tashyndy, and then a more general mass of adherents to the religion. But Tashyndy at the end of the novel is well aware that the devotional wisdom of the Goddess has failed: ’We failed because our vision failed. What is the Goddess but a symbol of the Earth? We have been kneeling as supplicants before our own destruction, worshipping green death, death handed out impartially by a force from which consideration of humanity has long since vanished… if it was ever present.’

Tashyndy is in an earlier scene aware of the coming redundancy of institutionalised power in the male style: ‘What are you going to do,’ Arrahaquen asked, ‘now the Citadel is gone?’ ‘Rien Zir continues her life,’ said Taziqi. ‘We are here to understand her thought.’ ‘If you mean,’ Tashyndy added, ‘do we plan to rule Kray ourselves, then the answer is no. Power is now a redundant notion. Only local groups exist, vying for food and water.’

By this Tashyndy means ‘power after the demise of the Red Brigade in the Citadel.’ The Red Brigade is Kray’s ruling council – the top of the hierarchy in classic male style. But Tashyndy is not so wedded as others to the notion of absolute power, and she becomes aware that changed circumstances mean changed plans. Taziqi however cannot make this jump, except at the very end of the novel when no other choice remains.

The Red Brigade themselves are just as short sighted as those in the Goddess temple. They pin their hopes on the conscoosities (noophytes) who they assume will help them escape the doomed city. But in placing their faith in others on the basis of virtually no evidence they fail: The plan had been for the Red Brigade to escape to the Spaceflower in a rocket, a choice of home mentioned by the noophytes to Deese-lin and Spyne, who had interpreted the idea as an actual prophecy. But Arrahaquen could find no definite strategy, and she began to wonder if the Red Brigade themselves had been fooled by, or had misunderstood, the noophytes.

Or as Germaine Greer said: “… You don’t need to have letters after your name to be a grand academic. You just have to be somebody who is earnest in your search for truth and try hard not to indulge in self-deception.”

It was into Arrahaquen’s and Zinina’s hands that I placed the task of escape (Graaf-lin is also a self-deceiver). Of Arrahaquen: She had been taught all her life not to be selfish, for the sake of Kray, but now she needed to act for herself. For Zinina: Zinina went to sit in the study. Graaff-lin was indeed an intelligent woman, yet Zinina felt sure that despite her orthodoxy there was a subversive side to the aamlon, timid perhaps, but there none the less. It was a trait Zinina could exploit…

Both Arrahaquen and Zinina feel they can only act in the service of truth – and therefore survive – by escaping the constraints of stifling tradition inside the Citadel. Within that hierarchy they are mere pawns, denied their humanity, denied freedom, denied knowledge. It is of course a classic technique of those, male or female, wielding the dead hand of masculine power to withhold that knowledge necessary for individuals to take their own decisions. This technique is used by the Red Brigade and by the temple of the Goddess. But only as the truth begins to dawn on Taziqi does she allow Arrahaquen to glimpse the wyrm ball that is the temple’s access to the noophytes.

There are no humane power structures in Kray. Despite the all-female cast, overwhelmingly the women of Kray assume the standard male posture: hierarchical, limited, passive. Only a few independents acting in loose association throw off the shackles of traditional thought in order to make their own way to possible escape: [Zinina] was a free woman of the city now, an independent. It was up to her to make meaning from her life and from what little future remained. The word for formal freedom in Kray is independent. Independents in Kray are a social class, like defenders (receivers of the bounty of the Citadel) or revellers.

Having said that, there is one doubter in the Red Brigade: ‘Information,’ Katoh-lin scoffed, sitting back and throwing a pen upon the table to indicate that this was her final word. ‘Information indeed. What… we require is knowledge.’ ‘My decision stands,’ said the Portreeve. She paused. ‘And that is final.’

“If what happens when women discover when they join the army is they discover it’s no place for a sane human being then they’ve learned something,” Greer said. The same applies in the city of Kray. Zinina knows there is no hope for her inside the Citadel because of its ruthless power structure, which utilises people as pawns. At great risk to herself, she escapes. Arrahaquen thinks and acts similarly but is in an even more difficult position, being the daughter of an important official. In both cases, freedom to act in the real world is found only outside the standard power structures. Independence is the key. The noophyte plan of the Red Brigade is a fantasy, as is the Goddess-mediated future of Taziqi’s temple.

As the mysterious surgeon in the Clocktower says: “The problem was that I had some strange ideas, and the Red Brigade do not like strange ideas. I believed that humanity could save itself. The Red Brigade believed they could be saved by others. Exposed as a freethinker – worse, as a freethinker who dared to explore the mystery of the Clocktower – I was exiled…”

Save yourself.

Memory Seed ebook cover

Memory Seed

The Informed Heart by Bruno Bettelheim

In 1938, Bruno Bettelheim, along with a number of other Jewish-born Austrians, was sent by the Nazi regime to Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps. There he began a process of analysing his own reactions to the camps, along with those of other victims, anti-Nazi German prisoners, and also the various types of officer. The result was two decades later written as The Informed Heart, which sought to explain and understand the meaning of such extreme situations.

Bettelheim is a controversial figure. Since his death in 1990 a number of controversies have developed – his explosive rages which sometimes fell upon his students, possible plagiarism in his excellent study of the deeper meanings of fairy stories The Uses Of Enchantment, misrepresentation of his own credentials when escaping to America in 1939, and more. He was greatly interested in autism, but became enamoured of a theory which blamed the mothers of such children, a theory now entirely discredited. But despite these major defects he did produce remarkable work, of which The Informed Heart is one of the best.

Bettelheim opens with a couple of introductory chapters before heading off into a discussion of freedom, in which he observes: It is not so much that modern man is so much quicker to surrender his freedom to society, nor that man was so much more autonomous in the good old days. It is rather that scientific and technological progress has relieved him of having to solve so many problems that he once had to solve by himself if he meant to survive…

Bettelheim saw a specific situation developing through the 20th century where: … [there is] less need to develop autonomy… and more need for it if he prefers not to have others making decisions for him.

This double whammy is one of Bettelheim’s central concerns. The rest of the book deals with the experiences themselves: methods of coercion in the camps, the defences used by victims, and what he called ‘the fluctuating price of life,’ in which a few of the more extraordinary and horrific situations are observed.

The book concludes by remarking that ‘men are not ants.’ The success or failure of any mass society, Bettelheim thinks, is dependent upon whether or not a humane society can be created by people who have ‘reshaped their personality.’ In this regard Bettelheim was close to Erich Fromm’s view that a humane society cannot possibly be created by inhumane individuals; he wanted to understand, as Fromm did. And Bettelheim states the dangers of people being coerced by technology, seeing that tyranny has its own momentum. I don’t think the various Bettelheim controversies reduce the impact and relevance of this book.

Perhaps our 21st century problem is that tyranny has become almost invisible.

i heart

A History Of The Mind by Nicholas Humphrey

In 1992 Nicholas Humphrey followed his ground-breaking book The Inner Eye with an equally brilliant work, A History Of The Mind. The thesis behind this work was that the link between our experience of the mind and its physical place in our bodies can be explained: there is a solution to the mind-body problem. Humphrey in this book tells a tale of evolution, of sensations being related to two distinct experiences – the outside world and the body itself – and of the development of his evolutionary theory of the appearance of mind.

The book is set in twenty nine sections. Humphrey deals with the problem he faces; with the vital importance of physical boundaries to living creatures – me and not-me; with the evolution of the eye as an example of sensory perception, but with the proviso that perception and sensation may not be mutually exclusive; with blindness and blindsight; sensation as “copying” and perception as “storytelling”; five senses; sensory loops; thoughts on how our external surfaces (eg skin) may not be involved in sensations; inner models as substitutes for the real body… and then a new theory of consciousness based on what has gone before.

Many other philosophers have walked this path. In an ironic introduction, Humphrey acknowledges the importance of Daniel Dennett to his work, remarking that, since the two don’t agree on certain points of the theory, “he may sometimes have thought he had introduced a cuckoo to his nest.” Humphrey would later write more about his ideas in the somewhat challenging Seeing Red.

What’s great about this book though is how Humphrey proceeds from the evolutionary perspective (consciousness matters to human beings – it must therefore have a fundamental purpose), using biology, philosophy and the backbone of the ideas presented in The Inner Eye as jumping off points. The book does have a nuts-and-bolts feel to it, in contrast to The Inner Eye, which has more of a sweeping grandeur – not that the final chapters of A History Of The Mind don’t have their own grand rewards. Another wonderful work.


Being & Having In Beautiful Intelligence

There is a lot of activity in my novel Beautiful Intelligence. In the shattered remains of Europe and America – dark and dismal after some unmentionable economic collapse – people rush around after this, that and the other; not just the main characters, but, seemingly, everyone. This near-future world is a busy place.

In modern times we can confuse busyness with activity, but most busyness these days is disguised passivity. As long ago as the seventeenth century, the philosopher Spinoza considered human desires to be either active or passive, with the former rooted in the true human condition and the latter in internal or external distorting conditions – pathological conditions as we would say these days. Thus, for Spinoza, activity, joy, reason and freedom are all connected by being, as are such opposites as powerlessness, sadness, irrationality and slavery, though they are linked by possessing. But Spinoza’s extraordinarily modern conclusion is that to be driven by irrational desires is a form of mental illness, whereas mental wellbeing is founded in activity, reason, and joy in life. For Spinoza, mental health is the outcome of an active life in the being mode. Greed and power-lust are for him forms of insanity, a form of pathological having, of possession, even though greed and power-lust are in part social constructs. Spinoza’s is a remarkably modern framing of such concepts.

The irony is that in our technology-infused world truly active people are often considered outsiders, whereas consumers, people ‘on the property ladder,’ believers in advertising etc are considered the norm. But actually these latter groups are utterly passive, and basically ill. And perhaps that is where a lot of today’s depression and ennui come from.

In Beautiful Intelligence I portrayed two groups of researchers, led by a formerly married couple, Leonora and Manfred Klee, the former in charge of the AI group and the latter in charge of the BI group. My plan for this novel was, through the stories of these groups, to compare and contrast two modes of thought in the field of artificial intelligence – the mode which believes computing power is the fundamental aspect and the mode which considers social interaction to be the fundamental aspect. But there are other modes of analysis which may prove interesting to readers of this novel, and its sequel No Grave For A Fox.


Leonora is criticised by Dirk Ngma in the following speech: “You know autistic savant? … Yeah, da autistic savant, his mind is concrete. No generalisation. Little or no social skill. Safety in da lack – in, what you say… in exactitude. Exact is safe.”

But this assessment by the perceptive Dirk is rejected by Leonora: Why did she have the sensation of losing control? Was the genie out of the bottle? If so she had to put it back, but she did not know how; and she was just one woman. She did know however that she did not want anybody to help her. The AIteam was her vision. And Zeug was hers.

Leonora exists in the passive mode, despite the apparent activity of her group. She possesses Zeug, which is her reason for living. She does not wish to grant Zeug its freedom, nor does she want the members of her team to feel sufficient freedom to change the path of the research. She exists in the having mode: possessing, insecure, limiting the members of her team. Even the philosophy of the AIteam is hers alone – and that, of course, is why Dirk eventually leaves: “See, I know da score with da BIteam. I know how differ from your ex. Da AIteam, dey create one intelligence, make best computer dey can. At first, I go with dat. It make sense. But den, t’ings, hmmm, dey change… I see Zeug – he Leonora’s artificial intelligence – I watch him go rogue. He like autistic superman. He got no society.” “You mean, society like the bi’s?” “Yes! Da beautiful intelligence. I see dat. I like dat notion. Zeug go mental ’cos he got no brothers, sisters. Dat Leonora’s big mistake.”

Manfred, on the other hand, while far from perfect, does avoid Leonora’s error. He lives much more in the being mode: “Oh, yes,” he said, “now we’ve got to stimulate [the bi’s]. Give them problems, dilemmas. Make ’em sweat. They’ve got to start being stressed. Then they’ll understand one another. They’ll have no damn choice!” He stood up and grabbed Joanna’s arms, dragged her to him. “Yeah, you see now?” “It could be a society,” Joanna breathed. “I do see.”

Right from the start Manfred wants to give the nine bi’s their freedom. He wants them to develop consciousness by freely interacting with one another, so that, like human beings over hundreds of thousands of years, they acquire consciousness through the process of using themselves as exemplars to understand the behaviour of the others: They’ve got to start being stressed. Then they’ll understand one another. They’ll have no damn choice!

Manfred also grasps the importance of love in his plans: What about love? You can’t detect that, you can’t prove it exists, but you know it when you feel it.” He shrugged. “Some things are like that. Emergent properties. It could be that we’ll never know for sure if the bi’s have subjective experiences. But my hunch is that we’ll know when we see it… when we feel it.”

Joanna is uncertain: “That is not science, though.” To which Manfred responds: … you never knew [your] chimps were conscious, did you? Because you’re not a chimp, in chimp society.” He gestured at the bi’s and said, “This is the same. We can’t get around the fact that they’re artificial. But they got bodies and no direct access to anything. They got a society, including us… they could become human – maybe. Damn, Jo, this is the best chance. And we’ll bring it to the world.

In Spinoza’s eyes, Leonora would be the mentally ill, ‘suffering’ person of the pair. She is in thrall to her own pathological desires – for success, for admiration, almost for glory. She sees Zeug not only in terms of the technology, but in terms of her need to beat her former husband in the race to achieve an artificial consciousness. Zeug is a thing to her, an object, not an active entity. Manfred, though he also craves the achievement of artificial sentience, is much more laissez-faire about the whole thing, and in fact is motivated in no small part by pure intellectual curiosity. He is prepared to risk setting up an uncontrollable artificial society of his bi’s – and towards the end of the novel he begins to pay the inevitable penalty of such free thinking, as the opaque, impenetrable bi’s begin to act in ways he never imagined possible. Leonora on the other hand, though she is stimulated by the challenge of artificial consciousness, is never free enough to conceive of anything outside her plan. Yet Manfred – as the very first action of his shown in the novel – does a startling, innovative thing: Manfred Klee studied the cables linking the nine globular bi’s into a circle. One by one he took the cables and cut them with a scissors.

Aritomo Ichikawa is by the end of the novel well aware of the mistakes made by his former researchers: “But [separating the bi’s] was [Manfred’s] stroke of genius, do you not see? Until that day they were networked, able to apprehend one another directly. There is even evidence that they worked as a gestalt identity, though, I confess, the evidence is uncertain. The evidence may have been generated by a rogue computer, for example.” “A gestalt?” said Leonora. “Composed of nine individuals,” Aritomo said. “But human beings do not apprehend one another directly. What I see in my mind’s eye is visible only to me. We apprehend one another indirectly, through such means as language and emotion.”

Aritomo however also lives much more in the having mode, since he is controlled by power within hierarchy, by national pride, and by other base motives. Aritomo is a learner, yes; but his learning is acquisition, and he possesses his knowledge rather than existing freely with it. Aritomo is not a teacher, unless it is to assist functionaries like Ikuo Amano inside his own corporation for the advancement of that corporation. I wrote this relationship very much in the manner of a frightened, insecure apprentice in thrall to the perceived genius of his master. Aritomo is a genius; but he is a callous genius entirely on his own terms, which anyway are mostly dictated by his home nation. In some reviews I received criticism about my portrayal of the Japanese characters (“inscrutable baddies”), but I think it was rather wide of the mark; they may be “baddies,” but they’re certainly not inscrutable.

My own favourite character in the book is Dirk Ngma, and that basically is the reason he reappears in No Grave For A Fox. Dirk lives much more in the being mode of life than the having mode – no man hypnotised by his own brilliance or by the perceived brilliance of his team would leave it to join the opposition. Actually Dirk is a bit of a freebooter, motivated, like Manfred, by intellectual curiosity. I envisaged him as a carefree, weatherbeaten kind of man. He is tempted by the solo life, i.e. by a life free of the dead weight of the nexus, which does everything it can to make human beings passive. Dirk’s open and honest interrogation of Indigo at the end of the novel illustrates his essential motives, which are of human curiosity, albeit in a difficult environment.

Politics is implied in Beautiful Intelligence. Active participation in political life requires the maximum amount of decentralisation throughout the spheres of politics, industry and commerce. Fascism – overt as in the 20th century, or covert as in the technophilic, advertising-conveyed invisible fascism of the 21st century – can only exist in large scale societies. We still live with the idea that nation states are normal, even desirable. They are not. In Beautiful Intelligence the situation in our part of the 21st century is if anything worse, with top-heavy Pacific Rim corporations making all the mistakes of the West – not least in the Ichikawa Corporation. Aritomo Ichikawa is unaware that fascism is unavoidable in such organisations – not that he cares. He has fallen for the lie. His people are sheep, and his corporate plans make their passivity the dominant mode of their lives, as he shows when he says to Indigo: “Truth is for dreamers. I am a man of action. In this world, action is what matters.”

No. Aritomo’s concept of action is busyness – passive activity. Dreamers by their nature are never passive.


Extraordinary People by Darold Treffert

I came across Darold Treffert’s book Extraordinary People in a second-hand bookshop decades ago. It was a lucky find, and has been an inspirational book for me all the time since (including for my own SF novels).

Treffert is an American psychiatrist with an interest in Savant Syndrome, sometimes called Autistic Savant Syndrome or similar terms. Over many years he has come to an understanding of why otherwise severely disabled people can show such extraordinary “islands of genius,” which in even a non-disabled person would be considered remarkable.

The book begins with an overview of the symptoms of the syndrome and of its historical background. There have been some savants noted in the past, with Blind Tom the one Treffert mentions most often. Usually what is seen is a radically reduced IQ (typically around the 50 mark), with considerable difficulty in such tasks as eating and drinking, dressing, and so on. Savants typically have few or no social skills, and when young are often considered beyond help.

Treffert then describes a few savants, with one, Leslie Lemke, being a personal acquaintance of his. Leslie Lemke is described by Treffert as the most extraordinary savant he has ever met or heard of. Soon after birth Lemke was given up as beyond reach by medicine, but he was fostered by a truly remarkable woman, May Lemke, who despite Leslie being blind, retarded and unable to perform even the most basic of personal tasks, took him and fostered him with devotion. In fact (as Treffert observes, and later discusses) May Lemke was the making of her extraordinary foster-son.


Leslie Lemke can remember and play back on the piano any tune, song or piece of music that he hears, with no mistakes and after just one listen. This concrete, perfect, recapitulating type of memory is considered by Treffert to be the foundation of most, if not all instances of Savant Syndrome, and later in the book he gives his opinion on what that implies. But Leslie Lemke can do more than just recall perfectly and replay on a piano. Nourished and loved by May, he grew and flourished, and now is able to walk, to eat, and dress himself. But most remarkable of all given the typical route of such savants, he can improvise musical themes on the piano that work with the music he hears; and that truly is extraordinary, since the vast majority of savants are unable to generalise from concrete mental information.

The final sections of the book deal with Treffert’s view of what Savant Syndrome is. He thinks it is a response to a number of birth accidents, including premature birth, excessive use of oxygen at birth, and other issues. The relatively common triad of blindness, Savant Syndrome and phenomenal musical ability is in his view significant. He thinks one variety of memory is hypertrophied by the brain in response to a particular type of left-hemisphere damage, which most if not all savants suffer from. Human beings have three types of memory: short-term, medium-term prior to the setting down of long-term, and long-term itself. This recapitulating medium-term memory, hypertrophied far beyond its normal use because of brain damage, is the key to the syndrome. It is not that savants remember well – it is that they cannot forget. Inability to forget sets their brains off on an irreversible path.

I would highly recommend this book to all those interested in brain function and beyond. But it is not just fascinating in its own right, it is a vindication of such extraordinary people as May Lemke, devoting themselves to individuals who seem at the outset of their lives to have no hope. Inspirational indeed.

Treffert Extraordinary people

The Life & Death Of Planet Earth

… by Peter Ward & Donald Brownlee.

Books which deal with immense time scales have always fascinated me. As a teenager I spent many happy days collecting fossils at the nearby site of Wenlock Edge, and after I moved away from Shropshire I continued my interest in Earth’s history through a wide range of books. So when a few years ago I spotted The Life & Death Of Planet Earth I knew it was a book for me. It turned out to be one of the most influential books I’d ever read.

A few of my regular readers have noted that I very rarely do “normal SF,” i.e. head out into space, to other planetary systems etc. The vast majority of my work is based on Earth. That’s because the deep past and deep future of our planet is a never-ending source of inspiration to me. I’m not particularly interested in writing about other planets if the truth be told. What interests me is Earth: how it began, how life began, how human life began, how consciousness began.

But I’m also interested in the future, especially the far future. The Life & Death Of Planet Earth was unique as far as I knew in that it speculated about the distant future of life, right up to times a billion years hence. Yes, it was speculation, but that speculation was rooted in what we know about the evolution of stars and about the planet’s use of the carbon cycle. As James Lovelock observed decades ago, the sun is slowly heating up, yet the average temperature of Earth has stayed constant over four billion years. An explanation was required for this remarkable fact: Gaia Theory. But on Earth carbon dioxide is the core of the main temperature regulation system, and over billions of years its average amount in the atmosphere has reduced. Thus, the early Earth needed a greenhouse effect because less solar heat was arriving, but the present Earth needs less of one – and, around one billion years hence, it will need no greenhouse effect. At that point complex life as we know it will face its greatest challenge, since carbon dioxide will vanish from the atmosphere. The germ of this idea goes right back to the original article in Nature written by Lovelock and his co-author Mike Whitfield.

The Life & Death Of Planet Earth deals with many other less distant periods, however: glaciation, continents and supercontinents (including their role in mass extinctions), then the end of plant and animal life, and the evaporation of the oceans as the carbon cycle ends and increasing temperatures turn the atmosphere into a cauldron.

This is quite the most fascinating book I’ve read about planetary evolution. It inspired me to put together two novel scenarios, one of which was written but which is very similar to another published work of mine (and which therefore will likely never appear), and one of which is prepared but as yet unwritten. The Life & Death Of Planet Earth is a highly recommended resource for authors of the deep future.

Life & death Earth

To Have Or To Be? by Erich Fromm

For thirty years Erich Fromm has been a major influence in my life. In my twenties I discovered his many extraordinary books, most of which, like The Sane Society, were formative influences. His major works were written in the second half of his life, with To Have Or To Be? the last work before his death in 1980. To Have Or To Be? is a kind of manifesto for a humane future, Fromm’s credo it could be said, and as such it was hugely important in the development of my own thinking.

Fromm, a Marxist, had long railed against capitalism and what he called the marketing orientation, which he saw as shallow, fulfilling only minor human needs, which anyway were in large measure created by advertising. He saw consumers as children, made infantile by corporate greed, which was itself rooted in human narcissism. To Have Or To Be? peered far into the future – very far I suspect – in order to describe what a humane future might look like. As such, the book was a statement of what Fromm knew humanity could become.

Fromm opens his work with a discussion of the difference between the having orientation (experiencing life through owning things) and the being orientation (experiencing life through living). He not only looks at how modern people follow these orientations, he examines how the philosophers of the past have dealt with the themes, including his oft-quoted influence Master Eckhart. Later chapters compare various aspects of life in the two modes: security/insecurity, solidarity/antagonism, joy/pleasure, affirmation of life/fear of dying and so on, with the former of each pair in the being mode and the latter in the having mode.

Part three of the book is the credo. In it, Fromm sets out how societies could change in terms of religion, social character and so on. Features of ‘the new society’ are described, including what for me is possibly Fromm’s most important contribution to the debate: what he called ‘a new science of man’ (by which he meant human beings – he was a regrettably late convert to feminism). In my own work I’ve taken this clarion call for a new science of the human condition and merged it with the work of Nicholas Humphrey and others. Completing a scientific description of the human condition is in my opinion the most important task human beings face at the moment, since everything that could and should follow – like treating the planet with love and respect – comes as a consequence of understanding.

In summary: a ground-breaking, lucid, extraordinary work. I feel sure Fromm must have known he was at the end of his life when he wrote this. He was 76, and had just four years of life remaining. But his exceptional legacy lives on.

t h o t b