Top Women Science Fiction Writers

8th May 2013

Blue Space
Despite the popular image of science fiction being for boys, women have always made major contributions to the genre. The Blazing World (1666) by Margaret Cavendish and Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley are widely recognised as key founding texts of the field.

Here I’ll present some other fabulous women writers, though I’ll pass over Angela Carter and Ursula K. Le Guin because they have already appeared on a previous For Books’ Sake list of top fantasy writers.

I’ll also pass over mainstream writers of SF, because hopefully they are well known. Doris Lessing is the only person ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and be a Guest of Honour at the World Science Fiction Convention.

Jeanette Winterson has written more fantasy, but The Stone Gods is clearly SF. As for Margaret Atwood, while she may occasionally rail against being associated with talking squid, she was the first winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award (for The Handmaid’s Tale) and you can’t get more science fictional than that.

My first pick is Joanna Russ, because no one has produced more powerful, and unashamedly angry, feminist science fiction. Her best known work is The Female Man, set in a future in which men and women live in totally separate societies.

I’d also recommend her non-fiction book, How to Suppress Women’s Writing, which catalogues the many ways in which women writers are belittled and marginalised.

Less angry, but perhaps more thoughtful is Suzy McKee CharnasHoldfast Chronicles. Like Russ, Charnas began in the 1970s, with Walk to the End of the World (a post-apocalyptic novel in which women are enslaved) and Motherlines (a sequel in which our heroine, Aldera, discovers that female separatist communities have their problems too).

Charnas returned to the series after the turn of the Millennium. The Furies examines what happens when the women conquer the male-ruled community, while Conqueror’s Child asks what we should do with male children.

James Tiptree Jr. doesn’t sound like a woman writer, and indeed she fooled the science fiction world for many years, despite writing some brilliantly feminist fiction.

Her biography, The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Philips, explains her extraordinary life. Tiptree wrote mainly short fiction and the collection, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, is a fine introduction.

One of the most successful women SF writers is Lois McMaster Bujold. Her Vorkorsigan Saga first saw publication in 1986 and the latest volume is on the Hugo Award ballot this year.

If you want to start at the beginning, try Shards of Honor, featuring the redoubtable starship captain, Cordelia Naismith. However, it is her son Miles, born physically disabled thanks to a poison attack on his parents while Cordelia was pregnant, who is the real star of the series (and a most atypical hero).

Even more successful than Bujold is Connie Willis. She specialises in time travel stories in which her characters visit different periods of British history.

British readers may not always be comfortable with her work, but the Americans lap it up. It helps that she can be very funny. Check out Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog.

You probably know Karen Joy Fowler from her massive hit, The Jane Austen Book Club, but she also writes great SF and, together with her friend Pat Murphy, was responsible for founding the Tiptree Award, which recognises interesting explorations of gender in fiction. I recommend her Sarah Canary, set in 19th century America with a mysterious heroine who might not be human.

Women SF writers often focus on issues of biology and reproduction. One of the finest is Octavia Butler, though she is most famous for Kindred, a time travel story in which an African-American woman goes back to the time of slavery.

Cyberpunk failed to produce many high profile women writers, but Pat Cadigan stands out. Few SF writers set out to predict the future, and Cadigan might now wish she wasn’t quite so good at it. In Synners (1991) she describes a future world in which everyone uses the internet, and we are all plagued by spam and viruses.

Kathleen Ann Goonan first came to prominence with the explosion of nanotech fiction in the 1990s. Her Flower Cities series, beginning with Queen City Jazz, are set in a bizarre future in which the countryside is almost abandoned while the populations of major cities have become puppets of the controlling civic computer systems. Goonan’s work is suffused with a love of American music and literature, and has been met with great critical acclaim.

Earth is visited by an alien race that looks much like us, but doesn’t have two separate genders the way we do. Humanity finds it difficult to cope.All of the writers I have mentioned thus far are American, so it is time for some Brits. Gwyneth Jones is one of our finest, and is perhaps most famous for the Aleutian Trilogy (White Queen, North Wind and Phoenix Café).

In it Earth is visited by an alien race that looks much like us, but doesn’t have two separate genders the way we do. Humanity finds it difficult to cope.

Karen Traviss is probably the most successful woman writing SF today. Her tie-in novels for movies such as Star Wars, and video games such as Halo, are regular features on the New York Times Best Seller List.

People often look down on tie-in novels, but Traviss is a fine writer. Her original series, The Wess’har Wars, beginning with City of Pearl, won her many award nominations.

Another British writer who has achieved many nominations in major awards is Justina Robson. My favorite of her books is Natural History. However, if you look for her in a bookstore these days you’ll probably find books from her Quantum Gravity series.

These books seamlessly blend SF with some classic fantasy tropes. They feature a sexy, leather-clad cyborg secret agent, Lila Black, whose rock star boyfriend, Zal, just happens to be an elf prince.

You might not immediately think of Finland in connection with science fiction, but you’d be surprised. One of their finest writers, Johanna Sinisalo, is a keen feminist and environmentalist.

Expertly translated, her novels make powerful statements about our relationship with nature. The latest, Birdbrain, explores what happens when nature decides to fight back against the havoc humans are wreaking upon one of the world’s last remaining wild places.

Picking a dozen writers was really hard. There are many, many other names I could have given you, all of whom are equally good. If you want to look for yourself the Tiptree Award website is an excellent source of good books with strong, feminist themes.

A couple of small presses, Aqueduct in the USA and Twelfth Planet in Australia, specialise in publishing women writers. If you are comfortable with ebooks, you can find the Aqueduct and Twelfth Planet books in my bookstore.

Sadly the UK has been a bit of a desert of late, culminating in the short list for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award being all-male. Thankfully, Jo Fletcher Books, a new women-run imprint, is fighting back with fine new novels by Karen Lord (The Best of All Possible Worlds), Naomi Foyle (Seoul Survivors) and Stephanie Saulter (Gemsigns) all just published.

(Image via chiaralily)


  • Jennie says:

    Another American I’m afraid, but Mary Doria Russell’s two mid-90s books ‘The Sparrow’ and ‘Children of God’ won a plethora of awards – they’re both well worth reading.

    • Smallgood says:

      Jennie, I was just going to mention MDR. She’s a wonderful author, and I think her science fiction novels were fabulous.

  • Jane Rogers won the Arthur C Clarke Award for The Testament of Jessie Lamb which explores Britain in a time where pregnancy brings on a lethal disease. Lots of moral and ethical questions, especially about reproduction.

  • Wez Hind says:

    Though she doesn’t write ‘feminist’ fiction (to my knowledge she writes ‘humanist’ fiction) I think one of the best (imo) sci-fi series ever written was produced by Julian May (Saga of the Exiles, Galactic Milieu). I am constantly surprised when I read lists of this nature and do not find her name included. I highly recommend either of those series to anybody (and the interim book Intervention).

    Though I’m sad to not see Julian May here, the majority of the authors listed above are wonderful writers whom works I’d have no problem recommending to anybody interested in expanding their reading range. Unfortunately though (imo) a couple sacrifice both story and style to the need to politicise, which made reading them more like reading a manifesto than a work of speculative fiction.

    All in all, some good stuff here 🙂

  • All excellent suggestions. Keep them coming. 🙂

  • I’ll second Julian May!

    And I’ll add my favorite new female sf writer (well, new to sf, but she’s written plenty in other genres): Jean Johnson, author of A Soldier’s Duty and An Officer’s Duty. Not only is she one of the very few women tackling military sf, the thing that really interests me about these two books is that she’s put an order of magnitude more thought into how psychic powers, particularly precognition, would fit into a technologically advanced, mature society than any other writer I know of.

  • Xan Avalon says:

    I know the Verkosarian thing is Lois Bujold’s most famous writing but I (as you can probably tell) never had the slightest interest in it. On the other hand her “Sharing Knife” sequence I fell utterly in love with. Some places list it as, of all things, “romantic fantasy” but I dispute this wholeheartedly: it qualifies as anything from sf to alt-hist to futuretopia (not sure whether to call it u- or dis-topia but her name for it of the “Wide Green World” series tends to suggest the u- side. 🙂

    heck I didn’t want it to end so badly I am in the process of a fanfic to carry it on. If/when I ever get it in shape to post I will run it by her for comment and permission first. But meanwhile I still get to live in that world for awhile.

  • Sioned-Mair Richards says:

    What about Marge Piercy’s “Woman on the Edge of Time”? A feminist & Sci Fi classic.

  • David Gillon says:

    One name I’m surprised not to see in the list is C J Cherryh, whose works include some of the best social world-building seen in any SF. I’ve just re-read ‘Regenesis’ and it probably impressed me even more now than it did when I first read it.

  • Martin Nash says:

    Wow, so many new (to me) authors to check out, thanks! May I add Sherri S. Tepper to the list?

  • MC says:

    Many thanks – lots of new names.

    I would also mention Andre Norton, who had a prodigious output of sci-fi