“Audible even over the gunfire”: A Review of A Song Called Youth Trilogy

There has been some debate about the nature of politics in cyberpunk. The punk suffix should give it away, but then again, the politics of punk do not form a consensus. Just as listening to any The Clash song should clear that out, reading John Shirley’s cyberpunk trilogy A Song Called Youth (also known as The Eclipse Trilogy) should make it definitive as to which side of the trenches the genre leans.


Following a limited nuclear strike, Europe is left in rubble with the looming possibility of invasion by Russia. Amid the confusion, various nationalists rise to power with the help of an American private security organization, the Second Alliance International Security Corporation (SAISC or SA). Led by a Christian bigot, Reverend Rick Crandall, the SA proceeds with his agenda ominously referred to as Project Eclipse.

Meanwhile, trouble arises on the orbital colony Firststep, where the SA security contractors are slowly gaining control over the civilian administration. The space colony is not the utopia it was originally designed to be and discontent arises in the techniki population (the working class). Demands for better distribution of air, food and living spaces, supported by strikes and sabotage, are becoming more frequent and more violent as the Russia’s New Soviets blockade the station.

Shirley - A Song Called Youth - Prime - 2012

A Song Called Youth – 2012 collected edition by Prime Books.

On Earth the New Resistance (NR) opposes the SA. Among the diverse collective, Rick Rickenharp, an aging rocker, falls into the NR after being dropped by his band, as does the once-successful writer, Jack ‘Smoke’ Brennan. The guerillas also include characters such as Dan ‘Hard-Eyes’ Torrence, an American-born survivor that is stranded in Amsterdam, and Claire Rimpler, daughter of the architect of Firststep who is forced to flee the colony when her father lost control.


Shirley’s writing is what might be expected from someone with a background in music. He has a great sense of rhythm as he contrasts heavy narrative blocks with short and punchy paragraphs. The nature of the guerilla narrative positions in A Song Called Youth exemplifies this with the over-the-top action-driven drama side of the cyberpunk spectrum, close to Metrophage or Hardwired.

However, Shirley’s use of technology is mostly depicted as a narrative device, emphasizing the low life punk over the high tech. Still, some interesting examples of technological innovations are worth mentioning, such as the SA war machines known as Jaegernauts. They are five-story high parallel wheels of pikes linked in the center with a nuclear engine, and are capable of grinding buildings to pebbles. In the future of A Song Called Youth, political photo-ops have also been taken to a new height. In a specific scene, the dull SA-puppet president of France appears before an apathetic crowd of citizens left down-and-out by the war. To compensate for his lack of presence, the President’s stance is doctored live with holographic projections harmonizing his visual to the feedback from the crowd. This process, of course, makes the perfect target for sabotage in a war of driven by propaganda.

Shirley - Eclipse Penumbra - 1988

Eclipse Penumbra – 1988 edition by Popular Library

The mind-machine interface is also present, and considering Shirley’s interest in horror fiction, it is not surprising that he favors the concept of wetware to represent this interface. One of the most gory exploitations of the human brain is the coupling of Claire’s father’s severed head with the mainframe of Firststep in order to save the station’s damaged life support system. The biological brain is still the original machine. Similarly, Shirley’s version of ‘netrunning’ is made by way of neural implants that are wirelessly connected to the Grid and rendered more efficient while chain-linking many individuals, thus augmenting data-crunching capability.

One of the most interesting sociological inventions of Shirley is the techniki, a term defining both a social class and its language.The working class has morphed in the equivalent of an ethnic irrespective of the actual ethnicity of its members. One can only be born techniki, and one (Claire, for instance) can learn techniki but will always remain a stranger to the class. The language is a mix of vocabulary impoverishment, extreme contraction and dirty street talk. Part union, part football hooligans, they are driven by a tribal form of identity.

“Head like a hole, black as your souls, I’d rather die than give you control!” Nine Inch Nails, Head Like A Hole, Pretty Hate Machine. Artwork by PolarMaya.

Though the trilogy title itself is elusive at first glance, “A Song Called Youth” is used to qualify the most dramatic moment of all three books. It is Rickenharp’s swansong, a medley of classic alternative rock played with the amps cranked at eleven on the top of the Arc de Triomphe in order to divert the Jaegernauts from fleeing New Resistance operatives.

John Shirley’s cyberpunk trilogy is, indeed, the struggle of Youth against Eclipse, in other words of Life against Death. And isn’t that, after all, the whole politics of cyberpunk? Sadly, like most of first wave cyberpunk save from Gibson, Shirley’s novels seems to have slipped into near-oblivion. Let’s hope that the 2017 reprints will correct that situation.

A Song Called Youth – 9/10

If you haven’t explored John Shirely’s seminal cyberpunk work, A Song Called Youth, you can get a copy of the new version from Dover here.

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Pascal Rioux-Couillard is a punk, a literature scholar, a record collector, and a noisician. He believes that art is “the noise of culture” (Paulson, 1988), an entropic feedback loop in the redundant system that is society, and that cyberpunk culture is the most vivid expression of this noise.
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  2. There’s a couple of bits in here which struck a nerve; firstly the opening statement about politics – you are, inarguably, correct, and yet I find it almost impossible to understand how people don’t understand the politics of cyberpunk.

    I’ve seen lots of comments about CRPR’s game hoping that it “won’t cater to SJWs” and “I hope it’s not political”, and I don’t get it – these commentators are not new to cyberpunk, and yet don’t seem to understand that the genre is inherently political, and wouldn’t and couldn’t exist without the politics of haves vs have-nots, unfettered capitalism, and so on.

    Whilst William Gibson might be the most well-known face of cyberpunk, it’s impossible to read his books and not know where he stands, politically. And then when you read Shirley, Sterling, Williams, Cadigan, Rucker etc, it’s even more impossible.

    Secondly, your last point about “Sadly, like most of first wave cyberpunk save from Gibson, Shirley’s novels seems to have slipped into near-oblivion.” – it’s a real shame, and yet again, I don’t disagree. A Song Called Youth is a fantastic series of books – disturbingly prescient for me living in the UK, and incredibly well-written. I read them in, I think, the mid-90s, and then about five years ago I read an updated edition.

    I feel that too many people who believe themselves versed in cyberpunk stop at The Sprawl, Blade Runner, and maybe GITS, and call it done. I don’t think anyone can really understand cyberpunk or where it came from without reading the other authors I alluded to earlier.

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