Author John Shirley talks about the revised edition of his cyberpunk trilogy A Song Called Youth, his current novel Everything Is Broken, writing for animation, and upcoming work on new comics for The Crow from IDW.
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?
Knight: Some people might think that writing a dystopia set in the future would be easier than one that was set in the present. I am thinking that your recent novel Everything Is Broken (Prime Books, 2012) is nearly a dystopia set in the present. Were you conscious of that dystopic feel, or were you driven by the characters and situations, more than any overall conceptual label?
Shirley: It's set slightly in the future, but it's pretty much our world now, really, and it's about our political situation now, in a way. That book is several things at once, hopefully seamlessly combined: it's a kind of noir / action novel, it's a disaster novel involving a giant tsunami hitting California, it's a coming of age story (a sort of Red Badge of Courage for the 21st century), it's a horror story (not in the supernatural sense), and underlying all that, at heart, it's a political allegory. I suppose it's a bit The Lord of the Flies -- but the real inspiration for it was the rise of the "Tea Party" in the USA, the rise of anti-civilization thinking in the Republican party, the rise of Libertarianism and Ayn Rand thinking, and the danger all that presents. If you remove emergency infrastructures, if you refuse to pay for decent law enforcement and emergency preparedness and fire departments, if you weaken social bonds -- what happens when a really big emergency comes? At that point, what is most monstrous in human nature has free reign. But, there are heroic people in this story, too; only I've shown them as complex people, doubting themselves, having to struggle to find courage to do what they have to.
Knight: When you invest a lot of time in breathing life into a character to make them real to you and the reader, does it get to you when their time comes in a story?
Shirley: Yes. And it gets to some readers. I heard complaints when a certain rocker character was killed off in A Song Called Youth. But life is rife with tragedy. Still, I tend to have more or less hopeful happy endings, for most of my stuff -- I believe in trying to show the darkness, but always instillling hope.
Knight: As a writer, you don't limit yourself by genre, or by media. You have written for animated series, "Sentries Of The Last Cosmos" for the DC Comics series Batman Beyond, but more recently "Control-Alt-Delete" for Marvel's Iron Man: Armored Adventures. Ironically enough, both characters were young people in technological suits that gave them powers. Does it seem that technologically powered heroes are attractive to you to write, or is it that what you have built as a writer over the years is attractive to the teams putting such series together?
Shirley: I think it's more of the latter -- I wrote about young people interfacing with wild technologies, so they thought of me. They asked me to do it. I like both Batman and Iron Man, too. I did write some of the earliest science fiction about the use of high tech and also mind altering pharmaceutical influences on people, in science fiction (Lucius Shepard did that better, I think), and the A Song Called Youth books explore that from time to time. I also have the "SA Bulls" in the trilogy, in their helmets, with interfaces, HUD and so on...
Knight: Did you have an Iron Man story you always wanted to write as a fan, and when this opportunity happened, just recalled that fan-wish story? How much consultation went on in developing the story?
Shirley: I probably *would* have pitched some VR storyline if given that chance but the general trend of the story was suggested by producer / writer Brandon Auman. I just took the springboard and sprang with it. Quite a lot of consultation always happens whenever it's a script for anything but some people give you more lattitude than others--Brandon gave me plenty of room. I'm especially a fan of the new Iron Man movies, particularly the first one--and I'm liking what I'm seeing of the forthcoming Avengers film, with Iron Man. Robert Downey is so cool, so talented, he just makes things work. The more adult a super hero story is, the better, up to a point--the ideal one is like the first Iron Man film with Downey, combining that adolescent frisson, that takes me back to my youth, with a recognition of the grit and seriousness of life. The same thing is present in the best westerns, like The Outlaw Josey Wales (Everything is Broken is structured rather like a western, in a lot of ways--I do love the good ones).
Knight: IDW has announced that you will be writing a five issue mini-series of The Crow for them. It seems entirely appropriate as you wrote multiple scripts (I believe you have said 4?) for Alex Proyas' 1994 film of The Crow before David J. Schow. How does it feel to return to this character?
Shirley: I've written the first two issues already. I wrote the first four scripts of The Crow movie and then Dave Schow took over and he did a fine job. I was (despite what anyone else tells you!) the one who found The Crow comic in a comic book store, and I took it to the producers. I saw it as readily cinematic. I had a good rapport with James O'Barr (we're both fans of Iggy Pop, for one thing), the creator of The Crow, and I'd love to work with him again. I tried to make it close to his comic. I'm trying to keep these comics close to the spirit of the O'Barr creation. It feels quite natural to return to the character. In fact, one reason I got interested in the comic was because I'd written a character called ANGRY ANGEL that was sort of a similar idea and decided to send the proposal to a small comic company I'd spotted. The guy wrote back and said, "I like this but it's too much like a new comic we're doing called The Crow." So I went to the comic store and found The Crow #1 and that put the kibosh on Angry Angel -- but I liked the character, I felt like it was a state of mind, a persona, O'Barr and I shared. So, I took it to Jeff Most who took it to Pressman...
Knight: How will this series relate to past versions of The Crow -- is it setting the stage for the new film that has been announced?
Shirley: It's not related to the new film which, far as I know, is a remake... But, for a long time now The Crow has been appearing in other "iterations" -- you saw this in The Crow novels. So it's sort of established that The Crow spirit can inhabit different people for different missions of "making the wrong things right". And in THE CROW: DEATH IS MY DOJO, the IDW five-issue series (and future graphic novel book) our hero is a young man from Detroit who is having his adventure in Tokyo, where he lives because he's fallen in love with a Japanese girl. The classic romantic / tragic motivation arises in this Tokyo manifestation of The Crow. And his personality is very much the artful, edgy, sardonic character we saw in the comics. Still, I take it to some new places. The Crow will, in one issue, visit a Japanese Buddhist HELL and confront the demons there, as part of his quest... I once wrote a story of The Crow, which was in an anthology of stories about him, where he decides that the real person responsible for the death of his beloved is God...so he goes on a mission to take vengeance against God... So, I clearly feel free to experiment with The Crow, while keeping true to the spirit of it.
Knight: Recently you had a novelette called Elder Cruiser serialized in five parts over five days at FREEZINE of Fantasy And Science Fiction. How did that come about?
Shirley: You know, I came up with this novelette and sent it to one science fiction mag and they liked it but said it was too long and if I could cut it in HALF they'd publish it. I didn't want to cut it in half, and decided, eventually, just to give it to the Freezine because I was too caught up in other things to market it. I like the concept of the Freezine (sort of like Rudy Rucker's Flurb, free experimental fiction online, at Flurb.net) and wanted to support it. They also have a space opera I wrote, that was a kind of Sabatini's Captain Blood meets John Carter meets Jack Vance space adventure fiction, called Sky Pirates (written before the movie John Carter came out...) and other material by me. Free! All free! And lots of stuff by other folks.
Knight: Over the years, Blue Oyster Cult has had lyrics contributed by novelists and poets like Patti Smith, Michael Moorcock, Jim Carroll, and Eric Van Lust Bader. On the band's soundtrack to the 1992 film Bad Channels "Demon's Kiss" and "The Horsemen Arrive" were written by you, while their 1998 album Heaven Forbid, and their 2001 release, Curse Of The Hidden Mirror, had you contribute 8 songs a piece. Is it different writing lyrics for other bands than your own, or do you just write and sometimes realize a song would fit that band if they want it?
Shirley: I first saw the Blue Oyster Cult in a free concert at a small rock fest in NYC's Central Park in around 1972, or so. I was impressed. They were very dark, they were intelligent, they were intricate, and Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser was a transcendent guitar player. And still is. So I went and got their vinyl LPs and became a big fan. Still am. And when the chance arose to write lyrics for them I jumped at it. Their subject matter is often horror-inflected, noir inflected, even science fictional, and that was a natural for me. I was steeped in their music so it was innately second nature for me to write for them. I wrote the lyrics and they found the music for them -- but it was often the music I'd "heard" in my mind, or close to it!
Knight: Do you have any musical projects in the works that people should keep in mind?
Shirley: Yes. Christian Dorge and Black October records is releasing a compilation CD of key recordings by me, later this year, to be called BROKEN MIRROR GLASS: John Shirley, 1978--2011. It is a spectrum of songwriting and performing, punk rock through "futuristic funk" through prog rock (with punky overtones), through experimental stuff with Mike Chocholak (the Minds in Collision recordings) through new material recorded with Michael Layne Heath, for the Screaming Geezers sessions. The influences of the Sex Pistols, Jim Morrison, the Stooges, Funkadelic, King Crimson, and Frank Zappa can probably be recognized... I'm also writing lyrics for Christian's own recordings. I probably should just concentrate on writing prose but I can't help myself, I have a rocker side. What's that old blues song by John Lee Hooker, where he says, "The boy's got to boogie woogie, it's got to come out..."
I appreciate John Shirley taking the time from his projects to respond to my questions. His final mention of John Lee Hooker's words from "Boogie Chillen" has me playing the great bluesman's proto-rock in my mind as I type: "... And I felt so good, went on boogie'n just the same."
John Shirley has written many more novels than could be possibly discussed thoroughly here or anywhere, but there are a some more I would like to mention in parting. His most recent tie-in novel was for the video game Bioshock, a prequel called Bioshock: Rapture (TOR Books, 2011). His past film tie-in novels include the adaption of the Keanu Reeves film version of DC's Hellblazer, called Constantine (Pocket Star, 2005). He wrote two more novels about John Constantine that were seperate from the film and were more closely in line with the continuity of the DC/Vertigo comic series, Hellblazer: War Lord and Hellblazer: Subterranean (Pocket Star, 2006). His Batman novel, Dead White (Del Ray, 2006) was set after Batman Begins and before the Dark Knight films in terms of continuity, so makes for a good read. He wrote Predator: Forever Midnight (Dark Horse, 2006) and Aliens: Steel Egg (Dark Horse, 2007).
Fans of The Crow may also want to find a copy of The Crow: Shattered Lives & Broken Dreams (Del Ray, 1999) an anthology edited by J. O' Barr and Ed Kramer, for Shirley's short story contribution, "Wings Burnt Black" alongside contributions from a variety of authors, including O'Barr.
For those interested in his own short stories, he has a number of collections. Neither of these are recommended for weak stomachs, but I would strongly recommend his Bram Stoker Award winning collection, Black Butterflies (Liesure Books, 2001), or his latest collection, In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories Of John Shirley (Underland Press, 2011).