John Shirley Book Reviews

by Mac Tonnies

John Shirley, more than any other science fiction writer, injects his fiction with an attitude of pure, unadulterated punk that comes as a breath fresh air -- and a simultaneous punch in the stomach. Whether he's peering into the near-future or twisting the parameters of the present to insidious ends, Shirley's fiction is brutal, raw and touching. He taps the zeitgeist's nerves and its adrenal glands, resulting in fiction that defies genre and explodes off the printed page with unfettered urgency. Shirley's vision is one that may take a couple readings to fully "get"; even when he's exploring familar subjects, Shirley's success is rooted in the way he slyly incorporates the periphery of contemporary culture -- and all of its ugly excess -- into his narrative focus. Don't bother pigeonholing Shirley -- just read what he has to say.

Related links:

John Shirley's authorized website

Shirley's other official site (with blog)


CRAWLERS

One of Shirley's very best novels, "Crawlers" weds keen social insight, bleeding-edge technology and paranoia in a visceral tale of war machines gone awry -- or, rather, working altogether too well.

"Crawlers" is often graphic, but never excruciatingly so. Shirley's pacing is exquisite; he handles a large ensemble of characters with finesse, providing multiple perspectives on a nightmare scenario that unfolds with tenacious logic. There are no blatant heroes in "Crawlers"; like the misfits who populate Philip K. Dick's novels, Shirley's characters are flawed, troubled and troubling. They react to unspeakable grostesquery in an entirely believable manner, which only makes the central villain -- a plague of nanomachines that tinkers with its victims until they're bloodthirsty "ramshackle cyborgs" in service to an apocalyptic dream -- ever so believable.

One of the finest "cyberhorror" novels yet written, "Crawlers'" imaginative breadth and high standards send it rocketing past garden-variety technothrillers. It witnesses Shirley enamored equally of lofty concepts and their human implications -- and will change the way you approach the genre.

GURDJIEFF: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas

"Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas" is John Shirley's first piece of book-length nonfiction. You'd never guess it. "Gurdjieff," for a book about esoteric teaching and such challenging concepts as "conscious suffering" and collective psychosis, is delightfully approachable, never condescending or over-burdened, and suffused with the same storytelling ability that makes Shirley's fiction so appealing. It sounds like a strange comparison, but "Gurdjieff" reminded me of Shirley's cult classic, "Wetbones." "Wetbones" succeeded in no small part because of Shirley's acute sense of morality. Even his most nightmarish works of fiction -- such as the unnervingly prescient "Eclipse" trilogy or the more recent "Demons" -- are grounded in the desire to see past the curtain (or computer monitor), to claim our birthright as self-aware entities, to transcend our all-too-frequent bouts of mindlessness and brutality. Shirley's canon is characterized by a rare seeking quality that can make even the most surreal situations illuminate the monstrous side of our compromised humanity. As it turns out, this is the stuff of good genre writing as well as the lifeblood of a good biography.

"Gurdjieff" continues Shirley's quest with insight and wit. A philosophical adventure story, "Gurdjieff" is a refreshingly accessible introduction to the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, a man whose life's mission was to hasten mankind's awakening. Gurdjieff, appalled by humanity's automatism, proposed that people live their lives in a literal state of sleep. Possessed by urgency and near-superhuman patience, Gurdjieff transformed himself into an iconoclastic force, a spiritual whirlwind that, once penetrated, revealed -- and continues to reveal -- sincere wisdom.

Shirley readers won't have any difficulty recognizing Gurdjieffian threads in Shirley's fiction. As a writer of the fantastic, Shirley is uniquely equipped to write popular fiction in the Gurdjieff vein. "Gurdjieff" may be devoted to the life and ideas of Gurdjieff, but its flowing narrative and conversational style shine a light on the author as well. Though slim, the book has real meat, a holographic substance that most biographies lack. As the only truly introductory text on Gurdjieff's teachings that I know of, it's a work of considerable importance -- both edifying and disturbing, charming and wrenching. Shirley's "Gurdjieff" may well prove indispensable.

IN DARKNESS WAITING ("Director's Cut")

John Shirley has a singular knack that by-the-numbers horror writers can only imagine: He can take something almost absurdly quaint and make it seem terrifying in entirely unexpected ways. This skill is on ample display in "In Darkness Waiting," now revised and updated in a new edition from Infrapress. "In Darkness Waiting" is a grotestque, phantasmagorical oddball of a novel, a sort of American Southwestern "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" skillfully spliced with ideas from such films as "Solaris" and "Forbidden Planet."

"IDW" reads with the cinematic urgency of other Shirley novels. The characters are well-drawn and eminently believable as human beings; the brooding rural setting is a refreshing diversion from the New England small towns that infect so much of the genre. But the heart of the novel is what makes this one tick -- a concept that might seem perilously campy if anyone but Shirley were at the helm. In Burroughsian fashion, Shirley conjures some of the most insidious monsters since Ridley Scott's "Alien": verminous, winged "Gray Pilots" that incubate in the brains of carriers only to erupt from their eye-sockets and spread telekinetic mayhem.

Perhaps the monsters of "IDW" wouldn't be all that scary if they were space aliens, or virulent mutations. But Shirley wisely suggests that the twitching, buzzing, squirming things seen bursting from people's skulls are us, an unrecognized aspect of the human condition, the embodiment of humankind's capacity to suppress empathy. And therein lies the novel's success.

"IDW" brims with spooky moments and well-wrought meditations on the unremarked night of the human mind. As in "Wetbones" and "Demons," there's a disturbing philosophical undertow beneath the fear and trembling that makes this a distinctly Shirley-esque story.

Take the plunge; darkness awaits -- in spades . . .

ECLIPSE

The cover of the 1987 Questar edition of John Shirley's cult classic "Eclipse" bills it as "the ultimate cyberpunk saga." This may be no mere exaggeration. Even read over ten years later, Shirley's dark vision of a war-ravaged Europe policed by a neofascist anti-terror security force seems queasily relevant -- and his depiction of the Religious Right's geopolitical machinations should bring on nothing less than a severe case of the chills. The future of "Eclipse" is an hallucinatory rendering of our present; if science fiction's goal is to prevent the future, rather than predict it, then Shirley's epic manages to accomplish both. If this seems like a paradox, the paranoid milieu concocted by Shirley should serve as a welcome introduction to work of the genre's most persistently subversive talent.

"Eclipse" is a busy book with vast political and cultural scope. Musician Rick Rickenharp's adventure on the artificial island Freezone (excerpted in Bruce Sterling's "Mirrorshades" anthology) is a brilliantly conceived pop-cultural microcosm that rivals William Gibson. Other sequences recall the head-spinning meta-politics of Bruce Sterling's "Islands in the Net" while still others reflect the post-nuclear nightmares of Michael Swanwick. Shirley's cast of characters is well-wrought, although "Eclipse" -- the first in the "A Song Called Youth" trilogy -- only manages to introduce us to some of the principal players. In particular, the plight of the inhabitants of FirStep, a multinationally funded off-planet colony (easily Shirley's grossest miscalculation), promises to be one of his most portentous.

"Eclipse" is an angry, violent -- but vital and intelligent -- novel, contemporary science fiction's most unflinching examination of the consequences of religion and nationalism. Shirley is equal-parts seeker and prophet; "Eclipse's" intersecting plotlines show us how fragile we are behind all of our technological and material bluster. "Eclipse" is a bumpy ride, but when it hits its stride it moves with the deft ferocity of a laser.

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DEMONS

John Shirley's "Demons" is a phantasmagoric odyssey through one of the strangest near-futures you're likely to encounter in contemporary fantasy. Consisting of two interlinked novels, "Demons" tells the story of an artist whose life is jarringly interrupted by a global invasion of supernatural entities. Shirley's considerable powers as a surrealist make Part One nastily persuasive yet dryly funny. Included is a transcript between a fictional president of the United States and one of the title characters (yes, they talk, providing some of the book's most weirdly compelling moments).

The central strength of Part One is how convincingly Shirley renders the day-to-day reality of demonic infestation; it's a seriously frightening (and perversely funny) allegory that's as relevant to politics and environmental abuse as is is to our scientific establishment and news media. Quite simply, no horror or SF writer has the acumen to pull this off as well as effectively as Shirley. Perhaps inevitably, Part One ends in a flurry of arcane revelations and pyrotechnic mysticism, and while some readers might protest that Shirley's solution to the demon problem is heavy-handed and outshined by special effects, I was enjoying myself too much to care. Shirley makes "Demons" work.

Part Two is a distinctly different kind of story. Temporarily setting aside the urban parable of Part One, Shirley offers us a globe-spanning conspiracy yarn that eclipses the vilest "X-Files" scenario. This time around, the ubiquitous demons are of a queasily human variety. Shirley revels in making us flinch at the mundane: sterile corporate office hallways become labyrinths of existential fear; industrial laboratories mutate into Bosch-like frenzies.

Vivid, moral and informed, Part Two rounds out the "Demons" couplet and upgrades its central characters. For all of the carnage and hallucinatory head-trips, Shirley's protagonists remain likeable and human. "Demons" is a subversively entertaining book that's unafraid to stare the 21st century straight in its glowering, soulless eye. What it sees is not at all welcoming. Regardless, Shirley writes with an almost infectious sense of hope.

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DARKNESS DIVIDED

"Darkness Divided" showcases some of John Shirley's most mature and memorable stories, with topics ranging from the consequences of suburban apathy ("In the Road") to getting even with the "Grays" of close-encounter fame ("Abducting Aliens"). Few short story collections are as uniformly fascinating as "Darkness Divided"; this isn't a slapped together collection, but a thorough primer in all things Shirley, revealing an author whose knack for shock value is expertly balanced with incisive commentary on the human condition. Shirley is many things: moralist, prophet, apocalyptic comedian--often all at once. Featuring some of the best short horror and science fiction work you're likely to encounter in one volume (in this reviewer's opinion, one page of Shirley is worth a dozen Stephen King tomes), "Darkness Divided" ends with two brilliant collaborations with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Scathing, zany and chilling, "Darkness Divided" is a literary event horizon, ushering us to its unseen core with every turn of the page.

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...AND THE ANGEL WITH TELEVISION EYES

"...And the Angel with Television Eyes" is a quintessentially John Shirley story, told with dry wit and a practiced eye for absurdity. Max Whitmore, a soap-opera actor with Shakespearean aspirations, is not who he thinks he is. Neither is anything else, as Max learns as he is ushered into a weird realm of plasmic entities (some of which are bent on exterminating the human race). "...And the Angel with Television Eyes" is essentially two books joined at the hip. The first half is a cruelly accurate send-up of celebrity and media stardom that documents Max's odyssey into the surreal; the second half is Shirley at his hallucinatory best, as Max is plunged into the plasmic netherworld to uncover self-shattering truths. Perhaps the most memorable characters in this short novel are the "vinyl harpies" Shirley conjures with such freaky realism. A breathless psychothriller with enough literary special effects to tax Industrial Light and Magic to the breaking point, "...And the Angel with Television Eyes" is a bizarre work that takes the cyberpunk subgenre to its less-than-compromising fringes.

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THE EXPLODED HEART

"The Exploded Heart" succeeds as a varied and provoking introduction to John Shirley's short work. This volume includes a slew of dark gems ranging from the horrific to the transcendent, all conveyed with Shirley's unmatched prose urgency. Near-future dystopias, cybernetic "angst-rock" spectacles that leave audiences dead, the harrowing life and times of a living department-store mannequinn...Shirley addresses the human condition by peering long and hard at its shadow and comes away with postmillennial nightmares burned onto his retinas. All of the pieces in "The Exploded Heart" are personally introduced by the author, putting them in chronological and thematic context; the result is a juxtaposed quasi-autiobiography--two books for the price of one! "The Exploded Heart" is a striking document of the science fiction genre caught in the act of mutation. With a great introduction by Bruce Sterling.

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SILICON EMBRACE

"Silicon Embrace" is a demented alien invasion story and one of the better cyberpunk novels of the 1990s: loopy, graphic and ambiguously funny, drawing on fifty years of flying saucer lore and--ingeniously--making it all interesting in unexpected ways. Shirley's hyperkinetic vision of a fractured, anarchic United States steeped in the mythology of the late 20th century is terrific. This novel is an overlooked must-read for students of that nebulous field we call "ufology." Like Robert Anton Wilson, Shirley bravely opens doors for the sheer literary pleasure of seeing what's on the other side, waiting and ready to pounce.

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CITY COME A WALKIN'

Shirley's early novel "City Come A Walkin'" takes us on a surreal and frequently brutal jaunt through a near-future San Fransisco where the city's overmind has the ability to manifest as a mirrorshades-wearing techno-shaman with a marked dislike for bad guys. The brilliance and terror behind this straight-forward tale is Shirley's refreshing refusal to cling to genre conceits. "City Come A Walkin'" challenges the nature of identity as well as the parameters of urban morality.

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BLACK BUTTERFLIES

Critics tend to apply the word "gritty" to works of visceral realism. For John Shirley, "gritty" is an understatement. The stories in "Black Butterflies," a showcase of Shirley's best horror work, are gritty in the sense that the grit gets under your fingernails, in your hair, between your teeth...you may spend weeks trying to get rid of it all. Split into two parts, "This World" (stories that could happen in the loosely conceived consensual hallucination most of us call "reality") and "That World," "Black Butterflies" is one of the most consistently inventive and darkly humorous collections I've ever read.

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WETBONES

Shirley's ability to work outside the bounderies of science fiction is further demonstrated in his excellent "Wetbones," a grisly Lovecraftian thriller handled with wit and humanity. Shirley's prose is razor-sharp and his villains deliciously despicable. For all of its gore (and there is a lot of it), I was most impressed with the depth of character on display in "Wetbones," a trait too seldom seen in genre horror. Then again, Shirley's horror tends to defy genre with the same punk energy that defines his science fiction.

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NEW NOIR

Immediate and grotesque, "New Noir" is Shirley's take on the real world, consisting of dark, dystopian visions culled from urban myth and newspaper headlines. "New Noir" presents a visceral slant on contemporary culture that's unmatched in its queasy palpability. Shirley navigates the periphery of late 20th century culture with the doggedness of J.G. Ballard and the resolve of a hacker out to crash the mother of all mainframes.

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