Cyberpunk is dead, long live cyberpunk! The genre that was the hottest thing in science fiction in the 1980s and early 1990s has had its death certificate drafted many times. From the signature works of William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling and K.W. Jeter it supposedly ended soon after authors like Neal Stephenson started writing cyberpunk so over-the-top that it almost parodied the genre. But if you look at some of the classic elements of cyberpunk:
- A near-future urban setting, often gritty and veering towards dystopia.
- A dark view of technology often with innovations that seem amazing but end up with a loss of individual privacy or identity, and the technology being often embedded or integrated into biology.
- A tone Influenced by hardboiled and noir detective fiction, usually paired with the fast pace of a thriller.
This description could be applied to plenty of books before Neuromancer came along, (Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination being one strong example), and there are books published in recent years that carry the cyberpunk torch, using elements from this recipe book to create new and entertaining SF novels. By all means, if you prefer you can call it something else, but I’ll just be over here reading it. From a blend point of view, most cyberpunk falls under the SF/Adrenaline umbrella in the blender. Here are a few from the last 5 or so years, but feel free to comment with your favorite cyberpunk torch carriers.
Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch
This beautifully written, achingly bleak debut starts by letting the reader know that ten years ago the city of Pittsburgh was destroyed in a nuclear blast. John Dominic Blaxton was out of town when the bomb went off, but he never recovered from the loss of his wife. The Pittsburgh Archive is a digital recreation of the city and its people which serves as a virtual environment that survivors and tourists alike can visit. Dominic takes a job at an insurance company investigating death benefit claims mainly so he can spend endless hours in the Archive, with his dead wife. This novel explores near future technological developments like immersive virtual reality and implant that allow instant access to information (but also constant advertising bombardments) in a dystopic post-disaster society. It also has several juicy mysteries, including a rich man who hires Dominic to find out who has been deleting all record of his daughter from the Archive. Near future noir done right.
Nexus by Ramez Naam
Nexus is a new drug and a technological revolution rolled into one. Nexus uses nanotechnology to allow mind-to-mind communication and when grad student Kade Lane and his friends develop a kind of internal operating system for these networked brainwaves, he attracts the interest of Homeland Security. Kade’s research could be valuable to a lot of different groups with scary aims, but rather than lock him up, the government decides to use him as a tool. In exchange for immunity for his friends, the government wants Kade to get close to a Chinese researcher that they say can use Nexus to create mind-controlled killers, but Kade will have to decide who to trust in a hurry. A very impressive debut novel.
The Dervish House by Ian Mcdonald
Terrorist bombings in Istanbul in the year 2027 bring six people together around an old dervish house in a quiet corner of the city. Over the course of just a week these people will face mysteries old and new, trauma-induced visions of djinn, treasure hunts, and nanotechnology that could change the world as their stories all inexorably converge. McDonald juxtaposes old and new Turkey as he flips between mysticism and technology. I love the way McDonald writes about the future in books like this and the equally amazing Brasyl. Despite being dense and stylistically challenging, this has a fast pace and simply gorgeous writing.
This Is Not a Game by Walter Jon Williams
Virtual Reality gaming is a big part of many of the new cyberpunk novels. Dagmar Shaw is a game designer is trapped in war-torn Jakarta who reaches out to the gaming community for help to get home. Dagmar has always straddled the line between reality and her games and once she is back in Los Angeles and she finds herself drawn into a web of murder and corruption, she again turns to gamers to help her unravel her problems. Williams explores how the group mind of the gaming community can be harnessed in this first of an ongoing series.
Halting State by Charles Stross
Charles Stross does give great near future, in this case it was the VERY near future (written in 2007, set in ten years later). Video games are a pervasive part of our world, and privacy is a thing of the past. Fairly predictive! Sue Smith is a police sergeant in Edinburgh, called in to investigate a bank robbery. Not the local savings and loan, though. This was a bank in cyberspace — a part of the MMO game Avalon Four — and the crooks were a band of orcs and a dragon. The company in charge of the game’s online security (and the bank) are determined to find out who hacked them, the insurance adjuster is after the loot, and even Sgt. Smith starts to realize this online heist has real-world consequences. Fast-paced and daring (the book is told in second-person), the way it bounces from police procedural to cyber-thriller makes its tight plotting even more impressive.
The Demi-Monde: Winter by Rod Rees
The Demi-Monde is a simulated reality — one of the greatest ever constructed — but it has gone off the rails. Constructed as a training ground for soldiers, its creators populated the world with history’s most vicious dictators and killers. What could possibly go wrong? When the US President’s daughter becomes trapped in the world, jazz singer Ella Thomas is recruited to enter the world and get her back. Absolutely gonzo worldbuilding that takes a while to make sense. Once you are hooked, though, it’s a wild ride.
Zendegi by Greg Egan
Egan, known for writing challenging hard SF (seriously, I had to put aside one of his books it was so far over my head, and I ain’t no dummy), turns to a nearer future here. In his future, humans and artificial intelligences interact together by means of virtual proxies in the game world such as the platform called Zendegi. An Iranian scientist has created proxies so lifelike that a dying man asks her to help him make a proxy that will allow him to be with his young son even after his death. Egan tackles issues of the rights of nearly human created intelligences while still telling a very human story.
Moxyland by Lauren Beukes
In Beukes’ near future Cape Town, four lives intersect. Art school drop-out Kendra sells herself to become a living advertisement for a soda company, Toby is a dissipated blogger recently cut off from mommy’s money, Lerato is an AIDS baby raised in a state orphanage, and Tendeka wants to be a revolutionary. Beukes skewers corporate personhood before it was even a real thing, and posits a future where it is illegal to be without a cellphone, the device which rules everyone’s life. Gritty and immersive the world Beukes creates is full of future slang, copious swearing, and not-so-nice people. And it’s fascinating.
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
The exotic settings of so many of the new breed of cyberpunk adds to their pedigree as thriller blends. In Wilson’s first novel, Alif is the pseudonym of a skilled hacker living in an unnamed middle east city. He works for a variety of shady characters and dissidents, shielding them from state security and the Internet laws. The upperclass woman he loves jilts him, and his system has been hacked by the government, setting Alif on the run. He comes into possession of a book that introduces him to real life djinn and may bring about a revolution in technology. This is thoroughly original and relentlessly entertaining.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
A new variant of cyberpunk that focuses on the environment is sometimes given the name “biopunk” and this novel might be its standard-bearer. Set in Thailand in a post-oil future where the seas are rising and mutations are running rampant. The battle for new sources of calories drives factory manager Anderson Lake to scour the streets of Bangkok for new or mutated foodstuffs. There he meets Emiko, a windup girl engineered for satisfying any decadent whim of those who can afford her. But windups are now despised and Emiko is living on the streets. These characters are others set in motion events that could destroy the whole country. Bacigalupi’s future is super-dark, with calories the new currency and bio-terrorism and corruption all around. Vivid and harrowing.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
If you grew up in the 1980s, I dare you not to like this book. The novel (written in 2011) is set in 2044, in a dystopian future where we have exhausted all our fossil fuels and most of the populace hides indoors to escape the violent unrest in the streets. The book’s hero is 18-year-old Wade Watts who is determined to be the one who finds the “easter egg” hidden in OASIS, a massive online virtual reality game that virtually everyone on the planet plays. James Halliday, the creator of the game, has died and in his will declared that whomever found the easter egg will inherit his fortune and his company. Because Halliday grew up in the 1980s, many of the challenges in the game revolve around pop culture references from that decade, including arcade games, tv series, music, comics, movies, and of course books. It’s a fast-paced adventure of a ride rather than the dark gritty thriller more common in cyberpunk. SO FUN.