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Back in the 1980s, writer John Shirley was on the cutting edge of the Cyberpunk movement in science fiction.  Athough Cyberpunk has faded and its tropes and memes cut up and assimilated into the SF Mainstream, Shirley continues to write raw and imaginative fiction.

Several months ago, I reviewed his most recent novel, Everything Is Broken, a cautionary tale about why having a government small enough to drown in a bathtub is of little help when the water gets really deep.  I recently received another book by Shirley titled New Taboos

New Taboos is part of the "Outspoken Authors" series published by PM Press, presenting material from some notable literary voices.  The book is a collection containing a novella, a couple essays and an interview with John Shirley.

"A  State of Imprisonment" is a novella which extrapolates the current trend toward privately-run, for-profit prisons to its logical conclusion.  It's set in the near future, where nearly the entire state of Arizona has been converted into a maximum security prison run by a large company.  (To be fair, only 80% of the state has been converted into the prison; the Grand Canyon, presumably, has been set aside for the tourists).  

The prison is run on the cheap, to maximize profits, and the company gets paid by the prisoner, so they subcontract out to house delinquent debtors as well as political prisoners from other countries.  They also use every means possible to extend each prisoner's sentence.  As a private entity, the business has very little government oversight.  What happens behind the walls stays behind the walls.  And if any prisoner tries to escape, he has to face the Worm:  crawling robot drones that locate and terminate fleeing prisoners.

Faye Adullah is a reporter for a major internet news service who wrangles permission to do a story on Arizona Statewide Prison.  Statewide does not particularly like transparency and obstructs her in every way possible, but Faye is determined to get her story.

In the middle of the carefully-choreographed tour, something unexpectedly goes wrong.  The power goes out, and Fae finds one of the prisoners at her side urging her to come with him.  He has arranged the blackout -- the prison was built on the cheap, so it is not that difficult to overload the electrical system if you know how -- so that he can get Faye away from her minders and show her what really goes down at the prison.

Faye gets a bigger story than she imagined, but it's a story that Statewide will never let her publish.  She quickly finds herself a prisoner on fabricated charges, with her only avenues for justice in the hands of a corporation with a strong profit motive to keep her locked up forever.

Accompanying the novella are two essays.  "New Taboos", from which the collection takes its title, discusses the idea of the taboo, not as an arbitrary prohibition, but as an expression of societal values.  We saw something like this just recently with Paula Deen's adventures in ill-advised remarks, but Shirley takes it further.

What if the phrase "Obscene Profits" were not just a figure of speech?  What if the practice of amassing huge profits while exploiting one's employees, or while contaminating the environment, or while lying to the public, was actually regarded as  revolting, and the people who engaged in such practices were shunned as pariahs?

On the adult scale, we have laws againt some of these social transgressions, but much of the time they're unenforceable.  Taboos -- if we really integrate them into our society -- enforce themselves, for the majority of people.  If the taboos are deeply ingrained enough, we don't need the laws.
In Shirley's view, these taboos would only be a stage; an artificial but necessary framework until we deveolped as a society and as a culture so that such rules would not longer be needed.  I'm not sure how these taboos would be instituted, nor how well they would work if they were, but here he is more thinking aloud than formulating a plan.  And his modest proposal suggests a different way of looking at some of our society's faults.

"Why We Need Forty Years of Hell" is a TEDx address John Shirley delivered in 2011 offering a grimly optimistic view of the next few decades.  Optimistic, because he believes things will get better... eventually; grim because he is convinced that the only way people will make things better is when -- not if -- things get so bad that we are forced to clean up our act.

He touches on several aspects of the future which are already on top of us now:  climate change, ecological damage, crises in food production, the social ramifications of the widening gap between rich and poor, and the dark side of technology.  It's all interconnected, and that indeed is the lesson we need to learn.

We'll have astounding technological advancements against a backdrop of grievous social inequity and quite possibly increasing barbarity, for a period, until we are forced by waves of crises to come to terms with the consequences of developing a civilization blindly.  Wars, plagues, radical separation of privileges, famines due to climate change and other environmental consequences, will force humanity to accept Buckminster Fuller's "Spaceship Earth" concept as very real.
In the end, he feels that humanity will eventually achieve the kind of rational, integrated approach to society, the environment and each other that we need; but only after harsh experience hammers in the understanding that "we can't treat Spaceship Earth as a party cruise ship."

Rounding out the volume is an interview with Shirley, touching on many facets of his varied career.  He talks about cyberpunk and writing, doing lyrics for Blue Öyster Cult and the screenplay for The Crow, being attacked by wild monkeys, and about his politics.  He describes how seeing pictures of the Mai Lai massacre as a boy radicalized him and how, although a lifetime of experience has tempered his views, he still has a socialist streak in him.  He strongly dislikes the Tea Party Movement and the Neo-Randites, which comes out strongly in his novel Everything is Broken.

The interview is a bit disjointed and reads like the interviewer submitted a list of questions rather than engaged Shirley in a conversation.  I've conducted interviews that way too, so I suppose I shouldn't criticize; and the interview does allow Shirley to comment on a wide variety of subjects.  Still, I would have liked to see the interviewer follow up on some of the questions and allow Shirley to expand upon his answers.

New Taboos is a slim volume offering an intriguing sampling of John Shirley's writing and ideas.  It's worth a read.

Now I need to tackle his A Song Called Youth Trilogy.

NEXT WEEK:  We've been neglecting the Fantasy side of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy Club.  Let's meet a young boy growing to manhood as he attends a wizarding school and finds his destiny linked to a malevolent entity.  No, it's not the quidditch-playing kid with the glasses and the scar; this one is A Wizard of Earthsea.  Pack your oars!

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sun Jul 21, 2013 at 06:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar of the Future (27+ / 0-)

    I received an advance copy of this book a couple months ago and started writing my review then.  But then I looked at the accompanying press release which said it was going to be released in August, so I decided to put off the review.  Now, checking on the publisher's website, I see that the book was actually released in June.  Serves me right for trusting a press release.

    You can read more of my explorations into the Worlds of Science Fiction starting at my Nifty Sci-Fi/Fantasy Index.  It lists not only the diaries I've written for this series, but also several diaries written by other Kossacks about science fiction and fantasy.

    Or you can read my thrilling Space Opera Webcomic Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine, at my website: Kurtoons Online

    And while I'm plugging things, you also can read Dark Redemption, an urban fantasy set in a city where creatures of magic dwell behind the shadows, at my other blog: Cold Steel and India Ink.

    I live for feedback!

    "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

    by quarkstomper on Sun Jul 21, 2013 at 11:44:14 AM PDT

  •  'Escape From New York' (16+ / 0-)

    There's been some talk of remaking it, but John Carpenter's 'Escape From New York' is a cult-classic of the "future prison" story genre.

    In many ways, it's a late '70s/early '80s reaction to urban decay and cynicism towards society, with Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken being the template for any antihero who just doesn't give a fuck about anything other than surviving.

    In 1988, the crime rate in the United States rises four hundred percent. The once great city of New York becomes the one maximum security prison for the entire country. A fifty-foot containment wall is erected along the New Jersey shoreline, across the Harlem River, and down along the Brooklyn shoreline. It completely surrounds Manhattan Island. All bridges and waterways are mined. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island. There are no guards inside the prison, only prisoners and the worlds they have made.

    The rules are simple: once you go in, you don't come out.

    Set in the "future" of 1997, the United States is in the middle of World War III with the Soviet Union, and terrorists have crashed Air Force One into the country's maximum security prison; New York City. The President has been taken captive by the inmates, with the President carrying information about a breakthrough in nuclear fusion that may allow for peace between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Convicted criminal and ex-special forces soldier Snake Plissken is offered a pardon if he can retrieve the President, the information, and bring both out of New York City in 24 hours.

    Carpenter originally wrote the screenplay for 'Escape from New York' in 1976, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Carpenter said, "The whole feeling of the nation was one of real cynicism about the President. I wrote the screenplay and no studio wanted to make it" because, according to Carpenter, "it was too violent, too scary, too weird." He had been inspired by the film Death Wish, which was very popular at the time. He did not agree with this film's philosophy but liked how it conveyed "the sense of New York as a kind of jungle, and I wanted to make a science fiction film along these lines."
  •  Connie Willis has an anthology out (6+ / 0-)

    I made the mistake of reading the 'teaser' and now I have no choice but to get it!

    Support Small Business: Shop Kos Katalogue including Hero for Hire, an epic fantasy with a sense of humor by C.B. Pratt

    by wonderful world on Sun Jul 21, 2013 at 08:41:27 PM PDT

  •  My WattPad freereads don't have nothing to do ... (7+ / 0-)

    ... with dystopian near futures, sorry.

    But the first, Tricks of the Trade, includes an entire oppressed population staging an uprising, which one could view as a prison break writ large.

    Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

    by BruceMcF on Sun Jul 21, 2013 at 09:31:29 PM PDT

  •  Thanks, quarkstomper (9+ / 0-)

    I'm looking forward to Earthsea -- haven't read those since I was a kid. It's probably time to revisit them.

    BTW, this series is the first place I go after work on Sunday nights. Just sayin'.

    Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

    by Youffraita on Sun Jul 21, 2013 at 09:55:15 PM PDT

  •  Thanks for the rec. (3+ / 0-)

    The book sounds like "must read." And the novella sounds as if it's just slightly exaggerating what's actually already in play.

    "They think if people can possess enough things they will be content to live in prison." Ursula Le Guin

    by Catana on Mon Jul 22, 2013 at 07:17:53 AM PDT

  •  I did an interview with Shirley back in the day... (5+ / 0-)

    ...along with the other founders of the cyberpunk movement.

    It's available as a zip file, or you can listen to it, either way.  It's in the Audio/Video section of my download page:

    Here is the radio show Radio Cyberpunk and the interviews with the three founders of the Cyberpunk literary movement, William Gibson, John Shirley, and Bruce Sterling. Gawd I forgot when I did this, c. 1990? (66.4 mb)
    And since this is a shameless pimp, I might as well go all the way.  Here's the link to my short novel Essa.  It's free as a way of introducing my science fiction series In the Realm of the Gods.  You can find it at B&N and smashwords, too.

    Tell me what to write. 'To know what is right and to do it are two different things.' - Chushingura, a tale of The Forty-Seven Ronin

    by rbird on Mon Jul 22, 2013 at 07:45:25 AM PDT

  •  I read "A Song Called Youth" some years ago (6+ / 0-)

    It was scary then because it cut uncomfortably close to a set of trends anyone with a brain could feel rumbling through the ground beneath their feet.

    It's scarier now because those tremors are a lot louder.

    I always think of ASCY in conjunction with Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution series--probably because there's the same sort of neofascist setting in The Star Fraction & I read both at about the same time.

    Both authors are IMHO waaaaay too hopeful about how their scenarios would resolve. (Though I guess if they weren't, you'd kinda hafta kill yourself after reading them out of sheer despair, & what does that do for sales?) MacLeod even has his "Hanoverian" Britain saved by--wait for it--a people's uprising in the USA that throws the fascists out. (If only. If only. If only...)

    (NB Both Shirley & MacLeod have recently had their series reissued in fewer volumes: ASCY collects 3 into 1, Fall Revolution binds 4 into 2 [Fractions and Divisions].)


    by Uncle Cosmo on Mon Jul 22, 2013 at 08:02:25 AM PDT

    •  Grimly Optimistic (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Uncle Cosmo, RiveroftheWest

      The protagonist of "A State of Imprisonment" does escape from Arizona and write her story, but few of the people responsible will ever see punishment, and the system remains firmly in place.  That's not going to change, and the reason why, the protagonist is told, is that "...almost nobody really cares."

      And perhaps that is the reason for writers like Shirley.  In the book's interview, he talks about writers and social responsibility:

      I only know that I personally have a sense of social responsibility -- yet as a writer I also feel another kind of responsibility:  to entertain.  It's a balance.  Dickens was powerfully entertaining -- but he made his point, and a sharp, penetrating point it was.  There were actual social reforms prodded into being by his novels.  Steineck, Upon Sinclair -- more than once, novelists hav prompted reform.

      Yes, I know, we've gotten stuck with Fox News now, and the Citizens United decision, the Koch brothes.  We're in danger of falling into a corporate dictatorship.  But we're not there yet, and books like Brave New World and 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 have helped.  So did books like Catch-22.  Solzhenitsyn schooled us about the excesses of USSR-style communism.  Uncle Tom's Cabin helped end slavery.  Novels can be our social conscience.

      "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

      by quarkstomper on Mon Jul 22, 2013 at 04:10:30 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Sounds like Shirley is (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    quarkstomper, RiveroftheWest

    reworking Heinlein's "crazy years" concept from the Future History series.

    Nothing human is alien to me.

    by WB Reeves on Mon Jul 22, 2013 at 11:18:22 AM PDT

  •  Thank You - N/T (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    quarkstomper, RiveroftheWest

    "Upward, not Northward" - Flatland, by EA Abbott

    by linkage on Mon Jul 22, 2013 at 01:25:11 PM PDT

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