Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

FCC fifth story piece

Peter Bloomfield of the Future Care Capital charity has responded with his usual accompanying piece, this time to Keith Brooke’s story Vigorish, which deals with gambling addiction. Read the piece here, then get involved with the debate!

The Art Of Being by Erich Fromm

When I checked into Goodreads and marked Erich Fromm’s posthumous book The Art Of Being as current reading, I was surprised to find that I’d given it only three stars. But, reading it again, I think that was about right. Published thirteen years after Fromm’s death in 1980, the book is essentially chapters Fromm wrote for his final work, To Have Or To Be? but which he withdrew just before publishing, worrying that the chapters might give people the wrong idea about the paths they needed to take to achieve self-realisation.

I must point out that I am still very much a Frommer. He remains a central foundation of my own thinking and work on the evolution of consciousness and the analysis of the human condition.

This book though, for all its interest and worth, is not a great advert for the man. Too much reads as him at the end of his life criticising in irascible mood the fads and fantasies of Western culture, while his continuing insistence on Freud’s relevance to modern thinking on psychology comes across as anachronistic at best. Freud did humanity a tremendous service in discovering that the contents of our conscious minds are only a tiny proportion of what we hold, but his juggling of theories, re-writing of old work and so on leaves the reader of 2020 somewhat baffled.

Then there’s Marx. I like and admire Marx’s analysis of the human condition, for all that I think a lot of it is incorrect, but Fromm still insisted in the late 1970s that Marx was right to claim in his lifetime that historical conditions were suitable for a humane revolution originating in the working classes. The problem, Fromm said, was that people made him, Lenin, Stalin et al into idols.

I do not think the world was ready for a humane revolution in the early twentieth century, indeed, I doubt it will be ready at the end of the thirtieth century. It’s rather ironic that Fromm, whose brilliance included pointing out the necessity of shedding our narcissism and mental illusions, was incapable of seeing that human narcissism has a very, very long life yet before it fades away from our species. Like many compassionate humane thinkers, he wanted change in his own lifetime. That, alas, was and remains nothing but an illusion.

There is a lot to like in this book – Fromm’s grasp of the importance of Buddhism and meditation for instance – but much to wince at. The truly brilliant works were all published in his lifetime: The Sane Society, The Art Of Loving, The Anatomy Of Human Destructiveness, Psychoanalysis & Buddhism, and To Have Or To Be? This posthumous volume is for those who recognise the continuing value, clarity and brilliance of Fromm’s vision, but who have the insight to grasp its limitations.

FCC Fictions: Fifth story

The year long thought experiment of Future Care Capital continues with the fifth story, Keith Brooke’s Vigorish, which has as its theme gambling addiction. Read the story here, then join in the debate!

Music and more interview

To celebrate twenty years of recording music as Blue Lily Commission, I’ve done an audio interview with DJ and music promoter Brendan O’Melia. In it, I talk about music, SF, writing, and more. Here’s the link if you’d like to have a listen…

Tony Ballantyne: Midway

Tony Ballantyne, author of the new collection Midway, asks: does technology shape art?

Of course. The sound of the orchestra evolved as first clarinets and then trombones were added. It changed further as inventors like Boehm improved the design of instruments such as the flute.

Pop music was influenced by the invention of the electric guitar, the keyboard and, more recently, a whole range of music software.

But what about writing?  Has there been the same change as we’ve moved from handwritten manuscript, to typewriter, to word processor to purpose written software such as Scrivener?

Undoubtedly yes. Midway would never have seen the light if it hadn’t been for technology.  I wrote most of the first draft on my phone.

I didn’t intend to write Midway. I had an idea for a novel set in an old cotton mill near where I live. I was working on the preliminary notes when my father took ill. The next six months, the last months of his life, threw everything into turmoil. Most days were spent driving between my home and my parents house. I found myself sitting in waiting rooms and cafes and service stations, drinking coffee and eating sandwiches. I began to record my thoughts and experiences on my phone, using Evernote.  The thoughts began to join up, they got caught up with the mill stories.  I began to rearrange my notes, merge them together.  Gradually, the first draft of Midway took shape.

Would the stories have existed if I simply took notes in my trusty notebook? Yes.

Would they have existed in the same form?

I don’t think so.

I believe that notes are best taken “live”. As Sol Stein said, stories are  about communicating emotion. You’re not describing a landscape, for example, you’re describing your reaction to it. I always had my phone with me in that time, I could do just that. I took notes whilst waiting in queues for coffee, I took notes when out for a walk, I took notes whilst waiting for the nurse to fetch my father a drink. Taking notes became  my way of dealing with the situation.

My normal process when writing a book is to sit down at a PC and type everything into Emacs ([[][you can read about that here]]) 

Midway was different. The first draft was as close to a live recording as a book can be. Think Deep Purple ‘Made in Japan’ or, a better example, Thin Lizzy ‘Live and Dangerous.’ I added the polish in the remix.

Infectious discussed

Peter Bloomfield of the FCC discusses Liz Williams’ first story Infectious for the ‘Fictions: Health & Care Re-imagined’ series. Get involved and join the debate!

The Sprawl Trilogy, Patriarchy, & The End Of The Nation State

William Gibson’s genre defining, award winning debut Neuromancer was published a year before I began my own hapless, hopeless scribbles. It was very influential on my early work, including the 1988 first draft of what years later became Memory Seed. Dozens of other SF authors at the time felt its influence, which was then well-deserved, and which remains so. Most people know Neuromancer’s iconic opening line, and most are mesmerised by the glitter and shine of the technology as portrayed in Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, which followed. Thirty five years later, that technology has taken a very dark turn with the suffocating, juvenile glamour of social media and the ongoing development of AIs which promise to know us better than we know ourselves – not difficult, bearing in mind Yuval Noah Harari’s remark, “most people don’t know themselves.”

Case and his interior time-bomb, the clone Janes, Molly and the rest of the debut cast remain vivid in my memory, as do Neuromancer and Wintermute. Many years ago I wrote a piece for the BSFAs magazine Vector discussing the impossibility of Gibson’s central plot premise, and that impossibility remains, indicating by accident the reality of the evolution of human conscious, but one of the strongest aspects of the novel, which these days haunts me at least as much as Gibson’s retro view of consciousness, is its brilliantly prescient depiction of the evolution of corporations and nation states.

Recently, reading Gerda Lerner’s epic The Creation Of Patriarchy, that depiction of future corporations returned to my mind stronger than ever. Lerner explains patriarchy as the result of the Urban Revolution at the end of a slow degradation – unnoticed as the millennia of the Agricultural Revolution passed by – in the status of women, from the female centre of all social groups to a class who could be exchanged in many ways (for example after conflict) as property, on every occasion by men. She, like Marx, views social conditions as the engine of incremental, cumulative change. Ten thousand years ago this change would hardly have been noticed, unlike the eyeblink catastrophe that was the Industrial Revolution. It nevertheless set the scene in 3,000BC for the beginning of patriarchy, which, a couple of millennia later, evolved into its current vile, extreme form, thanks to Hebrew monotheism and what followed.

The crucial lines in Neuromancer go:

The zaibatsus, the multinationals that shaped the course of human history, had transcended old barriers. Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality. You couldn’t kill a zaibatsu by assassinating a dozen key executives; there were others waiting to step up the ladder, assume the vacated position, access the vast banks of corporate memory…


Power, in Case’s world, meant corporate power.

In the world of the Sprawl trilogy, governments don’t have power compared with the dense, archaic corporations, whose ancient records form a kind of concentrated history, hidden away in their own inaccessible archives. And although nations we know are named in the novel, it is clear that their significance – their metaphorical meaning – is enormously diminished compared with what we in 2020 know of them. It was this withering away that fascinated me when I read the novels.

In Burning Chrome’s ‘New Rose Hotel’:

He was a soldier in the secret skirmishes of the zaibatsus, the multinational corporations that controlled entire economies.

And about ‘Third World’ countries in Count Zero:

Where it was all going, he learned, was into any number of very poor places, struggling along with nascent industrial bases. Nations so benighted that the concept of nation was still taken seriously.

I was brought up like everyone else to believe that nations are a natural form of social organisation. But they are not. A nation is a narcissistic exaggeration of those archaic Mesopotamian city states, who, having set themselves up, swiftly under patriarchy expanded to control, dominate and destroy. Thus a world of nations was born. There is no significant difference between Sumeria and Somalia. Nations perform the work of narcissism, both individual and that manifested in social organisation: hierarchical, male dominated, ruthless. (As usual, I use narcissism in its most general sense.) Nations are boys’ fantasies. Through them, these boys’ urges can be realised, altering reality so that it more accurately resembles the fantasy versions present in the minds of those at the top of each pyramid.

As Gerda Lerner explains, patriarchy was already present when the very first city states appeared. Patriarchy preceded the Urban Revolution. This is a very important point. We must stop thinking of patriarchy as a mode of social organisation rooted in the male perspective, though it is that. We need to think of it as something inextricably entwined with the nation state – because patriarchy and the nation state both have their origins in something more fundamental: narcissism. If nations wither away, patriarchy must already have gone, or at least be going. If patriarchy has gone, there should be few or no nation states.

The brilliance of Gibson’s vision (which I think is already coming to pass) is however a little spoiled by his presentation of his fiction world as one still male-dominated. I think he was right to do that – the end of patriarchy would seem to be hundreds of years in the future – but he did it in a fictional milieu where nations had somehow lost their relevance to men. I don’t think that is likely. Men, holding irrational power through politics and the dead weight of religion, will not give up that which they hold most dear – their imaginary, self-centred views of the world. There will always be men around to snatch, then wield boys’ power through national hierarchies. Regardless of the power of multinational corporations – the zaibatsus of Neuromancer – nation states will be around and of great significance if men continue to dominate. The two are permanently entwined. Nation is a masculine concept.

And, in Neuromancer, men are very much in control. Many observers have noted and often criticised Gibson’s portrayal of a hyper-masculine future. Overwhelmingly, the people with real power in the novel are male. Women, though some are ‘strong,’ are most often portrayed in relation to their bodies, e.g. Molly. In this way, Gibson echoes the sterile, insidious creeds of Reaganism and Thatcherism, which appealed to narcissistic greed but which at the same time were a lurch back into religious dogma telling men and women that the two genders were more different than alike, and that men were best suited to the public domain – the bog-standard Christian trope, in other words.

My guess is that our own 21st century future is a hybrid one. Men will continue to dominate, largely because their childishness forbids graceful withdrawal; they will continue to glorify themselves at the apex of national pyramids and they will remain at the top of the boardroom, from where they will ruin the natural world.

Of course, Gibson did not intend to definitively present the future. As the SF cliché goes, his was a novel of the present dressed up like the future. Nevertheless it is interesting to analyse Neuromancer’s themes and motifs, then view them through different lenses. Critics might argue that the power structures of Memory Seed are simply male ones inhabited by women who act like men. What would Gerda Lerner make of the fractured, male-dominated world of Neuromancer? What would she make of the controlling women of Memory Seed, who enslave men in the same way men enslave women under patriarchy?

Let’s not forget Gibson’s other daring insight:

Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality.

A superorganism is something which emerges from component parts, all of which act together to create a whole which appears to have will and vision – a teleological entity, or so it would seem. Gaia for instance is such a superorganism. Gibson’s vision of immortal zaibatsus is accurate, alas. Though corporations are nothing more than consensual fictions agreed by men, they acquire apparently teleological motive and direction by virtue of their position in patriarchal society:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation…

We could with equal validity say:

Corporation. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation…

We allow multinationals to ruin the natural world because we have agreed men’s vision is the same as everyone’s, and, in an individualistic, capitalist, Western-style milieu, we don’t know how to stop these juggernauts. I think Gibson saw this (though perhaps not the environmental consequences), imagining his future zaibatsus as rapacious, immortal organisms with their own agendas; able to fight, to struggle, to expand, to survive. In a way, this, even more than the diminishing of the significance of the nation state, is the true sociological message of Neuromancer. Just as cyberspace is a consensual, mutually agreed illusion, so is the corporate world, which, in its narcissistic desire to replace the real world with itself, acts without compassion, without understanding, without remorse, without noticing the millions of tiny human beings that it crushes.

Men created patriarchy because of forces acting deep in their subconscious minds. They did not intend to; but they liked what they saw, and what they experienced of its advantages. When the Agricultural Revolution led to the beginning of the Urban Revolution five thousand years ago, they were perfectly placed to expand visions in their minds, turning the city state into the nation.

Men, patriarchy and nation are inextricably entwined. I don’t think we can undo this Gordian knot by the traditional method of cutting it, though perhaps the destruction of the natural world will have the same effect. In Neuromancer, Gibson depicted a future in which the meaning of the nation state had diminished, so that, to the characters of his novel, it seemed rather a quaint notion – like governments. Corporate power was what mattered. Yet I think we have to view nation and patriarchy as two social structures which, if they fall, will fall together. I don’t think any corporate-dominated future – real, imaginary, Gibsonesque – will be masculine, unless those corporations happen by historical accident to exist in a lingering patriarchy.

Feminism, to me, is a sub-category of humanism. It is self-evident that patriarchy is a social system in which half the population of the world is enslaved, dominated, abused, reviled. I don’t think those feminist surges which exhorted women to take the places of men were long term gains, since like all revolutions so far they merely changed the clothes that the system wore. True feminism, like humanism, sees the system as the problem. In my opinion, the system at its most fundamental level is fuelled by narcissism. If we really are heading for an AI-dominated, digital future in which multinational corporations are the entirety of the economic and political world, there will be no patriarchy, no nation state, and perhaps even no government. We’ll all be slaves – not just women.

The force which created patriarchy also created the nation state. For as long as men wield political power they will continue to use the nation as their vehicle. Gibson’s zaibatsus could I think exist in a genderless, antiseptic future, a fractured world of individuals reduced to the condition of servitude, mediated by their digital landscape. One of the weird ironies of the Sprawl trilogy is that it posits a possible post-patriarchal future, yet one where men still get all the best lines. Could it be that this is because Neuromancer was written in the 1980s, when corporate culture was beginning to expand, when greed was good, when men ruled the roost with contemptuous ease? Could be.

With thanks to Peter Hollinghurst.

Tim White original cover.

The Creation Of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner

For five thousand years humanity has suffered the many iniquities of patriarchy. Gerda Lerner’s groundbreaking book, published in 1986 to great acclaim, answers that most difficult of questions: why did patriarchy appear?

An established scholar, Lerner begins her story over 5,000 years ago, setting the scene – the problem of patriarchy, a few guidelines as to a possible solution – then in a series of mesmerising chapters outlining the evidence for her case. In her view, patriarchy evolved incrementally over at least five thousand years, as the conditions of living changed from those of hunter-gatherer groups to Neolithic settlements and eventually, around 3,000BC, to patriarchy itself. She looks at the actuality for women, including all the demoted identities: wife, concubine, slave and others. She also looks at the symbolic downfall of the Goddess and the worsening of patriarchy – already an extreme misogynist system – following the arrival of Hebrew monotheism.

For any person interested in why such a terrible institution should have appeared five thousand years ago, with such awful consequences for women – and some for men – this is an essential text. Lauded by many, Lerner puts all her wisdom into this superb book.

FCC Fictions fourth story

The fourth story in the FCCs series Fictions: Health & Social Care Re-imagined is published today. It’s by Liz Williams. Have a read of it, then join in the debate!

The Tree Wakers by Keith Claire

Following a chance conversation on one of Liz Williams’ facebook threads, I picked up a copy of Keith Claire’s children’s novel The Tree Wakers, which turns out to be a strange book indeed. This is a work set in Kew Gardens, a location I had transmuted in Monica Hatherley, so I was intrigued to see what an author of a different generation had done to the place.

Written in 1970, its age shows not through its attitudes or subject matter but through its language, which, for those not used to reading older works, will seem peculiar. Here’s an example:

“Harragong sat in a shimmering whirl of peacock feathers, with her chin on her knees. She was regarding them with tremendous, enthusiastic amusement. The warm brown eyes not only met theirs, but chuckled right through them. Alex felt that even when she sat still, she was moving.”

I’m not criticising this use of language, just noting its oddness…

The narrative follows two siblings, Alex and Brid, as they encounter the time-loop travelling Maborians. The author head-hops throughout the novel so that sometimes you have to read back to see who he is referring to. These two don’t do much until the end of the book – they’re essentially observers of the Maborian dilemma and the Maborian way – until, at the conclusion, they have to use themselves to create a time-bridge back to Maboria (the Kew Maborians are accidental exiles). Images and ideas are all wonderfully original. It’s a startling book, original, and with many charms. The language and writing style are old-fashioned and take a bit of getting used to, but it is worth the effort.