In case you didn’t know, cyberpunk is big this year. People are really into cyberpunk right now because of Netflix’s adaptation of Altered Carbon, the Blade Runner 2049 movie and the Cyberpunk 2077 video game that is coming soon.
Our second favorite type of sci-fi is cyberpunk. It comes in second to post-apocalyptic books, of course.
A Song Called Youth Trilogy by John Shirley (1985)
genus of polymath John Shirley has written songs, screenplays (like The Crow), TV episodes (like the peak O’Brien-In-Trouble DS9 episode “Visionaries”), novels, and a lot of other things. He has even won a Bram Stoker award for writing scary stories, which is a big deal. Besides, he may be best known for his “A Song Called Youth” trilogy, which began with Eclipse in 1985.
Shirley’s characters plant and steal memories, plug biological flash drives into their brains, and try to fight both an authoritarian invader and an authoritarian government that has been made more powerful by the outside threat. Other important cyberpunk works have a lot of religious leaders who can manipulate people, as well as working-class people who adapt quickly and build their own social structure far below the high-level war games. This is how it works: There’s even a private military and drones that can spy on people from the sky.
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan (2002)
Richard K. Morgan’s first book won the Philip K. Dick Award that same year, too. The book was made into a Netflix series that started in 2018. Before that, it was seen as a callback to “classic” cyberpunk because of its flash, surrealism, and pulp-like action, which made it stand out from other cyberpunk books. When Morgan’s hero, Takeshi Kovacs, dies, he leaves behind a “backup” of his memories and thoughts in a cartridge that sits inside his spinal column. That piece can be used to restore his life to another body, or “sleeve,” and it can also be used to make new bodies.
If you live in an exploitative and hard-boiled society, then Kovacs is a detective. His society has arbitrary limits on the technology that exists, just like today. These are the places where Kovacs gets his ideas for new work. Morgan thinks about the future of cloud computing by imagining that rich people will be able to store their minds in remote places that they can access at any time. (It’s true: the cloud is just a new way for businesses to back up their data.)
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (2009)
It’s one of the best things about cyberpunk that it adapts to the time it’s written in. In the Philip K. Dick story that inspired the movie Minority Report, for example, the Tom Cruise character smokes in his spaceship. This is one of the biggest fears people have about the future in the 21st century: corporations that make genetically modified crops have made it so that everyone has to buy seeds that only last one year. Paolo Bacigalupi’s award-winning debut novel, The Windup Girl, is about this. This isn’t even very far-fetched: Many farmers already have to buy proprietary seeds each year for plants that don’t make their own seeds. The country of Thailand is the only one who doesn’t give in. It has a full stock of old-fashioned seeds that it keeps under lock and key. All that is going to be over soon: A secretive corporate aggressor and an augmented next-generation human are trying to stop it.
You should read it. It’s one of our favorite modern cyberpunk books of the last 10 years.
Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)
A work by William Gibson called Neuromancer and the Sprawl Trilogy that it starts may be the most well-known cyberpunk work out there. Gibson had written a lot of successful short stories and was seen as a rising star in science fiction. But his work showed how cyberpunk was a kind of counterculture movement in the larger science fiction world. He was a big fan of technology, but he also saw that it had a lot of dark potential, especially in the 1980s when there was a lot of money and power.
Is it then possible for one big company to make many, many, many games that make people think about things in a bad way, and then stifle them? This kind of situation laid the groundwork for a lot of the things that made cyberpunk so interesting. Even in a high-tech world, someone must still stand apart and look at things critically. It is Molly Millions who hires Gibson’s disgraced hacker Henry Case, and their boss fixes Case’s body and mind, leaving him with a debt that must be paid off.
China 2185 by Liu Cixin (1989)
Fiction in China has long been a way to make a point about what’s going on in the world at the time. It can be subtle or very unsubtle. When Don Quixote was written in 1605, it was thought to be the first Western novel. China had two huge classic novels that followed and commented on the lives of historical rulers and mythical figures. In the early 20th century, novelists made social observations about the difficult-cum-impossible lives of working peasants in a rapidly modernizing China, which they wrote about in their books.
In 1989, China’s best science fiction writer, Liu Cixin, released a book called China 2185. Liu (Cixin is his first name) isn’t influenced by western history and culture, so he can write stories that are based on the ebb and flow of Chinese history. This makes them very different from stories that are written anywhere else. With the help of Chairman Mao Zedong’s body parts, a programmer builds an AI that can run a virtual country that looks like the real China.
Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow (1989)
First, Ghost in the Shell ran every week in the same young men’s manga magazine that was still running Akira when Ghost and the Shell began in 1989. Some of the best cyberpunk works use the idea that technology can help people who aren’t powerful. Motoko Kusanagi, a public security officer, has both a cyborg body and a “cyberbrain” after a terrible childhood accident that would have killed her. Technology is the emergency parachute for her consciousness to survive.
People who have transplanted organs or joints replaced today are vulnerable to invasive and life-threatening infections because their immune systems aren’t strong enough to fight them off. People who are augmented or fully cybernetic in the fictional and future Niihama are just software and hardware hackers, not immune system rejection. It’s not surprising that this cyberpunk series is named after a philosophical idea called “the ghost in the machine,” which refers to the idea that the mind (consciousness) and body (physical body) are two separate things. This idea has been around for a long time. In fact, many cyberpunk themes resonate because of a long history of people believing in two things at the same time. Our bodies need to be able to last longer so that our minds can grow and live. It only makes sense if you think your mind isn’t really part of your body.
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber (2012)
Michel Faber is a Dutch author best known for writing the 2000 book Under the Skin, which was turned into a movie starring Scarlett Johansson as a seductive, human-hunting extraterrestrial. In The Book of Strange New Things, Faber talks about everyday life on a space station that is very far away from Earth, where humans from Earth meet and influence extraterrestrials who have completely, truly different customs and cultures.
The main character It’s possible that Peter is a reference to Jesus’s apostle and the first Christian church leader. He is a corporate-hired missionary who has a very difficult job: translating Scripture and its ideas not just from English to another language but into the language family of a world that has a completely different paradigm. Her messages are sent at different times as the Earth deteriorates due to climate change. Peter’s wife sends them in the meantime.
Like China Mieville’s novel Embassytown, which came out in 2010, Faber uses space travel, language barriers, and technology from the future to put human problems in a new light.
Mirrorshades (Edited) by Bruce Sterling (1986)
The anthology Mirrorshades, which came out in 1986 but was made up of stories that had already been published, is like the Now That’s What I Call Music of ’80s cyberpunk. It includes a duet by two of the most famous cyberpunk writers of the time, Bruce Sterling and William Gibson.
There was a single volume that both readers and scholars could trust. Mirrorshades has been cited in nearly 160 items on JSTOR alone. Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker, and John Shirley are some of the other authors in the book whose work is also on this list, but their work is not on this list.
Rewired, which is a kind of spiritual sequel, is a high-powered collection of stories about what’s called “postcyberpunk.” It was in Mirrorshades that James Patrick Kelly wrote a story. He went on to co-edit Rewired, which has many of the same authors as Mirrorshades. They kept working with and through cyberpunk in different ways. In the mix are new stars like Elizabeth Bear and Paolo Bacigalupi, who are both getting better and better.