Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

How Compassion Made Us Human

How Compassion Made Us Human:
The Evolutionary Origins Of Tenderness, Trust & Morality by Penny Spikins

This is a terrific book – and one welcome in a field dominated both by men and by male versions of prehistory, which (as the author glumly notes) are usually violent and full of conflict.

That male version of prehistory though is not supported by evidence. In this remarkable book, Spikins – a highly experienced archaeologist and academic based in the north of England – makes the case for a different interpretation, both of the evidence and of supporting evidence, for instance ethnographic work done with modern-day hunter gatherer peoples. The book is also a really good read: well written, clear, taking the reader through the argument with skill and panache.

The chapters cover the basis of archaeology, how men have interpreted evidence in the past (not least Raymond Dart and his ludicrous “killer ape” hypothesis), re-interpreting archaeological evidence with common sense, zoological and anthropological evidence, and then a brilliant section on how small objects represent big emotions. It’s this chapter in particular that reveals the scope and depth of the author’s vision. Subsequent chapters cover the dark side of humanity, and then a detailed survey of how Spikins thinks human evolution went, focusing on compassion, trust and morality. All in all, an amazing vision of evolutionary history: vivid, engaging, scientifically sound.

I highly recommend this to all those interested in human evolution, ethics and morals, and the current state of archaeology.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood at Writers’ Lab

We were lucky yesterday to have the brilliant Jon Courtenay Grimwood as a special guest of the Writers’ Lab at Shrewsbury Library. Jon gave a bravura performance, open and generous, telling tales of his life as an author, and giving excellent advice. We are grateful to him!


Third new review

There’s another terrific review for The Conscientious Objector, here at SFF Chronicles.

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The Evolution Of Imagination

The Evolution Of Imagination by Stephen T. Asma

This is a particularly good book for artists of all types to read. The author is a jazz musician, and themes of improvisation – which jazz thrives on – run through the work. But this book is in the main a deep and often well thought out exploration of imagination and creativity, with much to say about the evolution of the modern human mind.

The book is split into six chapters dealing with: the mental models we carry in our minds, how our bodies may be the source of creativity especially in music, visual improvisation and creativity, tale-telling, the self, and finally a section on imagination in the political world. Lots of fascinating ideas are put forward, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of them – for instance the role of the body in kick-starting imagination via music and rhythm, which some experts think may have preceded language. The author is particularly good at presenting ideas of how the emotions serve as a foundation for most of what we think and do.

I do have some reservations. The author separates “hot cognition” (emotion or feelings based cognition rooted in the limbic brain) with “cold cognition” (rational or logical thought rooted in the neocortex). While the description of the triune brain is useful, Asma leans too much upon it to separate two modes of cognition that really are merged into one, with emphasis vaying according to situation. I also think his guess that full language emerged only 40,000 years ago is way off the mark – 150,000 to 200,000 years ago is much more likely.

All in all, a very thought-provoking read from somebody in an interesting position and with lots to say. The first four chapters are superb, but the chapter on self is a bit of a mess, and the final chapter, while interesting, seems to me to be an afterthought. So I’ll be giving this 4* on goodreads, but 3½* is nearer the mark.

Representing Rromani People In Fiction

Today I’m very pleased to present a guest post by Penny Blake. Regular readers of my novels will know I like a diverse crowd of characters. Penny, with her particular life experiences, here tells us about the Rromani people.



Representing Rromani People In Fiction, by Penny Blake

Rromani people have been a very visible part of some periods of history, particularly the steam era, and many steampunk and fantasy writers want to work a ‘Gypsy’ character into their worlds. Sadly the easily available information about who Rromani people were and are, why they did not always live in houses and what their beliefs, lifestyle and occupations were is largely incorrect.

Sources drawn on by modern writers are often works of fiction from the Georgian / Victorian period or ‘research’ published by the elite gentleman’s club known as the ‘Gypsy Law Society.’ These works dehumanised Rromani people into mythical ‘Gypsy Creatures’ – lawless, nomadic, romantic and magical beings far removed from the reality of Rromani people’s lives.

It is even the case that more modern publications (books / blogs / websites etc) which claim to be authentic sources of information on Rromani beliefs, lifestyle, language and history are often based purely on these earlier works.

Both historically and recently there have been books and articles published by people who have paid money to ‘live amongst’ Rromani people and then written about their experiences. This is obviously a deeply and complexly problematic scenario and any material derived from such ‘research’ cannot be considered reliable.

So what can we, as writers, do if we want to include the experiences of Rromani people in our worlds in a realistic and respectful way?

Fortunately, there are lots of Rromani writers, artists, scholars, activists and researchers working to chip away at this false image of the mythical ‘Gypsy Creature’ and reveal the true historical and modern faces of Rromani people across the globe and I will list a few of them at the end of this post.

The first, and most respectful, place we can start is by exploring their works before we embark on our own. It is always going to be more valid and insightful to read the work of an indigenous writer than to read an outsider’s impression of another culture. If we read a wide range of autobiographies as well as fiction and historical non-fiction by Rromani writers we will eventually begin to build a picture of what life was like for Rromani people living in different parts of the world and in different time periods and we can then begin to decide whether and how it might be appropriate to write about the experiences of a Rromani person in our own fictional world.

Too often, a Rromani character is added to a story as either a plot device or a splash of colour. If something needs stealing, a child goes missing, our main character needs their fortune telling or an exotic romantic interest is needed, many writers seem to think that this is justification for dropping in a Gypsy or two with no personality, backstory, character development or future other than ‘they are a Gypsy.’ It is heartening that writers seem to be steadily moving away from using other People Of Colour as plot devices; it would be wonderful if the same could soon be said of Rromani people as well. If we make the important decision to include a character of any actual race or culture in our writing, we should have a clear purpose in doing so and ensure that we act with respect and integrity.

It is far beyond the scope of one short blog post to provide all the information a writer would need or desire to aid them in making such a huge decision, but what I can offer are some quick myth-busting points which will hopefully start us down the road of critical thinking around this subject (if we weren’t already on it).


1. The Gypsy myth

The word Gypsy is a pejorative racist slur. It is a shortened slang form of the word Egyptian and has been used to dehumanise and persecute Rromani people since their arrival in Europe as refugees from the invasion of their lands in India. Hitler used the word to brand Rromani people as a type of animal rather than human and to justify murdering hundreds of thousands of them during the Samudaripen (the Rromani word for Holocaust). To most Rromani people today the word is akin to the N word, although some have decided to reclaim and repurpose it as a symbol of pride, it should not be used by any non-Rromani person without an appropriate reason (for example in a historic context or affectionately amongst Rom friends where the term is being used and accepted as one of camaraderie).


2. The magic myth

The original religion of Rromani people was Hinduism. However, because of their forced migration from India and the need to adopt the religious beliefs of the new countries they settled in, Rromani religion today world wide is mostly Christian and Muslim. As such, the majority of Rromani people consider the practice of magic, fortune telling, witchcraft and all forms of Paganism to be against their religion. As with all cultures and races, there are a significant number of Rromani people who do follow a spiritual path that involves the practise of magic, divination or earth based religion but these are a minority and always have been. It would be a rare thing indeed to find a Rromani family casting spells, slinging curses or owning a crystal ball.


3. The nomadic myth

Since leaving India as refugees, Rromani people have strived endlessly to find a place to settle down and be accepted into a new society. This has sadly never been easy as their skin colour and language initially made people suspicious and mistrusting; laws were quickly put in place to prevent ‘Gypsies’ from entering towns, buying and selling goods, owning property or even having children. In Eastern Europe they were enslaved for hundreds of years, they certainly did not travel around in brightly painted caravans. In Western Europe many managed to convince people they were Greek or Italian and so were able to settle and integrate into mainstream society. Those who couldn’t, mostly joined the already mobile communities of travelling farm workers who moved in a set and steady circuit of seasonal work – sowing, harvesting and ploughing – around a small area the size of one or two counties.


4. The pretty painted caravan myth

Most Rromani people, both historically and today, live in houses. They have jobs, pay taxes, send their children to school, etc. Although historically some Rromani families did own painted wooden wagons known as Vardos, these expensive commissioned caravans were rare and only existed during a very brief period of history. Instead, those who did travel slept in Bender Tents.


5. The thieving myth

There are many folk stories / sayings which suggest that Rromani people believe the world belongs to everyone and so does everything in it – therefore they have no concept of stealing. I am certain than any educated person would not be persuaded by such a myth but sadly for some reason many fiction writers love this romantic concept and can’t resist writing Rromani characters as ‘lovable rogues’ whose innate innocence or mischievousness means they can’t keep their sticky fingers to themselves. There is nothing wrong with writing such a character into our worlds, the problem comes if we link this aspect of their personality to them being Rromani, that is when it becomes racism. In reality Rromani cultural and religious beliefs dictate that stealing is wrong – as do most cultures and religions the world over. As with ALL cultures and races, there are some Rromani people who steal and particularly those who live in poverty but this is a socio-economic issue, not one of race or cultural belief system.


5. The sexuality myth

We have the likes of the Pre-Raphs and the Gypsy Law Society largely to thank for the sexualisation of Rromani people (and Rromani women in particular). So much so that the tired old trope of the exotic, yet one dimensional, Gypsy Lover who sweeps into a story only to have swept out again by the end; a ‘free spirit’ who cannot help but dance from one sizzling love affair to the next breaking heroes or heroines hearts along the way is now so twee as to be ludicrous. It is even more ludicrous when taken with the fact that as most Rromani people are either Christian or Muslim  – and even those who aren’t have very strict codes governing dress and behaviour – such carry-on would be deemed scandalous!


Many thanks for journeying along with me today. If you’d like to find out more about the lives and history of Rromani people, the following blogs and books by Rromani writers are an excellent introduction:

Writing A Magically Weird Life – Jessica Reidy’s Blog

We Are The Romani People by Ian Hancock

We Are The  Roma! By Valeriu Nicolae

The Roads Of The Roma – A pen anthology of Gypsy Writers

Rabbit Stew And A Penny Or Two by Maggie Smith-Bendell

Setella by Aad Wagenaar

For Rromani folk tales see the works of Hedina Sijercic

For 20 powerful Rromani women writers see Jessica Reidy’s list

For lots more information and articles on this topic from my own website see my Rromani Steampunk section

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Penny Blake is rooted in a traditional storytelling background. She writes Mythpunk and LGBTQIA+ Steampunk inspired by her Rromani and Celtic cultural heritage. Her book of Mythpunk short stories can be found here: Mahrime: Mythpunk for Monsters, the first book in her Steampunk series can be found here: The Curious Adventures Of Smith and Skarry and her latest release, Necromancers – an irreverent zombie romance in which a forgotten cult accidentally resurrects the wrong gods – can be found here: Necromancers.

Quintet new review

There’s a terrific new review of the Infinity Plus short story collection Quintet here. (My Memory Seed tale Dr Vanchovy’s Final Case was published there, in 2012.)


Writers’ Lab Live video

This is the official video for the Writers’ Lab Live event on Saturday at Shrewsbury Library. A great time was had by all!

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The Conscientious Objector new review

Really pleased by this new review from the highly esteemed Nimue Brown, who also reviewed and loved the Factory Girl trilogy. Thanks, Nimue! (Nimue’s husband Tom did the fantastic cover artwork.)
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Writers’ Lab Live

11am – noon, Saturday 1st February, on the Shrewsbury Library page.

This will be a livestream via the Darwin Sessions.

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Hidden Depths by Robin Waterfield

This is a detailed study of the history of hypnosis, the debate around whether or not it exists as a defined phenomenon, and much else besides. Written by novelist, biographer and translator of Greek texts Robin Waterfield, its author’s wide-ranging interests and skill in telling a tale is evident.

The book begins with an in-depth and sophisticated discussion of the history of hypnosis, notably the contribution of Anton Mesmer (from whom we get the word mesmerism), moves on to sociological considerations, arrives at Freud and the modern world, then concludes with a few chapters on hypnotherapy and ‘modern forms,’ such as the psychedelic experience, political and advertising ‘mind control’ and various New Age considerations.

All in all, a fascinating, detailed and intriguing work. The author’s plea at the end is for hypnotism to lose its tarnished reputation (much of which he considers rooted in so-called stage hypnotists) and become an important part of therapy in our various cultures. As he points out, the evidence that hypnotism works is vast and incontrovertible. Let’s use it.

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