Cyberpunk science fiction has been around for 40 years now – with roots that stretch at least a decade earlier – and the genre resurfaces in popularity regularly as new works are released.
I’m expecting the release of “The Peripheral,” an adaptation of William Gibson’s novel of the same name, on Amazon Prime Video this year to cause another spike in interest. The releases of “Blade Runner 2049” in 2017 and the “Cyberpunk 2077” video game in 2020 also brought attention to the genre.
Cyberpunk is not as neatly defined of a subgenre as some other sci-fi categories, and a lot of discussion on cyberpunk forums centers around the topic of “Does ~insert work here~ count as cyberpunk?”
But in general, cyberpunk novels are set in high-tech dystopias and are heavy on crime, violence, computer hacking and body modifications. They also often feature villains that are rich or corporate and usually include at least one dangerous female character. The technology in cyberpunk novels commonly revolves around altering the human body or consciousness in profound ways.
Cyberpunk also has a stylistic, know-it-when-you-see-it element. The Hunger Games novels meet a lot of the criteria above, but they most definitely are not cyberpunk. Cyberpunk usually features a grittiness, darkness, and bleakness – interspersed with flashes of black glass and glowing neon – that distinguish it from more general techno-dystopian literature.
So where to get started reading cyberpunk?
I’ve outlined four novels below that offer different entry points to the genre. My recommendation would be to either pick whichever book sounds the most appealing to you and go from there or to start at “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and go down the list, which works well as an encapsulation of the genre’s development over time, like a cyberpunk canon or a Cyberpunk 101.
“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick 1968
While the term “cyberpunk” is believed to have been coined by Bruce Bethke in 1982, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” by Philip K. Dick in 1968 is widely considered the progenitor of the cyberpunk subgenre.
The story follows bounty hunter Rick Deckard as he hunts down androids, also known as replicants. These replicants were given to humans as servants as an incentive to leave the radioactively polluted Earth and colonize Mars. But the androids, which are nearly indistinguishable from people, didn’t enjoy being humans’ slaves so many of them escaped Mars and returned to Earth to be free. These are the replicants Deckard hunts down, using various methods, including an empathy test.
Deckard works for the San Francisco Police Department and receives a bonus for every replicant he kills. In the book, he’s assigned to hunt a group of six replicants that recently escaped Mars, and if he bags them all, he’ll earn enough money to buy a real pet sheep – a status symbol in his world where so many animals have died – to replace the electric one he currently owns.
If this story sounds familiar, it’s probably because it inspired the first Blade Runner movie in 1982, which was directed by Ridley Scott and starred Harrison Ford.
The novel is a convenient way to sample a taste of cyberpunk to see if you’ll like the genre. The setting is the prototypical gritty, polluted, crime-laden world you’ll find elsewhere in cyberpunk. It introduces themes typical of the genre, like the debate over what qualifies as human and what value should be placed on non-human sentient life. The writing has a dark, wry sense of humor that makes for effective jabs at religion, consumerism and culture.
The text is easy to follow, so it’s an enjoyable read, and the novel is short, so it’s not much of a commitment. It’s the best place to start in cyberpunk and a must-read for any sci-fi fan.
Who will like this book? You’ll probably like this one if you enjoy classic science fiction and retro futures. It’s also a good one for people who prefer short, quick, easy reads.
“Neuromancer,” by William Gibson, 1984
If “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” laid the foundation for cyberpunk, “Neuromancer,” by William Gibson, is the great temple of the genre that’s built on top of it.
“Neuromancer” is William Gibson’s first novel and the first entry in his Sprawl Trilogy. The book follows Case, a former digital thief who’s addicted to drugs because of his shattered nervous system and is generally circling the drain of his life. He meets a contract killer named Molly, who introduces him to a mystery man named Armitage, who hires him to conduct some digital heists and promises to restore his health. The trio travels the world and even into space, encountering other criminal lowlifes, facing off against corporations, cops, and even artificial intelligences.
The book is a must-read if you’re trying to work your way through the sci-fi canon. It firmly established many of the tropes of cyberpunk, including male-female dual protagonists, computer hacking, biohacking, drug use, and crime. It also coined the phrase “cyberspace” and established the genre’s gritty linguistic style. That’s not to mention that the book’s opening line is one of the best of any novel ever.
The downside of “Neuromancer” is that it was written long enough ago – and with very little emphasis on explaining things to the reader – that unless you’re 40 years or older you won’t remember the cultural milieu the book grew out of, so you’ll miss a lot of the references, and parts of it won’t make sense or won’t land with much impact. The upside is that if you are familiar with those times – or just comfortable with difficult prose – the book is immersive in a way few novels achieve.
Who will like this? Neuromancer is the best place to start in cyberpunk if you’re coming from a more literary fiction background and don’t mind a bit of a challenge. It’s also probably the purest hit of cyberpunk you’ll can find – and possibly the pinnacle of the genre.
“Snow Crash,” by Neal Stephenson, 1992
“Snow Crash,” by Neal Stephenson, takes many of the themes and tropes that had developed in the now-mature cyberpunk genre and cranks the volume on them all the way up.
The story follows a pizza-delivery man and hacker named Hiro Protagonist (yes, really) and a young, skateboard-riding courier named Y.T. as they try to prevent a hybrid computer-physical virus from brainwashing humanity. The action takes place in both a massive virtual world known as the metaverse and a comically dystopian 21st Century American West Coast that has been corporatized and politically fractured into an implausible but recognizable facsimile of our world.
In this world, the American government has shrunk into irrelevance while political-economic franchises like Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong have established beachheads throughout the country and many citizens choose to live in semi-autonomous communities called burbclaves. Oh, and the Mafia runs the pizza-delivery service.
Like all of Neal Stephenson’s works, “Snow Crash” veers into wild and interesting digressions, in this case into musings on language as computer code for the human brain, ancient Sumerian culture, and the economy and culture of virtual worlds. The book is largely credited with popularizing the idea and terminology of the metaverse, the virtual world that the company formerly known as Facebook is now trying to build.
“Snow Crash” is relentlessly tongue-in-cheek and way over the top. If you’re into that, it makes the novel supremely entertaining. If you’re not into that, you’ll find something to eye-roll and groan at on almost every page. The book can almost be read as a parody of cyberpunk so some readers debate whether it belongs in the genre or is more of a takedown of the genre.
For me, it’s a cyberpunk book because it loudly hits the genre’s action notes and has some legitimately interesting musings on culture and technology, along with a fun satirical and comedic edge. But this same emphasis could turn off readers who prefer cyberpunk’s darker, more serious incarnations.
Who will like this? This is a good place to start in cyberpunk if you’re interested in the technological aspect of the genre or you enjoy manic prose and satire.
“Altered Carbon,” by Richard K. Morgan, 2002
On the opposite end of the fun-to-dark spectrum from “Snow Crash” is “Altered Carbon,” by Richard K. Morgan.
The book tells the story of Takeshi Kovacs, a former elite soldier turned private investigator who’s drafted – not entirely willingly – to solve the attempted murder of a rich man.
In the world of “Altered Carbon,” people’s consciousnesses are stored on “decks,” basically hardened computer drives, that can be inserted into different bodies. Since consciousness is essentially a digital construct, people can travel the universe by having their data transmitted between decks, can have their decks inserted into different bodies, and can live indefinitely so long as no one destroys their deck, which is a difficult process because the things are sturdily built.
Even if a deck is destroyed, some people can afford to have their consciousnesses backed up on other decks, so they can continue on.
The story is dark, violent and has explicit sex scenes that would push it well beyond an NC-17 rating. Still, the writing is clever and has a grim, smirking humor at times. The mystery is well-executed and the whole thing is paced to keep you interested. The central technology concept is interesting and raises profound questions, and the world feels complete and lived-in.
Side note: There’s a Netflix series based on this book. I haven’t watched it yet, so I can’t weigh in on it just yet. (More to come at some later date.)
Who will like this book? You’ll probably like this book if you’re coming to cyberpunk from hardboiled fiction or if you’re seeking action and not averse to violence.
So there are my top four options for where to start in cyberpunk. If you’ve read a bunch of cyberpunk, let me know if I’ve missed any good books.
And if you’re new to the genre and you start with one of these recommendations, let me know how it works out.