Tag Archives: Stephen Palmer

Woodland Revolution – a review

This may be exactly the right book to read at this point in time. Stephen Palmer’s Woodland Revolution starts out seeming very simple. The main characters are a young wolf, and an older dog who lives feral in the wood. It has a mythic feel, and reads like a classic fairy story.

As a consequence I found it easy to fall into and my tired, troubled mind was soothed by the mythic cadence. The story is set in The Wood which sometimes feels like a specific location, but mostly feels like the spirit of woodland and wildness. The Wood has rules. The two characters we follow are questioning those rules and want to at least understand life in The Wood. As they go along, they become ever more in conflict with the way the rules are interpreted, and the lack of clarity. What starts out as a simple, mythic quest becomes an epic philosophical journey.

The real genius of it is that the book acts on you, it happens to you and you end up being the creature who takes the journey, not simply a reader.

Anyone who has read other fiction by Stephen Palmer will be used to the way he puts stories within stories. The stories we use to inform and guide our lives are re-occurring themes in his work so it’s really interesting to see him take this on as the main thrust of the story, not the underpinning for something else.

A fascinating read, more information here – http://www.stephenpalmer.co.uk/


The Conscientious Objector – a review

I admit I wasn’t sure how I would do with this book. I absolutely loved The Factory Girl Trilogy – review here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2018/05/13/the-factory-girl-trilogy-review/. Moving into a book that follows on from that but clearly wasn’t going to have my favourite character in, gave me a fair few feelings. As a younger reader I had bailed from series at times like these. Older and wiser me is more willing to have a go, and I regret nothing!

My other area of uncertainty was that this is an alternate history novel set around the First World War. It’s a period I know a fair bit about and find highly emotive. Would I be ok with WW1 re-imagined to include automata and other devices? For me, Stephen said everything that needed to be said about the grim realities of this awful war. He didn’t downplay the horrors, or sanitise anything and the bringing in of Steampunk elements did not feel disrespectful. As with The Factory Girl Trilogy, the fantastical elements were used to highlight and explore the period issues, not to write over them. And so I was as miserable in the trenches section as I needed to be.

I will freely admit that I wasn’t in the best headspace for reading anything when I read this. Normally I adore books where I have no idea what the story shape is or what’s going on. I love to be surprised. For the first three quarters of the book I had no idea where it was going, what kind of story it was, what it meant, and I flailed a bit. I think this is a book that will greatly benefit from being read in the right headspace, don’t pick it up if you want to be comforted by familiarity. However, at the three quarters mark, give or take, there is a revelation that blew me away. Suddenly the narrative crystallised, everything made sense, and I read the last quarter pretty much flat out in a state of utter delight, being frequently surprised. Read this book when you want to go on an adventure.

The underlying themes in this story are highly pertinent. This is a story about how we see ourselves, and whether we are willing to find out how others see us. This is a tale that questions the wisdom of living in an echo chamber and champions the need for different perspectives. It’s also a protest against all forms of absolutism. There are always exceptions. There should always be room for nuance and difference. When people insist there is only one truth, only one way to live, or love, or think about things, nothing good can come of it.

With war in Europe as the backdrop, this is without a doubt a book that has a lot to say about Brexit and the state of our culture, letting us view the present day from the perspective of more than a century ago.

Heartily recommended!

(And yes, that is a Tom Brown cover)


Quiet – a review

Quiet, by Susan Cain, reviewed by Guest Blogger Stephen Palmer

There is a difference between extrovert and introvert, but it’s not the difference most people think of when they hear those descriptions. The standard view is of party animals versus non-party animals. Dorothy Rowe explained that extroverts feel a more real outer world, and are uncomfortable with being on their own since their inner world is more insubstantial, whereas introverts feel a more real inner world, and are often uncomfortable in the hurly burly of social life. Introverts can be happy in times of solitude: extroverts alone feel a void inside themselves, and seek company.

This is one useful explanation, given by a master of the field. Susan Cain’s equivalent in her remarkable book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking is based around the concept of sensitivity, which is in the main a biologically determined quality. We all have different types of brains. Our brains, linked to our many senses, operate at various levels of sensitivity – introverts tend towards maximal sensitivity, extroverts towards the norm, or less.

“The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic… They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive… They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions – sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments – both physical and emotional – unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss – another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.”

When I was younger I wondered for a long time why I was so different to most of my friends and colleagues in this regard, and it all comes down to my high level of introversion. In fact I got a triple dose – one dose from each parent, plus being right-brained. That’s a hell of a lot of introversion to have to cope with.

“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”

Is this starting to ring some bells with you…? Then you’re an introvert, and you should stop trying to fit in with the extrovert world that we have in the West. (One of the most interesting chapters in Quiet is the one contrasting the Western ideal of extroversion with the Eastern ideal of introversion – although there is more to it than that dichotomy.) Susan Cain is strong and determined in her critique of Western extrovert standards:

“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

Many people in the literary world will grasp all this; we literate types are quiet thinkers. If you feel likewise, then Quiet is for you.

The book is split into four sections. The first deals with what Susan Cain calls the extrovert ideal, and this is done mostly from an American perspective. Part two deals with the tricky subject of nature versus nurture – biology versus self, but also the role of free will in changing behaviour, and the roles of risk and reward. Examples given include the Roosevelts and Warren Buffett. Part three is a single chapter on Asian-Americans and how they deal with the American cultural standard of high sociability and constant conversation. Part four deals with strategies for the introvert, and for the extroverts who live with them.

This book is also great because it features some brilliant and pithy quotes:

“Solitude matters, and for some people, it’s the air they breathe”

“Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”

Another crucial aspect of this book is Susan Cain’s separation of shyness and introversion, which many people use as interchangeable concepts. But they’re not:

“Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.”

In a nutshell, for anybody who has gone through social hell or even just anxiety, and who wonders why they feel exhausted at the end of a whirl of socialising – even if that’s spending time with friends or family in the most relaxed of circumstances – this is the book for you. It made a big difference in my own life, as I was finally able to explain a few of my own puzzling character traits. Understanding introversion is the first step on the road to coping with it. I spent a long time not coping, but, luckily, now I do.

“Now that you’re an adult, you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favour of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much”, a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral. Or maybe there’s another word for such people: thinkers.”

This was for me one of the most inspirational of books. It was given to me completely out of the blue by a friend of mine. I still thank him for that kindness when occasionally I see him.

 

 


The Employment Problem

A guest blog from Stephen Palmer.

Blog originally posted 15/4/17

In recent months much has been written by various media publications about the likelihood of jobs being “taken” by robots and other automated systems, including by AI (or AGI – Artificial General Intelligence – as it is often called now). There are various possible scenarios: hyper-rich individuals owning AGIs and thereby removing the need for employees, resulting in mass unemployment; a huge change in the types of jobs being done, as with the change from manufacturing to services in the case of Britain over the past few decades; or perhaps a strengthening of the exploitation effects inherent in the capitalist system. In my novel No Grave For A Fox I had the latter option prevalent, with the nexus embodied in various android-type bodies. In Beautiful Intelligence the effect was not so obvious, the main employment effect being a decentralising one.

But in the Factory Girl trilogy I also considered these options, despite the 1910-11 setting. The automata (or horas as they are sometimes known) which are one of the mysteries of the novels are owned by Sir Tantalus Blackmore, a classic Victorian entrepreneur who exploits everything and everybody to become as rich as possible – or so it seems at first glance. But, whatever his motives, Sir Tantalus does own outright the ability to utilise the automata made by his Factory. In this regard he is deemed one of the sources of the wave of mass unemployment affecting my alternate Britain, as shown in this early conversation between Kora and Dr Spellman:

They stepped out of the hansom cab, waiting on the pavement while the automaton lifted Dr Spellman’s luggage off the rack. “Will you pay it?” Kora asked. “No.” “Why not? You paid the one in London.” “Yes,” said Dr Spellman, “but he was human.” “That is not fair. How can the Factory make money if nobody pays the automata?” Dr Spellman chuckled. “A very good point! You’re not daft, are you? Well, you see, the local Council pays your father for the automata who do all the work.”

In other words Sir Tantalus has a monopoly, which even extends to public use, as exemplified by the Sheffield Town Council having to pay him.

Although there was unemployment in Edwardian times, I did have in mind future possibilities when I was preparing the scenario for the three novels. Sir Tantalus is a private individual. He has broken the link between people giving their labour in return for a salary. Labouring individuals can associate into unions, which gives them power, since, if the business is dependent on labour, they can go on strike. This is not the case with Sir Tantalus or with any private individual who might use an AGI. If, rather than changing the mode of employment, an AGI owner bypasses labour entirely via their AGI then that labour loses its power of strike; and this is perhaps the worst danger of future AGI use. Such an owner would have the ability to accumulate capital without any hindrance – and that has never happened before.

Sir Tantalus enjoys exactly this option. Although there is mystery behind the creation of the automata, he in essence – especially in the early days of his operation – can accumulate as much capital as he likes, since the automata, like AGIs, have no power of strike.

And Sir Tantalus does what any self-obsessed Victorian entrepreneur would do in the circumstances – he sucks up to nobility:

Roka … nodded. “Is [Sir Tantalus in Parliament], then?” “Not in Parliament, no. What he does is far more cunning. He influences from behind the scenes to get what he wants. Why, he’d like to be a lord, you know, but…” “But what?” Dr Spellman shrugged, standing up to continue walking. “He was born into a poor Yorkshire family. Real lords don’t want him anywhere near them.” “That’s not fair.” Dr Spellman chuckled. “It’s one of his weak points, his obsession with nobility. His envy eats him up, Roka.”

Regarding unemployment, there are two sides to the argument in the Factory Girl novels, one which sees the automata as beneficial (pro-hora) and one which sees them as usurping (anti-hora).

Rather surprisingly, Sir Tantalus stands in the latter category:

Sir Tantalus continued, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder whether the achievement of hora emancipation – of Abolition, as Parliament would have it – would in fact be a hollow victory. In Sheffield you perhaps do not see the cruel tide of unemployment that affects London, Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. My Factory gives work to more people than you can imagine, and I am glad for that. But as an older man, with little time remaining to him, I can see that there are too many horas in the world today. They do all the work we ask them to. But what of the little man? What of the ordinary man? It is for them that I worry.”

Later in the trilogy the reason for this becomes clear. But others are pro-hora:

“Regardless of the origin of the hora,” Lenin continued, “the hora is a worker, and as such acquires rights such as any worker should enjoy. Though we use the hora as an automatic worker to do tasks such as we do not wish to do, the hora is part of the great commonality of the working class – and it is being exploited by capitalist masters. In the essential regard about which I speak, the hora is akin to the man.

The above speech by Lenin should not perhaps be too surprising. (Lenin lived in Britain for a few years from 1902, so I thought it would be appropriate to have him play a small part in my novel.) But there is another aspect to these considerations which I wanted to use as a main part of the plot, and that is the way capitalism, unlike nature, posits no limit to growth. Though Lenin rightly saw automata as workers, he did not in my novels grasp the dangers of their mode of manufacture. He only saw the end result – employment in Sir Tantalus’ Factory for the men of south Yorkshire, and a force of hora workers who deserved rights. But the danger becomes clear in the third volume, The Girl With No Soul:

Agricultural fields lay littered with inutile horas, thousands of them, their steel exteriors glittering in the sunlight. In distant lanes he saw hundreds more walking apparently at random. The sheer quantity horrified him, and he realised that the Factory was still over-producing. What was Sir Tantalus doing inside?

The outer streets of the city were also strewn with horas, and with hora parts, as if a kind of grisly mechanical fury had ripped through the place. Through a gap in the blinds he observed lines of men at soup kitchens, elsewhere rubble and shattered glass; and everywhere a chaotic press of people with pale, starved faces. Police patrolled the streets in groups – never alone – and there were even a few army officers in uniform.

Over-production – a small, curious, and mostly ignored effect in the first novel – has by the time of the third novel become an overpowering concern. As Erasmus later says:

“Roka – you already know this to be true. You, a Marxist, can see the madness of capitalism, which uses resources as if they are unlimited. Capitalism posits no natural limit to economic growth, and therefore dooms the culture in which it exists – and its environment too. Now do you see?” She nodded. “Capitalism is cancer…“

This is the equivalent of the first option presented in the introduction to this post. A proliferation of automata, like a proliferation of AGIs with nobody to control their creation or use, swiftly gets out of hand. Humanity is blithely doing itself out of an existence. At a time of global population explosion that’s not wise…

The second option is a change in employment styles. In Edwardian times, with severe social stratification, there was little chance for such ‘portfolio careers’ as they’re known today. Most people, especially on the lower rungs of the ladder, had a trade for life. It is in fact the far-sighted men of the Malthus Brigade who change the options for the malformed horas which they collect and adapt:

AutoRoka continued, “Malthus wrote about a future where disease and famine checked the growth of population, suggesting there was a limit to such growth.” Roka said, “Do you believe then that people will all die of starvation in the future?” The man [Ernest] shook his head. “Not people. We’re talkin’ about automata. Thee not noticed ‘ow many of them there are these days?” Roka shook her head. “It’s why the police waste so much time gatherin’ up the loose ones. Soon we’ll be drownin’ beneath them.” Roka grimaced at the image. “You really believe that?” “Oh, aye. It’s inevitable. So we’re takin’ malformed automata, which otherwise would do nowt, to make a force.”

And Ernest sees further, albeit under the spell of mass unemployment:

“ … The whole bloody Empire is built on automata labour, thee sees. No automata – no Empire. No nothin’, in fact.” “I suppose so,” Roka agreed.

Employment not only brings a salary to an employee, it offers far more. Human beings live in entwined worlds of meaning, and employment is one of the main sources of purpose in life. In previous centuries it was obvious to some that making an individual perform the same task over and over again militated against humanity. We cannot do production-line work and remain sane.

If we create a future in which AGIs dispense medical diagnoses, direct trade deals and trade itself, drive cars, trains and planes, or perhaps run all our personal finances, we are creating a future with far less space for meaning. We’ll be making stressed, anxious zombies of ourselves – and there’ll be billions of those.

 

My review of The Factory Girl Trilogy over here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2018/05/13/the-factory-girl-trilogy-review/


Tommy Catkins – a review

Tommy Catkins is the new novel from Stephen Palmer, whose Factory Girl Trilogy I was very taken with. It’s a story that mixes history and fantasy, and does not encourage you to feel confident about what’s real, and what’s delusion brought on by trauma.

The central character – Tommy – is a massive enigma. The odds seem good that his name is not really Tommy Catkins at all. He’s lied about his age. He doesn’t remember a lot of what happened to him. He doesn’t know if he’s mad, or too afraid to go back to the trenches. He doesn’t know if what he sees in the puddles and river are real, or manifestations from his own broken mind. In some senses he’s an everyboy, all the kids who signed up to fight in the First World War, and who paid with their minds and bodies. There are hints about a personal background, but we’re never allowed to see it, we can only wonder. The story keeps us very much on the outside of his experiences, which of course we are bound to be, because we weren’t there, and we don’t understand.

For me what was most interesting about the story is the way is catches shifts in mental health understanding. Up until the First World War, mental anguish was often treated as a female issue – hysteria – and not taken very seriously. The impact of shell shock on officers and men alike changed public and medical attitudes to the issue of trauma. We went from shooting men for cowardice to taking their broken nerves seriously. The novel explores some of the appalling methods that were attempted as ‘cures’ and the pressure to get sick men back to the front. The idea that mental anguish in face of experience might be the root cause, not a physical reaction, is something the book explores.

This isn’t a comfortable read. It’s a haunting and deeply uneasy book that won’t offer you tidy solutions. If you’re looking for uncomplicated escapism, this isn’t it, but it is a book that can speak in some unsettling ways to that urge for escapism.


The Factory Girl Trilogy – review

I picked up a review copy of Stephen Palmer’s first book in The Factory Girl trilogy to review, and ended up reading the whole set. It was obvious by about two thirds through the first book that this isn’t a trilogy of separate books, it’s more like one huge book published in three volumes. Fortunately, all three books are now out there so you won’t get to the end of the first one and have to wait! This is Steampunk fiction.

 

Book one introduces Kora, and Roka – two girls inhabiting one body, and appearing on alternate days. Kora is rescued from Bedlam by a doctor, Roka of course only finds out about it the next day. The Doctor is intent on solving the mystery of Kora’s two souls. He believes that her father is responsible. Kora’s father runs the biggest automata factory in the world, and he wants his daughter kept safely hidden away. It soon becomes evident that other people are interested in Kora, and probably don’t have her interests at heart. Can she solve the mystery of herself and stay relatively free?

Kora’s mother is black, her father is white. She experiences racial prejudice, and sexism. Roka gets involved with politics and activism, accompanied by an automata called AutoRoka. Book one has a lot of politics in it and a look at the way in which causes can clash – socialism, suffragettes, communism, rights for automata…

 

Book two sets out for Africa, and there’s a lot more adventure in it, while book three brings us back to the UK for a lot more action. More than that I don’t think I can say without massive spoilers. Overall the plot is unpredictable, engaging, challenging and will make you think.

There are a lot of really interesting themes played out in this story. The entire tale hinges on the question of identity. Do we have souls? Are Kora and Roka really two souls in one body? What does it mean to be alive? Can machines have souls? What kinds of stories do we tell about who matters and who doesn’t, who has a soul and who doesn’t?

 

There was one device that I particularly loved, so I’m going to talk about that because I can do so without spoilers! Kora keeps a book in her pocket. The book is a children’s story about a girl called Amy going through a series of gardens and having encounters. Amy also has a book in her pocket and reads from it at relevant moments. Amy has a little sister called Alice, and there’s clearly a jam on Alice in Wonderland going on here, only I liked this story a lot better and I think we get the whole of that little book inside the trilogy. Inside the book inside the book there is a tedious chameleon who will not disguise itself as anything other than a chameleon. This was one of my favourite things.

My other favourite thing was the automaton who becomes a Marxist. This, in the context of a story that is very much about a production line, has massive charm.

Although the main characters are in their teens, I don’t think this is a YA novel particularly. I like that about it. The assumption that we only want to read about characters who are of an age with us needs challenging. Younger folk could read it, but it has clearly been written with adults readers in mind. It’s a fascinating book(s) and I very much enjoyed it.

Find out more here – http://www.stephenpalmer.co.uk/