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
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
(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
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...
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
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
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
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
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
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 movement
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'.
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'.
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 (www.stephenpalmer.co.uk)
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 at
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.
is published by Cosmos
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