Guest blog post by Rose Atkinson-Carter
Do you game? If yes, you’ll be happy to know there’s an entire subgenre of science fiction books set in worlds where video games or virtual realities lead to high-stakes adventures. Slightly more niche than the stuff that typically makes it onto lists of the best sci-fi books, these titles are filled with twists and thrills. Much like the games you can’t get enough of, these page-turners imagine cinematic cyberpunk worlds you won’t want to leave.
1. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
If you owe your knowledge of this subgenre to the Ready Player One film, Ernest Cline’s novel and its popular sequel (Ready Player Two, published in 2020), are an excellent place to start getting properly acquainted. For the uninitiated, this book is set in 2045, yet the narrative itself is heavily steeped in 80s geek culture. The protagonist, 18-year-old Wade Watts — along with everyone else — logs into the virtual reality (VR) video game OASIS every day to escape a dystopian reality. Before the creator of OASIS dies, he challenges everyone to locate an Easter egg hidden inside the game. The egg will lead the player who finds it to three keys — and, ultimately, all of the creator’s wealth. It’s all fun and games until suddenly it’s anything but.
2. Warcross by Marie Lu
This young adult novel also involves a VR game that’s become reality for millions of people. It’s called Warcross, and Emika Chen, a bounty hunter who locates people using the game for illegal betting, is suddenly made famous when she hacks into the international Championships. Now she’s made headlines, Emika is recruited by the creator of Warcross to act as an undercover spy within the competition. Set in steampunk New York and Tokyo, this cinematic novel has all the elements of a classic adventure — and a protagonist with rainbow-colored hair to boot.
3. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
I mentioned that Ready Player One is full of geek culture nostalgia. Well, Ender’s Game is part of that original geek culture — a military sci-fi novel published in 1985, which now has a cult following. It tells the story of a dystopian Earth that has survived two alien invasions and relies on the training of ingenious children to defend itself against a possible third invasion. As young Elder plays a simulated computer game he believes tests his tactical thinking, his strategic decisions are revealed to be a part of something of an entirely different magnitude.
Love a good alien invasion? Check out Out of Darkness, the first book in C.G. Harris’ The Rax series!
4. For the Win by Cory Doctorow
If you’ve heard that For the Win is a young adult book, you might be surprised to hear that its plot, centered around a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), tackles subjects like macroeconomics, economic exploitation, and the digital sweatshop phenomenon. The novel follows a group of digital gold farmers who organize to demand better working conditions, after an MMORPG encouraging in-game spending has users from developed countries paying real money to progress faster. The workers’ plan? A gaming revolution.
5. Insignia by S.J. Kincaid
Another action-packed young adult book, Insignia takes place in a futuristic world where World War III is unfolding virtually in outer space, without any human lives being lost, but with the future of the planet still at stake. Tom Raines, a goofy teenage underdog, is as surprised as anyone when he’s recruited into the Intrasolar Forces by virtue of his impressive VR gaming abilities. However, he soon finds out that this new-found glory isn’t quite as glorious as it seems, and must decide what he really believes in.
For an even more immersive experience, I recommend the audiobook recording of this book! (And for another absolutely brilliant narration, do check out MacLeod Andrews’ reading of C.G. Harris’ book The Nine.)
6. Reamde by Neal Stephenson
Blending sci-fi and thriller, this fast-paced novel by one of the most beloved cyberpunk authors really contains multitudes: from terrorism and the Russian mob to a computer virus created in China and gun battles involving the MI6, this 1,000-page novel genuinely goes global. It all starts with Richard Forthrast and his growing obsession with an MMORPG called T’Rain. He relies on the game for money-laundering reasons, but things quickly spiral out of control.
When you’ve made your way through these titles, head to Tad Williams’ City of Golden Shadow, Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games, or William Gibson’s Neuromancer to make sure you’re all caught up with this subgenre’s classic books. Have fun!
Rose Atkinson-Carter is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the world’s best self-publishing resources and professionals like editors, designers, and ghostwriters. She lives in London.