Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Category: Science Fiction

Second Improbable Botany update

A second update from Heather Ring at Wayward Plants – note the call for possible extra copies if you missed the Kickstarter campaign.


Dear Improbable Botany contributors,

I hope this finds you well! Just a couple of updates:


I just wanted to share with you the Kickstarter edition (which includes all of the interviews that Gary conducted) with of the e-book of Improbable Botany, which has now been shared with campaign backers.

Because we’re providing the e-book outside of the Amazon Kindle Store, the MOBI be side-loaded onto a Kindle device over a USB connection or by sending the file via email to a Kindle account and onto your Kindle device.

Print edition

Due to delays at the printers’ end, owing to their adjustments, the print edition of the book will go to manufacture in early 2018. We are waiting for confirmation from the printer as to when the printed copies will ship to our fulfillment partner in the UK. We’ll send out promotional copies of the book as soon as we can. With that in mind…

*Could each of you please send me your address.

*Also, please could you let me know if you – or someone you know – wishes to order additional physical copies. We are doing a very limited run of the print edition, so it’s best to order any additional copies in advance.

Thank you all and have a wonderful holiday season!


Warm wishes,




1899: Blackbury, England.


Improbable Botany update

‘We do appreciate everyone’s patience. Since submitting the final book proofs, we’ve worked with our printer to make a design change: now all of Jonathan’s artwork plates within the book are to be printed (i.e. upgraded) using the litho process. We’re excited about this and hope to have the final shipment date from our printer this week. We’ll push another update to everyone about this once we have the information in hand.’ – Wayward Plants, 10/11/2017.



Haikus, updated

Some new ones added!


Memory Seed

Last city on Earth,
Pummelled by rain and verdure.
Enigmatic doom.



Same, but alien.
Two artificial creatures,
Struggle for closure.



Back on Earth again,
Pro embodied existence,
Not abstract. The end.



Century two-two,
Deep in cyber Africa,
Dreadful betrayal.



Written for psych folk,
Free-flowing and musical.
You’ll need festi-chops.


The Rat & The Serpent

A dark gothic twist,
Like ancient black-and-white film,
No colour at all.


Urbis Morpheos

Mushrooms a-plenty,
Million years in the future,
Totally weird, man.


Hairy London

London gentlemen,
Do that Jules Verne thing – for love.
Extremely silly.


Beautiful Intelligence

Still selling okay,
Cyberpunk and Afro-punk?
Ending needs some work.


No Grave For a Fox

Musicians and dog.
Staple it onto BI,
Like new plastic wings.


The Girl With Two Souls

Taken from Bedlam,
Chased, frightened, then all alone,
Kora’s in trouble.


The Girl With One Friend

Twist following twist,
Darkness pierced by dark lanterns,
You only live once.


The Girl With No Soul

Erasmus, Roka,
Side by side in a landau.
Is there a God? No.


On Imagination: Part 3

3. How is imagination?

My experience of writing the Factory Girl trilogy was different to that of my other novels, with the exception of Memory Seed and Hairy London. In the case of The Girl With Two Souls in particular, the book seemed fully formed before I began writing, emerging at 5,000 words per day as if all I had to do was take dictation from my unconscious mind.

I think that is likely how it happened, albeit with some conscious editing along the way. I’ve long thought that much of the work of the author is done without them realising it. In the case of the Factory Girl trilogy the entire scenario came together in a two hour burst of inspiration, and little changed afterwards in the structure and plotting. The first volume was written similarly, in about twenty days. This kind of inspiration is great when it happens, and is an indication that a lot of work is happening behind the scenes.

Human beings have an unconscious for a reason. It would be impossible to live and remain sane if we remembered all our experiences; the amount of information would soon become overwhelming. Instead we lay down long-term memories, we generalise, and we use the model of the world created in our minds, a model which can be very sophisticated (if you are lucky enough to live a life that allows you to grow). In my case, that mental model included the structure, characters, plot and style of the entire trilogy. It was in my mind, waiting to be written.

While I don’t think there is much individual authors can do to make significant changes to their imaginative powers, that being dependent upon genetics and upbringing, I do think there are many tactics which can be used to improve what creativity an author already has.

The first tactic is essentially what I have written so far – let your unconscious do its work. Did a novel scenario burst forth as if already formed? That means it was lurking in your mind, waiting to come out, and you will benefit from following its lead. Is there a previously overlooked character who is clamouring to become more significant? Many authors experience the odd sensation of a minor character becoming much more important than they had planned – it means something in the author’s unconscious is at work, signalling to the conscious mind. I had this happen to me in The Girl With One Friend, when Pastor Richardson emerged as a foil to Kora and Erasmus. I’m not sure he was even in the original conception, in fact. But he turned out to be significant for the development of Erasmus as a character.

Bertrand Russell dispensed this advice to authors about to begin a novel: go to Canada and be a lumberjack for three months. What he meant was, give your unconscious time to sort out the structure of the work.

The second tactic is to trust yourself. This applies more to experienced authors, but novices too can learn to work with their unconscious, and should do. I think however that it is more difficult in this latter case, since the less experienced author is bombarded with advice about writing technique and so on. But, as I’m suggesting in this trio of blog posts, I think it is more important to focus on imagination. Amongst the best advice from an author that I read when I was a tyro was: “If you’re stuck, don’t think about words. Imagine it better.” That advice is a cornerstone of my own writing life.

Trusting yourself also includes allowing yourself the freedom to make mistakes. Actually I think mistakes are more rare than authors realise. We live in a society where there is constant scrutiny of work and an atmosphere of mild anxiety, not helped by the pressure to succeed if you ‘out yourself’ as an author, for example on writing forums. It could be argued that Gwyneth Jones’ notion to use acronyms and an oblique writing style was a mistake in Escape Plans (a few commentators have suggested this), but I think it is more a feature of her unique vision, which she had the good sense to follow. Being an author is a solo activity, not a group activity informed by the tenets of social media. Following the lead of your unconscious means letting yourself say “bollocks to public opinion, this is the way the book had to be written.” My novel Woodland Revolution is written in a particular style, an unusual style perhaps, but I know it could not have been written any other way. It is what it is.

A third tactic is another author staple, but it bears repeating. Although many of my novels are written quickly in a burst of inspiration I do get stuck along the way, usually as a result of minor plot details. In such cases I allow my unconscious to work by going out for a walk. Because I live on the edge of a small town in the middle of the Shropshire countryside this is easy, and relaxing, but it doesn’t have to be a walk. It could be any analogous activity that takes you away from the problem and allows your unconscious mind some freedom: cooking, gardening, listening to music. I have to admit though, I’m still amazed at the efficacy of this tactic. It works for me every time.

So, if you are stuck, it’s best not to think about the problem in front of your computer screen. Take yourself away, allow yourself some freedom, let your unconscious flex its muscles.

A fourth tactic, which again works for me but which I haven’t seen elsewhere in online discussions, is to read more non-fiction. These days I read fiction far less often than non-fiction. I find that my interest in the real world is an inspiration for much of what I write, for instance my thirty year fascination in the mysteries of consciousness and the human condition, which led me to write Beautiful Intelligence and No Grave For A Fox, although the former of those two books was also inspired by the appalling record SF has when dealing with AI and the human mind. The novel I’m working on at the moment – The Autist, a novel of AGI and Big Data – is similarly inspired by the real world. And if I had not read Karen Armstrong’s A Short History Of Myth, Woodland Revolution would have been a very different book. Non-fiction allows the mental models we all carry in our mind to expand and develop. In the long term, this is a powerful aid to imagination. For me, fiction less often has this effect.

So the best stance to take is one of experiencing. As I said earlier, reality needs to be seen very clearly. The clearer reality is seen and the more vividly it is experienced, the more intense the desire to transcend; in other words, the more creative you are. It isn’t that being creative allows you to see more clearly, in some special human way, rather that seeing and experiencing in a special way, in a human way, brings creativity as a consequence.

And this stance is one of union with reality, not of separation via reductionism. It is a delusion to believe that observation-at-a-distance is the best way of experiencing the world, a delusion created by centuries of male scientists and philosophers. “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom” – Gandalf the Grey.

Amy noticed that the garden was being enjoyed by people; but there was a grey mist upon the garden that meant she could not see them, except as the kind of blurs one sees through spectacles (when spectacles are not needed). To the Parrot she said, “I wonder who all these people are? They seem to be enjoying this garden.” And she looked at the late afternoon sun, whose warmth she still felt upon her skin.

“How will you discover who they are?” asked the Parrot. Amy glanced up to see that the Parrot also was a grey blur, which – because they had become acquaintances – she found quite disturbing.

“I do not know,” Amy replied. “Nor do I know how to discover who you are, since you also are a blur.”

“Perhaps your best course of action would be to mingle with these people,” said the Parrot, “as you did in the first walled garden that you visited.”

“Very well,” Amy replied – for she truly admired the courage of the Parrot, and knew that its remark concerning her timidity approached the truth.

So saying, Amy walked along gravel paths and down moss-covered steps to reach the central sections of the garden, where she could see most of the blurs. Though she knew them to be people – because of the way they walked, from the snatches of conversation that she could hear, and from the fact that the parasols she observed must surely be carried by ladies – she did not know who they were.

Amy began to feel terribly alone. She enjoyed company, and did not like to feel left out of society; not in any shape or form! She particularly liked fairs, musical concerts, and long evening conversations before a log fire with her family. In this garden, however, she felt ostracised, because she knew the people only as blurs.

As she wandered amongst the crowd however she began to notice small details: a pleasant expression on a face, a golden ring on an index finger, a way of walking, a gesture, a laugh, all of which she recognised.

“In fact,” said the Parrot, “you do know some of these people!”

“Why, yes!” Amy replied, delighted. “There is my sister Alice.” And at once she rushed over to Alice to give her a great big hug, whereupon Alice changed from being half blur, half girl into the little sister that she knew so well.

“Hello, Amy!” said Alice.

Amy grinned, then studied the rest of the crowd of blurs, to see also her papa and her mama, who she also gave a hug; and as she hugged them they resolved from grey blurs into real people, enjoying the sunlit garden as much as she was.

Let’s allow Amy to have the final word on creativity and imagination.

When she finished her picture she showed it to the Land Whale and to the Parrot, eliciting their approval. “I did tell you the book required respect,” said the Land Whale, “for the beings within it are real. They themselves inspire the imaginary ones.”

“And thus the volume acquired its name,” remarked the Parrot.

“Why,” Amy said, taking her book of aphorisms from her pocket, “I do believe King George the Fourth had something to say on that subject. And here it is!” – There are no natural laws that cannot be broken in your imagination.

And that’s the great advantage of daydreaming.


The Girl With One Friend

On Imagination: Part 2

2. Where is imagination?

Obviously, imagination is in the brain. Or is it?

Well, yes it is. But we need to be careful about the terms we use to discuss imagination. Creativity and imagination come from the fact that human beings are conscious, but we are conscious as a species in society rather than as a collection of individuals. In my opinion it is a category error to say a person is conscious (even though, for all practical purposes, they definitely are), just as it is a category error to call one bird a flock. The important thing however is: in society – which every human being ever born lived, lives and will live in – we experience ourselves as self-aware. A similar debate could be enjoyed about “where” in the brain consciousness is, though many modern philosophers have pointed out the fallacies there. As Dirk Ngma observed in Beautiful Intelligence, consciousness, if anywhere, is somewhere in the space between people. But I digress…

The human brain is constructed in two halves linked by a bundle of neural fibres, the corpus callosum. In general, the left half of the brain tends to specialise in analytical, logical thought; it is consciously symbolic, abstracting, taking small pieces of information for analysis; it is temporal, and thus tends to think sequentially, in a defined order; it is rational, verbal, and digital. The right half tends to be more synthetic, thinking intuitively; it is nonverbal; it tends to experience in wholes, in real-time, without the need for symbol and conscious thought, and in this it is more direct; it tends to see relationships, nuances, resonances; it is intuitive, relying on unconscious pattern-fitting and recognition as the basis for understanding. In other words the left hemisphere tends towards reductionist thought, while the right tends toward holistic.

There may be a good reason for this arrangement. As Douglas Hofstadter pointed out, the two modes of thought are mutually exclusive; they cannot exist in the same symbolic system. Thus, two linked hemispheres, one ‘looking downward’ to parts, and one ‘looking upward’ to wholes, may have evolved, each with a certain amount of specialisation. Although our minds do not experience these halves as separate – all is a seamless whole – the brain does nonetheless use different parts of its physical arrangement for different types of thought. It’s also worth pointing out that “logical, analytical” people are not all right handed while “creative, intuitive” people are not all left handed. There is a difference between brain lateralisation and hemisphere dominance, with the latter now an often discredited description.

But because the two halves of the brain control the opposite side of the body, this means that should the left hemisphere be favoured a right handed person results, whereas right hemisphere favour brings a left hander. Human beings have a profound and genetically rooted bias towards one side of the brain, the left side, where language centres usually reside. This bias to one side is not unique in the animal kingdom, but its origin and evolutionary mechanism remains unclear, though for humans it must have something to do with language acquisition and associated modes of thought.

It has been noticed for a long time that left-handers tend to be more creative, and this may be a consequence of them tending to experience life holistically and intuitively, rather than logically or analytically. Their particular kind of experience tends to bring enhanced creativity. Brain surgeons talk of the brains of right handed people as being “like chocolate soldiers,” whereas the brains of left handers are far more varied. Well, you only have to think of Paul McCartney or Jimi Hendrix.

The mental model of reality built up by a human mind has one momentous advantage over reality itself: it is not subject to the laws of physics. It is non-physical; an emergent, symbolic model transcending the real neurons on which it is based. Such a model can bring into being variations of reality, thus allowing the mind to experience both reality and its myriad of metaphors; in other words, the mind acquires imagination.

The experience of reality by a human mind means it is endowed with reason, imagination and productive ability. The mind transcends the animal state, becoming fully alive, involving itself with reality. But to transcend reality, reality has to be seen; it has to be experienced. In fact, reality has to be seen very clearly. The clearer reality is seen and the more vividly it is experienced, the more intense the desire to transcend; in other words, the more creative the mind is. So it is not that being creative allows a person to see more clearly, in some special human way, rather that seeing and experiencing in a special way, in a human way, brings creativity as a consequence.

Creativity is the result of the human mind transcending reality through its ability to make a model, experiencing reality through emotions and through the holistic view (as well as in other modes), then imagining unrestrained variations. Emotional involvement in reality is profound involvement, the knowledge imparted being of a deep and realistic nature; it is not intellectual appreciation, though that does have some part of the experience. Thus, many of the characteristics of creativity, such as intuition, spontaneity, a sense of timelessness, a heightened awareness, are not rooted in the intellect but in more fundamental emotional understanding. Such sensations cannot be controlled as the intellect can; they well up from the roots of human understanding. This is why emotions often accompany creativity, for it is essential that the human mind tell itself, and others, of the importance of the creative act.

The holistic view is also vital. Such a view takes in the whole of reality, and is a clearer overall view than the analytical. Experiencing life holistically – that is, experiencing sensations and the self as a whole, while at the same time having the ability to see some parts – is a more profound way of experiencing reality on the human scale, and so this too makes the urge for creativity more intense. Reductionism has its uses, but we don’t live on those scales.

So, creative human beings can solve problems. The experience of difficulties in life forces us to fall back on our mental models, which can, by virtue of the non-physical state, change and alter reality in the imagination, and hence allow us to arrive at new understandings, which in turn bring new solutions. Such insights are often flashes of creativity, emotional and holistic understandings which are the fitting together in the imagination of the relevant parts of the problem, producing a new whole never seen before. Creativity is very much an unconscious phenomenon.

Part 3 tomorrow.


On Imagination: Part 1

  1. What is imagination?

On the various SFF forums which I enjoy contributing to there’s a huge amount of advice and debate on the technical issues of writing – rules, whether rules should be broken, whether rules exist, writing better characters, writing better action, writing better words. I almost never see discussion of imagination however, which is a shame, as to me this is a more important aspect of writing than any technical issue. So in this and the next couple of posts I’m going to ramble on a bit about imagination and creativity. We’ll take Amy with us, plucking her from the Factory Girl trilogy. I’m sure the Reverend Carolus Dodgson won’t mind.


Amy entered the walled garden with some trepidation, since some of the gardens that so far she had visited had been rather frightening. “But at least I have a parrot as a guide,” she thought. This garden however was unlike any other that she had seen, since its walls were arranged with shelves on which hundreds of books lay.

The Parrot said, “This is the Old Queen’s library garden.”

“Do you think I will meet the Old Queen?” Amy asked.

“If you ask nicely.”

“Oh, but I am always polite. My mama says it is a lady’s finest grace.”

In reply the Parrot said, “There is the librarian!”

Amy looked across a bed of lilies to see a most peculiar creature – hunch-backed, with large fin-like feet and a big face with eyes at the side. It wore a frock coat of scallop shells and smoked a clay pipe.

“Good afternoon!” this strange librarian said.

Amy curtseyed, replying, “And good afternoon to you, Mr…”

“I am the Land Whale,” the librarian replied.

“Whatever is a land whale?” Amy thought. After a few moments she said, “Are you perchance related to ocean whales?”

“Why indeed I am,” the librarian replied. “In one of these many books…” (and here he gestured at the tomes around him) “… it is said that whales once lived upon the land, before deciding to live in the sea. I am one of those sea whales who decided to return to the land.”

Amy thought this tale to be quite extraordinary, but she had heard of a book that made similar claims about the origins of various species, so she did not question the librarian further. “For that would indeed be forthright,” she thought, with a smile.

“Have you come here for a specific volume, child?” asked the librarian.

“Yes, we have,” the Parrot replied. “We seek the Book Of Imaginary Beings.”

At this the librarian gasped, sending a jet of water up from the back of his neck. “That book requires a considerable amount of respect!” he declared.


But what is the Book Of Imaginary Beings? And is it an entirely human construction?


The Land Whale lumbered across the garden to one of the shelves, removing a book then returning. Amy took it, but at once the Land Whale spoke, saying, “Beware, child! The creatures mentioned in this book will excite your mind into a fervour of creation.”

“Whatever does he mean?” Amy thought, before thinking further – “I wish he would stop rattling his frock coat when he speaks!”

Then Amy opened the book to its first page, to observe there the most gorgeous cat she had ever seen – jet black, with shiny fur, an elegant tail, and the greenest pair of green eyes possible. In fact, to her astonishment, she was able to touch the cat, and stroke it, whereupon it narrowed its eyes and began purring. “But this is a real cat,” she said, “and not imaginary at all.”

“So it is,” said the librarian.

Amy turned to the next page, to see a gorgeous antelope, with fawn coloured hide, white stripes, and two curly antler prongs. “Why, this antelope also is real,” she said.

“I think you are correct,” the librarian said.

Amy was so entranced by the beauty of the antelope that quite without realising it she took a pencil from the pocket of her dress and began sketching it on the blank page opposite. “This is the imaginary antelope,” she thought, as she continued to sketch. “I shall give it extra-twirly prongs!”

When she finished her picture she showed it to the Land Whale and to the Parrot, eliciting their approval. “I did tell you the book required respect,” said the Land Whale, “for the beings within it are real. They themselves inspire the imaginary ones.”

“And thus the volume acquired its name,” remarked the Parrot.


If we are to draw any conclusion from Amy’s adventure it is that creativity is a response to something rather than a thing in its own right. But a response to what?

I’ve always thought the musings of artists significant in this respect, and of them Henri Matisse stands out. He understood what approach to take if he was to make great art:

If my works are of any interest, it is first and foremost because I observe Nature with awe and very closely. This is far more important than that virtuosity which constant, dedicated work will almost invariably lead to. I cannot emphasize sufficiently the need for an artist to be honest in his work.

About his late work he wrote:

Abstraction rooted in reality.

Matisse felt that he had to lose all learned sophistication and be innocent and fresh, like a child not yet socialised:

What it seems we must learn is to leave experience behind… The painter must have no preconceived notion of the model – his spirit must be open and receive everything, just as in a landscape he would take in every one of the scents of the air.

And Matisse knew that merely copying reality was not part of human art; all the possibilities created in the mind by reality were the artist’s inner vision:

I am incapable of making a slavish copy of Nature. Instead I feel compelled to interpret it…

Paul Cezanne also wrote with insight:

The artist… learns to see from Nature… Nature – I wanted to copy it. I did not succeed, but I was satisfied with myself when I discovered that, for example, the sun cannot simply be reproduced, that one has to express it more through something else… through colour.

Using the religious metaphor of divinity for nature and the world around him, Leonardo da Vinci wrote:

The divine elements painting comprises cause the painter’s mind to reflect the divine spirit itself; thus, before the eyes of the rising generations and of his own independent and powerful accord, the painter begins to create diverse living beings… landscapes…

Da Vinci advised others:

…if you do not start by becoming thoroughly familiar with the objects in Nature, you will not achieve anything worthy of note.

It would seem that ‘Nature’ is the source – by which the above artists mean the real world. Artistic merit, then, comes from a response to the real world. Is reality the source of human creativity?

I think it is. I think there is a directly proportional relationship between intensity of sensory experience of the real world and intensity (and amount) of creative response. In Amy’s case, it was because she saw a particularly fine cat that she felt compelled to create a response, drawing on the blank page opposite it. Likewise, with the antelope, she didn’t merely draw it, she gave it ‘extra-twirly prongs’; in other words she augmented the source imaginatively, creating a new image.

Imagination is depth of creativity. Experience more of the real world and you boost your imaginative potential.

Part 2 follows tomorrow.


The Girl With Two Souls

Infinity Plus at Radish Fiction

Publishers of my novels Infinity Plus are trying out a new venture at Radish Fiction.

The idea is to send small, serialised parts of a work to the mobile device of the reader’s choice.

An interesting experiment of the internet age… Check it out!


Infinity Plus Books

Brian Aldiss RIP

The SF world is waking up today to some very sad news. Brian Aldiss wrote many great novels, some of which were inspirational to me in my early days. But his masterpiece was Helliconia, which is up there with other masterpieces of the SF genre, I think. Helliconia gathered together all his brilliance – his characters, his world-building, his majestic vision, and so much more. He will be missed, but, of course, his legacy will live on.


Improbable Botany completed

407 backers and £12,000+ raised.


Thank you to everybody who supported this project.

wayward inner