The upcoming release of Cyberpunk 2077 by CD Projekt Red has brought the spotlight back to pop culture’s obsession with the cyberpunk aesthetic. But what is cyberpunk, and where did the movement come from?
For those of you new to cyberpunk as a genre, and those looking to re-adorn your mirrorshades and leather jackets, we’ve assembled a list of cyberpunk classics, covering everything from its origins in 80s ‘zines, to satirical offshoots and Japanese influences, to the changing literary landscape of a post-cyberpunk future.
If you ever needed a breakneck introduction to the world of cyberpunk, this is it. There’s a lot to see, so keep up, chummer.
1. ‘Neuromancer’ by William Gibson
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”
Will Gibson’s Neuromancer is heralded as the defining literary work of the cyberpunk genre. Published in 1984, it went on to revolutionize science-fiction writing, and to set the style-guide for cyberpunk writers to come. Its freestyle, bleeding-edge prose dumps us into a world of cyber enhancements and faceless corporations, and burnt-out street dwellers doing what they can do get by, and bring down the powers that be. In Neuromancer the drug-culture, sexual revolution, and technological advancements of the 60s are sped up to high frequency in a dystopia that pulses with change, but the little guy is just as exploitable as ever.
Neuromancer follows the story of Case, a down-and-out hacker on the streets of Japan who makes a deal with a mysterious benefactor after the state fried his central nervous system with a mycotoxin, leaving him unable to access the Matrix. Together with Molly, an augmented street samurai, Riviera, a cybered up illusionist, and Armitage, their elusive employer, Case follows the trail of a rogue AI, and catches a glimpse of the corporate world’s struggle for power.
Neuromancer is our first reference point for words and concepts such as ‘cyberspace’ ‘ICE’ and even the ‘Matrix’, this classic is required reading for the cyberpunk genre, and paints a darkened future not so far from the world we know today.
2. ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ by Phillip K Dick
The book that inspired Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep looks at what it means to be human, and where the reaches of technology could take us if we aren’t careful. Far different from the film’s action-focus, Philip K Dick’s masterwork is far more concerned with Rick Deckard’s internal struggle over metahumanity, the mad hopelessness of middle-class experience, and the importance of rearing an android sheep. Dick is a master of the symbolic, and threads his work with enigmas and quandaries that have forced readers to return to it, again and again, for decades to come.
Set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, the story follows Deckard as he hunts down Nexus-6 replicants: a malfunctioning batch of androids whose quest for freedom is threatening to destroy what little life on Earth remains. Tasked with catching the replicants and putting them through the Voigt-Kampff test, the difference between human and android begins to blur, along with the question of their right to survive.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep moves slowly, but runs deep. Its philosophical musings have left audiences captivated, and inspired generations of cyberpunk writers to question the line where blood meets metal.
3. ‘Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology’ by Bruce Sterling
Mirrorshades is a cyberpunk anthology straight out of the 80s. The shiny chrome, pixel-art, and rainbow cover is enough reason alone to buy it, but it also brings together a broad array of sci-fi authors into a collection that serves as the perfect analog for 80s cyberpunk obsessions. Including short stories from William Gibson, Greg Bear, and Pat Cadigan, the anthology features a history of cyberpunk alongside its chaotic origins in rebellious, philosophical, and aesthetic niche fiction.
The result is a mix of stories that vary widely in their themes and seriousness, but give a sincere picture of cyberpunk’s splintered beginnings. The anthology is tied together with a fascinating introduction from Bruce Sterling on the emerging subculture of cyberpunk, and the zine writers who helped define a genre, then decried its absorption into the mainstream.
If cyberpunk sold its soul in the 90s, this anthology is as authentic as it gets for those seeking an honest overview of the cyberpunk movement.
4. ‘Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology’ by James Kelly and John Kessel
Cyberpunk is dead. Long live cyberpunk. Rewired, the confidently named Post-Cyberpunk Anthology is an unofficial sequel to Mirrorshades. It examines the fall of cyberpunk, its transition into the status-quo, and rebellion as a sell-out aesthetic. It also asks where the genre is today, showcasing short stories from authors such as Paolo Bacigalupi and Cory Doctorow, as well as experimental pieces from cyberpunk giants Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, and Pat Cadigan.
“Cyberpunk is dead. The revolution has been co-opted by half-assed heroes, overclocked CGI, and tricked-out sunglasses. Once radical, cyberpunk is nothing more than a brand.”
Rewired asks us: what happened to the punks after they grew up? Where did the revolution lead us? What’s happening beyond the streets? These post-cyberpunk stories exhibit how writers may have ditched the chrome shades, but continues to interrogate the friction between society and its technology. The entire anthology is underpinned by extracts from letters between Bruce Sterling and John Kessel as they unpick what the cyberpunk movement was about, and question the future of science fiction. It makes for a truly fascinating academic reflection on the cyberpunk genre, alongside a mix of new fiction that thrums with new ideas and building anxieties. If nothing else, Rewired gives a nod to the authors you might be reading tomorrow.
5. ‘Snow Crash’ by Neal Stephenson
“Exploring linguistics, religion, computer science, politics, philosophy, cryptography and the future of pizza delivery, Snow Crash is a riveting, breakneck adventure into the fast-approaching future.”
Neal Stephenson crashed the cyberpunk scene in 1992 with his merciless genre satire: Snow Crash. It’s a joyously unapologetic rip-ride through a cyberpunk future, but its smart-mouth commentary fronts for a truly thoughtful experimentation with sci-fi tropes. Stephenson hops from one idea to the next with spit-ball prose that riddles the pages like bullets, and you’re invited along for the ride.
Our hero, Hiro Protagonist, works as a pizza delivery guy, but in the Metaverse he’s a master swordfighter and computer hacker. When a new cyberdrug, Snow Crash, hits the streets, it begins to infect virtual reality and bleed into the real world itself – and only one man has the power to stop it. Snow Crash refuses to slow down, it’s cyberpunk that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and in doing so deconstructs the zany madness of our everyday life.
6. ‘Ghost in the Shell’ by Shirow Masamune
Ghost in the Shell is one of the most famous manga series of all time, adapted into anime and live-action movies, Major’s naked body, riddled with wires and electric circuits, is iconic to the cyberpunk genre.
In Ghost in the Shell’s post-cyberpunk setting technology has progressed to the point where the brain itself can be cyber-enhanced to connect with networks around the world. Major is a serving member of Public Security Section 9, and a fully prosthetic cyborg following the destruction of her body as a child. Her team are responsible for hunting down ghost hackers: cybercriminals who hack and take control of cyborg’s minds and bodies, turning them into cyberenhanced puppets. Major’s journey takes her to the underbelly of Niihama, a city of soaring skyscrapers and hidden depths, but on the way there she begins to question where her humanity lies. Is there a ghost in the machine, or is it just an empty shell?
Masamune’s work has an over-emphasis on cryptic philosophical exchanges, a common feature across many Japanese manga that occasionally leaves western audiences confused. But for those willing to read closely Ghost in the Shell offers real depth and complexity, a myriad of unreliable narrators, and competing worldviews. The manga is cyberpunk to the core, occasionally taking style over substance with its ultra-violent and sexualized aesthetic, but in amongst its action sequences are philosophical quandaries worth exploring.
7. ‘AKIRA’ by Katsuhiro Otomo
AKIRA is a critically acclaimed manga and anime series, imagining an urban future where Japan has been torn apart by war and government corruption. Otomo’s masterwork was one of the first complete manga series to be published in English, and its handling of complex subject matter and detailed art style revolutionized manga at the time, let alone the cyberpunk genre.
We follow characters from all walks of life, from gang members, to military leaders, to psychic ‘Espers’, as they try to stop the awakening of Akira: a being with telekinetic powers that could raise Neo-Tokyo to the ground. Through Akira and Tetsuo, a child torn apart by his own psychic powers, the manga explores not only the fear of atomic warfare that sprang from the post-war experience but also the risks of isolation and alienation in an urbanized world overflowing with lost souls.
AKIRA is inseparable from the history and cultural anxieties of Japan, but its fears speak universally, and its warnings stand clear for us all to take note.
8. ‘The Windup Girl’ by Paolo Bacigalupi
Breaking out of the 80s classics, if you want to see where post-cyberpunk sci-fi has come to today you could do no better than to check out Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. Bacigalupi takes ‘cyber’ anxieties and replaces them with those of biology. Examining the waiting catastrophes of pollution, crop-devastation, and biological warfare. And his ideas also reach beyond the worldview of the ‘punk’, stretching beyond the chrome horizons and glamorous technology of Japan and America to find ourselves on the dusty sun-sweltering streets of Bangkok, Thailand. Bacigalupi descends into the culture of the Thai, Malaysians, Chinese, and farang businessmen who are forced to rub shoulders in a world that is overcrowded and underfed.
Bacigalupi’s setting is rich with wonder, the streets brim with the scent of flowers and the burning incense of street shrines, orange-robed monks bless algae factories in the hopes of hastening electricity production, calorie men prey along the market stalls, and merchants whisper of a new outbreak of cibiscosis. In the chaos of it all, Emiko, one of the New People designed by the Japanese as a model slave, finds herself adrift in a world her body was not built to endure. The forces at work in Bangkok are set to come to a head, and Emiko risks being caught up in the center of it all.
The Windup Girl won the 2010 Hugo Award and is a perfect read for those who might be tired of cyberpunk’s frenzied concepts and stylised aesthetic, but who still feel fascinated by explorations into the transhuman, and the future that awaits our isolation and corporate greed.
9. ‘Shadowrun’ by Catalyst Game Labs
A spiritual successor to Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun is one of the best cyberpunk tabletop roleplaying games still being updated today. While it’s not, strictly speaking, a ‘book’, the Shadowrun 5th Edition Core Rulebook is a kitten-squishing 476 pages long, filled with flash fiction, gorgeous art, and lengthy item tables for you to spend your credsticks on. If you’ve had your fill of cyberpunk media, Shadowrun is a master encyclopedia of all the information and tools you could possibly need to start crafting your own stories.
As a roleplaying game, Shadowrun lets you play as a team of shadowrunners: professional guns for hire, assassins, infiltrators, and procurers of information. Players choose from a pool of different roles: Deckers, Street Samurai, Spellcasters, Technomancers, Riggers, and Faces. The game takes place in 2070, though the setting is your decision: from the Imperial State of Japan, to the Kingdom of Hawai’i. But you’re not just limited to the geographical limitations of meatspace, the Matrix network has grown vast, conquered by megacorporations yet still prey to the whims of talented deckers.
Magic, too, has bled into the world since the Awakening, revealing spirits, blood magic, and powerful spells of persuasion to those with the gift of sight. Others were changed by magics arrival in the sixth world, and across the world humans were goblinized into Orks, Trolls, Elves, and Dwarves, each heaving with their own supplies of guns, drugs, and cyber enhancements. Shadowrun is full of ideas to play with, and though its item lists and combat systems can be hell to deal with, its vivid worldbuilding and core system have inspired thousands of players to dig deep into cyberpunk and see where their own stories can take them.
10. ‘Cyberpunk 2020’ by Mike Pondsmith and R. Talsorian Games
Last, but not least, the original cyberpunk roleplaying game: Cyberpunk 2020, is cited as Cyberpunk 2077’s main inspiration. Mike Pondsmith, the tabletop game’s lead designer has been confirmed as an advisor on the CD Projekt Red team, so we can be sure that there will be a lot of crossover with this gorgeous 1980s title and the coming Cyberpunk 2077 first-person role-playing game. Cyberpunk 2020 centers around Night City, a west coast city thrown into dystopic chaos and ruled by megacorporations:
“The Corporations control the world from their skyscraper fortresses, enforcing their rule with armies of cyborg assassins. On the Street, Boostergangs roam a shattered urban wilderness, killing and looting. The rest of the world is a perpetual party, as fashion-model beautiful techies rub biosculpt jobs with battle armored roadwarriors in the hottest clubs, sleaziest bars and meanest streets this side of the Postholocaust. The Future never looked so bad.”
Cyberpunk 2020 has a much broader range of player roles compared to Shadowrun, branching into social and class descriptors, ranging from Netrunners and Solos (hackers and hired guns), to Corporate businessmen, Rockerboy rebels, Fixers, Cops, and even Media sleuths out to bring down The Man.
If you want to start Cyberpunk 2077 early, this is the next best thing. Just grab your dice, a group of friends, and make sure you aren’t scammed a couple hundred bucks for your copy. We could be waiting a year or two for Cyberpunk 2077’s release, so grab your cyberdeck, jack in, and we’ll see you on the flipside after our crash course in the works that defined the cyberpunk genre.
Did we miss a critical title? Do you have a favorite piece of cyberpunk media to recommend? Cyberpunk has a habit of transcending mediums: from books, to film, to video games, so let us know in the comments below what works you think readers should be checking out next.