This weekend, the adaptation of Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon arrives on Netflix, bringing to life a gritty, violent world of cheap death and enforced immortality by way of consciousness-downloading. But once you’ve binged your way through every episode, there’s a high chance that its vibrant, dark world will be hard to leave behind. Luckily, there are numerous books that will sate your appetite for noirish sci-fi and grimy, neon-soaked streets. Here are five* of our favorites.
*Well, eight, if we’re getting technical.
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
It probably goes without saying, but you should really pick up the show material for the series, a book that in some ways serves as a reconstruction of grimier, older cyberpunk tropes (the cybernetic enhancements, the security guards with bright red mohawks, the monolithic megacorporations) and a deconstruction of what was, at the time, that enduring trend in utopianism—brain uploading. A murder mystery in a world where everyone has enforced (and involuntary) immortality sounds like a difficult proposition, but the strong lead in Takeshi Kovacs and the vibrancy of Bay City’s wretched hive, along with the dark places Morgan takes the idea of digitizing and storing consciousness, makes this a compelling, horrifying read and an engaging thriller. Once you’re finished, you can spoil yourself for future developments on the TV series by reading the sequels, Broken Angels and Woken Furies.
When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger
A cyberpunk classic that’s only grown more timely in the years since it was first published, Effinger’s series starter drops readers into the wretched middle-eastern hive (a lot of these cities are wretched hives—comes with the territory) of the Budayeen, where the cops are corrupt, the crime lords have amusing nicknames (like “Papa”), and the serial murderers think they’re actually James Bond. Into this world steps Marid Audran, a small-time troubleshooter and hustler who finds himself out of his depth when an investigation into a friend’s death catches the attention of almost every major player in the city. Those who enjoy Altered Carbon’s dark setting and violent suspense will feel right at home in the Budayeen, and the plot, merging modern noir, crime novel tropes, and flagrant abuse of sci-fi technology, is a good match too.
Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks
Most known for its gimmick—a point of view character writes phonetically due to a neuroatypical condition—Feersum Endjinn is much more than an impressive writing exercise, painting a surreal portrait of a dying Earth whose citizens, thanks to genetic engineering, can upload their brains to “the crypt,” a virtual vault that houses consciousnesses. In this future, four individuals must find a way to start the “fearsome engine,” a device that could possibly stop the sun from dimming and eventually going out entirely. While Banks’s future owes more to gothic fiction, with its gigantic dark castles and encounters with virtual ghosts, the idea that the bright, optimistic promise of earlier years has given way to a cynical, dystopian present does resonate, as does the story thread of Count Sessine, who, like Laurens Bancroft in Altered Carbon, must solve his own murder before the assailant tries to kill him again.
Mindplayers by Pat Cadigan
Mindplayers might not deal with consciousness transfer, but its emphasis on mind and consciousness—not to mention Pat Cadigan’s place as one of the foundational writers of cyberpunk (and thus, one of the writers who inspired Altered Carbon‘s style)—makes it a perfect companion read. It’s the story of a young hacker who uses an illegal psychological “madcap” that accidentally gets stuck in a psychotic state. When she’s finally cleaned out, she’s forced to become a “mindplayer,” helping others with their own psychological problems, or face life as a criminal under the Brain Police. Cadigan has a distinct gift for tight prose, which, combined with deadpan sarcasm and an interesting spin on mind-sharing, makes for a mind-bending book. There are similar pleasures to be found in the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner Synners, in which the line between the human mind and technology blurs to the point of nonexistence.
Bone Dance by Emma Bull
This is arguably a left-field pick, given its heavy emphasis on mysticism and tarot, the post-apocalyptic setting, and the inclusion of fantasy elements, but there’s a certain commonality between Emma Bull’s trippy conspiracy novel about a post-apocalyptic scavenger and a mysterious body-hopping “horsemen” and Richard K. Morgan’s downbeat mystery, given that both books place an emphasis on the slipperiness identity, and in both, the heroes must piece together who they are and fill in gaps of missing time—Kovacs with years, and Sparrow, only a few crucial hours. Bone Dance also offers numerous cases of body-swapping, a shadowy conspiracy that will do anything to keep its secrets secret, and a gritty mystery set in a sprawling dystopian city. All that said, Bull’s novel is much wilder, with the search for a missing sci-fi film leading to strange body-jumpers, animated wax statues, occult practitioners, and yet more interesting narrative surprises up its sleeve. As a spiritual cousin to Morgan, it’s well worth reading.
What are your go-to cyberpunk jams?