Piper at the Gates of Hell: An Interview with Cyberpunk Legend John Shirley
Chronicler of "street" and assembler of mechanisms to go beyond, John Shirley breathes forth a smoggy twilight that is the end of the American Dream.
Image: Kanaka Menehune/Flickr
Dweller of dark Thisworld and Otherworlds, chronicler of "street" and assembler of mechanisms to go beyond, John Shirley breathes forth a smoggy twilight that is the end of the American Dream. A novelist at 18, tutored by Dune's Frank Herbert, Ursula LeGuin, and Harlan Ellison, Shirley is the closest known phenomenon to being our Edgar Allan Poe.
Shirley can also be (and should be, though he is reticent to cop to it) credited for having discovered William Gibson—in an introduction to Shirley's book City Come A-Walkin', Gibson wrote "so carelessly shoved me toward the writing of stories, as into a frat-party swimming pool.") Because of their friendship, and with Gibson now granted by literati the mantle of "original cyberpunk novelist," colleagues will—perhaps must—measure their words.
I spoke to Shirley about his often-black craft; of his early involvement with psychedelia and cocaine addiction, then of "putting the phone down," and the creation of his newest novel, Doyle After Death.
Motherboard: How would you define "cyberpunk?" Why did this so-called literary movement bust out in a blast in the early-to-mid 1980s, stretching into the mid-90s (though we both know that Frank Herbert's Dune; Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and many of William S. Burroughs' works were written much earlier...)
John Shirley: Traditionally, cyberpunk is identified with "the street" having its own special uses for technology. By the street we mean the poor, the hustlers, criminals, the demimonde, the disenfranchised. People talk about law enforcement agencies using drones—but drones will also be used by drug dealers to watch for cops. You can order a good drone with a camera off the internet right now! I just saw a "hobby drone" used in a park.
Cyberpunk is also a tone. It's very urban, dystopian, but also about having the courage to face the dystopian world. There's a transhumanist thing going on in it too—people merging with technology.
Certainly PK Dick was an influence on it; also Cordwainer Smith, Samuel Delany, John Brunner, Ballard. And I'd say cyberpunk's influences also include non-genre writers, like the beat writers, William Burroughs, or the edgy poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud. And early progressive rock and goth—generally the more intelligent rock—and electronica. Gibson and Sterling loved to listen to Sisters of Mercy together... And if anyone wants to try out my cyberpunk, the ideal book is A Song Called Youth, which is a trilogy of cyberpunk novels in one volume, updated, from Prime Books. Could not resist slipping that in there.
You met William Gibson, whose Neuromancer is often touted as the cyberpunk novel. Please describe your involvement with his becoming a known name.
Gibson and I met on a panel where we were the only ones who knew the difference between Edgar Rice Burroughs and William Burroughs. We noticed that in the discussion, and he and I both referenced specific surrealist artists, and bands like the Velvet Underground. We also shared some drug references. But I can't tell you anything about his drug use... [Ed. note: Shirley later wrote to clarify, saying that "Gibson had some early run-ins with the usual mind-altering suspects but never was big into drugs. At this point he doesn't even drink alcohol."]
So we knew were kindred spirits and yet "odd men out" in the world of science fiction. I was in the punk band Sado-Nation, lead singer, and Gibson came to see us. He took a photo of me on stage that appeared in Heavy Metal magazine (the comics mag which also had an arts review section). He stayed a night on the sofa of our big smelly gruesomely untidy punk rock commune of a house in Portland, and said he half froze down there, I recall.
He wrote an intro about me in this intro to my novel City Come A-Walkin' and in other places. I used to think of myself as the Lou Reed of cyberpunk and Gibson as the David Bowie. Ah, the fantasies of youth...
Later we worked developing movie ideas, and had some optioned but they weren't made—well, a version of an adaptation of his story "The New Rose Hotel" was made, but we chose not to have our names on it. Also here at this link is an account of how my novel Black Glass originated as a Shirley/Gibson script. (He later gave me the rights to it—just gave 'em to me.)
Gibson and I wandered around the East Village in the 1980s a few times, smelling it, observing it. Alphabet Town, as it was called, was a block from where I lived. People were lined up down the stairs of tenements, to go up to locked doors with little windows cut in them, where they bought heroin in bags that were stamped with symbols for the different "street brands." We observed these things. I remember telling him I'd heard that the people working at some of these elaborate, tolerated heroin distribution organizations got benefits and vacation time and health care!
I recall Gibson being very into Leonard Cohen in those days, and you can pick up resonances of Cohen lyrics in some Gibson prose. He was also into John LeCarre, John D. MacDonald, and Thomas Pynchon, as well as the better SF, like Ballard and Delany. We listened to bands like The Birthday Party and Sisters of Mercy.
He was first published in UnEarth Magazine before I met him. But I certainly helped the world get to know Gibson, because I gave one of his first really strong cyberpunk stories to someone at OMNI magazine, in manuscript, and said "Read this!" and they published it.
OMNI really was his first big break. His second one was the novel Neuromancer. And who published Neuromancer? Terry Carr bought it for Ace Specials... and where did Carr hear about Gibson? Me. I recommended he get a novel by him. So there!
Gibson sure helped me in his time—included me as a collaborator in his first story collection, dedicated Neuromancer to me and Bruce Sterling, got me a Hollywood agent.
You were publishing novels by age 26 (Transmaniacon; Dracula In Love), followed at 27 with City Come A-Walkin'. That's a good blast of creativity at the age that many writers experience their true calling and really "find their legs." Did you "study writing," or did God—however defined—simply touch you?
I wrote my first novel when I was 18; it was published as my second novel, Dracula in Love. Transmaniacon was written when I was early 20s. Took a while to get published.
I tended to absorb good writing in English. It's just the way my brain works, that kind of absorption I mean, so I was teaching myself by reading a lot, all kinds of things. Then I went to writing workshops, the Clarion Writers Workshop, where the likes of Ursula LeGuin, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Frank Herbert, Avram Davidson, and Terry Carr were on hand to teach me, for six weeks, one writer per week.I was mercilessly workshopped by the other would-be writers and the pros. Gus Hasford, who wrote Full Metal Jacket, was a student then, and Vonda McIntyre.
I was young—and at one point took acid and ran around like a lunatic on the University of Washington campus and jumped out of a tree at Harlan Ellison... But mostly I wasn't stoned there, I was just innately weird. That I always was.
Anyway, Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm also helped me at Damon's Milford West workshop. And I just learned as I went, often by making mistakes and doing things you weren't supposed to be allowed to do in writing. I all-too-freely engaged in delirious and delusional experimentation. Hence my novel High, which is finally back out again as an ebook.
usually I don't describe drug experiences in my fiction. I usually describe life, just life as we live it, or as we may in the future.
I was influenced by rock music too. For a long time my paperback novel writing was my day job to pay for my bands in Portland (Sado-Nation) and New York (Obsession). I was lead singer songwriter and still do that stuff. And still write lyrics for the Blue Oyster Cult. Somehow the music was all part of it.
As for advice... It's hard to give it now, at least for me, as everything is so different. When I came up there were lots of paperback publishers and lots of editors reading manuscripts. Now it's hard to get something read. Some old-guard writers are throwing their perfectly good new novels into drawers in despair because even they, despite their long publishing history, can't get them read. Sometimes people get lucky with self publishing, but mostly they don't. I haven't tried it.
It's a little more possible to get short stories read, so that's one place to start... Maybe try to break into graphic novels, with the aid of a good artist? Then jump from there to film scripting? You can go to conventions and talk to agents and editors there. If they like your ideas you might get a shot. Try to come up with something that's timely and yet hasn't been done. Read a lot. Be reasonably literate, use good grammar, write in sharp, genuine sentences. Don't try to write if you don't like to read.
Which writers set you off, got you going, initially? And how did the parallel/alternate/futuristic worlds—most of it dark—come to interest you as a creator of fiction? Who turned your crank and urged you toward the "Yeah, yeah, I wanna do that" impulse?
There were a number of people, probably starting with Harlan Ellison. People like Robert Sheckley, RA Lafferty, too. But Ellison had a potent energy I responded to. He had a kind of electrical authority in his writing and to me that was exciting. It spoke to the hungry writer in me.
I identified with his point of view: dark, with subtle satirical attitude. His willingness to create his own version of the fantastic interested me. He was science fiction in I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, but really it's a kind of gnostic (unintentionally!) allegory. A lot of his fantasy writing is something like urban magic realism. So I liked that he defined his own genre and that's what I have done.
I was also excited by Kurt Vonnegut, his ability to make crystal clear symbolic statements with good strong narrative. He didn't care about genre. It was whatever worked.
You studied under Frank Herbert, whose Dune remains to me even today as the trippiest book I've ever read. His writings struck me as his being a "head" straight away. He was very clearly occupying a space, not just "as a writer," but in his own psychology, which is not of this Earth. There are rumors online—yeah, so what?, but...—that he was an enthusiast of magic mushrooms. Any truth to that; insight that you can provide?
I remember Frank Herbert saying that magic mushrooms provided insight, and some of the spice in Dune was inspired by his experiences, yes. Frank Herbert was one of my teachers at the Clarion Writers Workshop. I wouldn't attribute a great deal of the book to his drug use though, as he was always an accomplished science fiction thinker, and master of extrapolation. However, the idea of prescience as he uses it in Dune may also have been obtained from psychedelics.
You've said that you no longer use drugs; by the "no longer," any half-bright fellow will know that you once did. Being more interested in how (or if) psychedelics played a part in the coalescence of ideas which formed your early cyberpunk/neo-futuristic works, I'm always interested—as a novelist, short story writer and psychedelics aficionado myself—what LSD and mushrooms did to spark your creativity and get you writing?
I was writing before I took psychedelics—I published in underground papers as a teen—but they did affect me later. They will spur insights and ideas and occasionally some of those found their way into my writing. Often I tried to evoke the psychedelic mood or "energy."
I remember having a distinct sense of a bodily electricity communicating, along with tactile communication, while on psychedelics during sex with a girlfriend, and this was something that was reflected in sex scenes I wrote. And being young I worked a lot of those in, early on.
I no longer take drugs. I would smoke pot, except it doesn't really make me feel good. Oh, later in life I might do magic mushrooms once more, and I might consider taking DMT exactly once. But I got that message, already, no need to stay on the phone.
My novel City Come A-Walkin' is partly about my feeling that cities are organisms, with their own minds, each one having a collective unconscious mind distinct to it, and I suspect I got some of that from being on mescaline at rock concerts and seeing a kind of mass-mind, an overall organic connectivity, the physics of communing through the medium of rock... and then later I applied that to the mass movement of cars and people in a city.
Later I described the character Rickenharp's impressions, in parts of my trilogy A Song Called Youth, while he's on an imaginary designer drug, a kind of psychedelic/cocaine amalgam, Blue Mesc. Also, a vision I had on drugs of consciousness at large in the universe appears in several of my books including The Other End.
But usually I don't describe drug experiences in my fiction. I usually describe life, just life as we live it, or as we may in the future, and I try to see it through the lens of higher consciousness. Some of that came from early drug experiences, but much of it arises, now, from mindfulness meditation.
Addictive drugs and the horror of hardcore addiction comes up in my novels—I went through a period of cocaine addiction. You'll find it in Black Butterflies and the novel Wetbones. Also in A Song Called Youth you have the "Six Kinds of Darkness" scene in which a guy shoots up the psychic/psychological essence of his best friend. He actually mainlines his best friend!
I've satirized meth heads and meth generally in my novels Demons and Everything Is Broken. I'm just plain anti-meth unless someone has a prescription for amphetamines to treat narcolepsy.
As for what drugs I did—in my time I did acid, mushrooms, hash, opium (once), and found those to some extent instructive. I think they can be used intelligently. But I do not believe in overdoing drugs. I think that genuine MDMA can be helpfully used therapeutically, but I think that recreational use of X is risky. For one thing, it's rarely what the dealer says it is.
You are quoted [in Pop Matters Website], as saying, "...people dumb as a glass box of hammers, are allowed to have children. May as well give a loaded pistol to a toddler. It's a dark world, and writers must reflect that. In order to find your way out of the darkness, you first have to peer closely into it..."
I concur with this view, by the way. You are also on-record many times—notably in a TED presentation in Brussels, Belgium, 2011—in your belief that global warming is one of the greatest dangers to humankind today.
I'll press your buttons here by positing that if "we" (humankind) are too dumb to self-regulate our own childbirth output, too dim to recognize that we are polluting ourselves and neighbors out of sustainable existence, we are, in fact, a ridiculous parasite on this Earth and that the planet on which we live will simply slough us off—as it well should—and will bounce back without evidence of we even being here, come two or three thousand years. Your thoughts (in as much detail as you wish)?
I would recommend reading my "the next 50 years" piece here. Basically I think that climate change, which in this case genuinely is caused mostly by humanity, is just one part of the environmental problem. Overfishing, toxification of the seas, pesticide use, weedkillers, prescription drugs in water, fracking, continued air pollution, toxicity in food, destruction of animal habitat, attrition on bee colonies—all this is converging. And we'll be facing the consequences for several hundred years.
I believe humanity will survive, and it won't be surviving like Road Warrior or the Morlocks from The Time Machine, but I think we'll have some cruelly ugly social consequences. We'll have famines the like of which we've never seen before, along with higher risk of wars—I do predict a third world war in the second half of this century but I don't think it will be a nuclear war—and I think we'll suffer so hugely we'll be forced to have a change in consciousness to adapt.
Population of the Earth may fall from a high of 9 billion, say, to 4 billion rather quickly. Billions may die. But I think humanity will survive and eventually, in a couple hundred years, it will thrive. For every greedhead there's at least one person who wants to make a difference, wants to help, wants to change things for the better, and is willing to cooperate.
I couldn't help but noticing that the TED audience response to your prescient and irrefutable offerings was very nearly mute silence. As a regular TED watcher, this was stunning and very telling. They clearly did not want to hear your message; and which bonds with mine own dark outlook: That (the upper 90 percent of) humankind is both pernicious in its parasitism and too stupid to realize that it is shitting its own nest with toxic effluvia.
Play "World Social Director," if you would. What—aside from attrition of the dumb—could change this stone-obvious reality?
Some at TED told me they found my talk inspiring. But it was darker than they'd come to expect from that series. In a few hundred years we'll have a global government—that doesn't mean no nations, it means a kind of strongly empowered United Nations and this will be, on the whole, a good thing.
I think it will establish, as per my book New Taboos, new basic laws, environmental, labor, and human rights laws universally enforced. And that will produce a healthier world. In the meantime, we'll lose a lot of beautiful animals through mass extinctions and a lot of beautiful wilderness—too much of it will become wasteland... We may end up having to "terraform" the Earth itself, to some extent.
In your most-recent novel, Doyle After Death, you have someone who has just crossed over, after becoming worm food, and who doesn't quite "get" this new dimension. He is helped with clues by Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Afterlife and alternate realities, you are consistent (laughs). How did this book come about, and what did you do that was new—literary and consciousness tricks—as opposed to previous works?
Doyle After Death is a novel, it's fiction, so I can just go with the assumption for this fantasy, that life after death exists, and I can freely play with that premise. And I did. But I'm not saying life after death does not exist for real. I don't know, not having died (or if I've died, and reincarnated, I can't recall it).
It happens that the creator of the character Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was also a Spiritualist, a person who interfaces with spiritual mediums, so called, who channel spirits from the afterlife. Spiritualists have a whole religion and philosophy based on this, kind of interwoven with theosophy.
when you get to the afterlife, there's always another "high" over there... at least in my novel. You can always ascend to a new level.
Doyle was a bit of a contradiction. He created the super-rational Sherlock Holmes yet Doyle irrationally believed many of these "mediums" were not charlatans. He was a physician, a kind of scientist, yet he also believed in fairies. He was a very good man, however, a brave man, who tried to help people, and he did in real life use powers of deduction to help people who were falsely accused of crimes.
While Doyle was a Victorian Englishman who died in the early 20th century, the narrator of Doyle After Death is a low-budget Las Vegas detective who dies from mixing bad pills with booze, in his cheap Vegas room, and wakes up in a place called Garden Rest, which is one tiny corner of the vast world of the afterlife. And he soon meets Arthur Conan Doyle there and becomes his "Watson" in the afterlife. They don't solve mysteries as ghosts in our world. The entire novel happens OVER THERE in the next world, so that I can speculate about what that might be like.
For me it's like world creation in science fiction. What would the afterlife be like, at least one I could believe in? It's not going to be heaven or hell, but there will be darkness and light there. As it happens, things are not so ethereal in the Afterworld, as it's called. It has its own physics, its own ecology, its own biology. Things are different but... I don't want to give it all away. And yes, there are crimes there. Doyle and Nick Fogg solve the crimes.
I did a lot of research on Doyle to make him authentic and I put in considerable work making this afterlife world internally logical. And by the way, there's dope there. That is, there's something called Frip, which is a kind of parallel to marijuana, but not the same really. It grows wild there.
There are many strange things in the spiritual wilderness of the afterlife. But just so your readers know, when you get to the afterlife, there's always another "high" over there... at least in my novel. You can always ascend to a new level.
The novel, of course, contains metaphysical speculation. Some of it resonates with my own spiritual belief in the path to higher consciousness and self knowledge. But ultimately, like everything else I write, Doyle After Death is the best storytelling I can do. It's just a very strange story I'm telling...