25 Best Science Fiction Books with Female Protagonists

Why, yes, women will kick ass in the future, too.

 

25
Planetfall
by Emma Newman – 2015

Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, a planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed enough in that vision to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.

More than 20 years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided alone. Ren has worked hard as the colony’s 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment—and harboring a devastating secret.

For the good of her fellow colonists, Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.

The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden, and its revelation could tear the colony apart.

“An exceptionally engaging novel that explores the complex relationship between mythology and science.”
—The Washington Post

24
Six Wakes
by Mur Lafferty – 2017

Six Wakes is a good old-fashioned murder mystery in space that starts with everyone on the ship being murdered.

Everyone’s backup clones then wake up to the bloody massacre and have to figure out who killed everybody and why. Any one of them could be the killer, and not even know it. As the clones appear to work together to solve the mystery, secrets and ulterior motives slowly come to light.

Author Lafferty has an easy writing style, engaging characters, and I’ve put her other books on my wish list.

23
Fool’s War
by Sarah Zettel – 1997

Katmer Al Shei has done well with the starship Pasadena, cutting corners where necessary to keep her crew paid and her journeys profitable. But there are two things she will never skimp on: her crew and her fool. For a long space journey, a certified Fool’s Guild clown is essential to amuse, excite, and otherwise distract the crew from the drudgeries of interstellar flight. Her newest fool, Evelyn Dobbs, is a talented jester. But does she have enough wit to save mankind?

In the computers of the Pasadena, something is emerging. The highly sophisticated software that makes interstellar travel practical is playing host to a new form of artificial intelligence, a living entity. And it will do whatever it takes to survive…

“Wrenchingly real.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer

22
Boneshaker
by Cherie Priest – 2009

Boneshaker combines steampunk with zombies in an alternate history version of Seattle, Washington. It was nominated for the 2009 Nebula and Hugo, and won the Locus Award in 2010.

In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest. Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus, Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine was born.

But on its first test run, the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead.

“Intelligent, exceptionally well written and showcasing a phenomenal strong female protagonist who embodies the complexities inherent in motherhood, this yarn is a must-read for the discerning steampunk fan.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

21
Cinder
by Marissa Meyer – 2012

The wildly popular debut novel from author Meyer, Cinder is a darkly subversive retelling of Cinderella, with Cinder being a cyborg. It’s more of a story of an individual robot rising up, instead of a large-scale robot uprising.

This isn’t a book I would usually look twice at, since the cover suggests “Twilight with Robots,” but the reviews are so universally positive that it’s worth a read.

“[T]his futuristic twist on Cinderella retains just enough of the original that readers will enjoy spotting the subtle similarities. But debut author Meyer’s brilliance is in sending the story into an entirely new, utterly thrilling dimension.”
–Publishers Weekly (starred review)

20
Ninefox Gambit
by Yoon Ha Lee – 2016

Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris’s career isn’t the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.

Cheris’s best hope is to ally with the undead tactician, Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.

The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao—because she might be his next victim.

“A tight-woven, complicated but not convoluted, breathtakingly original space opera.”
—New York Times

19
Trail of Lightning
by Rebecca Roanhorse – 2018

This book has both science fiction and fantasy elements in it.

While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.

Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last best hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much more terrifying than anything she could imagine.

Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel the rez, unraveling clues from ancient legends, trading favors with tricksters, and battling dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.

As Maggie discovers the truth behind the killings, she will have to confront her past if she wants to survive.

“This exciting post-apocalyptic debut, with its heady combination of smartly drawn characters, Wild West feel, and twisty plot, is a must-read.”
—Library Journal (starred review)

18
Empress of a Thousand Skies
by Rhoda Belleza – 2017

Rhee, also known as Crown Princess Rhiannon Ta’an, is the sole surviving heir to a powerful dynasty. She’ll stop at nothing to avenge her family and claim her throne.

Aly has risen above his war refugee origins to find fame as the dashing star of a DroneVision show. But when he’s falsely accused of killing Rhee, he’s forced to prove his innocence to save his reputation—and his life.

With planets on the brink of war, Rhee and Aly must confront a ruthless evil that threatens the fate of the entire galaxy.

“Fans of calculating political maneuvering and expansive, interplanetary plots will find much to enjoy in Belleza’s Firefly-esque debut.”
—Publishers Weekly

17
An Unkindness of Ghosts
by Rivers Solomon – 2017

Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there were more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world.

Aster lives in the lowdeck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer, Aster learns there may be a way to improve her lot—if she’s willing to sow the seeds of civil war.

“Solomon debuts with a raw distillation of slavery, feudalism, prison, and religion that kicks like rotgut moonshine… Stunning.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

16
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
by Kelly Robson – 2018

In 2267, Earth has just begun to recover from worldwide ecological disasters. Minh is part of the generation that first moved back up to the surface of the Earth from the underground hells, to reclaim humanity’s ancestral habitat. She’s spent her entire life restoring river ecosystems, but lately the kind of long-term restoration projects Minh works on have been stalled due to the invention of time travel. When she gets the opportunity take a team to 2000 BC to survey the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, she jumps at the chance to uncover the secrets of the shadowy think tank that controls time travel technology.

“Thrums with a delicious tension carefully developed among the wonderful characters.”
—The New York Times

15
The Fifth Season
by N.K. Jemisin – 2015

This is the way the world ends… for the last time.

It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world’s sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun. It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter. It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.

This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.

“[I]ntricate and extraordinary.”
—The New York Times

14
Blackout
by Connie Willis – 2010

Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place, with scores of time-traveling historians being sent into the past. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser into letting her go to VE-Day.

Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, and dive-bombing Stukas—to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments, but the war and history itself, are spiraling out of control.

Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.

“A page-turning thriller… Willis uses detail and period language exquisitely well, creating an engaging, exciting tale.”
—Publishers Weekly

13
Defy the Stars
by Claudia Gray – 2017

She’s a soldier: Noemi Vidal is willing to risk anything to protect her planet, Genesis, including her own life. To their enemies on Earth, she’s a rebel.

He’s a machine: abandoned in space for years, utterly alone, Abel’s advanced programming has begun to evolve. He wants only to protect his creator, and to be free. To the people of Genesis, he’s an abomination.

Noemi and Abel are enemies in an interstellar war, forced by chance to work together as they embark on a daring journey through the stars. Their efforts would end the fighting for good, but they’re not without sacrifice. The stakes are even higher than either of them first realized, and the more time they spend together, the more they’re forced to question everything they’d been taught was true.

“This is a complex and well-told tale about loyalty, love, and the meaning of life.”
—School Library Journal

12
Legend
by Marie Lu – 2011

What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic’s wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles. Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country’s most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.

From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths—until the day June’s brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family’s survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias’s death. But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets.

“A gripping thriller in dystopic future Los Angeles. This is no didactic near-future warning of present evils, but a cinematic adventure featuring endearing, compelling heroes.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

11
Artificial Absolutes
by Mary Fan – 2013

Jane Colt is just another recent college grad working as an Interstellar Confederation office drone—until the day she witnesses her best friend, Adam, kidnapped by a mysterious criminal. An extensive cover-up thwarts her efforts to report the crime, shaking her trust in the authorities. Only her older brother, Devin, believes her account.

Devin hopes to leave behind his violent past and find peace in a marriage to the woman he loves. That hope shatters when he discovers a shocking secret that causes him to be 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. Her journey uncovers truths about both of them, leading her to wonder just how much she doesn’t know about the people she loves.

“[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)

10
Feed
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 that was before the crazy hacker caused all their feeds to malfunction, sending them to the hospital to lie around with nothing inside their heads for days. And it was before Titus met Violet, a beautiful, brainy teenage girl who has decided to fight the feed and its ever-present ability to categorize human thoughts and desires.

“This satire offers a thought-provoking and scathing indictment that may prod readers to examine the more sinister possibilities of corporate-and media-dominated culture.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

9
Artemis
by Andy Weir – 2017

Artemis isn’t as good as The Martian, but it’s pretty close. Author Andy Weir kept what was great about The Martian: hard science, humor, and a charmingly sarcastic protagonist.

It takes a little while for the story to get going, but it’s the best depiction of a lunar colony I’ve ever read.

Artemis is about a young, super-smart but lazy criminal on the moon who goes for a major score and immediately gets in way over her head. Clever scheming, problem-solving, and the occasional explosion keep this book entertaining.

8
Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits
by David Wong – 2015

I think author David Wong has invented “trailerpunk”—intelligent, funny, but low-income and low-achieving people save the world in all his books. In his latest, the near-future Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits, a young woman with a horrible cat is forced to fend off a deeply psychotic and wildly enhanced billionaire cyborg.

Like his previous two books, John Dies at the End and This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It, Wong offers up more than frenetic action and bizarre characters. Beneath the madness, there’s a respect for human foibles, an empathy for the crappier part of our natures. I’ve noticed this in books from both Terry Pratchett and Stephen King.

“[A] laugh-out-loud adventure complete with superhero costumes and a cat named Stench Machine.”
—School Library Journal

7
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland – 2017

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is brilliant, fast-paced, and will give you sore wrists because it’s a thick, heavy book, but you will not want to put it down.

An expert in ancient languages is hired by a mysterious government agency to translate some documents that suggest that magic actually once existed in the world. But the advance of science caused magic to disappear in 1851. However, the existence of a two-hundred-year-old witch and some fancy technology allow a limited amount of magic to occur in this world, and soon the language expert and others are being sent back in time to repair history. And, if they’re lucky, bring magic back to the world.

6
The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood – 1985

In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian future, environmental disasters and declining birthrates have led to a Second American Civil War. The result is the rise of the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian regime that enforces rigid social roles and enslaves the few remaining fertile women. Offred is one of these, a Handmaid bound to produce children for one of Gilead’s commanders. Deprived of her husband, her child, her freedom, and even her own name, Offred clings to her memories and her will to survive.

“Atwood takes many trends which exist today and stretches them to their logical and chilling conclusions… An excellent novel about the directions our lives are taking… Read it while it’s still allowed.”
—Houston Chronicle

5
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.”

4
Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel – 2014

I’m not usually a big fan of post-apocalyptic stories, but Station Eleven is a great story and exceptionally well-written.

A virus sweeps through the world and quickly kills off 95% of humanity, ending all comforts of civilization. The book’s protagonist is Kirsten, a young woman traveling with a band of musicians and actors who move from town to town, playing music and putting on Shakespeare plays. They hunt for food and tread carefully in a dangerous world, but even they can’t avoid a deadly and insane prophet.

Author Emily St. John Mandel flings the reader back and forth in time, examining characters both before and after the pandemic by jumping from thirty years before the virus to twenty years after and back again. But she does so with such a deft touch that these transitions feel natural and illuminating.

3
Dawn
by Octavia E. Butler – 1987

Lilith Iyapo has just lost her husband and son when atomic fire consumes Earth—the last stage of the planet’s final war.

Hundreds of years later Lilith awakes, deep in the hold of a massive alien spacecraft piloted by the Oankali—who arrived just in time to save humanity from extinction. They have kept Lilith and other survivors asleep for centuries, as they learned whatever they could about Earth.

Now it is time for Lilith to lead them back to her home world, but life among the Oankali on the newly resettled planet will be nothing like it was before. The Oankali survive by genetically merging with primitive civilizations—whether their new hosts like it or not. For the first time since the nuclear holocaust, Earth will be inhabited. Grass will grow, animals will run, and people will learn to survive the planet’s untamed wilderness. But their children will not be human. Not exactly.

2
Midnight Robber
by Nalo Hopkinson – 2000

As a straight white middle-aged male, I’ve often felt like science fiction’s target demographic. Most SF feels like it’s aimed right at me.

Midnight Robber is definitely not aimed at me. Which, honestly, made it a lot more interesting. Being extremely well written helped a lot, too.

A privileged but innocent child living on the planet Toussaint (essentially The Planet of the Caribbean) is taken by her corrupt father to another world they can’t return from. In this new world, the monsters of Caribbean folklore are real, and humans scrape together whatever they can in the wild.

1
Starfish
by Peter Watts – 1999

Starfish is one of my favorite books.

A huge international corporation has developed a facility along the Juan de Fuca Ridge at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to exploit geothermal power. They send a bio-engineered crew—people who have been altered to withstand the pressure and breathe the seawater—down to live and work in this weird, fertile undersea darkness.

Unfortunately the only people suitable for long-term employment in these experimental power stations are crazy, some of them in unpleasant ways. How many of them can survive, or will be allowed to survive, while worldwide disaster approaches from below?

“[P]art undersea adventure, part psychological thriller, and wholly original.”
—Booklist

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