August 9, 2010

John Shirley Interview part #2 (Re-uploaded)

Filed under: Interviews — Q @ 8:30 am

Interviewee: John Shirley
Interviewer: Kyu Hyun Kim
Interview conducted on November 12, 2007.

Q: Would you say you were first noticed as an SF writer through the short story collection, Heatseeker?

JS: Yeah, it did get plenty of attention. It got some really good reviews and one really negative review.

Q: Really?!

JS: Um yeah, I later found out the reason behind the negative review and I cannot tell you the whole background story behind it. It was in a British publication. A friend of the reviewer was a powerful guy who was mad at me…I’m not kidding. I know it sounds made up, as an excuse for that hostile review, but it’s true. But I don’t want to name names.

Q: Oh no. (Laughter)

JS: Well, anyway, yes, Heatseeker was the first bona-fide cyberpunk fiction collection that I wrote.

Q: When did In Darkness Waiting, one of my favorite novels of yours, come out?

JS: In the ‘80s.

Q: It seems that you have dabbled in genres other than science fiction from the very beginning of your career.

JS: Right, the first novel I wrote… not the first one published… but the first one I wrote was Dracula in Love. It wasn’t published until five years after I’d written it, and it was a kind of combination of horror and occult fantasy. I was reading Carl Jung and Aleister Crowley, as well as the biography of Vlad the Impaler. I was one of the first writers to combine the real life of the Vlad the Impaler and the character of Dracula as written by Bram Stoker. This was some years before Francis Coppola’s movie, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. [The filmmakers] probably didn’t read my novel. Probably.

Q: Well, I am one of your fans who had read In Darkness Waiting first, and then discovered Heatseeker. It was several years down the lane that I became aware of your reputation as one of the founders of cyberpunk fiction.

JS: In Darkness Waiting was originally a science fiction novel.

Q: It does retain a lot of SF flavor.

JS: It does. I was really desperate to sell a book at the time (Laughter). I really needed money. This is the reality of writing business. Anyway the editor asked me to change the story so that it could be marketed as horror. That was the time when Stephen King was getting big, and I said OK.

Q: Was it successful?

JS: Well, it didn’t sell like hundreds of thousands of copies but it did sell, enough so that they bought another novel of mine. So yeah, it was successful in that regard. Originally it was about a parasite who suppressed empathy in people. I guess it had some commonality with other SF stories about various parasitical organisms, like “Who Goes There?” and Robert Heinlein’s…

Q: The Puppet Master?

JS: Right. The basic idea is that we are subject to a kind of devolution of character, at the behest of any arbitrary stimulus, so that we go in the matter of seconds from human beings to the most brutal form of animal. That is the central horror of human life. To be crucified in the condition between the higher and the lower being.


Q: Reading your earlier works, I remember being very sympathetic to your severely critical view of a cluster of scientific positions, which might be loosely identified as “behavioral science,” and which survives in different forms today, that claim a wide range of human behavior can be codified as formulae, as responses to external stimuli, for instance, so if you know these formulae you can manipulate human beings.

JS: Yeah, I reject reductionist interpretations of the human mind. And eugenics and other types of deterministic views, I reject them too. But I do accept that we are actually largely “programmed” creatures. I agree that 90% of our personalities are determined in the womb. However, whatever small percentages not determined by our genes and hard-wires and biochemistry are genuinely free, and these are the most important and also most ignored or under-nourished parts of ourselves and maybe the most important. So the larger truths of socio-biology I think obscure its limitations.

Q: Yes, yes.

JS: Now there is a resurgence of controversies about the relationship between genetic determinants and social traits like intelligence. James Watson and others want to bring this argument to bear upon, say, race relations. But how can we measure something like intelligence in terms of race when we have barely dealt with the legacy of slavery and all its historical, psychological and cultural repercussions? After all, civil rights have been around only for two generations in the U. S., and not even strictly enforced at that. On top of that, we have a damaged society which passes crippling effects of the oppression of one generation to another. So when people assume that genetics is the primary determinant of how human beings behave they are not looking at the full picture. History is also a determinant. On the other hand, if we deny the big role biology plays [in deciding how we act and live] then we are condemned to live as machines because we’re unaware of our automatic nature. Unless we acknowledge our own mechanicality, we cannot struggle with it.

God help you with transcribing all this. [Laughter]

Q: Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man comes to mind.

JS: Yes, I’ve read much of Gould’s works. I firmly stand on the side of evolution but I am not, shall I say, “strictly materialistic” as he is…

Q: I actually consider you one of the most spiritual fiction writers I have ever known.

JS: Yeah?

Q: Yes. I mean, if I compare the depiction of Jesus in your novel [Silicone Embrace] and Jesus in, say, Gore Vidal’s satire [Live from Golgotha], Jesus in your novel is a lot more convincing, even though he turns out to be a space alien (Laughter). What I mean is your Jesus is portrayed as someone who I can imagine as inspiring devotion and faith in real life.

JS: Well, I read a lot of spiritual and mystically-inspired works.

Q: All right. Shall we talk about A Splendid Chaos? Was it from ‘80s?

JS: Yes, early ‘80s.

Q: So it can be classified under cyberpunk?

JS: I suppose so. But it was… also an attempt to put into words the ecstactic vision of an alternative world. Something Saint Theresa of Avila might have had, you know. But it also had a very old-fashioned adventure-tale structure to it. There’s some Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jack Vance in it, maybe even Tolkien. The premise of all these beings brought from different worlds and planets to one place…

Q: That was the first time I have encountered so many alien species in one book, other than in a compendium of Japanese TV monsters (Laughter).

JS: I tried to imagine as many types of aliens as I could, and crowd them all into a global kind of menagerie, to induce a frisson of the fantastic. I probably had too much of that and not much of a plot. (Laughter) But I was trying to develop a surrealist landscape that also had an internal logic to it. If anyone wants to read it fresh I hope they get hold of the new edition out from Babbage Press, which I have revised somewhat. It reads smoother. I have also revised and updated the Eclipse books and Cellars. They are not watered down at all, just made more in line with the reader’s contemporary world, and I took out some clumsy, jejune bits.


Q: This is an opportune time to move onto the Eclipse books. I think I heard you once saying they may be the best pieces of writing you have done. I don’t know whether you still feel that way about them.

JS: Certainly they are the best sustained science fiction writing I have done.

Q: Do you feel “attached” to some characters?

JS: I was very identified with rock singer characters in the novels. I was young, after all. I went out of my way to make women characters strong. I was influenced by feminism in the 1970s. I was criticized in some quarters, even by Samuel Delaney, I think…

Q: Really?!

JS: Yeah, and anyway they criticized Eclipse books for containing gender bias. But you know, not only were there powerful women warriors in my books but also a full-blown lesbian character. I might be the first SF writer to put in a lesbian sex scene in a novel, unless Joanna Russ beat me to it. (Laughter)

Q: Many of things in Eclipse books that were totally science fictional when they were first published have since become reality, sometimes in interestingly round-about ways. The planetary environments are threatened by neo-liberal, world-spanning, multinational corporations: new technologies, including information technologies, turned out to be double-edged swords…

JS: Yeah. In the Eclipse books corporations get bigger and bigger by consolidating themselves. In my new novel, coming out this year [2007], Black Glass [see Interview No. 1] there are only 33 corporations left in the world, except for tiny “micro-companies” that fly under their radar. Black Glass describes an underground stock market: a black stock market ran for these micro-companies. In Eclipse, I wrote about the emergence of a gigantic media conglomerate named WorldTalk, which is basically controlled by a group of racist, fundamentalist Christians. Well, in 1990s and 2000s similar if not exactly identical situations have developed, as we all know: Enron, Fox News and its support of Bush, the Christian right ideology actually dictating Bush’s foreign policy, and so on. I wrote about the Neo-Soviet movement in Russia, a combination of nationalist and authoritarian movements, and again, there is a real danger that someone like Putin can push Russia in that direction.


Q: Would you agree that Eclipse books are more closely aligned with the “dystopian” outlook of the early cyberpunk fiction?

JS: I would call it “realistic.” Not dystopian. We [cyberpunk writers] were realists. Global warming is certainly one factor that can precipitate massive military or other conflicts in the future. Population growth and depletion of resources still remain big problems. These are not matters of speculation, or projection into the future. They are realities we live with.

Q: I don’t want to name names but there are some hard science fiction writers who seem to assume this position that… say, 500 years of human civilization is nothing compared to the geological or astronomical scale of time… and are more concerned with really big questions like whether the universe is contracting or expanding, or contracting first and then expanding, and sort of become cavalier and humdrum about the issues that might literally wipe us out… their attitude is, like, science will eventually find a way to fix all these problems, so what’s the big fuss?

JS: It’s a choice of perspective. We’re more practical than they are. But I can’t argue with them, anyway, since unfortunately, I haven’t read much of them (Laughter). Hard science fiction is not my favorite genre. It hasn’t been since I was young. I’m sure there’s good science fiction out there, but I love historical fiction and biographies.

Q: Really, wow.

JS: Yep, I am reading a biography of Lord Nelson at this moment. And I just finished reading Plutarch’s chapter on Julius Caesar. Very up-to-date. (Laughter) I think science fiction writers who think there will be some magical technological solution, I don’t know, like nanotechnology, that will fix our current problems in one bang, are living in a fantasy-land. We are all living on one planet with demonstrably limited resources, okay? I definitely think things will get worse before they get better. We might have millions of people rendered homeless, starving or dying from war and global warming. We might lose some major cities: they might go underwater, or blown up by a terrorist nuclear bomb. But I think human race will muddle through it all, and if we are lucky, we will end up with a more thoughtful and less wasteful civilization around 22nd century.

Q: Hey, you sound like H. G. Wells.

JS: He was a genius, you know (Laughter).

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