While hundreds of women published science fiction stories in the 1950s and earlier, it wasn’t until the 1960s—with its second-wave feminism (the first wave focused on suffrage and legal gender equality) and the sense that science fiction was a literature of ideas—that a large influx of female authors appeared on the scene.
It’s impossible to talk about female-written science fiction as a cohesive genre because, like their testosteroney counterparts, female authors write about a wildly diverse array of subjects in their own unique way and voice.
Despite that, I’m including this list because most other lists of science-fiction books tend to be “White and Male heavy,” and trumpeting the achievements of female authors should help balance that out a little bit.
The 23 Best Science Fiction Books by Female Authors
A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by at least 26 publishers, because it was, in L’Engle’s words, “too different,” and “because it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was really difficult for children, and was it a children’s or an adult’s book, anyhow?”
The book has been in print continuously since its publication in 1962, so apparently it wasn’t too difficult for children. However, it has been too challenging for the more religious adults: it was on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000 at number 23, due to the book’s references to witches and crystal balls, the claim that it “challenges religious beliefs,” and the listing of Jesus “with the names of great artists, philosophers, scientists, and religious leaders.”
Armageddon Cometh is the third book in the oddly-named Alien Species Intervention #6609 series, and has the freakiest cover in this list.
Under the guidance of Netty, Abby concocts her plans to abduct the wildlife at the Big Cat Sanctuary in Sarasota. She enlists the help of the handsome Italian yacht captain, Cobby, and his son Kane. Abby is forced to expose the changes to her body, including her hidden wings.
Author and biologist Julie E. Czerneda has a passionate cult following who can’t get enough of her books, especially her humor and excellent treatment of aliens.
They are the last survivors of their race, beings who live on and communicate through energy, who are capable of assuming the shape of any other species. When their youngest member is assigned to a world considered safe to explore, she is captured by the natives. To escape, she must violate the most important rule of her kind, and reveal the existence of her species to a fellow prisoner—a human being. Now her race is in danger of extinction, for even if the human does not betray her, the Enemy who has long searched for her people may finally discover their location….
This Hugo winner was cited as one of the top 50 science fiction novels of all time by Locus magazine (who hands out a prestigious award every year that’s just a little less recognized than the Hugo or Nebula).
Often described as an excellent novel that just happens to take place on a space station, Downbelow Station is filled with realistic characters under incredible amounts of stress, living on a vulnerable but supremely important space station in the middle of a war.
Downbelow Station is one of Cherryh’s Union-Alliance novels. While separate and complete in themselves, they are part of a much larger tapestry—a future history spanning 5,000 years of human civilization.
“Cherryh tantalizes our minds…captures our hearts and involves us completely…a consistently thoughtful and entertaining writer.”
It’s been argued that Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is the first science fiction novel. Shelley published it anonymously in 1818, and 500 copies were printed.
It wasn’t until 1831 that the “popular” version was sold (which is probably what you’ve read). Shelley edited the book significantly, bowing to pressure to make the book more conservative. Many scholars prefer the 1818 version, claiming it holds true to Shelley’s original spirit.
This isn’t a novel: it’s the wildly popular manga by Japanese artist and writer Hiromu Arakawa. In addition to being action-packed, it also focuses heavily on social problems, including the consequences of guerrilla warfare, the treatment of orphans, and the concept of equivalent exchange—to obtain something new, one must pay with something of the equal value.
After their mother’s death, two brothers learn alchemy in order to research human transmutation—a forbidden taboo in which one attempts to create or modify a human being. Their attempt to bring back their mother fails and results in the loss of one brother’s left leg and the other brother’s entire body. They spend much of the series searching for the legendary catalyst called the Philosopher’s Stone, a powerful object which would allow them to recover their bodies.
Kindred involves time travel, so while being technically science fiction, it’s often shelved under ”literature” or “African-american literature,” due to the protagonist shuttling back into a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. Butler herself called it ”a kind of grim fantasy.”
Octavia E. Butler is a multiple-recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards and one of the best-known female writers in the field. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the Genius Grant.
Even after writing many of her books, Nalo Hopkinson hit a rough patch. She had to stop writing for six years due to a serious illness that prevented her from working. Severe anemia, caused by fibroids as well as a vitamin D deficiency, led to financial difficulties and ultimately homelessness for two years prior to being hired by UC Riverside in 2011.
It’s Carnival time and the Caribbean-colonized planet of Toussaint is celebrating with music, dance, and pageantry. Masked “Midnight Robbers” waylay revelers with brandished weapons and spellbinding words. To young Tan-Tan, the Robber Queen is simply a favorite costume to wear at the festival—until her power-corrupted father commits an unforgivable crime.
“Hopkinson take[s] potentially downbeat material and compel[s] the reader’s attention with vigorous narrative, vividly eloquent prose, and forms of magic which may actually be SF.”
Rogue Genesis is the first book in the Shimmer in the Dark series, Ceri London’s debut novel, and the single ebook-only entry on this list. It’s been described as an epic, universal, telepathic, psychokinetic, electromagnetic, space-time warping, worm-holing, militaristic adventure, so it’s probably really boring.
In the passing of seconds on Earth, Major Niall Kearey has witnessed the birth and death of generations on Astereal. His mind shortcuts light years to visit a fantastical world of floating sky cities populated by telepaths.
Karen Joy Fowler is best known as the author of the best-selling novel The Jane Austen Book Club that was made into a movie of the same name.
Sarah Canary, Fowler’s debut novel, involves a group of people alienated by nineteenth century America experiencing a peculiar kind of first contact. One character is Chinese American, another putatively mentally ill, a third a feminist, and lastly Sarah herself.
When black-cloaked Sarah Canary wanders into a railway camp in the Washington territories in 1873, Chin Ah Kin is ordered by his uncle to escort “the ugliest woman he could imagine” away. Far away. But Chin soon becomes the follower. In the first of many such instances, they are separated, both resurfacing some days later at an insane asylum. Chin has run afoul of the law and Sarah has been committed for observation. Their escape from the asylum in the company of another inmate sets into motion a series of adventures and misadventures that are at once hilarious, deeply moving, and downright terrifying.
Shadow Over Avalon is a complex re-telling of the Arthurian legend, with a technologically advanced underwater civilization and primitive surface world.
As with several other books on this list, there’s a mix of fantasy and science fiction here. As goofy as science-fiction King Arthur sounds, this book’s reviews are filled with accolades of great characters and tons of surprises.
Shards of Honor is commonly considered the first book of the popular Vorkosigan Saga, a long-running space opera.
It’s unique in that the book takes place before the main character of the series, Miles Vorkosigan, is even born.
Lois McMaster Bujold is one of the most acclaimed writers in science fiction, having won four Hugo Awards for best novel, matching Robert A. Heinlein’s record.
Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta (or, as it’s more commonly known, just Shikasta) is a 1979 science fiction novel by British Nobel Prize in Literature-winner Doris Lessing, and is the first book in her five-book Canopus in Argos series.
Shikasta is the history of the planet Shikasta (Earth) under the influence of three galactic empires, Canopus, Sirius, and their mutual enemy, Puttiora.
It draws on the Old Testament and is influenced by spiritual and mystical themes in Sufism, an Islamic belief system in which Lessing had taken an interest in the mid-1960s.
Starshine, the first book in the Aurora Rising series, smoothly weaves together multiple story lines with intrigue, murder, adventure and even a bit of romance.
The year is 2322. Humanity has expanded into the stars, inhabiting over 100 worlds across a third of the galaxy. Though thriving as never before, they have discovered neither alien life nor the key to utopia. Earth struggles to retain authority over far-flung planets and free-wheeling corporations while an uneasy armistice with a breakaway federation hangs by a thread as the former rebels rise in wealth and power.
Synners is the only cyberpunk book on this list, and it’s a doozy.
Synners are synthesizers—not machines, but people. They take images from the brains of performers, and turn them into a form that can be packaged, sold, and consumed. This book is set in a world where new technology spawns new crime before it hits the streets. The line between technology and humanity is hopelessly slim; the human mind and the external landscape have fused to the point where any encounter with reality is incidental. This cyberpunk classic is from one of the founders and mainstays of the movement.
Author Pat Cadigan’s characters generally concern themselves with the blurring the line between reality and perception by making the human mind a real, explorable place.
This is the book that the excellent movie Children of Men is based on. Set in England in 2021, it centers on the results of mass infertility. James describes a United Kingdom that is steadily depopulating and focuses on a small group of resisters who do not share the disillusionment of the masses.
P.D. James (aka Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL) is the only life peer in the House of Lords on this list.
This whole list could easily be one big Le Guin love-fest.
She’s won the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, Locus Award, and World Fantasy Award, each more than once, but she wasn’t always successful. From 1951 to 1961 she wrote five novels, which publishers rejected because they seemed inaccessible (The Dispossessed isn’t one of those five).
Shevek, a brilliant physicist, decides to take action. He will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have isolated his planet of anarchists from the rest of the civilized universe. To do this dangerous task will mean giving up his family and possibly his life. Shevek must make the unprecedented journey to the utopian mother planet, Anarres, to challenge the complex structures of life and living, and ignite the fires of change.
Written in 1970 and published in 1975, The Female Man is a feminist novel that combines utopian fiction and satire.
In the book, the character Joanna calls herself the “female man” because she believes that she must forget her identity as a woman in order to be respected.
The novel follows the lives of four women living in parallel worlds that differ in time and place. 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.
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.
Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid’s Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.
Like all great dystopian stories, The Hunger Games features a society gone bad that attacks the good guy (or gal in this instance).
Some critics have railed against the book’s brutality, but teenagers have always loved stories where other teens die violent, blood-soaked deaths (see: every horror movie ever made).
Le Guin is a wonderful anomaly, a writer with grand philosophical attitudes who can communicate these attitudes while still writing a gripping tale. The Left Hand of Darkness examines sexless androgyny in a fascinating way (and this is from a guy that loves exploding spaceships). In a way, this androgyny feels entirely alien, since our language has “he” and “she” but no human-specific pronoun for “it” or “unknown.”
Ned Henry is badly in need of a rest. He’s been shuttling between the 21st century and the 1940s searching for a Victorian atrocity called the bishop’s bird stump. It’s part of a project to restore the famed Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in a Nazi air raid over a hundred years earlier.
But then Verity Kindle, a fellow time traveler, inadvertently brings back something from the past. Now Ned must jump back to the Victorian era to help Verity put things right—not only to save the project but to prevent altering history itself.
Up the Walls of the World explores the possibility that telepathy and other psychic phenomena are real. It sympathetically describes an attempt to invade the Earth by beings with advanced telepathic abilities from the planet Tyree.
It considers the subject of sentience in different life forms inhabiting widely different environments: in computers and in a vast sentient inhabitant of deep space formed of a network of widely spaced nodes. It is Sheldon’s skill to be able to write convincingly of the experience of beings in all of these settings.
Alice Sheldon was most notable for breaking down the barriers between writing perceived as inherently “male” or “female” — it was not publicly known until 1977 that James Tiptree, Jr. was a woman. She was inducted by the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012.