10 Must-Read Ladies in Speculative Fiction

When we talk about influential sci-fi and fantasy authors, there are a number of names that immediately come to mind. We mention Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Tolkien, Pratchett, Frank Herbert, Lewis Carol, C. S. Lewis — this list could continue infinitely. Although this realm was almost exclusively dominated by men until recently, some extra-special ladies have played a very important part in the development of our favorite genres.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

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One of the greatest horror stories of all time, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is also considered the first science fiction novel ever published. It’s about the eccentric doctor, Frankenstein, and the monster he created. Frankenstein has been adapted hundreds of times across all forms of media, and is the inspiration for countless other re-tellings and numerous other monsters following in its wake.

Everyone should have this story on their reading list, if only to learn about the many Frankenstein myths. Soon, you too can correct your lesser-educated friends when they call Frankenstein’s monster “Frankenstein” (the doctor is Frankenstein, not the monster. The monster, if it has a name, is Adam.) Or, you can do it now, after reading this, I guess. But, if you read the book, you’ll know that Frankenstein’s monster wasn’t a hideous green beast, but a well-muscled man with flowing black hair and pearly white teeth.

Although, I guess you know that too now. Damn. Go read the book before I spoil the end.

The Clockwork Man by E.V. Odle (1923)

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A whimsical story of a clockwork man from the future who appears at a 1920s English cricket match. It’s a touching, lighthearted story, with plenty of tongue-and-cheek wit, written by the little-known English writer, E.V. Odle.

A.K.A Virginia Woolf.

Many theorists believe that this is the birth-place of steam-punk. The Clockwork Man has also been pegged as the first cyborg, and as an important link in the development of science fiction. But above all else, it’s quite a wonderful read — especially when you’ve spent the last few months chewing through intense world-building and character development, it’s nice to sit back with something a little easier on the soul, and it’s a bonus if it still retains some literary merit.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)

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Winner of the 1970 Hugo Award and the 1970 Nebula Award, Ursula K. Le Guin is considered by many as one of the best things that has ever happened to speculative fiction, some even putting her ahead of J. R. R. Tolkien. The Left Hand of Darkness is considered the first feminist science-fiction novel and is often listed as one of the best pieces of science-fiction ever written. If you haven’t read any of the books on this list, read this one first.

Like many great works of science fiction, it is difficult to summarize this epic in a single paragraph. At its simplest, The Left Hand of Darkness is about Genly Ai, an envoy sent to the planet Winter to communicate on behalf of the intergalactic collation of humanoid worlds – Ekumen. It’s a story about accepting differences, about gender, and about communication. I wish I’d read this in school instead of Holes with young Shia LaBeouf.

The Adventures of Alyx by Joanna Russ (1976)

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Joanna Russ and Ursula K. Le Guin were the two woman at the front of the feminist movement in speculative fiction writers that took place in the 1960s. A bit of a mouthful, I know, but at a time when only about 10% of speculative fiction writers were woman, and most under a pseudonym, Russ and Le Guin showed that it wasn’t an exclusively male-dominated market. They are now part of an exclusive feminist group that has helped lead me here today – as a woman, writing about science fiction and fantasy, on a site devoted to women who enjoy science fiction and fantasy.

Not only did Russ actively contribute to feminism in science fiction, writing for many journals and publishing a number of non-fiction titles on the subject alongside her novels and short stories, but she also stood as an out lesbian, discussing the implications of gender stereotypes and the cultural implications of slash fiction. In fact, Russ criticized The Left Hand of Darkness for its gender stereotypes.

The Adventures of Alyx collates some of Russ’s notable works following the main character, Alyx, including the original novel, Picnic on Paradise. As a winner of a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, a Locus Award, and many others, her fictional works are highly lauded. I do suggest you also check out some of her works on feminism in fiction, such as How to Suppress Woman’s Writing, for something really interesting.

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice (1976)

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I don’t know if anyone expected to say this about Anne Rice in the past, but it appears she was a few decades before her time. Now, we’re in a period of romance-centric fantasy, surrounded by Twilight and Teen Wolf. But, have you ever wondered where it all started? The character Damon Salvatore in the Vampire Diaries TV series even quotes her as a sort of homage to the mother of vampire fantasies. Um, I mean, that’s what I heard. I’ve, er, never seen the show myself. Okay, maybe I have. But don’t tell anyone.

Interview with the Vampire is about a vampire named Louis, his child companion Claudia, and their struggle against their maker Lestat. With less romance and far more dark, Gothic horror, Anne Rice knew how to do vampires right. If you can’t be bothered picking up the novel (shame on you), then you could always watch the 1994 film starring Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and child Kirsten Dunst, or find one of its comic book adaptations.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (1979)

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Another situation where the author herself was more influential than her works. Octavia E. Butler is considered one of the most influential black women writers in speculative fiction, most notably for her criticisms on social issues, particularly regarding race. Although she was perhaps not as loud and proud as Joanna Russ, Butler often incorporated race as a central undertone to many of her short stories and novels, without it every truly being a central issue.

Except for Kindred. This novel is about an African-American woman who, after a dizzy spell, appears in 19th Century Maryland, where a young white boy, Rufus, is struggling in the river. From then on, Dana repeatedly time travels between her life in 1976 and across Rufus’s timeline, where their relationship becomes more and more complicated within the background of slavery and subjugation. It is really a grim tale of black civil rights, wrapped in science fiction, but certainly deserving to fall within this list.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

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I almost completely overlooked Atwood. When I think about science fiction, she isn’t the first person who jumps to mind, but The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most widely-read and highly-contested science fiction dystopian novels ever written. Winner of the 1985 Governor Generals Award and the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award and nominated for a Nebula Award, Booker Prize and Prometheus Award, it’s a story that gets you thinking, and often cuts close to the bone.

The story is told from the point of view of Offred, a handmaid or concubine to The Commander. Her life is a hard one, living in the highly religious and militaristic society of Gilead, once part of the United States of America, as a woman used exclusively for reproductive purposes. However, Offred’s experience is one of intrigue, secrets, dangerous liaisons, and difficult choices. You’ll read the novel with a heavy heart, and finish it with a whole new view of the world.

File this novel under “life changing.”

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (1992)

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Connie Willis: winner of eleven Hugo Awards, seven Nebula Awards, four Locus Awards, inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, the 28th Science Fiction Writer of America Grand Master, nominated for Arthur C. Clarke Awards and World Fantasy Awards…and the list just keeps on going. She’s a stunning writer with an intimidating portfolio, but this is a good place to start.

Doomsday Book itself holds a Hugo, a Nebula, and a Locus. The story is about a young historian time traveller named Kivrin who convinces a reluctant tutor to send her to the Middle Ages. However, when she gets there, she’s struck ill and cannot recollect where she was ‘dropped’ in order to get home. Meanwhile, in Oxford, 2055, a decision is made in the wake of an influenza epidemic that essentially strands Kivrin in the past.

This novel is a fantastic example of Willis’s frantic and witty writing style. She may not be as well-known, or as actively ground-breaking as some others on this list despite her impressive trophy cabinet, but she managed to empower a young, eight-year-old girl with a geeky heart and big dreams. She was certainly an influence to me.

Harry Potter and the… (Well, all of it) by J. K. Rowling (1997-2007)

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You’re a part of the Harry Potter generation if you remember lunchtimes of silence. I was about nine when the Harry Potter craze reached my school, and suddenly I was no longer the only child sitting on the classroom porch reading. For the first time, I was a cool kid, because I’d finished the books long before everyone else, and was waiting for the third to hurry up and hit the shelves. It was a children’s book that transcended ages and grew up with its fans until, at the age of 20, I was at the premiere of the final film, surrounded by young adults who also followed Harry to the end. Whether you love or hate the books, there’s no denying that J. K. Rowling affected the whole world and made reading cool.

If you’ve managed to completely avoid the Harry Potter craze (if so, I can only say, well done, and welcome to the internet), I’ll provide a brief synopsis. The series follows Harry Potter – a young wizard attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – and all of the adventures he has along the way. There are mythical beasts, magic spells, made-up words, and all of the creative hocus pocus one could expect from a children’s book. Plus, there’s an extra bit of magic that makes them all the better.

Dead Until Dark (2001) by Charlaine Harris

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Whoa, whoa, whoa. Okay, wait. Hear me out. I actually couldn’t finish this book. I think I managed to read about half of it before rolling my eyes and returning it to the library shelves. A shame, considering True Blood is a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. However, Charlaine Harris is often credited for truly starting this current craze of romance-centric fantasy fiction. No longer is erotica merely a product of Miles and Boon, now you can freely fantasize about all kinds of characters pulled straight from the horror films.

The first of the series, Dead Until Dark, is narrated by Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress from small town Bon Temps, Louisiana. Recently, the development of synthetic blood has allowed vampires to come out of hiding and attempt to integrate into human society. Among the debates about vampire rights, the addictive and illegal vampire blood trade, and the animosity toward these new and dangerous neighbors, Sookie meets Bill Compton, a local vampire who introduces her to his frightening world.

Is this a trend in popular fantasy? Or simply a phase? I know which one I’m hoping for.

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