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Women in Science Fiction

by Kaitlyn Moore

*This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of RA News.*

“I wanted to have very strong female characters. I just thought it was always the way the world should be.” – Elizabeth Hand

From the recent Hugo awards controversy in which a vocal group of online voters hostile to women and minority writers advanced a slate of handpicked male candidates, to the popular, ironic Kickstarter Women Destroy Science Fiction which promotes female science fiction authors, the science fiction community has recently been rocked by issues of inclusion and diversity. This isn't solely a recent debate -- Noted feminist science fiction author Joanna Russ wrote How to Suppress Women's Writing in 1983 in response to her experience.

This tension arises in part because Science Fiction has traditionally been seen as a man's genre, with readers, as well as writers, assumed to be male. Some readers may assume that Science Fiction has no interest in telling women’s stories, and that female characters will be relegated to romantic interests (or appear as scantily clad cover models).  By its nature, though, Science Fiction is inquisitive and daring, and thus offers plenty of room for characters of varying experiences, backgrounds, and genders. This list is a good starting point for science fiction with strong female characters.


These novels are driven by a character's personal development and their reflections on their world -- illuminating our own societal issues in the process.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
ISBN: 9780395404256
This dystopian, feminist science fiction classic explores disturbing elements of gender roles, politics, and religion in a totalitarian future where a woman's role is determined by her fertility. It follows Offred, a Handmaid who is forced into a monthly "Ceremony" of sex with a powerful, married man, with the aim of bearing him a child. The reader learns both Offred's personal history and the disturbing social forces and events that created this reality through reflective, leisurely narration. The result is a work that is both character-driven and personal, and a powerful feminist text.
Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon
ISBN: 9780671877187
When her fellow colonists are evacuated from their planet, Ofelia stays behind; considered too old to be productive by the rest of the colonists, she decides to live out her days in peace on the world she loves. She soon learns, though, that the planet has native inhabitants the colonists never knew about. After gaining the aliens' trust using her resourcefulness and emotional fortitude, she must liaise between the new humans who arrive and her adopted society in this reflective, anthropological science fiction novel.


On Such a Full Sea by Chang Rae-Lee
ISBN: 9781594486104
In this dystopian, post-apocalyptic future, enormous labor camps provide food for "charter" villages; outside of these luxurious enclaves is a lawless, dangerous wasteland. This compelling, lyrical novel -- as notable for its detailed world-building as its rich characters, follows Fan, a young woman who leaves her fishery in B-Mor (the former city of Baltimore) to search for her missing boyfriend. In this fantastic allegory of the environmental and social issues of our day, Fan faces gruesome, disturbing circumstances, but is driven by her own sense of purpose to seek reconnection and love. Readers who are interested in science fiction journeys though richly detailed worlds might also want to try The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne.


Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
ISBN: 9780374104092
Four female scientists set out on an expedition into the quarantined zone, Area X, two years after the 11th expedition failed. Though they believe the balance of their skills (biology, psychology, anthropology, and surveying) ensures their success, they quickly fall under the spell of the mysterious, menacing region. Though the first-person narration of the biologist may be influenced by the creatures in Area X, her determined, analytical personality shines through this unnerving novel. (Southern Reach novels, 1)


Embassytown by China Miéville
ISBN: 9780345524492
In this haunting, stylistically-complex novel, interstellar traveler Avice Benner Cho returns to her home planet so her husband can study the language of its indigenous inhabitants, the Hosts. Avice herself has been chosen by the aliens as a living simile, with a part to play in ceremonies which allow the hosts to describe events that haven't happened. Since their language combines thoughts, words, and reality, these human similes are the only way they can express anything approaching an untruth. When a new Ambassador arrives, his words have strange effects on the minds and society of the hosts.


Action-Packed (Plot-Driven)

Despite the stereotypes, many classic science fiction and space operas include strong female characters, demonstrating that diverse characters can add to a work's enduring appeal. These books are plot-driven and fast-paced, and some have female protagonists as physically formidable as any man.

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
ISBN: 9780671877491
The competent, independent army captain Cordelia Naismith is marooned on a deserted planet with her brutal enemy Aral Vorkosigan, called the "Butcher of Komarr." As they work together to escape the planet, a romance blooms. If this sounds like a typical romance novel plot, don't worry -- their relationship is founded on mutual respect, with a fast-paced background of political intrigue, shifting allegiances, and space warfare, lightened by a witty tone.  (Vorkosigan saga, 1)


Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
ISBN: 9780345276940
Dragonflight kicked off the epic Dragonriders of Pern series and won McCaffrey the Hugo and Nebula awards; she was the first woman to win either. The colonists of Pern regressed to a feudal, agrarian society after their first encounters with the destructive Thread that rains from the sky every few generations. The colonists' only defence is genetically engineered dragons -- telepathically bonded to the humans who ride them -- but their numbers have grown thin as the Thread slipped from living memory to myth. The telepath Lessa could become strongest woman to ever ride a dragon, but if she can convince the rest of Pern’s inhabitants that the Thread are still a threat.


On Basilisk Station by David Weber
ISBN: 9780671721633
In the first book of a series, light cruiser Commander Honor Harrington is assigned to the backwater Basilisk Station as a punishment, but is nevertheless determined to perform her duty. She and her crew rise to the challenge, manning the station with inadequate resources, then become embroiled in an interstellar invasion. The ethical, resourceful Honor Harrington must make choices that create political infighting and new challenges in this intricately plotted space opera.


Dune by Frank Herbert
ISBN: 9780399128967
Though the iconic Paul Atreides is Dune's best-known character, he would not have succeeded (and actually never would have been born) without the women who supported him. Detailed, fully developed female characters like Jessica Atreides, Chani, and even the Bene Gesserit Revered Mother embody different ways women can show love, strength, and power.


Wool by Hugh Howey
ISBN: 9781476733951
What's left of humanity is confined to a huge underground silo, and even wondering about the outside world is punishable by death in this compelling post-apocalyptic novel. The no-nonsense mechanic Juliette questions the silo's rules and purpose, starting a chain reaction that could lead to revolution or the complete destruction of society. (Silo series, 1)


The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson
ISBN: 9780553096095
This rollicking cyberpunk novel follows an ensemble cast in 21st Century China, including a Neo-Victorian engineer who uses nanotechnology to create the ideal educational book for a wealthy patron's granddaughter, and Nell, the abused, lower-class girl who accidentally receives this Primer. Her education and unexpected development through the entrancing Primer drives much of this intricate plot.


Contact by Carl Sagan
ISBN: 9780671434007
After receiving a message from an alien race, Ellie Arroway heads up an international team of scientists striving to make first contact in this intricately plotted, thought-provoking novel. Ellie's interest in space and science is explained through her own personal and family experiences, thought the novel also explores the political and religious implications of space exploration and contact with other species.



Check out some of the Read-Alike suggestions for each book on this list.  Look up a book in NoveList and navigate to the book’s page.  On the right side of each page, you will see several suggestions.

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Kaitlyn Moore is a graduate of Guilford College, a teacher of English as a second language, and an itinerant expert on South East Asian cuisine.