If any genre of science fiction is actually right about the future, it’s probably cyberpunk: rule by corporations, “high tech and low life,” cybernetics, the use of technology in ways its creators never intended, and loners wandering a landscape covered with lenses and screens. Hell, I don’t call that science fiction; I call that “Tuesday.”
It is the era of the posthuman. Artificial intelligences have surpassed the limits of human intellect. Biotechnological beings have rendered people all but extinct. Molecular nanotechnology runs rampant, replicating and reprogramming at will. Contact with extraterrestrial life grows more imminent with each new day.
Struggling to survive and thrive in this accelerated world are three generations of the Macx clan: Manfred, an entrepreneur dealing in intelligence amplification technology whose mind is divided between his physical environment and the Internet; his daughter, Amber, on the run from her domineering mother and seeking her fortune in the outer system as an indentured astronaut; and Sirhan, Amber’s son, who finds his destiny linked to the fate of all humanity.
About the title: in Italian, accelerando means “speeding up” and is used as a tempo marking in musical notation. In Stross’s novel, it refers to the accelerating rate at which humanity in general, and/or the novel’s characters, head towards the technological singularity. The term was used earlier in this way by Kim Stanley Robinson in his 1985 novel The Memory of Whiteness and again in his Mars trilogy.
Not since Isaac Asimov has anyone combined SF and mystery so well. A very rich man dies unexpectedly, and when his backup copy is animated, he hires Takeshi Kovacs to find out why.
Morgan creates a gritty, noir tale that will please Raymond Chandler fans, an impressive accomplishment in any genre.
Since the Introdus in the 21st century, humanity has reconfigured itself drastically. Most chose immortality, joining the polises to become conscious software.
Others opted for gleisners: Disposable, renewable robotic bodies that remain in contact with the physical world of force and friction. Many of these have left the Solar System forever in fusion drive starships.
And there are the holdouts. The fleshers left behind in the muck and jungle of Earth — some devolved into dream-apes; others cavorting in the seas or the air; while the statics and bridges try to shape out a roughly human destiny.
“…fans of hard SF that incorporates higher mathematics and provocative hypotheses about future evolution are sure to be fascinated by Egan’s speculations.”
It’s November 2044, an election year, and the state of the Union is a farce. The government is broke, the cities are privately owned, and the military is shaking down citizens in the streets. Washington has become a circus and no one knows that better than Oscar Valparaiso. A political spin doctor, Oscar has always made things look good. Now he wants to make a difference.
Oscar has a single ally: Dr. Greta Penninger, a gifted neurologist at the bleeding edge of the neural revolution. Together they’re out to spread a very dangerous idea whose time has come. And so have their enemies: every technofanatic, government goon, and laptop assassin in America. Oscar and Greta might not survive to change the world, but they’ll put a new spin on it.
“Sterling once again proves himself the reigning master of near-future political SF. This is a powerful and, at times, very funny novel that should add significantly to Sterling’s already considerable reputation.”
When Ridley Scott made the film Blade Runner, he used a lot of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but he also threw a lot away. Instead of Harrison Ford’s lonely bounty hunter, Dick’s protagonist is a financially strapped municipal employee with bills to pay and a depressed wife.
There’s also a whole subplot that follows John Isidore, a man of sub-par IQ who aids the fugitive androids.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a much more sober and darker meditation of what it means to be human than the film it inspired.
It takes a special mind to combine Disney and cyberpunk, and author Cory Doctorow apparently has it (in his head, or in a jar, I don’t know the specifics).
Jules is a young man barely a century old. He’s lived long enough to see the cure for death and the end of scarcity, to learn ten languages and compose three symphonies…and to realize his boyhood dream of taking up residence in Disney World.
Disney World! The greatest artistic achievement of the long-ago twentieth century, currently in the keeping of a network of “ad-hocs” who keep the classic attractions running as they always have, enhanced with only the smallest high-tech touches.
Now, though, the “ad hocs” are under attack. A new group has taken over the Hall of the Presidents, and is replacing its venerable audioanimatronics with new, immersive direct-to-brain interfaces that give guests the illusion of being Washington, Lincoln, and all the others. For Jules, this is an attack on the artistic purity of Disney World itself.
Worse: it appears this new group has had Jules killed. This upsets him. (It’s only his fourth death and revival, after all.) Now it’s war….
“Jules’s narrative unfolds so smoothly that readers may forget that all this raging passion is over amusement park rides. Then they can ask what that shows about the novel’s supposedly mature, liberated characters. Doctorow has served up a nicely understated dish: meringue laced with caffeine.”
Eclipse takes place in an alternate history where the Soviet Union never collapsed, and has invaded Western Europe but didn’t use its nukes. At least, not its big ones.
Into the chaos steps the Second Alliance, a multinational corporation eager to impose its own kind of New World Order.
In the United States, in FirStep (a vast space colony), and on the artificial island Freezone, the Second Alliance shoulders its way to power, spinning a dark web of media manipulation, propaganda, and infiltration.
Only the New Resistance recognizes the Second Alliance for what it really is: a racist theocracy hiding a cult of eugenics.
Enter Rick Rickenharp, a former rock’n’roll cult hero: a rock classicist—out of place in Europe’s underground club scene, populated by “wiredancers” and “minimonos”… but destined to play a Song Called Youth that will shake the world.
“…the novel offers a thrashy punk riff on science fiction’s familiar future war scenario.”
Ten years ago the world’s governments collapsed, and now the corporations are in control. Houston’s Pulsystems has sent an expedition to the lost Martian colony of Frontera to search for survivors. Reese, aging hero of the US space program, knows better. The colonists are not only alive, they have discovered a secret so devastating that the new rulers of Earth will stop at nothing to own it. Reese is equally desperate to use it for his own very personal agenda. But none of them has reckoned with Kane, a tortured veteran of the corporate wars, whose hallucinatory voices are urging him to complete an ancient cycle of heroism and alter the destiny of the human race.
“Lewis Shiner’s Frontera is an extraordinarily accomplished first novel… his pacing is brisk, his scientific extrapolation well-informed and plausible, and his characterization nothing short of outstanding… This is ‘realism’ of a sort seldom found in either commercial or literary fiction; to find it in a first novel makes one eager for more.”
Chances are, if you’re reading about cyberpunk, you’ve seen the anime film Ghost in the Shell. If you haven’t, give it a shot and see what you think. Notice the little details in addition to the wild cyborg violence: a single drop of water hitting the ground, the heaviness with which a tired person collapses on a chair, and more.
Deep into the twenty-first century, the line between man and machine has been inexorably blurred as humans rely on the enhancement of mechanical implants and robots are upgraded with human tissue. In this rapidly converging landscape, cyborg superagent Major Motoko Kusanagi is charged with tracking down the craftiest and most dangerous terrorists and cybercriminals, including “ghost hackers” who are capable of exploiting the human/machine interface and reprogramming humans to become puppets to carry out the hackers’ criminal ends. When Major Kusanagi tracks the cybertrail of one such master hacker, the Puppeteer, her quest leads her into a world beyond information and technology where the very nature of consciousness and the human soul are turned upside down.
“Masamune’s b&w drawings are dynamic and beautifully gestural; he vividly renders the awesome urban landscape of a futuristic, supertechnological Japan.”-
The remnants of a war-ravaged America endure in scattered, heavily armed colonies, while the wealthy Orbital Corporations now control the world. Cowboy, an ex-fighter pilot who has become “hardwired” via skull sockets connected directly to his lethal electronic hardware, is now a panzerboy, a hi-tech smuggler riding armored hovertanks through the balkanized countryside. He teams up with Sarah, an equally cyborized gun-for-hire, to make a last stab at independence from the rapacious Orbitals. Together, they gather an unlikely gang of misfits for a ride that will take them to the edge of the atmosphere.
“[a] heavy-metal adventure… buried under an elaborate techno-punk style of the sort William Gibson popularized in Neuromancer. In both cases, it is a pose, a baroque nostalgia for Hemingway and film noir; it only plays at nihilism, terror and despair. The best effect is Williams’s future version of a brain-scrambled vet: a dead buddy of Cowboy’s whose scattered bits and pieces of computer memory now constitute a ragged semblance of a man.”
Pissing off science fiction writers everywhere, Ellison wrote the story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” in a single night in 1966, making virtually no changes from the first draft. He won a Hugo award for it, too. Bastard.
Allie Haas only did it for a dare. But putting on the madcap that Jerry Wirerammer has “borrowed” was a very big mistake. The psychosis itself was quite conventional, a few paranoid delusions, but it didn’t go away when she took the madcap off. Jerry did the decent thing and left her at an emergency room for dry-cleaning but then the Brain Police took over. Straightened out by a professional mindplayer, Allie thinks she’s left mind games behind for good but then comes the fazer: she can either go to jail as mind criminal or she can train as a mindplayer herself…
Gibson rewrote the first 2/3 of this book (his first novel) twelve times and was worried people would think he stole the feel from Blade Runner, which had come out two years earlier. He was convinced he would be “permanently shamed” after it was published.
Fortunately for Gibson, Neuromancer won science fiction’s triple crown (the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards) and became the seminal cyberpunk work.
Young Ista Kelly is a foundling, the only survivor of a pirate raid on an asteroid mine. In a future where one cannot live without an official identity, this is the story of Ista’s harrowing journey back to the asteroid to find her true identity.
“Scott here presents a well-developed future rife with cybertechnology, space travel, artificial habitats and asteroid mining. The primary cyber-innovations in this era are hammals, computer programs that function independently, devour each other, reproduce and mutate… Scott explores the ramifications of virtual life through the very human eyes of her principals; this is most artful cyberpunk, told with heart.”
Perdido Street Station borrows from steampunk, cyberpunk, fantasy, and a few other genres that couldn’t run away fast enough.
Beneath the towering bleached ribs of a dead, ancient beast lies New Crobuzon, a squalid city where humans, Re-mades, and arcane races live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. The air and rivers are thick with factory pollutants and the strange effluents of alchemy, and the ghettos contain a vast mix of workers, artists, spies, junkies, and whores. In New Crobuzon, the unsavory deal is stranger to no one—not even to Isaac, a brilliant scientist with a penchant for Crisis Theory.
“Miéville’s canvas is so breathtakingly broad that the details of individual subplots and characters sometime lose their definition. But it is also generous enough to accommodate large dollops of aesthetics, scientific discussion and quest fantasy in an impressive and ultimately pleasing epic.”
In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines—puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them.
But when Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win—and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.
“This adrenaline shot of uncut geekdom, a quest through a virtual world, is loaded with enough 1980s nostalgia to please even the most devoted John Hughes fans… sweet, self-deprecating Wade, whose universe is an odd mix of the real past and the virtual present, is the perfect lovable/unlikely hero.”
-Publishers Weekly (Pick of the Week)
Stephenson explained the title of the novel as his term for a particular software failure mode on the early Apple Macintosh computer. He wrote about the Macintosh that “When the computer crashed and wrote gibberish into the bitmap, the result was something that looked vaguely like static on a broken television set—a ‘snow crash.'”
In reality, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for Uncle Enzo’s CosoNostra Pizza Inc., but in the Metaverse he’s a warrior prince. Plunging headlong into the enigma of a new computer virus that’s striking down hackers everywhere, he races along the neon-lit streets on a search-and-destroy mission for the shadowy virtual villain threatening to bring about infocalypse.
“Although Stephenson… provides more Sumerian culture than the story strictly needs (alternating intense activity with scholarship breaks), his imaginative juxtaposition of ancient and futuristic detail could make this a cult favorite.”
Avery Cates is a very bad man. Some might call him a criminal. He might even be a killer—for the Right Price. But right now, Avery Cates is scared. He’s up against the Monks: cyborgs with human brains, enhanced robotic bodies, and a small arsenal of advanced weaponry. Their mission is to convert anyone and everyone to the Electric Church. But there is just one snag. Conversion means death.
“Somers’s science fiction thriller has an acerbic wit.”
Despite this book’s obscurity, it consistently shows up on the majority of “best cyberpunk” lists out there.
Schuyler is a sprinter—one who outruns government particle beam satellites to deliver computer chips to the European black market. He becomes a media celebrity and the icon of a new religious cult.
“An endless maze of shadows and reflections, cameras and monitor screens, desert and snow, chrome and glass. Nothing is real and the only way to find this out is to self-destruct.”
-Justin Farrar, random person on Goodreads
The Stars My Destination anticipated many of the staples of the later cyberpunk movement. For instance, the megacorporations as powerful as governments, and a dark overall vision of the future and the cybernetic enhancement of the body.
Marooned in outer space after an attack on his ship, Nomad, Gulliver Foyle lives to obsessively pursue the crew of a rescue vessel that had intended to leave him to die.
“Science fiction has only produced a few works of actual genius, and this is one of them.”
-Joe Haldeman, author of The Forever War
From the first novel, Software:
It was Cobb Anderson who built the”boppers”—the first robots with real brains. Now, in 2020, Cobb is just another aged “pheezer” with a bad heart, drinking and grooving to old tunes in Florida retirement hell. His “bops” have come a long way, though, rebelling against their subjugation to set up their own society on the moon. And now they’re offering creator Cobb immortality, but at a stiff price: his body, his soul … and his world.
“Rucker’s four Ware novels–Software (1982), Wetware (1988), Freeware (1997), and Realware (2000)–form an extraordinary cyberweird future history with the heft of an epic fantasy novel and the speed of a quantum processor.”
Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen’s Calorie Man in Thailand. Undercover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories. There, he encounters Emiko. Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; instead, she is an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.
“This complex, literate and intensely felt tale, which recalls both William Gibson and Ian McDonald at their very best, will garner Bacigalupi significant critical attention and is clearly one of the finest science fiction novels of the year.”
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Vurt is a feather—a drug, a dimension, a dream state, a virtual reality. It comes in many colors: legal Blues for lullaby dreams. Blacks, filled with tenderness and pain, just beyond the law. Pink Pornovurts, doorways to bliss. Silver feathers for techies who know how to remix colors and open new dimensions. And Yellows—the feathers from which there is no escape. The beautiful young Desdemona is trapped in Curious Yellow, the ultimate Metavurt, a feather few have ever seen and fewer still have dared ingest. Her brother Scribble will risk everything to rescue his beloved sister. Helped by his gang, the Stash Riders, hindered by shadowcops, robos, rock and roll dogmen, and his own dread, Scribble searches along the edges of civilization for a feather that, if it exists at all, must be bought with the one thing no sane person would willingly give.
Vurt won the Arthur C. Clarke award and has been compared to A Clockwork Orange and Neuromancer, but it has its detractors: Kirkus Reviews called the plot “wildly kaleidoscopic” but unsatisfying, and Entertainment Weekly said the book’s “sentimental incest and adolescent self-congratulation…is never really startling or disturbing.”
Like the title drug, you can’t be completely sure how you’re going to react to it until you try it.
14 thoughts on “23 Best Cyberpunk Books”
Your Amazon link for #4 Distraction is wrong, it goes to Do Androids Dream.
Good list though, already read most of them, added a couple more. Thanks.
Whoops! You’re right. Fixed. Thanks!
Excellent list, and comments. Cyberpunk is apparently indeed being proven right. The TPP being put together by corporations in secret with Obama’s and certain republicans support… the fact that enough of congress is bought and paid for enough to go along with this secret trade agreement is proof. This is where things are heading. Mega Corporations and bankers will end up running everything.
Shadowrun series? Any of the Robert N Chartrette or Nigel Findely books would be a good addition
Always so much to read. Quite a few on this list I need to check out with Mindplayers first in line.
Sorry, but Perdido Street Station is *not* cyberpunk.
Oh, and I love the paragraph for “I Have No Mouth…”. Did you know that Harlan used to have a gimmick of sitting in the window of a bookstore and eliciting story ideas from passersby, and then banging them out in short order on a manual typewriter? Some of the resulting stories weren’t just published, but were quite good.
Great list, a few more spring to mind: “Spares” by Michael Marshall Smith, “The Gold Coast” by Kim Stanley Robinson and the Dead Girls Trilogy, “Dead Girls, Dead Boys Dead Things” by Richard Calder.
I have to re-read venerable Ray Nelson’s 1996 novel Virtual Zen to find out why do I feel like it fits this list. The experience might prove me wrong, though. And thanks for the list, some of the synopses definitely raised my interest.
Just wondering how come the Neuromancer is number 13…
Because I made this list back when the order was just alphabetical. It’d be much higher now.
Hmmm, just a friendly suggestion….let’s talk about —
1. The Diamond Age, or a young lady’s illustrated primer…. by Neal Stephenson —- this one is postmodern cyberpunk…. but seems a glaring oversight to not include it on this list somewhere…
2. Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling (I guess all of his work is really fantastic cyberpunk)
and here is an odd suggestion:
3. Queen of Angels by Greg Bear (a re-read convinced me that this has a large number of elements of cyberpunk that are told in a rather eccentric and original way. Up for the Hugo Award in 1991, but surprisingly lost. )
I find it sad that ‘John Brunner’ doesn’t get any credit especially for something like ‘The Shockwave Rider’ which to me fits the very definition of cyberpunk being offered here (I kind of disagree with the modern definition of it, but I can accept its use). Even ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ has elements, and ‘The Stone that never came down’. I really believe he deserves way more recognition in the public eye – though sci-fi aficionados are of course well aware of his work, in fact I think (but don’t quote me) that ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ is in the SciFi Masterworks series.
p.s. I’m glad to see ‘Greg Egan’ and ‘Bruce Sterling represented here. I think both of them get a lot less attention than they deserve.
This list changed my life.