We talk to sci-fi author John Shirley about Hollywood secrecy, whether cyberpunk has been overtaken by real events and a new science fiction TV show he has been working. Oh, and his novelization of the latest Resident Evil movie . . .

You’ve done several so-called “tie-in” novels and novelizations in recent years. How did this come about?

You know, they simply contact the agent of folks they deem the right sort of writer. The agent then asks the writer if he or she wants to do it. Sometimes I do, especially if I like the source material.

But I think it also goes back to that phrase ‘the right sort of writer’–I have chops and a name in horror and action so a horror film novelization fits; my style seems right for it. Or one of my styles, anyway. I’m like a guitar player who can play four or five kinds of rocknroll, as well as jazz, blues, or fusion. So they know I can handle it and I’ll bring something extra to it, not just paint by numbers. They also know I have written scripts–like The Crow–so I understand what a scripter intends…

What is your modus operandi with a novelization? I take it you work from the screenplay, but do you get to see the movie before it is released?

No, I don’t see the movie in advance–I wish I could, but they don’t like to send actual DVD copies out without very good reason. If the copy finds its way into the wrong hands it could end up being pirated on the Internet. You know, I was asked to submit my name with two other writers to do the novelization for Dark Knight Rises. They were worried about story twists getting out, spoilers, so they wouldn’t even send out the script. The novelizer was required to go to Los Angeles, sit in a special office with a computer, and take notes from the script, of events and dialogue…without taking the script home at all!  So studios like to be very secure about this stuff. (I didn’t get that job and was actually a bit relieved. That’s a hard way to adapt something.)

My modus Operandi is to study the screenplay and related material–there is usually franchise material out there to absorb. In the case of the movie Constantine there were the Hellblazer comics to study. In the case of Resident Evil: Retribution I watched all the movies on DVD, took notes, and then went to wikis and Wikipedia to get additional information, and try and get everything right. I also ordered a big Resident Evil guidebook and pored through that. But I wasn’t able to use game-based material much in the novel, as it can differ from the film version a bit. The movies are satisfying to Resident Evil gamers but there are characters and events in the films that are not in the games and vice versa.

When I feel I have a handle on the world and the characters after all this I launch in…with the script as my outline. I have notes written on my copy of the script too of course. I used almost all the dialogue from the script and everything in it is in the novel. But I also invented characters and situations to bring the book to full bloom, so to speak. Nothing in my book should contradict the world of the Resident Evil films. I particularly worked on getting our heroine Alice right…She needs to be more than an action hero. She’s a complex character with a dark past.

You were one of the original “cyberpunk” writers along with the likes of Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. Where do you think science fiction is right now? There seems to be a lot of “space opera” books nowadays – do you think that “cyberpunk” has maybe been overtaken by real life events (the Internet, etc.)?

Most mainstream science fiction has absorbed the imagery and setting and ideas of cyberpunk…which in itself didn’t come out of a void. We were in turn influenced by Cordwainer Smith, James Tiptree, John Brunner, and Philip K. Dick. There’s a lot of military space-operaish science fiction around, and that might’ve been driven by the popularity of Star Wars, and Joe Haldeman’s novel The Forever War but it has borrowed ideas from us as well as from Heinlein and Haldeman and Lucas…

Cyberpunk has been to some extent overtaken. My cyberpunk trilogy A Song Called Youth predicted, for example, miniature remote control drones with moving wings like birds, and they now exist; some of the dire political situation in the trilogy is coming about…I predicted something called The Grid very like the internet…But real cyberspace as Gibson described it isn’t there yet; the shapers and mechs Sterling described aren’t here yet. The hyper cyberneticism of Rudy Rucker’s ‘ware books are only partly realized in the real world. The electronic communion found in parts of my A Song Called Youth isn’t here yet. So cyberpunk writers are still a jump ahead….

A Song Called Youth was re-released as an omnibus by Prime Books–it’s selling very well, especially as an eBook–and I did update it somewhat. Not so much that it lost any character, but enough so it fits with our world a bit more. So you see that science-fiction novels can come back renewed for the new era if science-fiction writers take the opportunity to update them…

My newest novel Everything is Broken is a near-future fusion of disaster novel, crime novel, coming of age story, and political allegory–but I didn’t focus on the technological near future in it, really, more the sociological future. And that’s always going to be relevant…

People always complain that it is difficult to turn computer games such as Bioshock into a narrative for a book or a film – do you agree?

Bioshock: Rapture was difficult as it was a history of Rapture from its conception on into its internal collapse. That’s a couple of decades of story there, almost. And it’s such a distinct and refreshing world, that was a lot of absorb and dramatize…I had to incorporate elaborate stories from the first two games in the series, in one novel, and that was challenging to do. A lot of cunning interweaving was necessary.

But the Borderlands novels–I’ve written two novels inspired by the game, Borderlands: The Fallen and Borderlands: Unconquered, and they almost wrote themselves. Once I got the outline for the novel approved by Gearbox I was able to have fun creating crazed adventures of my own imagining in the Borderlands world. It’s a wonderful sandbox to play in. The sci-fi action orientation gives me a lot of momentum, and I can create big, colorful events, stoked by weird ideas, with all those hard-nosed Borderland characters to work with.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve just finished working on the script for The Crow: Death and Rebirth, a graphic novel for IDW comics. It’s coming out as five comics first and then it’ll be a book. It’s a distinct variant of The Crow set in Tokyo.

And I’m about to start revising the first draft of Intruder Town, which is a pilot script for a science fiction television series that will be submitted by my producer partner…Intruder Town is designed to be brimming with entertaining bizarrity–it’s both a bit humorous and very dramatic!


Resident Evil: Retribution – The Official Movie Novelization by John Shirley will go on sale on 14 September 2011. Watch this space as we will be reviewing it soon!



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About the Author

James has been running The Sci-Fi Movie Page since Before the Beginning of Time Itself (TM), i.e. since the site's inception in 1997. In addition to sci-fi James also likes 1970s motorbikes and chili dogs although he doesn't own the former and no longer eats the latter. He currently resides in Kiev, Ukraine for reasons best left unexplained.



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