May 07, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

If The Matrix crystallized a computer world beyond word processing and Web surfing for you, then cyberpunk literature will further enhance your vision of virtual reality. The cyberpunk genre, born in the early ’80s, combines high technology with a noirish punk-rock, fight-the-system ideology and has inspired countless authors, magazine publishers, and filmmakers. Unfortunately, some classics — like Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology — are out of print. And plenty of schlock-fi authors have added noise to the line by undeservedly pasting the cyberpunk label on their book jackets. So we’ve keyed in three great cyberpunk novels that will be familiar to some Matrix fans and provide a speedy uplink for newcomers as well.

Neuromancer, by William Gibson (Ace, 1984): The most vaunted book in the genre centers on a 24-year-old cyberspace cowboy, Case, who hooks up with a street-smart heroine — wearing surgically inset mirrored glasses — and hacks a corporate computer network inside ”the matrix.” Written on a typewriter, Neuromancer coined the term cyberspace, and film reviewers have compared it to The Matrix.
Shared themes: Injuries in the virtual world can be lethal to the protagonists in reality; an antiquated spaceship from ”Zion” is a base of operations.

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson (Bantam Spectra, 1992): In reality, the protagonist is a delivery boy for CosaNostra Pizza, but in the ”metaverse” he’s a sword-wielding master hacker working for the Central Intelligence Corporation and must save the world from a deadly computer virus.
Shared themes: Infocalypse; technology as the opiate of the masses; sexy hacker heroine.

Vurt, by Jeff Noon (Crown, 1993): Poor English punks addicted to virtual-reality drugs lose a friend inside a ”Metavurt” and attempt to rescue her.
Shared themes: Alice In Wonderland-esque psychedelia; virtual pornography; hero masters virtual world.

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