The Cyberpunk Reading List
Okay, so here it is: my cyberpunk reading list. Although, this will probably read more like a love letter to some of my favourite books, and why I think you should love them too. Some people may find that there are titles missing from this list. That’s likely to be for one of two reasons: either it wasn’t something I absolutely fell in love with or I haven’t read it yet. That said, I’m more than happy to hear any suggestions people have to send my way for potential future editions of this list.
I’ve tried to make this list as varied as possible, so hopefully there is something for everyone :).
I’ve always felt that the best way to get into a new genre or to really explore your likes and dislikes is to pick up a couple anthologies. The following books are a good showcasing of the huge variety Cyberpunk has to offer.
Mirrorshades edited by Bruce Sterling (1986)
This is probably the quintessential Cyberpunk anthology. Published during the heyday of the genre, it contains stories by all the big names. This is an excellent primer in Old School Cyberpunk. Unfortunately it seems to be out of print. However, last I checked there were lots of copies floating around on Amazon second hand.
Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel (2007)
I consider this book to be a good counterpoint to Mirrorshades. Published twenty years after Mirrorshades, it takes up the torch and tackles the issue of what Cyberpunk has become. It’s worth bearing in mind that this anthology came out some years before the recent resurgence of the genre that we’ve been seeing in the last couple of years. So some of its prognostications may ring false.
Cyberpunk: Stories of Hardware, Software, Wetware Evolution and Revolution edited by Victoria Blake (2013)
Sort of a middle ground between the previous two, this anthology seeks to examine Cyberpunk’s place in Speculative Fiction. It contains stories by the big names as well as newer names who are just emerging in the genre. Of the three it’s probably the most varied, so if you’re looking for something both new and old, this is probably the one you want to pick up.
These are the books that came out around the time that Cyberpunk was making it big. So if Old School Cyberpunk is your thing, these are the books for you.
The Sprawl Trilogy by William Gibson (1984-88)
Like most people, these books were my first foray into Cyberpunk. Yes, this is probably and obvious choice, but I read them as a teenager and have never really gotten them out of my head. Unfortunately, none of Gibson’s other work has captivated me in the same way. Most of you have probably read these, but if you haven’t you really should, if only because it’s the ship that launched thousands of very similar ships.
Ribofunk by Paul Difilippo (1996)
Let me tell you, this one is weird. Difilippo writes with an imaginativeness that puts us all to shame. Technically, it’s Biopunk, which is a derivative of Cyberpunk where all of the technological innovations are instead biological, through enzymes, bacteria, viruses and gene modding. It’s a series of short stories that all take place in the same universe. Some are connect, some not. The protagonists range from street kids and thugs, to grizzled detectives and corporate men, to the average person. If you’re looking for something that isn’t all hardened mercenaries and anti-heroes, you’ll want to start here.
Cyberpunk by Bruce Bethke (1989)
This one is a little different. It’s about a “street savvy” teen from the suburbs who gets busted for hacking and lands himself in a military school where he’s cut off from the net and any technology. Most of the novel takes place in a distinctly un-Cyberpunk setting, but the novel’s got that eighties flare we’ve come to associate with the genre. The book was never published, but it’s available for download on Bethke’s website.
Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan (2002)
Before you say anything, yes I realize that this book was published long after the early days of Cyberpunk, but I didn’t know that when I was reading it and I was completely convinced it had been written in the eighties. So I’m including it in the section for that reason. Some have criticized it from gratuitous violence and sex, but I didn’t find it any worse than what we see on TV. The concepts in this book were truly captivating. I spent weeks afterward thinking about all the possibilities being able to transfer your mind into a different body offers, above and beyond immortality. It’s got that gritty detective story feel, but the protagonist isn’t exactly a detective. If you’re looking for big guns and sex appeal, look no further.
These are works that have a more contemporary feel to them. Mostly written since the turn of the century they reflect more modern conventions in terms of the developmental paths technology has taken.
Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson (1997-2002)
There are no words to adequately express how much I love Transmet. This is the series that rekindled my obsession with Cyberpunk. In these ten volumes of bizarre, gritty, dark, absurd (and often gross) humour gloriously illustrated in full Technicolor, Spider Jerusalem will grab you by the balls and take you on a ride you’ll never forget. If you haven’t read all of Transmetropolitan than you’re living a wasted life.
The Windup Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi (2009)
Here is another book that leans toward the label of Biopunk. That said, Bacigalupi paints a richly detailed portrait of a world where conventional energy sources have long since been depleted and gene rippers have ravaged the environment even further. This is not a Eurocentric story so if you’re sick of western perspectives that ignore the rest of the world, you’ll enjoy this. Also, if world building is you thins, The Windup Girl is meticulously detailed and creates a visceral image of the world these people exist in without ever beating you over the head with info dumps.
Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (2008)
It was a toss up between this one and Zoo City but that one is more Urban Fantasy with Cyberpunk elements. This story takes place in Cape Town, South Africa in a future where your whole life is linked to, and dependent on your cell phone (sound familiar?) and the worst punishment is to be disconnected from service. This is a story about the futile fight to effect change against an overwhelming and constricting system. It resonates with our (well, my) generation especially when considering how modern activism doesn’t seem capable of bringing about real changes in society. Oh, and it’s got female protagonists, which is always a win.
Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh (2014)
I’ve got to say that my love for this book stems as much from my writerly side as my nerdy side. Sternbergh uses an unconventional style that blurs the line between inner monologue and dialogue. Set in New York City ten years after a dirty bomb went off in Time Square, it has a very familiar feel to it while also dealing with realities that most North Americans don’t want to think about. This is the first person narrative of a disaffected killer-for-hire who just wants to do his job and be left alone.
Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea (2014)
This one is just plain fun. Set in a world ravaged by war and pollution, and run by corporations, Koko finds herself in the bad books of a mercenary turned powerful exec. It’s a pretty straightforward story, but compelling nonetheless. I think what I enjoyed most about it, is this is as story that would typically have a male protagonist, but instead we have Koko, a hard drinking, foul-mouthed bad ass who will never accept defeat. If you want a strong female protagonist, Koko is your girl.
So this is probably not the most conventional category for a list like this, but these are books that I feel deeply inform Cyberpunk. Reading these books has definitely broadened my perspective of the genre and provided me with a well of ideas and inspiration.
The Coming Swarm by Molly Sauter (2014)
This book is about distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS). Sauter positions it as a method of activism in the digital age. It’s a very thorough examination of the tactic, how it’s been used and how it can potentially be used. I found a lot of Sauter’s views to be very enlightening and definitely gave me a lot to think about. This is an academic book, so it’s not exactly a casual read, but it’s not overly technical so it’s not a struggle for the not so tech savvy to get through.
How to Disappear by Frank Ahearn (2010)
Okay, this book is a little dated. Technology has definitely advanced, when it comes to going off the grid, since this book came out. However, it’s still super fascinating and a great resource for anyone writing stories about missing people or people who go into hiding. It’s written by someone who disappears people for a living and he basically goes through his process of doing that. Since a lot of Cyberpunk is about people living on the fringes, doing bad things, or hiding from their past, I find How to Disappear is particularly relevant.
In the Beginning… Was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson (1999)
I would call this book an oral history of the Operating System as experienced by writer Neal Stephenson. He charts development of operating systems from the extremely early days to (close to) what we know now. I’ve always felt it important to know where we’ve come from before extrapolating where we’re going. When it comes to computers, this is as good a place to start as any.
Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the Worlds Most Wanted Hacker by Kevin Mitnick (2011)
What is more Cyberpunk than the story of a real life hacker? Nothing. Read this book and learn how cool and uncool hacking really is. And then maybe go home and revisit that super badass Matrix style manuscript you wrote as a teenager.