Richard Kadrey and Bruce Sterling and William Gibson on my Cyberpunk Novels and on Me as a Writer and as a Person
This material is reprinted from the Prime Books editions of my A Song Called Youth cyberpunk trilogy. There are newer editions of the trilogy now from Dover Books.
• An Introduction by Richard Kadrey
There’s an the old saw that SF is really about dissecting the present and not about looking at the future, and that’s true as far as it goes. Sometimes though, SF can’t help but lift the future’s skirts for a peek underneath. Look at 1984 and its description of a Total Surveillance society. Brave New World’s look at genetic engineering. Star Trek practically engineered modern smart phones. Hell, both H.G. Wells’ “The World Set Free” and Superman described atomic bombs. John Shirley’s A Song Called Youth trilogy—the novels Eclipse, Eclipse Penumbra, and Eclipse Corona—is another piece of SF that spray-painted a glimpse of the
future on the cave wall without knowing it. We’re living at a strange moment in history. “Interesting times,” as the Chinese call it in their famously charming curse. We want power to make our TVs glow and medicine to save our decaying asses but we hate smart people. We whine about Arab oil but go NIMBY when it comes to large-scale alternative energy projects. We want the government to stay the hell out of our lives but we want it to ban gay marriage and porn and to keep that witch-loving Harry Potter from dragging our kids to the devil through the school library. We want reassurance and safety at all cost and we’ll suck down snake oil from any carny with a good pitch. John Shirley saw over the horizon to the post-9/11 fear and loathing idiotscape where the Constitution, the Geneva Convention and government itself have become mere formalities. Where for-rent mercenaries guard us as long as the money flows and where our desperate need for a strong leader makes the shit sandwich of fascism look a little tastier every day.
And he did it twenty years ago. The A Song Called Youth trilogy is the story of the world we’re knee deep in. And like the best rock and roll it kicks down the walls and busts up the furniture when the action starts and makes you think when you slow down long enough to listen to the words. Living in stupid times doesn’t mean you have to be stupid. And maybe with some cunning, crazy ass energy and balls maybe you can turn things around and make the world a little less stupid. A little less dangerous. A little less suicidal. Hell, that’s pretty much what life is and it’s what A Song Called Youth is about.
• Biographical Note on John Shirley •
“I knew this guy John Shirley when he was the first and only punk science fiction writer in the world. Back in those days, William Gibson was a hobbyist teaching-assistant who was whiling away his youth, in his ivied meditative fashion, in Canadian junk shops. I was an engineer’s kid from a smoggy refinery town who had had my head utterly twisted by three years in India and was hanging out with cowboy-hatted interstellar longhairs deep in the heart of Texas. Rudy Rucker was futilely trying to pass as a normal math professor somewhere in upstate New York. Lewis Shiner was enamored of hardboiled detective fiction and living in Dallas.
But John Shirley loomed on the horizon like some prescient comet. The rest of us paid a lot of attention to him. We were right to do this. Most of the science fiction writers who later got called “cyberpunks” are and were, a heart, really nice middle-class white guys. They have some pretty strange ideas, but in their private lives they dress and act like industrial design professors. John Shirley was a total bottle-of-dirt screaming dogcollar yahoo. There were still a few New Wave people around at the time earnestly writing stories with hippie protagonists. The people in John Shirley’s stories weren’t hippies. They weren’t progressive. They didn’t mean well. People in John Shirley stories were canaille. They had no brakes. They didn’t know what brakes were. Other people wrote experimental stories with numbered paragraphs, but John Shirley wrote “stories” that were profoundly fucked-up narratively that you could feel the guy’s fingertips trembling spastically on the keyboard. Some of the more daring SF writers of the period were testing the limits of genre. For John Shirley the limits of genre were vague apparitions somewhere in his rearview mirror. Science fiction is a genre by and for bright people who feel a tad ill at ease in a bourgeois society, a tad under-socialized, but also a tad inventive. Nice people, really. You get used to them. They have a lot to offer, these insect-eating Mensa-freak people who like making puns about neutrinos while sipping ginger ale in the con suite. John Shirley was never like that. John Shirley in his early days was visibly orthogonal to the human species. I share certain deep and lasting commonalities with John Shirley. We’re very near the same age and we’ve shared some crucial generational experiences. Harlan Ellison was a guru of mine and was kind enough to commission and publish my first novel. Harlan Ellison was utterly enraged with John Shirley and once publicly challenged him to a duel. I once angrily walked out on a bad panel at a science fiction convention. John Shirley liked to topple over tables at science fiction conventions and wallow howling in the crushed ice where the fans had hidden the beer. I listened to a lot of punk music. John Shirley wrote, recorded, and performed punk music. I think that drugs are an intriguing social and technomedical phenomenon. John Shirley had serious drug habits. I got married and had a kid. John Shirley has been married four or five times and has three kids by two different women. I’ve written over a dozen books. John Shirley has written more books than I can count, a lot of them under pseudonyms. I once wrote a book with William Gibson. John Shirley is the guy who convinced William Gibson that writing science fiction was a good idea. I’m kind of interested in military stuff. John Shirley joined the Coast Guard. I took some martial arts classes. John Shirley had a beer bottle broken over his head in a bar brawl. I’ve moved house a few times in the last thirty years. John Shirley’s moved a couple of dozen times during the same period, including a sojourn in France. The typical Bruce Sterling fan is a computer-science major in some Midwestern technical university. “Stelarc” is a John Shirey fan. Stelarc is an Austalian performance artist, who has an artificial third hand, sometimes bounces lasers off his eyeballs, and used to suspend his naked body in midair by piercing his flesh with meathooks. It may be that it all boils down to this; I am a professional science fiction writer who happened to get called a “cyberpunk.” John Shirley is a uniquely authentic avatar of the weltanschaung.
From William Gibson: “I ﬁrst met him in 1977 when he was into spiked dog collars. No one else was ready for his insane novels. . . there just wasn’t anything else like that being written then—no hook or label like cyberpunk, no opening—so they were totally ignored. If those books were published now, people would be saying: ‘Wow, look at this stuff! It’s beyond cyberpunk!’ ”