7th April 2012: John Shirley’s A Song Called Youth

A Song Called Youth


John Shirley‘s incredible cyberpunk trilogy A Song Called Youth is back in print. I reviewed the previous edition for the late digital culture magazine Artbyte in February 2001 (pp. 82, 84). The Responsibility to Protect or R2P doctrine and author Howard Bloom influenced my Artbyte review:


In 2029, the ongoing Third World War has left Europe in ruins, and Russia is rumored to be threatening a final nuclear strike. America is recovering from a depression caused by Arab-terrorist computer “hacktivists.” The Second Alliance International Security Force, a NATO-hired private peacekeeping force, is secretly using the geopolitical conflict to implement apartheid in Europe. Only the New Resistance knows the real agenda: Project Total Eclipse, a global eugenics program.


John Shirley’s millennial revision of the 1985 trilogy, A Song Called Youth, far surpasses its original cyberpunk label in creativity and gritty neorealism. The complex multistrand narrative chronicles the New Resistance’s mission to topple the Second Alliance by sabotage and guerrilla media warfare, or “culture jamming.” Meanwhile, Senator Henry Spector’s iron-fisted Public AntiViolence legislation spawns live televised executions of dissidents by public lottery contestants. In the decade and a half since the trilogy first appeared, Shirley’s premonitions of post-Mafiocracy Russia and a broadband internet (the Grid) have come true. God help us if his vision of ready-for-prime-time exevcutions proves prophetic for the increasingly privatized “prison-industrial-complex.”


Shirley gives credible descriptions of current mind-control psycho-technologyies, fundamentalist militias, and the way in which social Darwinism might become a dangerous sociopolitical tool. Throughout, he questions the Enlightenment notion of eternal progress: the aging space colony FirStep’s utopian promise ends in hierarchical warfare.


Likewise, Shirley’s ensemble cast features unpredictable, irrational, and deeply flawed characters, including a shadowy social Darwinist, a brainwashed assassin, a rogue CIA operative, and battle-weary guerrilla fighters. Unlikely alliances are formed and individuals betrayed, and Shirley doesn’t hesitate to kill off several major characters during assassination attempts and skirmishes.


Jettisoning high-tech hyperbole for hard-core ideas, John Shirley reaffirms his influential status as cyberpunk’s firebrand political conscience. A Song Called Youth is a wake-up call, urging us to prevent the 21st-century holocausts that could spring from the nightmare coupling of genetic and social engineering. Now, who will fight the future?