Your Summer Reading List
Postmodern dystopia has fascinated Western Society for years now. Unlike Mad Max, where technological development ultimately destroys us, and we spend decades returning to our baser instincts, Cyberpunk is an aesthetic that explores another version of reality where our first world problems reduce us to a “low life” yet high-tech society whose primary focus is on sexual and drug indulgence.
Instead of living in a desert on minimal (and radioactive) food and water, we live in metropolitan society, with cybernetic body augmentation and (likely) machine overlords who moderate our behavior through drugs and access to holographic sex, I speculate.
Like me, you probably don’t actually understand in too much detail what Cyberpunk really is or what it stands for, so here’s a reading list to help get you caught up.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
The tricky thing with genres, especially ones as obscure as Cyberpunk, is that it's hard to find a point at which the genre becomes a unified whole. Cyberpunk effectively emerged from a movement known as the “New Wave Science Fiction movement”, which explored the impacts of drug culture, the sexual revolution, and the integration of technology into society.
The New Wave Science Fiction Movement made a distinct break from the traditional archetypes of storytelling and began exploring a more somber side of human nature. Writers who pushed the genre emphasized the exploration of “psycho-literary ideas, more meta-biological and meta-chemical concepts, private time systems, synthetic psychologies and space-times, more of the somber-half-worlds one glimpses in the paintings of schizophrenics.”
Though it wasn’t the work that solidified Cyberpunk as a genre, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, would hold every characteristic that would come to define the Cyberpunk genre. This masterpiece, written by Phillip K Dick, is set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic San Francisco and follows anti-hero Deckard as he hunts rogue androids known as “replicants”.
These androids were originally given to humans as part of an incentive program to establish off-world colonies following a global nuclear war that eradicated most life on Earth. Finding themselves opposed to confinement and desirous of freedom, six androids violently rebelled against their human leadership on Mars and escaped to Earth, hoping to remain undetected.
Deckard’s mission inevitably questions the line between human and android and what it means to exist. It would go on to be renamed Blade Runner. Yes, the movie.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
In 1984, William Gibson released his debut novel Neuromancer, which would come to be heralded as the novel that defined (or redefined) Cyberpunk. Neuromancer is actually heavily inspired by Japanese cyberpunk, which came to life with the 1982 manga series, Akira.
The story follows Henry Dorsett Case, a now defunct super hacker, currently living in the dystopian city of Chiba, Japan. At the height of his power, Case was caught stealing from his employer, and was subsequently administered a mycotoxin that damaged his central nervous system and prevented him from accessing the “matrix”, a form of virtual reality.
Having lived on the hit list of a drug lord named Wage, Case is recruited by Molly Millions, a mercenary who also happens to be an augmented “street samurai”. The two find themselves in the employ of Armitage, a mysterious ex-military benefactor, who offers to heal Case’s nervous system in exchange for his services as a hacker.
Case is healed, only to discover that sacs of mycotoxin were implanted in his bloodstream during the process as an “insurance” policy against his rebellious tendencies. Case and Molly find themselves catching glimpses of a struggle for corporate power as their story explores the darkest aspects of human nature.
Software by Rudy Rucker
Software explores one of the more interesting implications of neurotechnology and cybernetics, namely immortality and consequently, the ability or inability of robots to truly relate to humans.
The story is told through the eyes of Cobb Anderson, a retired computer scientist who was once tried for treason for attempting to give a self-replicating type of robots known as “Boppers” freewill. Cobb succeeded to some extent and his robots proceeded to colonize the moon, only to return years later with a twisted offer of immortality for Cobb.
The story takes a number of twisted turns and features serial killers, twisted mega corporations and an oh-so-essential dystopian nightmare America.
Ghost in The Shell by Masamune Shirow
You may already be somewhat familiar with Ghost in the Shell since it served as an inspiration for the movie series The Matrix. (Yes, believe it or not, The Matrix series was Cyberpunk.)
In this manga series, technology has been developed that allows for cyber augmentation of the brain which allows direct connection to global networks. This effectively allows for the transfer of consciousness from the biological to the digital and is emphasized by the main character, Major Motoko Kusanagi.
As a child, Kusanagi’s body was destroyed and her consciousness was transferred into an artificial one. The story follows her as she tracks a group of ghost hackers taking control of cyborg minds, turning them into puppets.
Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology by Bruce Sterling
Your best shot at a true overall picture of Cyberpunk is Mirrorshades. It features a collection of Cyberpunk stories that emerged during the ‘80s and as such, covers a broad array of themes and emotional explorations of Cyberpunk.
Cyberpunk emerged somewhat chaotically, but Bruce Sterling paints a captivating picture in his introduction which serves to provide a context that helps streamline the exploration of this collection.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
There is probably not a trippier representation of Cyberpunk on this list than Snow Crash. Written by Neal Stephenson in 1992, the book features thrilling action, a deep and convoluted lore, and a roller coaster of intellectual sleuthing that leads to a satisfying and deliciously dystopian finish.
Snow Crash jumps into action with the introduction of our main protagonist: Hiro Protagonist. Not a typo. It’s actually his name. (The comedy here is obvious, but don’t let that set low expectations for this novel.)
Hiro Protagonist is an almost obnoxiously perfect cyberpunk hero. He’s a technical mastermind able to hack pretty much anything, a sword wielding genius adept at combat and he delivers pizzas for the mob. Hiro’s interesting relationship with the female lead character Y.T., who saves his life early in the story, and anti-hero personality flaws add a depth to his character and it drags you deeper into the story.
To make a long (and amazing) story short, Hiro and Y.T. team up, track down a mystery drug that is mind wiping people and, in the end, vanquish the bad guy. Oh, and that drug is actually a linguistic virus, personified as the goddess Asherah, who has had her efforts to mind-wipe the human race thwarted by another god called Enki. Enki created a program called Nam-shub, which caused human dialects to break away from the original Sumerian, which remains the BIOS of the brainstem.
This book is full of awesome depth and intricacy like that. Read it.
Trouble and Her Friends by Melissa Scott
Trouble and Her Friends is set at the end of the 21st century and features a world based around a virtual landscape, powered by computer networks that hold incredible amounts of data. Computer hackers enter into this virtual space and navigate it via “nodes”. This virtual space and the computer networks that power it are all owned by corporations who defend their property via Intrusion Countermeasures (Electronic) or IC (E).
Our main protagonist, a former hacker and current system admin for an artist colony, who once used the moniker “Trouble”, finds herself diving back into the world of the “wild days” when someone starts using her old code and nickname to create havoc.
Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis & Darick Robertson
Transmetropolitan is a comic book series, printed from 1997 to 2002, which follows the work of Spider Jerusalem, a journalist who has dedicated his life to working against the corruption of two successive U.S. presidents.
At first, the comic book series is a collection of one-offs beginning with the documentation of police brutality against a group known as the Transient Movement. This group uses the genetic material of an alien species for body modification, thus becoming an entirely new species altogether. The leader of this group is paid to incite a riot, which the police then use as an excuse to clear out the slum in violent fashion which houses the Transient Movement.
Following the publishing of the story, Spider is brutally beaten by police but insists that he is going nowhere.
The remainder of the story follows the antagonistic back and forth between President elect Gary Callahan, known as “The Smiler” and Jerusalem. Callahan bears a grudge against Jerusalem for what he sees as interference during his campaign and pulls no punches in taking revenge.
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Hyperion actually follows the story of seven individuals who have all been sent on a “Final Shrike Pilgrimage” on a world known as Hyperion. In this universe, exists the “Hegemony of Man”, a network of thousands of planets connected by “farcaster portals”. Hyperion is a planet that exists beyond the purview of the Hegemony and cannot be accessed without experiencing significant time dilation.
On Hyperion, there are a series of structures known as Time Tombs, which move backwards in time and are guarded by a creature known as the Shrike. The story progresses through the individual viewpoint of each character, toward its ultimate end in the following novel.
Beyond dystopian, this series explores a cultural and religious clash among AI, the implications of time travel, an age-reversing disease, and even the possibilities of genuine love between human consciousness and Artificial Intelligence.
Metrophage by Richard Kadrey
Metrophage as a novel, is a little challenging to summarize into one paragraph. Truthfully, the plot twists so often and so wildly that you can make a solid argument for the book having little plot at all. For starters, our story (sort of) follows anti-hero Johnny as he ventures through a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles racing a bioengineered plague that is about to wipe out mankind.
While we watch this adventure, in whatever way we can, we come to discover the horror that has become of the world. An alien invasion is threatening the world economy, cannibals abound and teenagers with switchblades and neural disruptors are the “police force”.
What Metrophage lacks in steady plot development, it makes up for with fun, explosions, action-packed sequences, and an in-depth exploration of an extremely twisted version of Earth.