Dystopias may be the hot YA trend right now, but cyberpunk (and its bosom buddy, steampunk) is on the rise. In fact, you may have read some YA cyberpunk without even realizing it–books with a high level of technobabble but a low standard of living, like The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins), Kaimira: Sky Village (Nigel Ashland, Monk Ashland), The Softwire Series (P.J. Haarsma), and Little Brother (Cory Doctorow).
What is Cyberpunk?
There’s a lot of debate over when exactly cyberpunk started, but most fans agree it began in the early eighties with the Bruce Berthke story aptly titled Cyberpunk. The genre didn’t really take off, though, until the 90s, with novels such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, William Gibson’s Neuromancer. (Several authors–such as Bruce Sterling and Pat Cadigan–were publishing cyberpunk in the 80s; sadly, it was largely unnoticed by general science fiction audiences).
But what exactly is cyberpunk? It’s kind of hard to pin down. Although it’s clearly a subgenre of science fiction, cyberpunk often moonlights as dystopic and post-apocalyptic fiction. Protagonists are usually misfits, smart (and precocious), anti-social (even verging on a-social), and outside the law/government in some way (anti-heroes are also popular–but that’s another post). But instead of focusing on extreme conditions in a far, far away future, cyberpunk authors tend to play with current technological ideas, bumping them up a couple of steps to ask the seminal writerly question: what if?
Cyberpunk is, by its nature, anti-utopian (William Gibson’s short story, The Gernsback Continuum digs into some of the reasons why). But instead of just setting up a dystopic world and depending on suspension of disbelief, good cyberpunk forces the reader to ask questions and scratch about for answers. Consider The Hunger Games (I’d say consider Catching Fire, too, but I haven’t read it yet)–throughout the book, Katniss articulates our questions, asking why the Capitol is the way it is, why its citizens are unhappy, why Gale rages and shouts when he’s trapped in District 12 unable to help.
Another common theme in cyberpunk is the manipulated situation–also a la The Hunger Games. In Kaimira: Sky Village, Mei and Breaker are each thrust into settings against their will–Mei because her father leaves her with the Sky Dwellers, Breaker because he has to help Riley. The story is full of mecha and tech detail, and the characters’ facility with mecha is a key plot point. Both books, though, are often labeled dystopia.
But cyberpunk shares elements with more than just science fiction novels. Unsurprisingly, it’s often very post-modernist, and some works have a very film noir feel. Matrix-like, some stories play with the connection between the mind and virtual reality, a particularly relevant theme just now.
Why Not Just Call it Science Fiction?
Part of the allure of cyberpunk–and dystopic fiction–is the name. Science fiction conjures images of pasty, pimpled, bespectacled mole people who watch the same episode of Star Trek until they’ve nailed not just Spock’s lines, but his inflections, too. (No disrespect, Trek lovers: I’ve watched all 5 series and the movies. Undiscovered Country is my favorite. Hurrah for even numbers.) Telling your friends you read cyberpunk or dystopic fiction makes readers sound not just cool, but intellectual and cutting edge, particularly since poliitco-social themes are common in both.
Breaking up science fiction, though, means that we (authors and readers) are less likely to move beyond a core group of titles. Although readers of dystopic fic may love more cyberpunk geared titles, they’re unlikely to pick them up; post-apocalyptic fans are less likely to rifle through the dystopia shelves.
Why Cyberpunk makes good YA
Although it’s easy to get bogged down in setting, the key to cyberpunk, like most good fiction, is its characters. Characters are also, to my mind, the most important part of good YA. So why do cyberpunk protagonists make good YA?
Belonging & Rebellion
Pretty much all cyberpunk protagonists are non-conformist in some way. Some are outright rebels; few (if any–I certainly can’t come up with anything) have a sense of belonging. Many also feel manipulated (with good reason) and misunderstood. While few teens are forced into arena to battle it out with mechanical robot extensions of themselves, most will recognize parts of their lives in Breaker’s story, and relate to his emotions.
This is how I think of the current crop of kids and teens, the ones who’ve grown up with fast computers and the internet. Older folk (like me–my 29 year old brain is already past it!), no matter how intent on learning, will never speak tech with the same ease as today’s kids and teens (the same will be true of their kids, and so on and so on, until we hit the Zombocalypse). Cyberpunk protagonists are usually in the same boat–they’re computer geniuses, hackers, neurally jacked, &c. &c. &c.
Just about everyone and their irate ferret has an opinion on climate change. And while all those irate ferrets may not agree it’s real, most of us can agree that the world has a lot of problems–problems we’re passing onto our teens. Like dystopias, many cyberpunk novels deal with very timely issues (including reality tv, climate change, and social media), pushing the boundaries and forcing readers to wonder if such scenarios could actually happen (a world ruled by irate ferrets and their Dalek minions? Totally). Most cyberpunk novels, even the hardcore tech ones, often present futures with eerie echoes of not just today, but recognizable–believable–predictions for tomorrow.
Do you read cyberpunk? YA or adult? Do you like it? What did you think of The Hunger Games, Little Brother, and Kaimira: Sky Village? If you’re looking for some good YA cyberpunk, check out my recent list.
Never heard of cyberpunk? It’s a subgenre of science fiction, a blending of “high tech” and “low life”. Although it’s not hot right now, cyberpunk and dystopias have a lot in common (think The Hunger Games, or Kaimira: Sky Village). But where dystopias are more general (what if the government took control? what if a plague wiped out half the population?), cyberpunk plays with scientific what-ifs in the context of a greater dystopic world. And although not specifically geared toward YA readers, many cyberpunk novels–like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash–speak to the teen in all of us.
Some of these titles are marketed as straight out YA (marked with a *); the rest are considered adult lit, but are easily crossover.
1. SNOW CRASH, Neal Stephenson
In California of the near future, when the U.S. is only a “Burbclave” (city-state), the Mafia is just another franchise chain (CosaNostrastet Pizza, Incorporated) and there are no laws to speak of, Hiro Protagonist follows clues from the Bible, ancient Sumer and high technology to help thwart an attempt to take control of civilization–such as it is. When he logs on to Metaverse, an imaginary place entered via computer, Hiro encounters Juanita Marquez, a “radical” Catholic and computer whiz. She warns him off Snow Crash (a street drug named for computer failure) and gives him a file labeled Babel (as in Tower of Babel). Another friend, sp ok/pk Da5id, who ignores Juanita’s warning, computer crashes out of Metaverse into the real world, where he physically collapses. Hiro, Juanita, Y.T. (a freewheeling, skateboard-riding courier) and sundry other Burbclave and franchise power figures see some action on the way to finding out who is behind this bizarre “drug” with ancient roots. Although Stephenson ( Zodiac ) provides more Sumerian culture than the story strictly needs (alternating intense activity with scholarship breaks), his imaginative juxtaposition of ancient and futuristic detail could make this a cult favorite.–PW
2. HALTING STATE, Charles Stross
Starred Review. This brilliantly conceived techno-crime thriller spreads a black humor frosting over the grim prospect of the year 2012, when China, India and the European System are struggling for world economic domination in an infowar, and the U.S. faces bankruptcy over its failing infrastructure. Sgt. Sue Smith of Edinburgh’s finest, London insurance accountant Elaine Barnaby and hapless secret-ridden programmer Jack Reed peel back layer after layer of a scheme to siphon vast assets from Hayek Associates, a firm whose tentacles spread into international economies. The theft is routed through Avalon Four, a virtual reality world complete with supposedly robbery-proof banks. As an electronic intelligence agency trains innocent gamers to do its dirty work, Elaine sets Jack to catch the poacher. Hugo-winner Stross (Glasshouse) creates a deeply immersive story, writing all three perspectives in the authoritative second-person style of video game instructions and gleefully spiking the intrigue with virtual Orcs, dragons and swordplay. The effortless transformation of today’s technological frustrations into tomorrow’s nightmare realities is all too real for comfort.–PW
3. NEUROMANCER, William Gibson
Here is the novel that started it all, launching the cyberpunk generation, and the first novel to win the holy trinity of science fiction: the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award and the Philip K. Dick Award. With , William Gibson introduced the world to cyberspace–and science fiction has never been the same. Case was the hottest computer cowboy cruising the information superhighway–jacking his consciousness into cyberspace, soaring through tactile lattices of data and logic, rustling encoded secrets for anyone with the money to buy his skills. Then he double-crossed the wrong people, who caught up with him in a big way–and burned the talent out of his brain, micron by micron. Banished from cyberspace, trapped in the meat of his physical body, Case courted death in the high-tech underworld. Until a shadowy conspiracy offered him a second chance–and a cure–for a price…. –Amazon
4. DIASPORA, Greg Egan
By the year 2975, humanity has wandered down several widely divergent evolutionary paths. “Flesher” life is that which resides in a basically human body, though genetically engineered mutations have created communication problems throughout the species. In the “polises,” meanwhile, disembodied but self-aware artificial intelligences procreate, interact, make art and attempt to solve life’s mathematical mysteries. Then there are the “gleisners,” which are conscious, flesher-shaped robots run by self-aware software that is linked directly to the physical world through hardware. Throughout, Egan (Distress) follows the progress of Yatima, an orphan spontaneously generated by the non-sentient software of the Konishi polis. Yatima gains self-awareness, meets with Earthly fleshers and, when tragedy strikes, becomes personally involved in the greatest search for species survival ever undertaken. Though the novel often reads like a series of tenuously connected graduate theses and lacks the robust drama and characterizations of good fiction, fans of hard SF that incorporates higher mathematics and provocative hypotheses about future evolution are sure to be fascinated by Egan’s speculations.–PW
5. THE SOFTWIRE SERIES, PJ Haarsma *
Johnny Turnbull has spent all of his 12 years aboard the seed-ship Renaissance en route to the Rings of Orbis. Due to a mechanical problem, the adults on the spaceship perished long before Johnny and the other young passengers were born (they were stored as embryos and raised by the ship’s computer). When they arrive on Orbis 1, the orphans quickly learn that they will be forced to work for the Guarantors (alien businessmen) in order to pay off their dead parents’ debt for their passage. Johnny is immediately identified as the first human softwire, someone with the ability to enter and manipulate a computer with his mind. Because of his gift, he is a prime suspect when the central computer of Orbis 1 begins to malfunction. He must prove his innocence and solve the mystery of the mechanical failures before time runs out. The author deftly introduces the futuristic setting without getting bogged down in long and detailed descriptive passages, and the brisk plot will keep the interest of reluctant readers. Although a few of the secondary characters are not fully developed, Johnny and his sister are well drawn, and the scenes between the two are skillfully crafted. The first in a planned quartet, this book is a good selection for science-fiction fans.–Melissa Christy Buron, Epps Island Elementary, Houston, TX for School Library Journal
6. KAIMIRA: THE SKY VILLAGE, Monk Ashland & Nigel Ashland *
In a future world devastated by the Trinary Wars, human beings battle for supremacy with beasts and intelligent machines called meks. Though they have never met and live half a world apart, 12-year-old Mei and 13-year-old Rom communicate through their respective copies of the fabulous, interactive Tree Book, inhabited (or possessed?) by something calling itself Animus. The kids’ body chemistry also contains something odd—the Kaimira Gene, which means that their human genes are intermixed with mek and beast elements. Talk about multiple-personality disorder! The first volume of a planned five-book series, this title is short on characterization and long on plot complications. It’s also as much a hybrid as Mei and Rom, part book, part online opportunity; the title contains a mini-packet of appended matter that guides readers to a companion Web site, where they’ll find fun and games, including an interactive online community and behind-the-scenes glimpses. Kids will be tantalized, but adults will probably throw up their hands. Move over, Brave New World. –Michael Cart for Booklist
7. THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
In a surprising departure from the traditional view of cyberpunk’s bleak future, Gibson ( Mona Lisa Overdrive ) and Sterling ( Islands in the Net ) render with elan and colorful detail a scientifically advanced London, circa 1855, where computers (“Engines”) have been developed. Fierce summer heat and pollution have driven out the ruling class, and ensuing anarchy allows the subversive, technology-hating Luddites to surface and battle the intellectual elite. Much of the problem centers on a set of perforated cards, once in the possession of an executed Luddite leader’s daughter, later in the hands of “Queen of Engines” Ada Byron (daughter of prime minister Lord Byron), finally given to Edward Mallory, a scientist. Mallory, who knows the cards are a gambling device that can be read with a specialized Engine, is soon threatened and libeled by the Luddites, and he and his associates confront the scoundrels in a violent showdown. A sometimes listless pace and limp conclusions that defy the plot’s complexity flaw an otherwise visionary, handsomely written, unsentimental tale that convincingly revises the 19th-century Western world.–PW
8. KILN PEOPLE, David Brin
Bestselling novelist Brin (Startide Rising; The Postman; etc.) restricts the action to planet Earth, but still allows his imagination to roam the cosmos in this ambitious SF/mystery hybrid whose grasp occasionally exceeds its reach. Thanks to the new technology of imprinting, people in a near-future America can copy their personalities into animated clay bodies (called “dittos” or “golems”), which last a single day. Albert Morris, private investigator, is his own sidekick as he attempts to uncover the murderer of a prominent imprinting research scientist, capture a criminal mastermind specializing in ditto the major ditto manufacturer and pinning the blame on several Alberts. Brin deftly explores the issues of identity, privacy and work in a world where everyone is supported with a living wage and has ready access to duplication technology. The book features the author’s usual style, with a lighter touch and punnish humor abounding amid the hard SF speculation. The duplication of the “ditective” makes for a challenging twist on the standard private eye narrative, allowing Morris to simultaneously lead the reader through three separate (and interacting) plot lines. The hardboiled framework and the humor mix a bit uneasily, as does the social background of a libertarian/socialist U.S.A. The book’s major fault lies in the diffusion of most of the tension as expendable dittos replace vulnerable humans for much of the action. Still, the work is brightened by Brin’s trademark hardheaded optimism.–PW
9. SOFTWARE, Rudy Rucker
It was Cobb Anderson who built the “boppers”—the first robots with real brains. Now, in 2020, Cobb is just another aged “pheezer” with a bad heart, drinking and grooving an the old tunes in Florida retirement hell. His “bops” have came a long way, though, rebelling against their subjugation to set up their own society an the moon. And now they’re offering creator Cobb immortality but at a stiff price: his body his soul … and his world.It was Cobb Anderson who built the “boppers”—the first robots with real brains. Now, in 2020, Cobb is just another aged pheezer with a bad heart, drinking and grooving on the old tunes in Florida retirement hell. His “bops” have come a long way, though, rebelling against their subjugation to set up their own society on the moon. And now they re offering creator Cobb immortality, but at a stiff price: his body, his soul. . .and his world.–Back cover
10. DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? Philip K. Dick *
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was published in 1968. Grim and foreboding, even today it is a masterpiece ahead of its time. By 2021, the World War had killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remained coveted any living creature, and for people who couldn’t afford one, companies built incredibly realistic simulacrae: horses, birds, cats, sheep. . . They even built humans. Emigrees to Mars received androids so sophisticated it was impossible to tell them from true men or women. Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans could wreak, the government banned them from Earth. But when androids didn’t want to be identified, they just blended in. Rick Deckard was an officially sanctioned bounty hunter whose job was to find rogue androids, and to retire them. But cornered, androids tended to fight back, with deadly results. –Paul Williams for Rolling Stone
11. THE HUNGER GAMES, Suzanne Collins
In a not-too-distant future, the United States of America has collapsed, weakened by drought, fire, famine, and war, to be replaced by Panem, a country divided into the Capitol and 12 districts. Each year, two young representatives from each district are selected by lottery to participate in The Hunger Games. Part entertainment, part brutal intimidation of the subjugated districts, the televised games are broadcasted throughout Panem as the 24 participants are forced to eliminate their competitors, literally, with all citizens required to watch. When 16-year-old KatnissÆs young sister, Prim, is selected as the mining districtÆs female representative, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and her male counterpart, Peeta, the son of the town baker who seems to have all the fighting skills of a lump of bread dough, will be pitted against bigger, stronger representatives who have trained for this their whole lives. CollinsÆs characters are completely realistic and sympathetic as they form alliances and friendships in the face of overwhelming odds; the plot is tense, dramatic, and engrossing. This book will definitely resonate with the generation raised on reality shows like Survivor and American Gladiator. Book one of a planned trilogy. Jane Henriksen Baird, Anchorage Public Library, AK for School Library Journal