Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Inspirational Books

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

The Women’s History Of The World by Rosalind Miles

Rosalind Miles’ The Women’s History Of The World opened my eyes to how history is written by winners – in this case, by men. It not only gives many examples of women sidelined or ignored by male historians, it also analyses why this process happens. The book is split into four sections: prehistory, the rise of the city-state and patriarchy, the appearance of empire and colonialization, and the feminist response.

Miles is particularly scornful of how male prejudice led to ridiculous theories of the rise of consciousness, society, language and culture via hunting, which men seemed to think – as many still do – was the pre-eminent human achievement. The true nature of hunting and gathering is described, not least as a male/female group activity. Later chapters deal with the Goddess and her overthrow. The three Abrahamic religions are dealt with as the woman-hating, feminine-mocking structures that they are, while the many brilliant women scholars of history are described later, both as examples of high skill and as examples of how women were and continue to be sidelined in scholarly pursuits. It’s truly extraordinary to think that not until 1948 could a woman be awarded a degree by Cambridge University. That’s just 69 years ago.

Contraception and women’s ownership of their own bodies is seen by Miles as a vital part of later political revolutions, while the terrible legacy of Freud and his ilk (who for all his brilliance was an appalling misogynist) is seen as having cast a long and dark shadow – a shadow that damages women’s lives today. Modern feminism meanwhile (as Germaine Greer recently observed) does itself a disservice if it merely limits itself to the political, social and cultural structures built by men, since those structures are usually inimical to humane living. Feminism is a sub-category of humanism, and humanists should despise patriarchy as much as feminists do.

This is a brilliant book. There have been other books with a similar remit, but this one, despite its very broad range, which limits the discussion of particular historical periods, is a particularly good one. It could and should be a school text book, both for its information and for its thesis that history is a male fix and a con.

Womens history

A Short History Of Myth by Karen Armstrong

A Short History Of Myth is one of quite a few books written by Karen Armstrong on religious topics, with her excellent A History Of God being the only other one I’ve read. But A Short History Of Myth has a special place in my reading because of its lucidity and scope.

That scope covers everything from Palaeolithic times to ‘The Great Western Transformation,’ i.e. the Enlightenment and associated events. Central to Armstrong’s theme is the interplay of mythos (subjective, cultural, idealistic) and logos (objective, global, pragmatic), an opposition which runs through the entire work. I say opposition, but actually until the Enlightenment most people would have seen mythos and logos as complimentary.

What’s fascinating about the book is how it dissects the reasons for the types of myth we see in the past, from hunter gatherer societies, through the agricultural revolution, the arrival of monotheism in the Near East with the rise of patriarchy, and then a 600 year span from 800BC called the Axial Age (because it was so crucial to cultural development), when we see rationalism and the first hints of science in Ancient Greece, Buddha, Confucianism and Taoism. The types of myth and their fundamental reasons for appearing are all discussed. The Post-Axial Age is also an interesting chapter, seeing the rise of Western/Middle Eastern monotheism based in the juvenile beliefs of men, but also witnessing a much more uneasy relationship with myth, since the gods of the three Abrahamic religions are supposedly active in the world, i.e. they are conceived of as separate entities who contribute to history. This was not the case before, when no schism between deities and nature could be conceived. A Palaeolithic hunter looking at a tree for instance would have seen no abyss between the tree’s sacred and profane aspects (in this sense Armstrong’s thinking echoes that of David Lewis-Williams).

Elegant and profound, this is a great book for all SFF authors. I absolutely love it, and occasionally re-read it, to remind me of its (and humanity’s) range and depth. Myth is especially important in fantasy work, and this little book sets the standard for explaining why we needed the myths we created – and what they could offer our logos-saturated world.

Short Hist Myth

The Paradise Papers by Merlin Stone

Merlin Stone’s The Paradise Papers was a revelation to me. As a knowledge-hungry twenty-something with a strong suspicion that men were the problem not the answer, I wanted to know more about events of 5,000 years ago, when patriarchy and patriarchal religions had their origin. Merlin Stone’s book, though opinions on it varied, seemed a good place to begin. Now considered a classic of feminist theory, the book remains as relevant and compelling as it was when it was published in the ‘70s.

Ten years of preparation went into the writing of the book. Stone, an art historian and sculptor, was particularly interested in the suppression and destruction of sacred images of women as well as their rites. On the back cover of my original 1976 Virago/Quartet edition of the book is the question: In the beginning God was… a woman? Three years later the American edition of the book would be titled When God Was A Woman.


Stone’s thesis is that patriarchy deliberately and systematically destroyed images, tales and rites of a Neolithic age when women were perceived as more important than men. Some people have decided that this was a matriarchy (presumably on the basis that male dominance is patriarchy, therefore the other gender must have been dominant before), but a more realistic interpretation would be that such times were matrilineal. Pulling together evidence from archaeology – including the variously interpreted work of James Mellaart at Çatalhöyük – and from ancient scriptures, the Bible, and the various histories of the tribes of the Near East, Stone tells a tale of late Neolithic cultures slowly but forcefully being re-imagined as created by male deities and the agency of the word. The last two chapters re-interpret the myth of Adam and Eve.

All this was fascinating to me. At the time I read the book I was putting together the second and third versions of the novel that became my debut Memory Seed. The third version had an almost entirely female cast, and this decision was greatly influenced by my reading of The Paradise Papers, as was the use of fig-related material, eg the name of Ficus Street. As somebody appalled by the atrocities created by men, any book which explained how such grim circumstances had arisen was of great importance to me.

Since publication, the book has attracted a few critiques. Stone’s interpretation of one dominant mode taking over and crushing another is usually seen as flawed, as are related interpretations of Neolithic times being entirely peaceful and wholesome. There was violence and strife before 3000BC, if not large-scale war. But the overall drive of the work, showing how women’s symbols, ideas, images and rites were systematically destroyed by patriarchy remains strong today. If some of Stone’s references were poorly used or even inadequate, her overall message is worthy and very important, not least because of the inevitable tendency to myopia of those enamoured of the patriarchal religions.

It’s still a great book, which retains its capacity to surprise, inform and, hopefully, change a few male minds.

Paradise papers

The Mind In The Cave by David Lewis-Williams

David Lewis-Williams’ The Mind In The Cave is one of a number of attempts to imagine the psychology and condition of our prehistoric ancestors – and it’s one of the best. Though Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory Of The Mind was an excellent and thought-provoking read, there was running through it an element of speculation that to my mind seemed a step too far. (Admittedly his The Singing Neanderthals was somehow more reasonable…) Steven Pinker’s How The Mind Works meanwhile took the recent plague of computational metaphors of consciousness way too far.

Lewis-Williams on the other hand anchored his speculation more firmly into his research into shamanic cultures and practices. A South African investigator into prehistoric rock art, his early paper The Signs Of All Times: Entoptic Phenomena In Upper Palaeolithic Art courted the same controversy as that outsider imaginer of ancient times Richard Rudgley. But The Mind In The Cave managed to wear its deep research lightly as it told a compelling tale of what we can learn from prehistoric rock art, and how we attempted to learn it.

The author perhaps didn’t intend to explain everything he discovered or observed, but I think he did get very close to that goal. Yet that might have been by accident, given that a second, similarly brilliant volume Inside The Neolithic Mind appeared only three years later. This first book covers methodology, historical attempts to explain rock art, then symbolic, totemic and shamanic meanings, with the latter explanation being the favoured one. Cave walls are asserted as a kind of “membrane” between the physical world and the spiritual one universally imagined in past human cultures, with associated art explained as a variety of shamanic spirituality related to neuronal optical activity.


It is a brave man who ventures into the world of the prehistoric mind, given that no stone or metal tools directly mark our cognitive evolution, no buildings, post-holes or other marks in the soil give away the evolution of consciousness, and nothing can be said with certainty about rock art. But I do think we can nonetheless – by using the evidence of present day hunter-gatherer societies not least, as Lewis-Williams does – reasonably describe a lot about the development of the human mind from rock art. Many other authors have done so. In The Mind In The Cave, David Lewis-Williams made one of the most significant contributions to that difficult task. I don’t think he, or indeed anybody, will get all the details correct – how could we? – but the man deserves massive kudos for his ambition and his brilliance. Maybe it’s more likely that the art itself was reason enough for it to be brought into existence rather than any shamanic one-upmanship. Creativity, after all, is a self-sustaining human activity.

An outstanding book.

Mind in the Cave

Gaia by James Lovelock

The Gaia hypothesis (now Gaia Theory thanks to lots of scientific work, modelling and testing) was a real bolt from the blue for me. I was immediately hooked by the notion of a global, self-regulating geophysical/biological/climate mechanism. I didn’t fall however for any of the daft New Age additions which, to James Lovelock’s considerable annoyance, began to augment the original hypothesis as his ideas achieved mainstream recognition.


Gaia Theory has been made more sophisticated – in the manner of all scientific theories – as the decades have passed, but this original book presents all the core ideas. Later, stout-hearted fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins would mock the theory for being teleological, but Lovelock and his aides answered every question flung at them, to the great benefit of the theory as a whole. Though now called Earth System Theory, it has achieved mainstream recognition. Perhaps Gaia Theory was just too hippy-dippy…

Lovelock is unique. A fiercely independent scientist, it was his wide range of skills and experience that made him broad-minded enough to put together hunches, ideas and scientific observations into the fledgling Gaia hypothesis (why is the atmosphere of Mars so different to that of the Earth? How come the amount of oxygen in our atmosphere, despite oxygen’s considerably chemical reactivity, has remained constant over millions of years?).

This book, and most of those which followed, helped open the eyes of the scientific community to the dangers of global warming, and much more. Though some of Lovelock’s later claims were themselves overheated, he was at least walking in the right direction. His remarkable autobiography Homage To Gaia explains a lot of the background to the development of the mind that teased Gaia out of our planet’s geophysical environment.

Decades on, it’s still a ground-breaking book.


Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond

This award-winning book looks at which geographical, geophysical, biological and social influences might have affected the course of human history – social, cultural and political. It’s a book with a huge remit: 13,000 years of human history following the end of the last Ice Age. Its main underlying theme is: why did the West, beginning with cultures in the Near East, come to have such a profound impact on the rest of the world? Why for instance did 400 Conquistadors overcome tens of thousands of Native Americans in South America?

It’s a fascinating and important question; and a great read. The author discusses how geography can affect social change, for instance pointing out how west-east geography is much easier to traverse over time since it has pretty much the same climate types, whereas north-south geography, for example west of the Andes with a greater variety of climate types, is more difficult. Paris to Vladivostok is a much easier prospect than Lima to Panama.

The book also goes into the history of diseases and immunity, pointing out how colonising Westerners brought diseases to the New World that people there had no immunity to – not a new tale, but one that required telling in the context of the book.

Another facet of the discussion is how chance helped in the Fertile Crescent – the high number of animal species which can be domesticated compared with, say, Brazil; the chance growth of emmer wheat in the area; and so on. Also noted is how China for instance, though it had an early culture of invention, did not capitalise on that culture as did the West.

Some books you just know are going to be eye-openers as you read them. I had that impression when I started this, and it turned out to be compulsively readable and very thought-provoking. I recommend it whenever I can. It turned out to be influential in my own work too, especially when it comes to world-building…


Beyond Fear by Dorothy Rowe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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