This month we celebrate women’s history—and today, women’s future history. What better way to highlight the amazing contributions women have made to science and culture than highlighting some of the most creative minds ever, and their surprising, thought-provoking, mind-blowing visions of tomorrow?
The history of science fiction in the Western world owes a huge debt to women. Many of the earliest and most influence works in the genre were composed by women, and women have supplied the field with many of its greatest writers through the years. To bring the point home, we took a few minutes to come up with a list of 50 essential sci-fi books written by women—and we could easily have kept going (and hope you will in the comments).
The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish
Published in 1666, this is arguably the first science fiction novel ever written, although its genre is kind of fluid, so there’s little wonder it has been name-checked and referenced in the work of writers from Alan Moore to China Miéville. It’s the story of a woman who passes from the North Pole into world populated by talking animals, fish-men, and other surreal wonders, finds herself declared empress, and leads an invasion of her homeworld. That’s a classic portal story if you ask us, and a truly pioneering work of SF.
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
Two centuries after its composition, Frankenstein continues to be adapted, copied, interpreted, and misunderstood. The popular interpretation holds that “humanity shouldn’t mess with the laws of nature,” but Shelley’s novel is subtler than that. Frankenstein is, rather, a strenuously pro-science novel that indicts man for his callousness toward non-human life. The “monster” of the novel is smart and tragic—the true fiend is Dr. Frankenstein himself, not because he pursues knowledge and scientific breakthroughs, but because he holds the results of his work in contempt and refuses to accept the consequences of his actions. The horror folks are always trying to claim this one as their own, and we say: fight us.
Citadel of Fear, by Gertrude Barrows Bennett
Published in 1918, this novel (appearing under Bennett’s pseudonym of Francis Stevens) is often described as “pre-Lovecraftian,” and there’s little doubt it had an influence on Lovecraft’s later work. This story of adventurers stumbling on a lost city in the South American jungle toes the line between sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and every other speculative genre, with evil god possessing mortals, strange creatures created via mysterious means, and surreal and other-worldly setting. The fact that Bennett is so little-known today is a crime—among other things, she’s a much better writer, technically, than Lovecraft ever was.
Metropolis, by Thea von Harbou
Thea von Harbou was Fritz Lang’s wife, and her novel is the basis for the famed film of the same name—one of the earliest examples of sci-fi at the movies. She also collaborated on the screenplay, so it’s safe to say the film wouldn’t exist without her contributions. The story of a futuristic, mechanized city that depends on the back-breaking labor of workers who toil underground while the gentry enjoy life above ground is still being mined for visuals by modern-day filmmakers, but its ideas are also profoundly influential, and most of them came from von Harbou’s fantastic book.
Mizora, by Mary E. Bradley
Published in 1880, this Utopian novel tells the story of a hidden civilization inside the earth (accessible, again, through the North Pole). This society is quite advanced, sporting things like videophones, artificial meat, and climate control. Its citizens also live in perfect harmony, experiencing no discord, crime, or violence. Needless to say, the society of the Mizorans is exclusively made up of women; they “eliminated” men at some point in their past and have thrived without them. We have to note there is a deep, ugly thread of racism snaking through this story, as the Mizorans are also enthusiastic believers in eugenics. But for sheer historic importance, it’s worth consideration anyway.
Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Another tale of a perfect female society, Gilman’s novel tells the story of three male adventurers who hear legend of a civilization populated entirely by women. They succeed in locating the place, and are astounded to find the legends true—and the world they call Herland is thriving without men. While exploring gender roles with a depth of thought surprising for 1915, Gilman tells a cracking good story, as the men struggle to deal with the different attitudes and their own innate prejudices, make a failed escape attempt, and slowly find themselves becoming enamored of their new home.
Orlando, by Virginia Woolf
For those who think of Woolf as synonymous wirh post-modern novels seeded with stream-of-consciousness techniques, Orlando will comes as a surprise. You might even call it frothy (relatively anyway). More surprising still, it’s an early example of a sci-fi book (published in 1928) that tackles feminist themes via the delirious conceit of a rich young man born in the 16th century who suddenly wakes up to find he’s transformed into a biologically female version of himself, and stopped aging to boot. Orlando’s adventures stop being particularly sci-fi from that pivot point (aside from the apparent immortality), but Woolf’s exploration of male privilege and feminist goals in the context of a speculative conceit remains as powerful and powerfully entertaining as ever.
The Long Tomorrow, by Leigh Brackett
Leigh Brackett was one of the most influential sci-fi writers of the 20th century—if you know nothing else about her, you likely know that she wrote the original script for The Empire Strikes Back. Her celebrated 1955 novel is post-apocalyptic, set in a United States after a horrific nuclear war. Unlike most such stories, in which society immediately begins rebuilding its technologies, the people of the world instead blame technology for the devastation. Religions that shun technology swell in membership, laws are passed restricting the maximum size of communities and what technology they can use, and people are stoned to death for using forbidden devices. It’s a bleak story, and in some ways dated by modern standards, but every post-nuclear war story that followed owes it a debt.
The Tomorrow People, by Judith Merril
One of the earliest sci-fi mysteries, this one tells the story of the lone survivor of an expedition to Mars. Astronaut Johnny Wendt refuses to say what happened to his fellow explorers, and pages of the ship’s log are missing. Hints of life on the red planet, telepathic powers, and other sci-fi elements always seem just out of reach for the people who try to help Johnny, and his violent reactions to any sort of help mean the mysteries aren’t easily solved. Merril was one of the first writers to recognize the awesome unknowns involved in exploring space at a time when other writers assumed it would be quick and easy.
Pictures Don’t Lie, by Katherine Maclean
Sexism has a real cost; although Katherine Maclean was well-published during the 20th century, and some of her stories were adapted to radio and television, she’s not nearly as well-known as she should be today. This collection of stories includes the title tale, perhaps her best-regarded and most-adapted—but just about anything Maclean wrote is worth checking out, including her 1971 Nebula Award-winning novella (later expanded into a novel), Missing Man.
Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck
Celebrated short story writer Karen Tidbeck spins out her dystopian debut novel from a bizarrely exhausting central idea: on a distant colony world, every product and object must be named out-loud constantly, lest it lose its coherence and turn into a shapeless sludge. Society has become rigidly communist, enacting strict rules in order to ensure vital things don’t suddenly melt away—but some remnant of private enterprise remains. Vanja has been tasked with interviewing farmers on bleak, joyless Amatka about the hygiene products they might be interested in buying, but what she finds there challenges her faith in the system of speech that supposedly keeps everything in one piece. It’s a book as strange, imaginative, satirical, and intriguing as that premise promises.
Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie
The capsule view of Leckie’s award-winning novel tends to focus on her genderless approach to the prose, which assigns every character a feminine pronoun. That’s an easy thing to grab onto when discussing it, but the real point Leckie is making has to do with personhood—as in, what does it mean to be an individual, with free will and the ability to affect the course of events around you? It’s a much deeper contemplation, linked back to some of the earlier books listed here, and thus often overlooked in favor of a more ready discussion about gender, or a simple appreciation of a great story told by a great writer. we’d argue Leckie’s ultimate point has more to do with your responsibility towards the universe as a sentient being than a the proclivities of a culture that refers to everyone as “she.”
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
This classic has been evergreen since publication, but has been getting a lot more attention lately thanks to the high-profile film adaptation. Thirteen-year-old Meg Murry has no weapons, no special training, no superpowers, and no gadgets. And yet she is unquestionably the hero of this classic. Meg’s insecurity and awkwardness don’t make her weak, they make her human, and that’s part of what makes her an amazing character. The other part is that while she uses her brains and good sense frequently, she also achieves incredible things because of her emotions—a wonderful touch, considering how often “strong woman” means a woman who shows no emotions whatsoever.
Downbelow Station, by C.J. Cherryh
One of the greatest space operas ever written, this novel won the Hugo Award and is oft-included on genre best-of lists. Although set in the same universe as Cherryh’s Company Wars stories, it’s an excellent stand-alone novel detailing humanity’s exploration of nearby star systems, funded not by governments but by a corporation that builds a series of space stations in systems without planets. Pell’s World is the first habitable world the company finds, and the people living on the station built to orbit it call it Downbelow—and their home, Downbelow Station. The story is set at the end of the wars sparked by the company’s harsh policies towards its stations and Pell’s World, and it is rich with detail and populated by fascinating characters.
Fullmetal Alchemist, by Hiromu Arakawa
This Japanese manga, written and illustrated by Arakawa, is set in an alternate universe where alchemy is the main force of science, governed by the Law of Equivalent Exchange, which requires that in order to create something, something of equal value must be used. Alchemists are forbidden to transmute gold…or human beings; attempting the latter results in horrifying disfigurements and punishment for the alchemist—something our protagnists, two brothers, find out the hard way. Epic in scale, the story grows incredibly intricate and emotional across its 26 volumes, and has proved to be incredibly influential to sci-fi writers the world over. The series doesn’t shy away from dark themes and real-world issues, and is notable for the presentation of complex female characters in shonen (or “boy’s”) manga, typically considered a male domain.
Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor
Many who read Okorafor’s 2010 novel fixate on the African setting, racial politics, and depiction of violence against women. While it’s an often unsettlingly brutal book, it is also a powerful story that expertly accomplishes one of the primary goals of science fiction, extrapolating a fantastical future from the real world as it actually exists. It’s also an exploration of power in its many forms: as violence, as knowledge, as courage. This is not escapism, because its subject matter should not go down easy, and everything from the imagery, to the writing style, to the dialog is purposefully designed to slow you down—as if Okorafor wants to force you to truly see what she is revealing. Like all great literary novels, we will be unraveling this one for years to come.
Synners, by Pat Cadigan
Alongside Gibson, Cadigan is a master of the cyberpunk subgenre. Despite being written before the existence of our modern internet, Synners gets a lot of the details right as it builds a dystopia in which people escape a diseased, depressing world via brain implants that allow them to experience the dreams and desires of others. Cars have the equivalent of GPS locators. There’s a sort of proto-social network called the “dataline” that reads an awful lot like Facebook (to the point that data is being tailored and monetized). There’s even a sly reference to legalized same-sex marriage in a book published in 1991. It was way ahead of its time, and still packs a punch.
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Easily one of the most famous sci-fi books ever written, Le Guin’s 1969 masterpiece tells the story of Genly Ai, dispatched by a planetary confederation to negotiate the entry of Gethen. Ai is stymied by the fact that the Gethens—and thus, every facet of their entire culture—are ambisexual; Gethens have no fixed sexual orientation, which is enough of a barrier to make Genly’s understanding of their culture very difficult. That’s a particular problem once he finds himself pulled into the local politics and is eventually arrested and sent to a prison camp where he is expected to die. The great achievement here is how Le Guin wrestles with these weighty ideas without sacrificing tension and forward momentum in her story, making this an absolute classic, even though the cultural conversation about gender has moved beyond it in many ways.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
This incredible novel’s feminist themes and exploration of a truly misogynistic society are horrifyingly applicable three decades after it was first published. The secret is that Atwood doesn’t paint a simplistic men-are-evil picture with her dystopian society, in which women are more or less breeding property; she explores how both sexes support and contribute to a horrifying vision of oppression. Yes, it is clearly the men who have reshaped the world in order to strip women of all political, economic, and legal power, but the women of the Republic of Gilead are often willing, cruel participants in the oppression of the Handmaids who are forced to bear their children.
Dawn, by Octavia E. Butler
Butler’s Xenogenesis series starts with this brilliant book, set after a nuclear holocaust that renders the Earth uninhabitable. A handful of humans are saved by an alien race called the Oankali. Two-and-a-half centuries later, Lilith is awakened on an Oankali ship. She is horrified by the aliens’ appearance, their many sensory “tentacles” and three genders. The Oankali have made the Earth habitable again, and plan to return humanity to it—but they ask in return that they be allowed to interbreed with humans, and want Lilith to help them convince her people of the plan. Things go sideways from there, but that is just the beginning of a brilliant series that explores biology and identity and how they shape each other in ways few writers are capable of.
To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis
Not all sci-fi has to be super serious, dealing with weighty issues and complex scientific concepts. Sometimes we can just have some fun. Willis’ Oxford time travel universe, which stars university professors from the 2050s who travel to the past to research significant historical periods, started off with the super serious, equally essential Doomsday Book, but we’ve always had a soft spot for the goofier sequel, a Victorian-era farce about love, paradoxes, and mistaken identity. Every story in the series is marked by Willis’s exhaustive research, cliffhanger plots, and characters so lovable you want to pull them off the page and hug them. These are some of the genre’s best comfort reads, even when they’re dealing with, in the case of Doomsday Book, death-by-disease on a truly grand scale.
Beggars in Spain, by Nancy Kress
Genetic editing, cold fusion, humans who have been modified to not need sleep—and that’s just for starters. Kress’ 1993 novel is set in a future where the emergence of the Sleepless, people who prove to be almost superhuman in their capabilities and lifespan, at first sparks violence against them, and then transforms the world in unexpected ways. Over the course of decades, Kress traces how America reorganizes itself into a tiered society, with Sleepless on top and the “Livers” on the bottom, as a philosophy known as Yagaiism (named after the scientists responsible for the Sleepless) argues that only the productive matter, and only contractual relationships work. Kress packs an incredible number of thought bombs into this engaging story.
Re: Colonized Planet 5, Shikasta, by Doris Lessig
Lessig’s first novel in the Canopus in Argos series is a wild ride of immense scope and loaded with surprising twists—even if seasoned sci-fi readers will always see the biggest of the reveals from a long way off. It doesn’t matter; this story of a planet colonized by the Canopus Empire and locked into a beneficial connection with the rest of the empire is sheer genius. The natives of the planet, named Rohanda (“fruitful”) prosper, until something goes wrong and the lock breaks, they are afflicted with a degenerative disease that causes them to put individual desires over the good of the community, and things start to go sour. The Canopeans rename the planet Shikasta, which means “stricken,” as other galactic powers maneuver around them. It’s a huge story, and an important book that doesn’t get nearly enough attention from genre readers.
The Children of Men, by P.D. James
The apocalypse James imagines is a slow strangulation of the human race through the simplest manner possible: sterility. While the ultimate cause for the human race’s inability to reproduce isn’t explored in detail, the fact is, fertility rates have been dropping in the real world for some time, making this slow, whimpering world’s end terrifyingly entirely plausible—as is the horrific societal breakdown surrounding it. And that’s just half the reason this book is so incredible—the only sci-fi book mystery maven James ever wrote, it’s so elegantly put together, and communicates its ideas about existence, faith, and love so effortlessly, it should be required reading for any sci-fi fan.
All Systems Red, by Martha Wells
Wells recent novella imagines a future dominated by corporations, in which the twin imperatives of bureaucratic adherence to policies and the need to award all contracts to the lowest bidder result in every planetary mission being required to be accompanied by a company-supplied SecUnit—an artificially intelligent android built from cheap parts, as likely to malfunction any of the shoddy equipment the expeditions are counting on to, oh, keep them breathing. The SecUnit narrating our story has hacked its own Governor Module, attaining sentience and free will; it would despise the humans it protects if it didn’t find them so boring (though it nevertheless jokingly refers to itself as Murderbot, for reasons that become clear). When its humans are attacked by something outside of the experience provided by its data banks, however, Murderbot must turn its prickly, near-omniscient mind towards not just the survival of its humans, but itself. This slim read is both surprisingly funny and pack with intriguing future worldbuilding, all the more reason to celebrate the sequels due later in the year.
Infomocracy, by Malka Older
Older’s debut novel imagines a world where the entire population is divided into groups of 100,000, known as centenals. Each centenal can vote for the government they wish to belong to—governments ranging from corporate-dominated PhilipMorris, to policy-based groups with names like Liberty. A global organization called Information seeks to police elections and ensure that the many governments keep their promises and play by the rules—and when a researcher for a government called Policy1st stumbles onto a conspiracy to rig elections, he’s teamed with an agent of Information as they struggle to find out the truth, expose the plot, and stay alive. Older’s fierce imagination and eye for detail make her future world entirely plausible, and her characters, believably flawed. It’s one of most promising debuts of recent years, and the sequels only further impress.
The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley
A woman named Zan wakes up in a sick bay minus most of her memories. She is greeted by a woman named Jayd, daughter to the lord of the Katazyrna, who says they are sisters, and that Zan is the only one who can help her people. From this intriguing beginning, Hurley throws us furiously into a universe where women fight and die for and aboard living worldships crewed and maintained by their solely female populations, who give birth to everything needed to keep the ships healthy: children, monsters, even fleshy mechanical parts. But the Katazyrna is a dying world, and the coveted worldship Mokshi may hold the secret that will save it. Before Zan can get her bearings, Katazyrna is ambushed, and Zan and Jayd are thrust into dangerous new roles and a fight for their lives in a landscape that’s constantly shifting underneath them—and the reader. This is space opera like you’ve never seen it—angry, feminist, ferociously inventive, and not a little frightening.
Shards of Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Though it may never have attained the mainstream name recognition of Dune or Neuromancer, among dedicated readers, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is one of the most beloved series in the genre’s history—the sort of books that, once encountered, will be devoured one after another. Shards of Honor, published in 1986, is where many readers first fall in love with her universe. It follows Commander Cordelia Naismith, the leader of a research team from Beta Colony, who develops an odd relationship with her ostensible enemy, the Barryaran Commander Aral Vorkosigan, after the two are stranded on an uninhabited world. While the book is packed with plots and intrigue between empires and political major players, the focus is on relationships. Bujold imbues her cast with humanity and chemistry, and the quick back-and-forth dialogue keeps the book ticking along while adding a great deal of wit. Also, the varied settings and fast-moving plot make it an excellent primer for the series’ tendency to genre-bend at will. Though published years (and several books) later, Barrayar acts as a direct continuation of Shards and a necessary prquel to later books (so much so that they were, for a time, collected in the omnibus Cordelia’s Honor). Stories in the Vorkosigan Saga have won the Hugo Award a record five times, including the first ever Best Series honor.
A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers
In her sophomore novel, Becky Chambers chose not to simply retread the pleasures of her debut, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, opting to tell a different kind of story. It’s set in the same rambling universe, but tells a more compact narrative about an artificial intelligence named Lovelace, who readers of the first book will recognize as the former brain of the ship Wayfarer. The novel opens in the wake of Planet’s explosive climax, as Lovelace slips into into a “body kit” and assumes a new identity. Accompanying engineers Pepper and Blue, she heads to Port Coriol to make a life—such as it is. Lovelace’s story alternates with that of a girl named Jane working in a harsh, violent factory, a girl who maintains unusually strong relationships with the AIs around her. The decision to shift the focus expands Chambers’ universe while offering a very different, very compelling sci-fi story.
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
This series likely needs no introduction, considering how influential it is has been to both sci-fi and young adult literature. Collins uses the horrific Hunger Games, in which children battle to the death as “tributes,” offered up by their home districts in a symbolic punishment for a rebellion against the dystopian government of Panem, to tell a story about individual resistance, a theme we suspect will only become more compelling as our world marches on. Sometimes popularity and fame can blind us to a book’s virtues—don’t sleep on The Hunger Games or its sequels just because they were inescapable a few years ago.
The Female Man, by Joanna Russ
Russ wove feminist themes through all of her works, and many people read the title of this, perhaps her most famous, and assume they know what the story is about. They don’t. (Even people who have read the book are probably missing something.) The premise is fairly straightforward: four women from four alternate realities find themselves crossing over and meeting each other, experiencing each others’ lives. The worlds range from a utopia where all the men died centuries ago to a war-torn dystopia engaged in a literal war between men and women. So far so good—but Russ writes the entire book in a series of first-person perspectives without always playing fair about who is the POV character, and often jumps from one character to another without warning. The results are difficult to keep track of, requiring frequent backtracking; you can read this book five times and still miss parts of it. But each time you do go back, you’ll find something new—and thrilling.
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree, Jr.
Tiptree was the pseudonym of Alice Bradley Sheldon, and one of the most remarkable aspects of her career is the fact that most people knew it was a pseudonym, but assumed the writer was male—in fact, several famous sci-fi writers and editors expounded on the masculine qualities of her writing over the years before her identity was revealed. Sheldon worked mainly in short fiction, and was brilliant, as this essential collection will prove.
China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen F. McHugh
Written long before the idea of “mundane SF” was codified, McHugh’s novel is often cited as an early example of modern mundanity, depicting a future world in which the United States has experienced a communist revolution after a period of economic decline and China has risen to become the new global superpower. Although it includes plenty of SF tech, the novel’s true focus, and real pleasures, are found in its exploration of the ways the world may change culturally and politically in the coming years, offering up a reasonable future that has aged fairly well over the course of more than two decades.
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
Jesuit priest Sandoz is chosen by the Vatican to be a part of the first manned mission to an alien civilization, in part because of his expertise with language—his techniques are used by computer models to create translation software, so he’s an obvious choice. When Sandoz returns as the mission’s sole survivor, he is broken physically and mentally, then only to be condemned by the church. Yet he is very much the hero of this grim, unexpected story of first contact, which pivots on the arrogant human assumption that alien civilizations will be comprehensible to us from a superficial glimpse. What Sandoz discovers not only destroys his faith and his body, it nearly destroys the Church that sent him on the mission in the first place. The fact that by the end, Sandoz has even begun to heal from his ordeal is about as heroic as it gets.
Ink, by Sabrina Vourvoulias
Ink is one of those novels that has only become more relevant with the passage of time. In Vourvoulias’ near-future world, anyone who is not legally 100 percent a native of the U.S. gets a tattoo on their wrist marking them as an alien. These folks are collectively (and derisively) referred to as “Inks” and treated as second-class humans—abused, rounded-up, forced into interment camps, and ultimately made the targets of a terrible plot. Vourvoulias follows several characters who are connected to the Inks in different ways, and traces their journey as the world around them becomes increasingly terrifying. Elements of it make for uncomfortable reading, not because they are too horrifying—but because they are too horrifyingly possible.
Parasite, by Mira Grant
Seanan McGuire, writing under the pseudonym Mira Grant, spins a story set in a future where a technological marvel—genetically modified tapeworms—offers near-perfect health. Once implanted, the tapeworms boost your immune system and combat other problems, and disease and other infirmities quickly become a thing of the past. Of course, the tapeworms are a product controlled by a corporation, and must be replaced regularly, allowing McGuire to explore a host of fascinating topics: mortality, health, the commodification of both, and the ethics of healthcare. It’s a slick, sleek story that launches the Parasitology series in grand style.
The Ship Who Sang, by Anne McCaffrey
McCaffrey many times proclaimed this her favorite of her own books, and it’s easy to see why: the “brainships” in this universe aren’t AIs or uploaded personalities, but actual people, born with terrible physical deformities and offered up by their parents to lives as “shells” (basically, cyborgs) who serve as the minds behind a variety of machines, including spaceships. They are paired with “brawns,” physical partners who can carry out their orders and interact physically in ways the ship cannot; bonds between brainships and their brawns can be powerful. Anyone who gets to the scene at the end of the first novel (a fix-up of a series of short stories), as (spoilers!) Helva the brainship sings “Taps” to honor her fallen brawn, and doesn’t get a little misty-eyed is likely dead inside.
The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You, by Dorothy Bryant
This story of a man who begins to question his reality and embrace a spiritual, emotional existence that binds him to everyone around him is an exploration of gender roles, equality, and a Utopian philosophy of life, and its dreamlike, feverish qualities get under your skin. It starts off as a fairly reality-rooted mystery: a man thinks he’s killed his mistress, makes a run for it, and crashes his car. Then it delves into deep sci-fi stuff, as he wakes up on a mysterious island where a serene group of multi-ethnic people care for him and teach him their ways of communicating via amplifying and sharing dreams. It’s a novel of it’s time, it’s incredibly strange, and yet the issues it deals with, and the imagination Bryant brings to it, make it a must read.
Walk to the End of the World, by Suzy Mckee Charnas
This is a challenging book, but worthwhile. The first of Charnas’ Holdfast Chronicles, it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where the only human survivors are descended from a group of white men who rode out the apocalypse in a shelter. All other people were apparently killed, leaving the men to form a sick, horrifying society straight out of a Men’s Rights brochure: all other races are considered subhuman, and blamed for bringing about the end of the world, and women—called Fems—are considered degenerate subhumans, good for little more than breeding, hard labor, and cruelty. The men aren’t much better off, divided into three tiers: boys, often preyed upon by pedophiles; Juniors, responsible for the management of the Holdfast; and Seniors, who take most of the food and comfort for themselves. Charnas pulls off a late-inning POV switch that expands the scope of the story in a disorienting way, resulting in a powerful reading experience that exposes the worst of humanity in surprising and shocking ways.
Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre
Although this book won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the Locus Award in 1979, it is now more or less completely out of print in the U.S.—physical copies are nowhere to be found except in used bookstores, and the digital editions can only be purchased from an independent press. Still, it’s worthy of mention. Set in a future Earth far removed from a nuclear apocalypse, where society has rebuilt itself along completely different lines, the main character is a healer who specializes in snake venom and other bioengineered techniques. On a mission to replace her Dreamsnake, engineered to produce powerful hallucinogens, she travels through isolated settlements, healing as she goes. McIntyre, otherwise best-known for her Star Trek tie-ins, spins a complex and deeply-imagined future that feels lived-in and meaningful. So why is this book so hard to find? One theory is McIntyre’s approach to sex and gender: the humans of her future can control their own reproduction through mental concentration, and thus, life’s kind of one long orgy; also, the main character is a woman who is neither badass nor a warrior, the usual default for female characters in SFF. Whatever the reason, if you happen to find a copy, snap it up and read it.
The Many Colored Land, by Julian May
Julian May’s entire Pliocene Exile series is essential, really; in its future, mankind develops a one-way time travel portal that sends people back to the Pliocene Era, long before the dawn of history. Humanity doesn’t know what else to do, so it begins using the portal as an exile—dissidents and criminals sent back in time can never return, making for a great out-of-sight, out-of-mind way to rid society of bad seeds. When a group of exiles arrives in the past, however, they are shocked to find that Earth is populated by two related alien races who were in turn exiled from their own planet and crash-landed here. These aliens use special devices to unlock mental abilities, and the steady supply of arriving humans become their slaves and toys. This series is in turn part of an even larger story May is telling about humanity’s own emergence into a wider universe, and is incredibly detailed as it breaks genre barriers between high fantasy and sci-fi.
Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson
Nalo Hopkinson is a Jamaican-Canadian writer who brings a totally original perspective to this dystopian novel, set in a future Toronto that has suffered a financial collapse and become isolated from the rest of the world. Inside Toronto, it’s chaos, with the only order imposed by criminal gangs as the poor struggle for daily survival. Ti-Jeanna is a young new mother living with her spiritually-gifted grandmother and dealing with her lover, a member of the ruling gang. Hopkinson does a marvelous job of pouring Jamaican and West Indian culture into this feminist vision, telling a story where women have a special cultural bond and special spiritual abilities, set against a bleak dystopia that’s rooted in frightening realistic possibility.
All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders
Charlie Jane Anders’ science fantasy debut could fit on any number of lists—it’s one of those rare books that’s a lot of different things all at once. It tells the story of Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead, childhood friends who discover early on that they’re extremely talented—Patricia in magic, Laurence in science. Separated for years, they pursue their respective disciplines and are in turn recruited into twin efforts to save an Earth slowly being torn apart by climate change and other forces. When they find each other again, it’s not certain whether they’re destined to save the world, or destroy it. The divide between science and magic is a recurring theme, and adds a wonderful sense of tension to a novel bursting with ideas.
Salt Fish Girl, by Larissa Lai
Combining Chinese fables and myths with a sci-fi element, Lai twists together two narratives: in the first, a literal goddess, Nu Wa, creates mankind but becomes jealous of their freedoms, as she is bound to the water. So she reincarnates as a human in the 19th century, immediately falling in love with the titular Salt Fish Girl, who is never named. In the 21st century, a young woman named Miranda lives a privileged life in a post-apocalyptic Pacific Northwest, in a walled city where factories are manned by cybernetically enhanced workers, and white-collar jobs are essentially video games. Miranda is plagued by the smell of durian fruit that is always about her, and may suffer from what’s known as the Dreaming Disease, which mixes past and present in unpredictable ways. You won’t read another sci-fi book quite like it.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
This literary approach to the end of civilization is heartbreakingly open-ended, treating a world destroyed by a pandemic as a sad, tragic place of lost memories. Bouncing around in time, the story follows a few loosely connected souls in their lives before the plague and their attempts to survive its aftermath. In the post-apocalyptic present, a theatrical troupe travels in a circuit, entertaining the survivors. Returning to a regular stop, they are dismayed to find the town overtaken by a religious cult led by The Prophet, who claims young girls as wives and then rapes them. Mandel paints a sad and gorgeous world at low tide, filled with inspired details, even as she presents humanity at its best and worst.
The Time Traders, by Andre Norton
There are essentially two kinds of time travel stories: those which worry over the rules and the implications of paradox, and those that simply don’t. This great novel, published in 1958 but updated in 2000, is in the latter group. Norton (real name: Alice) imagines a world in which the U.S., Russia, and an alien race known as the Baldies use time travel in a feverish cold war that often edges into a hot one. Interestingly, one of Norton’s ideas is that if a civilization discovers the secret of time travel, they essentially will never figure out space travel, and vice versa. An awesome sci-fi novel that remains a fresh take on time travel for any sci-fi fan.
The Mount, by Carol Emshwiller
In a genre where it sometimes seems the one constant is a smug assumption that whatever the future is, it will be dominated by humans, Emshwiller’s 2002 novel subverts our expectations. It describes an Earth where humanity had been subjugated by the herbivorous Hoots, alien beings who are essentially highly-advanced prey who have adapted abilities that allow them to dominate predators. Humans are used as riding mounts by the Hoots, who have difficulty getting around on their weak legs, and they treat us very much the way we treat horses today—though we retain the very human abilities to think, resent our masters, and foment a revolution. Emshwiller’s willingness to imagine a sci-fi future where humanity itself has become the oppressed, mistreated half of a binary relationship is a genius way of shocking even the wokest among us into reevaluating our preconceived notions of our supposed exceptionalism, understanding of sexuality, and very existence. A disturbing and fascinating sci-fi vision.
Up Against It, by M.J. Locke
Locke’s only novel—under this name, anyway (the author is also known as Laura J. Mixon)—is seemingly a story of simple survival, and that narrow focus makes it truly compelling, though the SFnal ideas on display (including one of the most fascinating depictions of emerging consciousness we’ve ever encountered) mean it is also much more. It’s a tightly-written narrative set on a colony settled within an asteroid that sees a series of small disasters make the survival of its residents in jeopardy. Jane Navio is Phocaea’s Resource Allocation Chief, in charge of saving the day. Dealing with an accident that was arranged by organized crime, a rogue artificial intelligence infecting their systems, and the constant limitations of a low gravity environment that was never meant to support life, the story has the tension and crackle of a thriller without sacrificing the slew of great sci-fi ideas that flesh out the universe.
Quantum Rose, by Catherine Asaro
Asaro’s novel won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2001, but is rarely spoken of a decade and a half on. This might be due to the complexity of its structure—on the surface, it’s a sci-fi romance about a beautiful woman saved from a terrible arranged marriage by a mysterious, possibly alien man who commands technologies long thought to be legends. Underneath, it’s a complex allegory for theories in physics, with the characters representing concepts as much as they represent people. This book isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you only read books that slot snugly into your pleasure centers, your reading list is going to be pretty narrow.
The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon
This remarkable novel has been hovering on the cutting edge of real-world science for a long time, with curative genetic procedures that remove disease and deformity always seeming just a few years off. Moon’s concept of a future where genetic flaws have been eliminated and inherited diseases are a thing of the past fits perfectly into the mundane philosophy: earthbound, focused on humanity and real-world issues, and involving plausible, if still futuristic, technology. What makes the story truly memorable is where Moon takes it, positing an autistic man who was born just before the genetic fixes were common who is offered a surgery that would “cure” his autism—but possibly change who he is as a person. The questions of identity and morality this simple premise opens up are deep veins readers are still exploring more than a decade later.
Slow River, by Nicola Griffith
Griffith’s dense near-future novel tells the story of Lore Van Osterling, a rich girl who finds herself kidnapped. When her family refuses to pay the ransom, Lore escapes and winds up battered and bleeding on the street. Saved by a hacker and prostitute named Spanner, Lore takes up with her, helping her swindle the rich, joining in on her prostitution engagements, and falling in love. When Lore realizes that Spanner is not what she seems, she makes yet another break, stealing an identity and getting a straight job while she faces up to the dark secrets of her childhood, filled with plot twists and reveals. There’s plenty of sci-fi ideas in here, but the focus is on Lore’s story—a family drama that’s as riveting as any soap opera, and proving that sci-fi is just a way of telling stories.
Fifty women, 50 books—and so much more to explore. If you had any doubt that sci-fi would be nothing and nowhere without its female contingent, consider yourself corrected.