The Best Postcyberpunk Books

Postcyberpunk is just like cyberpunk (high tech + low life), but without a few of its tropes: you’re less likely to find an edgy loner stumbling through the rain, spitting out noirish one-liners. Postcyberpunk tends to be a little more playful, a little stranger. However, it’s still pretty ill-defined as a subgenre, so one could argue endlessly about what is and isn’t postcyberpunk. Or just read some of the books on this list and decide for yourself.

 

17
Nexus
by Ramez Naam – 2012

An NPR Best Book of the Year

In the near future, the nano-drug Nexus can link mind to mind. There are some who want to improve it. There are some who want to eradicate it. And there are others who just want to exploit it. When a young scientist is caught improving Nexus, he’s thrust over his head into a world of danger and international espionage, with far more at stake than anyone realizes.

“Good. Scary good.”
—Wired

16
River of Gods
by Ian McDonald – 2004

A superpower of two billion people, a dozen new nations from Kerela to the Himalayas, artificial intelligences, climate-change induced drought, water wars, strange new genders, genetically improved children that age at half the rate of baseline humanity, and a population where males outnumber females four to one.

This is India in 2047, one hundred years after its birth.

“[R]eaders will become increasingly hooked as the pieces of McDonald’s richly detailed world fall into place.”
—Publishers Weekly

15
WWW: Wake
by Robert J. Sawyer – 2009

Receiving an implant to restore her sight, math genius Caitlin’s life is changed in ways she could have never imagined when she suddenly begins to see a world beyond reality and an incredible realm that others cannot.

“[W]ildly thought-provoking.”
—Publishers Weekly

14
Feed
by M. T. Anderson – 2002

For Titus and his friends, it started out like any ordinary trip to the moon—a chance to party during spring break. But that was before the crazy hacker caused all their feeds to malfunction, sending them to the hospital to lie around with nothing inside their heads for days. And it was before Titus met Violet, a beautiful, brainy teenage girl who has decided to fight the feed and its ever-present ability to categorize human thoughts and desires.

“This satire offers a thought-provoking and scathing indictment that may prod readers to examine the more sinister possibilities of corporate-and media-dominated culture.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

13
Rainbows End
by Vernor Vinge – 2006

Robert Gu is a recovering Alzheimer’s patient. The world that he remembers was much as we know it today. Now, as he regains his faculties through a cure developed during the years of his near-fatal decline, he discovers that the world has changed and so has his place in it. He was a world-renowned poet. Now he is seventy-five years old, though by a medical miracle he looks much younger, and he’s starting over, for the first time unsure of his poetic gifts. Living with his son’s family, he has no choice but to learn how to cope with a new information age in which the virtual and the real are a seamless continuum, layers of reality built on digital views seen by a single person or millions, depending on your choice. But the consensus reality of the digital world is available only if, like his thirteen-year-old granddaughter Miri, you know how to wear your wireless access―through nodes designed into smart clothes―and to see the digital context―through smart contact lenses.

With knowledge comes risk. When Robert begins to re-train at Fairmont High, learning with other older people what is second nature to Miri and other teens at school, he unwittingly becomes part of a wide-ranging conspiracy to use technology as a tool for world domination.

12
Idoru
by William Gibson – 1996

Idoru is the second book in William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy (the others are Virtual Light and All Tomorrow’s Parties). Gibson fans will feel at home in its postmodern, dystopian, and cyberpunkish future.

The story centers around people pursuing Rei Toei, the beautiful, entirely virtual media star adored by all Japan (the idoru of the title).

“Dark and disturbing, this novel represents no new departure for Gibson, but a further accretion of the insights that have made him the most precise, and perhaps the most prescient, visionary working in SF today.”
—Publishers Weekly

11
The Fortunate Fall
by Raphael Carter – 1996

Maya Andreyevna has a virtual reality camera planted in her head that allows millions of people to see, feel, and hear what she does as she investigates the coverup of a massacre in a futuristic Russian society.

“Highly literate, grim and gripping example of latter-day cyberpunk.”
—Publishers Weekly

10
Metatropolis
edited by John Scalzi – 2008

More than an anthology, Metatropolis is the brainchild of five writers―Elizabeth Bear, Tobias Buckell, Jay Lake, Karl Schroeder, and project editor John Scalzi―who combined their talents to build a new urban future, and then wrote their own stories in this collectively-constructed world. The results are individual glimpses of a shared vision, and a reading experience unlike any you’ve had before.

A strange man comes to an even stranger encampment… a bouncer becomes the linchpin of an unexpected urban movement… a courier on the run has to decide who to trust in a dangerous city… a slacker in a “zero-footprint” town gets a most unusual new job… and a weapons investigator uses his skills to discover a metropolis hidden right in front of his eyes.

“Each story shines on its own; as a group they reinforce one another, building a multifaceted view of a realistic and hopeful urban future.”
―Publishers Weekly, starred review

9
Infomocracy
by Malka Older – 2016

It’s been twenty years and two election cycles since Information, a powerful search engine monopoly, pioneered the switch from warring nation-states to global micro-democracy. The corporate coalition party Heritage has won the last two elections. With another election on the horizon, the Supermajority is in tight contention, and everything’s on the line.

With power comes corruption. For Ken, this is his chance to do right by the idealistic Policy1st party and get a steady job in the big leagues. For Domaine, the election represents another staging ground in his ongoing struggle against the pax democratica. For Mishima, a dangerous Information operative, the whole situation is a puzzle: how do you keep the wheels running on the biggest political experiment of all time, when so many have so much to gain?

“This brilliant book is unquestionably one of the greatest literary debuts in recent history.”
—The Huffington Post

8
Diaspora
by Greg Egan – 1997

If you like hard science fiction, as in characters-are-talking-about-four-dimensional-topolgy-and-the-author-expects-me-to-get-it hard science fiction, then this book is for you.

It’s 2975, and humanity has driven down several different evolutionary paths. “Fleshers” are heavily genetically engineered human bodies, “gleisners” are human-shaped robots run by self-aware software, and the pure AI/human minds live in “polises.”

The orphan Yatima, a digital being grown from a mind seed, joins a group of citizens and flesher refugees in a search for the knowledge that will guarantee their safety—a search that puts them on the trail of the ancient and elusive Transmuters, who have the power to reshape subatomic particles, and to cross into the macrocosmos, where the universe we know is nothing but a speck in the higher-dimensional vacuum.

“[F]ans of hard SF that incorporates higher mathematics and provocative hypotheses about future evolution are sure to be fascinated by Egan’s speculations.”
—Publishers Weekly

7
Vurt
by Jeff Noon – 1993

Vurt is a drug accessed by sucking on color-coded feathers. Effects of Vurt are hallucinations or maybe a shared alternate reality—its never explained precisely what’s going on. A few of Vurt’s colors: Blues for lullaby dreams; Blacks, filled with tenderness and pain; Pinks, 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.

6
Halting State
by Charles Stross – 2007

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: thirty orcs and a dragon rob a bank…

No? That’s the premise of Charles Stross’s hard-science Halting State, where virtual characters rob a virtual bank for millions of not-virtual dollars, and no one has any idea how to solve the crime. It’s fast-paced, seriously smart, and filled with more Scottish that you usually get in science fiction.

Charles Stross is endlessly inventive and smarter than I am, so I had a little trouble following some of the complex near-future technology and financial discussions about the finer points of the orc robbery. The characters were fun to follow, if not fully three-dimensional.

“This brilliantly conceived techno-crime thriller spreads a black humor frosting over the grim prospect of the year 2012, when China, India and the European System are struggling for world economic domination in an infowar, and the U.S. faces bankruptcy over its failing infrastructure.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

5
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
by Cory Doctorow – 2003

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.”
— Publishers Weekly

4
Holy Fire
by Bruce Sterling – 1996

The 21st century is coming to a close, and the medical industrial complex dominates the world economy. It is a world of synthetic memory drugs, benevolent government surveillance, underground anarchists, and talking canine companions. Power is in the hands of conservative senior citizens who have watched their health and capital investments with equal care, gaining access to the latest advancements in life-extension technology. Meanwhile, the young live on the fringes of society, eking out a meager survival on free, government-issued rations and a black market in stolen technological gadgetry from an earlier, less sophisticated age.

Mia Ziemann is a 94-year-old medical economist who enjoys all the benefits of her position. But a deathbed visit with a long-ago ex-lover and a chance meeting with a young bohemian dress-designer brings Mia to an awful revelation. She has lived her life with such caution that it has been totally bereft of pleasure and adventure. She has one chance to do it all over. But first she must submit herself to a radical—and painful—experimental procedure which promises to make her young again. The procedure is not without risk and her second chance at life will not come without a price. But first she will have to escape her team of medical keepers.

Hitching a ride on a plane to Europe, Mia sets out on a wild intercontinental quest in search of spiritual gratification, erotic revelation, and the thing she missed most of all: the holy fire of the creative experience. She joins a group of outlaw anarchists whose leader may be the man of her dreams…or her undoing. Worst of all, Mia will have to undergo one last radical procedure that could cost her a second life.

“Those interested in serious speculative conversation set within a very strange near-future will find this much to their taste.”
—Publishers Weekly

3
Beggars in Spain
by Nancy Kress – 1991

Originally a Hugo- and Nebula-winning novella, Beggars in Spain follows Leisha Camden, a genetically engineered “Sleepless.” Her ability to stay awake all the time has not only made her more productive, but the genetic modifications have also given the Sleepless a higher IQ and may even make them immortal. Are they the future of humanity? Or will the small community of Sleepless be hunted down as freaks by a world that has grown wary of its newest creation?

Touted as thought-provoking even by its detractors, Beggars in Spain is occasionally criticized for too-thin characters and occasional preachiness.

2
Ware Tetralogy
by Rudy Rucker – 1985

After finishing most books, I’ll put them down and think something like, “That was a good book,” or “The ending was terrible,” or “I’m hungry.”

But with The Ware Tetralogy, I put the big book down and wondered what the hell just happened to me.

My horizons got expanded in weird directions and there’s a little more odd joy in my life.

The four Ware novels (Software, Wetware, Freeware, and Realware) explore consciousness as an information pattern in a fearlessly absurd, awesomely readable way. All together, they’re a Dadaist cyberpunk tour de force that’ll make your brain feel like it’s in a bath of seltzer water. The books all move like a bat out of hell, are packed with enough ideas for forty normal science fictions books, and you can feel beat poetry in the background as you read them.

“Rucker is both witty and serious as he combines hard science and sociology with unrelentingly sharp observations of all self-replicating beings.”
—Publishers Weekly

1
The Diamond Age
by Neal Stephenson – 1995

Decades into our future, a stone’s throw from the ancient city of Shanghai, a brilliant nanotechnologist named John Percival Hackworth has just broken the rigorous moral code of his tribe, the powerful neo-Victorians. He’s made an illicit copy of a state-of-the-art interactive device called A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. Commissioned by an eccentric duke for his grandchild, stolen for Hackworth’s own daughter, the Primer’s purpose is to educate and raise a girl capable of thinking for herself. It performs its function superbly. Unfortunately for Hackworth, his smuggled copy has fallen into the wrong hands.

Young Nell and her brother Harv are thetes—members of the poor, tribeless class. Neglected by their mother, Harv looks after Nell. When he and his gang waylay a certain neo-Victorian—John Percival Hackworth—in the seamy streets of their neighborhood, Harv brings Nell something special: the Primer.

Following the discovery of his crime, Hackworth begins an odyssey of his own. Expelled from the neo-Victorian paradise, squeezed by agents of Protocol Enforcement on one side and a Mandarin underworld crime lord on the other, he searches for an elusive figure known as the Alchemist. His quest and Nell’s will ultimately lead them to another seeker whose fate is bound up with the Primer—a woman who holds the key to a vast, subversive information network that is destined to decode and reprogram the future of humanity.

“[I]n The Diamond Age the wonders of cyberspace pale before the even more dazzling powers of nanotechnology.”
—New York Times Book Review

3 thoughts on “The Best Postcyberpunk Books

  1. I have read “Rainbows End”, “Beggars in Spain”, and “Ware Tetrology” out of the 17.

    I have “WWW:Wake”, “Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom”, and “The Diamond Age” in my SBR (strategic book reserve).

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