23 Best Spunky Heroine Science Fiction Books

Lou: “You know what? You’ve got spunk.”
Mary: “Well, ye—”
Lou: “I hate spunk!”

— First episode of The The Mary Tyler Moore Show, 1970


The Empress of Mars
by Kage Baker – 2003

In this tale of nonconformist survival, Mary Griffith, a widow with three daughters, runs the only place to buy a beer on the Tharsis Bulge on Mars. She and her eccentric customers—terraformers, con men, and cowboys—battle the British Arean Company, whose badly-run bureaucracy dominates the whole planet.

The Empress of Mars was nominated for the 2004 Hugo Award for Best Novella as well as the 2004 Nebula Award for Best Novella.

“Baker’s tale of individualists battling enforced conformity is a worthy evolution of her novella and will especially appeal to longtime science fiction fans.”
— Publishers Weekly

This Alien Shore
by C.S. Friedman – 1998

This Alien Shore, which explores the second age of space colonization, was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

It is the second stage of human colonization. The first stage, humanity’s initial attempt to people the stars, ended in disaster when it was discovered that Earth’s original superluminal drive did permanent genetic damage to all who used it. All of Earth’s far-flung colonists were mutated in both mind and body.

“[L]ike a cross between cyberpunk and Star Wars”
— Publishers Weekly

by Scott Westerfeld – 2009

In this first book of the YA Leviathan trilogy, an alternate World War I is fought by steampunk machines and genetically-fabricated monsters. The Leviathan of the title is a massive whale airship, and the spunky heroine is Deryn, a Scottish girl with dreams of joining the British Air Service. Girls aren’t allowed, but she’s got a way around that.

“Enhanced by Thompson’s intricate black-and-white illustrations, Westerfeld’s brilliantly constructed imaginary world will capture readers from the first page. Full of nonstop action, this steampunk adventure is sure to become a classic.”
— School Library Journal (starred review)

Picnic on Paradise
by Joanna Russ – 1968

Alyx is a Greek woman from almost 4,000 years ago. She’s also agent of TransTemp and regulary visits our own future. then something goes wrong, she attempts to get a group of civilians safely across a hostile landscape.

Picnic on Paradise was nominated for the 1969 Nebula Award for Best Novel.

by Carol Severance – 1991

After narrowly escaping death in a forest fire, Angie Dinsman finds herself under the control of the World Life Company. They promptly equip her with webbed hands and gills, creating a half-fish, half-woman. Her mission is to uncover secret research files on the waterworld of Lesaat. But first she has to undergo the terrifying process of learning to breathe underwater. After mastering the basics of survival, she faces an insurmountable challenge: finding the information that could end starvation on Earth while sabotaging the Company’s evil plans.

Carol Severance comes by her knowledge of Polynesian culture and mythology honestly: she served with the Peace Corps from 1966-1968 and later assisted in anthropological fieldwork in the remote coral atolls of Truk, Micronesia. Eventually, she moved to the Big Island of Hawaii and worked as a journalist.

Reefsong isn’t well known, but it definitely has a cult following—all of its reviews have five stars. A typical example:

“A nice blend of fantasy (mostly) with a little sci-fi thrown in—a fast-moving, thought-provoking story in a gorgeous other-worldly Pacific-Islandesque setting with a strong, smart heroine at its center.”

Slow River
by Nicola Griffith – 1995

A daughter of one of the world’s most powerful families wakes up in a rainy alley. She’s naked, has a still-bleeding foot-long gash in her back, and her identity implant is gone.

Out of the rain walks Spanner, predator and thief, who takes her in, cares for her wound, and teaches her how to reinvent herself.

This near-future cyberpunk novel has some great hard science, but its strength is in its characters. It also won both the Nebula Award and the Lambda Literary Award.

by Ann Aguirre – 2008

As the carrier of a rare gene, Sirantha Jax has the ability to jump ships through grimspace, a talent that makes her a highly prized navigator for the Corp. Then a crash landing kills everyone on board, leaving Jax in a jail cell with no memory of the crash. But her fun’s not over. A group of rogue fighters frees her…for a price: her help in overthrowing the established order.

“[A] dazzling debut novel.”
— RT BookReviews

The Adventures of Crazy Liddy
by Clayton J. Callahan – 2015

Liddy is a convicted smuggler with one chance at a pardon. Her job is to rescue a young lieutenant, who happens to be the governor’s son. To succeed, she must form an alliance with the cop who arrested her, and fly deep into alien territory to get the job done.

According to the author, Liddy’s character has an interesting origin:

“For over five years I worked in a women’s prison. To say Liddy is based on any particular inmate would be a lie, however, her lively personality was created from a wide variety of female criminals I’ve encountered… Liddy is wild, Liddy is profane, but one thing’s for sure…she ain’t boring.”

by M. T. Anderson – 2002

For Titus and his friends, it started out like any ordinary trip to the moon—a chance to party during spring break. But then a crazy hacker causes all their feeds to malfunction, sending them to the hospital to lie around with nothing inside their heads for days. Then Titus meets Violet, a beautiful, brainy teenage girl who fights the internet/television hybrid wired directly into everyone’s brain.

“Chilling…thought-provoking and scathing.”
— Publishers Weekly

by Pamela Sargent – 1980
Apologies for the boring book cover. That’s what amazon had.

Alone in the desert, Daiya is faced with a dilemma that will determine her fate. If she can successfully resolve it, she will join the Net of her village, but if she fails, her life will be spent with the feared Merged Ones. Confused and torn between worlds near and far, Daiya harbors a secret of her people, and must find a way to move beyond her discoveries to a safe place where she can survive.

Artificial Absolutes
by Mary Fan – 2013

Jane witnesses her best friend Adam kidnapped by a mysterious criminal. An extensive cover-up thwarts her efforts to even report the crime. Only her older brother, Devin, believes her account. Soon after, he’s framed for murder. With little more than a cocky attitude, Jane leaves everything she knows to flee with Devin, racing through the most lawless corners of the galaxy as she searches for Adam and proof of her brother’s innocence.

“[T]hrilling…[T]he fast-paced action is balanced by thoughtful meditations on what it means to be human. Readers will zip through this exciting story and immediately hunt down the sequels.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)

by Octavia E. Butler – 1987

The first book in the well-regarded Xenogenesis trilogy, Dawn is often called both brilliant and disturbing. The protagonist goes through serious hell, so if you’re after a light read, this probably isn’t it.

Lilith lyapo awoke from a centuries-long sleep to find herself aboard the vast spaceship of the Oankali (creatures covered in writhing tentacles), who had saved every surviving human from a dying, ruined Earth. They healed the planet, cured cancer, increased strength, and were now ready to help Lilith lead her people back to Earth—but for a price.

by Sheri S. Tepper – 1989

Generations ago, humans fled to the cosmic anomaly known as Grass. But before humanity arrived, another species had already claimed Grass for its own. It too had developed a culture. Now a deadly plague is spreading across the stars, leaving no planet untouched, save for Grass.

Rigo and Marjorie Westriding Yrarier and family are sent to Grass as ambassadors and unofficial investigators because the ruling families have refused to allow scientists to authenticate the planet’s immunity from the plague. The egotistical Rigo sets out to prove himself, while the spunky Marjorie remains wary about the relationship between the hunters and the hunted. She gains allies in her search, but the secret of the planet’s immunity hides a truth so shattering it could mean the end of life itself.

“Tepper delves into the nature of truth and religion, creating some strong characters in her compelling story.”
— Publishers Weekly

Rite of Passage
by Alexei Panshin – 1968

In 2198, humanity lives precariously on a hundred hastily-established colony worlds and in the seven giant Ships that once ferried men to the stars.

Mia Havero’s Ship is a small closed society. It tests its children by casting them out to live or die in a month of Trial in the hostile wilds of a colony world. Mia Havero’s Trial is fast approaching and in the meantime, she must learn not only the skills that will keep her alive but the deeper courage to face herself and her world.

Published originally in 1968, Alexei Panshin’s Nebula Award-winning classic has lost none of its relevance, with its keen exploration of societal stagnation and the resilience of youth.

by David R. Palmer – 1984

Emergence is one of the overlooked gems of science fiction with a small but passionate following whose glowing reviews nudged this relatively unknown book onto this list.

It follows a remarkable 11-year-old orphan girl, living in a post-apocalyptic United States. The girl has been called “the most compelling female protagonist in modern science fiction” and she “is so full of life, and her story so full of both surprises and interesting details, that ‘Beginning of the World’ might be a better characterization.”

Spin State
by Chris Moriarty – 2003

Spin State is a hard sci-fi murder mystery set thousands of years in the future on an alien planet. If you can wade through the tons of jargon in the first chapter or so (I couldn’t on the first reading), it’s a fun ride.

A famous scientist is burnt to a crisp deep within a mine. Tough as hell, severely cybernetically augmented Li and her world-spanning, snarky artificial intelligence ex-lover must figure out why.

I liked the characters, the dark mines where a lot of the action takes places, and enjoyed the fast-paced plot twists, even if I did get lost a few times.

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins – 2008

Like all great dystopian stories, The Hunger Games features a society gone bad that attacks the good guy (or gal, the spunky and badass Katniss, 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).

by Robert A. Heinlein – 1982

Friday is the story of one woman’s search for a zipper that works in space. Or possible an undershirt.

I’m kidding. That’s just an awful cover.

Friday is actually the story of a female “artificial person,” the eponymous Friday, genetically engineered to be stronger, faster, smarter, and generally better than normal humans. Artificial humans are widely resented, and much of the story deals with Friday’s struggle both against prejudice and to conceal her enhanced attributes from other humans.

Friday was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1982, and the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1983. It’s also one of Heinlein’s more polarizing novels: some people love it, and some just hate it.

The Eyre Affair
by Jasper Fforde – 2001

Great Britain, circa 1985: time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously.

So when someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature and plucks Jane Eyre from the pages of Brontë’s novel, Literary Detective Thursday Next is faced with the challenge of her career.

The Eyre Affair is more of a surreal mystery than straight science fiction, but it’s still a fun romp for SF fans.

“James Bond meets Harry Potter in the Twilight Zone.”
— Publishers Weekly

A Wrinkle in Time
by Madeleine L’Engle – 1962

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.”

The heroine is, of course, Meg Murray, an awkward girl with glasses, braces, and unruly hair. And also enough courage and intelligence to fight a truly awful science-fiction villain.

To Say Nothing of the Dog
by Connie Willis – 1997

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.

“Willis’ delectable romp through time from 2057 back to Victorian England, with a few side excursions into World War II and medieval Britain, will have readers happily glued to the pages.”
— Publishers Weekly

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel – 2014

Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization came to an end.

Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence.

Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2015.

“Darkly lyrical… A truly haunting book, one that is hard to put down.”
— The Seattle Times

Moving Mars
by Greg Bear – 1993

Moving Mars won the 1994 Nebula, and was also nominated for the Hugo and Locus awards.

Mars is a colonial world governed by corporate interests on Earth. The citizens of Mars are hardworking, brave, and intelligent, but held back by Earthly powers keeping the best inventions for themselves. The young Martians—the second and third generation born on Mars—have little loyalty to the Earth, and a strong belief that their planet can be independent. The revolution begins slowly, but matures to its inevitable conclusion.

Moving Mars is the coming of age and development of Casseia Majumdar, as she goes from lukewarm student activist to president of the fledgling Federal Republic of Mars.

“Bear introduces a wildly intriguing hard-science idea, and the novel spins into a tense science fiction thriller.”
— Publishers Weekly