Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Category: Science Fiction

Return To Memory Seed?

Twenty-five years ago this month I wrote the novel that, four years later, would become my debut for Orbit Books, Memory Seed. Having recently looked at three short stories set in the same world that I wrote in the 1990s, I was reminded of what a powerful pull the world of the city of Kray still exerts over me.

The first draft was written in 1988 and was my fifth attempt at writing a novel – the previous four being utter rubbish, though I was only dimly aware of that at the time. It was called Kray and took me about three weeks to write. It poured out of me, as novels sometimes do. The world of Kray was one which checked all the boxes for me: far future, botanic technology, mystery, rain and doom… a kind of science fantasy, as such works used to be called.

In 1988 I was living in Surrey, close to Virginia Water and Windsor Great Park, and I used to go for lots of walks, during which inspiration founded in nature came to mind. (A couple of years ago I returned with my camera, to see how things had changed and to reacquaint myself with the place.) Two mental images arrived during one of these walks: dozens of moss-covered roofs leading down to the sea in some far-future port, and an exotic bordello which was the cover for some other organisation. With these two images and a desire to write about green issues in a green environment it wasn’t long before I had the whole setting firm in my mind.

During the three following years I wrote more novels – all awful, though I was at least honing my craft. But in 1992 the world of Kray still haunted me, and I knew I had to return there to make a better novel from the wreckage of the 1988 draft. This was the first time I’d felt the desire to return. I’ve very rarely felt such an urge since, and only once acted upon it (Urbis Morpheos). Something about the rain, the doom-laden scenario and the botanic verdancy called me back to Earth’s final city.

The second draft was much better – four new characters, an improved political set-up, and better plots and sub-plots. I wrote it quickly, edited it, honed it, then began sending it around – three chapters and a synopsis printed out double-spaced, as writers did back in those days. I received a couple of replies, both ‘no’ but with individual comments implying the work had been seriously considered. This gave me hope.

But the novel was still not quite right. I’d been reading a lot about environmental issues such as oestrogen-mimicking chemicals, and I’d continued to read a lot of feminist books. In these circumstances a striking new version of the city of Kray struck me, one entirely female. So the third draft was born.

Early in 1993 I sent a package containing the first three chapters of the second draft out to Orbit Books, but I heard nothing. At the time, my then wife and I were desperate to move out of our house in Luton, having suffered from appalling neighbours, both of whom had mental problems. Towards the end of December, a few days before we were due to move away, I received a letter from Tim Holman, then second in command at Orbit, telling me he’d like to read the whole book. I was gobsmacked, and not just because he’d shown interest. Had the letter arrived a little later I probably would never have received it, since I had no intention of leaving a forwarding address with anybody in Luton. But there was also the issue of the new third draft, which I felt was the best one. So I explained my circumstances to Tim, then a couple of months later sent him the full third draft. He spent the best part of a year considering what to do (it transpired that Little,Brown were moving offices – another obstacle for all concerned), but late in 1994 I was told my novel was being considered for publication. In February 1995 I received my offer.

I wrote three short stories later in the 1990s (The Green Realm Below/Dr Vanchovy’s Final Case/Granny) all set in the Memory Seed world. Recently I had to check them for a possible anthology, and, reading them again, I was reminded of how powerful the pull of Kray is to me. I think this is because it speaks to my central interests and likes – enigma, green issues, far-future science fantasy, and perhaps that indefinable ‘British’ thing of imagining decaying worlds in post-apocalyptic settings. I felt this pull too when I had to OCR scan and re-set Memory Seed a few years ago for e-publication with Infinity Plus Books; and although there were changes to be made, I felt the novel as a whole still stood up pretty well.

It is of course very tempting for authors to return to their early scenarios. With Memory Seed I don’t have the option of sequels, partly because two were written – Glass and Flowercrash, which tie everything up – but also because I’d have to make any new work a prequel, which, given the decisive nature of the ending of Memory Seed, is going to have minimal interest for author and readers. But thinking back to those three short stories has made me realise that there is scope for further tales set in humanity’s final year, perhaps centred around one of the inns – the short stories were all subtitled Tales From The Spired Inn. So, while there will never be a prequel or a sequel, I don’t entirely rule out the possibility of writing something new set in that final year…

Memory Seed ebook cover

Memory Seed


Tommy Catkins – a novel

Last autumn – three quarters of the way through my “year off writing novels” – I found myself pondering three possible works, one of which was to be written over the winter holiday. The first was a novel about a shell shocked solider returning to Britain in 1915 after his experiences in the trenches; the second was an uncategorisable novel with animal characters and a philosophical theme; the third was a YA novel set in Wales with a magic-realism feel to it.

One evening, I found myself winding down at the end of the day listening to an album. The lights were low and I was considering which of the three works might be the one to go for. The album I put on was A Trick Of The Tail by Genesis – I’d been enjoying their albums over a couple of weeks, having not listened to them for some time. As the beautiful songs passed by I began to realise that their themes matched the theme of the first work; the soldier returning to Britain. It was a remarkable fit, and so I began putting together in my mind the fundamentals of the novel.

Four songs stood out as somehow encapsulating the novel: Entangled (a simply gorgeous Steve Hackett classic), Mad Man Moon (Tony Banks’ finest moment I think), Ripples (a Rutherford/Banks collaboration) and A Trick Of The Tail, which is another Banks classic. Entangled in particular seemed to convey what I had in mind – a hospital setting, hints of Freud, hints of mental turmoil, and an environment of healing – I wanted to write a novel about a soldier whose shell shock was so profound it left him in an impossible dilemma. Mad Man Moon had the water/rain references that were an important part of what I was creating, while Ripples somehow encapsulated the “underwater” feel that also seemed a vital part of the setting. As for A Trick Of The Tail – that managed to encapsulate the “otherworldly” feel I was looking for. I later found out that the song was written by Banks after reading William Golding’s novel The Inheritors.

Although the album served to encapsulate a novel that was already forming in my subconscious, I did take two specific things from it – the idea of the underwater world characters having tails (A Trick Of The Tail) and the mythical monster the Squonk, which I’d initially rejected as a reference, but which during later research I found matched my scenario almost exactly.

By the time the album had finished playing that evening I knew this was the novel I wanted to write next. I felt that indefinable twinge of excitement within me which signified: “this is the one.”

Yesterday I completed the first draft of Tommy Catkins, and it seems to have gone really well. The novel has a slower, more lyrical, more melancholy feel than, say, the Factory Girl trilogy. I think it likely that it will be the last novel for the foreseeable future written in a WW1 setting. I do think however that I’ll return to Victorian/Edwardian times for new settings, as I much enjoy writing in that era.


Following a horrific experience at Verdun, Tommy Catkins – shellshocked and suffering head injuries – is sent to a private mental hospital on a river island in Wiltshire, where he is subjected to the primitive treatments of the era. But the island appears to be a portal to the mysterious world of Onderwater, where live a race of blue-skinned people with tails. Will Tommy be tempted by the lure of this phantasy, or will the love of Nurse Vann pull him back to reality, and recovery?


The Girl With No Soul, 1st review

Terrific, if somewhat breathless first review just in for The Girl With No Soul, at amazon:

‘Oh my goodness I am almost relieved this is over… I was reading till 3:30 last night… Stephen Palmer has written his life’s masterpiece… It’s amazing, I can’t explain why… you’ll just have to read it…’


The Girl With One Friend, 1st review

Super first review for The Girl With One Friend at amazon:

“Second book in the trilogy so my comments for the first all apply… This story does get better and better… what an adventure! I loved it! Major warning though… I have read many a book containing emotive subjects and have been left dry eyed… but this one really touched me… review reader… I cried!”


The Mushroom Eaters

I made a rather startling discovery yesterday.

In 2006 I sold Urbis Morpheos to Pete Crowther at PS Publishing. For various personal and other reasons it wasn’t published until 2010. That version however was taken from a greatly amended draft, which was unlike the original draft – a novel then called The Mushroom Eaters.

Yesterday, quite by accident, I stumbled across the original files on my Mac, files I had thought long since lost. They were all labelled Unix Executable File (a term I had to have explained to me by the online hive-mind) and were all dated November 2001. To my surprise and delight I was able to copy & paste every file into two new Word documents, each coming in at around 90,000 words.

So… this presents me with the option of reconstituting the original, full novel: Urbis Morpheos and Astra Gaia. (Like the Factory Girl trilogy, this would be one long novel in more than one volume.) The 2010 reviews hovered between mixed and good – it is a complex, challenging novel – so I’m not sure I will go ahead and remake the original novel. But it is quite tempting…


Urbis Morpheos, 2010

Dedicated to…

Keen fans and casual readers alike may have noticed that instead of dedicating the three volumes of the Factory Girl trilogy to loved ones or good friends, I’ve chosen three “public figures” – Nicholas Humphrey, Dorothy Rowe and Erich Fromm, with the latter in memoriam (Fromm died in 1980). I thought I’d write a few words about why I chose these three people.

Although the narrative of the Factory Girl trilogy is one of adventure, tragedy, and quite a few nail-biting cliff-hangers and set pieces, the theme of the work is deeper – the nature of the human condition. I did have Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials at the very back of my mind when I was pondering how to judge this aspect of the books – I love that paradoxical mix of youthful outlook and human profundity (and I’ll very likely attempt it again). Set inside the narrative is a second book, Amy’s Garden by Rev. Carolus Dodgson, which the main character Kora uses as a kind of emblem of her inner humanity.

Since my early twenties I’ve been reading books on these deeper topics. I think initially this was because, as a retiring kind of person growing up in the middle of deepest, darkest Shropshire, I fell far behind when it came to such things. Most people find out about human strengths and foibles through general life experience, and I did also, albeit later than most – but the evolutionary and psychological aspects soon began to fascinate me.

I think the pebble that began the landslide was the broadcasting in 1986 of Nicholas Humphrey’s The Inner Eye, a six part series on Channel 4 which asked the question: why are human beings conscious? Humphrey – a gifted researcher of animal and human behaviour, and a profound thinker – asked questions that I would have asked myself had I had the wit and insight to. Yet I knew what I wanted to know, and I knew the vast amount that I didn’t know; and suddenly there was a compelling series of programmes to follow.

I bought the book as soon as it was published, and since then have bought everything the man has published. An exceptional volume followed – The History Of The Mind – in which Humphrey brought in matters of evolution, arguing that consciousness is ultimately rooted in raw sensation via our physical senses. His other work is equally as insightful, not least Soul Searching, which deals with matters of the soul and other mystical beliefs. A recent work, Soul Dust: The Magic Of Consciousness, describes how consciousness is a kind of show that we all stage inside our heads.

I rate Nicholas Humphrey as one the absolute pinnacles of thinking and writing on the nature of human consciousness. His ‘social intelligence’ theory is one of the foundations for my own thought on matters of the human condition.

It wasn’t long after The Inner Eye television series that I discovered Erich Fromm. Fromm is regarded by many as one of the outstanding thinkers in matters of human nature and the human condition, and his reputation will be secure for centuries to come. Originally a sociologist and a psychotherapist who worked in the Freudian tradition, and also by inclination a Marxist, Fromm began in the 1940s and 1950s to produce a series of remarkable books on the human condition: The Fear Of Freedom, Man For Himself, The Art Of Loving, The Sane Society, The Anatomy Of Human Destructiveness, and in 1976 his last great work, To Have Or To Be? I devoured these books, and many of the other, more specialised works that he wrote in the latter decades of his life.

For me, Fromm’s greatness derives from his book The Sane Society, although there was much else that was great about him, not least his grasp of the importance of narcissism in a full description of the human condition. In The Sane Society Fromm offered an analysis of the human condition (what I call a scientific description). It completely blew my mind that this could even be attempted, let alone achieved. I don’t think Fromm was completely correct, and, later in life, he confessed that he had missed some obvious points, such as his automatic ignoring of women as full members of society. But Fromm was a brilliant man, and we all owe him a huge debt. Many of his ideas have made it into the mainstream of Western thinking, where they will persist, not least in the struggle against irrational, faith-based thought.

The third main influence at this time of my life was Dorothy Rowe. An Australian by birth, Rowe arrived in Britain in the 1960s, where she went into psychotherapy and general mental health/counselling practice. Her early area of interest and expertise was depression, but soon her thought and reach expanded, and she began writing a remarkable series of books.

Of these books, the first one I read, and perhaps one of the most important in a long and marvellous career, was Beyond Fear. An exploration of how individuals respond to fear, and how they turn it into afflictions of the body and into painful, self-limiting or dangerous behaviour, its sheer common sense, expanse and clarity of thought, and its profundity marked it out as something important. Later books looked at human responses to the nuclear arms race, to success, to money, and to religion. Much of Rowe’s best work revolves around the methods we use and the mistakes we make in constructing meaning throughout our lives, with The Construction Of Life & Death being a particularly good example. Rowe, formerly a Christian, is religious no longer.

As Fay Weldon observed in a front-jacket comment, “She sets us on the road to personal and political utopia – if only we would take it.”

These three people, alongside many other writers and thinkers including Daniel Dennett, David Lewis-Williams, Robin Dunbar and Douglas Hofstadter, have set me on my own particular paths of thought. I am thankful for that.


The Inner Eye, Nicholas Humphrey

The Girl With Two Souls: new reviews

A couple of new reviews on amazon for The Girl With Two Souls:

‘This slickly written first volume of the trilogy paints a fantastic alternative Edwardian society with an almost cinematic story quality that pulls the reader into the curious and deftly created world and is thoroughly engrossing from start to finish. I think the best compliment I can give is that immediately upon finishing volume one, I bought volume two. Highly recommended.’ [K O’B]

‘I can’t wait to read the next part which is a good sign. A wonderful tour de force of a book…’ [Miriam]


The Girl With No Soul – published

The final volume of the trilogy, volume 3 The Girl With No Soul, is published today:

UK Kindle

UK paperback

US Kindle

US softback


The Girl With Two Souls, second review

Here’s the second review of The Girl With Two Souls, courtesy Kate Coe at SFF World.

“… steampunk, automata, a girl with two souls? Intriguing and interesting! And the book does not disappoint… The story sweeps along; while the focus is on Kora and Roka, there are glimpses of the rest of society and the Empire outside the city. I would highly recommend this to any steampunk lovers or anyone after a character-focused YA adventure…”


The Girl With Two Souls – first review

The first review is in for The Girl With Two Souls, at SFF Chronicles.

“[I] am not a great fan of alternate history or YA so it was really something of a pleasant surprise that I found the book really very enjoyable… I am looking forward to continuing with the next part and learning more about Kora’s/Roka’s rather intriguing world.”