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The Girl With One Friend (The Factory Girl Trilogy) (Volume 2) Paperback – November 21, 2016
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About the Author
Stephen Palmer is the author of thirteen novels: Memory Seed (Orbit 1996; Infinity Plus ebooks 2013), Glass (Orbit 1997; Infinity Plus ebooks 2013), Flowercrash (Wildside 2002; Infinity Plus ebooks 2013), Muezzinland (Wildside 2003; Infinity Plus ebooks 2011), Hallucinating (Wildside 2004; Infinity Plus ebooks 2011), The Rat & The Serpent (as Bryn Llewellyn, Prime Books 2005; Infinity Plus ebooks 2012) and Urbis Morpheos (PS Publishing 2010). His eighth novel, the surreal and fast-paced Hairy London, was published by Infinity Plus Books as a paperback and ebook in 2014, while the ninth, Beautiful Intelligence, was published in 2015, as was the subsequent short novel No Grave for a Fox. In 2016 Infinity Plus Books published his Edwardian steampunk trilogy Factory Girl. His short stories have been published by Spectrum, Wildside, NewCon, Unspoken Water, Mutation Press, Solaris, Theakers, Eibonvale, Dog Horn, Manchester Speculative Fiction, Woodbridge Press and elsewhere. He lives and works in Shropshire, UK.
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His latest, while equally chock full of action and adventure, takes these ideas into far more philosophical and pot stirring controversial territory. The Factory Girl trilogy is comprised of three books which tell one tale: The Girl With Two Souls, The Girl With One Friend, and The Girl With No Soul. Palmer pivots from the sci-fi of Beautiful Intelligence to a Steampunk (yet still sci-fi) tale set in 1910 Victorian England.
The story centers on Kora, a young girl who may or may not be two people. On alternate days she wakes up as Roka, and as the story progresses there is the constant question as to whether Kora is really two people, with two souls, or is just mentally ill.
Palmer’s England of 1910 is served by AI beings that are manufactured at an alarming rate in the factory run by Kora’s father, Sir Tantalus Blackmore. There are two levels of AI beings in this tale: Automata, who are given instructions by feeding coded paper into their mouths, and Duloids, which are more human like beings that can hear and speak.
The big debate of the age is the belief that automata have souls. Many people believe that automata should have the same rights as man. (This theme notably dovetails with the issue of votes for woman.) Charles Darwin and Robert Malthus are historical figures from the past whose ideas crop up throughout the book, as are, more prominently, Marx, Engels, and Lenin, the latter being contemporary to, and makes an appearance in the story.
Lenin visits England and gives a speech at a rally where he describes automata as working class exploited by capitalist masters, making them akin to man, though he does not grant then a soul… and yet he says it is our task to make them understand that they are slaves.
Do they have a ‘soul’? Do humans have a soul? Herein we find the heart of Palmer’s tale.
Throughout the story, Marxist theories of worker oppression intersect with the control systems that Palmer believes religious groups seek to exert. And this tightly converges with the author’s artificial intelligence vs. human and what does it mean to be human theme.
Kora can write and keeps a journal. But Roka can’t write and the duloid AutoRoka is provided to be her ‘notebook’. AutoRoka is, at first, very robot like, but throughout the story increasingly demonstrates human traits. Eventually she “becomes” Roka (you have to read the story!) and is not only characterized as human but believes herself to be human.
The duloids produced by the factory band together as a distinct religion, complete with duloid Priests and Bishops. At one point AutoRoka takes Roka to the duloid ‘Church of the Soul Giver’ where they are worshipped as sacred twins. AutoRoka tells Roka: “we are twins”, to which Roka replies: “you’re just a machine”. The duloid Bishop Mavros then asks Roka: “Where lies the dividing line between human and jungle-dwelling simian? Do you know Roka? If you do, you may tell me where the line lies between man and machine.”
Strong stuff. The duloids have constructed a belief system which mirrors human religion and uses it for what Palmer seems to argue is the same purposes of control. When Roka rejects their beliefs and traditions, she does so as an independent, free thinking person.
In one scene, Frank Darwin (nephew of Charles), a devout Christian who has become Kora/Roka’s benefactor and protector, is so concerned about Kora’s soul that he takes her to be baptized into the church. At the moment that Kora is kneeling before the Archbishop (and a point is made that she shudders as she does so), AutoRoka bursts into the room and pulls her out, proclaiming: “Christianity? Hah! I think less of it than I think of the contents of your chamber pot!”.
Having read many Palmer novels and interacted with the author over the years I believe AutoRoka’s sentiment sums up his own. I also think Palmer pinpoints the non-religious concept of the soul when Kora asks AutoRoka if it believes it has a soul, to which AutoRoka replies: “I must have a soul. There can be no other explanation…. For the sensation I have of a person inside.” So simple and yet I think the author hits the nail on the head.
I found the entire trilogy to be riveting and found myself absorbed in the seesawing development of Kora and Roka’s fate. Palmer’s themes are provocative and intense, yet it all occurs within an almost non-stop action and suspense context, full of colorful characters, both good, evil and somewhere in between. The end result is both a good fun yarn, and a food-for-thought indictment of religion, capitalism, and, by extension, the environment that Palmer has written so extensively about.
Final note: These are NOT stand-alone books. Books two and three pick up precisely where the previous left off, making for ONE story.