What is Cyberpunk? Diverse Cyberpunk Book List

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What is Cyberpunk?

Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction set in a futuristic dystopian setting. It is often characterized by the shorthand “lowlife and high tech” representing the juxtaposition of high technological advancement and the crumbling of certain societal norms along with it. Because of this, cyberpunk has been said to describe the post-modern condition. This is often characterized by: delegitimizing history and using history as styles, and therefore making history something to be consumed; the crumbling of high and low culture; the death of the individual subject, therefore rendering us all just a number amongst society; new technology used to replicate and automate rather than to create.

Cyberpunk Aesthetic

One of the major components of cyberpunk is the aesthetic. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, neon lights in a sleek and modern cityscape. The neon always being contrasted with the extremely dark shadows and alleys, representing that juxtaposition we spoke about in the section above. A lot of cyberpunk aesthetic gets seen as Tokyo after dark. Here are a few cyberpunk aesthetics to give you an idea of not only the aesthetic but the imagery you might find in a cyberpunk book:

The Origins of Cyberpunk

Today, when we think of cyberpunk, in most people, it conjures of images of Blade Runner, Ready Player One, or the Matrix. Though we’ve seen recent popular reimagining of these stories, cyberpunk has a history that goes back much further. As with most things in history, Cyberpunk comes in direct response to the era of science fiction that preceded it, New Wave Science Fiction.

We can think of science fiction to have gone through multiple eras. Science fiction was born in the pulp writing era, the golden age, new wave science fiction. The most important, in relation to cyberpunk, is the last. However, very briefly let’s go over the others:

Science fiction was born into the era of pulp writing. Pulp writing is characterized by cheap, low-quality literature. It was named after the inexpensive paper on which it was published. The competition was high and they were best known for their lurid, exploitative and sensational subject matter.

The golden age of science fiction was born in direct response to the pulp era. The golden age of science fiction, in contrast, is characterized by linear narratives, heroes solving problems and adventures with technology. They are what a lot of people like to call “Hard Science Fiction.” Culture emerging from the golden age of science fiction often gives off the impression that people believed that technological advancements could solve all problems, and so generally the science was as accurate as possible, and the narrative worked at a single idea and developed it very thoroughly. Think I, Robot, Farenheit 451, Man in the High Castle.

New Wave Science Fiction

In contrast, new wave science fiction directly responded to the rigidity of the golden age of science fiction with a much experimental approach. Very much mirroring the prominent wave of counter culture in the 60’s and 70’s, new wave science fiction started to experiment with how science related to humanity. It started to look at psychological states and inner space rather than outer space adventures. Characteristic of the time, it also began to make social comments on drug culture, sexual revolution and technology. This is also the time in science fiction where we begin to see prominent women writing science fiction.

This era of sci-fi reached back to it’s pulp roots, with what it learned from the golden age of sci-fi, to bring elevated literary style to the genre. The science in new wave science fiction is very minimal and instead asks the question “how does human nature relate to technology?” In answer to this question, this genre of science fiction tended to be more pessimistic about the future (relative to the golden age of science fiction). It presented metaphorical questions about human condition moving forward and psychological exploration.

Elements of Cyberpunk

Naturally, every cyberpunk story is different, but here are some common elements of the cyberpunk genre:

  1. Near future stories
    1. often with a dystopian feel, reflecting the breakdown of the legitimacy of history in the post modern condition.
  2. Technological interfaces
    1. often with the imagery of the cyborg, but with the broader definition of viewing the world through the lens of technology.
  3. Relationships
    1. this is often shown with political relationships growing much stronger, while interpersonal relationships become weaker
  4. Breakdown of high vs low culture
    1. all culture and history being devalued for popular consumption creating less of a distinction between high and low culture
  5. Punk Attitudes
    1. challenging authority, telling it as it is with less experimentation than the general new wave sci-fi

The Term Cyberpunk

The term cyberpunk wasn’t used in literature until Bruce Bithke’s short story of the same name. Bithke wanted to create a word that popped so that editors would remember. The word combines technological roots (cyber) with words that relate to socially misdirected youth (punk). Bruce Bithke, of course, didn’t invent cyberpunk fiction, rather just invented a word to describe an already emerging genre of sci-fi.

“The invention of the c-word was a conscious and deliberate act of creation on my part. I wrote the story in the early spring of 1980, and from the very first draft, it was titled “Cyberpunk.” In calling it that, I was actively trying to invent a new term that grokked the juxtaposition of punk attitudes and high technology.”

— Bruce Bithke

Notable Foundational Cyberpunk Works

Please note: These foundational works of cyberpunk may not fit under Bookish Brews mission of diversity, so I’m just listing them here. They are important to the genre, but do not need to be described in detail here. Feel free to look them up on your own.

Downfalls of the Cyberpunk Genre

Cyberpunk has an unyielding fascination with East Asia. So much so that (as mentioned above) cyberpunk aesthetic has become almost synonymous with Tokyo at night, through a western lens. The United States relationship with Japan in the 1980’s is characterized mostly by a concern in balance of trade between the two countries. There was an underlying, xenophobic fear of Japanese dominance at the time of the genre’s founding that is still entrenched in much of the genre.

I read a really relevant article on this, written by a Singaporean writer for Input magazine, that you should definitely read immediately: If cyberpunk is going to survive, it has to drop the racism. Issues like these are a big reason why Bookish Brews is working to promote diversity in genres to help subvert or dissipate these tropes. Or at least a step in the right direction. So please enjoy this list of cyberpunk books written by diverse authors!

List of Diverse Cyberpunk Books

And Shall Machines Surrender by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Quick Take

On Shenzhen, AI rule and humans live in luxury, yearning to be chosen as host bodies for the next generation of AI, and thus being worshiped as gods.

  • 🌏 East Asian Rep
  • πŸ“” Novella
  • πŸ³οΈβ€πŸŒˆ Lesbian Cyborgs
  • πŸ† Strong Female Lead

Goodreads | Amazon |  Book Depository

Why pick up this book?

Benjanun is.a Thai writer of science fiction and fantasy. She is a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her debut novella was shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Association award. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Dark, among others.

Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Quick Take

Just outside of the mysterious alien biodome, the town of Rosewater longs to see what is within. Kaaro is a government agent with a criminal past who has seen past the dome and doesn’t want to ever again, but when murders start happening, he must face his dark history.

  • 🌍 African Rep
  • πŸ₯€ Flawed Characters
  • πŸ”€ Non-Linear Storyline
  • πŸ’€ Dark Content

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Why pick up this book?

This novel won the Arthor C. Clarke Award, the Nommo Award and was a finalist for. theJohn W Campbell Award. He is also an award winner of the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award, and his short stories have been nominated for a British Science Fiction Association Award.

Want by Cindy Pon

Quick Take

In a society where the rich use their wealth to buy longer lives, Zhou is determined to change things no matter the cost. With his friends he infiltrates the lives of the wealthy in hopes from destroying it from within.

  • 🌏 East Asian Rep
  • πŸ³οΈβ€πŸŒˆ Lesbian Major Characters
  • πŸŽ‚ Coming of Age
  • πŸ“š First in Series

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Why pick up this book?

Cindy Pon is a writer and a brush artist. She has several books published, including a children’s book with her Chinese brush art. She works with Malinda Lo as co-founders of Diversity in YA, and is part of the We Need Diverse Books advisory board.

Nexus by Ramez Naam

Quick Take

In the near future, nano-drug Nexus has the ability to link humans together, mind to mind, but with new experimental technology comes people who want to exploit it.

  • 🌏 Asian Settings
  • πŸ”Ž Mystery/Thriller
  • πŸ€– Robots
  • πŸ—³οΈ Political Fiction

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Why pick up this book?

Ramez Naam is an American technologist and science fiction writer. He is currently co-chair for energy and the environment at Singularity University. He was a computer scientist at Microsoft for 13 years. He lectures at Singularity on energy, entironment and innovation. He has appeared on Sunday morning MSNBC, China Cable Television, BigThink and Reuters.fm.

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Rise of the Red Hand by Olivia Chadha

Quick Take

Ashiva works for the Red Hand, an underground network of revolutionaries fighting the government, which is run by a merciless computer algorithm that dictates every citizen’s fate.

  • 🌊 Climate Fiction
  • 🌏 South Asian Rep
  • ⏱️ Fast Paced
  • πŸ“– Couldn’t Put It Down

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Why pick up this book?

Olivia Chadha holds a Ph.D. from Binghampton University’s creative writing program, and a masters from University of Colorado, Boulder’s creative writing program. She researches the history of exile, India’s Partition, precarious borders and boundaries, global folklore and fairytales and the relationship between humans and the environment.

Panacea >Build 1.0 by Charli Drever

Quick Take

A group of misdirected teens from a near future stagnant and decaying London become key players in a plan to change the world.

  • 🌱 Character Growth
  • βœ’οΈ Debut Author
  • πŸ—³οΈ Political Fiction
  • πŸ€” Thought Provoking

Goodreads | Amazon 

Why pick up this book?

Charli is a speculative fiction author of novels and short stories from the UK. They are a designer and copywriter by trade and have been writing in one form or another since childhood. Charli creates rich, satirical and fearless worlds through writing.

Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

Quick Take

After being injected with the DNA of an extinct alien race, Vakov becomes addicted to adrenaline and aggression, so when he is asked to solve the murders of his old partners, it takes everything he has to uncover the secret and not fall victim to his addiction.

  • πŸ‘½ Aliens
  • πŸͺ– Military Fiction
  • πŸ³οΈβ€πŸŒˆ Queers in Space
  • 🎒 Thriller

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Why pick up this book?

Jeremy Szal has had his work of fiction and nonfiction appear in Nature, Tor.com, Abyss & Apex, Grimdark Magazine, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and Drabblecast, and many anthologies. His work has been adapted into audio and translated into Polish, Arabic, Spanish, French and Chinese.


Honorable Mentions

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Book Cover of Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta
Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta

Goodreads | Amazon | Ninth Step Murders

Ninth Step Station by Various Authors

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo

Let’s Chat!

πŸ€– Have you read any cyberpunk books before?
πŸ€– What is your favorite cyberpunk book?
πŸ€– Are you excited to dive into one of these? Let me know which one!


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Added to my TBR: A bunch of diverse cyberpunk books!!!