Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Otherlands by Thomas Halliday

Touted as the best-written journey back into the evolutionary past of life for some time, this is indeed a superbly evocative trip into the mists of time. It’s the debut book of a new author, the young biologist Thomas Halliday: the start of a promising career, hopefully.

The book is split into sixteen sections, each of them a vivid description of a particular environment at a particular time, beginning with the Pleistocene a mere 20,000 years ago and concluding with the Ediacaran, 555 million years ago. Halliday focuses on the animals and plants of the time, but includes much by way of geology and environment too, each section with a theme. This structure makes for a fascinating read.

The writing is deliberately poetic, and in the main it works, with very few slip-ups owing to excess purple. This dedication to lyrical prose isn’t forced however, and overall the tone is superb.

I particularly liked the Eocene, Chixulub and end-Permian sections, also the last three or four, where all the action turns to the seas and life becomes increasingly strange. The last section in particular evokes a seascape part way between animal life and other almost-animal lifeforms very well.

Overall, a very good book indeed, deserving of the praise placed upon it. Great cover too!

The Imposters by Toby Frost

Well known for his Space Captain Smith novels, in this engaging and very readable caper (using that word in a positive sense) our very own Toby Frost presents a different, more refined genre comedy, which has plenty of laughs but even more by way of wit.

Helen Frampton is a former childcare android souped up into a government owned agent with more skills than a Swiss Army knife. Richard Cleaver is… well, let’s not go there just yet.

This is indeed a refined and witty caper, a tale of two mismatched characters getting to know one another as they try to find out the location of a vault of treasure. On their tails are the scary Sally Anne and her posse of not quite so scary accomplices. The action is swift where it needs to be and slower where it can be. Pacing is excellent in this book.

As the climax approaches we’re presented with a plot twist and then a massive battle. I won’t spoil the ending except to say I absolutely did not see it coming!

There’s a little bit of philosophy here also to underpin the tale, mostly on the relationship between individuals, memory and identity. Overall the novel has a bit of a pulp feel to it, again, using that term in a positive, knowing kind of way. All in all, an enjoyable read by an author well along the road of comic writing. Definitely recommended.

The Paths Of Artists

Yesterday’s news of the death of Klaus Schulze has made me think on why he was so different to his peers. Really, only Edgar Froese equalled him for trailblazing imagination. That series of albums from 1976 to 1982 is matched only by the equivalent series by Tangerine Dream.

I think the reason those two stand out and have remained beloved and inspirational is their ability to explore. Both were lucky: in the right place at the right time. But luck isn’t everything; you have to have protean talent also. Yet there is a third ingredient necessary to understand the importance of Schulze to the world of music. He was exploring music through the ’70s and early ’80s, delighting in it, fearless and fascinated, and as a consequence creating an extraordinary catalogue of recordings. When listening to Moondawn, Mirage, “X,” Dune, Dig It, Trancefer and Audentity we are hearing a man forging a path through unknown territory, delighting in his own creativity and delighting us too.

Part of the reason those albums are so remarkable is that they weren’t easy to make. Froese and Schulze had to struggle to do what they did. They fought their way through that unknown territory, they demanded the energy and vision of themselves, and as a consequence they created music which still resonates today, fifty years later.

I recognise true artists by this ability to explore and progress. You see it in Schulze and Froese, but also in Kate Bush, David Bowie and Bjork. These are creative people who cannot sit on their laurels, who have to be progressing into new territory. It is a mark of greatness. In literature, I see it in Gene Wolfe and Kim Stanley Robinson, both of whom cut a broad swathe through the norms of their time. In art, I see it in Ernst, Picasso and Turner.

True artists don’t need a pre-existing path; they make their own. They are artistic explorers, pioneers, blazing trails and breaking new ground. Schulze was the perfect example of this: compelled to explore, always wanting to move on, taking his fans with him. It did not last forever, of course, for by the mid-1980s he had lost a lot of his strength and nerve. I think the advent of digital synthesisers made everything a bit too easy; certainly that was true for Tangerine Dream. But a work of musical brilliance like “X” remains brilliant for all time. Once set, it endures, because it says something of universal relevance and importance.

Never stand still. Always seek new ground. Make music for your listeners, not for your fans. Write novels for your readers, not for your fans. True artists only move forwards. A true artist leads.

RIP Klaus Schulze

I vividly remember buying my first Klaus Schulze LP. It was 1980 and I was a first year student at university, my mind opened at school a couple of years earlier to Tangerine Dream, Yes, Genesis and ELP. It was Tangerine Dream who drew me most though, and when I realised Schulze was making the same kind of music I sensed good omens. A friend of mine at uni who had attended the same 1980 Tangerine Dream gig in London that I was at spoke of music so repetitive and mesmeric you could see its patterns in the grooves. I was hooked! Already a fan of Steve Reich and Tangerine Dream, I knew Schulze had to be investigated.

One day in 1980 I walked down to my local record shop in Egham and spotted a blue LP called Dig It. I bought it, and was amazed at what I heard. This was music the like of which I had never heard before: ice cold, hypnotic, trailblazing. I loved it. Some weeks later I made one of my regular trips to Virgin Records in Oxford Street and there spotted an LP called Moondawn. This, even more than Dig It, was the album which told me Schulze was a rare genius indeed. To this day the track Floating in particular is a jaw-dropping listen, which has lost none of its power in the forty-six years since Schulze made it.

But an even more gobsmacking discovery lay in wait. One of the albums I bought next was Schulze’s magnum opus “X”, which surely must be in the running for greatest electronic music album ever made. And there was more! Between 1976 and 1982 Schulze released a series of albums each extraordinary in their scope, vision, musicality, originality and trailblazing qualities. It matches Tangerine Dream’s run of albums between those same years – music the like of which we’ll never hear again.

Those were ground-breaking days, when musicians of brilliance in the right place at the right time could make incredible music. Schulze was one of those. He followed his own unique vision, taking his fans with him wherever he went. Rightly is he called the Godfather of EM. Part of his brilliance came from his experience as a drummer, allowing him to bring the physicality of drumming into his music, a physicality which all his works of genius exhibit – even the relatively ambient Mirage, which at the end of side one freezes the listener’s body. Schulze said that he thought every electronic musician should drum for a while, that the strictures and compositional benefits be felt.

After 1982 and the extraordinary Audentity, there did not seem to be quite the same level of invention and progression in his music however. The music was good, often very good, but it lacked the magic touch. A brief resurgence at the end of 1980s suggested good things, but actually those two albums have not worn terribly well, and what followed through the 1990s – insipid collaborations and far too much sampling – turned me off his music. There was a return to form for Moonlake and in particular on the marvellous Kontinuum, but little else of note.

His death leaves electronic music mourning one of its true greats. Yes, he was the right man at the right time, and he was lucky, but there was nobody else like him, and they say the cream always rises to the top. Schulze was unique, remarkable, visionary, and the legacy of music he leaves, especially from that eight year run, will never be matched. I can listen to Trancefer today and still have my breath taken away by its sheer beauty. I still feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck when the opening notes of Friedrich Nietzsche hove into view, and I still adore the magic of his winter Mirage. That’s the mark of genius. It won’t be forgotten.

“X” – six musical biographies…


Recent gasp-inducing acts perpetrated by Tory politicians have brought that “profession” to a new low, not least Johnson & Sunak, and the perpetually smirking Patel. But what is happening in British politics? How is it that deeds which only a few years ago would have meant instant resignation now have no consequences at all? When did politicians realise that they didn’t have even to pretend to be sorry, they just had to ignore some brief, inconvenient hassle on social media and the telly? Because that is the scariest thing about the way politics is going – you don’t even have to pretend any more. You just carry on as if nothing had happened.

In her ground-breaking, insightful, but frightening book The Cyber Effect, Dr Mary Aiken described a phenomenon she called cyber-migration, in which behaviour in the digital world – the internet essentially, in all its forms – migrates into the real world. One of the most concerning aspects of recently changing human behaviour is how, through the internet’s anonymity and a general lack of consequences, it acts to reduce the effect of shame. We are seeing this exact effect now in the British political system. MPs have the impression that not much matters any more when it comes to standards of behaviour. They can do what they like, invent any old excuse, mouth it on the telly, then carry on as if nothing had happened. We see this par excellence with Johnson, who anyway never bothered about bringing coherence to his excuses.

The overpowering Western emphasis on the individual is also being amplified by the internet. Shame is the emotion conveying knowledge of ethical wrong and ostracising, which is to say it works in human communities, small ones especially, but also on a larger scale. Shame however is notably absent on the internet. So when people gasp and say of Johnson & Sunak, “Do they have no shame?” the answer is no, their shame has been diminished by the social and cultural environment they live in. Alas, I suspect those two clowns are the thin end of the wedge.

These are profoundly dangerous times. If the social norms of the internet migrate into politics they will migrate into war. What then?

Conjuror Girl new review

Great new review from Mark Hayes at the Passing Place blog, concluding his thoughts on the Conjuror Girl trilogy.

This Long Pursuit by Richard Holmes

A collection of essays on the art of biography, this book, by one of our best known and loved biographers, is divided into two parts, the first, confessions, dealing with the generalities of biography, the second, restorations, showcasing a series of vignettes of folk of the Romantic era, a period for which this author is best known. The latter section is particularly good, focusing often on how biographies change over time according to the social atmosphere of the period. Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley and Coleridge are especially interesting. I was less interested in Keats and Blake. A good read overall though, in polished prose and with plenty of insight.

Shrewsbury Museum Workshop

I’m pleased to say I’ve been asked to give a workshop at Shrewsbury Museum in June, following on from the enjoyable and successful Write Here, Write Now event last Friday. My theme will be “firsts” – first sentence, first paragraph, plus book titles and blurbs. It will be a two hour workshop, with attendees only needing pen and paper.

The museum…

Museum Event Tonight

I’m looking forward to it!

The Tangled Tree by David Quammen

This is a really good book. I’m partial to histories of pre-Cambrian life on Earth, and this is one of the best I’ve read. The author is not only an experienced science writer, he has wit and wisdom, and a way with words too.

The book is split into seven sections, covering early, Darwinian notions of a tree of life, ideas about bacteria and other tiny organisms, ideas of biological symbiosis, a new, more accurate form of the tree, horizontal gene transfer, changing the lower section of the tree into a more accurate (but far more complex) network, and how what we know today affects human beings.

A few major characters stalk this marvellously written book, the main one being Carl Woese, responsible for the discovery of how different Archaea are from Bacteria. A difficult, complex man, except to those friends who liked him and stood by him, he is the heart of this book, though some of his ideas turned out to be wrong. But he did get a lot right. Another major character is Lynn Margulis, who put forward the accepted theory of mitochondria and chloroplasts being captured bacteria. Many other notables inhabit these pages, all sympathetically drawn.

The science is fascinating, the story is compelling and the details of personality and other quirks not intrusive. Too often (I’m looking at you, Adam Rutherford), writers over-do the human interest angle or, like Suzanne Simard, get it half right. Quammen’s notes on character are all perfectly judged and occur at just the right rate. These are really interesting people, and we do need to know a little about them. It’s a tribute to this author that he knows how to get that balance right.

You do need a bit of biological knowledge to get the full effect – the section on antibiotic resistance is pretty dense – but this is certainly a book for the lay reader. Highly recommended.