Recommendations for more... subtle dystopia and cyberpunk stories
December 16, 2020 11:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm mostly looking for books, but I'll accept games as well. Details of what I'm trying to avoid under cut.

I've been trying to branch out the types of sci-fi that I read and play, mainly dystopian and cyberpunk works, and I'm finding a hard time of find things that click. I enjoy darker themes (NOT grimdark) that are more philosophical than action-based, even if it's in the background. I just feel that, recently, I don't feel trusted as a reader or player to think about the themes the book/game is trying to convey. I feel talked at, if that makes sense.

Examples to guide your hand--

The Good
-Imperial Radch series: AIs in this universe have an interesting social position, and there's a background thread of what makes someone a Person
-Greg Egan: I just really like his short stories. He likes to merge hard science with existentialism; "Learning to be Me" has stuck with me for years

The Mixed
-SOMA (game): interesting concept that deals with uploading a consciousness into the cloud/virtual space, what makes someone human; ultimately, however, the main character started monologuing the main points and I'm like yes, I get it
-The Fall (game): first game was good atmospheric-wise, but ultimately didn't say much about robot consciousness that I haven't already heard before

The Bad
-Nineteen Eighty-Four: everything in this book is too on the nose; misogynistic main character; large cultural impact but ultimately very shallow
-Observer (game): interesting concept but tries too hard to be Very Cyberpunk; takes influences from Bladerunner and it shows, but in a bad way
-Black Mirror: the episodes I've actually liked are so few and far between I have stopped watching anything related to it
-Murderbot series: I've tried and it doesn't work for me
-Cyberpunk 2077: the game's a mess but just in case, this game is a hard no for me

Obviously, this is all going to be very subjective, but any suggestions? No fantasy elements, please.
posted by lesser weasel to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe not subtle per se, but definitely cyberpunk: Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan.

The short stories in Paintwork and Ghost Hardware are set in the same world, so you could see if you (dis)like them before investing in reading a novel.
posted by Strutter Cane - United Planets Stilt Patrol at 11:33 PM on December 16, 2020

Jennifer Government came to mind. It's not specifically sci-fi, but it definitely hits the dystopia angle.

As for sci-fi, Phillip K Dick might be a little too on the nose, but Ubik is a really good read.

As far as games, how about Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines? It's not sci-fi but it's very dystopian, and also skews towards moody urban fantasy. On top of that it's got a killer industrial/gothic punk soundtrack and excellent voice acting. There are NUMEROUS bugs because of reasons I won't get into, but the game is a cult favourite for a reason and the fan community has been great with making patches and mods. Be sure to download the unofficial patch to get the most out of your play.
posted by antihistameme at 12:13 AM on December 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Maybe a bit obvious but William Gibson's later work, particularly the "jackpot" series (The Peripheral, Agency) are very good. Similarly, Kim Stanley Robinson's environmental novels are worth looking at (personally I do feel a bit talked at by those novels but ymmv).
For a well written post apocalypse novel (although perhaps not a dystopia), Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven is worth a go.
posted by crocomancer at 1:34 AM on December 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Not specifically dystopian, but I would characterise Ted Chiang as a philosophical science fiction writer. He has two short story collections out: Stories of Your Life and Others and Exhalation. You might not enjoy everything he's written (some stories lean more towards fantasy), but I find they demand thought in a way it sounds as if you'd appreciate.

I'd also suggest taking a look at Nancy Kress's novels - I think she's an excellent writer, so if any of her themes interest you (the linked article is a good summary), definitely worth a shot.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 1:55 AM on December 17, 2020 [7 favorites]

I am not a scifi aficionado (partially because I am allergic to didactic writing so I feel your question!)...

but I am reading Ted Chiang's Exhalation and I think a lot of the stories are philosophical but generous to the reader.

I also recently finished Version Control by Dexter Palmer and thought it was a very gentle, moving meditation on grief (with time travel).
posted by athirstforsalt at 1:57 AM on December 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

1984 is one of the triumvirate of dystopian sci-fi novels that really defines the genre. It's "on the nose" because it's the original and so is a big part of setting the boundaries of what "dystopian literature" refers to. Reading it after reading other dystopian stories is a bit like seeing "The Godfather" after watching "Goodfellas" - it's hard to understand why people rave about "The Godfather" when "Goodfellas" does it better, but "The Godfather" defined the mob movie so it's venerated more.

Orwell is known for his concise, direct writing and that style may not suit you. The other 2 genre defining novels are:

Brave New Word, by Aldous Huxley
We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Of these, We sounds like the sort of thing you'd prefer. It's a much more "difficult" read than 1984, but because of that you might enjoy it more. You're in the mind of the protagonist, and it is indeed a strange place.

Others you might like:

Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing is a lesser-known gem of a dystopian feminist novel.
Noise by Darin Bradley, about the aftermath of an unspecified cataclysm and the growth of an anarchic movement.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, an obvious classic for a reason.
Metropolis the original dystopian film (hint: watch it at x1.5 the speed)
posted by underclocked at 2:35 AM on December 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

If I may mention books I've written myself:
You might enjoy my "Linked Worlds" series. It's cyberpunk set in an alternate world South Africa. Two of the books have been shortlisted for the Nommo award for best speculative fiction by an African writer. The first book in the series is "The Babylon Eye".
I'm also about to publish another book, called "We Broke the Moon". It's only coming out in January, but anyone who's interested in being an advance review reader can contact me via DM, and I'll send them an ebook copy for free.
Writers that influence me are CJ Cherryh, Becky Chambers, William Gibson, Garth Nix, to name just a few.
posted by Zumbador at 2:59 AM on December 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

Howling Dogs by Porpentine is probably my favourite work of art, something that's rattled around my head almost non-stop since I played it ten years ago.

It gives you a *lot* of space for thinking.
posted by wattle at 3:46 AM on December 17, 2020

C J Cherryh's Cyteen - a detailed exploration of a society making widespread use of cloning and artificial techniques to teach, control and reward behaviour. Some of the same themes are not only in the background but also explored through the characters and plot: the narrative follows power struggles between the scientists and administrators of the research organisation that runs these programs. The majority of the action is psychological ( politics, abuse, paranoia, control).

Peter Watts :
> Watts’ [sixth book] (Blindsight)—a philosophical rumination on the nature of consciousness with an unhealthy focus on space vampires—has become a core text in diverse undergraduate courses ranging from philosophy to neuropsych, and is rumored to have ended up in the occasional Real Neuro Lab.

Perhaps Charles Stross as well. One-off novel suggestion: Glasshouse. Stross' Merchant Princes / Empire Games series might work: what if there was a world parallel to ours, with a less developed medieval society, and a few people who can jump between both worlds. It sounds like it might be the setup for Narnia, but don't be mistaken: the series explores the economic and political consequences. One of the worlds is our contemporary surveillance state, so things trend dark.

Unusual suggestion: An Instance of the Fingerpost - Iain Pears. Historical mystery novel, with multiple unreliable narrators.
posted by are-coral-made at 3:51 AM on December 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

TALES FROM THE LOOP (2014) by Simon Stalenhag

Reamde, and then Fall, by Neil Stephenson
posted by nickggully at 6:58 AM on December 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

I don't completely get what you are looking for but I just listened to _Autonomous_ by Annalee Newitz. It's reminds me quite a bit of Gibson though I may be overstating the comparison. Not absolutely grimdark but pretty dark.

Autonomy of people and AIs in a nearish future dystopia after some fairly large (climate related?) disaster where IP laws pretty much rule over all. More biopunk than straight cyberpunk. Philosophical but maybe too straightforward.
posted by jclarkin at 7:37 AM on December 17, 2020

I wonder if Paolo Gacipalupi would work for you. I've only read The Windup Girl (CW: sexual assault) but it fits that bill well, and The Water Knife might be even better.
posted by Paper rabies at 7:54 AM on December 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Machineries of Empire series by Yoon Ha Lee is the first thing I can think of - I would say that the beginning is the most grimdark of the series and then it moves on to much more interesting fare. It's battle oriented and absolutely dystopian but much more clever then that genre typically is.
posted by Dmenet at 8:05 AM on December 17, 2020

Seconding The Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee. I also liked the Imperial Radch series and I always think of these two series in connection with each other. Also throwing out the Teixcalaan series by Arkady Martine, with the cavaet of only one book is published so far. And while this one is pretty well-known, I recently loved A Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. I don't know how many of her books would fall under dystopian, but she seems like a good fit for "more philosophical than action-based".

I don't think any of these would be considered Cyberpunk, but they are all grimmer/darker settings.
posted by verity kindle at 8:21 AM on December 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus is about an epidemic where language is literally toxic -- hearing or reading speech makes people sick. I found it vivid, convincing,and memorable, but it contains so many weird and disturbing elements that I think a lot of people wouldn't like it. It was marketed (in 2012) as literary fiction, not sci-fi. It doesn't talk at you.
posted by JonJacky at 8:32 AM on December 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have read The Water Knife (mentioned above) and I do think it would be a good fit for what you're looking for.
posted by true at 8:37 AM on December 17, 2020

Try Hannu Rajaniemi's Jean le Flambeur series for a weird intellectual far-future adventure that's still grounded in our solar system.
posted by yarntheory at 9:11 AM on December 17, 2020

Maybe Margaret Atwood's Maddaddam trilogy? Definitely dystopian, dark and more philosophical than action-based. I didn't feel talked at, but YMMV.
posted by catquas at 9:22 AM on December 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

I also recently finished Version Control by Dexter Palmer

Was going to suggest this book as well as his earlier one The Dream of Perpetual Motion. Also nthing Peter Watts (the Rifters series is very good), and The Water Knife. Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang is a long world-building novel that really looks at what kind of society is best for people. Supernova Era by Cixin Liu is another good one. Everyone over the age of 13 dies and an AI helps them build a new world. How does that go?
posted by jessamyn at 9:25 AM on December 17, 2020

I'll dip back in with some more recommendations, sorry if someone above has covered these already:
Schismatrix Plus by Bruce Sterling
China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh is foundational and often overlooked.
I'll always recommend the Ware tetrology by Rudy Rucker

I avoid Neal Stephensen these days. I find William Gibson hits so close to home it makes me uncomfortable to read his newer stuff - it's odd to blame a person for being just cynical enough for our current reality. Kim Stanley Robinson is real great but maybe not in your ballpark?
posted by Dmenet at 1:02 PM on December 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

seconding The Peripheral and the Maddaddam series, both are excellent.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:21 PM on December 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Seconding China Mountain Zhang - I'm glad someone mentioned it; I wanted to, but it's been so long since I read it that I wasn't quite confident enough of the fit.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 12:56 AM on December 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: (So many of these look great; I’m excited to start reading some! I knew Metafilter would have recommendations not on the usual lists. Keep them coming if you have more ideas :))
posted by lesser weasel at 1:58 AM on December 18, 2020

As you read Japanese, I can also recommend Venus City by Goro Masaki (『ヴィーナス・シティ』 柾悟朗), which, though unsurprisingly problematic in some aspects as an artifact of it being almost 30 years old, does interesting things with gender and language. It won both the Japan SF Taisho and the Seiun Award in 1993.
posted by Strutter Cane - United Planets Stilt Patrol at 2:17 AM on December 18, 2020

I just wanted to 2nd Schismatrix Plus by Sterling. It's a fantastic novel (and attending short stories) that builds a whole world. It's a little more leaning towards hard science fiction, but still with solid cyberpunk roots. One of my favorite books.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:42 AM on December 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

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