Skip to content

An Interview with John Shirley (Part Three)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2016/10/15


An Interview with John Shirley. He discusses: definition of a cult and a religion; definition of mystical, religious, or spiritual sensibilities and experiences; the perspective of the cyberpunk genre on religion; philosophical assumptions with tacit assertion in discourse around artificial intelligence having consciousness; differentiation of human thinking from current AI; the most accurate depiction of the possible future of AI by science fiction; the good news for comprehension of consciousness and the construction of artificial consciousness (maybe); the bad news; the potential for superintelligence and if this will show human consciousness to be threadbare and sloppy; social and legal structure accommodations for non-human beings as smart or smarter than humans; possibility of humans merging with AI; possibility of other civilizations in our galaxy; the possible constructs produced by these civilizations; possible ways societies will fracture in the future; and the possibility of enflamed political controversies over AI as heated as the current political scene in America.

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

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

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

22. In the process of research, something came to the fore for me – from the performances published online by “[Phil Drummond]” or Phil Drummond.[4] In that, Philo Drummond had association with one previous interviewee, Reverend Ivan Stang, Rev. Ivan Stang, or Ivan Stang, from the Church of the SubGenius.[5] Reverend Ivan Stang, with respect to the Church of the Subgenius, said:

I suppose the biggest difference is that we admit we are bullshitting you. In that respect it is a remarkably honest religion. Also, we don’t define Slack; it’s different for each person, so there are no absolute values — except maybe for the tricky part about not robbing others of their Slack. Most religions become ever more specific about “right” and “wrong” and are essentially formulas. We do not provide any stable formula; in fact we illustrate that trying to fit human behavior into codified formulas is folly.[6]

What defines a cult and a religion to you?

I have enjoyed my own connection to the satirical Church of the Subgenius—I have written for them, have been at some of their events, and I’m friends with “Philo” and “Stang” (not their real names). It’s a comedic construction, and a kind of art project, but it also makes its points about the absurdity of religion and kneejerk belief.

A cult, as Jacob Needleman said, is something easy to get into but difficult to leave. A religion, to me, is usually a large organized institutional device for consolation and comforting. As the Bible said, “by their fruits you will know them”. If the religion produces misery, it’s a miserable religion. If it’s kindly and not oppressive, I see no harm in it, and some religions may even provide kernels of truth hidden away within them. On the whole it’s probably time that we grew out of the need for them, but I don’t judge people for wanting comfort. “Anything that gets you through the night”.

23. What defines mystical, religious, or spiritual sensibilities and experiences to you?

Too large a subject to get far into here.

My personal belief is that the majority of “mystical” experiences are purely neurological in origin, are variants of the dreamstate, and may or may not encode useful information. However, some seekers after higher perception have had real insights, demonstrating that our consciousnesses are linked to a sort of sea of consciousness woven invisibly (mostly invisibly) within the cosmos.

Spirituality may be as simple as the Dalai Lama’s “my religion is kindness” and I cannot fault that. I believe there are methods (beyond the use of drugs) for enhancing consciousness as a thing in itself. As with William James and GI Gurdjieff and some others it seems evident to me there are levels of consciousness. But it’s easy to get lost in the search and many people wander into a sort of wilderness of blurred misperception. Something rigorous, like the original form of Zen Buddhism, or Krishnamurti’s methods for increasing awareness, are needed to keep from getting lost. I do not believe there is anything supernatural; there is only the unknown natural.

24. What seems like the general perspective of the cyberpunk genre on religion in general- theological arguments, religious texts, socio-cultural activities, influence on politics, economic formulations, prayer, and so on?

Cyberpunk writers have always stuck with characters who are “oil” to the water of religion.

They don’t mix. Heroes and antiheroes of such tales are tough individuals with their own codes and are rightly skeptical of superimposed “religious” systems; these characters operate rather spontaneously except for, perhaps, some general recourse to secular humanism.

25. What philosophical assumptions appear to have tacit assertion in conversation, discussions, media representations, and publications in the possibility for artificial intelligence (AI) having consciousness?

I don’t believe it’s anything philosophical; I think it’s lack of self knowledge. But I suppose a heightened belief in materiality and reductionism is involved. They believe that consciousness can be reduced to mere programming. Whereas it’s something ineluctably holographic; a holography beyond our technology.

26. What differentiates human thinking from current AI?

I don’t think there is current AI. There are “expert systems” that react as-if; there may be highly developed quantum computers in the works but they’re not at the AI level yet. It’s still a dream. We will develop AIs but they’re just like an unspeakably complex abacus with a voice; the illusion that there’s an independent mind in an AI is something we superimpose on them. It’s like pareidolia. Kurtzweil, et al, are superimposing their daydreams on AIs, they’re seeing “faces on Mars” in the random. Human thinkng—well sometimes it’s the same as an AI at a certain level. An AI could —some programs have—compose agreeable music according to certain principles, or think through things as we would. But there is a whole that is more than the sum of the parts that is in human consciousness, and there is a connection to instinctual wiring that AIs will lack (when there is actual AI).

27. What science fiction genre and stories portray possible future AI in an accurate way?

I haven’t kept up, I read mostly nonfiction, but I think the depictions in Iain Banks’s sf novels are very convincing.

28. With the possible advent of the comprehension of consciousness, and the consequent means for the construction of artificial consciousness (maybe), what good news will this have for thinking beings such as ourselves?

Consciousness has been comprehended by certain schools of thought, so to speak, for some thousands of years. It has to be tasted; it’s felt like water on the hand; it’s like a scent. It is an experience.

Artificial *intelligence* (as opposed to consciousness) will help us solve problems. New diseases will have new solutions—we’ll have AIs that analyze new genetic and bacteriological and virological and environmental diseases and offer solutions, rapidly too. AIs will help us navigate interstellar space. AIs may (or may not) be added by interface to the problem-solving, analytical part of our own brains, so that genius becomes commonplace.

I’m a great believer in self-driving cars; something like AIs will make trains, planes and automobiles safer.

29. Any bad news for us?

The misuse of AIs can be assumed; human beings are amazingly good at finding ways to misuse tools. Nuclear and biological weapons are a misuse of human laboratory tools. We use computers to help us operate weapons even now (not that we don’t need weapons but they’re often misused). Smart handguns that lock onto targets are in development. Bigger variants are in use in fighter jets. Extrapolate that to AIs…AIs will be used for espionage and sedition and terrorism: by AIs here I mean high-functioning artificial analytical devices.

30. Will superintelligence emerge, and, if so, will this show human intelligence and consciousness as threadbare and sloppy?

I already regard us all as threadbare and sloppy. But yes, re AI intelligence, up to a point. But it will not be independent. If human beings don’t misuse it, it will be a great boon. Be a shame if we were too dependent on it.

31. How will social and legal structures accommodate non-human beings that are as smart as or smarter than humans?

I don’t believe it will happen that way. I don’t think they will ever be recognized as beings; they will have no independence. We should not create the illusion of it.

32. Will humans merge with AI?

Do we merge with our cars? In a way yes, in a way no. Is a man merged with a pacemaker in his heart? They will be, at best, extensions of us, really; they will be a kind of prosthetic to help us exceed our limitations. Some humans already, admittedly, over-identify with their computers, their phones (a most repugnant sight, the over-involvement with smartphones), so many will over-identify with their AI enhanced prosthetics. They may become near psychotic or psychopathic in the process, if they go too far. They may find it seemingly useful to take an emotion-suppressing drug which will—amongst other things—suppress empathy. I do predict empathy-suppressing drugs in my story “Weedkiller” that appear in the British magazine Interzone last year.

33. Do you think there are other civilizations in our galaxy?

There are certainly others in the universe, solipsistic to think there aren’t. Probably there are some in the galaxy. We will probably find them in time, at least from a distance; I hope they don’t find us until we’re ready. I have seen no evidence that extraterrestrials have visited this planet.

34. What constructs might these civilizations produce for themselves?

I do think the Dyson sphere is possible, or Larry Niven’s Ringworld. Some think that wormholes can be artificially constructed, or anyway controllably induced… I think there must be space colonies that exist purely in space, well insulated (perhaps by electromagnetic fields) from interplanetary radiation, self sustaining, perhaps mining local planetoids and converting their matter into biological sustenance through a form of 3D printing… I described a variant of the L5 colony humanity may well construct, between Earth and the Moon, in A Song Called Youth.

35. How might societies fracture in the future?

A thousand ways. Competition for resources between competing societies could lead to shortages within discrete competitive societies, which of course leads to social unrest. Religions can be fabricated (they have been in the past, out of whole cloth, see Mormonism and Scientology) which could be *designed* for maximum mind control, as a social exploitation and social command device. Obviously religions have done something like that in the past—look at the Middle Ages—but a computer model set up for social and psychological acumen could design an almost irresistible mind control religion which would then oppress and you’d get the reaction to the oppression. Or suppose a society uses pharmacology, like Soma in Huxley, to control people and then its manufacturing base for it collapses—billions of people in withdrawal could be catastrophic.

But, more likely, the cycle of an elite controlling wealth leading to a widening gap between rich and poor is the most recurrent “rust” or cracking of the machinery of society.

36. Will future political controversies over AI become as heated as the current enflamed political scene in The United States of America?

I don’t see why they should since AIs are mere tools. Access to them will be a point of conflict though.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Science Fiction Author and Writer.

[2] Individual Publication Date: October 15, 2016 at; Full Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2017 at

[3] Photograph courtesy of John Shirley.

[4] [Philo Drummond]. (2012, April 23). Sado-Nation with John Shirley. Retrieved from

[5] Jacobsen, S.D. (2014, October 1). Reverend Ivan Stang: Co-Founder & Author, Church of the SubGenius. Retrieved from

[6] The discussion in Reverend Ivan Stang: Co-Founder & Author, Church of the SubGenius (2014), in more detail, went as follows:

1. As you have stated many times in public forums, and maybe private ones too, for those unaware of J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs, i.e. ‘the unsaved’, what three things do they need to know?

If they don’t instantly see what’s funny about it, they should probably avoid it. 2. If they can’t read between the lines, they should probably stop reading. 3. If they often confuse Mad Magazine, or Saturday Night Live, with the news, they should RUN FOR DEAR LIFE.

Beyond that, the key points are “Bob,” Slack, and The Conspiracy.

2. Regarding ‘Bob’, ‘The Conspiracy’, and ‘Slack’, how do you define each term? Why did these become a foundation within the creation of the Church of the SubGenius?

Slack = the goal, what we all want (although it’s different or each person). The Conspiracy (of the Normals) = what hinders Slack. “Bob” = the magic formula which facilitates Slack. But a major aspect of “Bob” Dobbs is the graphic portrait of “Bob.” That single image, inexplicable as it is, somehow ties all of it together. The moment that Philo showed me his book of clip art and we both simultaneously saw that damn halftone face was when we both knew we had something. We still do not know what.

3. How does the Church of the SubGeniusdiffer from most mainstream religions, e.g. Christianity (Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism), Islam (Shia, Sunni, Sufi, and Kharijite), Hinduism, Chinese Traditional Religions, Buddhism, various Ethnic Religions, African Traditional religions, Sikhism, and so on? 

I suppose the biggest difference is that we admit we are bullshitting you. In that respect it is a remarkably honest religion. Also, we don’t define Slack; it’s different for each person, so there are no absolute values — except maybe for the tricky part about not robbing others of their Slack. Most religions become ever more specific about “right” and “wrong” and are essentially formulas. We do not provide any stable formula; in fact we illustrate that trying to fit human behavior into codified formulas is folly.

Also, we pay taxes.

One of my favorite lines is, “We’re like any other religion. It’s not that we love “Bob” all that much, it’s that we love the idea of everybody else going to Hell.”

I hope it goes without saying that most SubGeniuses don’t even believe in “Bob,” much less Hell…

8. Furthermore, how does it differ from other fringe religions, e.g. Christianity (Restorianism, Chinese Originated Churches, Church of the East, and Unitarian Universalism), Juche, Spiritism, Judaism, Bahá’í, Jainism, Shinto, Cao Dai, Zoroastrianism, Tenrikyo, Neo-Paganism, Rastafarianism, Scientology, Pastafarianism, Mormonism, Arceusology, Discordianism, Paganism, Crowleyites, and so on?

We’re much, much funnier than any of them, even Scientology.

9. What do you consider the most controversial part of your church compared to the mainline religions? In addition, what do you consider the most controversial compared to the other fringe religions? How do you examine the issue?

Some people become sincerely upset that we portray the God of the Bible as a monster from outer space. No punishments are threatened for sins like gluttony, adultery, addiction, etc. I guess the main point of contention is that we are making cruel fun of literally everybody’s most cherished beliefs, often simply because they arecherished. We are the Balloon Poppers, the Antidote to All Placebos.


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: