Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Best Cyberpunk Novels | 10 Amazing Science Fiction Novels

Yes, the ‘80s saw a concentration of writing within the Cyberpunk subgenre and a surge in its popularity, but Cyberpunk doesn’t merely define a period of writing within science fiction. Neuromancer is a high water mark for Cyberpunk, but 1984 doesn’t mark the beginning of the subgenre. 

K.W. Jeter’s Dr. Adder and John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider were written in the previous decade. No, Cyberpunk is not bound to the ‘80s. Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs series, written in the aughts, are high-powered Cyberpunk reads.

Cyberpunk is a repudiation of the certainty of progress as a result of technological development. Cyberpunk explores the social and cultural realities of the exploited class by the enfranchised and empowered 1% of advanced technological societies.

So, take a break from your bourgeois 21st-century life to gaze into a virtual reality of chaos, beauty, and odd futurity. Read on for the 10 best cyberpunk novels:

Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968)


Dro Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick


Philip K. Dick loved to consider alternate consciousness in his books, including the experienced consciousness of androids. While this book predates cyberpunk as genre, it's pure source code for what was to come, especially considering the feature film adapted from its pages: Blade Runner. Ridley Scott's noir visualization of the future in Blade Runner is definitive cyberpunk source code. So, what was Dick's major conceit in Do Androids Dream? Artificial memories. Androids wake up on the first day of their artificial lives remembering chasing butterflies with a bell jar as three-year-olds. Why is this still cool? Because we're not all that far away from installing alternate memories in humans. Had a bad breakup that you can't shake? A childhood of trauma? $7500 and a visit to outpatient surgery later and you'll have the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind. So, back to the novel. What's cool about it? The blade runner, the dude who kills replicants, he's confused about his own identity. Turns out, he's probably a replicant himself.


Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling, aka Vincent Omniaveritas--roughly the champion of all truth--embodies everything that is cool about science fiction and cyberpunk. This guy is everywhere, doing everything, studying and discussing all the coolest crap. It's worth it to follow his twitter feed, I promise. Schismatrix is important not just for the ideas--human life extension via genetic and mechanical alteration--but also for the style. Sterling developed an in-your-face, high information density, poetic prose style for this book, and, man, is it a beauty. I mean, look at this passage: "He mourned mankind, and the blindness of men, who thought that the Kosmos had rules that would shelter them from their own freedom. There were no shelters. There were no final purposes. Futility, and freedom, were Absolute."

John Brunner: The Shockwave Rider (1975)


The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

I recommend reading this at a bar over your favorite pint. Why? Because it's heady, you know, kind of like a beer. Okay, bad pun. But in short, Brunner is not an easy read. So, if you like your fiction to challenge, this is for you. I don't intend to scare anyone off. The Shockwave Rider is an important precursor to cyberpunk. This book criticizes capitalism. Just look at this quote--"If there is such a phenomenon as absolute evil, it consists in treating another human being as a thing." To provide a breakdown of a Marxist view of material reality, the owners of capital capitalize off of their employees by viewing them as laborers and paying them a set amount rather than what their work is truly worth. Brunner's Marxist critique is important because it establishes the relationship between mega-rich corporations and mega-disenfranchised individuals as a cyberpunk theme. And Brunner's hero uses a computer virus to outsmart the military. Here we see a second important cyberpunk theme established, the relationship between government and military systems to the individual, where the individual is under a constant threat of manipulation and even death from powers way out of his pay grade. 



Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Man, let's just glory in that amazing cover for a second. It's not the original. Nope, it's one of those rare improvements on the original. But it encapsulates what's inside: sword fighting, matrix space, and dangerous data. The Snow Crash virus is engineered to flatline coders, assuring L. Bob Rife's dominance over the ever-expanding world of data. Enter Hiro Protagonist, a badass with a samurai sword. He takes us through some cool info dumps about the people of the ancient world and meets steel with Raven, another sword maven.

But the sword isn't selected as an image just because it looks cool on a book cover. The advancements in computer and communications technology leading to the creation of the matrix reflect old world knowledge. The communities created in the hi-tech matrix world reflect old world communities. In Snow Crash, religion is used as a kind of mind control. The matrix doesn't supersede the power of religion as a control. It heightens it, allowing manipulative agents to cast a wider net. But this is where the sword's importance returns. Sharp steel is and always has been a final arbiter. It cuts through all the bullcrap, all the falsehoods and filler, all the strongmen barring our entry into a free society. 


Ren WaromEscapology (2016) 


Escapology by Ren Warom

Spoiler alert: the shark is supposed to be digital, but it eviscerates living, breathing humans. Why? Escapology plays up the effects of digital activity on the real world. News flash: there is no virtual world, it's all real. Somewhat gender-bending, Shock Pao is a pre-adolescent girl turned boy. She becomes a boy to avoid the pain of womanhood, the bleeding, the hurting. But this is more of the same virtual vs. real theme. There's no escape from the real. By the end of the novel, Shock Pao experience the shock and pain of reality. In contrast, reading this book is all pleasure.


Rudy RuckerSoftware (1982)


Software by Rudy Rucker

The first in the Ware series. This book is not only one of the best cyberpunk novels, but it might also be the funniest science fiction novel I've ever read. Though Bill the Galactic Hero and any and all Kurt Vonnegut titles get top honors for humor (Mother Night and Breakfast of Champions are probably the funniest of Vonnegut's books). I'm originally from Louisville, Kentucky, so getting excited about an sf author that hails from Louisville is an easy sell. But, Rucker is of universal interest. This book traces the beginning of the singularity, the moment of the birth of artificial intelligence with complete autonomy from human agency. A takeaway from Software is that once the singularity occurs, the development of computer processing and the sophistication of artificial intelligence goes into hyperspeed.


Pat Cadigan: Synners (1991)


Rock 'n Roll and the reality show meets the matrix. I'm not saying that Suzanne Collins ripped from Cadigan to create The Hunger Games, but, eh, she probably did. In Synners, vids are used to ensure that Diversifications maintains a captive market for its products. 

Synners is Cadigan's masterwork, but Mindplayers (1987) is my favorite of her novels. Mindplayers considers the use of virtual reality as psychological therapy. Experienced mindplayers pair up with individuals who have suffered trauma and help them plumb the depths of their damaged psyche through a virtual mind link.



Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow


Of the best cyberpunk novels, Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is the one you'll go on thinking about years after you've read it. Doctorow imagines a world where the most important currency is social currency. Doctorow presaged our own world of social media stars who are famous for being famous. The book's Disney World setting gives a nod to Baudrillard's hyperreal, that the real is fashioned after what was created to simulate a perfect but attainable reality. Thus, the real becomes a weird unreality. Every action in the world of down & out is viewed and critiqued by a mass audience as Patreon crowd. Every position in Doctorow's future reality is subject to the whims of the approval or disapproval of the populace. What do you have to watch out for in the magic kingdom? Don't smoke too much crack, back up your memory regularly, and watch out for backstabbers!

Check out Ted Gioia's review of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom on Conceptual Fiction.



Altered Carbon by Morgan


Takeshi Kovacs, called back up from decades of sleep to solve a crime, or, at least, to be manipulated while appearing to solve a crime. With lightning fast reflexes in a body he doesn't recognize and a haunted past, Kovacs is as interesting a hero as they come. Could downloading consciousness into new bodies when the old one wears out be a real future for humanity? Probably, especially for billionaires. And Morgan takes aim at the class gap with his works. He imagines the dynamics of power that would result from, rather than passing power down through the generations, the generations maintain power while regenerating. Does that send a shiver down your spinal stack?



Neuromancer by William Gibson


Of the best cyberpunk novels, this is probably the best of all. Get ready to jack into a wild, wild ride. Some critics maintain that Neuromancer is the only cyberpunk novel. While it is the novel that established the genre--cyberspace as an alternate reality, multinationals, online hacking, designer drugs, artificial intelligence, techno babes, noir futures--it wouldn't be all that fun if cyberpunk stopped here would it? And, of course, cyberpunk was its roots in older science fiction. Still, Neuromancer revolutionized science fiction; it is clearly one of, if not the best, cyberpunk novels. 

The title is itself a bold proclamation. Neu means new and romancer means author. Thus, Gibson proclaimed himself a new author of sf. And, yes, William Gibson slashed all sf's staid conventions and created something worthy of your time three decades later. Can Case break through black ICE (intrusion countermeasures electronics), overcome the demons of his past and avoid the demons of the day, all while riding Molly Millions into deep recesses of cellular pleasure?

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