Interview: John Shirley, talking A Song Called Youth, Everything Is Broken, Iron Man animated, and new comics for The Crow
David KnightView all articles by David Knight
John Shirley is one of those writers who may be recognized differently if one freezes their concept of him as a writer based on thier first experience of his work. Some of his writing doesn't lend itself to easily applied genre labels even now, while some obviously places him as as one of the prime movers behind the genre that became known as cyberpunk -- with the likes of William Gibson, Richard Kadrey, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan and others. A few people may initially have read his work unaware the work was his, while he was writing post-apocolyptic adventure novels under a pseudonym.
Those who decipher the miniscule type of film credits in the theatrical screen crawl or on the back of their DVD (and now Blu-Ray) case may know his name as a script writer who in part ushered into film, from James O' Barr's gothic comic, The Crow (which starred the late Brandon Lee). Some of his ventures into horror and suspense have been labeled splatterpunk. Further, some may also be aware that he has been the lyricist for most of the legendary Blue Oyster Cult's material since the early 1990s.
One of Shirley's earliest novels, Transmaniacon (1979) was inspired by the Blue Oyster Cult song "Transmaniacon MC" from their self-titled 1972 album. Shirley would later write lyrics for the band's 1998 album Heaven Forbid, and their 2001 release, Curse Of The Hidden Mirror. "Power Underneath Despair" which was a should-have-been-a-hit from Heaven Forbid, kept good company when it also appeared on the compilation CD Summerdaze alongside tracks new and live by John Kay & Steppenwolf, Foghat, and Pat Travers. "Demon's Kiss" and "The Horsemen Arrive" were also written by Shirley for BOC appearing on the soundtrack to the 1992 film Bad Channels. The writing of Shirley and others such as William Gibson would in turn influence the lyrical subject matter of the songs by many bands (for example much of Queensryche's 1986 album with producer Neil Kernon and Dave Ogilvie, Rage For Order).
And then there have been scripts for television, as well as novel tie-ins with film and videogame franchises. John Shirley could very well be one of the hardest working 'horror' novelists by writing more than horror, and in formats or media other than the novel. Unfreeze your concept: everything is everything is the author.
I made the occasion to talk with John Shirley upon the re-release of his acclaimed trilogy, A Song Called Youth. Shirley's cyber-punk trilogy A Song Called Youth, comprising Eclipse (1985), Eclipse Penumbra (1988), Eclipse Corona (1990), has been collected into one volume, now revised by the author. This edition published by Prime Books features an introduction by Richard Kadrey and biographical notes by Bruce Sterling.
Kadrey is author of the cyber-punk novel Metrophage, Sandman Slim, Kill The Dead, and Aloha Hell among others. Sterling, another of the prime movers in the cyberpunk movement, edited Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology in 1986 and authored the 1989 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, Islands In The Net, as well as the 1997 and 1999 Hugo Award winning stories "Bicycle Repairman" and "Taklamakan".
Broadly, the three books comprising A Song Called Youth detail a dystopian saga of an uprising against fundamentalist extremists in corporation form called The Second Alliance. They want to rule the world, or the ruins of it. A rebel group called The New Resistance rises up. While they rise up on Earth, the conflict is mirrored on the orbiting satellite called FirStep.
Knight: John, your cyberpunk trilogy A Song Called Youth has been revised and released in an omnibus edition. This edition features an introduction by Richard Kadrey and biographical notes by Bruce Sterling. With their significant involvement in the growth of cyberpunk as a recognizable genre, lending their words to this new and improved edition seems less like commercial (or reciprocal) promotion and more like peer review doesn't it?
Shirley: There is a historical resonance to the A Song Called Youth omnibus--especially now when so much it predicted is beginning to come true; when fascism is making a come back and racism being fanned, when anti-immigrant demagoguery is being used to manipulate people. And they're aware of that. Plus culturally speaking, the trilogy is part of the cyberpunk thing in a very definite way but also part of the emerging youth culture of the late 20th century and the early 21st century... And Bruce's observations on my background and personality give a kind of verisimilutude or gravitas to me as a "witness" of the dark side and edgy side of emergent underground culture... So I guess I feel validated by them and the current recognition of these books.
Knight: While writing the initial books, did you feel like you were writing a future history? So much of it now seems eerily prescient.
Shirley: I felt like I was writing cautionary tales, that the risk of this kind of thing happening was there. I was concerned about the power of technology to impinge on consciousness, to create its own reality, too, and how it could be exploited by the powerful to control the masses, and that will always be an issue. So my concern was to tell people be aware of all the different sides of technology, take command of them, don't surrender them to the 1%. Do not be ruled by the technocrats -- become 'technodemocrats'.
Knight: The rising up of The New Resistance against The Second Alliance doesn't just play out on Earth but also the FirStep station in orbit. It adds a lot to the story. What inspired you to develop that second theatre of the conflict?
Shirley: The space colony, an L5 colony between the Earth and the Moon, is a kind of microcosm, a hothouse environment, a terrarium almost, for social conflict... The problems emerging between classes of people in the 21st century. It was a big floating metaphor in space, for me. Also, it's just an intriguing notion to play with. I didn't want a far future one -- I wanted to imagine what that environment could be like for the near future, to offer that to readers who might yet experience it themselves... And I was also drawn by the fact that in such a large habitat (relatively large, compared to an orbital space station) people would be very vulnerable to the administration -- they could easily be cut off from Earth, and it could become autocratic there quite quickly and what could that lead to? Ugly political movements on Earth can be mitigated -- but if they spread to a space colony, what happens to the people there?