Any time I hear people talk about how male-centric the fantasy and science fiction book space was before the 2000s, I shake my head and mutter angrily about the many incredible female authors there were in the field at the time. While it’s true that publishing has grown more inclusively over the years, sci-fi and fantasy have long been shaped by women. Yes, there is some truth to the idea that lots of marketing decisions about which books got sold and how to package them were made with male readers in mind, but that still leaves out a lot of important history.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re looking back at some of the women authors who had an enormous hand in shaping the science fiction and fantasy genres. Some of them are names you may know; others may be new to you. All are well worth adding to your reading list.
A note before we begin: this list will be looking back at the history of the genres; as such, it will mainly be focusing on older authors. There are many women in sci-fi and fantasy who are doing just as much if not more to steer those genres today. But the authors we’re going to discuss had a hand in things historically.
It should also be noted that this is far from a comprehensive list. Erasure and books going out of print have made it difficult to track down the works of some women fantasy and sci-fi authors from the ’70s, ’80s, and earlier. If you enjoy what you read here and are looking for an extremely comprehensive list of women authors from those decades, we recommend Tor.com’s Fighting Erasure series.
If we’re going to talk about women authors who influenced the field of science fiction, then we need to talk about Mary Shelley. Identifying “the first science fiction novel” is always a topic of debate on the internet, but the one that most often gets held up is Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. It tells the tale of a mad scientist who seeks to create life for himself by sewing together the body parts of various dead people. The story is iconic enough that I don’t need to tell you it doesn’t go well; we all know Frankenstein in some iteration, which speaks to the long-term impact of Shelley’s masterwork.
Famously written when Shelley was only 19, Frankenstein isn’t just a monster story, it’s also an examination of the human condition, society, and is believed to have been inspired by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. That human condition part firmly puts this novel into the realm of science fiction; many of the best stories of the genre examine exactly what it means to be human. Frankenstein’s monster goes through this throughout the novel as he’s shunned for his appearance and unholy creation of him until he turns down an ever bloodier path.
fittingly, Frankenstein was published in March 1818. It was destined to be remembered during Women’s History Month.