An Interview with Justin Isis

Interview by Quentin S Crisp

Quentin S. Crisp: It’s been some years since your debut collection, I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, was released. What would you say are the main differences between that and the follow-up, Welcome to the Arms Race?

Justin Isis: They don’t really have anything in common. Human Flesh is more like a Cubist novel, with similar characters from story to story and a generally consistent style, tone, setting and set of concerns, while Arms Race is more like a demo reel or sampler that’s tonally and stylistically all over the place and hops around from country to country and random other parts of time and space. It’s definitely on purpose; I didn’t want to be accused of repeating myself or falling into monotony. The upshot is that people who appreciated the consistency of Human Flesh (the book I mean, not the actual substance) and are expecting something similar might be surprised, but people who wanted more variety will probably prefer this one

Arms Race is also more consciously an attempt to “do” the New Wave science fiction of the 60s and 70s, while Human Flesh doesn’t really engage with any kind of genre material at all. So this time around there are spaceships, lasers, time travel, aliens, other dimensions, etc.—although given that it’s Chômu, none of these elements are treated in the way they probably would have been in a more mainstream book.

QSC: You mention New Wave science fiction—who are some of the science fiction writers you’ve enjoyed and why?

JI: Cordwainer Smith, David R. Bunch, Samuel R. Delany, Norman Spinrad, Alfred Bester, J.G. Ballard, Gene Wolfe, John Brunner, Joanna Russ, Lawrence Miles, Greg Egan, etc. I usually feel like these writers are trying to push writing in directions it hasn’t gone before, and they all have distinct and recognizable styles.

QSC: Lawrence Miles, in particular, is a name not usually included in essential lists of sci-fi writers, could you say a few words about your inclusion of him here, and possibly with his relevance to your own writing?

JI: Miles once said something to the effect that he wasn’t interested in most books, because they were inefficient, or not written for people with “fast processing speeds”—by which he seemed to mean that most books, or at least most science fiction books, tended to belabor points, puff themselves up with needless padding, obscure their ideas by wasting time with poorly-drawn characters, etc. If I remember right he was talking mostly about contemporary hard science fiction, but I think you could apply his point to the field in general, and to most current fiction. Now I think a lot of people would read that statement and think that he meant that books should become more like TV shows or films, or otherwise “fast-paced,” but that’s exactly the opposite of what he was saying; I don’t think Miles has ever put anything out that wasn’t unbelievably dense, whether with ideas or emotions or both, and I can’t see how any of his books could realistically be filmed. I could probably write at least twenty or thirty pages in answer to this question, but I’ll just say that reading and rereading Miles’s books and blog posts has encouraged me to keep writing when it’s often seemed like there’s no point—even though he seems to have given up himself. That an area of writing that’s supposed to be concerned with ideas and originality can actually be concerned with these things rather than the shitpile of amateur dramatics, clichés, worthless awards and facile identity politics that it would appear at first to be almost exclusively concerned with, is something I took from Miles.

QSC: The singularity, as predicted by people such as Ray Kurzweil, seems to loom large in this collection, and one story seems to imply that the ‘Arms Race’, in one of its manifestations, is between human literature (imagination, if you like) and artificial intelligence. Is this a fair assessment and do you have further thoughts on this?

JI: While it might result in an arms race, I don’t see any conflict between human imagination and artificial intelligence. Strong AI, if it ever comes about, will still exist in the context of human imagination, and will still have to deal with all kinds of sexual, religious, and political implications. I think most attempts to address these issues have been pretty infantile—simple us vs them or salvation narratives, where AI is either the implacable enemy or the solution to every problem. But I think the trajectory of AI or any kind of artificial mind or life form won’t be as simple as either of those outcomes. In the title story I tried to suggest a sense of both vast incomprehensibility and almost offensive banality coexisting, where more-than-human minds are engaging in things we can’t imagine but are still very much involved in everyday concerns.

More generally, and this is increasingly where my interest lies, Vernor Vinge and others have said that true post-Singularity fiction is probably impossible, because we can’t conceptualize what might result past a certain point. This always appealed to me—the idea of trying to write something that can’t in any sense be written at the present. In other words it seems like the kind of insoluble problem that should nevertheless be attempted, a challenge. Whereas rehearsing another war narrative or some small change in social relations with clear and familiar stakes doesn’t seem very interesting at this point. I want to keep writing past the point where conventional human interest and recognizable action runs out.

QSC: From The Concept of Anxiety, by Søren Kierkegaard: “If every man does not participate essentially in the absolute then the whole game’s up.” Discuss.

JI: Everyone is already participating in the absolute whether they realize it or not. Realization is the key. It’s sort of like glancing out the window while taking a piss and seeing a UFO.


Justin Isis has worked as a model, consultant, rapper and visual artist and currently heads the Tokyo Black Lodge occult group. His previous works include I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like (Chômu Press, 2011) and (with Quentin S. Crisp and Brendan Connell) The Cutest Girl in Class (Snuggly Books, 2013). He also co-edited Chômu’s Dadaoism anthology. Welcome to the Arms Race is released by Chômu Press on the 16th of December, 2015.