Skip to content

An Interview with John Shirley (Part Four)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2016/10/22


An Interview with John Shirley. He discusses: possible political, philosophical, and ethical functions of science fiction; general philosophy; ethical philosophy; political philosophy; social philosophy; economic philosophy; marks of good writing about the future; marks of bad writing; science fiction writers predicting the world of now; science fiction and the near future; science fiction wrong about the future; tiresome tropes in science fiction; apocalypses overdone; dealing or failing to deal with climate change; large oncoming turning points in future history; colonization of nearby stars or restricting to the Sun and the Solar System; good techniques to learn to imagine the future; near and far future individuals differing from us; America’s prospects to being the dominant nation in the 21st century; the 22nd century; India and China becoming the new world powers; personal heroes; upcoming collaborative projects; upcoming solo projects; recommended authors; and suggested resources.

Keywords: author, fiction, John Shirley, science, science fiction, writer.

 An Interview with John Shirley: Science Fiction Author and Writer (Part Four)[1],[2],[3]

*Footnotes in & after the interview, & bibliography & citation style listing after the interview.*

37. What (if any) political, philosophical, and ethical functions can or should be served by science fiction?

Science fiction at its best is a mirror, it shows us ourselves as we are, projected into futurological settings so we can see ourselves objectively. Self-observation, critical self-knowledge, is of enormous value. It also projects the present, extrapolates, so that provides a model for possible failures. The novel 1984 helped us avoid —to some extent—Big Brother, in this nation. Envisioning nuclear wastelands in fiction helped motivate us to control nuclear weapon proliferation to an extent. (Humanity needs to get rid of them, of course). We can test out alternate societies in fiction—how would an anarchist society work? What would be the downside and the upside, what would be the social cost of it? And so on.

38. What general philosophy seems the most correct to you?

Scientific methodological thinking moderated by secular humanism, and respect for higher consciousness.

39. What ethical philosophy seems the most correct to you?

A careful cultivation and maintenance of empathy while still maintaining a capability for lethal self defense.

40. What political philosophy seems the most correct to you?

Democracy but with a strong federal (or global centrality) entity overseeing things so as to impose fair rule of law, and infused with respect for human rights and the environment.

41. What social philosophy seems the most correct to you?

A synthesis of socialism and the marketplace; social safety nets that are more extensive than now, but limited so people always have room for motivation. Freedom of sexual relations between consenting adults; legalization of possession of narcotics if they’re not being sold by the possessor illegally; treating drug addiction with rehabilitation; access to medicine for all including mental health care.

42. What economic philosophy seems the most correct to you?

Economic stimulus from the center of society; numerous people employed with good benefits and good wages to maintain infrastructure. A reasonably high minimum wage. Rejection of libertarianism.

43. What seem like the marks of good writing about the future?

People writing from a grounding in many forms of literature, a good grounding in the English language, and not too much reliance on movies and television and animation and comics for genre inspiration. Those things are fine, but instead, use objective observation of the world to make your projections; instead of just coming up with new variants of old stories, find new ideas. Understand the social implications of the sf world being created, not just tech. Appreciate characterization.

44. What seem like the marks of bad writing?

Cliche, bad dialogue, reliance on movies and so on for inspiration, lack of grounding in good books of all kinds, laziness, self indulgence, vain overwriting; confusing underwriting.

45. Did any of the writers from the golden age of science fiction come close to predicting the world of now?

HG Wells famously predicted a number of things. You can look that up. I guess he was proto-golden age. The Marching Morons by Pohl and Kornbluth predicted many aspects of our world now. Cordwainer Smith predicted much techno interfacing.

46. What can science fiction tell us about the near future?

That people writing research papers will run out of ideas for questions and repeat their questions. But, see The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner; his predictions of the social consequences of toxifying our food and environment.

47. What does science fiction tend to get wrong about the future?

It fails to look at the dark side of technology and the dark side of sheer growth in civilization.

48. What tropes are you tired of seeing in science fiction?

I rarely read it anymore; I read science magazines instead; I read history a great deal. But I dislike science fiction that assumes libertarian ideals are fruitful in a positive way; that the marketplace alone is helpful. This has been cropping up. A society without regulation is a society ruled by corporate overlords.

49. Which apocalypses have been overdone?

Obviously the zombie apocalypse. The Mad Max assumption—although I like the Mad Max movies—of endless wasteland. BIG wasteland expansion for a while is likely; endless, not likely.

50. How have we dealt with (or failed to deal with) climate change?

We’ve mostly failed, though some inroads have been made. The recent international conference was at least a good start; the Chinese seem to be recognizing that it’s real and they’re a big part of the problem. We’ve failed to control egregious pollution emissions like coal burning particulates (with it, mercury pollution in the sea), methane from various industries. Big industry— the petroleum industry’s refineries, for example—is still allowed too much air pollution.

51. What seem like some of the large oncoming turning points in future history?

The exponential expansion (not a singularity but significant) of computer technology will combine into an overarching system, based on the internet; it will be vulnerable and if it collapses there could be global chaos for awhile. I think there will be a confrontation—much more strident than now—with radical Islam and, later, with radical-right Christianity. The former may lead to a world war—probably—but not one that will employ nuclear weapons unless perhaps small tactical nukes. I think that radical Islam will be shattered by a general global prohibition, a rather draconian one I’m afraid. There will be a “reformation” or “enlightenment period” in Islam. That will make Muslim civilizations civilized. Women will be more assertive in global society and will insist on an end to patriarchal systems in the third world. There will be women’s militias enforcing this modeled on the Kurdish women’s militia groups. Our abuse of the ocean will reach a climax of negative side effects…

52. Will we colonize nearby stars or restrict ourselves to the Sun and the Solar System?

Eventually the human race will expand to the stars. Either we’ll devise new types of spacecraft drives or we’ll devise self-sustaining highly insulated spacecraft that will take colonists there over long periods of time.

53. What are some good techniques to learn how to imagine the future?

Read laymen’s science publications, and use your imagination, but also just develop observation of the world at large. Developing patterns are visible if you look. Make spreadsheets (I do it in my mind) or charts. Use computer models. Hire people like me.

54. How might future individuals differ from us – near and far future?

Near future I predict a dismaying elitism, with many elitists shrivelling into dependency on designer drugs and VR lives; “second life” in the worst way. But others will be technocrats, some power hungry, others driven by humane impulses. In the far future, humanity will probably have “primitivists” and somewhat cyborgian people, all of whom are eventually made irrelevant by mutated homo superiors, who, I hope, will retain empathy while increasing intelligence and lifespan. These mutated human variants might be the result of genetic engineering. The whole issue of eugenics will raise its frightening head again.

55. Insofar as the prospects for the 21st century, does America continue to be a dominant nation?

The evidence is, yes, because despite the resistance on the part of a minority we continue to take in immigrants, many of whom are intelligent and creative, most of whom are hardworking, and they’ll make us stronger. The USA also is very adaptable—it takes three steps forward, then one or two back, but we profit by some progress. We have actually made great progress in the area of alternative energy—not as much as we need to make but it is a successful field, and it is expanding. While the idiocracy threatens us, there are still lots of people interested in education and many, many young people interested in tolerance. If the huge stresses coming from climate disruption are not too overwhelming the USA will do well: it is a well-founded social experiment. It corrects itself. It eliminated slavery, it allowed unions, women got the vote, and so on. IF we can reign in the religious right…there is much to hope for.

56. What about the 22nd century?

Recovery from world ecological sickness—like a person very sick from cancer, recovering, walking again.

57. Do India and China become the new world powers?

India seems to drag its feet. It can’t even provide itself with reasonably clean water. (Yes, I know, Flint, Michigan, but we’re far better at that on the whole.) China will be a great power as it continues to gradually liberalize.

58. What personal heroes exist in history, in the present, and who most influenced you?

Plato, the Buddha, the actual Jesus (not the conventional Christian version), Newton, Galileo, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Dickens, Thoreau, Emerson, Cyrano de Bergerac, Charles Darwin, Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire, Edna St Vincent Millay, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Will Durant, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, the Futurian science fiction writers (Pohl, Asimov, Knight etc), Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury, Larry Niven, Alfred Bester, JG Ballard, Harlan Ellison, Frank Herbert, Jack Vance, Jacob Needleman, Krishnamurti, Ramakrishna, GI Gurdjieff, Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Tom Verlaine, Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, Patrick O’Brian, David Bowie, Anne Sexton…I could go on…but I won’t…

59. Any upcoming collaborative projects?

Only in music. New songs with Blue Oyster Cult, new songs of my own with musical partners.

60. Any upcoming solo projects?

The novel Stormland, about a part of the USA in the future that has hurricane level storms 360 days a year, year after year, and the people who somehow are still there…and why they’re there.

61. Any recommended authors?

All the ones I mentioned earlier.

62. For those with an interest in further personal research into you, they can look at the approved personal and professional website:[4] Any other suggested resources for related individuals, publications, and general subject matter?

There is also a facebook fan page.

Thank you for your time, Mr. Shirley.


  1. [Philo Drummond]. (2012, April 23). Sado-Nation with John Shirley. Retrieved from
  2. [TEDx Talks]. (2011, November 23). TEDxBrussels – John Shirley – False Singularities. Retrieved from
  3. Dueben, A. (2012, August 6). John Shirley: The Crow: Death and Rebirth. Retrieved from
  4. Fahey, T.B. (2014, September 2). Piper at the Gates of Hell: An Interview with Cyberpunk Legend John Shirley. Retrieved from
  5. Jacobsen, S.D. (2014, October 1). Reverend Ivan Stang: Co-Founder & Author, Church of the SubGenius. Retrieved from
  6. Laurence, A. (1994). An Interview with John Shirley. Retrieved from
  7. Reverbnation (n.d.). John Shirley. Retrieved from
  8. Shirley, J. (2014, August 26). A science fiction author ponders the dystopic landscape of the sovereign citizen mind. Retrieved from
  9. Shirley, J. (2016). Dark Echo. Retrieved from
  10. Shirley, J. (2012, May 11). Tales to Terrify no 18 John Shirley. Retrieved from
  11. Ventrella, M.A. (2012, June 7). Interview with Bram Stoker Award-winning author John Shirley. Retrieved from

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Science Fiction Author and Writer.

[2] Individual Publication Date: October 22, 2016 at; Full Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2017 at

[3] Photograph courtesy of John Shirley.

[4] Shirley, J. (2016). John Shirley. Retrieved from

Shirley, J. (2016). Contact Information for John Shirley. Retrieved from


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: