Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 3 Feb 00 10:58
William Gibson calls John Shirley "cyberpunks' Patient Zero, first locus of the virus, certifiably virulent." Bruce Sterling has characterized Shirley in his earlier days as "a total bottle-of-dirt screaming dogcollar yahoo." A lyricist and musician, a science fiction author, a master of the horror genre and a screenwriter who has produced scripts for "The Crow" as well as television's Deep Space Nine and VR5, Shirley is a multi-faceted talent who is never content to stick with his past successes. Interviewing Shirley is Melbourne, Australia resident Richard Evans, an artist, a new father and a host of The WELL's art conference. Please join me in welcoming John and Richard to inkwell.vue!
Richard Evans (rje) Thu 3 Feb 00 13:11
Thanks Linda. And welcome all. As the opening blurb indicates John, you're work has influenced and been promoted by some very high profile names yet, until recently, many of your most well known books such as "City Come A- Walkin'" and "Eclipse" have been out of print. You have also had a number of new books published, notably the collections "Black Butterflies" and "Really Really Really Really Weird Stories," with your most recent work being as intense and challenging as ever. And you have a number of regular online non-fiction columns currently on the boil, as well as your screenwriting work, all of which gives the impression of both a professional and personal renaissance. How have you managed to maintain such a high level of consistency in terms of both vision and craft across such a wide range of styles, formats and genres? Not to mention decades? You are as well known for your punk youth, John, and the influence this had upon a number of young authors such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling as for your fiction, but writing fiction, especially *Science* Fiction is hardly standard punk practice. How did a dog-collar wearing singer with a penchant for leaping into the crowd end up an influential author in a field more closely associated with the geek than the street? And how do you feel about the cyberpunk label and it's continuing influence on both fiction and film? And why did you elect to revise "Eclipse" which is the first book in the Song Called Youth Trilogy and one of your strongest works?
John Shirley (johnp-shirley) Fri 4 Feb 00 11:27
DAMN you make me sound old. (I'm 46). Of course, as my older books went out of print, oftentimes new books came into print: the novels A SPLENDID CHAOS, SILICON EMBRACE, and WETBONES for example. The latter book is in a mass market Leisure edition now. And now the ECLIPSE books are coming back into print (Babbage Press), and so is CITY COME A WALKIN' (Four Walls Eight WIndows)and that's gratifying. Gibson wrote a nice intro to CITY... How did I maintain quality in diversity? I seem to be obsessive about trying to stay original, diverse, not being predictable, not being *stuck*. I'm driven that way, by some internal prod. This drive requires that I develop real facility in any field I go into, if I can. I can't always do it. Though I semi-regularly write television, I have a hard time thinking like a television writer or producer. They think in the most mass-marketable terms possible--the better ones get interesting ideas, even socially challenging concepts, at times, into that common-denominator format--it's a special skill, one I've come to admire, and I'm barely able to maintain the appearance of being One of Them. But I was just reflecting how i've always felt a difficulty in that respect anywhere--I always feel like a kid pretending to be one of the adults, in the adult world, when he makes small talk, or chats about politics where adults congregate; I don't identify with the clothes, I wear, for example, as most people do--whatever style I elect to wear, even if I pick something others regard as eccentric. I just hope it's acceptable camouflage. Perhaps because I don't feel I fit in any one place, don't identify with any one scene--not even with the punk scene when I was up to my leather-belted neck in it--I can plug into many scenes, use many voices. There are, I'm told, a remarkable number of literary voices in the big story collection "Really Really Really Really Weird Stories"(I chose that title, which some people find offputtingly gimmicky or silly, wryly, as a way of saying I don't take myself too seriously--Frank Zappa always advised that. I miss Zappa.) I have the impression though that there are "Shirleyesque" mannerisms, descriptions and so forth. So I'm told. How did a dog-collar wearing singer with a penchant for leaping into the crowd end up an influential author in a field more closely associated with the geek than the street? And how do you feel about the cyberpunk label and it's continuing influence on both fiction and film? And why did you elect to revise "Eclipse" which is the first book in the Song Called Youth Trilogy and one of your strongest works?
John Shirley (johnp-shirley) Fri 4 Feb 00 12:08
I ended up writing because it's the only way I can survive. I was pretty unemployable when I was young--and in fact am basically not competent to do anything but write. Nothing, that is, legitimate. WHen I was 19 0r 20 I had a chance to go to the Clarion Writer's workshop--but couldn't afford it. It's not so very expensive, considering it's six weeks long with 6 pro writers, but I didn't have it. Then Social Security made an accounting error in my favor for jsut about the *exact* amount needed at exactly the right time! I considered this an omen or at least serendipity and took the money and ran for Clarion. At Clarion I learned that yes I could *sell* my writing, I could theoretically make a living on it (mostly it has been more than theoretical, especially in the last fifteen years), so I didn't have to...do what I'd been doing. I had an alternative to robberies, burglary, prostitution, etc. I was, you know, not a very socialized young man. And in my heart I wanted to belong, to be part of the society, to be 'part of', so I was glad and went with writing. I did have a chance to make a living as a musician--and signed with Celluloid Records, and got close. I had a chance to sign with John Hammon Sr at Columbia and i blew it. You don't get two chances like that. So I focused on writing. I thought, though, I could bring the deeper aspects of the rock esthetic to science fiction--Dylan, the better Stones stuff, Iggy, Patti Smith, Doors, various underground people--the people I thought of as the modern surrealist poets of the rock culture. But science fiction had other concerns, wasn't much into it. I'm lucky to have published, really. Or maybe I shouldn't have been writing genre. Clarion made me genre oriented. I made it part of my deal with Babbage Press that I could revise and update Eclipse. And it's easier to do now when you can get a book scanned onto a disk. So why not? ALso Eclipse, Eclipse penumbra, and Eclipse Corona (the latter two will be out later this year, the revised Eclipse is already out), were *tantalyzingly* relevant, it seemed to me, to the late 90s, the political dangers and possibilities of the real-life 21st century that's just now arriving. It had been ahead of its time, and it was relatively easy to make it cogent to this time. The books were prescient in some ways; I cut the ways in whcih they were incongruously *not* prescient, brought in present day references (all very much chose for their relevance to the theme), and edited the writing so it reads more mature, without losing its youth-oriented energy.
John Shirley (johnp-shirley) Fri 4 Feb 00 12:35
As for the cyberpunk label--I don't know, labels just seem to slip off me, the sticky stuff on them won't adhere to strange oils on my skin. Science fiction needed cyberpunk. It needed the infusion of *honesty* found in the best cyberpunk, like Gibson and Sterling and Shiner and Rucker. It needed the energy infusion too. It needed the wider spectrum of literary and artistic possibilities it brought. It needed those dark shadings. It wasn't mature until cyberpunk--ironically, considering the 'punk' association with adolescent dynamism! Before cyberpunk most science fiction was also sort of classist; perhaps cyberpunk was 'class warfare' because it was, is, very street oriented, it shows a willingness to use so called anti-heroes, or people who're struggling, from a street level, against the status quo. People who're using their intelligence to survive, to hustle a better place, when the odds are stacked against them. Cyberpunk needed even more underclass point of view: more black writers. I think of Delany's DHALGREN as a cyberpunk novel. And he's a black writer. But we needed an Octavia Butler. She didn't need us though--she carved her own niche, and quite fearlessly and brilliantly. And if it persists as a form--maybe mostly in movies--it's because people want their science fiction leavened with grit, with the furious energies of the real class struggle...I am not speaking in Marxist terms, here, I'm no Marxist, but in terms of a kind of unspoken moral aspiration for social justice expressed by artists in our society...
John Shirley (johnp-shirley) Fri 4 Feb 00 15:25
John Hammond sr not john hammon
Bruce Sterling (bruces) Fri 4 Feb 00 16:17
I don't have a question, but I wanted to seize this opportunity to publicly come clean about something. John wrote this trilogy of books once, the ECLIPSE trilogy, which were based on the rise of neo-fascism in future Europe. I thought they were pretty good books, except for the "neo-fascism" part. I mean, after WWII, the camps, the Bomb, how could any sane person, especially any sane European, put up with any fascist government for even a fraction of a second? But then there was Serbia. And now, 2000 AD, a fascist lunatic fringe is in the government in Austria. Austria, for Christ's sake. The nation that contains the town of Linz, Adolf Hitler's home town. This is the one time when Godwin's Law doesn't hold. The sons of bitches are actual Nazis! My hat is off to this Shirley guy. He was right and I was wrong.
Ron Hogan (grifter) Fri 4 Feb 00 17:08
Let me sing the praises of "Neo Noir," a John Shirley short story collection from, IIRC, Black Ice Books. It contains one story which is the funniest disgusting story, or perhaps the most disgusting funny story, I've ever read.
John Payne (satyr) Fri 4 Feb 00 19:02
John, in your writing for television, have you had an opportunity to go through several cycles of seeing a production based on one of your scripts, digesting that, writing another script for the same series, seeing that, writing yet another ... ?
Richard Evans (rje) Sat 5 Feb 00 04:14
I think that just about every screenwriter goes through the process you outline <satyr> and I'm sure that John will have quite a bit to say about his experiences a little later in the interview. For now I'd like to keep the focus on his fiction, particularly "Eclipse" which, as Bruce Sterling mentioned, includes a disconcertingly prescient take on fascism in Europe. At this stage I'd also like to mention John's official website, <http://www.darkecho.com/johnshirley> which contains a wealth of biographic and bibliographic information, as well as updates on new projects covering all aspects of John's work. The site also includes many of John's non-fiction essays, which are as innovative and impassioned as his fiction. <http://www.babbagepress.com> Is the site of the publisher of "Eclipse" which can be ordered directly, as well as publication details about the next two books in the trilogy. <http://www.spark-online.com> This e-zine includes a regular column by John in the Trends section, the most recent of which is at <http://www.spark-online.com/february00/trends/shirley.html> The short story collection mentioned by Ron above is called NEW NOIR, by the way- what was the title of the story you are referring to Ron? And that combination of the humorous and the grotesque crops in other stories as well. For the moment, John, I'd like to focus on ECLIPSE, in which a private military force provides domestic security services to individual countries as well as the UN and NATO, unfurling their fascist agenda once their power increases. In many respects this scenario seem more realistic than the notion of some kind of global government, which is often perceived as a terminally naive notion. Why do you think there is such resistance to the very notion of a global government? Is it because many assume that the formation of a global government would be the precursor to a global culture which would somehow obliterate extant cultures and traditions? ECLIPSE was first published in 1985, BTW and is a fantastic novel irrespective of its political and social commentary- for those that haven't yet read it there is a short extract from ECLIPE at: <http://www.darkecho.com/JohnShirley/jseclipse.html>
Ron Hogan (grifter) Sat 5 Feb 00 11:24
(I can't remember the title of the story, and my copy of the book is back east right now, but it combines fellatio and rigor mortis in an amusing--for those who take their humor black--way.)
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Sat 5 Feb 00 14:09
The "Business of Deception" essay on Shirley's web site really strikes home. There's something we all know, is out in plain view, but is sometimes forgotten.
Richard Smoley (smoley) Sat 5 Feb 00 14:24
One thing that comes to mind with the Eclipse theme is the threat, real or imagined (and probably some of both), of multinationals. That is, a private company provides some kind of necessary service, and voila, it has a stranglehold. One suspects that conventional antitrust legislation probably isn't up for handling it. So, John, do you think the Eclipse series was prophetic?
John Shirley (johnp-shirley) Sat 5 Feb 00 16:48
The story in New Noir referred to is "Just Like Suzie", kind of a notorious piece. Thanks for coming clean,Bruce! Italy and France also have strong neo-fascist movements. It exists in Britain too. There are New Right racists here who have been on ESPN saying things like "no major civilization has ever been the produce of mixed races"--which, of course, is patently untrue. Indeed, European civilization is the product of Moorish, Arabian, and Christian civilization, with lots of input from the Slavs. It should also be noted that there were crypto-fascist governments operating in South America until recently, with the involvement of former German Nazis. But in Eclipse I set up a situation in which an aggressive Russia creates social chaos behind its lines in Europe--chaos of the sort that historically leads to nationalism and the possibility of autocracy of some kind, including fascism. So even if none of this happened I felt that *given that recipe* of social factors, fascism could make a comeback--especially as racism, despite taking some hits, was proving to be difficult to root out of American culture. And especially as I was seeing a growing movement toward intolerance on the part of the Christian Fundamentalist right--I predicted, for example, groups of a sort that we see now in the form of the Christian Coalition. That is, highly politically organized Christian-right organizations--very dangerous organizations. My idea was that all this stuff was simmering under the surface and if you predicated the theme that fascism could make a comeback on a sufficiency of conjectural social chaos, in this case a world war, then that simmering could come to a boil... Richard asks: "Why do you think there is such resistance to the very notion of a global government? Is it because many assume that the formation of a global government would be the precursor to a global culture which would somehow obliterate extant cultures and traditions?" I suppose that's the fear, Richard--people fearing they'll lose their culture, roots, identities. But that would only happen if you tried to do something heinous and lunatic like the Khmer Rouge, in their bizarre attempt to create an agrarian dictatorship of the proletariet, suppressing even the right to sing traditional songs. Any such attempt would be fiercely resisted and doomed to failure. More likely the danger of global cultural homogeneity is from commercial globalization, the franchising of the world, the superimposition of fashions by means of some vast global media yet to come. I think there will be some kind of CHANNEL--the "Global Channel" which will be the dominant cultural paradigm, in effect, that everyone will watch (not to the exclusion of other channels, but as well as other channels) which will be terribly influential on a global scale, even in remote places. It may be locally translated via some kind of computerized dubbing system, or may be in English, which is likely to be come the lingua franca of the world--or, actually, some kind of polyglot dialect of English. This and other *economic* pressures will have the unfortunate effect of obliterating cultural differences, not a government. Indeed, a world government, if sanely constructed, could *protect* local cultures, by law. People are afraid of a world government for, on the one hand, *good* reasons--because it could be dictatorial, oppressive; on the other hand they're afraid of it for all the wrong reasons, because an intelligent world government, that really would be just an enforcement device for ensuring HUMAN RIGHTS and some degree of economic fairness around the world (and preventing environmental devastation and preventing invasions), would actually *permit* far more than it prevented; would actually be *constitutionally designed* to encourage pluralism and diversity. People should be afraid of a world government that accretes around power-loci and multinationals or around some ideology of intolerance (as in Eclipse); people should welcome a paradigm of a world government based on an intelligent model.
John Shirley (johnp-shirley) Sat 5 Feb 00 16:50
"product" of mixed races. How do you correct these things? I should proof read.
techsplanation (satyr) Sat 5 Feb 00 18:25
John Shirley (johnp-shirley) Sat 5 Feb 00 22:43
John Payne (satyr) - no I haven't had quite that opportunity in the same show, I've not been on staff on a show that lasted that long, and in fact something like that is probably what I need to do in order to learn the drill, or anyway to learn to write television the way that television demands to be written.
John Shirley (johnp-shirley) Sat 5 Feb 00 22:51
Richard Smoley: yeah it wasn't by accident that I picked a multinational 'private security' service as the sort of camouflage of the first military incursion of the fascists in Eclipse. It was supposed to represent my satire of the ruthlessness and questionable agenda I saw in multinationals, first, and also there was and is in real life a certain very very large international security service with ties to extreme-rightists that has been mixed up with some mercenary stuff...and this outfit has been implicated in some very dark stuff...Also I was noticing the increasing tendency of government to experiment with "privatizing" aspects of government and bureaucracy. THere have been more and more calls for that--and one has to wonder how far it would go. Would NATO hire a "private" army for certain operations? What if it had an agenda of its own?
Undo Influence (mnemonic) Sun 6 Feb 00 06:21
John, can you say something about the process of translating your skills as a novelist into work as a screenwriter? What kinds of things did you have learn about pacing and structure, and where did you learn them? And how has screenwriting, in turn, come back and affected your fiction writing?
Richard Evans (rje) Sun 6 Feb 00 12:21
<satyr>'s hidden response in #15 contains some technical tips on editing WELL posts, John's post in #16 is in response to <satyr>'s question in #8 as to wether John has had to produce multiple scripts for the same TV program, a pattern of questioning nicely continued by <mnemonic> above. As to screenwriting, John, you are best known for your cinematic adaption of "the Crow". Of your own works which would you most like to see filmed and would you like to do the script? I believe you have written s script based on your novel "Brigade"- is this anywhere near the productionstage? As to the prophetic aspects of ECLIPSE,the recent merger of Time Warner and AOL has created a media corporation on an unprecedented global scale and which has the potential to function much as the media conglomerate WorldTalk in Eclipse. Similar organisations crop up in other cyberpunk works. Given that cyberpunk has been frequently criticised as dystopian, do you think that ansuch mega media mergers are likely to function as social manipulators persuing a private agenda, or is this just one possible outcome?
John Shirley (johnp-shirley) Sun 6 Feb 00 15:05
Well that's just great. I wrote a long answer to questions here, looked at another page to check the url I wanted to give where more specific info could be found, closed the page--and the inkwell page had vanished. Why is that? Maybe it's a function of coming to the Well through AOL. Now I have to re-create all that stuff. And don't have time now. Well shit.
John Payne (satyr) Sun 6 Feb 00 15:11
Now AOL has a "John Shirley on the Well" clone ... or not. ;-)
John Shirley (johnp-shirley) Sun 6 Feb 00 15:16
I'll answer this one now briefly... "do you think that ansuch mega media mergers are likely to function as social manipulators persuing a private agenda, or is this just one possible outcome?" When big companies merge, when companies get bigger for any reason, they seem to me to get less humane, more greedy, altogether less decent. I think there should be a study showing the correspondence between the size of the company and the tendency of individuals working in it to dehumanize others outside the company, and to be dehumanized within it. . .There is already an extensive history of media manipulation and abuse by big companies for their own agendas.NBC is or was owned by GE, which owns many nuclear power plants; NBC aired a documentary that was actually an ad explaining how great nuclear power is. Coincidence, you decide. I wonder who put ABC up to the 20/20 anti-organic-produce rant they just did--which was totally one sided. For more specific info on media manipulation by companies and governments see my piece POLITICAL AND CORPORATE CENSORSHIP IN THE LAND OF THE FREE at www.darkecho.com/johnshirley under nonfiction. Oh hell, briefly, the other questions. Yes it was hard to learn to write screenplays after writing novels and I'm still learning. Collaborative writing on that scale is hard for me. Writing with such simplistic (in the kinds of script assignments etc I've been getting) and unnuanced storylines is not natural to me. But I'm learning--and in fact there has always been a cinematic component of my fiction. it's always been visual, I've tried to create 'movies' in the mind of the reader, and I've always been influenced by film makers, in my fiction writing, somehow; people like Bunuel and Wertmuller and Fellini and Roeg and Kubrick and Leone and Wellman. And i think writing scripts may indeed be affecting my fiction and I'm not sure if that's good but maybe it's apt for the 21st century novelist, I dunno. Structurally, in writing scripts one has to learn, generally, to write in three acts, to hit 'story beats' quite stridently, to write more archetypally. I learneds scriptwriting by trial and error and feedback from people I was working for and by screwing up. I'm getting there. I don't believe in screenwriting programs like Dramatica, which are just plain bullshit, and I don't go to classes or read books about it or go to seminars, I couldn't bear that. On the whole I'm happier writing fiction. Just wrote a short novel called DEMONS for Cemetary Dance publication and that felt liberating...It's a strange combination, DEMONS, of science fiction and supernatural story.
John Shirley (johnp-shirley) Sun 6 Feb 00 15:18
And I'd like to see ECLIPSE made into a movie--it's dynamic, brimming with ideas that could be exploited, and a good message. THE BRIGADE is a script, been optioned many times, not made. Showtime produced something i wrote which they gave the horrible title Twists of Terror. It came out pretty good in a low budget way.
Richard Smoley (smoley) Mon 7 Feb 00 08:29
On the subject of dehumanizing multinationals, I happened to have lunch yesterday with a couple who does personnel consulting for multinationals (companies you've heard of). Their job is in a sense to humanize these places. Their sense was that in many areas management was quite enlightened and humane, though their apparently are also many cases when it isn't. Smaller companies aren't necessarily better, though there would seem to be some advantage in having decisions about you and your life made by someone who has to look you in the eye rather than somewhere far away in the "home office," as David Letterman would say. There is also the possibility, unsettling and rather rarely contemplated, that some multinational would be created that would have the secret agenda of unifying and benefiting the human race...
Richard Evans (rje) Mon 7 Feb 00 12:14
>the secret agenda of unifying and benefiting the human race... United by what means and benefiting in what way, Richard? I'm sure there are multinational organisations that believe they are pursuing this aim. Part of the problem with large organisations is the responsibility is diluted by bureaucracy. On issue A my boss may be able to make a decision, for example, but on issue B they need to check with their boss who checks with their boss and so on. Also individuals in such organisations are typically only informed of and trained in matters directly pertaining to their job task and often have little or no understanding of other facets of the company. In a weird way this parallels the military mantra of informing people on a "need to know" basis. On of the subtexts in ECLIPSE, John, involves the source of the characters motivation for fighting against the fascists, with each character having a distinct set of complex motivations, with Rickenharp, for example, finding the war a source of redemption, as well as the backdrop for the ultimate rock gig. Swenson, on the other hand is terminally attracted to ritual and the embrace of a sub-cultural family even though he may despise what that ritual stands for. Not only does this complexity make for fascinating reading, John, but it grounds the political aspects of the novel. To what extent if any do the characters in ECLIPSE reflect aspects of your own personality- not so much in strictly biographical terms but as a means of exploring emotions and themes which may otherwise go unexpressed? This question could also be applied to your fiction general John, especially in relation to the recurring obsession with the darker aspects of human nature.
Members: Enter the conference to participate