With John Shirley

Cyber Cover


Please, the correct definition for “cyberpunk”: where’s the “punk” side?

There is no one definition that I would likely agree with. I just know it when I see its characteristics. The point of view of cyberpunk is of the near-future technological world from the street-level. From the point of view of a survivor on the street, perhaps a criminal, perhaps a hustler, perhaps a hacker, perhaps just someone trying to survive a tough world—might also be from the point of view of a low-level police officer (as in Bladerunner). Cyberpunk tends to be infused with imagery and influences from the hipper writers and musicians and artists. It tends to take influences from outside the mainstream—like from William Burroughs and Philip Dick and from noir fiction and the “beat” writers—and to let that flow into science fiction. Also most of us experimented with drugs at some point (and we’ve all grown past drug use now, I haven’t taken drugs for years) and it did have some influence. Cyberpunk has a dystopian, anti–establishment flavor. My own has those characteristics and is deliberately rock’n’roll inflected.

Some say you are the eclectic man who has catalyzed the whole cyberpunk movement, just as a famous band with punk rock. Are you the Sex Pistols of this genre?

I’m influenced by John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) and Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and The Clash and so on—I was at the very last Sex Pistols concert in San Francisco. I drove with friends for eight hours to get there. I was the original lead singer of the punk band Sado Nation, and then I moved to New York City and started a punk/funk crossover band called Obsession. And I’ve written lyrics for the band the Blue Öyster Cult, 18 songs for them, and I still write new songs. So that’s all part of me. Writing is now my main job. But as for my relationship to science fiction and the sub-genre cyberpunk, some have called me the Johnny Rotten of science fiction but I’m more like the Lou Reed, really.

Are there other bands, or voices, you would have like to write or sing for?

I’d love to start another band. I have recorded some new stuff with something I call The Screaming Geezers – and I’d love to write for other bands. I’ve written songs for DC Moon, and Sado Nation still uses some of my songs. But I’d love to write something for a band on the level of Metallica or the Toadies (a favorite band of mine) or the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club or The Dandy Warhols. These are all bands that interest me. I’d love to write for Joan Jett, too, I’m a fan of hers, or the girls from the band L7. I wouldn’t mind writing for European bands with a professional standing. The German band, Jester’s Funeral, wrote an album of songs inspired by my stories.

What are the limits (if any) so that a Cyber story is not so gratuitous and a bit fake?

It’d be good if the people did their research. But a lot of science fiction writing is always going to be imaginative, and based on guesswork. You know, I had my time on the streets and that’s reflected in my writing, so there’s an authenticity there. I don’t know where the limits are except that one can feel what is false, and especially one can hear it in dialogue. Every culture on the street has a characteristic speaking style.

Moving to Splatterpunk, which you’ve also been associated, with works like Cellars and Wetbones, how does a splatterpunk vision affect your life and relationships? Someone makes sure that you don’t hide an ax in your pants?

Occasionally I hear from people who’ve read my work who are clearly mentally ill. And that affects how I interact with the world—naturally I avoid such people. I do tend to see the world in a grim way. If I’m walking down the street and see a truck coming, my tendency—which I do try to keep in hand—is to imagine it running out of control and mashing into people on the sidewalk, crashing into a building, and so on. I have a somewhat mistrustful view of reality—I know perfectly well how often it can go wild, and seem predatory, as if the world is out to get you. But that is a state of mind, and I don’t live in it. Nor is it the truth about the world. The world offers harmony as well as chaos. Anyway, people who know me well aren’t worried about my being violent, though there is a lot of violence in my stories. If a burglar, however, broke into my house, he’d probably look at me and think I was not dangerous, at the first opportunity, I would probably kill him.


What kind of novel is our age? What’s the most proper end?

We’re always on the cusp of possibility, it could go this way or that way—I’m not a believer in predetermination. I do believe that global warming is going to be a huge problem, I do believe that there will be famine in places there wasn’t famine before, because of it. My novel Black Glass (which I’d love to see in print in Italy), describes a likely future; my A Song Called Youth books are coming true, unfortunately, in some respects. I do think that fascism will make a come back and we must be ready to fight it. I already see people opportunistically using anti-immigration fanaticism and racism as a means of controlling the public. I do not believe in conspiracy theory but I do believe that we’re always in danger of being taken over by people with a fascist or hyper-corporatist agenda (sometimes that’s the same agenda, sometimes not). But I don’t think civilization will “end” anytime soon. I see a series of world crises, not full apocalypse.

What happened to the script work of The Crow after you ceased to work on it? What’s changed?

Dave Schow did a good job with the script after me. But if you mean the sequels, they’re a bit weaker and that’s because they didn’t hire me! Simple as that! I continue to work on movie scripts, mostly low budget stuff. One I wrote was terribly abused by the production—I don’t want to even mention the movie’s name—but I have hopes my novel Demons will be a movie, or my newest dark and violent novel Everything is broken.

Here in Italy the literature is now land of footballers, showgirls, comedians and journalists of questionable intellectual honesty. What’s the situation in the States?

We have many levels of literature here. Theodore Sturgeon said “ninety per cent of everything is crap”. He meant in culture. So most books are silly, and most television is silly and most movies are a waste of time. But there are so many artists and so many books published that we have a strong literary movement, always, anyway. My main worry is that young people may be reading less, may be too obsessed with the internet, may lose the attention span they need for long novels… It is unfortunately true that much of the science-fiction/fantasy shelf space is taken up by books based on movies, videogames, television and so on. And those books are not going to be up the standards of quality science-fiction and fantasy. But the Good Stuff is still being published and reprinted.

New works in sight?

Yes I have a novel called Nick Fogg: A Detective in the Afterlife I’ve been working on for a long time. (It has an urban fantasy flavor like my novel Bleak History but is set purely in the afterlife). I am most excited right now about the new editon of A song called youth: Eclipse, Eclipse Penumbra, Eclipse Corona, in one book, as I revised it, re edited it and updated it and it’s now far more powerful. That’ll be out in April.



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