The best women authors of science fiction and fantasy: Who’s on your list?


Last week, in honor of what would have been sci-fi author Octavia Butler’s 65th birthday, Flavorwire posted a list of “The Greatest Female Sci-Fi/Fantasy Authors of All Time.” We couldn’t resist weighing in.

Octavia Butler

Photo by Nikolas Coukouma via Flickr

The author who inspired this list certainly earned a place on it. Butler is one of the best writers in the genre and one of a very few African American female science fiction authors. Her most popular book, Kindred, features a 26-year-old black woman from 1976 who periodically finds herself in her ancestors’ world of pre-Civil War slavery. Butler considered Kindred more fantasy than sci-fi, since the time travel isn’t explained. But whatever you call it, the result is an effective portrayal of the physical and psychological tolls of slavery as viewed by a contemporary African American woman — and one of the only sci-fi/fantasy books dealing with slavery.

Madeleine L’Engle

L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time was my first science fiction book and the start of a lifelong love affair with the author’s work. Meg Murray, the featured character in Wrinkle and its “Kairos” sequels, was something of an awkward misfit among her peers, but the perfect girl to become a sci-fi hero — and the perfect example for real life awkward misfit, Linster. L’Engle broke with the sci-fi standard by appealing to girls at a time when publishers didn’t see the point — some 26 rejected the Wrinkle manuscript before Farrar, Straus and Giroux bought it. I, for one, am glad that L’Engle was as persistent as her young hero.

Ursula LeGuin

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A Wizard of Earthsea is the only book of LeGuin’s I’ve read so far; it’s a beautifully written fantasy. But before I take on the rest of the Earthsea books, I want to tackle The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin’s 1969 science fiction novel, because of its look at gender roles. Genly Ai is human emissary to the alien world of Gethen where inhabitants have no sexual mores or fixed gender identity. His mission is to bring Gethen into an intergalactic collective. But the absence of male/female roles and gender-based discrimination present a major challenge that Genly doesn’t expect. Sounds like quite a read.

Doris Lessing

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I am embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read Doris Lessing. To be honest, I didn’t realize until I looked at a list of her work that she has such a diverse body of work. Her Canopus in Argos: Archives consists of five sci-fi novels (Lessing calls it “space fiction”) that explore different societies and species over several eons as an advanced civilization tries to accelerate the evolution of other societies, including Earth. Lessing became a Nobel Prize laureate in 2007.

Angela Carter, Anne Rice, Connie Willis, Kelly Link, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Susanna Clarke round out Flavorpill’s list. You can view the site’s comments here.

I take exception with several omissions.

Margaret Atwood

In the science fiction world, Atwood is not universally admired, but I can’t imagine a woman sci-fi fan that doesn’t appreciate her work. The Handmaid’s Tale probably is the best known — and the book was awarded the first ever Arthur C. Clarke award for best science fiction novel published in the UK in 1987. I love The Year of the Flood (and its prequel Oryx and Crake) for the subtle humor and wordplay. Perhaps the fact that Atwood writes in a variety of genres is what excluded her from Flavorpill’s list, but she’s certainly at the top of mine.

J.K. Rowling

I’m not sure how an author who kept the world captivated with her stories for more than 10 years cannot be on a list of the best fantasy writers. Rowling’s imagination is incredible, and the world she created as an unseen dimension of our own is fascinating. Literary scholars will debate the merits of the Harry Potter books until Dumbledore rises from the grave, and I’m not about to argue with self-important critics who believe that “well-written” and “popular” are mutually exclusive. But to me, Rowling’s storytelling earns her a place beside the greatest fantasy authors of either gender.

I could go on: Nancy Kress, Lois Bujold, Catherine Asaro — and more. But it’s your turn. Who’s on your list of the greatest women authors of science fiction or fantasy?

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