Help Me Fill Out My Cyberpunk Reading List
February 7, 2018 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Hi folks, I'm working on a long-ish critical project about cyberpunk literature, and I'm trying to fill out my reading list with some early and/or obscure works, edge cases, and proto/post cyberpunk. Recommendations for works by POC and women are particularly welcome, as they tend to be few and far between, or at least dramatically less visible.

I'm also interested in any critical reading, although that's less of a concern right now, as my project is about re-shaping the definition of "cyberpunk" around a different set of criteria than is traditional, thereby expanding the boundaries of the sub-genre and arguing for its continued literary vitality/relevance.

The reading list I've compiled so far is about 78 volumes, including some hard-to-find works by Melissa Scott, Glenn Grant, and Bruce Bethke. I compiled it using things in my own personal library, and lists found on Wikipedia, io9, Neon Dystopia, The Cyberpunk Project, and other sites--but the overlap on those sites is extreme and I am always stumbling across stuff they've left out or don't seem to think fits (the fact that nobody but me seems interested in putting Maureen F. McHugh's excellent China Mountain Zhang on their cyberpunk reading list seems patently absurd to me, but people look at me like I've got three heads when I mention it).

My edge cases include things like Tom McCarthy's Satin Island, some Ballard, Lauren Beukes' Zoo City, Tim Maughan's design fictions, and M. John Harrison's Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. Many of these have the "feel" of cyberpunk but don't fit for a variety of reasons, hence "edge cases". I'm also interested in including things that were considered cyberpunk at the time, but are now assigned to another sub-genre; my chief example in this category is Greg Bear's Blood Music, which is now considered "biopunk", but shows up on a number of older lists of "early" cyberpunk.

Anyway, your help in this matter would be greatly appreciated.
posted by Fish Sauce to Media & Arts (39 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
Some of Scarlett Thomas's work might suit.
posted by dizziest at 8:22 AM on February 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Angela Carter's work (e.g., The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman), might be considered an 'edge case' in the same vein as Ballard.
posted by googly at 8:30 AM on February 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

Charlie Jane Anders' All the Birds in the Sky might be another one of your edge cases. It's not all (or only) cyber punk, but it's got some of the elements.

Also, some of William Gibson's latest work (The Peripheral, for example, but also the Blue Ant trilogy) might also be worth reading in the context of your reading list -- but, yeah, straight white dude...

Good luck.
posted by platitudipus at 8:36 AM on February 7, 2018

Slow River by Nicola Griffith (LGBT author and characters, albeit maybe more biopunk than cyberpunk)
posted by 4rtemis at 8:37 AM on February 7, 2018 [7 favorites]

Pat Cadigan springs to mind? Also Slow River was great, I just read it for the first time.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 8:42 AM on February 7, 2018

Neal (warning: SWM) Stephenson's Snow Crash is must-read cyberpunk — post-apocalyptic yet amazingly optimistic. It's even more amazing sequel, The Diamond Age is pointedly post-cyberpunk.
posted by ubiquity at 8:50 AM on February 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Ultimate Cyberpunk anthology edited by Pat Cadigan has some short stories that may fit what you're looking for. There is one story in particular where the main character is Chinese who grew up in Vancouver and ends up working in Brunei. Don't remember if the author of that is in fact Chinese, but...

There are also early works included by Alfred Bester among others for your edge cases.
posted by Fukiyama at 8:57 AM on February 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Cyberweb and Arachne by Lisa Mason.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 9:08 AM on February 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Bester's Stars my Destination is one of my favorite weird little books. It's almost cyberpunk in tone, certainly, in addition to being a Monte Cristo story. Definitely suffers from the time it was written, but no more so than many other more well-known works.
posted by Alensin at 9:11 AM on February 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Mick Farren's Exit Funtopia (SWG) might be an interesting borderline case in that it has a nicely meta conceit that satirizes the noir elements of Bladerunner and early Gibson, by making the protagonist's hobby/lifestyle pretending to be a hardboiled Marlowesque private eye in a near future dystopia where few have real jobs, who (inevitably) stumbles into a real case.
posted by Chairboy at 10:00 AM on February 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Synners definitely.

John Varley's "PRESS ENTER" seems to be obscure now. It does have a SUPER-ANNOYING-SUPER-ANNOYING description of a female character, though.

I think you have an argument for Zhang.
posted by praemunire at 10:03 AM on February 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Red Spider, White Web is a very strange, accomplished and tricky cyberpunk novel by Misha, a writer of Metis descent.

Apparently there was a sort of second wave of cyberpunk in Mexico around NAFTA activism and trade issues. Unfortunately, not much has been translated but The Ragdoll Plagues has a cyberpunk inflected plotline. (And of course, if you read Spanish there's more available.)

You almost certainly have John Brunner's Shockwave Rider on your list but just in case - obviously he's a white dude, but it is one of the ur-cyberpunk books and he was an early member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and wrote "Can You Hear the H-Bomb's Thunder" for the Aldermaston March, something that is sadly timely.

("Don't you hear the H-bomb's thunder
Echo like the crack of doom?
While they rend the skies asunder
Fall-out makes the earth a tomb
Do you want your homes to tumble
Rise in smoke towards the sky?
Will you let your cities crumble
Will you see your children die?)

You presumably have "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" and associated James Tiptree short stories on your list, but it might also be worthwhile to go through the Women of Wonder anthologies - there are a couple of proto-cyberpunk stories there, "Baby You Were Great", in particular.

He, She and It is canonically fairly cyberpunk, but Woman On The Edge of Time has a lot of proto-cyberpunk themes, especially the things that occur more in women's cyberpunk - the idea of brain surgery to wire the brain for compliant participation in a network rather than for "jacking in" to the site of cowboy adventures.

A surprising amount of seventies feminist Sf mentions networks that would be at home in cyberpunk (The Female Man has the "induction network", for instance) but of course all that gets discarded when Bruce Sterling, who is a man and therefore important, writes his famous early eighties essay about how boring and static seventies SF had been. (Gibson, who knew better even at the time, should not have rolled along with all that nonsense.)

Honestly, I think that there's a left (and especially feminist) critique of corporate technology that runs through the New Wave and seventies feminist SF and ultimately feeds into cyberpunk (via Gibson in particular, since he was very into Russ and other experimental SF writers.)

You've totally got Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand on there, right? The first mention of a "Web", "General Information", some interesting stuff about prostheses.

And while I know you have Jane Candas Dorsey's (TBH IMO somewhat less interesting than it gets credit for being) "Learning About Machine Sex" on the list, it might be worth looking at her eighties short stories - I seem to recall that there's a couple of other ones that might be relevant.
posted by Frowner at 10:05 AM on February 7, 2018 [14 favorites]

Maybe the Cordwainer Smith story The Game of Rat and Dragon would work. In fact some of his stories from early in his chronology like Scanners Live In Vain would also fit. They have technology and created organisms so cyber and bio. Depending on your standards, Smith's novel Norstrillia with its boy and his AI visiting the genetically modified animal people might fit.
posted by irisclara at 10:07 AM on February 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

These are quite good, thank you everyone. A few are already on my list, but there are also several I hadn't considered and even some I hadn't even heard of.
posted by Fish Sauce at 10:27 AM on February 7, 2018

Cindy Pon, Want. Ecological themes, Gibsonesque YA set in Taiwan by a Taiwanese American.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:05 AM on February 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Company Town by Madeline Ashby -- very Gibson-esque..
posted by k5.user at 11:11 AM on February 7, 2018

Fish Sauce, this sounds like a great idea! I'd love to read it when you are done. Can you please let us know where and when you publish? Thanks!
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 11:29 AM on February 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Will do! I'll likely post some short "thinking through this part of my idea" posts on my blog (link in profile) over the next few months, but it could be a year or more before the final thing is done, and I have a special domain I've bought just for publishing it.

And thanks very much for everyone who is posting here. It's very helpful.
posted by Fish Sauce at 11:39 AM on February 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

These might be edge cases:
Jeff Noon: Vurt (1993)
Enki Bilal: The Nikopol Trilogy (comics 1980-92)
posted by Petersondub at 11:53 AM on February 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Emma Bull's Bone Dance is described as fantasy but I think it has a definite cyberpunk flavour, and I always imagined it in a Blade Runner-like world.
posted by Athanassiel at 12:14 PM on February 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

Maybe Ken Liu's short story, "Good Hunting"?
posted by the_blizz at 12:16 PM on February 7, 2018

In terms of critical reading, Donna Haraway's A Cyborg Manifesto (from her book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women) is always useful to read alongside texts — apologies if that's too obvious a pick.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 12:52 PM on February 7, 2018

Check out Gleepsite by Joanna Russ - definitely in the ‘proto’ category, and requires two or three reads before you fully grasp what’s actually going on, but it’s fabulous and has some very cool things to say about what wish fulfillment through tech can do to people.

John Varley is most likely on your list already, but definitely look into his Eight Worlds stories if you haven't - I've read Options and Beatnik Bayou, and both of them are really well-drawn looks at a human society rendered semi-alien by advanced technology.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:59 PM on February 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Fairly early, lady author.
posted by SaltySalticid at 1:04 PM on February 7, 2018

Rudy Rucker's Ware tetralogy is worth a mention as underapprecieted/lesser known series with some ...interesting ideas.
posted by Dmenet at 1:13 PM on February 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Gun With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem is one of my faves.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 1:35 PM on February 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution quartet for a particularly Scots take on the genre, although the 4th is less cyberpunk than alt-future history.
posted by Chairboy at 2:37 PM on February 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

This has been alluded to, but my understanding (this is all via thirdhand sources) is that the absence of women from the cyberpunk classics was very much a deliberate move -- Sterling and Gibson wanted to portray themselves as revolutionary, as opposed to others who were writing warmed-over New Wave material. A substantial number of their targets were female.

In that sense, cyberpunk itself is an exercise in erasing women's writing -- the genre was predicated upon eliminating a lot of the writers who were active at the time.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 4:14 PM on February 7, 2018

Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers has at least one or two cyberpunk-y stories -- and is overall great.

If it's helpful, I can try and pull the individual story title(s) later!
posted by kylej at 4:24 PM on February 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

this is not by a woman or person of color, but Sam McPheeters' recent "Exploded View" might be an interesting addition to yr list.
posted by kensington314 at 5:09 PM on February 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

steady-state strawberry: That is a common point of view, but from what I can tell it's based almost entirely on a single essay (Sterling's introduction to Mirrorshades) and the fact that "The Gernsback Continuum" was the flagship story of "the Movement". A look at the zine (Cheap Truth) that Sterling published in the run-up to cyberpunk taking off and which was the source of a lot of his very accurate reputation as a caustic pot-stirrer and had a number of contributors (Lewis Shiner in particular, but also Gibson and others), shows that they were in fact actively promoting the work of some women writers, including Joanna Russ specifically, who is always the first name to be brought up as being "erased" by Sterling, Gibson, and the rest of them. (They were Le Guin fans, too.)

It's absolutely true that they were far more interested in male writing and equally true that they were also very cliquish, but to blame them for dropping Russ off the map or for deliberately attempting to erase women's writing is to ignore a great deal of what they said on the subject before and after Sterling being mouthy in that one essay. There are a few interviews with Gibson from the time (and many are collected in a great book called Conversation with William Gibson, edited by Patrick A. Smith) in which he talks about only reading a very small amount SF around the time he started writing, having mostly left it behind years before deciding to try his hand at it, and that his primary frame of reference when writing "The Gernsback Continuum", and indeed when thinking of SF more generally, was the work he read when he was much younger. He's never really wavered from that position, not even when I interviewed him around the time Zero History came out. Sterling continues to be Sterling, which is to say that he talks a lot and neither consistency nor tact are his forté.

There are some interesting accounts of run-ins the group had with more established and more traditional SF writers and fans at the time, and it seems like they were subjected to as much abuse as they dished out--or perhaps even more. There is still talk on fan sites (File770, for instance--though to be fair, in the comments, not in the news/editorial posts) that uses rhetoric about "putting them in their place", so I don't feel like it's a cut-and-dried issue; their reputation was very much centred in both industry and fannish politics of the day. Most of that context is lost, but the reputation remains.

Anyway, tl;dr version: yeah, many of them were bored with a lot of the work being produced by the end of the '70s, but the "erasure of female writing" charge is one that's the result of an extremely uncharitable reading of a single provocative essay and of completely ignoring a lot of the other commentary they'd produced on the subject in which they explicitly praise the work of the writers they were apparently attempting to erase.
posted by Fish Sauce at 6:07 PM on February 7, 2018 [7 favorites]

Wilhelmina Baird ! I love her, she’s basically unknown these days.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:43 PM on February 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Fish Sauce: Clearly, you've read more than I have on the subject. I'm working from what I heard at a panel discussion at a con from Jo Walton and Michael Swainwich - largely, that there was a real effort to present cyberpunk as the wave of the future, and that many prior writers were dismissed. (Russ was never mentioned.) I don't get the impression that that essay had much to do with their opinions on the subject.

But, again, perhaps I'm misinformed about all of it.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 8:03 PM on February 7, 2018

I was mistaken, it was the preface to Burning Chrome, not Mirroshades, although I don't think their content is dis-similar. The most often-cited source (from what I can tell) is Jeanne Gomoll's "An Open Letter to Joanna Russ", in which she writes:
[Quoting Bruce Sterling] "The sad truth of the matter is that SF has not been much fun of late. All forms of pop culture go through the doldrums: they catch cold when society sneezes. If SF in the late Seventies was confused, self-involved, and stale, it was scarcely a cause for wonder." [End Quoting Bruce Sterling]

With a touch of the keys on his word processor, Sterling dumps a decade of SF writing out of cultural memory: the whole decade was boring, symptomatic of a sick culture, not worth writing about. Now, at last, he says, we're on to the right stuff again.

All the people who were made nervous or bored or threatened by the explosion of women's writing and issues now find it safe to come out and speak out loud of their dissatisfaction. Of course, it's safer to criticize generally ("It was a self-involved, me-decade,' and nothing worthwhile was created") than to say specifically what they mean. (The women writers of the 70s bored me because I didn't care about their ideas; I felt left out. "They wrote it but it was a boring fad.")

This new strategy not only attempts to detract from the critical assessment of SF writing by women, and to belittle the accomplishments of women in fandom (which I'll write about later in this letter), but it has also been turned against the women's movement as a whole. For the last couple of years I've begun to suspect that the phrase, "the me-decade" is really a euphemistic attack upon the changes made by the women's movement. The phrase is both inappropriate and misleading.
Sterling et. al. have a lot good to say about some '70s SF in Cheap Truths, but generally earlier in the decade rather than later, and they were often specifically praising the kick in the pants feminist writers gave SF. I think Sterling et. al. were lamenting that by the late '70s that kick felt to them like it was wearing off, and they missed it. Anyway, when I first read this piece and the numerous blog posts and essays that rely on it heavily, I wanted to see if there was more than just that one sentence to draw from, which is why I tracked down the old Cheap Truths issues.
posted by Fish Sauce at 8:53 PM on February 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

I've checked the sources you listed, and they don't seem to mention these, which may meet your wider definition of cyberpunk:
  • Raphael Carter, The Fortunate Fall (a novel by a non-binary author; Jo Walton says, "I felt that it justified Cyberpunk, it was worth having had Cyberpunk if we could come out the other side and have this book")
  • Zen Cho (ed.), Cyberpunk: Malaysia ("an anthology of 14 short cyberpunk stories by Malaysian authors")
  • Ramez Naam, Nexus trilogy ("a postcyberpunk thriller novel trilogy ... [about] an experimental nano-drug, Nexus, which allows the brain to be programmed and networked")

posted by Wobbuffet at 9:46 PM on February 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

I scraped GoodRead's list of CyberPunk books.

I didn't get quite all of the list before GoodReads blocked me... The way GoodReads categories work they count the number of people that rated a given book in a given category, so the above list stops at people that only rated a given book three times as cyberpunk, which means it's either probably not cyberpunk, or it's got a tiny tiny readership.
posted by gregr at 8:08 AM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also, not sure if you have raw numbers on it (if you do I'd love to see them), but based on that good reads scrape and a (probably bad) list of female first names 11% of cyberpunk is written by people with female first names.
posted by gregr at 9:33 AM on February 8, 2018

I know it's not women or PoC, but Burning Chrome, Gibson's early short stories?

Different in feel than almost all the rest of his work, and I'd argue better and less full of itself. It's just fun, and has female primary protagonists, which isn't much of a theme elsewhere in the mainstream of the genre. (That I've seen, at least?)
posted by talldean at 10:08 PM on February 8, 2018

Timely Twitter rant: “if your cyberpunk celebrates the corporate dystopia of its setting, it is not cyber "punk". It is cyber boot-licking. It is cyber cops. it is cyber college republicans

“A Rape in Cyberspace” by Julian Dibbell from the ‘90s is nonfiction, but it hit a lot of points about online identity and virtual sexual harassment that would become hallmarks of online life and post-cyberpunk works exploring that.
posted by nicebookrack at 2:08 PM on February 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

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