Stephen Palmer's latest novel, Hallucinating, was originally intended to be an exclusively online publication, targeted more at the festival music crowd than a science fiction audience. In fact, Palmer doubted the story would even be finished until Sean Wallace of Cosmos Books, publisher of last years Flowercrash and Muezzinland, expressed an interest in seeing the novel finished and in print. Well kudos to Sean for his vision because the result is a story with all the characteristic Palmer themes of not so distant future devastation, but with plenty to satisfy festie psych music fans.
The story takes place in Britain in the year 2049, after a not so typical alien invasion leaves the urban landscape near lifeless, and the countryside struggling to survive and rebuild. The main character is Nulight, an acid casualty and pagan, famed as the head of the Voiceoftibet record label. We learn that Nulight was born in Tibet, his mother a Welsh hippie who went there and married a native. Apparently the aliens had been plotting for years because Nulight had a close encounter in his youth. Or did he? His mother tells him the aliens are probably a hallucination and Nulight wonders if that's true. It was easy to accidentally pick up acid or mushrooms in our house. So I kind of grew up wondering if they were real or a hallucination.
As the story begins the invasion has already occurred. The aliens' point of operation on Earth is a Berlin club called Gesang Der Junglinge. In one scene Nulight and a computer hit squad embark on what ends up as a failed attempt to destroy the computers at the club but encounter an alien just as they're about to enter the computer room. And there's a funny moment when the alien tells Nulight to stop annoying them.
But music is at the heart of this story... music is the vehicle of the invasion and the means by which humans battle the aliens. Why music? Music is deep. Everybody is wired for music. It's a way to invade without resistance. Auton music allows the aliens to control the economy by remixing it. And because the world has become so dependent on computers, the aliens are able to crash stock markets and generally wreck havoc. The European Union has collapsed and the resulting apocalypse destroys cities, leaving only those capable of an agricultural lifestyle to survive. Urban dwellers flee to the countryside but are rejected by the village communities that have formed, and subsequently die of starvation. The aliens ignored those parts of the world that were never really computerized. In these places people are left to live free, since they in the past partook so little of the computerised, too-large, mathematical, inhumane capitalist economic system.
Early on Nulight meets up with the story's other principle character - Kappa Smythe, Dean of the faculty of Avalon, who had been his lover years before. Nulight seeks her out and together they set out to stop the aliens.... fighting music with music. They form a band called the New Pagan Troubadours whose mission is to find beautiful new songs and use them against the aliens. And they embark on a quest to find eight songs that can't be remixed by the aliens and to play the songs at a festival at Stonehenge.
Despite the devastation the world has suffered, this is probably the most purely fun read of Palmer's novels to date. There are numerous cameos in the book, among them Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree (who plays an aged acetic who Nulight goes to for advice), Ed Wynne of Ozric Tentacles, Merv & Joie of Eat Static, Phil & Simon from Mandragora, Simon Posford of Shpongle, Toby Marks of Banco de Gaia, and a certain space rock editor who assures readers that his opinion of the book is in no way biased by his brief appearance in the story.
Throughout the book we attend concerts and experience the free festival circuit. The Stonehenge show features performances by Eat Static, Shpongle and Ozric Tentacles.... all old men by now but still playing. Anyone tuned in to this scene will chuckle at the many references throughout the book, like someone carrying a cup of white rhino tea. Sploosh! And then there's the "leather dude" character on the Harley who hunts a new government representative with the aid of metal falcons and a bunch of Hawkwind albums. Can you picture that?
While Palmer's first books dealt with the theme of environmental devastation, Hallucinating shows what can result when the technology we've become so dependent on collapses. What's strange is that it's easy to get wrapped up in our heroes' quest and the efforts of the various village communities to rebuild, and I often had to remind myself that this is an apocalyptic tale. But without giving away the ending, I can safely share that this story has the possibilities for a more hopeful outcome than his other books. I also found myself wondering at times whether the whole thing really was a hallucination. Was it? You'll have to read the story to find out. If you're a festie/psych/space rock fan who enjoys thought provoking science fiction and believes in the power of music as a force for touching hearts and souls, then you will surely enjoy Hallucinating.
Three years ago I interviewed Stephen Palmer to talk about his Blue Lily Commission music project (see AI #16). Many of you will also know him from the band Mooch. Having enjoyed his five novels so much I decided to have a chat with Stephen Palmer the author.
AI: When I interviewed you in 2001 for the Blue Lily Commission article, Hallucinating was just an online story released in installments on your web site. But at that time you commented that you intended it as a novel written for your music fans rather than your science fiction fans. Tell me how the story made the journey to ultimately being for both the music and sci-fi fans.
Stephen Palmer (SP): I can't remember exactly how the first part of Hallucinating began, but it was some time in 1997, and I got inspiration for a music-drenched, near-future, trippy, zany kind of a story. I knew I wanted to feature all the music I loved, and also the festivals, and the places. I soon had an image of the kind of man (Nulight) who would be a good main character, and then I was off! I remember enjoying the use of locations that I knew, such as the Strawberry Fayre free festival site in Cambridge, which is a beautiful setting for a festi. Using locations that were familiar to me made quite a difference to the 'reality' of the story, and at that point I began to think of mixing, as far as I could, the imaginary world and the real world. So there are many mentions of real albums and bands - for example that superb collective Loop Guru - but also plenty of imaginary ones. Then I began mixing real and fantasy details in the locations, for example the 'reformed' Glastonbury Abbey. Two years later, my many holidays and days out in Cornwall inspired me to write the second part of the story. At the end of this part I sketched out the details of the whole novel, realising that there was a full book there. But finding the time to write it was a problem, not least because I knew that no publisher of SF would touch Hallucinating, since the story was aimed at free-festival freaks, Tangerine Dream heads, hippies and the like. So it never got completed. But then somebody really important popped up - Sean Wallace at Cosmos Books. Sean had read the first two parts on my website, and asked me if the book was finished. I initially said no, remarking that I was unlikely to finish it, but later that year, 2003, I read Gwyneth Jones' novel "Bold As Love", which has a strong music theme, and I was inspired to complete my book. Knowing that I had an enthusiastic editor at Cosmos Books really helped. The book was then completed, checked over, and it's available now! When I came to begin part three I realised that, since I was writing a detailed, near-future (albeit very surreal) novel with aliens and strange musical technology, there would be a strong SF element. I wanted to keep that techno-feel. But at the same time the novel is full of in-jokes that only hippies and electronic music fans are going to get. It was a matter of balancing the two chapter-by-chapter. But there was always that strong, central plot to keep me going: the alien invasion, the human response to it, and that simple question - what is music? That's the backbone of the novel, and, even during the bizarre asides, word-play and odd cameos, it's always present.
AI: Hallucinating is quite a departure from your previous novels. It's the most "fun" read of all your books. But ultimately the devastation on Earth is just as severe. What's interesting, though, is that as the characters journey on their quest through the countryside it takes periodic reminders and descriptions to fully appreciate the devastation.
SP: There is a British SF tradition that takes the post-apocalyptic environment as its foundation - John Wyndham, an author I loved when I began reading SF, was one of that tradition's most famous authors - and I do subscribe to it... I'm not sure why! My debut novel "Memory Seed" is post-apocalyptic. Perhaps the concept of devastation on Earth is something that excites the imagination of greens, liberals and the like, since they are more attuned to environmental vandalism, economic imperialism, etc. I think that the deeper a person is into modern capitalist, techno-centric society, the further away they are from the environment. As somebody who loves nature and cares about what happens to people, the fate of the environment and our world is something I never stop thinking about. And I'm not a get-up-and-march, street-fighting type of man, so persuasion by word and by image is my only method. We really need both types of protester: we need out-on-the-road protesters who are prepared to lie in front of bulldozers, and we need book writers, commentators, lecturers and the like who can provide the theory to the practice. Noam Chomsky would be a great example of a world leader. You can't call Tony Blair and George Bush leaders when there are leaders of the calibre of Chomsky around. People like me have to be careful, though. I wouldn't like to see millions of deaths in order to wipe the slate clean and start again. There's a scene in Hallucinating where Nulight has to explain to Kappa that he would rather the alien invasion hadn't happened...
How do you rate Bush II as a US leader?
AI: Let me take a moment to get a grip on my emotions or what I spew in print won't make much sense. (deep breath...) Ok, that's better. George W. Bush represents 1) big business, and 2) a mindset common among wealthy Republicans that America is morally superior to rest of the world and should, in short, be running the show in key places in the world. I'll be brief about 2) because it's the big business that's most relevant to your response. I could go on a diatribe about Iraq, but I'll just make one point: We need to realize that America is in Iraq because of the Bush Doctrine that states that America is willing to use force against a presumed enemy PRE-EMPTIVELY. That is, I think you're going to hit me so I'm going to hit you first. Within the framework of international relations for the American government to state as official policy that it's willing to make a military offensive against a country it thinks is going to attack us at some point should give us all reason to pause and think and be really really concerned. And we are in a hugely fucked situation over there now because nothing is going as planned (does it ever in war?). Yessiree, we sure have won the hearts & minds haven't we? But as regards big business... George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and so many other of these Republicans are businessmen. Businesses that are successful must continue to grow and produce profits. The "bottom line" is the number one concern. As regards your response let's take the Kyoto Agreement as an example. I forget the exact numbers but America produces something like 30% of the emissions that will ultimately prove your novels to have been prophecy rather than speculative fiction. There are 2 problems here. First, in the interest of big business, Bush won't sign the Kyoto Agreement because it would impose costly restrictions on certain companies and this isn't acceptable. Second, and it follows from the first, is that these cost concerns, by focusing exclusively on the bottom line, show a complete disregard for tomorrow. That is, it doesn't factor into the cost-benefit analysis what kind of world we leave behind for however many generations to come when environmental devastation ultimately takes it's toll. And I don't think you have to be a scientist to realize that it will. And what about oil? It's a LIMITED resource! At some point it will be GONE! But you see... that won't be until tomorrow so there's no need to be concerned about it today. You're not going to be overly concerned about these things when you're a CEO who has shareholders to answer to and a multi-million dollar a year job to protect. Not in American styled Capitalism anyway.
SP: You say something there that has been known to environmentalists for some time, but which still hasn't seeped through into "ordinary life", if I could put it in that way - that is, the source of all this apparently "free" capital is actually the Earth, our environment, which we are effectively spending in order to create our Western lifestyles. Now, spending is fine, so long as the resource can stand it. The Earth - a limited biosystem - cannot at the current rate. Solar, tide and wind power are better because they originate dynamically with the sun, which has something of the order of 5,000,000,000 years left to run. Like you, I don't think the oil will last that long...
AI: Certainly the rock n roll science fiction vibe of the story and all the humorous bits adds to the fun of the book too. Like the leather dude on the Harley hunting Greenstyle with the aid of metal falcons and a bunch of Hawkwind albums. That conjured up some crazy imagery.
SP: Well, I wanted this book to be a sort of patchwork. I wanted there to be lots of jewel-like scenes, each of them a bit surreal, a bit sad, a bit crazy - whatever! - but each contributing to the overall plot. When I began writing Hallucinating, this was the vibe I was aiming at: a mix of psychedelic music imagery, quite gothic urban scenery, environmental disaster, and lots of local UK locations, such as Boscastle in Cornwall, which my wife lived in for some time and which we know very well, Glastonbury, Totnes etc. All these locations I know, and many have hippy, alternative or other relevant connections with the book. I also wanted to mention lots of names from the music world. There are scores of them in the book: just to name a couple, the two dogs-on-a-string that Nulight and Kappa have on the quest are called Incense and Peppermint, while their ponies are called Rubycon and Ricochet. I also had immense fun inventing the psychedelic band names, I really got into that, even to the extent of designing the imaginary album covers - you could say that was a bit sad of me...
On a more serious note, something I really wanted to do was express my love of the festival. To me, a festival is a sort of microcosm of human culture. Imagine life if the US or the UK was a huge patchwork of festivals! Free festival life took a battering in the 1980's thanks to that appalling woman Margaret Thatcher (UK PM for eleven disastrous years) but there are still alot of good ones around, rarely free these days, but still worth supporting.
AI: For a few short years we had the Strange Daze Space Rock Festivals, held in a state park here in Ohio. They attracted people of all ages and were wonderful weekends of truly amazing music and community. They were hosted by a dedicated individual named Jim Lascko who did a hell of a good job of giving us a feel for the vibe you describe. I really miss those weekends. Now, the cameos by the Ozrics, Mandragora, Steven Wilson, Toby Marks, etc were a nice touch. I'd like to think they'll all still be making music as old men in 2049. Did everyone get a kick out of their roles?
SP: Those who've reported back all got a kick, yes. I'm not sure if Ed Wynne has read the book yet - because of communication difficulties I haven't been able to get a copy to him, though his friend Mervyn Pepler (an ex-Ozric, now half of Eat Static) has a copy. Toby of Banco de Gaia loved the book. Richard Allen of Delerium Records and Freakbeat also enjoyed it. Almost everybody said 'yes' when I asked them if they would like a cameo appearance. I then carried on writing, inserting their cameo appearance as appropriate, then emailing them back. Everybody was very positive. Some people made few comments, some others made adjustments, for example Phil Thornton, who wanted specific keyboards mentioned! He was great. Also, Michael Dog and Toby Marks made some helpful amendments.
Generally speaking, the Ozrics/free-festi people have liked it, but the Porcupine Tree people haven't. One guy thought the cameos were nothing more than a publicity stunt, since Steven Wilson wasn't one of the main characters! The original reason for having the cameo appearances was to blur even further the distinction between real people and imaginary ones. I was very careful to have all the real musicians appearing as old men, which they would be in 2049. I also wanted to "use", as it were, my musical heroes. Afterwards, though, it struck me that the whole cameo thing would be good to hang some publicity off. There has been a bit of a backlash to my own tiny appearance in the book, but, again, I did that because it is the ultimate reality/imaginary blur: author appears in own novel!
AI: The notion of music saving the world is an appealing one for those of us so inspired by music.
SP: The idea was partly inspired by a group based in London called New Age Radio. They're a deep-hippy, alternative collective who have released a wide range of music under various names. The mantra of New Age Radio is 'music can save the world'. Their first album "Survival Show" is superb. Dave Goodman, one of their stalwarts, was once producer for the Sex Pistols!
AI: The story has severe commentary on technology and western capitalism. Humanity is sent back to the basics, but those outside urban areas who were less a part of the "computerised, too-large, mathematical, inhumane capitalist economic system" are to a large extent spared. Maybe not the best analogy but I'm reminded of the Rapture, where the believers are swept off to heaven while the non-believers are stuck on Earth to deal with the forces of evil.
SP: The idea of rural people being ignored by the aliens was inspired by a little-known economist and writer called Manfred Max-Neef, who did some extraordinary work on green economics. He occupies a similar cultural space to the better known E.F. Schumacher. Manfred Max-Neef pointed out that economically invisible people are both self-supporting and not part of the Western problem. It's a solution that individuals could realistically aim at in the 21st century.
AI: That's an interesting point... that by virtue of being self-supporting you become economically invisible. It makes sense. I am an urban dweller and most certainly economically visible. I rely on the grocery store up the street for the food I eat. And, in recent years they've come out with discount cards, which are actually cards that allow you the "privilage" of not having to pay onerous prices, and allows the grocery stores to collect data on your purchases. And... we're a TWO car family..... Yikes!
SP: I'd love to be able to grow my own vegetables (my parents used to when I was growing up in Shropshire, U.K.) but finding the time with work committments makes it practically impossible...
AI: People have done a surprisingly good job in this story of forming their own communities and providing themselves with the basic necessities of life and functioning without the aid of government. The pessimistic side of me believes that things would be far more chaotic in this situation. What do you think?
SP: I'm with you. But this is a novel, so I've used a bit of artistic license! Actually, I think alot of rural people would be able to make their own way, because they are more familiar with growing food, or catching it. Urban people would just die off. This whole issue of food is getting scary at the moment. I'm a vegetarian, and my main reason for that is to say "No" to modern, factory-type meat production methods, which are inhumane and appalling. If people knew how their meat was produced, they'd be veggies too. In fact (I suspect I'm in a minority here), every time I walk past a McDonalds or a Burger King it amazes me how many people are in there. It really does astonish me. People are eating utter rubbish and they've no idea: and it's killing them because it's so unhealthy, and it's contributing to damaging the environment. Perhaps people these days have so little to live for, and so little direction and meaning in their life, they're quite happy to kill themselves with fat and sugar. Me, I want to stay healthy. I want another 40 years of writing books and recording music.
AI: This is a huge issue in the USA right now. The city I live in - Columbus, Ohio - was rated the tenth most obese city in America. There's an eye-opener of a book called Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser, that details how food is processed, how flavor laboratories create fabricated flavors, and how the fast food industry markets to children. They have trade shows and trade publications completely centered around marketing to children!! I'll share with you that I've lost 35 pounds since early 2003, in part by having given up all fast foods. People should certainly give these foods up for health reasons, but they should also be ANGRY at these companies for the artery bursting slop they're pushing!! Anger and resentment over them profitting from my ill health made it much easier to give up that crap.
SP: I've seen that book by Eric Schlosser; it's currently in our bookstore promotion! I shall certainly check it out. The trouble with books like that is they make me so angry... I read Noam Chomsky's "Hegemony Or Survival" recently, and it's excellent, but deeply depressing also because it makes me feel so powerless.
AI: How far overboard do you think we've gone climbing the technological ladder? Surely things like computers and email in the hands of people for personal use has been a benefit? Nulight is less than thrilled at the thought of a return to even the most basic technology.
SP: True, but he is a fundamentalist hippy. I'm not like that. The basic flaws in Nulight's thinking are pointed out by his lover, Kappa. Kappa interested me as a character because she is torn between idealism and pragmatism - it's the constant dilemma of her life. It's articulated by the "coming down from the mothership" sequence at the very end of the novel. I think I'm much closer to Kappa in attitude than Nulight. Anyway, Nulight is a bit of an acid casualty...
AI: Nulight is the colorful character. But the idealism vs. pragmatism makes Kappa a more complex and in some ways more interesting character. I could feel the difficulty of her decision to compromise and take a chance trusting Greenstyle and be willing to work with the new government.
SP: What worries me about technology is that in its current phase it's owned by private corporations. Really, science and technology should be in the hands of human beings. The great humanist thinker Erich Fromm pointed this out decades ago, and made the suggestion that science should be done by independent scientists. Having said that, if we could create a technology that is separate from commercial pressure, there would be far fewer problems with it. It would have to be a socially owned technology. In a sense, the internet - which I love and rely on - is an early version of such a technology.
AI: The internet is something that never ceases to blow my mind. It is beyond a doubt a socially owned technology that is in the hands of the people. (Even if you exclude the 300 spams a day I have to wade through.) I really feel like I'm experiencing something revolutionary. And the evidence is in the worldwide networking I'm able to do via Aural Innovations. But the hard science forms of technology.... hmmmmm.... I'm not optimistic. That will be mightily hard to separate from commercial interests. Academia taking an independent stand and placing technology in the hands of independent scientists is, I suppose, our one hope for accomplishing that. But that won't come before your stories become reality. Bad attitude... but that's the way I feel. And that feeling is based on my response to your question about Bush.
Now, I got a kick out of how everything was susceptible to being remixed. Not just the music but the economy, culture, and western capitalist structures.
SP: Well, the aliens are inscrutable! I was careful not to give them any human characteristics...
AI: Nulight is extremely hostile to religion. Even to the extent that he and Kappa burn down a church, and without being restrained Nulight was prepared to go further and burn bibles and desecrate the graves in the church cemetery.
SP: Heh heh! I do like that scene, I wrote it with great care... Now, I don't identify with Nulight, though I do like his style. Having said that, his hostility to religion very much comes from me. I'm an atheist and a humanist, and a bit of a pagan on the side. (Because my wife and I have no standard spiritual beliefs, that is, we don't believe in afterlives, reincarnation, souls or spirits, we are on the outside of paganism. We call ourselves part-time pagans.) You could say that Nulight is a fundamentalist hippy: he has his flaws. Kappa is his conscience, I think, certainly in that scene where she tells him not to desecrate graves. Kappa is my conscience too. I shall work against Christianity for as long as I live, but I'd never hurt individual Christians. My problem is with the theory... Incidentally, one of my best friends, Pete Wyer, who played on alot of the 1990's Mooch recordings and is now making his way as a respected modern-classical composer, is a Christian. We get along fine!
AI: A common thread in your 4 novels prior to Hallucinating is females are the primary characters and typically the dominant force in the world. Any particular reason?
SP: Well, I'm all for womens' rights. I think of them as humans' rights, really. Too many men need education in how to be a human being: politicians, other so-called leaders, reactionaries, racists and so on. I've found that the best way for me to write about human beings is to write with women, if I could put it that way. With male characters, there always seems to be a credibility gap between the norm, which too often is violent, distant and immature, and the character I'd like to portray. The dreadful thing about patriarchy is that men are specifically trained in how not to be a human being, where as women are allowed to mature. These are generalisations, of course. Britain has been a secular country for some time now, and that has made a huge difference to womens' rights. There's a definite link, in my view, between the religious zeal of a country and the way it treats women. The dreadful irony over here was that Margaret Thatcher, our first woman PM, was more masculine than most men! She used to get portrayed as Winston Churchill in the satire of the time.
AI: There was a gap of several years from the publication of Memory Seed and Glass until the flurry of 3 novels published since 2003. Was it just a matter of finding an enthusiastic publisher like Cosmos Books?
SP: It was. Science fiction in the UK took a huge nosedive in the late 1990's and early 2000's, and has only recently bounced back. As a consequence, many authors have found it impossible to sell SF to editors, and have, like me, gone over to fantasy, which never suffers these ups and downs (because it has a far larger and more stable readership). I was lucky that Sean Wallace at Cosmos Books was looking to build a list that included UK authors; he has vision and persistence.
AI: The Cosmos/Wildside books are advertised as print-on-demand. What does that mean? Does it literally mean each copy is printed to order?
SP: It does. It's an amazing new way of manufacturing books. For smaller publishers it's ideal, since there is no need to take risks on big print runs; and, if the book does well, they can print larger numbers later. The beauty of this system, particularly to authors like me who aren't globally known, is that books never go out of print. I like that idea. The problem with some large-scale deals (and I know this from my day-job working in a book store) is that the books can be on shelves for only a few months. I don't know how the US system compares to the British system, but over here it's ridiculous - I've seen best-selling books returned to publishers less than three months after they appeared, and all due to idiotic, small-minded business practices. I've also been lucky in that I was allowed to design and create the artwork for my US published Cosmos novels. Most authors never get that opportunity.
AI: Any news you can share on new writings and music projects?
SP: The next Mooch album should be out later in the year, once the mighty new Krel album is released on the Dead Earnest label. The new Mooch sound is rockier, ballsier and harder than the old style - sort of space-rock-ambience, with an ethnic twist on the last track. I'm working on a new novel, but there's no specific buyer for it. Hopefully somebody will want it!
For more information about Stephen Palmer's books and music, you can visit his web site at: http://www.stephenpalmer.co.uk.
Hallucating is published by Wildside Press. You can visit their web site at: http://www.wildsidepress.com.
By online from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
Hear Stephen's music on a special Aural Innovations radio show we did a while back at: http://aural-innovations.com/radio/playlist.html#show32