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Stephen Palmer

interviewed by John Toon


FlowercrashOnce described as 'looking set to become a British Gene Wolfe', Stephen Palmer made his SF debut in 1996 with Memory Seed, an apocalyptic tale of environmental collapse in the (perhaps not so) far future. A sequel, Glass, followed in 1997 to great acclaim, but it would be five years before more novels appeared. In the meantime, Stephen was developing his musical interests--the long-running collaborative project Mooch, which has spawned four CD releases with a fifth to follow imminently, and his solo enterprise, Blue Lily Commission, which he describes as 'future trance from an ancient world', and which has thus far led to three CD-R albums and an EP. In 2002, Cosmos Books, an imprint of the Wildside Press, published two new novels from Stephen Palmer: Muezzinland, a quest across an Africa transformed by interactive technology, and Flowercrash, a thematic successor to Memory Seed and Glass. His latest novel, Hallucinating, was published by Cosmos Books early in 2004.

I met Steve at an undisclosed location in Autumn 2003 to discuss his SF work. A third party was on hand to ensure that the location's secrecy was maintained.


John Toon: Hi Steve, nice to see you here.

Stephen Palmer: Hi you two.

JT: Let's begin the questions. How did Memory Seed start out, and how did you go from that starting point to the published novel?

SP: Well, when I was just beginning to write--Memory Seedin my mid-20's, around about 1987--I used to walk a lot around Virginia Water in Windsor Great Park. The wonderful natural scenery inspired me. One day, I got two strong visual images lodged in my mind: one of a future port city with moss-covered roofs and green streets, the other of a luxurious bordello where the whores and customers were only one part of a secret operation. Then I had the idea of this city--Kray--being the last inhabited place on Earth, with everything else reclaimed by plants. From those beginnings the whole structure of Memory Seed was born: the green and slimy milieu, the characters, the artificial entities.

(Picks up tatty blue folder.) This is the original file, but that first draft of 1988 never got anywhere. Then in 1992 I had inspiration again, and I decided I had to return to Kray and write a new novel. It was the first novel that I re-wrote. By the end of that year I was sending off sample chapters to various publishers, but only one, Victor Gollancz, replied. At that time my wife and I were battling with two psychotic neighbours, and in December 1993 we moved house, having endured Hell for two and a half years. But a couple of days before we left forever an envelope popped through my letterbox. It was a note from Tim Holman at Orbit. He had read the first three chapters of Kray and wanted to read the rest. A year had passed since I sent him the chapters. It was a lucky break that we didn't move a week earlier...

By the end of 1994 I had completed a third revised version, this one being the female-only scenario, so Tim had to read that before he made a decision. Then in 1995 I got a phone call saying he wanted to publish it and one other book. Needless to say, I was over the moon.

The original book was called Kray--a corruption of Cray, since there was a supercomputer lurking somewhere in the first draft--but the people at Orbit were uncomfortable with that title. For some reason, however, nobody was able to come up with a suitable alternative title. Eventually my good friend Steve Kett suggested Seeds Of Memory, which got remade into Memory Seed.

JT: The Clocktower in Memory Seed is a bit of a deus ex machina (so to speak), isn't it? Is there a definite explanation for its origin, or is it just a fun way to get the characters out at the end?

SP: Well, looking for anything definite in one of my novels is like looking for glacé cherries in a shepherd's pie. I don't really 'do' definite. Luckily, that statement isn't entirely serious...

The Clocktower is described on a number of occasions, but each time it has a different external appearance, because it is the Clocktower from different time periods in humanity's past. It is an indicator of the former splendour of humanity's technological 'achievements'. But the Clocktower is also related to deKray, because it is where he does the brain operation on himself. By performing that operation, he writes himself out of humanity's future--it's why Zinina doesn't have his child, and it's why he can't see the Clocktower at the end of the novel. I wouldn't say that the Clocktower is a deus ex machina for two reasons: one, the clues making clear what it is are spread throughout the book--okay, concealed throughout the book... And secondly, I think the fact that Arrahaquen and her companions really sweat to find an exit to Kray makes the Clocktower more of an escape route. With yer average deus ex machina, the reader and the characters have no prior warning that said deus is going to hove into view.

(Sips cup of herbal tea.) All this relates to the forty-year time-loop that deKray finds himself on--you spotted the forty-year time-loop...

JT: Sure--deKray's a bit of an Ouroboros figure, isn't he? Nipping back and starting himself off again. (Takes glass of flavoured water from third party.) Ooh, thanks.

The upshot, of course, is that you're left with an all-female cast at the end, and therein lies a similarity I've noticed between your work and that of writers like Colin Greenland--you seem to favour writing from the female perspective. Is this a conscious decision? Or are you simply more in tune with your 'feminine side' than other male authors?

SP (shrugs): A bit of both, I think. While I favour writing from a more human perspective out of instinct, I admit that I do consciously choose more female characters than male. I'm not much interested in what makes a typical man tick--that can be done by the experts in the field. However, writing with women cast members is, for me, more of an exploration of humanity than femininity. Women, or so it seems to me, are allowed to be human, whereas men are constrained by a box called masculinity. Boys are trained to repress their humanity by patriarchal culture. I'm happy to do whatever I can to bring down that culture.

I'm currently reading Thomas Pakenham's The Scramble For Africa, and, frankly, you couldn't wish for a better picture of the inhumanity caused by patriarchy than this history of African colonialism. Tear patriarchy down, I say!

JT: In a funny sense, I found the end of Memory Seed just as pessimistic as that of Glass, because it seems to be saying, 'Our only hope of surviving the mess we're creating is a time-travelling tower and an automated sperm bank.'

SP (rolls around laughing): You crack me up, John! Well, the ending of Memory Seed is bittersweet, certainly. I wanted it to be both mysterious and understandable at the same time. There are elements of wonder, for example in the great storm that the Earth itself seems to serve up in order to destroy the final remnants of humanity, but also elements pointing out that we have made rather a dangerous bed for ourselves, and soon we're going to have to lie in it.

Memory Seed is an inherently pessimistic novel. Things are messed up: chemicals flooding the environment that shouldn't be there, 99.99% of the world uninhabitable, and so on. There's your dystopia. But the fact that, through their own efforts, the main characters manage to find a solution to their problem is to me more of a positive theme. After all, it's religion and orthodox thought that Arrahaquen and her colleagues break through in order to escape the maelstrom. That, in a sense, is even more of an important theme than all the environmental stuff.

When Tim Holman and I were discussing the details of Glass, we agreed that the ending should be as bleak as possible. That kind of ending fitted the Glass theme and its storyline.

JT: How did placing the events of Glass in an alien environment affect your approach to the ecological issues? Or are ecological issues not the main focus of Glass?

SP: They are a focus, certainly, but not in the same visceral sense as in Memory Seed. With Glass, I wanted to tell the story of the noophytes, and relate that, via their overly intellectual viewpoint, to the themes that interest me. (Picks up a copy of Flowercrash.) Those themes have their conclusion in this novel.

In Glass, the story is more about attitude to environment than its physical destruction--whatever kind of environment that happens to be, green or artificial. Umia, for instance, has an alienated view of the city that he lives in, which is an attitude a lot of so-called leaders perched at the top of hierarchies have. The human attitude to the gnosticians, to take another example from Glass, is not unlike that of a colonising culture over a native one--the British over the Australian Aborigines, for instance. I think that it is this isolation from the real world that allows people to behave in a way that ultimately destroys; if they were more connected to other people and to the land, they would not be able to act with such arrogance. Brutality arises from emotional distance.

JT: Something I think we're seeing a fair bit at the moment in a certain nation's foreign policy. Can I say that? (Brief pause for consultation.) OK, I think we got away with it.

We're touching on Gaian theory here, something I know you embrace. How do you think a character--or indeed, a real person!--might connect to the 'Gaia' of an alien world, such as that in Glass? Would it be an insurmountable gap? Is it just too direct an invasion of an alien system?

SP: This is a tricky one. I see what you're saying, but we have to be careful with the terminology. Gaia is a name suggested by the author William Golding for the superorganism described by James Lovelock--originator of the Gaia Theory--which regulates the environment of Earth through various feedback mechanisms. There is no 'Gaia mind' or 'Gaia entity' that anybody could meet. Gaia is a superorganism in the sense that it is a tightly interwoven entity composed of living creatures, geology, physics and all the rest of it. Because it acts to keep the environment of our planet suitable for life, despite the varying astronomical conditions--for example, the sun is 25% brighter and hotter than it was 4 billion years ago, yet the average temperature is as good as unchanged in that time--it has certain 'living' characteristics, and so can be considered a type of organism.

So, yes, there is an insurmountable gap. Of course, we can, as individuals, come to know something of Gaia by simply becoming more receptive to the natural world. Environmental pollution and destruction happens because people have set themselves adrift from nature. That's not an irreversible move. You only have to pop down to the seaside to sense something of the power and wonder of nature.

I'm constantly amazed by life. Every year, I'm fascinated by watching bees buzzing around flowers, even though I've seen it all before. You remember Neil the hippy in The Young Ones? There's a great scene in one episode where Neil is freaked out by the fact that seeds grow into plants. He's amazed. That's kind of how I am...

JT: This theme of brutality through emotional distance, as you say, has its conclusion in Flowercrash. It's played out in the political rulers of Veneris, but most strongly presented in the noophyte/network entity Baigurgone. Is it significant that it's another network entity, Zoahnone, who proposes the idea of physically embodying her kind to bridge that emotional gap?

SP (nods): An example of a race saving itself, you see--a similar theme to that of Memory Seed, where the people waiting to be saved are lost, and only those who make an effort to save themselves have any chance of success. At the end of Memory Seed, the women of the Goddess realise that they have fooled themselves just as much as those who worship the Dead Spirits. It's all nonsense, hoping to be saved--there's only one life, no afterlife, and nobody comes along to save anybody. (Mildly exasperated, now.)

Anyway, sorry, lost my thread there... Zoahnone is an artificial being who realises that the 'Holy Grail' of her species, namely, divorcing the intellect from the body, is a dead end. So she converts to the humane way and becomes an advocate of humanism. And then a third artificial entity is won over, leaving only the extremist Baigurgone...

JT: In Flowercrash, how did you devise the Sea-Clerics' poetic patois?

SP: The idea was to invent a language that could be understood by the reader as metaphors of how the Sea-Clerics view life. They're marine fundamentalists, and they view everything from the point of view of the ocean. A lot of the patois was improvised as I wrote the novel, but I made sure it was consistent--certain repeating phrases, for example, and always that reference to the ocean. I tried also to encompass the entirety of ocean life: the pretty coral-type bits, and the fish, but also the immense power of tides and storms. Rachel Carson's book The Sea Around Us was a useful reference.

Living within view of the sea provides me with a constant inspiration. (Smiles.) I'm lucky to live in the Westcountry.

JT: Your other recently published book is Muezzinland, a journey through western Africa in the 22nd century. 'A Reclaim the Streets Muezzinlandmovement for cyberpunk' was my impression of it--the de-Westernised focus, the emphasis of humanity over technocracy. Any comment?

SP: I didn't set out with that agenda in mind, but I like what you're saying. Humanity over technocracy will be a theme I follow until my very last book. The great humanist thinker Erich Fromm pointed out thirty years ago that scientific research must be separated from application in industry and defence if human beings are to develop fully and authentically. One of the sickest aspects of current technophilic society is the demand that science--that is, knowledge--be justified by commercial or political benefit. We need to rediscover science for its own sake. James Lovelock writes movingly on these themes in his recent autobiography Homage To Gaia.

I do remember being inspired by William Gibson's concept of cyberspace, but I didn't want to use the Tron-like grids and mathematical shapes of his work. Eventually I came up with the aether, which is an artificial electromagnetic ocean. Electromagnetic biograins in 22nd century human brains both support and interact with the aether. Culture itself is within the aether--everything from artificial intelligences to ancient folklore. I wanted the aether to be a kind of 'cyberspace via telepathy'.

JT: Muezzinland is richly layered with African folklore and music. I think now is a good time to mention your music, specifically the Blue Lily Commission, which also shows strong African influences. They seem closely linked, but which came first--the idea of the music, or the idea of the book?

SP (grinning): The book by quite a few years. I had a few general ideas in mind when I created Muezzinland--I wanted to write a novel set in Africa, and I wanted it to be in the form of a journey. The characters came first, two sisters and their appalling mother, inspired by Princess Diana and the royal family in that time during the eighties when Diana was fighting with herself and with the Windsors, becoming anorexic as a result. I did a lot of research for that novel.

There are one or two sections that were inspired by my music and by other work that I had done, for example, the descriptions of futuristic Moroccan music in Fez--the 'music that is never switched off'.

JT: Muezzinland is certainly unusual within your oeuvre for being in the form of a journey, because your other books have all taken place within single cities. Do you find the character of the city influences the character of the book, and/or vice versa? And did the absence of a single defining city in Muezzinland affect that book's creation at all?

SP: That's an interesting point. I grew up in deepest, darkest rural Shropshire, and that, I think, is the main reason for my interest in environmental matters. I think my attitude to the notion of cities is a voyeuristic one. I'd never ever live in one, but that mix of the cosmopolitan and the bustling fascinates me nonetheless. It's really the architecture of cities that interests me--the character, if you like. I don't mean the masonry, I mean the style, the culture. China Mieville's New Crobuzon is a good example of how a city can be given a particular cultural architecture, so that it becomes a place of extraordinary resonance and cohesion. I always hoped that the particulars of Kray--the greenery, the people, the slime and the rain--would make it vivid and memorable. In fact it was the character of Kray that made me do that first re-write, something I had never done before. I really wanted to go back there.

As for Muezzinland, I knew before I wrote a word of the novel that it would be in the form of a long journey. With the first three novels, though, I think there is one defining characteristic that influences them, and that is the sense of restriction, almost of claustrophobia, that runs through the books. It's particularly present in Memory Seed. This quality of restriction is something that interests me, though it was only recently that I realised it was present. Once I became aware of it I consciously played on it, for instance by deliberately restricting scenarios for books. I'd like to set a fantasy novel in one single room. It would have to be a particular type of room, one with some cultural resonance, but it would really inculcate a sense of claustrophobia in the reader. (Grins.) You could really rack up the tension in an environment like that.

That's why Alien is such an outstanding film, and it's also why it should never have had any sequels.

JT: Your next book is called Hallucinating--apparently this one is a bit of a departure from its predecessors?

SP: Very much so, I fancy. Originally this was a short story that I put up on my website ( the idea being to write something for festival people--you know, alternative types, hippies, travelers, freethinkers and the like. Inevitably, there was a SF theme. The story stood there for a couple of years before I was inspired by the Westcountry to write the second part. Then I developed and prepared the rest of the novel, but I found no time to complete it. Last year, Sean Wallace--editor of Cosmos Books and Prime Books in the US--told me that he wanted to publish the whole novel, but I emailed back saying it was incomplete and that I was unlikely to finish it. However, I changed my mind, in part through re-reading the two extant parts, but also after reading Bold As Love by Gwyneth Jones.

Hallucinating is aimed at musical people and Hallucinatingat those who read SF. There is a strong music content and lots of humour. The book is written in a very colloquial, almost slangy way, unlike my other work. The story is simple: a cool record company owner, Nulight, the main character of the book, thinks an alien invasion is about to happen. He becomes involved with the aliens--if they exist--and then, when the aliens invade and take over the Earth--if they really do--he decides to instigate a response. The middle third of the book is a quest for that response, while the last two parts deal with whether it works. That is, if everything wasn't a hallucination...

I hope people like this new book. I know that it's different, but I think the strong, central storyline will pull readers along. Do you mind if I read out the blurb from the back cover?

JT: I don't. (Looks to left.) Do you? No, sure, go ahead.

SP (reads scrap of paper): 'Europe, 2049. Nulight, a Tibetan refugee and notorious underground record company owner, emerges from an obscure Berlin nightclub realising that an alien invasion is imminent. Or is he hallucinating? Contacting his ex-lover Kappa and the invisible man Master Sengel, he begins an investigation. Then he is abducted. Released. And soon the aliens invade. To save humanity, Nulight and his motley group of friends must decide if the aliens are real or not--and if they are, what to do about them. For Britain has become a land of pagan communities and wilderness, where the strength and resolve for the forthcoming struggle may not exist. Can music save Britain? Can it save the world?' (Waving hands in a windmill motion now.) It concludes, 'Hallucinating features cameo appearances from Ed Wynne of Ozric Tentacles, Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree, Toby Marks of Banco de Gaia and many others. Michael Dog has written a foreword.'

JT: And after Hallucinating?

SP: I've found myself changing direction towards fantasy just lately. Perhaps, one day, my fantasy work will be published. (Gazes wistfully into the middle distance.) It's hard to say in the current publishing climate. I only like certain types of fantasy--Jack Vance, Tolkien of course, Robin Hobb, Juliet E. McKenna, Philip Pullman, Robert Holdstock, Mary Gentle. I like fantasy that focuses on the little people as well as the kings and queens. My ideal fantasy would be about a milliner, say, or an innkeeper. (Thinks for a moment.) Or perhaps a beggar forced to eat out of the gutter to survive. Not a handsome man, I expect, and with no hopes; a desperate man, certainly.

JT: Finally, Steve, is the glass half full or half empty?

SP: I can see two glasses. Do you mean that one, the half full one, or the one that's half empty?

(Silence descends upon the room.)

JT: Stephen Palmer, thank you. (Turning left.) And thank you, of course.

(All three men rise from their seats. Two leave for the Westcountry, while one returns home to East Anglia.)

© John Toon 2004.

Hallucinating by Stephen Palmer
Hallucinating is published by Cosmos Books (2004).

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