Since you’re here, chum, we’re assuming you’ve heard the term “cyberpunk” before. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, innit? To really know “what is cyberpunk?,” you’ve gotta read the books.
WHAT IS CYBERPUNK?
Cyberpunk can best be described as a movement or series of movements. The original movement was made up of a fairly insular group of authors who generated the first wave of cyberpunk literature, published from approximately 1982 to around 1991 (see the Cyberpunk Timeline). These cyberpunk books portrayed the future emergence of the internet and technology as key factors in our daily lives, depicting the resulting dystopian society (and its inhabitants) in a hard-boiled and often-criminal underworld. It’s no accident that the genre is often summarized with the shorthand, “high-tech, low-life.”
William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer, attributed the growth of the cyberpunk movement in part due to the network effect of the “Mirrorshades Crowd” discussing their ideas to subvert and forge a new path within science fiction. It was somewhat of a clique. Naturally, most of their manuscripts were submitted for publication around the same time, resulting in an influx of these commonalities.
First wave cyberpunk fiction is usually fast-paced and heavy on information. It also tends to borrow heavily from romanticism and horror, particularly when examining the purpose of cybernetics in cyberpunk fiction.
THE BEST CYBERPUNK BOOKS
If all this tech-noir, computer-babble sounds interesting to you, the cyberpunk books listed below are what we’d consider the definitive crash course in cyberpunk reading. Please note that the selections do not fully represent the diverse landscape of cyberpunk writers and texts that can be encountered in the genre; with that in mind, CyberPunks.com is proud to tell you about the FIVE CYBERPUNK BOOKS YOU’VE GOTTA READ.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Case was the best console cowboy in the Matrix, at least until his ex-employer fried his nervous system, making it impossible for him to jack into the net. Now, he’s being offered a last-chance mission that will restore his loss at the cost of pitting him against a cruel and sentient artificial intelligence. Add in sleek, street-samurai, Molly Millions, and you’ve got a quicksilver thriller in the bleak world (and off-world) of The Sprawl. This winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Phillip K. Dick awards, is truly the father of the cyberpunk genre.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
While writing Neuromancer, Gibson went to see Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and worried that everyone would assume he had ripped off the film! This led to a round of near-endless revisions of more than half of the book in effort to avoid the comparison. Neuromancer remained the literary touchstone of the cyberpunk movement, even as movies like The Matrix soon became the point of entry for most new fans of the genre.
With Neuromancer, Gibson created an edgy, angst-filled world that grabs the reader with narrative tension and delivers it at max speed. Once you’ve read this (and likely re-read it), you’ll be pleased to find it’s the standalone start of a trilogy, so when you’re ready, be sure to check out Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Published in 1992, Snow Crash deconstructed the cyberpunk genre and its tropes so well that a sub-genre was born. While cyberpunk fiction continued to be released, this second movement struggled against the established conventions of cyberpunk with an updated awareness of the world wide web, predicting a more nuanced failure of the dot-com era’s unbridled optimism. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash declares itself as a post-cyberpunk novel, and you’re gonna love it.
‘This Snow Crash thing–is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?’ Juanita shrugs. ‘What’s the difference?’
Rumors of a new viral drug called Snow Crash are everywhere. Cultists are joining a new religion formed by techie-televangelist L. Bob Rife, and a virtual villain is spreading a computer virus linked to an upcoming information apocalypse via ancient Mesopotamian power words capable of driving people insane (yes, you read that right). Neal Stephenson is a futurist that doesn’t suffer from lack of imagination.
In meatspace, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for the mob, but inside the Metaverse, he’s a sword-wielding hacker god. The book follows our hero and his newfound sidekick Y.T., an underage and spunky Kourier, as they battle through a fragmented future Los Angeles eerily resembling our current dystopian consumer-culture. Snow Crash is a sci-fi satire so ridiculous that it reaches the sublime.
We are all susceptible to the pull of viral ideas. Like mass hysteria. Or a tune that gets into your head that you keep humming all day until you spread it to someone else. Jokes. Urban legends. Crackpot religions. Marxism. No matter how smart we get, there is always this deep irrational part that makes us potential hosts for self-replicating information.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
After the turn of the millennium (remember Y2K?), a third wave of writing emerged, with generally marked by the release of Charles Stross’s Accelerando in 2006. This new group of cyberpunk books had authors aiming to “distill … cyberpunk into something that works again, from the point of view of someone who has actually gone through a dotcom start-up, worked on the ‘Net, worked as a programmer,” at least per Charles Stross.
This is where things start to get fun. The tropes have evolved; we’ve all become sophisticated consumers of cyberpunk-laden science-fiction (even if we’re not aware of it), and the new school of writers inhabit the current technical reality that was, at best, speculative, in literal 1984. The result of things like virtual reality, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and wireless technologies all being ubiquitous is a supercharged vision of the future from this newest wave of writers.
Enter Ernest Cline who, in 2011, infused his collected pop-culture knowledge into a science-fiction debut that is full of easter eggs for anyone who remembers what a dial-up tone on a modem sounds like.
Ready Player One is based in the Cleveland Stacks, a metropolis of skyscrapers made of mobile homes and recreational vehicles in the year 2044. This Sprawl-inspired setting is the home of Wade Watts, an unlikely hero who uses his own knowledge of 1980s pop-culture and video games to find clues left by billionaire James Halliday, the founder of the OASIS, the world’s biggest virtual reality platform.
Wade and most everyone else in the OASIS have dedicated their lives to Halliday’s clues hoping they’ll lead to the keys that unlock the golden easter egg, a cleverly hidden artifact that grants its possessor the full ownership of the OASIS.
While the story arc is pretty trite, the fan-service is turned all the way up. This book, like Spielberg’s movie-treatment, is meant to be enjoyed as spectacle and not critically chewed upon.
The references are glorious, the nostalgia is there, and the whole thing sits inside the cyberpunk timeline perfectly — from the early 1980’s to Cyberpunk 2077.
Walkaway by Cory Doctorow
So here we are in the 2020’s, and no one has a finger on the pulse of cyberpunk better than Cory Doctorow. An journalist activist with strong ties to the copyright and privacy movements, Doctorow is also an award-winning science fiction writer who’s written notable science fiction novels Walkaway and Makers, both of which are mind-blowing in scope of saga and just-over-the horizon forecasting. These are the new breed of cyberpunk books. He’s also got a touch for young adult fiction trilogies, as the w1n5t0n trilogy is also great reading and hits all the right notes. Just like Gibson and Stephenson before him, Doctorow is a visionary.
No matter how hard you try, the little fuckers always generation gap you.
Hubert Vernon Rudolph Clayton Irving Wilson Alva Anton Jeff Harley Timothy Curtis Cleveland Cecil Ollie Edmund Eli Wiley Marvin Ellis Espinoza is feeling the woes of the generation gap when he and his best friend, Seth, go to a Communist party. Just as a rich, young future “zotta” (essentially a powerful 1%-er) drops some millennial knowledge about how their generation is attempting to resist the system, the authorities show up and exercise excessive force to remove them from the abandoned premises, setting the trio on a path that has them walk away from society.
The book follows these three and other walkaways through their “schlepping” days, a period in which they adapt to a lifestyle where people occupy abandoned spaces away from the more mainstream “default.”
Walkaway has almost everything readers look for in a cyberpunk novel. It ticks all the boxes: simulations, computer networks, megacorps, artificial intelligence, high-tech, low-life and big emotional feels.
You don’t have to take it from us, though, as bigger cyberpunk minds than ours grace the cover of the book itself, providing further validation of the novel’s merit:
Walkaway is now the best contemporary example I know of, its utopia glimpsed after fascinatingly-extrapolated revolutionary struggle.
The Bhagavad Gita of hacker/maker/burner/open source/git/gnu/wiki/99%/adjunctfaculty/Anonymous/shareware/thingiverse/cypherpunk/LGTBQIA*/squatter/upcycling culture…zipped it down into a pretty damned tight techno-thriller with a lot of sex in it.
Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology edited by Bruce Sterling
We’ll bring it back to the cyberpunk roots now.
While living in Texas and publishing a sci-fi zine called Cheap Truth under the alias of Vincent Omniaveritas, author Bruce Sterling set out to bind together that “fairly insular group” of seminal cyberpunk authors in an anthology that would crystallize the early days of the cyberpunk movement.
Many of the seminal cyberpunk writers were brought together in what is, arguably, Sterling’s most iconic project — Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology.
- “The Gernsback Continuum” by William Gibson
- “Snake-Eyes” by Tom Maddox
- “Rock On” by Pat Cadigan
- “Tales of Houdini” by Rudy Rucker
- “400 Boys” by Marc Laidlaw
- “Solstice” by James Patrick Kelly
- “Petra” by Greg Bear
- “Till Human Voices Wake Us” by Lewis Shiner
- “Freezone” by John Shirley
- “Stone Lives” by Paul Di Filippo
- “Red Star, Winter Orbit” by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson
- “Mozart in Mirrorshades” by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner
It would be surprising if any author published in Mirrorshades refused to emphasize the historical importance of being involved with this project. In addition to the 11 short stories from the newly christened members of the cyberpunk school, there is a visionary preface from Bruce Sterling that outlines the movement in its infancy. It’s essentially a manifesto, though admittedly there are a lot of “cyberpunk manifestos” floating around the web, and we plan to get to those some other time.
Physical copies of Mirrorshades are getting harder to come by, as Amazon currently lists the mass-market paperback for $15 bucks. Luckily, there are plenty of places to read it online, including Archive.org. As any good cyberpunk knows, these links won’t last forever, but a mirror site will pop up elsewhere with a copy. We’ll try to help on that front as well, so standby.
This book showcases writers who have come to prominence within this decade. Their allegiance to Eighties culture has marked this group as a new movement in science fiction. This movement was quickly recognized and given many labels: Radical Hard SF, the Outlaw Technologists, the Eighties Wave, the Neuromantics, the Mirrorshades Group. But of all the labels pasted on and peeled throughout the early Eighties, one has stuck: cyberpunk.