Cyberpunk could be the coolest sub-genre of science fiction. It’s certainly the wildest. Before we get into our favorites, we thought we’d share our criteria for what is cyberpunk and some common themes to look out for in these works.
What is Cyberpunk?
Cyberpunk is a “high-tech” low-life genre of sub-genre science fiction that mixes technological advancements with a breakdown of social order. Works in this genre often show individuals struggling against more powerful forces, such as corporations or the aristocracy.
Common themes in Cyberpunk
Cyberpunk often takes place in front of a backdrop of rampant capitalism. Many stories involve elements of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and social alienation. Aesthetically the genre tends towards the sensory overload of frantic streets and lawless cityscapes. Given the tendency for characters to have cybernetic implants, the genre often overlaps with biopunk.
We’ve written a number of reviews of cyberpunk works on the site. So we thought we’d follow it up with this list of our favourite cyberpunk novels. If you think we’ve missed any let us know.
Top Ten Cyberpunk Novels
The Stars My Destination By Alfred Bester
A story of rage and revenge. Bester strips away humanities civilized face to reveal the urges that drive us.
The protagonist, Gully Foyle, goes through one of the most interesting character arcs in science fiction. Changing from an unthinking brute to someone far more calculating and dangerous.
This cyberpunk classic asks reader whether they think humanity is more ape or angel?
You can read our full review of The Stars My Destination Here.
Vurt by Jeff Noon
Vurt is narrated by Scribble as he drifts in and out of a drug-induced haze. The particular drug he is on creates a shared reality with other users and is ubiquitous in this alternate version of Manchester. While on this drug he lost his sister Desdemona. The novel follows his attempts to get her back.
What’s striking about Vurt is the prose. Jeff Noon’s writing keeps the exposition to the minimum. This forces the reader to fully engage with the narrative. Vurt is morally challenging and emotionally affecting.
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep By Philip K Dick
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep defies analysis. Delving into themes of reality and empathy but refusing to give any easy answers. All played out in front of a beautifully realized cyberpunk world.
The plot, where Rick Deckard is tasked with retiring six androids, takes place in one day. By the end of the day, Deckard’s fatigue bleeds off the page. Unlike many Cyberpunk novels there is no augmentation of humans, instead, the replicants are almost indistinguishable from humans.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Perhaps the most ‘Cyberpunk’ book. Neuromancer gives colour to the ‘hitech-low life’ cyberpunk credo. The book stars a drug-addicted console cowboy called Cage and Molly Millions, an augmented razor girl who kills without remorse. With them, the reader travels a world that is as decayed as it is advanced.
Gibson’s writing style evokes this world with such clarity that by the end you will feel like you’re breathing the same air as Cage and Molly Millions.
Neuromancer is a classic work of science fiction that everyone should read. You can read our review here.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
There are few books wilder than Snow Crash.
The novel combines sword-fighting with cyberspace and ancient Sumerian legends. And that’s not the extent of its weirdness.
Some will love Snow Crash, but others have found it somewhat impenetrable. If you’re willing to forgo a little narrative pace for some excellent worldbuilding, then this cyberpunk classic is for you.
The Stars My Destination may well be the first cyberpunk novel. Neuromancer the work that codified much of what is synonymous with the genre. But Snow Crash is the novel that epitomizes the cyberpunk spirit.
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan
Altered Carbon is hardboiled and dystopian. The novel takes place in a world where human personalities can be digitally downloaded into new bodies.
The plot kicks off when Takeshi Kovacs is asked to investigate a suicide by the person who allegedly killed themselves. His employer, having been resurrected, believes that he was murdered and that his suicide was a cover-up.
At the core of Altered Carbon is the burning rage of the oppressed. And it’s this rage that sets it apart from other works, even in a genre such as cyberpunk.
If you’re a fan of Raymond Chandler novels and want to dip your toe into Cyberpunk then this could be the novel for you.
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson’s second entry on this list, The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is packed with ideas and themes.
The Diamond Age is set in the future where nanotechnology runs rampant and has affected everything from education to class.
Stephenson rarely writes easy-to-read novels, but he does write compelling ones. This coming of age story mashes up a range of ideas to create a unique and challenging science fiction novel.
Tea From An Empty Cup by Pat Cadigan
Dore Konstanti has to find out how someone was killed from within a virtual reality simulation. Yuki Harame is searching for her missing lover. We follow these two characters through a novel that is as meditative as it is cyberpunk.
Tea from an Empty Cup is more than a murder mystery with a VR twist. It’s about what happens when humanity en mass tries to escape unforgiving reality. Through the novel, we see how our actions in a virtual world can spill out and affect the real world we live in.
Feelings of loss and yearning pervade through Tea From an Empty Cup. Making it one of the more elegiac works of cyberpunk.
Accelerando by Charles Stross
Accelerando is three interconnected short stories that take place in a world where humanity is obsolete. AI’s have surpassed our mental limits and biotechnological creatures have made humanity all but extinct.
The novel won the Locus Award and was nominated for several other awards including the Hugo, Campbell, Clarke, and British Science Fiction Association Awards. It examines what happens when humanity crosses the technological singularity.
Accelerando is a must read novel because it combines cyberpunk with cutting-edge scientific theory.
Diaspora by Greg Egan
Diaspora is a work of hard science fiction set in a posthuman future.
Diaspora takes place in a future where humanity has split into three distinct groups:
Fleshers – those that have evolved from baseline humanity and transhumans who have greatly modified their genes. These modifications include everything from increased intelligence to the ability to live at sea.
Gleisner robots – software based intelligences that are encased inside a humanoid body.
Citizens – those that have ‘ascended’ to the status of computer software. Without physical bodies, they live inside simulated reality. They make up the vast majority of humanity.
Dispora is a work of science fiction that will give your brain a workout. Despite the amazing depictions of the future, this is a book about humanity and the survival instinct.
If we’ve missed any novels on this list, let us know. If you’re looking for more reading suggestions, take our look at our ultimate science fiction reading list, our favourite Philip K Dick novels or our best hard science fiction novels.
While you’re here, we thought you may also like some of our favourite Cyberpunk quotes.
“High tech, low life.”
Mike Pondsmith, creator of Cyberpunk 2020, defines cyberpunk.
“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”
William Gibson, author of Neuromancer.
“I took Punk to be the detonation of some slow-fused projectile buried deep in society’s flank a decade earlier, and I took it to be, somehow, a sign.”
William Gibson, being awesome again.
“We’ve got the corporate control, news as entertainment, hacker revolutionaries, and class warfare of your typical cyberpunk future but somehow missed out on the android servants.”
C.T. Phipps telling us why we’re living in a Cyberpunk Future.
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead station.”
William Gibson, yet again, from Neuromancer.
“Every new generation of SF writers remakes cyberpunk – a genre often laced with dystopian subtexts – in its own image.”
Paul Di Filippo