stephenpalmersf

Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

My music, part 3

To continue the walk down musical lane…

When I started my solo project Blue Lily Commission in 2000 the inspiration wasn’t just a love of world-music, it was the acquisition of my first synthesizer. So it’s rather ironic that almost all the recent albums have been weighted much more towards real instruments than electronic ones.

Collecting world-music instruments has become a bit of an addiction for me, but the beauty is that I have a far wider range of instruments to use for Blue Lily Commission than would otherwise be the case. About 10 years ago I was challenged by a fan to make an entirely acoustic album, an idea which intrigued me at the time, but which I didn’t follow up until 2015. The album was called Undrugged, in a play on the word ‘unplugged’ used to describe acoustic concerts. Soon, after recording a few tracks, I had the idea to use every instrument I owned. I wasn’t sure that would be possible, but eventually I realised it was – all 119 of them. And the album was immense fun to record, which I wasn’t expecting!

Some instruments that I buy I can’t play or don’t gel with, but 90% of them I do like and can play, or at least make sounds from. Some of the instruments I use to create strange or otherworldly textures – for instance reed instruments, many of which aren’t made in Western keys – but others, like my guitars, are for ‘proper’ playing. Other instruments I’ve used to make my own samples, as I generally prefer not to use commercially available ones. But the main attraction is the joy of trying new instruments from across the world.

Having had such enjoyment from making Undrugged I wanted to try it again, but, not wanting to repeat the format, I went for an orchestrally supported theme, resulting in the album The Undrugged Orchestra. A few fans have told me this is their favourite Blue Lily Commission work, with this a favourite track.

undrugged

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My music, part 2

Continuing the stroll down music avenue…

A lot of my music is rooted in land, seasons, weather, landscape. I’m definitely Rural Man. Ten years ago I did a series of solo recordings loosely associated with 1970s music, and one of them was the album Border Land. I very rarely listen to my own music, but some albums, including this one, have a peculiar chemistry that I never can put my finger on. So I listen to this one quite often. It’s music to evoke a part of Britain very close to my heart, and pretty much where I live now – the Marches, the region where England and Wales meet. Border Land does dive south into Herefordshire, but mostly its world is the Marches area of Shropshire.

There’s a hint of Mike Oldfield in this album, but I played and arranged the instruments in a different way to how he does his music – more impressionistic. And because music is mostly about feeling and emotion, I suspect the reasons Mike Oldfield recorded Hergest Ridge in 1974 are similar to the reasons I recorded Border Land.

Around the time I made Border Land I had a group with two friends, one of whom, Chris Gill, lived in Criggion in Wales. We jammed a few times in the Criggion village hall, and I suspect the atmosphere of the place contributed to the spacey music that ensued. Landscape can influence music in many ways – in composition and in improvised playing. Chris, Andy and I may have been making rock music then, but we were channelling something more elemental, I think.

Border Land remains a favourite of my long form pieces.

border

My music, part 1

I rarely talk in author or SF circles about the music which I write and record, because generally speaking I’ve had a bit of a negative response to this aspect of my creative life, in those places anyway. Some people are interested and supportive, but at least as many are the opposite. So, for a few days here on my blog I’m going to highlight a few of my favourite pieces recorded over the years.

Blue Lily Commission has been my solo “world-fusion” project for eighteen years now, focusing on the various unusual instruments that I play, mixed with high-tech synthesizers and the like. A while back I bought some beautiful Indonesian flutes – the suling as it’s known over there – one of which seemed to have an Indian vibe when I played it, a bit like the bansuri, which I definitely can’t play. So here is a short piece for solo flute, which I improvised (I think I kept the second take) over a pre-recorded tanpura drone.

blc

Killers Of The Flower Moon by David Grann

The treatment of the Native American nations by white “Christian” settlers from Europe has always evoked horror in me, partly I think because of the sheer brutality and utter callousness of what was meted out by these “Christians,” and partly because of the scorn and disgust that I feel for so many aspects of American culture. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee was a gut-wrenching read. David Grann’s extraordinary book is not quite so visceral and terrible as Dee Brown’s classic, but it still packs one hell of a punch.

The work covers the so-called Osage Nation Murders – also known as the Reign Of Terror – which occurred between 1921 and 1925 in Oklahoma. Grann’s technique is to evoke the time through meticulous research, including vast amounts of never-published or otherwise mysterious or ignored documentation. The slow, precise way in which the story of the Reign Of Terror builds into a gripping read, as various layers of the mystery are peeled away, is a great way to reveal the full truth. And, surprise surprise, a greedy white man was at the bottom of it. In 1925 the determined and courageous FBI agent Tom White completed the investigation that caught this man, followed eventually, despite corruption and extraordinary levels of racism against the Osage people, by a successful prosecution.

Except… Grann in his research found out more; facts that were missed by the original FBI investigation. I won’t spoil this last section, but, as with what goes previously, it is pretty jaw-dropping.

For anybody interested in the seemingly endless list of injustices caused by white “Christians” in America, this is a sobering read. What marks Grann’s book out above others though is the brilliant writing and extraordinary effort put in by the author on behalf of the Osage people. An outstanding book.

killers-of-the-flower-moon

Restoration Britain by Ian Mortimer

The Time Traveller’s Guide To Restoration Britain by Ian Mortimer

The third in Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide… books, The Time Traveller’s Guide To Restoration Britain is at least as interesting as his guide to the Middle Ages, which I read and reviewed a while back. Essentially, these books posit a traveller going back in time who might need a guide in order to survive, much as a modern day traveller would take a guide to, say, Crete.

Written in a very accessible style, the book assumes little or no knowledge of the era, beginning with an overview of political events, then heading off into travel, taverns, food, health and medicine, music, plays and painting, and much more. There are plenty of interesting details, lots of humour – all underplayed and well positioned in the text – and an overall desire to seduce the reader with the good and warn them about the bad of Restoration Britain. Inevitably, Samuel Pepys makes many appearances, but there are plenty of other characters whose lives and words help the time traveller.

Highly recommended to history buffs and the general reader.

time trav restoration

An update

It’s been a while since I gave any updates about what I’m writing, so here, as we cross that invisible boundary between spring and summer, is why I’ve been working almost non-stop since September.

Fans of Beautiful Intelligence may be interested to learn that I’ve written a new artificial intelligence novel – not in the BI world, but somewhere different – which deals with Big Data and AI. The novel is called The Autist and focuses on three pairs of characters in the world of 2100, with one character inspired by Leslie Lemke, who I wrote about in my piece on Darrold Treffert’s book Extraordinary People. The novel is set in England, Scotland, in various European and African nations, and in Thailand. My hope is that Infinity Plus will publish this when it’s had its final edit-and-hone. If so, Keith Brooke and I expect that a spectacular new android image by the talented computer graphics artist Steve Jones (whose androids danced across the front of BI) will grace its cover.

I wrote two further novels earlier this year, which would best be described as alternate history with a dash of fantasy. Monique Orphan and Monica Orvan take place in late Victorian times in an English town called Blackbury, set in the region of Nossex. (It always bothered me that there’s a Wessex, Essex, Sussex and Middlesex, but no Nossex.) This YA novel in two volumes is currently being read by a publisher. The theme is selfishness in its various forms, with a feminist slant to the plot. Fans of the Factory Girl trilogy would enjoy it I think.

I also wrote a short story for Ian Whates’ No More Heroes anthology – to be published by PS Publishing later in the year – which I was really thrilled to place. This anthology is themed around the many marvellous pop and rock musicians we’ve lost in recent years. I chose Edgar Froese, the visionary leader of Tangerine Dream, whose music and surrealist attitude (Froese was a scion of Salvador Dali) continue to inspire me. My story The Birth Of Liquid Plejades has “an unusual structure” as Ian delicately put it, but I’m delighted it is to be published in what will no doubt be excellent company.

I’m also going to submit a short story for the Eibonvale Press anthology Humanagerie, but it may or may not be accepted.

Work continues on Woodland Revolution. Though I submitted this in its original prose form I’ve now reset it in what might be called blank verse, as this accentuates the style, and brings the work away from standard fiction plot-and-character notions. The theme of this work is how we approach death – a vital conversation to have in times when people are forced to travel to Switzerland to follow the so-called assisted suicide option. My work lays out a reason why this phrase needs to be replaced by something else. It’s a kind of meditation on a way of approaching death, but there are other themes and strands to it.

This autumn, all being well, I’m going to write a book – my first non-fiction work – that I’ve been trying to write since 1990. There have been three failed attempts so far, but I think now I’ve got everything in place for a successful fourth attempt. Queen Louise: A Brief History Of Sapience will be a scientific description of the human condition over the past 100,000 years. In this book I’ll describe such things as: why consciousness evolved; why we experience emotions and what they are; why we feel love and what it is; how narcissism can be used as a general description of human development and maturity; why we experience an arrow of time; what creativity is; why such delusions as the idea of a soul or spirit, an afterlife, and spirituality/religion in general were inevitable in early human cultures; what humour is; and more… Queen Louise by the way is an orang utan who wants to become human, and she has various conversations with the Time Traveller on these subjects. Some of the ideas in this book come from others – Nicholas Humphrey, Erich Fromm and Karen Armstrong to name but three – but the majority is my own work, developed over almost thirty years. As I’m highly unlikely to get this published by any publishing house my plan is to self-publish.

But now, summer is almost here and nine months of very hard work is almost over…

Destination: wine, women and song.

Time: now!

bi

Factory Girl reviews & ebook offer

On the back of a really nice new review of the Factory Girl trilogy from Steampunk enthusiast Nimue Brown, Infinity Plus Books have reduced the price of volume 1 of the trilogy for a week or so:

Overall the plot is unpredictable, engaging, challenging and will make you think… Although the main characters are in their teens, I don’t think this is a YA novel particularly. I like that about it. The assumption that we only want to read about characters who are of an age with us needs challenging. Younger folk could read it, but it has clearly been written with adults readers in mind. It’s a fascinating book(s) and I very much enjoyed it.

And a new review on amazon.com:

I found the entire trilogy to be riveting and found myself absorbed in the seesawing development of Kora and Roka’s fate. Palmer’s themes are provocative and intense, yet it all occurs within an almost non-stop action and suspense context, full of colorful characters, both good, evil and somewhere in between. The end result is both a good fun yarn, and a food-for-thought indictment of religion, capitalism, and, by extension, the environment that Palmer has written so extensively about.

The ebook has been set to 99p on amazon.co.uk.

Enjoy!

tgw2s

The Girl With Two Souls

Andrew Hook’s Non/Fiction

When pondering who I could ask to debut my new blog category Non/Fiction, pretty much the first name who came to mind was slipstream short story author Andrew Hook. I’ve met Andrew a couple of times at events, but we’d bonded long ago over our love of The Stranglers. Andrew was kind enough to publish my Black & White-based story Blanknoir in his anthology punkPunk! which he edited.

The author of over a hundred and fifty published short stories, three novellas, three novels and five collections, Andrew is also known for crime writing, for Elastic Press, and is co-editor at Salo Press with his partner Sophie Essex. I felt this fellow surrealist would be the perfect person to begin Non/Fiction, in which guest authors write about one fiction and one non-fiction book…

Enjoy!


 

I’m grateful for Stephen asking me to debut on his Non/Fiction category. Before I reveal my choices it’s probably worth mentioning that whilst I’ve always favoured fiction I’ve found that age and memory have increasingly blurred the distinction between fact and fantasy to the extent that it’s hard to tell one from the other, and the books I’ve chosen – in some ways – represent this.

Fiction:

Jitterbug Perfume” by Tom Robbins

This madcap novel about immortality, perfume and beets played a pivotal role in determining my life’s outlook which has bled into my fiction. I became aware of this novel whilst on a sixteen month Australasian trip in the early ’90s, having picked it up in a backpacker hostel without a cover. Knowing nothing about it I read the first line –

The beet is the most intense of vegetables

– and then I didn’t put it down.

“Jitterbug Perfume” is about the emergence of the individual, the ache for immortality, a refusal to conform to societal constraints. In some respects it might be considered a fantasy novel, in others a life guide. Having always felt cheated by the prospect of death, immortality has been a constant fascination for me, and the novel taps into that desire in a life-affirming journey involving perfumers, a genius waitress, a once king, and Pan. It is also a love story – the highest function of love is that it makes the loved one a unique and irreplaceable being – told with an almost surfeit of metaphor so that every line knows it is too clever by half.

It also contains one of my favourite quotes:

Our individuality is all, all, that we have. There are those who barter it for security, those who repress it for what they believe is the betterment of the whole society, but blessed in the twinkle of the morning star is the one who nurtures it and rides it in, in grace and love and wit, from peculiar station to peculiar station along life’s bittersweet route.

The style and themes of my first published novel, “Moon Beaver”, were heavily influenced by Robbins’ work, as has an optimism which infuses my life. Whilst my writing style is less ostentatiously playful, a love of words and their capabilities still permeates. Finally, after recently reading Tom Robbins’ autobiography, “Tibetan Peach Pie”, I took up an invitation to write to him and received a personal reply. Robbins is one of the good guys, and coincidentally I began re-reading this book for the fourth time shortly before the invitation to blog. Robbins would appreciate the serendipity.

 

Non-Fiction:

My Last Breath” by Luis Buñuel (often known as “My Last Sigh”)

I was introduced to Luis Buñuel through a BBC retrospective of his films following his death in 1983 when I was fifteen. I considered myself a punk at a young age – four years earlier – which struck a chord not only due to the music itself but with the idea that it was somehow forbidden and dangerous. I was never actually a dangerous child, but the sense of something fresh and exciting and potentially shocking appealed. Surrealism is – I believe – closely associated with the punk sensibility. And in Buñuel I found further identification.

As a writer there are themes which permeate all my work: immortality, identity, reality and memory. Buñuel’s movies tread similar paths: immortality through the examination of religion, identity through class distinctions, reality via the gauze of surreality, memory as a process of forgetting:

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all… Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it we are nothing.

“My Last Breath” is a playful and insightful autobiography. Picking it up again to write this blog I found it almost impossible to quote because almost every paragraph is quotable. From childhood stimulation to insights with the surrealists to comments on his movies, practical jokes, death, Buñuel paints a wry – and often irreverent – account of an unconventional life. And it is clear that even within the surrealists he was an outsider: something I have always felt, even amongst friends. Another reason for identification.

Whilst my own fiction has edged surrealism, my fascination with Buñuel did conspire to my writing the following work of non-fiction published by RoosterVision last year: “Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel: a personal analysis”. “My Last Breath” would have been instrumental in cultivating this obsession.

Finally, if there is a message to be considered from both “Jitterbug Perfume” and “My Last Breath” then I would summarise it as don’t take life too seriously whilst taking it seriously. And this is why they number amongst my favourite books.

Andrew Hook

Karl Marx @ 200

We are alienated from our essential human selves. Marx in my opinion was wrong on many counts, not least his analysis of the historical arc of capitalism, but on one point he was not only correct but got the heart of cultural and psychological progress. If we are alienated from ourselves there must be an “essence” to be alienated from. We – workers, bourgeoise and all – are not living authentic human lives. As I’ve argued in my novels and elsewhere, what humanity needs above all now is a complete scientific description of the human condition (which by the way I think is different to human nature). In a non-fiction book that I expect to write this autumn, I’ll be offering my own scientific description of the human condition. In the meantime, happy 200thbirthday Mr Marx!

karl

Rare Earth by Ward and Brownlee

Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon In The Universe
by Peter D. Ward & Donald Brownlee

A few years ago a book that looked interesting by these two men – The Life And Death Of Planet Earth – turned out to be fantastic, and inspirational for me. So when I spotted a second work by the pair I had to read it.

This second book details what the authors call the Rare Earth Hypothesis, which in a nutshell states that simple life – prokaryotic life and perhaps eukaryotic single-celled life – is common, but that multicellular, and particularly animal life is rare. The authors stake out their territory by describing the likely evolution of habitable zones in the universe, the creation of Earth and the solar system, and then the evolution of life. As many have observed, life appeared on our planet just about as early as was possible, which strongly suggests that the basic biochemical reactions (recently outlined by the brilliant Nick Lane in his tour-de-force The Vital Question) are comparatively simple, and even likely – for instance in hydrothermal vents at the ocean floor. Sections follow on the appearance of multicellular life, Snowball Earth, and then a crucial section on the Cambrian Explosion. Mass extinctions are covered, and then a vital section on plate tectonics.

Further chapters deal with the crucial importance of Jupiter and its position in the solar system, and the Moon, before the end chapters of the book deal with tests for the hypothesis and an assessment of the odds.

Some reviewers of this book, written in 2000, have in my opinion been unfair when calling it inconclusive. The authors themselves point out more than once that they are writing at a time of great change in extra-solar astronomy; and we only have to think of the extraordinary discoveries made in the last decade to realise that these authors were courageous in putting forward their hypothesis. In my opinion they were notably far-sighted too. Their book is a detailed statement of the Rare Earth hypothesis.

This book is a superbly written, thorough and fascinating look at the ultimate scientific question: how is life spread across the universe? We 21st century human are incredibly lucky that this question could be answered in our lifetimes. In the 2030s and ’40s a mission is likely to arrive either at Enceladus or Europa, sampling the components of those enigmatic satellites. If simple bacterial-type life exists on either of the satellites, the authors of this terrific book will have the first of their answers.

rare