10 Dark and Gritty Cyberpunk / Space Opera Novels Every Sci-Fi Fan Should Read
I do so love a good recommendations list. I’ve had a lot of people ask me about some of the slightly less famous books I consider essential reading in the Sci-Fi / Cyberpunk / Space Opera genre, and as one of my favourite things just so happens to be telling people my opinion – I’ve gone ahead and submitted to their request!
But there is a catch. I like my Sci-Fi dark. Grimdark even. I need my reading so gritty I can feel the dirt in my teeth. So soul-shattering that after I put down the novel I need to go and sit on the bathroom floor under a cold shower for a few hours.
If you are looking for happy endings, look elsewhere.
This list is a little more obscure than your typical top 10 (although not wildly so) and is by no means definitive. You won’t find “Neuromancer” or “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep” here (Although if you haven’t read them yet, what are you even doing here?). You will, however, find 10 of my personal favourite dark and gritty sci-fi novels from the Cyberpunk and Space Opera genres.
Author: Neal Stephenson
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Let’s start things off easy. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson is the most famous and least soul-shattering novel on today’s list, but by no means the worst. Snow Crash is both an unabashed satirical parody of the Cyberpunk genre, and simultaneously one of the best examples of it ever written. You would think that a comedic satire about a man named “Hiro Protagonist” (A hacker, ninja, pizza delivery guy who works for the Italian mafia, who happen to have a monopoly on the pizza delivery business) would not be the kind of novel containing commentary on the human condition, politics, anthropology, religion, cryptography, linguistics and philosophy. But you’d be wrong.
Stephenson’s utterly amazing writing makes this bleak dystopian book about anarcho-capitalism and linguistics both poignant and thought-provoking, while also laugh out loud funny. A must read.
Author: Alastair Reynolds
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The future is bleak. Mankind is alone. Everywhere we find the ruins of dead alien civilisations and we have no idea what killed them all. Revelation Space is one of my favourite fusions of the Cyberpunk and Space Opera genre. It tells 3 separate and seemingly unrelated stories that all come together in a way that never feels contrived. Set in a grimy, post-apocalyptic universe where the “melding plague” destroyed large swathes of civilisation and people make use of centuries-old technology that they can no longer rebuild or scarcely understand. Reynolds delivers us a pure page-turner of intrigue and suspense.
A dark and realistic tale, where the main characters are both heroes and villains in their own right, and featuring a chilling answer to the Fermi paradox that video game series Mass Effect managed to both rip off and do no true justice to at the same time…
Author: Richard K. Morgan
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Now we are starting to get grim. This is a hardboiled noir-style detective novel fused with hardcore Cyberpunk. Altered Carbon is set in the dystopian far future where mankind has transcended death. We are all immortal, digitised personalities that can be downloaded at will into our physical human bodies, referred to as “skin sleeves”. The plot centres around a murder mystery; A wealthy man has been “killed” and of course, simply “re-sleeved” into a new body shortly after. He hires mercenary Takeshi Kovacs to investigate, with the twist being that in a world where murder is irrelevant, why on earth would someone do that?
The first novel of a trilogy that goes from strength to strength. This is a grim and nihilistic future full of graphic depictions of violence, torture and sex. Also, Takeshi Kovacs is one of my all-time favourite hardboiled protagonists. Easily the most badass cyberpunk detective ever written. Don’t mess with Envoys.
Oh, and Netflix is going to be releasing a series based on the novel soon. I couldn’t be more excited!
Author: Kameron Hurley
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God’s War is by far the most unique novel on this list. Typically speaking, Cyberpunk is interpreted through the lens of American or Asian pop culture. This novel, however, takes the cyberpunk dystopian genre and places it in in a setting that is essentially “space middle east”. Offering a spectacularly original take on the genre; We see Cyberpunk passed through Islam, religion, war, Arabic & Persian culture and what it means to be a woman in such a twisted and bleak dystopia.
Written by a woman, it is no surprise that Hurley gives us my favourite female protagonist ever. Nyx is not a flawless Mary Sue, nor is she a paragon of goodness and femininity rising up against the evil cyber-Islamic dictatorship that she lives under. No, she is, in fact, an awful, awful person. A murdering, lying, cheating and drinking assassin-cum-bounty hunter who is written with depth and humanity.
Author: Neal Asher
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Gridlinked is the first in a series of 5 novels that follow the story of Ian Cormac, which become progressively darker and more apocalyptic the further along the series you move. Gridlinked is, however, where it all begins. It is told via 2 separate narrative strings, one following the series main character Ian Cormac and the other following the main henchman of the primary antagonist.
Cormac is something of a cyberpunk James Bond. A handsome, smart and badass special agent from Earth Central Security. The twist is that he has been “Gridlinked” (The act of having your brain hardwired into the internet and the Earth Central AI) for decades longer than the maximum recommended time. The head of the ECS decides he should be disconnected from his gridlink, as he has seemingly lost his humanity and empathy. We follow his attempts to remember how to be a feeling human being, as well as dealing with space separatists, conspiracy, ancient alien intelligence and much much more.
An interesting series full of awesome characters, including many non-human AI characters that range from the god-like Earth Central AI through to his faithful dog-like flying Shuriken weapon, that he uses to violent effect. This is one of the more gory series on the list, with Asher seeming to delight in describing violent injury in vivid detail. Not for those with weak stomachs.
THE ELECTRIC CHURCH
Author: Jeff Somers
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I must confess – The Electric Church and indeed the following 4 books in the “Avery Cates” series are a huge guilty pleasure of mine.
As the blurb on the back of the book says; “Avery Cates is a bad man…” Written in the first person, our hero Avery is a complete and utter sociopath. A foul-mouthed, down on his luck, uneducated and unapologetic piece of human garbage, who works as a “Gunner” – A killer for hire. You would think that living inside the mind of a sweary sociopathic hitman in a bleak dystopian anarcho-corporate future would be unpleasant, and in many ways it is, but at the same time you just can’t help but root for him.
The plot of the first book in the series centres around Avery being employed by shady corporate suits to assassinate the head of the titular “Electric Church”. A mysterious religious organisation of cybernetic monks that reject their earthly flesh. What follows is a highly entertaining action romp set within one of the most bleak and depressing dystopias out there. Avery gets seriously knocked about, but somehow he always pulls through. A real page-turner.
Author: Dan Simmons
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Now we are getting seriously grim. Hyperion, and its direct sequel “Fall of Hyperion” are novels about human suffering, loss, vice and pain. It tells the tale of 7 pilgrims on a journey to the planet Hyperion and its valley of the time tombs. Mysterious alien artefacts that move backwards through time and are guarded by the god-like creature known as “The Shrike”. Each of the pilgrims has a connection to the Shrike and the tale is told in 7 separate backstories (one for each character) during their overarching journey to Hyperion. Each story is a different genre, ranging from hard-boiled cyberpunk detective through to outright Lovecraftian cosmic horror. Each tale is horrific, dark and depressing in its own right with “The Scholars Tale” being one of the most heartbreaking stories I’ve ever read. It messed me up for weeks afterwards and years later I still think about it.
A space opera tour-de-force with one of the most original tales and epic universes ever put to page. Just prepare yourself for the emotional battery that is to come. Oh, and the ending to Hyperion is pants – You need to read its sequel to complete the tale.
USE OF WEAPONS
Author: Ian M. Banks
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Ian M. Banks is famous for his series of books set within the “Culture” universe and this one is easily his most dark. A character study presented as the biography of the man “Cheradenine Zakalwe” and how he is used (as a weapon) by the hypocritical galactic ruling hegemony known as “The Culture”. It details the awful things he has done and the effects it has on his psyche as he keeps attempting to get out of the life, but keeps getting pulled back in – Rambo style.
Use of Weapons is perhaps one of the most challenging books I have ever read from both a literary and emotional perspective – It’s structure goes something like this;
A single tale is split into two narrative streams, interwoven in alternating chapters. One narrative string moves forward chronologically, while the second string is written in reverse chronology, with each chapter moving backwards. These 2 narrative strings eventually meet at the end of the book, which is chronologically the middle of the story. To make this even more complicated there is also a prologue and epilogue set shortly after the events, as well as many flashbacks within the chapters.
That may sound overly complicated, and for many people, it will be, but I assure you that the emotional gut-punch of a pay off (when the storeys meet in the middle and suddenly everything makes sense) is one of the best reveals of any book.
Author: Peter Watts
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We now arrive at some of the deepest (see what I did there?), darkest depths of depravity with “Starfish” (Part one of the “Rifters” trilogy). What do you do when you are a monolithic mega-corporation in a dystopian future, who just opened a fancy new geothermal power plant that sits on the base of the ocean and are in need of good staff?
If your answer was: “Fill it with psychopaths, murderers, rapists, paedophiles, sadists and psychologically broken people just to see what happens” – Then you may be just the kind of HR manager N’am-Pac Grid Authority is looking for!
This is book can be very hard to read. It is cyberpunk at its most claustrophobic and depraved. It fuses horror, real science (The author is actually a marine biologist), intrigue, violence and tension. What starts out as a horrifying tale of dehumanisation, rape, murder and every other unspeakable act under the sun, ultimately becomes a tale of what it truly means to be human in the face of total annihilation. Can you sympathise with a child molester at the end of the world? Should you?…
THE REAL STORY
Author: Stephen R. Donaldson
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The Real Story (Or by its full title “The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story”) is the first book of 5 in “The Gap” series and it is seriously messed up. Seriously.
I saved you the best for last, as this book is one of the most incredibly dark and brutal space opera novels ever written. A truly uncomforting read, with frequent sexual and mental abuse, torture, rape and violence. It is packed with enough stomach-churning scenes to make you think you are watching some kind of body horror flick like Saw or Misery. None of the main characters are good people. At all.
It spins a tale of treachery, deception and deceit, set upon the backdrop of sweeping intergalactic space opera. Despite being set in a sprawling universe, this is a very personal tale of 3 people and the utterly messed up things that they do to one another. The same story is told repeatedly, from differing perspectives, as we attempt to get to “The Real Story” (See what he did there?). In each subsequent version of the tale, the roles of victim, villain & hero are switched. This makes for one hell of a compelling read.
No matter how many awful things happened to the main characters, I couldn’t help but pick the book up again to see just what was coming next. Truly not for the faint of heart.