Eight Great Science Fiction Books for Women – An Alternative List

A couple weeks ago, Flavor Wire came out with an article titled “Great Science Fiction Books for Girls.”

lots of girls and women love science fiction, and we are confident that many more could, if only they gave it a chance.* To help with the gender imbalance in this delightful, political, strange genre of speculative fiction, we’ve put together a list of 10 great science fiction books for girls and women — though we think anyone would enjoy them.

Now, as a female science fiction fan who always wants to see more female representation in the Sci-Fi field – and who is always looking for interesting books to read – I was cautiously excited about this article.

I shouldn’t have been.

I was with them for their first three picks, but when they pulled out The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, I went “EXCUSE ME?”
And then it was just a comedy of errors. Horrible, horrible, horrible errors.
Who in the name of the Jane Austen, Emily Bronte and Virginia Woolf thought it was a good idea to put Strangers in a Strange Land on a list of books meant to appeal to women? The writer of the article even says: “ the female characters in this novel aren’t particularly inspiring.” Which, frankly, is pretty generous. Most of the female characters in the novel exist to worship the main (male) character, and one of them says this (inspiring) line: “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s at least partly her own fault. The tenth time – well, all right.”

Yeah, that’s the kind of line that’ll get women to read science fiction.

I’m sure critics are popping up in the background to say: “But wait a minute! Strangers in a Strange Land is a classic of the science fiction field! Sure, it’s misogynistic, but it’s also a great read.”

And I would reply: “You are quite correct, my good sirs/madams. However, when one purports to be writing a list specifically to appeal TO WOMEN, it behooves one not assail those women with a giant dose of misogyny on their first read. It would be a little like trying to get African Americans to read more historical literature, and recommending they start with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Nor does it behoove one to recommend Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl,*** a novel that, while not necessarily sexist, does include a great deal of carefully-described graphic rape scenes. While we’re at it: I loved Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and when I was growing up it was a major science fiction gateway drug for me, but Card’s female characters have serious issues.”

***My favorite part of Flavorwire’s recommendation of The Windup Girl, for example, is when the writer makes it sound like Emiko (the titular wind-up girl) is the main character. She’s not. She’s the sideshow, the secondary plot. The protagonist is Anderson Lake.

In fact, I wasn’t particularly pleased with the list’s “feminist” picks either – although I have a huge personal attachment to both Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, neither of them are books I would recommend for a first time science fiction reader. They’re novels that take an unflinching look at gender disparity, sexism and tyranny… so both of them make for pretty harrowing reads. Great for falling in love with genre fiction!

Part of the fundamental problem with a list of books for girls – oh, wait. Actually. Question. Why is this list called “Great Science Fiction Books for Girls”? Because if it’s actually for girls – for teenagers and younger children – my brain is about to explode. Who would recommend The Female Man, Strangers in a Strange Land and The Windup Girl to young girls? I am choosing to believe that by “girls,” the author means women, because I can’t wrap my head around the idea that someone would recommend a book (The Windup Girl) with over twenty pages of rape scenes. (There are plenty of teenager girls who could handle The Windup Girl, but it isn’t something I would recommend universally – and certainly not without a fair warning). So if this is really a list for women, can we call them women? And not girls? There’s a difference. Thank you!

Pardon the tangent. So, the part of the fundamental problem with a list of books for girls, of course, is that not all women want to read the same things. There are lots of women who love hard science fiction, and there are many women who prefer “soft” science fiction. Some women prefer a character-driven story, others like stories that delve into the nitty-gritty mechanics of the science. Some enjoy futuristic dystopias, others space operas, some like a post-apocalpytic landscape, and others yet prefer a good time travel narrative. Some want to read about social justice issues and feminism, others would really rather not. And most women want to read different things on different days. We are not a monolith, either as a group or as individuals.

But I can safely bet that most women would like their fiction to include interesting female characters. Which is why it’s so disheartening that out of ten books flavorwire recommends, only four have a female lead. You would expect that a list that is supposed to cater to women, female characters would at least have equal representation.

At the very least, one would imagine that books recommended specifically to women would not contain female characters who are stereotypes. Sadly, most of the books on the list are known for their two dimensional female characterization. Again, not the way you’re going to get women to read science fiction. Look, I will put up with Orson Scott Card’s “all women ultimately belong in the kitchen” mindset, but I’m already a fan. You don’t have to convert me.

In retrospect, though, I should have seen that the list was going to be a disaster from a mile away.
Let me quote, once more: “lots of girls and women love science fiction, and we are confident that many more could, if only they gave it a chance”

Here’s the thing: yes, there are women who might like SF who aren’t “giving it a chance.” But there are a lot of very good reasons those women aren’t giving SF a chance. SF, after all, is a field that has traditionally had a lot of problems with women (and other minorities). Often, it’s not women who don’t give SF a chance – it’s SF that doesn’t give women a chance. Female characters are historically underrepresented in SF, as are female authors. Even when there are women in SF, they are often invisible. Female characters and authors are usually forgotten or ignored in favor of their male counterparts. The recent Strange Horizons study on gender in SF shows that even though women write almost half of the SF/F on the market, they’re still overwhelmingly under-reviewed by major outlets.

SF culture can also be quite hostile to women – I’ve witnessed blow-up fights about whether women belong in military SF, or whether women can truly “enjoy” hard SF. Famous female authors have to deal with death threats, rape threats, hate mail and misogynistic slurs at a rate that stuns their male counterparts. When Nicola Griffiths suggested one way to combat gender inequality in SF was to take the Russ pledge, certain sections of SF fandom practically called for her head.

A close friend of mine (M) asked me point blank last summer how I could read SF when there were so many problematic aspects to the genre. She had a point. After all, I don’t read comic books because even though I grew up loving superheroes, I cannot handle the misogyny present in mainstream comics. And I’ve had to train myself not to read comments on article about gender and genre online, because they inevitably devolve into rhethoric that makes me want to dig out my brain with spoon.

Many women don’t “give science fiction a chance” because they perceive the genre as being uninterested in women. They’re not completely wrong. And when Flavorwire publishes a list of books for women that’s a pastiche of classic SF texts with a few feminist works  rather than an actual exploration of books women might enjoy… well, they’re just reinforcing the problem.

But I know SF is interested in women. I know that it has the potential to be a great genre for women. I think it’s the field with the most potential for deconstructing gender stereotypes. It can expand our understanding of gender and femininity. It’s the realm where everything is possible – faster than light travel, yes, but also gender equality, racial equality, the end of xenophobia, transphobia and homophobia.

SF is the mythology of the future. And the future belongs to women just as much as it belongs to men.

In light of the many, many issues in the flavorwire article, I’ve decided to put up an alternative list of “Great Books for Women” to get into Science Fiction. Lists are necessarily imperfect, especially when they’re as broad ranging as “Great Books for Women.”  My list will necessarily be even more imperfect, since it only includes my point of view, and I have very specific likes and dislikes (I prefer my works with great characterization and social commentary).

Nevertheless, lists are useful. They’re filters. I rely on these kinds of lists – award lists, year-end-best lists, best-books-for-college-students-who-like-aliens lists etc. – to find books I’ll enjoy. If I were trying to get into science fiction, I might well try to find a list of suggestions. So all in all, I think it’s useful to provide alternatives to the flavorwire list (and I do mean alternatives. I imagine other people have created lists of their own; I hope others will as well. The more options, the better!)

I had very loose parameters in constructing this (eight book) list. I don’t believe that there are things women “like” more than men, not really. I do believe that the way to attract women (or anyone else) to a genre is to do the two things the flavorwire list failed to do:

1. Avoid offending them

2. Prove they have a place within that genre (as characters, authors etc.)

So I have only recommended works that contain no overt misogyny, and that have good female characters (although they don’t all have female leads). So without further ado, here is my eight-book list of “Great Books” of Science Fiction for women. These are not works meant solely for women. They’re not guaranteed to attract women. They’re the books I would recommend to someone who is just starting out in the genre, male, female or other. They’re also just damn awesome, and if you’re a genre fan, you’ll probably enjoy them (no matter your gender).

Please feel free to add suggestions for other books!

Eight Good Books For Women to Explore Science Fiction. Or For Men to Explore Science Fiction. Or for Science Fiction Fans looking For New Reads. Well, Okay, For Anyone Looking For A Decent Read.

1. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

The novel centers on Genly Ai, a human ambassador to the planet of Winter (Gethen). Ai is supposed to convince the denizens of Winter to join the Ekumen – the intergalactic community.
The people of Winter are androgynes – neither male nor female, except for a few days near the end of the month, when they morph into either a man or a woman. The transformation depends on who they’re around at the time. To a certain degree, the androgynes are triple-gendered: male, female and neutral.

Genly Ai, a (male) human ambassador, has come to Winter (or Gethen) to convince its denizens to join the Ekumen – the intergalactic community. He is mildly horrified by the non-gendered nature of the citizens of Winter. The heart of the novel lies in the slow development of a  friendship between Genly Ai and Estraven, the prime minister of Gethen.

This all sounds rather slow, but I assure you, it is not. Le Guin is a master of plot: the exploration of gender, the conflicts between alien species, the courtly intrigue, the massive character development – all of these elements combine to make The Left Hand of Darkness a novel that is both incredibly affecting and entertaining. And Le Guin’s prose is gorgeous – there are lines from the novel I still remember, two years later.

Flavorwire also recommended this one, actually, so point for them.

2. Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

I’m cheating here, because Cordelia’s Honor is actually two books: Shards of Honor and Barrayar. They’ve been combined into one volume, however, so… I feel less guilty. Plus, if you read one, you’ll want to read the other. Trust me.

Cordelia’s Honor are the first novel(s) in Bujold’s massively popular series, the Vorkosigan saga.The story centers around Cordelia Naismith, a captain in the Betan army. While exploring a new world, Cordelia’s force is attacked by the Barrayan army, leaving Cordelia stranded on the planet with Aral Vorkosigan, one of the most notorious citizens of Barrayar. He’s known as the “Butcher of Komarr.” Not a man you want to spend a lot of time alone with, in other words.

The two develop an unlikely alliance in their attempt to get off the planet – an alliance that, in an even more unlikely turn, transforms into a romance. Yet this is not a typical love plot. Both Cordelia and Aral are middle-aged; their life experiences have imbued them with maturity. They’re also both interesting characters in their own right. Cordelia is anti-militaristic, but she can – and will – out-maneuver anyone who gets in her way (with a weapon, if necessary). Aral was born and bred to the military, but he’s a veritable fount of honor, who is deeply conflicted about the legacy of his time in the army.They’re not just teenagers jumping into a romance due to hormones.

On top of their slowly-developing feelings, Cordelia and Aral have to deal with their conflicting planetary loyalties, a couple massive wars, mutineers, psychopathic politicians and incompetent soldiers. Cordelia is one of the most competent heroines I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading: it’s a true joy watching her solve problems.

3. Kindred and Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

I debated for a while on this one. Not that I don’t think Octavia Butler should be on the list – I just wasn’t sure whether to put Kindred or Wild Seed on there. They’re such superb novels that in the end, I gave up and put them both on. Kindred centers around Dana, a woman from San Francisco in the 1970s America who is dragged out of time and space to a plantation in Antebellum Maryland. She quickly discovers that her ancestors were slaves on the plantation, and realizes she must bring around the union of her great-great-great (something) grandparents in order to go home.

Wild Seed is about the conflict between two immortals – Doro, who can transfer his mind to any body, and Anyanwu, who can transform into any shape. Doro wants to create a new species of humans through selective breeding, and thinks Anyanwu is the perfect “wild seed” to use in his experimentation. The story is one of genetic engineering – but the genetic engineers are ones who modify DNA across vast spans of time through their own bodies and their children.

To a certain extent, both novels are about the same thing: how to survive in societies where power dynamics are completely against you. Dana has to act like a slave in order to stay alive in the American south; Anyanwu has to bend to Doro’s will in order to keep her family alive. Yet neither woman is a victim – Butler shows their resistance and intelligence in carving out spaces of freedom for themselves.

Butler’s one of the few SF authors who has gotten some critical attention (and deservedly so). She’s also the author Flavorwire readers most often named as “missing” from the 10 best books for women list. Again, I can see why. I’m sure her plots, as described above, seem simplistic, but they’re not. To a large extent, Butler’s genius comes from taking “traditional” SF plots and humanizing them. Yes, time travel is fun, but Butler makes it personal, and viscerally real. Yes, genetic engineering could get you a monster – but what’s the human toll of genetics in action? Those are Butler’s stories, and they’re gorgeous in their execution.

4. Air by Geoff Ryman

Oh, Air, how I do love thee.

Air takes place in a small village in the fictional Asian country of Karzistan. As the novel opens, a worldwide experiment with a new information technology called “Air” takes place. Air is like the internet – but in your head.
Since no one in the village has been warned about the experiment, chaos ensues. A few people die. In the aftermath, Chung Mae, the village’s leading fashion expert, decides that the village must prepare for the next advent of “air.” They cannot allow themselves to be destroyed or marginalized by the arrival of this new technology.

Few books do as good a job of exploring the consequences of technological change as Air does. True, much SF is about theorizing those consequences. Most books,however, do it from the perspective of white north americans or europeans, which is, when you think about it, rather incredible. If technology truly transforms the life of anyone, it is the most “marginalized, disadvantaged” people in society – and not always for the better.

All this sounds rather grim, but Ryman writes with a heightened sense of the comic and with joie-de-vivre which makes the novel a wonderfully joy0us experience. The characters, particularly Mae, are fantastic. The plot is smart, and includes all these well-drawn asides that make you feel like the three hundred pages of the book encompass the entire village. In a clever mimicry of the polyphonous structure of the internet itself, Air is a cacaphonous novel: there are many characters, and they all have something (or many things) to say.

5. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh

China Mountain Zhang takes place in the near future. China is the dominant world power; the United States has bowed to the inevitable, and become a communist bastion. A normal SF story would probably trace a plucky (white) hero’s fight against the Chinese hegemony. Here, the main character is Zhang Zhongshan, an ABC – American Born Chinese. His name translates as “China Mountain” – hence the title.

Zhang wants nothing more than to find a good career and a quiet life. But Zhang has two strikes against him. For one thing, he’s not really a full-blood Chinese: his mother was Brazilian. For another, he’s gay in a society where to be gay is punishable by death.
Zhang is talented and hard-working, and as a result, he receives many opportunities for advancement. His first boss wants to mentor him as his successor. He later manages to get a student visa to China – a chance most americans would kill for. But in all these instances, Zhang’s ability to succeed is complicated by his need to “pass” as Chinese and straight. Near the beginning of the novel, for example, Zhang’s boss Qian sets him up with his daughter, San-xiang. Zhang realizes that marrying San-Xiang would guarantee his success in the world, but refuses to let his lie go that far. He almost tells Qian that he is gay, realizes that execution is not a good way to go, and instead reveals his Brazilian heritage. Qian fires him.

One of my favorite aspects of McHughes work is her refusal to let her secondary characters remain two dimensional pictures in her novel’s landscape. The novel includes several long “asides” from Zhang’s story. She devotes an entire chapter (the novel is quite short, so a chapter is a significant length) to San-Xiang, the girl setup to marry Zhang, and San-Xiang’s decision to get plastic surgery. We also read about colonial life on Mars, and Angel, a “kite-flyer” in New York City with plenty of talent but terribly sub-par equipment.

China Mountain Zhang is a quiet, beautiful, affecting novel. Although it’s not about heroes, it tells stories of ordinary, everyday heroism, the kind we need to get out of bed and live our lives. Although it’s neither about wars and politics, McHugh infuses each of Zhang’s decisions and actions with significance, reminding us of the weightiness of “normal” life.

6. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

I couldn’t possibly complete this list without some good, old-fashioned time travel. Especially by Connie Willis. If H.G. Wells is the father of Time Travel, Connie Willis is the President of the Science Fiction association. (By the way, I fully realize that Kindred involves Time Travel, but the time travel in Kindred involves absolutely no science (I still say it’s SF, but that’s another fight)).

In the future, scientists at the fictional Oxbridge University have perfected the technique of time travel. They use it to send academics back in time to do historical research. Such research is very carefully controlled: entire sections of history, including the middle ages, are deemed too dangerous or volatile to send people to.

Kivrin, a young medievalist, doesn’t care much about “dangerous” or “volatile.” She persuades her advisors to send her back to 1320 – twenty years before the arrival of the black plague to England. Her instructor, Professor James Dunworthy, thinks this a terrible idea (spoiler: he’s right), but he’s overruled by the department chair, who wants the fame that will come from such a pioneering effort. No one, after all, has ever gone this far back in time.

But soon after Kivrin is sent into the past, the time-travel machine’s technician collapses from a strange illness. Soon, the entire city shuts down as the disease spreads, leaving Kivriin stuck in the past, and the machine under quarantine. And then, whoops, poor Kivrin figures out that she’s not in 1320 after all. She’s in 1348 – right smack in the middle of the black plague. From there, the narrative switches back and forth between Kivrin’s efforts to survive the plague and save the village she’s been sent back to, and Professor Dunworthy’s attempts to save Kivrin while not dying himself.

I like H.G. Wells, don’t get me wrong, but if he and Willis got in a fight, I’d put my money down on Willis for the win. Wells explores the idea of time travel. Willis gives the idea consequence. We know Kivrin. We known Dunworthy. We come to know the members of the village – a formidable task, given the culture and time difference. When they are cut, we bleed. Her prose is gentle and remarkably restrained. Her characters are lovely. Her jokes are witty. But by the end of my eight-hour speed-read through Doomsday Book, I was an emotional wreck. It was like getting knocked out with a teddy-bear – I didn’t see it coming (it’s a teddy bear! Who suspects the teddy bear?)

The Doomsday Book also won a Nebula, a Hugo and a Locus. So, you know. Everyone loved it.
But if you’re going to read it, I recommend buying a lot of chocolate beforehand. And some tissues. I needed them.

7. Feed by Mira Grant

I’ve gushed about Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy in several posts, and unfortunately, it’s not going to get any better here.

Okay, sure, zombie uprising. Scary. But what happens after? What happens if we survive? What happens to human society? Those are the questions Grant answers in Feed, which takes place some twenty years after the zombie apocalypse.  Zombies are almost everywhere, but American society has reconstituted itself. Hey, we’re even conducting that most fundamental of American activities: a presidential election.
George and Sean Mason, a brother and sister duo, are two young, up-and-coming journalists / bloggers. They regularly confront the outside world – the zombied world – in order to inform (or entertain) the public. And they’ve been invited to cover the presidential campaign. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.

Not surprisingly, everything goes to hell in a handbasket very quickly. Do not expect to go to sleep very often while reading this novel. I couldn’t put it down.

All zombie novels have some measure of social commentary, but I haven’t read a single one that does it as subversively as Feed does. On the flip side, NOT all zombie novels have the depth of characterization present in Feed. Grant makes you fall in love with characters, and then she throws them on the ground and jumps on them over and over again and makes you watch, and it’s horrible. And wonderful. George and Sean hold a special place in my heart – their sibling relationship is so strong, and so interesting. I’m not a fan of the zombie genre, as a general rule, but I absolutely love the Newsflesh series, and I’m awaiting the final novel with bated, terrified breath.

7. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow is my all-time, bar-none, no-pretenders allowed favorite science fiction novel. Ever. In fact, I love it so much that it’s in my top three novels PERIOD. It’s the novel that convinced me that, no matter what my parents or teacher said, science fiction could be about Important Things (note the capitalization). It’s also a novel that fills me with near-religious awe every time I read it. Which is Saying Something, because I’m a pretty committed agnostic (again, note the capitalization).

Around the year 2020, humanity discovers that alien life exists, less than four light years away. And they’re broadcasting music. Music. The Jesuits decide they must send a mission.

The novel switches back and forth between two stories. The first story is that of the mission – the preparation for the trip, and the eventual arrival at Rakhat. The second story is that of Emilio Sandoz, 50 years in the future. He is the mission’s only survivor. Rumors of his behavior on Rakhath have turned him into a man reviled as a murderer and a whore. His fellow Jesuits are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt – if he talks. Emilio is not talking.

The Sparrow is a mystery of character. In the storyline of 2020, Sandoz is a devout, joyful man. As the mission moves closer and closer to Rakhat, he becomes so close to God that D.W. Yarborough, his immediate superior, uses the “S” word (saint) to describe him to the vatican “I see the potential for it (…) I tole ‘em I think we got ourselves a genuine big-time mystic on our hands. “Wedded to God and at certain moments in full communion with divine love” is how I put it” (231). Fifty years later, Sandoz (who is only 3 years older, thanks to the laws of relativity), is a bitter, self-destructive, ravaged, God-hating man. How did he change? What could possibly have happened to transform him this radically?

The Sparrow is also a mystery of religion. I usually shut down a bit when religion comes into novels – it’s often done in a way that alienates me. But I love The Sparrow because of, not in spite of, it’s religious core. It’s one of the best explorations of religion and religious faith I’ve ever read. It’s smart and merciless in its questions. And it’s unflinching in revealing the answers.

Another wonderful part of Russell’s novel is the team assembled to go to Rakhat. Unlike most first-contact stories, the team isn’t made up of military types, or “experts.” Instead, everyone is a Jesuit, or a civilian, chosen more for their connection to the initial discovery on Rakhat than their technical skill. Because they’re not wedded to military devotion or professionalism, the team becomes bonded as a family, rather than as a “unit.” Russell makes each member of the team a complex, crunchy character – entities so real that I’ve long ceased to think of them as characters, and started to see them as “people.” From Emilio’s best friend Anne to his superior D.W. Yarborough, to the woman  Emilio loves,  Sofia Mendez – I know them all. The characterization is superb.

It’s also a damn funny novel, in spite of the darkness of the storyline:

 “There are days when I think that, underneath it all, God has got to be a cosmic comedian. Anne, the Good Lord decided to make D.W. Yarbrough a Catholic, a liberal, ugly and gay and a fair poet, and they had him born in Waco, Texas. Now I ask you, is that the work of a serious deity?”

So that’s my lovely, eight-book list of Great Works of SF for women. What have I missed? What else would you recommend?

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