10 Essential Sci-Fi Novels By Women That Show What The Genre Can Do
As a literary genre, science fiction has been around for more than 100 years, but some readers still don't understand the appeal. If you've never gotten into speculative fiction, or if you're a new fan who wants to read the classics, I've picked out 10 essential sci-fi novels by women that clearly show what the genre can do.
For some writers and readers, science fiction is not at the top of TBR piles, and is not as popular as, say, literary fiction. In April 2019, Atonement author Ian McEwan came under fire when he rejected the sci-fi label for his latest novel, Machines Like Me. Speaking with The Guardian, McEwan compared science fiction to literary fiction. He said, "There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest."
There's just one problem with McEwan's analysis, and that is that science fiction, even at its most conventional, has always tackled bigger issues than anti-gravity boots. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which is widely considered the English language's first sci-fi novel, deals 100 percent with human dilemmas. McEwan's further comments about the complications of artificial intelligence focus on a theme that has been thoroughly explored in sci-fi, appearing in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, Dune by Frank Herbert, and I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, among other novels.
That's all to say that sci-fi is not less than literary fiction, nor is it all chrome and rockets. To see exactly what heights the genre is capable of reaching, check out the essential sci-fi novels by women I've picked out for you below.
'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley (1818)
After crafting an unnamed creature out of assembled body parts and giving it life, a young doctor wrestles with the ramifications of "playing God" in this 19th-century sci-fi novel.
'Herland' by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)
Three men discover an all-woman society in this novel from The Yellow Wall-Paper author Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Herland's exploration of first contact between a patriarchal, Western society and a feminist utopia is still relevant to readers today.
'The Left Hand of Darkness' by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
Another novel dealing with the clash of cultures, The Left Hand of Darkness follows Terran emissary Genly Ai to Gethen, a planet whose androgynous inhabitants he struggles to understand, because their concept of gender is so radically different from his own.
'The Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood (1985)
Set in the aftermath of a conservative Christian coup in the U.S., The Handmaid's Tale centers on Offred, a woman forcibly separated from her daughter and forced to conceive a child for a member of the political elite.
'Dawn' by Octavia Butler (1987)
The first of book of the Xenogenesis Trilogy, Dawn follows the human Lilith, who has recently woken up on a spaceship some 250 years after nuclear war destroyed life on Earth. Living among the trinary-gendered Oankali, Lilith must decide whether to allow her hosts to use her genetic material to create human-Oankali hybrids.
'Falling Free' by Lois McMaster Bujold (1988)
The first book of the Vorkosigan Saga, chronologically, Lois McMaster Bujold's Falling Free tells the story of how the Quaddies, a lab-created race of people with four arms, retaliated against laws classifying them as subhuman and fought for their freedom from a system of chattel slavery.
'The Sparrow' by Mary Doria Russell (1996)
After the discovery of an alien signal leads a group of human emissaries to make first contact, a Jesuit priest among the crew must reckon with his faith when the Earthlings' actions bring destruction to a sentient, native species on the planet Rakhat.
'Midnight Robber' by Nalo Hopkinson (2000)
In this coming-of-age story, a young girl is whisked away from home by her murderous father, who raises her in a parallel-reality-version of their home planet, Toussaint, where she grows up to become a vigilante.
'Ancillary Justice' by Ann Leckie (2013)
The first installment of Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch Trilogy, Ancillary Justice follows Breq, a soldier and artificial intelligence, as she pursues the person or persons responsible for the disappearance of her ship.
'Binti' by Nnedi Okorafor (2015)
After her admittance into the elite Oomza University, a Himba girl named Binti travels away from Earth and into space to pursue her education. But when her ship is attacked by a vengeful alien race, who murder everyone else on board, it's up to sole-survivor Binti to make sure they don't eradicate the school's population.