Women have been shaping science fiction since the dawn of the genre. In fact, you could argue that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the first true science fiction novels, dealing with the ramifications of technology beyond man’s ability to control it. Women continued to contribute to the canon for the next century, so we decided to put together an honor roll of must-read authors.
The writers that follow vary widely in subject matter and approach. Some hew closely to reality, while others let their minds take them on theoretical journeys to the ends of time and space. Some deliver gritty action and adventure, while others use a defter, more exploratory touch. They’re all absolute masters, though, and your reading list deserves to have them on it. Without further ado, here are 11 women sci-fi authors you need to read.
N. K. Jemisin
The recipient of multiple Hugo Awards, N. K. Jemisin has established herself as one of modern sci-fi and fantasy’s most exciting writers. Billing her work as “post-colonial” science fiction, Jemisin postulates fantastic worlds organized along principles both familiar and new, and her masterful grasp of character dynamics make them serious page-turners. Her novel The Fifth Season, about a world wracked by earthquakes and the people who can control them, was recently put into production as a TV series at TNT. She’s a lightning-fast writer who didn’t get seriously started until she was 30, so we’d bet Jemisin has a long and prolific career ahead of her.
One of modern science fiction’s most wide-ranging intellects, Kameron Hurley fearlessly pushes the boundaries in everything she writes. Her first major work, the Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy, is a gutsy and grim tale of a former government-sanctioned assassin turned bounty hunter who has to handle one last job. On a world terraformed by genetically engineered insects now out of control, Nyx becomes one of the most compelling protagonists the genre has ever seen. Hurley takes the cliches of sci-fi and just decimates them with vigor, deploying an expert’s facility with descriptive language to limn her broken heroines. These are smart books but they’re also really visceral and bloody.
Bronx-born Joanna Russ studied under Vladimir Nabokov at Cornell and became one of the pioneers of the new world of feminist science fiction. Standing in stark contrast to the male-dominated culture, Russ was an advocate for slash and fan fiction as a legitimate literary form. She published over 50 short stories in her career, characterized by a burning mixture of anger and sharp wit. Russ’s fiction is explicitly concerned with gender and sex, and her novel, The Female Man, is unlike any sci-fi you’ve ever read, a story of four women from different worlds who find themselves crossing over and dealing with their new roles. Check it out — it’ll broaden your ideas of what science fiction can be.
Cleveland-born Alice Norton was one of several female sci-fi writers who adopted a male pseudonym to compete in the market. She began her career in young adult fantasy but soon pivoted to the adult market, publishing stories in most of the major sci-fi magazines of the ’50s. Her body of work is massive – over 130 novels and almost as many short stories – but much of it shares common themes like a solitary adventurer on a rite of passage, often accompanied by an animal that’s not entirely what it seems to be. Norton’s work was even (badly) adapted to form the basis of 1982 schlock classic Beastmaster, starring Marc Singer as a warrior who can communicate telepathically with lower forms of life.
One of the most honored authors in science fiction history, Octavia Butler has built a legacy of challenging, intelligent work. The daughter of a housecleaner in Pasadena, California, Butler was exposed to the hierarchies of class and race at a very early age. When her mother bought her a Remington typewriter at ten, she started putting those experiences on paper. At a workshop, she met Harlan Ellison, who bought her story “Child Finder” for his Last Dangerous Visions anthology, and her career began in earnest. Butler’s fiction deals with the inevitability of change, the fragility of social hierarchies and the failings and foibles of humans no matter how advanced.
C. J. Cherryh
It’s crazy to think about it but as late as the 1970s, some science fiction authors wrote under male or gender-neutral names to avoid discrimination. Thus, Midwestern girl Carolyn Janice Cherry became C. J. Cherryh — the extra H was added to her last name when an editor said it sounded too much like a romance novelist. She’s notorious for the incredible depth she puts into her fictional worlds, carefully crafting every aspect to seem believable but still alien. In her best work, events spiral out of a sense of deterministic logic, like dominoes tipping over unrelentingly. Since her first books were published in 1976, she’s remained wildly prolific, with over 60 volumes in print.
For something a little more grounded, Malka Older’s debut novel Infomocracy is a chilling look at the future of our interconnected world. Her background in humanitarian aid in Africa informs the post-nationalist world of the book, where geographical borders are meaningless, and all of human civilization congregates into “microdemocracies” that compete against each other. Overseeing all this is Information, a supposedly neutral NGO. Sci-fi has always been political, but Older’s interested in not only exploring how our systems will fail us in the future but also telling a tense, compelling story. There are a lot of Big Ideas in this book, the first of a proposed trilogy.
Ursula K. LeGuin
One of the most influential writers the genre has ever seen, Ursula LeGuin took home the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards during her long career. She sent in her first science fiction short story to a magazine at the age of 11 and never stopped, penning dozens of novels and short story collections that tapped into her relentless interest in culture and society. Her breakthrough 1969 novel The Left Hand Of Darkness marked the beginning of a new progressive era in sci-fi.
The Office Of Mercy, the debut novel by Ariel Djanikian, dips its toes into the tropes of utopia vs. dystopia but manages to bring a totally unique angle on the future. Inside the domed community of America-Five, scientists desperately race to make humans effectively immortal. The “wild” men and women outside the dome are dealt with by the Office of Mercy that humanely slaughters them to end their suffering. When Natasha, a low-level worker at the Office, leaves the dome on a “sweep” it kicks off an adventure that leaves her questioning everything she knows. Deftly written and ethically complex, this is a tremendous debut from a young writer with a lot to say.
Old-school geeks will fondly remember the glory days of the science fiction magazines, where new writers and old hands jostled for page space and developed their voices. Connie Willis was one of the most prolific and lauded short story writers of the ’70s and ’80s, willing more major Hugo and Nebula awards than any other writer. She’s well known for her diverse approach, equally comfortable writing hard science and pure speculation, as well as her sharp wit and devastating humor. Willis’ body of work is massive, but you can’t go wrong with “Fire Watch,” the short story that kicked off her Oxford time-travel series.
James Tiptree Jr.
Probably the most famous of the women science fiction writers who adopted male pseudonyms, Alice Bradley Sheldon adopted the name James Tiptree Jr to keep her literary life separate from her career in academia. She found more success behind a typewriter, and kept up the false front for several decades. Even after her real identity was discovered, Sheldon continued using the Tiptree name for her work, which ranged wildly through genres and approaches, from hard pulp-influenced adventure tales to more cerebral explorations. She was primarily a short story writer, but did produce two novels before her death in 1987.
This story originally appeared on Geek.