Shirley-b.htm????????$< John Shirley: Biography

John Shirley is a writer who defies neat categorization. His novels range from the legendary cyberpunk of City Come A-Walkin' to the surreal Three-Ring Psychus to Wetbones, a novel that combines Lovecraftian evil, visceral horror, and Hollywood decadence. His short fiction speculates on the world of the future, the darkness of the present, the spiritual, and the most depraved of human desires. He's written lyrics for his own music, Blue Oyster Cult, and other bands. He devotes most of his time these days to writing for television and screen. John Shirley has influenced a generation of imaginative writers and is still being discovered and re-discovered by appreciative readers and writers today

Finding Shirley's critically acclaimed work to read is often more challenging than it should be, but once discovered it can change your life. His most recent novel, Silicon Embrace was published in 1996 in limited edition by Mark V. Ziesing Books and is, for now, still available from the publisher. Silicon Embrace "combines the best of Shirley's slambam cyberpunk with a profound spirituality, wicked sense of humor, aliens, UFOs, and a sociological/philosophical slant that leaves your mind spinning."

Short stories can be found in many anthologies and his own collections: Heatseeker (1989, Scream Press) is now collectable and often goes for more than twice its original cover price; New Noir (1993, Black Ice) is, however, still available; The Exploded Heart from (Eyeball Books) became an almost instant rarity and although it can no longer be obtained from the publisher can occasionally be found in bookstores ir through speciality dealers. A new collection of his dark fiction, Black Butterflies, will be published in 1998 by Mark. V. Ziesing.

The Exploded Heart did more than bring together previously uncollected short stories written as early as 1974 to as recently as the early nineties. The stories were arranged chronologically with autobiographical introductions by the author that link them together. This approach offered "bloody pieces of the author hanging from his words...[but] knowing something of Shirley's anarchic life is important in understanding his work. What results...is... a sort of text-contained performance art statement."

Bruce Sterling, in an amusing introduction to the book, adds to this portrait of man and artist, admitting:

Most of the science fiction writers who later got called "cyberpunks" are and were, at heart, really nice middle-class white guys...John Shirley was a total bottle-of-dirt screaming dog collar yahoo...Other people wrote experimental stories with numbered paragraphs, but John Shirley wrote "stories" that were so 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 the genre. For John Shirley the limits of the genre were vague apparitions somewhere in his rearview mirror...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.


John Shirley has published more than a dozen novels and is, perhaps, best known for the 1980 City Come A Walkin', reprinted in 1996 by Eyeball Books. As William Gibson explained in his introduction to the newer edition:

John Shirley was cyberpunk's Patient Zero, first locus of the virus, certifiably virulent...this is, quite literally, a seminal work; most of the elements of the unborn Movement swim here in opalescent swirls of Shirley's literary spunk.


As a screenwriter Shirley is usually noted for discovering James O'Barr's comic The Crow and adapting it to the screen. He makes most of his living writing for TV shows he'd rather not discuss and turning out screenplays that he will discuss

John Shirley has never been a writer isolated in the ivory tower of pure observation distinct from his life. Nor does he deny his human frailities and past excesses. Instead he draws from his sometimes harsh reality and turbulent emotions for his fiction. Building a fictional future world, he extrapolates from today, adds an eerie prescience, and peoples it with characters who strive and often fail, but are always human -- unless they are extraordinarily non-human and completely alien.

Shirley was not a nice polite kid and he didn't grow up to be a nice polite adult. After being kicked out of high school for locking a teacher in a closet and alarming his classmates with a lecture on their doomed future demise in a nuclear war, John Shirley went on to bring down home values in whatever neighborhood he lived in Portland, Oregon with his boisterous lifestyle. He lived on the streets for awhile in San Francisco in the early seventies and also attended the Clarion Writers Workshop -- more or less, he was tripping at least part of he time and seems to recall jumping on Harlan Ellison from a tree and howling.

He did manage two "real" jobs in his life and promptly got fired from both for writing at work. Shirley was an authentic punk and punk music became a salvation of sorts. He found his calling writing lyrics and fronting bands including SadoNation and Obsession and added music to his life of drugs, writing, and women. It was a life that killed a lot of people and came close to killing Shirley, but no matter what chaos he was causing or surviving -- there was always the writing and the need for enough order to do it.

Compiling biography on Shirley isn't easy. People who knew him in the eighties, or experienced him at some SF con or another tell stories that may or may not be exaggerated. Asking him to verify such often results in him admitting that he doesn't remember, but that it sounds like something that probably happened. The rest of the time he'll tell you the real story and, like as not, it's nothing one can go public with.

Shirley eventually got a grasp on life and learned some manners. He apologized to a lot of people (mostly women -- some of whom he had married) and started dealing with the day-to-day struggle to live drug-free and accept adult responsibilities.

Today he lives fairly calmly, somewhat less controversially, and more productively than ever in the San Francisco Bay Area area. The writing is still essential as is the music. When he has a chance, he performs and records music as dark as his fiction like that on the CD Red Star.

John Shirley is the kind of writer who "has to" write and seldom compromises his unique vision. He combines his truth, experience and splendid technique to achieve his uniquely dark, but transcendental redemptive fiction. Shirley's work is powerful stuff. He rarely lets the reader off the hook and, as Joe Sander says in Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Shirley's work has always been distinctive for its stern insistence that people need to open themselves to new possibilities, enlivened by stunning, imaginative riffs...under whatever genre label he has produced a striking, powerful body of fiction...

Read him if you dare.


Find out more about John Shirley in the Interview section of this site. Cover art from most of his books and a list of most of his works are available in the Bibliography section.