This past International Women’s Day, I was excited to see a huge number of lists showcasing groundbreaking women authors…only to be saddened by indexes overflowing with general literature.
I wondered why the lists of great women authors only have general fiction with the so-called “women’s topics” of love, family, relationships, rape, sadness, & pain. There’s nothing wrong with these themes, but where were the enthralling, fun, inspiring, & thought-provoking reads from female authors about space adventure, magic, & the future—the type of books I loved? I posed this question in our book club & one of our members (Beth Cummings) turned this around asking me who were the women that broke the barriers in sci fi & fantasy. Another member (Tukunjil Nayeera) then started me thinking about my own personal influences.
So here’s my list detailing 8 amazing women authors who forged the path in sci fi & fantasy along with 16 of their enthralling books + 3 bonus reads. These are the women who inspire me with the books of theirs that I love.
C. J. Cherryh
Born Carolyn Janice Cherry, Cherryh was forced to disguise the fact that she was female at a time when the majority of science fiction authors were male. Writing over 80 books since the mid-1970s, she’s one of the best-selling & most critically acclaimed sci fi & fantasy authors. Famous for her world building, she careful crafts her books to seem believable, but still alien. Cherryh is so inspiring that she’s had an asteroid named after her with the official NASA description noting that "She has challenged us to be worthy of the stars by imagining how mankind might grow to live among them."
She’s received the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (1977), multiple Hugo Awards, the Locus Award, Edward E. Smith Memorial Award, the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award, Science Fiction Chronicle Reader Award for Best Novel, & the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award.
Foreigner Universe series: Foreigner
“The groundbreaking novel that launched Cherryh's eponymous space opera series of first contact and its consequences...
It had been nearly five centuries since the starship Phoenix, lost in space and desperately searching for the nearest G5 star, had encountered the planet of the atevi. On this alien world, law was kept by the use of registered assassination, alliances were defined by individual loyalties not geographical borders, and war became inevitable once humans and one faction of atevi established a working relationship. It was a war that humans had no chance of winning on this planet so many light-years from home.
Now, nearly two hundred years after that conflict, humanity has traded its advanced technology for peace and an island refuge that no atevi will ever visit. Then the sole human the treaty allows into atevi society is marked for an assassin's bullet. The work of an isolated lunatic? The interests of a particular faction? Or the consequence of one human's fondness for a species which has fourteen words for betrayal and not a single word for love?”
The Chanur Novels: The Pride of Chanur
Don’t judge this book by its awful cover.
“Furiously paced action...intricate, interesting, precarious alien politics." - Publishers Weekly
"Cherryh's performance as a writer is... on a level of quality to which few writers will ever attain... an uncommonly deft storyteller." - The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
“The first volume of the Chanur saga, set in the Alliance-Union universe, featuring the alien crew of spaceship The Pride of Chanur and the human Tully.
No one at Meetpoint Station had ever seen a creature like the Outsider. Naked-hided, blunt toothed and blunt-fingered, Tully was the sole surviving member of his company of humans―a communicative, spacefaring species hitherto unknown―and he was a prisoner of his discoverers and captors―the sadistic, treacherous kif―until his escape onto the hani ship, The Pride of Chanur.
Little did he know when he threw himself upon the mercy of The Pride and her crew that he put the entire hani species in jeopardy and imperiled the peace of the Compact itself...for the information this fugitive held could be the ruin or glory of any of the species at Meetpoint Station.”
Born Alice Mary Norton, Norton also had to change her name to compete with the overwhelming numbers of male sci fi authors. Now referred to as the "Grande Dame of Science Fiction and Fantasy" & a “Master Storyteller”, she became the 1st woman to receive the Gandalf Grand Master Award from the World Science Fiction Society, the 1st woman to receive the title of Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master, & the 1st inducted by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. Extremely prolific, she’s written over 130 novels & almost as many short stories. She’s also a World Fantasy Life Achievement honoree, & has also received the World Fantasy Convention Award, World Fantasy Award - Life Achievement, Phoenix Award, & Edward E. Smith Memorial Award. Andre also has two literary genre awards named after her.
The Witch World Saga: Witch World
The first book in the classic Witch World saga, an exciting read packed full of action and adventure written by a “superb storyteller”. - The NY Times
“Simon Tregarth, a man on the run, escapes from our world into another, where magic still has power. He no sooner passes into the misty marshes of Escarp than he sees a woman being pursued by warriors and hounds. Rescuing her, he discovers that she is no less than one of the ruling witches of the land with mysterious powers over nature. To Tregarth's earthly eyes, Jaelithe's magic seems more like fragments of forgotten science. He finds new purpose in the service of Estcarp, whose witches use their ancient knowledge of magic to protect their home.
But a new threat is rising: the mysterious Kolder, who possess powers and technology unlike anything known in the Witch World. It will take Simon and the forces of Estcarp all their might, their courage, and their magic to drive back the insurmountable enemy. “
The Solar Queen Series: Sargasso of Space
Capturing the wonder & fun of space travel, “nobody can top Norton when it comes to swashbuckling sci fi adventure.” - St. Louis Globe
”For sale to the highest bidder: One planet known as Limbo - population unknown - resources unknown - perils unknown.
In the future, venturing out into the stars is more than a way for humanity to chart the cosmos—it’s big business. Every time a new planet is discovered, the highest bidder gets first dibs with exclusive property rights for a year. Anything they can find, they can keep.
The planet Limbo was considered a waste of rock to most, which is the only reason apprentice cargo master Dane Thorson and the rest of the crew of the Solar Queen could afford to bid on it. But they soon discover that Limbo is far from uninhabited, the Solar Queen is far from the first ship to explore it—and they can never leave . . .”
Publishing her 1st novel as a protest against the absurd & unrealistic portrayals of women in sci fi novels in the 50s & 60s, McCaffrey continued to write about strong female characters in her many bestselling novels. The 1st woman to win the top 2 prizes for sci fi writing (the Hugo & Nebula awards), her novel The White Dragon became one of the very first sci fi books to appear on the NY Times Best Seller List. Inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, she also received the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award, Robert A. Heinlein Award, Gandalf Award for Book-Length Fantasy, Edward E. Smith Memorial Award, & the American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement.
The Catteni Series: Freedom’s Landing
From “one of the world’s most popular authors” comes a “highly readable novel of human resilience and survival.”
“Kristin Bjornsen lived a normal life, right up until the day the spaceships floated into view above Denver. As human slaves were herded into the maw of a massive vessel, Kristin realized her normal life was over and her fight for freedom was just beginning…
The alien Catteni value strength and intelligence in their slaves—and Kristin has managed to survive her enslavement while hundreds of other humans have not. But her trial has just begun, for now she finds herself part of a massive experiment. The aliens have discovered a new world, and they have a simple way of finding out if it’s habitable: drop hundreds of slaves on the surface and see what happens.
If they survive, colonization can begin. If not, there are always more slaves.”
Dragonriders of Pern Series: Dragonflight
The groundbreaking series that ignited the world’s love of dragons! Considered to be New Adult fiction (i.e., targeted to readers in their early twenties), but can be easily enjoyed by all.
“On a beautiful world called Pern, an ancient way of life is about to come under attack from a myth that is all too real. Lessa is an outcast survivor—her parents murdered, her birthright stolen—a strong young woman who has never stopped dreaming of revenge.
But when an ancient threat to Pern reemerges, Lessa will rise—upon the back of a great dragon with whom she shares a telepathic bond more intimate than any human connection. Together, dragon and rider will fly . . . and Pern will be changed forever. “
Throughout her life, Julian May (originally called Judy May by her family) had to resort to using male-sounding names to sell her work beginning with her very 1st story under the name “J. C. May.” However, in 1952 during a time when the US was observing strict gender roles & women complied with society's expectations for domesticity, she became the 1st woman to chair a worldcon (aka the World Science Fiction Convention). After selling just 1st more short story & marrying her husband, she dropped out of sci fi before returning to the field in the 1970s writing under the names Lee N. Falconer & Ian Thorne. Though few of her male contemporaries could compete with her fully realized & complex characters, she only won 2 awards during her lifetime (the Locus & the First Fandom Hall of Fame Award) though she was nominated for an additional 10 awards.
The Saga of the Pliocene Exile: The Many-colored Land
“'As fresh and original as any book in the field. . . May's triumphs here include a tremendously original premise; fast-paced storytelling that defies predictability; and a well-rendered cast of characters who hold your attention throughout this whole adventure.” - SFReviews
“In the year 2034, a French physicist, made an amusing but impractical discovery: the means to use a one-way, fixed-focus time warp that opened into a place in the Rhone River valley during the idyllic Pliocene Epoch, six million years ago. But, as time went on, a certain usefulness developed. The misfits and mavericks of the future—many of them brilliant people—began to seek this exit door to a mysterious past. In 2110, a particularly strange and interesting group was preparing to make the journey—a starship captain, a girl athlete, a paleontologist, a woman priest, and others who had reason to flee the technological perfection of 22nd century life.
Thus begins this dazzling fantasy novel that invites comparisons with the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ursula Le Quin. It opens up a whole world of wonder, not in far-flung galaxies, but in our own distant past on Earth—a world that will captivate not only science-fiction and fantasy fans, but also those who enjoy literate thrillers.”
The Galatic Milieu Trilogy: Jack the Bodiless
“The author's imagination and careful choreography make this title a necessary purchase for most SF collections. Highly recommended.
In the year 2051, Earth stood on the brink of acceptance as full member of the Galactic Milieu, a confederation of worlds spread across the galaxy. Leading humanity was the powerful Remillard family, but somebody—or something—known only as ‘Fury’ wanted them out of the way.
Only Rogi Remillard, the chosen tool of the most powerful alien being in the Milieu, and his nephew Marc, the greatest metapsychic yet born on Earth, knew about Fury. But even they were powerless to stop it when it began to kill off Remillards and other metapsychic operants—and all the suspects were Remillards themselves.
Meanwhile, a Remillard son was born, a boy who could represent the future of all humanity. His incredible mind was more powerful even than his brother Marc's—but he was destined to be destroyed by his own DNA...unless Fury got to him first.“
Octavia E. Butler
Heralded as the both the “Godmother of Afrofuturism” & the “Grand Dame of Sci Fi”, Butler was one of very few 1st women of color publishing in a genre dominated by white men. A multiple recipient of Hugo & Nebula awards, Butler became the 1st science fiction writer (male or female) to ever receive a MacArthur Fellowship, the award nicknamed the “Genius Grant” given to those with “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” She’s also been awarded the James Triptee Jr. Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, & the Locus Award. However, Butler's legacy rises above the prizes she’s won, with her writing transcending the conventions of sci fi forging a lasting commentary about the far-reaching issues of sex, power, & race.
The Xenogenesis Trilogy: Dawn
“An alien race calls on one woman to revive mankind after Earth’s apocalypse in this science fiction classic.
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.
Featuring strong and compelling characters and exploring complex themes of gender and species, Octavia E. Butler presents a powerful, postapocalyptic interplanetary epic, as well as a ray of hope for humanity.”
Kindred (A Standalone Novel)
"One cannot finish Kindred without feeling changed. It is a shattering work of art with much to say about love, hate, slavery, and racial dilemmas, then and now." - LA Herald-Examiner
"Truly terrifying . . . A book you'll find hard to put down." - Essence
“The visionary author’s masterpiece pulls us—along with her Black female hero—through time to face the horrors of slavery and explore the impacts of racism, sexism, and white supremacy then and now.
Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana's life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.”
The winner of 11 Hugo awards & 7 Nebula awards for both her novels & short stories, Willis has won more major awards than any other writer male or female. She’s well known for her imagination, sharp wit, & clever humor as well as her diverse approach able to write hard science, pure speculation, heart breaking tragedy, & laugh out loud comedy.
Inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, she also received the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award, a Locus Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, & the Colorado Book Award for Science Fiction.
Oxford Time Travel Series: Doomsday Book
“The world of 1348 burns in the mind’s eye, and every character alive that year is a fully recognized being. . . . It becomes possible to feel . . . that Connie Willis did, in fact, over the 5 years Doomsday Book took her to write, open a window to another world.” -The Washington Post
”For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity's history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the 14th century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the 21st century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.
But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin—barely of age herself—finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history's darkest hours.”
The Best of Connie Willis (Award-winning Short Stories)
“Ranging from the hilarious to the profound, these stories show the full range of Willis’s talent for taut, dazzling plots, real science, memorable characters, penetrating dialogue and blistering drama.” -Kirkus Reviews
“From a near future mourning the extinction of dogs to an alternate history in which invading aliens were defeated by none other than Emily Dickinson; from a madcap convention of bumbling quantum physicists in Hollywood to a London whose Underground has become a storehouse of intangible memories both foul and fair—here are the greatest stories of one of the greatest writers working in any genre today.
All ten of the stories gathered here are Hugo or Nebula award winners—some even have the distinction of winning both. With a new Introduction by the author and personal afterwords to each story—plus a special look at three of Willis’s unique public speeches—this is unquestionably the collection of the season, a book that every Connie Willis fan will treasure, and, to those unfamiliar with her work, the perfect introduction to one of the most accomplished and best-loved writers of our time.”
Ursula K. Le Guin
One of the most influential writers the genre has ever seen, Le Guin sent in her 1st science fiction short story to a magazine at the age of 11 & didn’t stop writing until into her 80s just a few years before her death. Many believe she played a large role in both broadening the sci fi/fantasy genre & helping these writers achieve mainstream recognition. In addition, she’s credited with 1st introducing the idea of a "wizard school" along with pioneering a number of other unique ideas. Several prominent artists as well as authors across genres acknowledge Le Guin's influence on their own work: Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, and Iain Banks just to name a few.
The wide variety of awards she’s won are too numerous to name here, but suffice it to say that she took home more than just the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, & World Fantasy Awards.
The Lathe of Heaven (Stand Alone Novel)
“A rare and powerful synthesis of poetry and science, reason and emotion." -The New York Times
”In a world beset by climate instability and overpopulation, George Orr discovers that his dreams have the power to alter reality. Upon waking, the world he knew has become a strange, barely recognizable place, where only George has the clear memory of how it was before. He seeks counseling from Dr. William Haber, a psychiatrist who immediately understands how powerful a weapon George wields. Soon, George is a pawn in Haber’s dangerous game, where the fate of humanity grows more imperiled with every waking hour.
As relevant to our current world as it was when it won the Locus Award, Ursula Le Guin’s novel is a true classic, at once eerie and prescient, wildly entertaining and ferociously intelligent.”
The Earthsea Cycle: A Wizard of Earthsea
While Earthsea is young adult, it has the same mass appeal of Harry Potter which was inspired by this series though the two are very different.
"‘The shapeless mass of darkness split apart. It sundered, and a pale spindle of light gleamed between his open arms. In the oval of light, there moved a human shape: a tall woman...beautiful, and sorrowful, and full of fear.’
When Sparrowhawk casts a spell that saves his village from destruction at the hands of the invading Kargs, the Mage of Re Albi encourages the boy to apprentice himself in the art of wizardry. So, at the age of 13, the boy receives his true name - Ged - and gives himself over to the gentle tutelage of the Master Ogion. But impatient with the slowness of his studies and infatuated with glory, Ged embarks for the Island of Roke, where the highest arts of wizardry are taught. There, Ged's natural talents enable him to surpass his classmates in little time. In his hunger for power and knowledge, he tampers with long-held secrets and looses a terrible shadow upon the world.
This is the tumultuous tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death's threshold to restore the balance.”
Still taught in current English class curriculum, this mainstay of feminist speculative literature has been awarded numerous honorary degrees from a large variety of famed institutions like Oxford University, Cambridge University, & the Sorbonne. While she is known more for her feminist works, she’s written about a number of themes: language, gender, identity, animal rights, religion, ecology, & politics.
Atwood is a founder of the Griffin Poetry Prize & Writers' Trust of Canada. She’s also won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Franz Kafka Prize, & the Booker Prize among many other awards.
The Handmaid Series: The Handmaid’s Tale
“A novel that brilliantly illuminates some of the darker interconnections between politics and sex...just as the world of Orwell’s 1984 gripped our imaginations, so will the world of Atwood’s handmaid!” - Washington Post Book World
"The Handmaid's Tale is a novel of such power that the reader will be unable to forget its images and its forecast. Set in the near future, it describes life in what was once the United States, now called the Republic of Gilead, a monotheocracy that has reacted to social unrest and a sharply declining birthrate by reverting to, and going beyond, the repressive intolerance of the original Puritans.
The story is told through the eyes of Offred, one of the unfortunate Handmaids under the new social order. The Handmaid's Tale is funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force. It is Margaret Atwood at her best."
MaddAddam Trilogy: Oryx and Crake
“Atwood has long since established herself as one of the best writers in English today, but Oryx and Crake may well be her best work yet. . . . Brilliant, provocative, sumptuous and downright terrifying.” - The Baltimore Sun
“Oryx and Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future. Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey–with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake–through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride. Margaret Atwood projects us into a near future that is both all too familiar and beyond our imagining.“
The 3 books below are beloved by many & bestselling award winners in their own right. While the women authors who wrote them were not groundbreakers, they were additional inspirations to me when I was younger so I felt compelled to share them too.