The Best Hard Science Fiction Books by Women

Why yes, ladies can bring the techno-wow as much as the gents.


Up Against It
by Laura J. Mixon – 2011

Jane Navio is the resource manager of Phocaea, an asteroid colony poised on the knife-edge of a hard vacuum of unforgiving space. A mishap has dumped megatons of water and methane out the colony’s air lock, putting the entire human population at risk.

Jane discovers that the crisis may have been engineered by the Martian crime syndicate, as a means of executing a coup that will turn Phocaea into a client-state. And if that wasn’t bad enough, an AI that spawned during the emergency has gone rogue…and there’s a giant x-factor in the form of the transhumanist Viridian cult that lives in Phocaea’s bowels.

Jane’s in the prime of her career—she’s only a bit over a century old—but the conflict between politics and life-support is tearing her apart. To save her colony and her career, she’s going to have to solve several mysteries at once―a challenge that will put her up against all the difficulties, contradictions, and awkward compromises entailed in the human colonization of outer space.

by Malka Older – 2016

It’s been 20 years and two election cycles since Information, a powerful search engine monopoly, pioneered the switch from warring nation-states to global microdemocracy. The corporate coalition party Heritage has won the last two elections. With another election on the horizon, the Supermajority is in tight contention, and everything’s on the line.

With power comes corruption. For Ken, this is his chance to do right by the idealistic Policy1st party and get a steady job in the big leagues. For Domaine, the election represents another staging ground in his ongoing struggle against the pax democratica. For Mishima, a dangerous Information operative, the whole situation is a puzzle: How do you keep the wheels running on the biggest political experiment of all time when so many have so much to gain?

“A frighteningly relevant exploration of how the flow of information can manipulate public opinion…timely and perhaps timeless.”
―Kirkus, starred review

by Pat Cadigan – 1991

Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best novel, 1992. Author Pat Cadigan is known as the Queen of Cyberpunk.

In Synners, the line between technology and humanity is hopelessly slim. To be a Synner is to join the online hardcore, an outlaw band of hackers, simulation pirates, and reality synthesizers hooked on artificial reality and virtual space. Now you can change yourself to suit the machines—all it costs you is your freedom, and your humanity.

Synners shows us a world perilously close to our own. A constant stream of new technology spawns new crime before it hits the streets, and the human mind and the external landscape have fused to the point where any encounter with “reality” is incidental.

“Ambitious, brilliantly executed… Cadigan is a major talent.”
—William Gibson, author of Neuromancer

by Madeline Ashby – 2012

Amy is a Von Neumann humanoid: grown in a stable family environment, with her robot mother and human father. she is the only one of her kind, known as the von Neumanns, whose human-protecting failsafe has stopped working. Soon she is on the run from the law, and worse: everyone’s after her, some to use her as a weapon, others to destroy her.

“Picks up where Blade Runner left off and maps territories Ridley Scott barely even glimpsed. (Philip K Dick would have been at home here, but Ashby’s prose is better.) vN might just be the most piercing interrogation of humanoid AI since Asimov kicked it all off with the Three Laws.”
—Peter Watts, author of Blindsight

by Thea von Harbou – 1925

By modern standards, this is not precisely hard science fiction, but it’s close enough to get on the list.

This city of the future encompasses two worlds: that of the hedonistic ruling class and that of a segregated subculture, toilers in a mechanized underworld who labor to provide the rich with their pleasures. When a charismatic leader arises, she seeks a savior to unite the disparate social orders. “Between the brain that plans and the hands that build,” she declares, “there must be a mediator―the heart.”

Thea von Harbou, creator of the screenplay for Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 film, wrote this novel to expand upon the movie’s ideas and concepts. Vivid in description, rich in characterization and symbolism, the story draws upon ancient myths to form a compelling vision of the future.

by Alexandra Almeida – 2022

Shadow is a reluctant god with a broken mind and a death wish. He used to be Thomas Astley-Byron, an affluent young screenwriter whose creativity and idealism saved a world from the brink of collapse. Together with Henry Nowak, an AI expert, Tom created heaven on earth by inventing a Jungian simulated reality that helps humans confront their dark sides. The benevolent manipulation platform turned the two unelected leaders into beloved gods, but now everything is failing. The worlds suffer as a sentimental Tom descends into his own personal hell, becoming the embodiment of everything he despises and a shadow of his former self.

His journey from an optimistic, joyful Tom to a gloomy Shadow is paved with heartache and sinister interference from emerging technology. Humans and bots fight for his heart, but their aims differ: some want to own it, some to dissect it, and others to end its foolish beat. Estranged from the love of his life—the activist poet Nathan Storm—Tom fails to realize the biggest threat comes from within. None of the sticky stories that steer his life end well.

Now, a young goddess—Estelle Ngoie—has been appointed to replace him, and unlike Shadow, Stella takes no prisoners, and her heart bleeds for no one.

Who’s pulling on Shadow’s heartstrings? Are their intentions malign or benign? It’s all a matter of perspective, and Shadow has none left.

“[An] epic of vulnerable digital landscapes that draw[s] readers in with its emotional punch and existential quandaries.”
—Publishers Weekly

Playing God
by Sarah Zettel – 1998

As Lynn Nussbaumer and her company, Bioverse, Inc., try to expunge a biological weapon from the fractious future world of the Dedelphi, a malevolent alliance arises intent on using the poison to their own ends.

“Readers will embrace this complex, multidimensional saga (Zettel’s hardcover debut, and the best of her three novels) not only for its depiction of exotic alien civilization and its action-packed plot but also for its pertinent themes of tribalism, intolerance and ecological disaster.”
—Publishers Weekly

Downbelow Station
by C.J. Cherryh – 1981

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.”
—Publishers Weekly

Ancillary Justice
by Ann Leckie – 2013

Winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards.

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.

Once, she was the Justice of Toren—a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.

“[T]he mind-blowing space opera you’ve been needing… This is a novel that will thrill you like the page-turner it is, but stick with you for a long time afterward.”

by Nnedi Okorafor – 2014

This book blends hard SF with some magic realism, so buckle up.

After word gets out on the Internet that aliens have landed in the waters outside of the world’s fifth most populous city, chaos ensues. Soon the military, religious leaders, thieves, and crackpots are trying to control the message on YouTube and on the streets. Meanwhile, Earth’s political superpowers are considering a preemptive nuclear launch to eradicate the intruders. All that stands between 17 million anarchic residents and death is an alien ambassador, a biologist, a rapper, a soldier, and a myth that may be the size of a giant spider, or a god revealed.

“Chaotic, enthralling, and moving fluidly from character voices to oral-style narration to gut-punchingly beautiful prose.”
—NPR Books

The Calculating Stars
by Mary Robinette Kowal – 2018

On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington, D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the Earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.

Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.

Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

“Readers will thrill to the story of this ‘lady astronaut’ and eagerly anticipate the promised sequels.”
―Publishers Weekly, starred review

The Terraformers
by Annalee Newitz – 2023

Destry’s life is dedicated to terraforming Sask-E. As part of the Environmental Rescue Team, she cares for the planet and its burgeoning eco-systems as her parents and their parents did before her.

But the bright, clean future they’re building comes under threat when Destry discovers a city full of people that shouldn’t exist, hidden inside a massive volcano.

As she uncovers more about their past, Destry begins to question the mission she’s devoted her life to, and must make a choice that will reverberate through Sask-E’s future for generations to come.

“Newitz performs a staggering feat of revolutionary imagination in this hopeful space-opera… With the ethos of Becky Chambers and the gonzo imagination of Samuel R. Delany, plus a strong scientific basis in ecology and urban planning, this feels like a new frontier in science fiction.”
―Publishers Weekly, starred review

All Systems Red
by Martha Wells – 2017

The least human character in All Systems Red is also the most human. A half-robotic creature (or maybe more than half) privately calls itself Murderbot, and it’s got a good reason to. All the humans around it consider it just another security android, which is fine by Murderbot; it’d rather watch bad TV than have to interact with humans.

But when things start to go seriously wrong with the planetary exploration team that Murderbot is supposed to protect, more truths are revealed than it would prefer.

“We are all a little bit Murderbot… we see ourselves in its skin. And that reading about this sulky, soap-opera-loving cyborg killing machine might be one of the most human experiences you can have in sci-fi right now.”

by Octavia E. Butler – 1987

When Lilith Iyapo wakes from a centuries-long sleep, she finds herself aboard the vast spaceship of the Oankali. She discovers that the Oankali—a seemingly benevolent alien race—intervened in the fate of the humanity hundreds of years ago, saving everyone who survived a nuclear war from a dying, ruined Earth and then putting them into a deep sleep. After learning all they could about Earth and its beings, the Oankali healed the planet, cured cancer, increased human strength, and they now want Lilith to lead her people back to Earth—but salvation comes at a price.

“Butler is one of the finest voices in fiction-period… A master storyteller with a voice that cradles and captivates, Butler casts an unflinching eye on racism, sexism, poverty and ignorance, and lets the reader see the terror and beauty of human nature.”
―Washington Post Book World

9 thoughts on “The Best Hard Science Fiction Books by Women

  1. No Connie Willis, Catherine Asaro, Lois McMaster Bujold, Elizabeth Moon, Joan Vinge, Linda Nagata, Ursula Le Guin, James Triptree Jr.

  2. I would find it helpful if you would define what you think is hard SF “by modern standards.”

    I am not an expert, but I thought that meant authors like Cixin Liu, Andy Weir, Greg Bear, etc.

    Several reviews mentioned “space opera,” which I thought meant like “Star Wars,” Star Trek,” etc. and the vast majority of SF books.

    Thank you.

    1. I’m considering hard SF to mean a few different things: the story could be technology-focused rather than emotion-focused, or be based on known physics as opposed to technology so futuristic that it feels magical. As with all my lists, I play pretty loose with the rules because I think it’s more important to get people reading good books than sticking to some arbitrary sub-genre definitions.

  3. No knock on the list; it’s just a tiny bit humorous we need to emphasize these books were authored by females, as opposed to males. The fact is, there are so many great science fiction authors who also happen to be female! Truly some of the best authors out there right now. I’ve already read half the books on this list, and I’m not sure I really paid attention to the sex of the author. (Glad to see “Up Against It” on the list, though. This sometimes under appreciated book was one of my favorites.) Anyway, keep the good books coming, authors!

  4. I have read:
    7. Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh – 1981
    6. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – 2013
    2. All Systems Red by Martha Wells – 2017

    The list is missing Connie Willis, Lois McMaster Bujold, Joan D. Vinge, Andre Norton, Nancy Kress, and Elizabeth Moon.

  5. I would also add Jo Walton to this list but, she is a fantasy writer. I would also consider Sarah A. Hoyt for the list.

  6. For the love of all that is hard SF, please consider “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine; it’s one of the best, most mature SF novels I’ve read in years.

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