Sunday, December 9, 2012

Top-10 Cyberpunk Novels You Must Read Before Dystopia Is Upon Us

Cyberpunk is the cross between the genres of Science Fiction and Hardboiled Noir. Since both of its parenting vectors have always been considered marginal to canonic literature, it enjoyed more freedom to point out societal shortcomings and attack instances of collective shortsightedness.  
It had been foreshadowed for some time (mainly by the giant of SciFi literature, Philip Dick) but did not find the confidence in its step until the mid 1980’s, after Bruce Bethke coined it as the title of a short story of his, published in 1983.

There is no set recipe for cyberpunk yet there seems to be a number of requirements to be met before a novel is to be considered to belong to the genre. The story has to be set in the not too distant future. This future world must be dystopic for the masses, while hedonistic for the ruling elite. Technology has advanced asymmetrically, its abilities far outweighing its safeguards, and the computer/brain barrier has been breached. Said technology has completely different uses in the street, where hacking is a required survival trait. Said ruling elite consists not of politicians but of interconnected corporations. The Tyrells, the IOIs, the Maas BioLabs, the Ono-Sendais. The zaibatsus and the keiretsus. More often than not, cyberpunk novels come with an underlying message or a warning. Envisioning dystopias approaching in the horizon often does.

Obviously, I could not include any pure Science Fiction or Space Opera novels (such as the Dune or the Void series). I only included the novels that have the street moves down pat. The ones that come fully equipped with the hard and the soft. The ones that bring you into the near future and, there, brick up the door back to reality for you. The ones that will cut through all the Black ICE holding each and every one of us into place.  Crack open the spine of any of these books and the sound they make is the sound of a world ending. Do so at your own risk.


 10. PHILIP K. DICK: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the novel that the movie Blade Runner is based upon. And by “based” I mean loosely. Do not expect to read the movie. Regardless the differences though, the basic concept remains intact: how fragile is humanity from loosing itself amongst technological simulacra. When these imitations approximate us in both form and function, what is the remainder of the human essence that will carry our uniqueness? And, at the end, does such uniqueness actually exist?

I felt I had to include this as I consider it the most clear cyberpunk precursor.

9. PIERRE OUELLETTE: The Deus Machine
Set only ten years into the future (The Deus Machine was written in 1995) this is a unique cyberpunk novel in the sense that it relies heavily on biotechnology and the consequences of its abuses. How well do we understand the power of life? How secure is our hold over it? And just how bad can things go when the greedy wizard’s apprentice is overwhelmed by the power he unleashed? Is our ever-scheming, striving for power and instant gratification, murderous species a biological oddity about to be evolutionary corrected?

The story is set in a crumbling society where middle-class has been replaced by interchangeable drones that barely scrape a living. The novel has its rough edges but it is also unforgettable.   

8. CORY DOCTOROW: For the Win
Virtual economies within vast in-game worlds and third-world gold-farmers scrapping a living in internet caf├ęs. Economic and political oppression in the process of merging into the Beast envisioned by the cyberpunk tradition. The author is not light-handed when it comes to slipping in his political views (with which you will probably come to agree with at the end). More importantly though, For the Win is a book that will not only make you give pause the next time you engage in any Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming, but it will also make you reexamine your structure of our global investment-bank economy.   

Congratulations! You have just completed Level 8! But are you playing the game – or is the game playing you?

The future is this: franchises. From the pizza-delivering Mafia to the city-states (“burbclaves”) America managed to fraction itself into, everything has been turned into incorporated franchises. Including drug running. So when a new drug, called Snow Crash, kills a friend of the protagonist (and only Neal Stephenson could name his main character …Hiro Protagonist and get away with it!) while logged into the Metaverse, he decides to take action.

Some readers are put off by the juxtaposition of the futuristic story and Sumerian mythology, however, for me the worlds contrast brilliantly against one another. Also, prepare to laugh quite often. Snow Crash is a funny book.   

6. PAOLO BAGICALUPI : The Windup Girl
The world is getting smaller. Not because of a cataclysmic cosmological event but because the shortage of fossil fuels made us revert in relying on animal labor. Collapse of the economies of entire continents, chronic malnourishment, religious cleansings and an endless string of resistant terminal infections have pushed humanity to the very edge of existence. And yet, human greed and blind ambition still offer the impetus for the endless power-games that care not how many lives get trampled under its threads.
An American investor/spy after Thailand's only remaining bio-treasure; a shrewd and ruthless refugee trying to rebuilt his empire lost to murderous fundamentalism; government factions locked in a power-struggle to the death; and a seductively-designed Japanese Windup Girl that will unwillingly serve as the catalyst for the brewing explosion. I do consider The Windup Girl to be a cyberpunk novel as it depicts the aftermath of our ongoing technoeconomical binging. 

5. WILLIAM GIBSON: The Bridge Trilogy
The three books consisting William Gibson’s vision of a near future West Coast are: Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties. The technological futurism of the 20th century is on the cusp of emergence (even if the flavor we are getting is much more bitter than expected) and the corporate powers are elbowing for position. America has been Balkanized into numerous fractions while life tries to paint over the cracked pavement a thin coating of the normalcy people grew up in. Meanwhile, in depressingly upbeat Japan, the first crude attempt is made to treat personality simulations as real persons.    
The Trilogy gets its name from the first book, in which people have turned the earthquake-condemned Golden Bay Bridge into a makeshift habitat for the homeless. It is always creepy to realize how good Gibson is in predicting nodal points in both technology and societal progression.

4. RICHARD MORGAN: The Takeshi Covacs Trilogy
Handle with care, for the testosterone levels of these novels needle into the red. The Trilogy (so far) consists of Altered Carbon, Broken Angels and Woken Furies - but it would be an omission not to mention Black Man (released as Thirteen in the US) as a very worthy prequel. 
Dive into Takeshi Covacs’ world and you will crave resleeving your backed-up consciousness into fresh bodies, enlisting into the Envoy Corps, dreaming of Martian Artifacts (that are not Martian after all) and you will try to find a way to book tickets to Harlan’s World. My advice: start saving for a needlecast, the only way to travel!
Morgan has meticulously created a world that feels, sounds, looks and smells real. As a result, the story only grows richer and deeper every time he revisits it. 

3. ERNEST CLINE: Ready Player One
This one is not a funny book and yet I find myself pulling it out of my library every time I am feeling blue. It is a near future dystopia and 80’s nostalgia novel melted down and cast into an original cyberpunk mold. A legendary online Easter egg hunt for the inheritance of a corporation the size of Microsoft, Apple and Valve combined. Stacked trailer parks full of desperate people and evil corporations that will stop at nothing in order to control OASIS, the online virtual reality world that is both the digital salvation and everyday life for everyone on Earth. The hero and his companions have to overcome insurmountable odds and survive and emerge victorious on wits and talent alone.
Ready Player One reads like an 80’s travelogue, a classic text Role-Playing Game and a coming of age adventure all wrapped into one unforgettable novel. Geek-chic is back. Please insert coin to continue.

2. NEAL STEPHENSON: The Diamond Age (A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer)

Mid 21st century Shanghai. Imagine a nanotechnology book-shaped supercomputer designed to train and morph any upper-class privileged girl into the proper young lady the neo-Victorian microsociety of her enclave demands. Now, imagine that this very valuable piece of technology somehow ends up in the hands of an underprivileged orphan girl instead. The Diamond Age is Stephenson’s tour de force in cyberpunk that manages to grab your attention from the very beginning and never lets go. A book worked to its finest detail, an impressive body of work that is extremely entertaining to read while leaving you with a thought provoking aftertaste that lingers on for years.

1. WILLIAM GIBSON: The Sprawl Trilogy
Neuroromancer. Count Zero. Mona Lisa Overdrive. Together with the collection of short stories, Burning Chrome, these are the Four Gospels of cyberpunk. 
A bleak world of nerve/biochip integration; ICE-cutting cyberspace cowboys and jacked up razor girls; artificial intelligence entities holding citizenships and striving to be more; immortalized billionaires spread single-cell thinly over acres of support vats. The constant grey drizzle condensing under the unfinished domes of the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Area urban sprawl tries to hide a world of drugs and hustlers and players – all losers and all winners in their little games. And Freeside, the Babylon in the sky, the rotating space station that serves as off-world data heaven and money-laundering banking shelter and houses a byzantine family of clones, locked in an endless power struggle.
In a world where knowledge and abilities is the insertion of a single biosoft away and media stars share their entire fine tuned sensorium with their fans, ambition and murder is the only aura to radiate. And William Gibson’s prose is poetic and hypnotic.
Welcome to the Edge. That is the Future. And it does not get any better, the closer it gets.     


  1. Hi! If you like Gibson, Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell type stuff, check out Silhouette and Kaleidocide in the Peacer Series (Macmillan/Thomas Dunne)...

    1. This may be a bit late but I wanted to thank you for the Peacer Series recommendation.

  2. Thank you for the suggestion. I will sure do.

  3. Diamond Age is a true classic, but personally if you want to crowbar two Stephensons into the list I'd swap Snowcrash for the far superior Cryptonomicon. And a Top Ten with our Bruce Sterling ? No I couldn't do that, I'd find a place for Mirrorshades the epochal anthology edited by Bruce, let alone Mirrorshades and certainly the excellent Difference Engine co-authored with William Gibson

  4. Thanks for publishing this list! I was looking for some new reading material, and this list was great.

    I finished "For the Win" by Cory Doctrow, and literally just stayed up all night reading "Little Brother". Both great books, and well researched. I grew up in Silicon Valley, and have spent most of my life, one way or another, involved in hi-tech. I did not find my "suspension of disbelief" being stretched to the breaking point at any time. I also like how he takes various concepts of economics, hi-tech, what have you and gives a brief, accurate description and then weaves into the story how this could play out in the real-world

    I'm not to Mr. Doctrows next book, and Nueromancer.

  5. Thanks heaps for this comprehensive list of cyberpunk goodies, NeuroSplicer! I'd been looking for some fresh material and stumbled across your blog - grateful that I did!