We all know Science Fiction was invented by a woman: Mary Shelley arguably ran circles around the male writers in her life and created Frankenstein, which is absolutely iconic to the genre. But then as now, men were allowed to dominate the field and most of the women producing stories were shut out. In the spirit of honoring Madame Shelley, I present a list of not-to-be-missed women of science fiction.
If you like clever, badass women and haven’t read the Vorkosigan series, do yourself a favor and pick up Cordelia’s Honor, the most natural place to begin this epic. It tells the story of Captain Cordelia Naismith and her adventures during an interplanetary war for control of the local wormholes. Cordelia is the main character for the first few books, and then the primary point of view transfers to her son Miles – born with congenitally frail bones and the sharpest wits in the galaxy. These stories thrill the reader with non-stop action and fully fleshed, complex, flawed characters as well as plenty of representation (disability, gender identity, queerness and more); a rare find in the 1980s when McMaster Bujold penned the first novels in the series. And the bonus here is that each book is self-contained so a reader can enjoy a space mystery without having read the previous volumes. There are about twenty books in all, so be sure to consult a reader’s guide to keep the order of operations, well, in order.
Let’s talk about breaking the mold of Young Adult Science Fiction. The Binti trilogy – one of the most creative, engaging series I’ve ever read – starts off feeling like a regular, if highly colorful coming of age story: young gifted person (Binti) is swept away to the School for Young Gifted People, leaves behind the family who does not quite understand her, makes new friends on the way there…and then everything turns on its head when her spaceship is attacked by angry aliens who mean to conquer the university and kill everyone in it, but wait! Binti, despite these people having killed her friends and planned a massacre, works to communicate with them and learns of the deep injustice they suffered at the hands of the university professors. Binti the “master harmonizer” negotiates a truce and helps foster peace. And all that is only in the first hundred or so pages of the story. Binti makes a point of the characters being exceptionally different and alien to each other, and shows that conquest and colonialism are tired themes to be subverted and overwritten. We can do better, and Okorafor has.
LeGuin is a must-read in the realm of science fiction. Like several others on this list, she is as well known for her fantasy novels as her sci-fi (one of the first titles people will recognize is Earthsea, a high fantasy series full of magic). Exploring her sci-fi titles, however, will lead a reader into worlds where, for example, everyone is “ambisexual” and will only take on a definite sex in order to reproduce. Or where one man’s dreams can alter reality, and when he learns to control those dreams there are global consequences. Or where people build and live in an anarchist utopia. That last, titled The Disposessed, has actually been circulated among activist groups as a source of ideals. Such is LeGuin’s influence, although she never intended the story as an instruction manual.
When I first encountered Octavia Butler I was taking a Science Fiction class in college. We needed to read “Speech Sounds,” a dystopian short story. Imagine a world where a plague had come (that’s a bit close to home, eh?), and those who did not die were mostly left unable to talk. The aphasia ranges from simple inability to read all the way to deep cognitive decline and mental illness. The readers follow Rye, a woman living in this apocalyptic post-speech world, as she navigates dealing with other human beings. Butler’s careful consideration of all the what-ifs make her worlds rich and engaging, and more often than not, dangerous to the characters as well as the reader’s sense of reality.
N.K. Jemisin’s afrofuturism masterfully navigates a wide variety of sub-genres including alternate history steampunk, time travel, post-apocalypse, and even cyberpunk. I’m hard-pressed to find an author with more range! Jemisin also is not afraid to admonish the human race for bad behavior, and speculatively explore the consequences we are creating for ourselves. A great place to start reading her works is her collection of short stories called How Long ‘til Black Future Month? It showcases her broad scope brilliantly, and three of the stories inside later yielded full-length novels (books titled The Killing Moon, The Fifth Season, and The City We Became).
Andre Norton wrote, I kid you not, over three hundred (300!) novels over an 80 year period. Her science fiction and fantasy novels are so deeply embedded that much of what we think of as typical themes are actually her influence. I include her in this list because she really is the godmother of modern sci-fi and fantasy, and I believe all lovers of the genre should acquaint themselves with her work.