For this list of 17 of the best sci-fi books by female science fiction writers, we drew on old, new, well known and lesser known alike.
So be it! See to it! – Octavia Butler
The Internet Review of Science Fiction attempted, via an algorithm, to pin down the differences between male and female science fiction writers. They discovered, with nearly 90% accuracy, that, “Gender division in writing and reading thus comes down to tendencies, not absolutes. Men more often concern themselves with actions, ideas, and analysis. Women more often concern themselves with processes, perceptions, and implications.” That being said, it only makes sense that female science fiction writers devastate our perceptions of reality and rebuild the implications of our future.
Despite the success of female literary bad-asses, the stereotype remains that women shy away from brutality and pepper their sci-fi novels with desperate love stories. In an attempt to blow your mind with the power of STRAIGHT FACTS, here’s a list of 17 of the best sci-fi books from female science fiction writers, all absolute must reads. We got old books, new books, well-known authors and not-so-well-known authors all in one place to break out of the box the patriarchy has built around us!!!
…ahem… Moving on:
1. Octavia E. Butler: Fledgling, 2005
One of Butler’s least discussed sci-fi novels, Fledgling deserves a bit more time in the lime light. It tells the story of a young girl who awoke in a cave with no memories, and very strange needs and skills. Eventually, Shori, the young girl, realizes she is part of an ancient race of vampiric creatures that survive off a symbiotic relationship with human beings, but are otherwise superior to them.
Shori is the result of genetic modification and thus is the only one of her kind with dark skin, an attempt by her people to make her resistant to sunlight. In one brilliant novel, Butler redefines and explores the race struggle, along with gender inequality and the plague of otherness. One of the finest from the mother of female sci-fi, (or aunt, if you’re a Mary Shelley devotee), Fledgling is even more important to read today, in the light of certain recent race-motivated political happenings.
2. N.K. Jemisin: The Fifth Season, 2016
Epic sci-fi fantasy newcomer N.K. Jemisin is making some serious waves with her novel The Fifth Season. It was awarded the Hugo Award for Best Novel at the 74th World Science Fiction Convention on August 20, 2016, and was also nominated for the Nebula Award and World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. The alternate reality epic takes place on a planet where everyone lives on one supercontinent they call the Stillness (lack of plate tectonics maybe?). Every few centuries, its inhabitants endure a season of catastrophic climate change, which they call the fifth season.
The Stillness is populated by a variety of creatures, including the Orogenes, people with power over the elements and planet itself. Rife with political and social commentary, Jemisin crafts a world that exists only in chaos. Luckily for fans, The Fifth Season is the first of a new series, aptly named The Broken Earth series. It’s exciting to see a woman writer to create worlds as adventurous and engulfing as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, especially knowing it’s only the beginning of the series! The first novel deals a lot with classism, racism, and environmental struggles as well as internal battles raging inside the main characters.
3. Joanna Russ: The Female Man, 1975
Undeniably THE feminist sci-fi novel, The Female Man discusses what it means to be a woman across 4 dimensions. The novel follows the lives of four women who live is alternate space-time realities. When they cross over to each other’s worlds, their different views on gender roles startle each other’s preexisting notions of womanhood. In the end, their encounters influence them to evaluate their lives and shape their ideas of what it means to be a woman. The books title spawns from the upsetting reality that in some worlds and times that many strong women still feel the need to be “men” in order to get respect.
This concept is played with throughout the parallel universes in the novel, via cosmetic sex changes to support forcibly homosexual lifestyles, submissive robotic sex slaves, and parthenogenesis. It goes without saying that this novel will force anyone, feminist or otherwise, to think outside their gender box. Novels such as this prove that sci-fi is the perfect genre to experiment with controversial subjects, by distancing the subject from the reader (through use of aliens or alternate realities, etc.) and thus forcing them to think objectively about it. The best sci-fi books use alternate realities to change the one we’re in.
4. Madeline L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time, 1963
It was a dark and stormy night… In addition to paying homage to Edward Bulwer-Lytton and discussing quantum physics surprisingly in-depth, this amazing novel is as accessible to children as it is to adults. It features Meg Murry as the young female protagonist, who, unlike many others on this list, is just simply normal. She’s not exceptionally special like her brother, telekinetic child prodigy Charles Wallace, or athletic like her talented twin brothers Sandy and Dennys, gorgeous and brilliant like her scientist mother, or as kind-hearted and world-shatteringly intelligent father whose disappearance fuels the novel.
Centering mainly on theoretical physics in alternate dimensions and how they may exist and affect ours in surprising ways, it also acts as a coming of age story for a trouble young woman without a father, and how to cope with one’s humanity in a house with an excess of supernatural happenings and superhuman family members. Don’t take this novel lightly; A Wrinkle in Time functions as a societal critique and an experiment in gender roles, especially when dealing with the genderless 5 dimensional beings and why they chose to go by the female prefix, Mrs.
5. Margaret Atwood: MaddAddam Trilogy, 2003-2013
Personally, I can’t praise this series enough. It reminded me how passionately in love I am with reading, and reading sci-fi in particular. Though the author doesn’t believe the trilogy is technically science fiction, I disagree. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic future after an unexplained event ravaged the globe and killed nearly every human being in a disturbing manner (I don’t want to spoil it!).
The first novel of the series, Oryx and Crake, follows one of the last survivors in his quest for a somewhat normal existence, or even simply not worrying about being eaten by strange feral mutant creatures that have overrun the globe. He reminisces about his childhood as the son of two successful genetic scientists, and how his childhood friend would play his part in bringing the world to its knees. Genetic modification changed day to day life for everyone prior to the event they eventually call “The Flood,” from human organs harvested from pigoons, pig-human hybrids, or keeping rakunk’s, raccoon-skunk hybrids, as pets. Because of its frighteningly realistic themes of genetic modification being taken too far, and human destruction of the environment, the MaddAddam trilogy are some of the best sci-fi books recently and are a must-read for all sentient beings existing in our space-time.
6. L. Timmel Duchamp: Alanya to Alanya, 2005
The year is 2076 and the world is controlled by a male-dominated ruling class patterned loosely after the corporate world of today, until the aliens land. Life on Earth implodes as the Marq’ssan race of aliens make a surprise visit, inciting a war that would tear reality apart. Protagonist and historian Kay Zeldin sets aside her books and joins Robert Sedgewick, US Chief of Security Services, in his war against the aliens. Unfortunately for Kay, war is never just black and white. When a confrontation with the aliens brings to light her long-buried past, she is forced to ask herself which side she is truly on. Her very grip on reality is slipping, and soon she will wonder which side she’s truly on, and what she’s willing to do for her beliefs.
It’s exciting to see such a talented woman writer cranking out such masterful science fiction. Alanya to Alanya forces readers to confront the uncomfortable truth of the strength of faith, in oneself and one’s government, and what to do when the truth you thought you knew disappears forever. It also acts as a witty critique of the patriarchal capitalism infecting our reality, and how strong women should not wait for their place in society: They should forge a new one from the ashes.
7. Ursula K. Le Guin: The Dispossessed, 1974
This famous novel pulls no punches when it comes to critiquing society. The powerful messages woven into The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia brought sci-fi into the realm of “high art” for its creative representation and criticism of all types of societies that have, do, or may exist. Two factions of an alien planet are political rivals, one is a patriarchal capitalist society and the other an authoritarian dictatorship claiming to rule in the name of the proletariat. Sound familiar? That’s because Le Guin is offering us an alien look at the world that existed at that time, and the dynamic between the two super powers: The United States, and the Soviet Union.
Further developing the analogy, there are oppositional left-wing parties in A-Io, one of which is closely linked to the rival society Thu, as were communist parties in the US and other Western countries at the time the story was written. Other parties represent various dissident visions of socialism. Where the situation differs from that of 20th century Earth is the existence of the anarcho-syndicalist world Anarres. When The Dispossessed was published, its highly lauded critical reception made Le Guin the first author to win both the Hugo and Nebula Awards two years in a row (the prior year she won the awards for The Left Hand of Darkness).
8. C.J. Cherryh: Downbelow Station, 1981
Downbelow Station is a space opera that takes place during a massive interstellar war between two factions: The Earth Company, a huge rich and powerful organization that focuses on exploring the universe for inhabitable planets, and Union, a rebel force based on a planet that is no longer controlled by the Company. Downbelow Station won the Hugo Award in 1982 and was named by Locus magazine as one of the top 50 best science fiction novels of all time in 1987. Possibly more relevant than ever, a main focus of this novel is the acceptance (and reluctance towards) refugees of war. The millions of unexpected refugees, Company survivors of planets and space stations lost to Union, strain the resources of the titular Downbelow Station, and cause waves of fear and paranoia to sweep through the ships officials, who then handle the situation in less than ideal ways.
This lengthy novel studies how people on opposite sides of conflict tend to lose sight of the others humanity, and when your enemy may be light years away, it leads to vicious demonization and fear. This Hugo Award-winning novel makes uncomfortable, but important, points on the how the very definition of humanity changes through the lens of war. It even has a board game!
9. C.N. Lesley: Shadow Over Avalon, 2013
A thrilling retelling of the Arthurian tales of yore, Shadow Over Avalon describes a fantastic undersea world in which a young boy longs for more than what life handed to him. Designed to spend his life in service to some intangible thing called the Archive, Arthur instead wants to visit land and fight alongside the surface-dwelling people who are in a constant battle against beasts and other predators. Ashira, the Princess of the undersea kingdom faces an equally difficult decision that may affect the future of her people forever. It’s brilliance comes not from political or socioeconomic commentary, but by embracing the pure magic of millennia-old stories.
Lesley shows readers that strong characters can exist without a real-life metaphorical cause behind them, and though I believe it is necessary to comment on society to keep it in check, it is also necessary to enjoy reading strong characters, female and otherwise, simply for fun. In a world where controversy and social inequality pervades even children’s books, books such as Shadow Over Avalon become centrally important.
10. Pat Cadigan: Synners, 1991
Considered by many to be the mother of cyberpunk, Pat Cadigan constructs worlds in her novels that scrub out any distinction between reality and technology. Synners, in particular, tells the story of tattooed hacker badasses struggling to fit the seemingly all-powerful corporations that have been drugging consumers with built-in feel good implants and plugging sockets into their brains to enhance the experience of watching high-tech music videos. The descriptions of the settings and thoughts of characters are somewhat indistinguishable, creating a cyberpunk wonderland the reader can physically explore.
Written nearly 30 years ago (holy crap) this far-seeing novel can be quite frightening when compared to our current tech-mad reality run by governments that are run by corporations. It offers a creatively confusing path that leads to readers questioning their reality, which I always love. Cadigan masterfully scrambles her narratives, which include dozens of narrators, to create this feeling of all-ness in such an isolated universe. Goodreads reviewer Elizabeth said, “For the first 30% I was mostly baffled, the next 30% was slow but interesting, and the last 40% was just pure OH GOOD GOD THIS IS BATSHIT GENIUS.” If that’s not enough to convince you, there’s no hope.
11. PD James: The Children of Men, 1992
2021 is terrifyingly near, and in The Children of Men, it’s terrifyingly vacant. This haunting story follows a group called the Five Fishes who have not yet given up hope that the human race will bounce back from the brink of extinction. In 1994 in James’ UK, the sperm count of all men dropped to zero, and thus the last children were born nearly 30 years before the novel begins. If hope appears in the form of a pregnant woman, she would have to be protected at all costs from gangs and dictator-esque governments.
This novel is definitely a must read for anyone, sci-fi addict or otherwise. It offers a societal critique without pointing fingers by causing the world to collapse from an uncontrollable incident. In our technologically advanced and (somewhat) financially stable world, couples are choosing more than ever to not have kids, so if a biological anomaly such as in the novel were to occur, Children of Men may become less dystopic fiction, and more dystopic reality. (This book is the basis for Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film Children of Men, and though it went through changes and alterations, James was reportedly pleased with the final product.
12. Sherri S. Tepper: The Gate to Women’s Country, 1988
Ask any woman and chances are they’ve wished for a world without men at some point or another, and in Tepper’s post-apocalyptic (or utopian, am I right?) novel, events are placed 300 years in the future, where they finally figured everything out and created a women-only country. Just kidding, there was a catastrophic war that separated the United States into several independent nations. The novel follows Stavia, a young woman living in Marthatown, inside Women’s Country. Though a matriarchal nation populated and run only by women, a small amount of male servitors are permitted to live within the city walls. They have also developed a matriarchy where the women and children live within town walls with a small number of male servitors, and most of the men live outside the town in warrior camps.
The narrative is all but linear, being told mostly through flashbacks. As the reader learns more about Women’s Country and the surrounding rival nations, it appears as though things are not as peaceful as they seem. Though functioning as an Ecotopia, and thus promoting peace and sustainability, the council that runs Women’s Country has some dark secrets that, when revealed to the reader, leave them to decide whether the ends truly justify the means.
13. Kate Wilhelm: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, 1976
Wilhelm’s post-apocalyptic novel is composed as a triptych, the sections of which are entitled: “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang,” “Shenandoah,” and “At the Still Point,” which all take place in Virginia, along the Shenandoah River. The collapse of civilization around the world resulted from massive environmental changes and global disease, which was attributed to large-scale pollution. The novel follows a privileged family that creates a community to group together and attempt to survive the wave after wave of catastrophe crashing over the earth. The death toll continues to climb as disease and disaster trigger desperate nuclear warfare, which turns the surviving population infertile. In a last-ditch effort to save humanity, the family begins to clone themselves, because, in theory, after a few generations of cloning, they will again become fertile and can begin again.
Well, as it tends to happen in sci-fi, things didn’t go as planned. The clones refuse to revert back to traditional sexual reproduction in lieu of creating more clones, and the original members of the community, now old and outnumbered, are forced to give in. And trust me when I say, things only get crazier. This novel is another compelling read where the author is intent on making you question what it means to be human. Wilhelm also toys with the concept of global cooling (as opposed to global warming), which was a popular environmental theory in the 70’s. Regardless of the direction of temperature change, this sci-fi mind-trip warns against taking the environment for granted, and choosing technology over human life.
14. Marge Piercy: He, She, and It, 1993
Winner of the 2003 Arthur C. Clarke award, this novel examines gender roles, human identity and AI, political economy, environmentalism, love, and storytelling through a suspenseful plot, set in a post-apocalyptic America, of the romance between a human woman and the cyborg created to protect her community from corporate raiders. The danger in this sci-fi adventure is from the ruthless “multi’s” or multi-national corporations that rule with a seemingly all-powerful iron fist. The interesting twist in this novel is its focus on Judaism, which entwines the plot with traditional Jewish stories and folktales.
The story of Joseph, a golem formed from clay to protect the Jewish ghetto from angry Christian mobs (circa 1600) is mirrored by the story of Yod, a cyborg created to protect the free Jewish town our heroine, Shira, calls home. Amazingly capable of asking the right questions, He, She, and It wonders the meaning of love with or without humanity, and what it means to be a single face in the “glop” of the everyman when the world is run by massive faceless corporations.
15. Nicola Griffith: Slow River, 1996
The question of identity is one that can never be truly answered, especially when the only definite identifier you have is literally cut from your flesh. Lore Van Oesterling, the protagonist (or rather, anti-heroine) of Slow River woke in an alley, naked, with a huge wound carved into her back, and her identity implant stolen. Once the heir to one of the most powerful families (think futuristic sci-fi Lannister’s) Lore’s identity is gone, and she’s left with nothing for the first time in her life. Never in her wildest dreams would her savior be infamous thief and all-around bad guy, Spanner. He healed her and taught her to find herself, and her freedom, through a little bit of imagination and some criminal activities. Once she acclimates to her life in the shadows, she realizes the cost of her freedom is becoming somebody she hates.
Highly decorated, Slow River has won the Nebula Award and the Lambda Literary Award, and continues to garner praise from fans 20 years later. The unique premise of this book is what caught my attention however, not the awards. One of the few novels on this list that doesn’t feature the apocalypse or cyborgs by an author that is still alive and still writing makes this novel some sort of sci-fi space-unicorn. This sexy cyberpunk novel blows minds and smashes hearts on Lore’s journey to find herself. Definitely a must read!
16. Catherine Asaro: The Quantum Rose, 2001
“There must be more than this provincial life!” cries Kamoj, the Belle of this sci-fi retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Instead of a young outcast who must save her father from a beast in a castle, Kamoj is the governor of an impoverished province of the brink of collapse. To save her people, Kamoj becomes engaged to the ruler of a wealthy neighboring province, and all looks as though all’s well that ends well until the Beast shows up. Havryl Lionstar, a prince, comes to Kamoj’s planet in an attempt to deal with the aftermath of an interstellar war. Havryl has a reputation for being ruthless and enigmatic, and hides his face behind a mask. His presence in Kamoj’s province essentially ruins everything as he forces her into marriage with him.
The Quantum Rose deals with the physical and emotional scars left on the survivors of a war with no clear victor, and also tells the story of two such damaged survivors, Kamoj and Havryl, attempt to heal and move past the atrocities they suffered, and committed.
The second half of The Quantum Rose involves Havryl return to his home world with Kamoj, where he becomes the central figure in a planet-wide act of civil disobedience designed to eject an occupying military force that has taken control of his planet. The concept of the lost colony is a popular sci-fi genre, but this retelling of it mixed with it’s Beauty and the Beast themes transforms it into a completely new genre, proving even retellings can be original. It won the 2001 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 2001 Affaire de Coeur Award for Best Science Fiction, and deservedly so. Asaro’s lively characters have depth and exist in her wonderful world of hard science fiction mixed with folklore, a must-experience combination.
17. Elizabeth Moon: The Speed of Dark, 2003
This highly creative novel follows a high-functioning autistic scientist struggling with an experimental “cure” his company is forcing him to undergo, or risk losing his job. Taking place in the near future, Lou Arrendale, the protagonist, is a bioinformatics specialist who was born slightly too early to be cured of his autism in-utero. He lives a low-key, independent life, working, fencing, and spending time with friends. The uncomfortable question arises when he is “offered” (read: forced) to undergo the surgical treatment that would make him like everyone else. Would it change who he is, down to the music he loves and the colors he can see outside the visible spectrum of “normal” people? Would he still be infatuated with the woman he loves? Would she ever love him back?
This novel creates more questions than answers, but won the Nebula Award and was widely accepted to be the best sci-fi books of 2003. An online review of the novel stated that it’s one of those “exceptionally rare novels that has the power to alter one’s entire worldview” which is always the goal of good science fiction, is it not?
Final Thoughts On This List of the Best Sci-Fi Books from Female Science Fiction Writers
This powerful list of wonderfully strange and genre-defining science fiction novels was compiled after extensive reading, research, and purchasing way too many books on Amazon. (Goodbye paycheck, hello literary adventures! Worth it…). The women creating these life-changing adventures refuse to limit themselves by what is expected of a sci-fi novel, and of female science fiction writers in general. Their novels star robots, women, men, any gender/sexual orientation combination you can think of, protagonists with mental illness, and a whole slew of others of many different races, religions, and planetary origins. The main characters of the novels, as well as the authors themselves, prove time and time again that breaking the rules of the games is what makes them worth playing.
If you think there are more female science fiction writers that deserve a spot on this list, please comment below! I’m always searching for the best sci-fi books and new female authors, and would love your input.