Since the phrase 'cyberpunk' was first coined in 1983 by author Bruce Bethke, the subgenre's appeal hasn't waned. Today, cyberpunk stories are told across all kinds of media, from comics to video games to movies. But cyberpunk was first popularized by authors like William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, and Neal Stephenson, who wove intricate stories of down-on-their-luck humans contending with the social impact of pervasive information technology, often within a dystopian setting. Prescient and thrilling, these novels expanded our expectations of tech, long before modern advancements made some of those stories seem more like fact than fiction.
If you're craving a hit of cyberpunk slickness, look no further than these 12 thrilling tales of technology and human hubris run amok.
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Cash Crash Jubilee
As a liquidator for the Global Action Transaction Authority, Amon Kenzaki does his job dutifully. In a near-future Tokyo where every action—even involuntary physical impulses like blinking—is owned by corporations, Amon captures bankrupt citizens and ‘cash crashes’ them. Amon is tasked with removing BodyBanks and then banishing offenders to BankDeath camps where they are cut off from the economy. Amon's in line for a promotion; but when he cash crashes a popular politician, he’s suddenly charged a mysterious, prohibitive fee for an action called the ‘jubilee.’ Reeling in the face of his own sudden potential bankruptcy, Amon begins to question the systems he's based his whole life on.
When Gravity Fails
Called “wry and black and savage” by the savage George R.R. Martin himself, this Hugo and Nebula-nominated first book in the Budayeen Cycle is set in a futuristic Middle East where body modding is the norm. Modders use plug-ins to change their memories, alter their personalities, and, in the case of a mysterious killer with a James Bond-like plug-in who's wreaking havoc across the neighborhood of Budayeen, even give themselves a license to kill. Unmodified Budayeen resident Marîd Audran becomes involved in the rash of deaths, and, against his best instincts, is caught up in the politics of Budayeen organized crime as the 007-style assassin paves a path of violence through Marîd's home.
This comprehensive anthology collects two dozen tales spanning the influential career of Bruce Sterling, one of the authors who helped define the cyberpunk movement. These stories display Sterling’s expansive imagination and wit as well as his sobering sense of how our obsession with technology may irrevocably alter the ways we relate to each other and the world around us.
In the post-Cold War years, geneticist Vergil Ulam makes a major breakthrough in his research, successfully creating nanotechnology modeled off his own white blood cells. Concerned by the potential of this discovery, Vergil’s employer orders him to destroy his results. But instead Vergil injects his creations into his own body—where they quickly multiply and become self-aware, transforming both their creator and those around him.
Cadigan won the coveted Arthur C. Clarke award in 1992 for this prescient novel about underground hackers called "synners." Written at a time when the technological concepts the book deals with were considered much more far-fetched than they are today, Synners follows a corporation, Diversifications, Inc., and its plan to directly deliver music videos into consumers' consciousness. But when this new technology is corrupted by a virus, the synners are the only ones left with the power to save humanity.
The Windup Girl
This Nebula and Hugo Award-winning novel is a vivid tale set in 23rd-century Thailand that's often categorized as biopunk — an offshoot of cyberpunk concerned with biotechnology. Global warming pummels Thailand's capital city with floods, and global pandemics caused in part by ‘genehacked’ crops ravage the world. Anderson Lake, an employee for the mega biotechnology corporation AgriGen, is determined to uncover the location of a Thai seedbank. Through his covert dealings, he crosses paths with others in the dire, ravaged future — including Emiko, a ‘windup girl’ who longs to leave the sex club where she works and finds others like her.
Five-year-old Amy comes from a mixed family. Her father is human, but Amy and her mother are self-replicating humanoids, or VonNeumanns, a brand of humanoid originally invented by a religious fundamentalist group to keep the left over humans company after the anticipated rapture.
Amy’s mother is estranged from her grandmother and the others of her VonNeumann clade. But at Amy’s kindergarten graduation, her grandmother arrives and attacks Amy's mother. Young Amy wastes no time eating her grandmother as retribution, and then carries her malfunctioning granny on her memory drive—where she learns all sorts of startling things about herself, and her clade’s history. Vn is an occasionally sick and startlingly unique addition to the cyberpunk genre.
In the 21st-century world of Snow Crash, Los Angeles has seceded from the United States, and emphasis on individual sovereignty has created anarchic capitalism. People hustle to make a living in the real world and the collective virtual space called the metaverse.
Hiro Protagonist is a hacker and pizza delivery driver for the mob who, along with his skateboarding courier pal Yours Truly, sells intel to the post-apocalyptic equivalent of the CIA. When Hiro's friend Da5id suffers real-life brain damage after viewing a computer file called ‘Snow Crash’ in the metaverse, Hiro and Yours Truly team up to save the virtual and real world from the mysterious virus.
An influential, landmark novel that changed not only the cyberpunk genre but the Internet itself (among other things, Snow Crash helped popularize the use of the word ‘avatar’ in reference to online alter egos), Snow Crash is an unnerving, thrilling ride.
This first novel in Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy was the first-ever book to win both the Nebula, Hugo, and the Philip K. Dick Awards. Neuromancer centers on Henry Case, a former computer hacker in Chiba City, Japan, whose central nervous system was damaged with mycotoxin as punishment for stealing from a former employer. Now, Case is a down-on-his-luck grifter unable to access the global virtual reality network.
When he's offered a cure in exchange for lending his services as a console cowboy, or hacker, to an ex-military man named Armitage, Case jumps at the chance. But Armitage's 'cure' comes with strings attached, and Case soon finds himself more compromised than ever before. With the help of augmented street samurai Molly Millions, Case investigates Armitage while simultaneously taking on his new employer's jobs.
Night Sky Mine
Teenager Ista Kelly struggles to survive in a post-Crash world, in which technology runs riot and an interface has been created that depicts computer programs as either flora, fauna, or a mythological species. The lone survivor of a pirate raid on the Night Sky space mining platform, Ista has to learn to navigate the connection between the virtual world and the real world as a hypothecary harvesting the bounty of cyberspace.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Following the 1992 nuclear apocalypse deemed “World War Terminus,” the residents of Earth are encouraged to migrate to off-world colonies in order to save the human race. On Earth, radiation has killed or poisoned all animals, to the extent that owning one is a symbol of extremely high status. As an incentive for migration, the United Nations offers refugees human replicants called androids. But when those androids go rogue, it's bounty hunter Rick Deckard's job to retire them. The novel that inspired the classic Ridley Scott movie Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has also been adapted for comics, stage, and radio.
The Ghost in the Shell
This seminal 1989 manga is set in mid-21st-century Japan, when the line between humans and machines is all but dissolved. Following a devastating accident as a child, Motoko Kusanagi's cyberbrain is uploaded into a prosthetic body, leaving her vulnerable to hackers. As an adult, Motoko becomes Major Motoko Kusanagi, the leader of anti-terrorism task force Public Security Section 9, and tracks down cyber criminals intent on reprogramming people for their own ends.
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Featured still from "Blade Runner' via Warner Bros.