A million years in the future, two ecosystems stand opposed. The first, Nature, has faded, and exists only as isolated havens or, in the wider world, as biomes perverted by artifice into hideous forms. Against it stands the manufacturing ecosystem, which has evolved into a myriad lifelike shapes yet offers only an antiseptic brutality.
The land itself has changed. It is mutable. Maps remain accurate for little more than decades in Urbis Morpheos, the great manufactured environment that once was Earth . . .
In this bleak and hostile world live two women, Psolilai and psolilai, both of whom are on a mission. Psolilai (who dreams of psolilai) seeks wisdom following the funeral of her uncle and the discovery of a mysterious scriber. psolilai (who dreams of Psolilai) seeks 3Machines, the owl, the fount of wisdom of the great haven of Mahandriana, which is composed entirely of fungus. Both of these women have as their aide the peripatetic mycologist Gularvhen, who knows more than he says and who rides a three-eared horse with six voices. For in Urbis Morpheos the artificial computing system is scarlet and deadly, while the natural knowledge system is soft and fungal, full of secrets.
What is the truth of the ancient artifacts The Constructor and The Transmuter? What is the connection between them, the shapeshifting malleads and the sentients of the manufacturing ecosystem, the agens? In a world so numinous with artificial mystery most people have forgotten their origins in nature, Psolilai and psolilai must follow their paths and find wisdom. But men and devices stand in their way. And the most powerful being in Urbis Morpheos perhaps has hidden plans…
Psolilai and psolilai, each dreaming of the other, seek wisdom and knowledge in a world of two ecosystems at odds; namely, the nearly forgotten natural ecosystem and the manufacturing ecosystem, which produces such horrors as narcoleptic snow. After her escape from the prison of Tall Cliff Steel, Psolilai seeks her wisdom in strange forests and searches for the ancient artifact the Constructor. Meanwhile, psolilai seeks wisdom in the haven of Mahandriana. Both eat mushrooms that provide knowledge of the world around them. When Psolilai eats from a giant mushroom that has been growing under ice for thousands of years, she begins to understand the weather patterns of a natural world. Both are aided in their quests by peripatetic mycologist Gularvhen, who knows more than he’s admitting to and rides a horse with six voices and three ears. Set in an eerie world that’s fascinating to visit, the story of Psolilai, psolilai, Gulharven, and their various companions is certainly something to savor. —Regina Schroeder, Booklist Online.
Challenging sometimes to the point of impenetrability, Palmer’s first novel since 2004’s Hallucinating details a far-future battle between natural and manufactured ecosystems. Like his music (with the rock/electronica group Mooch) and art (including the cover art for this volume), Palmer’s writing can only be called psychedelic. The world is richly imagined, unusual, and creative, full of narcoleptic snow, plastic vultures, and living databases called “wrealities,” but dense prose, the choice of giving two main characters virtually the same name, seemingly random point of view shifts, and a wealth of unexplained details occasionally render the story incomprehensible. Only determined readers will make their way to the final page, but those who do will find the ending worth it. – Publishers Weekly.
In the far future, warring ecosystems threaten to destroy the manufactured ecosystem of Old Earth, now known as Urbis Morpheos, as the natural world fades into oblivion. Two women, Psolilai and psolilai, who dream of each other, may hold the keys that will save the world. Palmer’s surreal setting and distinctive style create an atmosphere that is at once dreamlike and starkly real. His characters serve as both archetype and individual, populating a world that is allegorical and believable. VERDICT The author of Memory Seed and Glass offers a challenging and thoughtful future world that should satisfy readers with a love for far-future sf and New Wave fiction. – Library Journal.
Of all the small presses that regularly send me books these days, perhaps my favorite is Pete Crowther’s PS Publishing over in the UK, despite their titles sometimes getting critically panned here at CCLaP; because more than just about any other small press I deal with, Crowther makes publishing decisions based on his heart and gut instead of his wallet, deeply idiosyncratic choices that are the very definition of “love it or hate it” genre work, which is how it is that I can adore the press yet still give it critical pans on a regular basis. Take for example their latest, the profoundly strange far-future tale Urbis Morpheos by British author Stephen Palmer, who I could barely find any information about online, other than that he’s written other SF titles before and perhaps (or perhaps not) a series of nonfiction books on psychology as well; because although I ended up really digging it quite a bit, even I’m a little puzzled afterwards over why exactly that is, while there will be plenty of others who will barely be able to stand this highly challenging, highly abstract story. It’s the kind of book that wouldn’t even exist in published form without organizations like PS; and that’s the reason I like PS so much, is that they regularly lavish a lot of money and attention on titles that will make others often ask what exactly they’ve been smoking.
And in fact, it’s difficult to even describe in a straightforward manner what exactly this novel is about, with many of the details I’m about to mention being mere guesses on my part, based on what I was able to glean from this utterly expository-free tale. I believe, for example, that it’s set on Earth but merely in the far, far, far future, one million years or more, in which so much time has passed that there is literally not a trace left of the human civilization you and I are a part of; and I also believe that what passes for humanity in this far future is now forced to share the planet with a highly evolved form of machine intelligence, one that has progressed so much for so many thousands of years that they too are now organic if not necessarily biological in nature, self-replicating creatures that essentially create entire habitats that are hostile to human life, forcing the humans to live in either protected areas or in artificial living environments called ‘biomes’ they’ve created themselves. The main character, then, is a woman named Psolilai, who actually exists in both physical form and as a dream state in our narrative itself (one capitalizes her name, the other doesn’t), leading similar but different lives and with us never quite sure which is real and which is the dream, the narrative simply shifting regularly from one voice to the other and with both presented to us as “real;” and both Psolilais are on quests of sorts, that apparently have to do with the scheming machinations of her Shakespearean family, and that involve all kinds of “million years in the future” concepts that will have your head spinning, like (to cite one example) the “wreality” biological information devices that “live” in giant pools of water within the biomes, which humans then “catch” like fish in order to have their Wikipedia-meets-Greek-oracle information poetically divulged.
I mean, I could go on and on like this, but it kind of defeats the point of reading it, which is not to get caught up in the plot’s intricacies but rather to let the whole thing wash over you like the obtuse gift it is, to wallow in this utterly striking universe that Palmer has created, even more fantastic for it supposedly being a look at our own race but only several rungs along the evolutionary ladder from where we are now. It’s the kind of book I would never seek out on my own, out in the far edges of the “New Weird” and just barely understandable as a traditional three-act story; so thank God PS Publishing is around to get such books into our hands, the kind of frustratingly dense yet textually rich treat that I only have the tolerance for two or three times a year. It’s simply too strange and designed for too niche an audience to get exactly a high score today, but certainly is a good example of the best that subgenre literature has to offer us, the kind of supremely odd yet deeply rewarding experience that will be perfect for existing fans of Mark Leyner, Mark Danielewski, and David Katzman. It comes highly recommended to those who at least recognize those names, even as most will end up confusedly scratching their heads over this puzzlebox of a book. Out of 10: 8.4 – Jason Pettus CCLaP.
I read Urbis Morpheos, the latest novel from author and musician Stephen Palmer, as the BP oil disaster unfolded; thousands of gallons of oil spilling daily into the Gulf of Mexico for a full three months before anyone could successfully stop it. I was dumbfounded at the American news media’s analysis of the consequences of the spill, with emphasis on the economic impact to the citizens and businesses in the Gulf region. With all due respect to the livelihoods of these poor souls, what about the long term consequences for the planet? We’re so good at building things. We are marvels of manufacturing. But we refuse to consider the long term consequences in any meaningful way.
It will come as no surprise to regular readers of Palmer’s novels that the setting of the story is one of environmental devastation. Urbis Morpheos is Earth, a million years in the future, during a new ice age. Nature is at odds with the manufacturing ecosystem. Machines have consciousness, evolve, and even mate. Technology, like the natural world, decays.
The story centers on two women – Psolilai and psolilai, whose connection is unclear. Are they sisters? Are they the same person? The have dreams about each other, and the situation is made even more complex by a character common to their parallel stories. What is clear, though, is that both are wrapped up in a battle for competing visions of the future.
At one end is what could be called the radical Green viewpoint. Dyeeth Boolin, a principle character says, “One of the great triumphs of the manufacturing ecosystem is its ability to mimic natural life”. But psolilai’s dream is a return to nature, complaining that the manufacturing ecosystem follows unnatural laws. “As a Gaian, I want to return nature to sole occupancy of the planet. If we don’t use our abilities to aid nature, Urbis Morpheos is doomed to a manufactured future.”
At the furthest extreme is the vision of a post-natural world and, ominously, a post-natural humanity.
But what reveals itself as the central question, and is repeated throughout the book, is can we accept a minimal, sufficient use of the raw materials, the tools that the Earth provides, to allow us to live with nature and still retain our required level of technology. Can we define a level of technology that makes sense, rather than being overblown and damaging in the name of profit and hyper-consumption.
Urbis Morpheos is not, however, a ranting political tract. Palmer explores these questions in the context of science fiction, fantasy, and high adventure. Psolilai and psolilai are on a quest, both aided by Gularvhen, the peripatetic mycologist, who travels on Hoss, an extraordinary horse that makes music in six voices. Gularvhen seeks mushrooms, they being the source of knowledge. Oh yes, there are many seriously psychedelic moments in this story, as are many of the characters. We’ve got shroomfynders, sporeseekers, narcoleptic snow, and a morphic motorcycle that runs off photons and adapts to mutable terrain. How fun is that?!!
Psolilai and psolilai each embark on parallel quests, seeking 3Machines, the Constructor and the Transmuter. psolilai hopes that 3Machines will divulge accumulated wisdom about nature was before the rise of the manufacturing ecosystem, giving insight into how the planet could be. The Constructor and Transmuter are unknown in origin and purpose, but could possibly repair the damage done to Urbis Morpheos by the manufacturing ecosystem. One scene I found significant was when psolilai and her companions enlisted the aid of the gryphons to fly them to the Sky Level. The gryphon says she must first pass a test. Answer a riddle and the gryphons will fly them to the Sky Level… classic quest.
The story is also engrossing for its visual imagery and Palmer has a flair for describing the ecologically shattered, wildly surreal world. For example: “We reached the river that flowed down to Teewemeer. Although less polluted – the water was clear – I could see signs of degradation on its bed, pebbles sheened in coloured slimes, artificial weeds like tongues, alongside a selection of simple natural life, white toads, fat fish, and once a four-legged heron”.
The natural and manufactured worlds also meet in the psychedelic realm and provide the reader with considerable image inducing stimulation. “Wrealities” are like the manufactured world’s version of mushrooms, as sources of knowledge. At the Church of the Parasol Cap Psolilai dreams of psolilai: “On nocturnal expeditions she collects wild wrealities, pulling them from decaying technology like puff-balls from pasture. In her room, as dawn breaks through ragged cloud, she will with trembling hands take the wrealities and lick them as if they are sweets, experiencing a rush of meaningless visions, like meteors smashing into her brain from inner space. Meaningless, but addictive–.” Later one of the humanoid machines says to psolilai: “I work for communication, for a time when you will be able to appreciate wrealities, and I a mushroom.”
Get this book into the hands of a visionary director with a big budget and you’ve got the makings of a mind-blowing movie. Urbis Morpheos blends science fiction, fantasy and adventure with hard questions about the future of our planet, and, ultimately, the fate of mankind. It is thought provoking, topical, and good fun. – Aural Innovations.
Well, this has to be the most unusual book I’ve read in the last couple of years. For context, I’ve read 113 books since April 2009 (when I started buying on Kindle, so this is the total Amazon gives me). I probably haven’t read more than 5 non-SciFi books (and 1 non-Kindle book) in that time; so I’ve read a reasonable amount of SciFi, mostly from the authors you’d see as mainstream – Neal Stephenson, Richard Morgan, Charles Stross, Peter Hamilton, Ian Banks, Robert Charles Wilson, etc.
Stephen Palmer is at a Whole Nutha’ Level. One way to describe it: “Consider natural & technological evolution running its course for a couple of million years. Discuss.”
Urbis Morpheos is set in an indeterminate, but likely VERY future time, and an indeterminate place that is likely Earth, but it’s never said. Palmer simply immerses you in the language, story, place, and time, and doesn’t try to explain things you don’t know about. Definitely non-expository. You’re left to figure things out over the course of the book from the context of their use. While this technique isn’t unique, it’s definitely atypical.
But what really sets it apart is that the culture, environment, and place that this book creates is SO unlike anything I’ve read that it bends my mind. Serious drugs – or mushrooms – were used in the fabrication of this place.
By comparison, other SciFi books now seem to be a LOT like our human experience today, merely placed into a new context. Whether that context be space, robots, space-faring robots, human space or time travel, non-human similarly, etc., the emotions, actions, and stories of characters in other books seem to be comparatively rooted in & derived from today’s human experience.
Not so with Urbis Morpheos. It’s WAY different. Wonderfully way different. For at least a good chunk of the book, you’ll be challenged to build a mental structure to hold all the things you’re reading; and know how what you’re reading could possibly relate to where the book is going. Assuming it’s going somewhere.
And Palmer does NOT spoon feed you. That would be under-challenging the reader. Here, content occasionally emerges in a hallucinogenic fusillade that you assume will eventually mean something.
Your ability to understand it may be directly related to the amount of mushrooms you’re willing to do while reading it. This isn’t one of those books you’re going to read and feel you grokked the whole thing in one read. To “get” this book would take re-reading, study, and work.
But don’t do that. Read it, and let the ideas, story, and everything drown you. Assume that it might, or might not, eventually make sense, but that you’ll enjoy it anyway. Then be prepared to sit & let your vibrating brain recover before moving on. And maybe someday, you’ll come back and read it again, and maybe get it a bit more. Maybe.
Thanks, Stephen. This was a mind-exploder. My next read will be another of your books. I hope it is of this caliber. – Goodreads, Jay Batson.
Where do you begin to review a book like this?
To begin with it goes without saying that this not the normal type of book that I would pick up to read, although strangely enough, one of the books that is mentioned in the introduction (Crescent City Rhapsody by Kathleen Ann Goonan) is one that I have read, so perhaps there is a precedent.
One of the main things that struck me as I read through the novel was the sheer amount of imagination that has been thrown into Urbis Morpheos. Most imaginative fiction requires a vast amount of creative energy in it, but this ratches things up another notch. It is wildly, insanely creative on a level that is simply stunning.
It is a novel that makes the reader earn its delights, making you concentrate as you read, not just to follow the two major intwining plots, but to absorb the depth of detail sunk into a far future Earth that is both breathtaking and nightmarish at the same time.
Set in in a (very) far distant future, it shows a world that has been torn apart by the relentless progression of machine against nature. Where the Earth has been torn apart, with nano-technology running rampant, turning the planet into a dystopian place with no one sure what should be the right dominant force, nature or technology?
It is a world where knowledge can be absorbed through the ingestion of mushrooms (for the biologicals) and through technological wrealities (for the constructed), each side convinced that their is the natural way forward, so society sits in a precarious balance.
The world it takes place in is a wondrous, terrible place filled with incredibly named places and artifacts, characters that conjure the strangest of images in the minds eye, with names that are as complicated as they are delightful as you pronounce them.
As stated above this is two tales, one of Psolilai and the other of psolilai (now you begin to see how it requires concentration). Both are women on a mission to try and find their way through the world of Urbis Morpheos, to come to terms with all the things that are arrayed against them, and bring balance to the environment of their world. But of course just to add to the confusion one might be dreaming of the other, but which one is the dream and which the reality is not easy to discern. Even more confusing the characters they interact with, companions on their journeys and otherwise have the same names, the same relationships, are in fact the same people translocated between the realities. Add to this the fact that jumping between the two characters seems to jump to different places in their journeys, it becomes dreamlike.
In both cases the protagonists seem to be flawed to make mistakes and the conundrum is something that is not really resolved until the end of the book, which is the way thing should be.
Ultimately the title of the world in which they struggle might be the biggest help of all: Urbis Morpheos, which translates into City of Dreams.
Reading this was an apt reminder of why it is sometimes a good thing to read utside of your regular comfort one, because it opens you to something else. The book is a very enjoyable read, something a little bit different and a showcase for a talent and an imagination that is extraordinary. – Goodreads, T.I.M. James.
original PS Publishing book cover