From Aural Innovations #41 (October 2010))
I read Urbis Morpheos, the latest novel from author and musician Stephen Palmer, as the BP oil disaster unfolded; thousands of gallons of oil spilling daily into the Gulf of Mexico for a full three months before anyone could successfully stop it. I was dumbfounded at the American news media's analysis of the consequences of the spill, with emphasis on the economic impact to the citizens and businesses in the Gulf region. With all due respect to the livelihoods of these poor souls, what about the long term consequences for the planet? We're so good at building things. We are marvels of manufacturing. But we refuse to consider the long term consequences in any meaningful way.
It will come as no surprise to regular readers of Palmer's novels that the setting of the story is one of environmental devastation. Urbis Morpheos is Earth, a million years in the future, during a new ice age. Nature is at odds with the manufacturing ecosystem. Machines have consciousness, evolve, and even mate. Technology, like the natural world, decays.
The story centers on two women - Psolilai and psolilai, whose connection is unclear. Are they sisters? Are they the same person? The have dreams about each other, and the situation is made even more complex by a character common to their parallel stories. What is clear, though, is that both are wrapped up in a battle for competing visions of the future.
At one end is what could be called the radical Green viewpoint. Dyeeth Boolin, a principle character says, One of the great triumphs of the manufacturing ecosystem is its ability to mimic natural life. But psolilai's dream is a return to nature, complaining that the manufacturing ecosystem follows unnatural laws. As a Gaian, I want to return nature to sole occupancy of the planet. If we don't use our abilities to aid nature, Urbis Morpheos is doomed to a manufactured future.
At the furthest extreme is the vision of a post-natural world and, ominously, a post-natural humanity.
But what reveals itself as the central question, and is repeated throughout the book, is can we accept a minimal, sufficient use of the raw materials, the tools that the Earth provides, to allow us to live with nature and still retain our required level of technology. Can we define a level of technology that makes sense, rather than being overblown and damaging in the name of profit and hyper-consumption.
Urbis Morpheos is not, however, a ranting political tract. Palmer explores these questions in the context of science fiction, fantasy, and high adventure. Psolilai and psolilai are on a quest, both aided by Gularvhen, the peripatetic mycologist, who travels on Hoss, an extraordinary horse that makes music in six voices. Gularvhen seeks mushrooms, they being the source of knowledge. Oh yes, there are many seriously psychedelic moments in this story, as are many of the characters. We've got shroomfynders, sporeseekers, narcoleptic snow, and a morphic motorcycle that runs off photons and adapts to mutable terrain. How fun is that?!!
Psolilai and psolilai each embark on parallel quests, seeking 3Machines, the Constructor and the Transmuter. psolilai hopes that 3Machines will divulge accumulated wisdom about how nature was before the rise of the manufacturing ecosystem, giving insight into how the planet could be. The Constructor and Transmuter are unknown in origin and purpose, but could possibly repair the damage done to Urbis Morpheos by the manufacturing ecosystem. One scene I found significant was when psolilai and her companions enlisted the aid of the gryphons to fly them to the Sky Level. The gryphon says she must first pass a test. Answer a riddle and the gryphons will fly them to the Sky Levelů classic quest.
The story is also engrossing for its visual imagery and Palmer has a flair for describing the ecologically shattered, wildly surreal world. For example: We reached the river that flowed down to Teewemeer. Although less polluted - the water was clear - I could see signs of degradation on its bed, pebbles sheened in coloured slimes, artificial weeds like tongues, alongside a selection of simple natural life, white toads, fat fish, and once a four-legged heron.
The natural and manufactured worlds also meet in the psychedelic realm and provide the reader with considerable image inducing stimulation. Wrealities are like the manufactured world's version of mushrooms, as sources of knowledge. At the Church of the Parasol Cap Psolilai dreams of psolilai: On nocturnal expeditions she collects wild wrealities, pulling them from decaying technology like puff-balls from pasture. In her room, as dawn breaks through ragged cloud, she will with trembling hands take the wrealities and lick them as if they are sweets, experiencing a rush of meaningless visions, like meteors smashing into her brain from inner space. Meaningless, but addictive--. Later one of the humanoid machines says to psolilai: I work for communication, for a time when you will be able to appreciate wrealities, and I a mushroom.
Get this book into the hands of a visionary director with a big budget and you've got the makings of a mind-blowing movie. Urbis Morpheos blends science fiction, fantasy and adventure with hard questions about the future of our planet, and, ultimately, the fate of mankind. It is thought provoking, topical, and good fun.