The Women of Speculative Fiction

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John Jude Palencar/Cover of Octavia Butler’s novel Dawn, from the Xenogenesis trilogy

Speculative fiction can conjure up images of a boys’ only club of rocket ships, dragons, stoic male heroes in armour, and a litany of damsels in distress. Obviously, like any generalization, this is inaccurate (and women love rocket ships and dragons too; damsels in distress less so). That’s not to say that there aren’t many readers and writers who would want their boys’ tales to be the only form of speculative fiction, and in a male-centric, patriarchal world, the market often skews to what they want. But to say that this is all that exists in the realms of imaginative non-realist fiction is to ignore the many, many women who’ve worked twice as hard to be just as good (or better) than their male contemporaries. So, in their honour, here are some women who’ve created rich worlds other than our own, and have driven speculative fiction to its farthest limits.

The usual caveats apply, as for all lists: this is in no way comprehensive (and includes only English-language writers), and is just a small selection among a vast number:



Kelly Link (author of Magic for Beginners, Get in Trouble): An award-winning writer of short stories who’s found massive crossover success among both the ‘genre’ and ‘litfic’ crowds with her beautifully crafted, uncategorizably fantastic(al) work, she also happens to be an editor, a wife, and a mother, as if to spite any misogynists who might want to gabble about careers and motherhood being incompatible.





portrait of N.K. Jemison

 N.K. Jemisin (author of The Fifth Season and the Dreamblood series): If it’s straight-up secondary world fantasy you’re looking for, Jemisin has been showing fantasy readers for years that you can do excellent, thoughtful epic fantasy series that don’t take place in Euro-centric worlds. She also writes a column examining contemporary genre fiction for the New York Times.






Sofia Samatar (author of A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories): Samatar’s debut novel A Stranger in Olondria is a fantasy novel set on an imagined world, inspired partly by Proust, that reads like a poetic, dream-infused memoir from another reality. It’s little surprise that Samatar received the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the Crawford Award, among others. She’s also a poet, an editor and a professor of English.







Vandana Singh (author of The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet): One of the earliest Indian writers to break into contemporary online Western science-fiction magazines with her singularly lyrical and philosophically rigorous short fiction, Singh is also an assistant professor of physics. One of the country’s best writers of speculative fiction, she has been nominated for the British Fantasy Award, the Carl Brandon Parallax Award, and has published a collection in India.




Helen Oyeyemi (author of Mr. Fox and Boy, Snow, Bird): Having written her first published novel The Icarus Girl during her A levels, Oyeyemi has lived up to her youthful potential with dark, richly strange novels that are joyously interstitial, and gloriously written. Her 2011 novel Mr. Fox is like an intricate literary puzzle box, shifting with each page so that its solution is tantalizingly ever out of reach.






Credit: Ysabel Halpin

Jeanette Winterson (author of The Passion and The Stone Gods): Known primarily as a lit-fic writer and a queer literary icon in the UK, Winterson has also made quiet forays into speculative fiction, her poetically grand prose lending its weight to creating new worlds and historical magic in books like The Passion, Weight and The Stone Gods.





Alyssa Wong (author of Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers): A young writer rapidly in the ascendant in the genre fiction world, Wong is another example of an author gaining critical respect and a wide readership without having (yet) published a single novel–she’s proven herself adept at both fantasy and horror, and has garnered a variety of awards and nominations including the Nebula and Bram Stoker Award.





Nalo HopkinsonNalo_Hopkinson (author of Brown Girl in the Ring and Midnight Robber): World Fantasy Award-winner Hopkinson is a co-founder of the Carl Brandon Society, a group active in raising awareness and dialogue around issues of racial, ethnic and cultural representation within genre fiction. She’s also directly played a part in diversifying science fiction and fantasy literature with her vivid novels, including the intoxicating Midnight Robber, which takes Caribbean culture and folklore and catapults it into a spacefaring future.




Charlie Jane Anders (author of All the Birds in the Sky): A co-founder and editor of the monumentally popular millennial pop/geek culture/genre site io9, and a noted pop cultural commentator, Anders is also a highly successful award-winning writer of speculative fiction, with her latest cross-genre novel All the Birds In the Sky earning a high degree of advance critical praise.






OctOctavia_Butleravia Butler and Ursula K. LeGuin: LeGuin and Butler need no introductions, having appeared on hundreds of online lists talking about women writing science-fiction, or in the case of the late Ms. Butler, hundreds of lists of ‘diverse’ science-fiction. They’ve become the easy token woman/woman of colour (to use the American turn of phrase) to toss out in articles about genre fiction, but that doesn’t devalue their immense contribution to science fiction and fantasy. Their books should be read, always. I’ve included only living writers on the list, but made an eursula-k-le-guinxception for Octavia Butler, because she was that important, and that good (Butler’s Xenogenesis/Lilith’s Brood trilogy and LeGuin’s The Dispossessed are good places to start).





We got so excited about picking out talented and successful women writers of speculative fiction that we couldn’t include all of them in just one post. So if you’re interested in seeking out more women with excellent books, here are some additional remarkable writers we couldn’t fit in this post: Aliette de Bodard, Monica Byrne, Emily St. John Mandel, Kuzhali Manickavel, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Remember, even with these additional names, the list is endless. Go look for more!

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