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An Interview with John Shirley (Part Two)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2016/10/08


An Interview with John Shirley. He discusses: the origination and development of the cyberpunk movement; responsibilities (if any) to the public and the writing community with exposure; the greatest changes in the technological landscape; greatest changes in the economic and socio-political environment; greatest changes in the academic and intellectual milieu; most probable near future five years on from John Shirley – False Singularities; most probable future; the probability of the Singularity; and immortality as argued by Ray Kurzweil.

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

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

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

13. How did the cyberpunk movement originate and development into the present?

Bruce Sterling organized us, more than any other person, partly through letters, actual physical paper letters at the time, and through his “zine” or newsletter perhaps, Cheap Truth. “Us” then being Lew Shiner, Rudy Rucker, William Gibson, Sterling, me…A little later there was Richard Kadrey and Pat Cadigan…It was a kind of salon of angry ambitious envelope-pushing, rock-inflected, William Burroughs/JG Ballard/Michael Moorcock reading writers—writers also aware of dadaism and surrealism and mail art and pop art and the Velvet Underground and industrial music and noir film makers of all kinds—and we saw an emerging cultural setting that other people weren’t looking at so closely. Of course, there were precedents—Samuel Delany, Cordwainer Smith, Alfred Bester, PKD.

14. You have representation in numerous publications.[4] What responsibilities (if any) to the public and the writing community come from this exposure?

I do feel responsibility; it’s in my nature. I try to be of help. I feel like I haven’t been of enough help to the world. I feel too often like a man driving away from an injured person on the road. I’d never do that, but on a daily basis in a way we all do that. I look for ways to try to bring something useful to my interaction with the public. Maybe I’m kidding myself but I try.

15. You were born February 10, 1953. In the last 63 years, what seem like the greatest changes in the technological landscape to you?

The obvious ones—PCs, wi-fi, cell phones, the internet. A revolution that is both beneficial, socially valuable—and deleterious, at once. These media can weaken our capability of relating more directly to one another, they can weaken our attention spans for uninterrupted reading and work. The internet is a venue for misinformation and disinformation as much as enlightening data. But at the same time it’s all an opportunity; it made it possible for people to organize support of America’s first black president. It shows contrasting cultures to people in medieval-style backward societies. It’s a great research tool, is the internet, I use it constantly. It provides instantaneous data exchange for scientists, accelerating the scientific revolution. I support the sciences, always.

The bio-engineering revolution may have a great impact we’re barely aware of so far…I do believe we’ll be growing and printing replacement organs that fit our bodies perfectly. 3D printing of a host of things could be a great revolution if it’s reasonably competitive in the marketplace. Obviously the risks of biotech—homegrown biowarfare, or attempts at self-improvement that are simply grotesque and ultimately fatal—are to be closely monitored.

16. What about the economic and socio-political environment?

A Song Called Youth deals with that; so does Demons, really, from another direction. I’m kind of a soft socialist, the Bernie Sanders sort. People who think in “all or nothing” terms with respect to economic systems are childish and tunnel-visioned. “It must be the uncontrolled free market” is a recipe for disaster. We tried that with the Robber Barons and the Great Depression and the Great Recession and the mindless sprawl of industry that all but wrecked the biosphere; that leads to climate change. Economics is connected to biology, on several levels. On the other hand, “we must have a 100% communal society” is just as wrongheaded. A synthesis is all that will work—until we have some kind of gigantic species-wide epiphany, which may never happen. We have to manage 7 billion people now and 9 billion, eventually. This will take an understanding of general trends and an appreciation of complexity both.

I believe that, politically, another kind of childishness is resisting globalization in the best sense of the term. We can be a united planet without being crushed by a few corporations, without losing local identity and most local sovereignty. But I also believe we must impose some human rights through a democratic world government. The emergency that is climate change and its consequences, the necessity of trying to avoid catastrophic global-scale warfare as climate change constricts food and habitable space and damages the sea, may well bring about some form of world government. This government will require a uniform set of basic human rights. Tolerance is important—but there are limits. We should require equality for women, and end to enforced marriages, acceptance of any sexual orientation between consenting adults, an end to torture and political imprisonment; an end to caste systems, an end to racial bias, an end to slavery; we should globally establish freedom of speech, freedom of religion or atheism, availability of basic health access, access to clean water and baseline food, access to education. Religion can be tolerated within certain boundaries; i.e., it cannot superimpose its superstitions onto secular education. People can choose religion and choose its form of education but it cannot deny people the agreed-on standard for education if they choose it…All this will eventually lead to less waste of resources, less expenditure, because violations of these principles has its own costs.

17. What about the academic and intellectual milieu?

There’s always a tendency to elitism, but making basic education and computer interfacing more accessible will break that down. Academics and art should be to some large extent government subsidized. We should be providing free university education in the USA. We do need reasonable standards—people should not be getting financial support to pursue silly little backwaters like “the art of fingerpainting” or astrology or quackery like homeopathy. But public broadcasting stations should be supported by taxes; museums should be subsidized so that people can go to them freely…Talented artists should be located and subsidized to a far, far wider extent than now…

18. You spoke at TEDxBrussels in a talk entitled John Shirley – False Singularities.[5] The talk critiques the common representations in the media, with an increase in frequency over three decades – at least, of the Singularitarians or the Trans-Humanists with the conceptual headship of Ray Kurzweil. Other individuals, too, such as Terry Grossman, M.D., Dr. Aubrey de Grey, Dr. Peter Diamandis, M.D., Saul Kent of the Life Extension Foundation, and others. Based on the responses about the technological landscape,the economic and socio-political environment, the academic and intellectual milieu, and the TEDxBrussels presentation, what seems like the most probable near future five years on from John Shirley – False Singularities?

A mere five years? Much can happen in five years—sometimes a rush of events pile up in a short period—but I think more in terms of twenty to fifty years. Billions of people—two billion perhaps?—may be displaced by rising oceans, desertification, and diminution of arable land. Rising seas may well inundate many large cities along the coasts; New York may have to become like the Netherlands, or perhaps like Venice. Manufacturing will tend to congregate more and more in places chosen by computer model to be safe from demographic displacement, and this will create a guarded, semi-sequestered technocratic elite in those areas; there maybe be a danger of a sort of informal (or even formal?) techno-priesthood, a social bottleneck in access to computer tech and access. Money will probably become entirely electronic. There will indeed be a certain percentage of the population with wi-fi “internet of things” cerebral computer chip implantation. The gap between the rich and the poor could widen to a nightmarish vastness. Addiction to VR states will be a norm for some people…

But five years? Just more flooding of technological interfacing, and virtual communion, which will be helpful in some ways but could lead to widespread depression since it removes ordinary face to face contact…Medications will become more and more dangerously precise in their application so that people will be in ever greater risk of dependency. Terrorism certainly won’t go away and we’ll see a rise of terrorism on the right, domestic terrorism stoked (mostly unconsciously) by the Trumps, the Glenn Becks, the Alex Joneses of the world, and by Dominionist pseudo-Christian extremists.

There may be weather cells of low oxygen, sort of like a meteorological version of the ocean’s “dead zones”, so that people have to flee the sudden lack of oxygen in those areas. That’s highly speculative but I think it’s possible, as a consequence of our destruction, through acidification of the seas, of oceanic organisms that provide much of our oxygen, combined with the destruction of rain forests.

19. What about the most probable far future?

What’s your idea of “far”? A thousand years? Five thousand? I see a shattering reduction of the human race, it will be winnowed down, to one-fifth what we’re seeing now, in the far future. High-rise farming will be the norm, with enormous tracts of green areas between; a culture that polarizes between decadence and technocratic expansion will take us into space. I believe there will be a faster-than-light work-around for spacecraft. I do not believe the human race will destroy itself entirely; I think it’ll learn from its mistakes, and will expand into the cosmos. That’s in the far future…To get ourselves there I think humanity will have to rebuild some of Earth’s biosphere and allow the evolution of new areas of wildlife habitat biocomplexity so we have a world we can thrive in…

20. What seems like the probability of the Singularity?

More and more computer efficiency will lead to more and more dependency; some groups will control the means of satisfying that dependency. I am sure we’ll have cascading advances of technology. But the kind of rather magical-thinking motions engaged in by Transhumanists, dreams of superhumanity and independently willed AIs, will be frustrated.

I do not believe that AIs will become dangerous unless we program them to be so. I see no reason they should become independent; they are not imprinted with survival instincts. Even if an artificial intelligence develops self-awareness, I don’t see that as leading to aggression or fear. It will remain emotionless. Why would we be stupid enough to program them with survival-instinct aggressiveness?

21. Does immortality as argued by Dr. Ray Kurzweil seem reasonable – even with an extended timeline – to you?

Biological life extension for those privileged to access it is inevitable; computer-created immortality is a fantasy concocted by people who cannot believe in an afterlife (and there’s no reason they should) but also cannot face death. Transferring an elaborate matrix or copy, three-dimensional or not, of personality and “memories” (I don’t think they’ll be actual memories) is no more immortality than an autobiography or making a video of oneself is. What is the self? How is a copy of what you suppose to be the self going to be the actual self?

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Science Fiction Author and Writer.

[2] Individual Publication Date: October 8, 2016 at; Full Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2017 at

[3] Photograph courtesy of John Shirley.

[4]Dueben, A. (2012, August 6). John Shirley: The Crow: Death and Rebirth. Retrieved from

Fahey, T.B. (2014, September 2). Piper at the Gates of Hell: An Interview with Cyberpunk Legend John Shirley. Retrieved from

Laurence, A. (1994). An Interview with John Shirley. Retrieved from

Shirley, J. (2014, August 26). A science fiction author ponders the dystopic landscape of the sovereign citizen mind. Retrieved from

Shirley, J. (2012, May 11). Tales to Terrify no 18 John Shirley. Retrieved from

Ventrella, M.A. (2012, June 7). Interview with Bram Stoker Award-winning author John Shirley. Retrieved from

[5] [TEDx Talks]. (2011, November 23). TEDxBrussels – John Shirley – False Singularities. 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.

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