Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Inspirational Books

The Earth After Us by Jan Zalasiewicz

In The Earth After Us, the noted field geologist and palaeontologist Jan Zalasiewicz imagines a time one hundred million years in the future when alien beings arrive at the Earth, find nobody home, and decide to investigate the rocks to determine what has happened to the planet over its lifetime. This brilliant set-up allows the author to describe how the aliens might do such a thing.

An experienced geologist who also teaches, the author is in his element here, describing the various types of geology, the scientific principles behind them, how fossils form, and how fossils appear and disappear in surface rocks. His ultimate aim is to show what a minuscule, almost invisibly small proportion of the sediments of planet Earth would contain any record of our presence, and this he brilliantly achieves – the book is beautifully written. For those, like me, who love works spanning huge time scales, this is an engaging read.

Towards the end of the book Zalasiewicz begins to home in on his goal – the nature of what might be found of our existence, and where that evidence might be. He concludes that if you wanted to have the best chance of existing in some way after your demise, you should let yourself or your artefacts drop into coastal sediments, where, over millions of years, they would be covered, compressed, and turned into sedimentary rock. That rock might be found millions more years later by the hypothetical aliens.

This is no dry text book, it’s a fascinating account of geological processes on Earth. I loved it.


Barefoot Economics by Manfred Max-Neef

One of the early influences in my adult life was E.F. Schumacher, and the Schumacher Society, the latter based in Devon where I used to live. E.F. Schumacher was a visionary ‘green economist’ way ahead of his time when it came to the environmental consequences of capitalism. Another man way ahead of his time was the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef, who in 1981, at the request of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, wrote From The Outside Looking In: Experiences In Barefoot Economics.

In the telling and personal introduction to this book (which I bought via the Schumacher Society) Max-Neef describes his increasing disillusion with economics, which he could see was losing what small amount of humane philosophy it had begun with. He withdrew from the field to begin work on what E.F. Schumacher called “economics as if people mattered.”

In the small theoretical section of the book Max-Neef identifies four major problems: our obsession with giantism and ‘big solutions’; our mechanistic approach to solving economic problems, which anyway never relate to people but to issues of production and efficiency; our obsession with abstract, measurable quantities; and a tendency to oversimplify, and thus ignore the real complexities of human life.

The book is roughly split into two, with the first main section dealing with the lives of poor or deprived people in coastal Ecuador, and the second concerning artisans in Brazil. In both cases though the intention is to display the dependency of these people on big government, big social care and big organisations. Max-Neef’s ultimate goal was to make the people “invisible,” to use his term, by which he meant independent – invisible to the huge, uncaring, computational machines of capitalism. This could only be done on the community scale – the humane scale.

Alongside Schumacher’s classic Small Is Beautiful this book was my first introduction to the damage capitalism and ‘big society’ was doing both to the planet and to communities. Max-Neef is alas not so well known as Schumacher, but he had just as much to say; and every word of it is relevant today.


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.


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.


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