Kick-ass sci-fi with kick-ass girls
July 26, 2009 2:11 PM   Subscribe

Recommend me some sci-fi with female lead characters!

I've read a LOT of sci-fi and fantasy, and whilst some good fantasy novels have female leads (Gloriana and The Iron Dragons Daughter spring to mind...) I can think of very few science fiction books written from a woman's perspective. Browsing Amazon just now for example, every single recommendation is for a story about men.

I want to read something new - there must be great sci-fi out there with female main characters, but where?! I'd love to hear your recommendations :)
posted by cardamine to Writing & Language (65 answers total) 92 users marked this as a favorite
The Scar by China Melville
posted by moiraine at 2:15 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Expendable, and several other books in that series have female leads. All are written in the first person. It's one of my favourite series.
posted by carmen at 2:17 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

The scifi of Melissa Scott are all dominated by strong female lead characters, with a GBLT twist in a couple of them, too.
posted by AzraelBrown at 2:20 PM on July 26, 2009

Dune has some kickass female characters. The central character is male, but the story shifts perspective and is sometimes told from his mother's point of view, among other characters. The book is full of interesting gender stuff. (Ekidnagrrl17 can tell you all about that.)
posted by easy_being_green at 2:29 PM on July 26, 2009

Across A Dark Background by Iain M Banks. Inversions has two point of view protagonists and one is women. Matter has multiple points of view but one of the main protags is again a women. Most of his other novels have strong female roles as well.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:29 PM on July 26, 2009

The Mars trilogy! It features a sprawling cast with several fully-realized female members who get a hell of a lot of "screen time."
posted by EatTheWeek at 2:31 PM on July 26, 2009

Eyes of Amber is collection of short stories by Joan D. Vinge. "Tin Solider" is great and worth the price alone, despite some wonky science.

The Handmaid's Tale, of course.

The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women is a wide selection of short stories by female authors, though not all leads are women.

Octavia Butler's "Bloodchild and Other Stories" are several shorts written with various female leads.

The rebooted X-men back in the '70s virtually defined the role of strong female characters in American superhero comics. You can read cheap editions of those stories in various volumes of Essential X-Men. It's an ensemble cast though, not just all women.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:32 PM on July 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

Well fearfulsymmetry beat me to the Iain M. Banks novels. I'll add the "Vatta's War" series by Elizabeth Moon.
posted by madmethods at 2:33 PM on July 26, 2009

Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space series is full of strong female protagonists (esp the 1st and 3rd books), however like most SF, involves the points of view of many different characters throughout the work (ie there are also several strong male characters at various points in the series).

Also hat tip to Ian Banks, who doesn't seem to put much importance on sex of the characters in either direction, and writes a mean sf novel to boot.
posted by shownomercy at 2:37 PM on July 26, 2009

Maybe something from Sherri Tepper.
posted by samsm at 2:42 PM on July 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Podkayne of Mars

but it's not especially "kick-ass". Podkayne is kind of wimpy, actually. And her brother steals the show.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:43 PM on July 26, 2009

Emergence by David R. Palmer
posted by Confess, Fletch at 2:46 PM on July 26, 2009

I got hooked into the Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan sage with the stories of Cordelia Naismith, collected in "Cordelia's Honor."
posted by Marky at 2:47 PM on July 26, 2009

Body of Glass (aka He, She and It) by Marge Piercy.
posted by Infinite Jest at 2:47 PM on July 26, 2009

Try out Lenie Clarke's world in Starfish, Maelstrom and [B]ehomoth by Peter Watts. The full editions are available completely free (although donations are welcome) in various formats at his site.
posted by maudlin at 2:48 PM on July 26, 2009

You said sci-fi, and this is more fantasy I guess, but since you seem to like fantasy too, how about Robert Jordan's insanely long series "The Wheel of Time"? More than eleven books strong, and still going somehow even though he left us recently, god rest him. Tons of strong female lead characters, more than in any other sci-fi fantasy book I've ever read.

Beware though! Once you start, you'll be in for the long haul, and these are some seriously long books. :)
posted by diocletian at 2:56 PM on July 26, 2009

Both Pattern Recognition and Spook Country by William Gibson both have strong female characters (at least from this males perspective), Pattern Recognition more so.
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 2:59 PM on July 26, 2009

The Handmaid's Tale is excellent.

Heinlein: Friday.

Just getting started with Peter F. Hamilton and his books have multiple female characters. The Void trilogy and Commonwealth saga.
posted by monocultured at 3:03 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

This far into the thread and no one's mentioned Honor Harrington? I'm amazed!
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 3:09 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Several of Otherland's protagonists are female - Renie Sulaweyo is particularly well written.
posted by Paragon at 3:10 PM on July 26, 2009

Darkland, by Liz Williams. Excellent, excellent book. Elizabeth Moon and Anne McAffrey have several strongly female space opera trilogies. Sheri S. Tepper and Ursula le Guin have some good feminist sci fi.
posted by lazy robot at 3:15 PM on July 26, 2009

'The Female Man' by Joanna Russ.
posted by plep at 3:20 PM on July 26, 2009

'Tatja Grimm's World' by Vernor Vinge - not his best book, but it's a good story centered around a female character. 'Strata' by Terry Pratchett (definitely SF - not a Discworld book). 'Eon' by Greg Bear. Una Persson is a strong female character in many Michael Moorcock novels.

Would Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy count as SF?
posted by BinaryApe at 3:21 PM on July 26, 2009

The Killashandra series is a bit variable in quality, but I enjoyed the first. Seconding Banks. Friday seems to polarise; I know women who rate it as their favorite Heinlenn and women who hated it.

I wasn't thrilled by Pushing Ice, but the protagonist is female, and other people sem to love Hamilton.

Recursion and Capacity, by Tony Ballantyne, are both written from multiple points of view, and have female characters as key to both. They're both very good novels, although I caution people that I found Capacity the most gut-wrenching thing I've read and will never pick it up again.
posted by rodgerd at 3:22 PM on July 26, 2009

In the Garden of Iden, by Kage Baker. It's the first book in her Company series. The series drifts away from the female protagonist as it progress, but definitely read Iden at least.

Spin State by Chris Moriarty.
posted by Joh at 3:23 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

David Brin's Glory Season.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 3:25 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Zoe's Tale - by John Scalzi. It is up for a Hugo this year.
posted by COD at 3:25 PM on July 26, 2009

Best answer: Loads of recentish William Gibson, as mentioned above - Virtual Light's central character is a thieving young bike messenger called Chevette, Pattern Recognition has an early-30s marketing consultant who is allergic to logos. Spook Country is great but has three narrative threads and only one of them has a woman as the main character.

Matt Ruff's Bad Monkeys is quite fun: it's more science-fiction-ish than science fiction proper, main character is a woman who is recruited into an evil-fighting group and whose job it is to go around killing bad people. Various adventures ensue.

If you're happy to read YA stuff, Scott Westerfeld's Uglies trilogy is good rollicking fun set in a future of hoverboards and enforced beauty. And Diana Wynne Jones's A Tale of Time City is 1939-girl-time-travels-and-there-are-adventures. YA stuff in general is pretty good for having a decent number of female characters, and being rollicking. I liked Invitation to the Game by Monica Hughes, where people play a game that TURNS REAL!!!, but I'm a sucker for novels with gamey themes.

Which reminds me, Charles Stross's Halting State has three main characters (who get chapters in turn), two of whom are female; there's crime-fighting in an MMO and various charming near-future game adventures. Some of Stross's other work also has female main characters.

Various Iain M. Banks stuff, as people have said.

Air, by Geoff Ryman - not just a female lead but a middle-aged female lead, which is even rarer; set in a remote village at the advent of Air, which is kinda universal brain-internet.

There's a lot of explicitly feminist sci-fi about, which tends to have female main characters; and stuff that's won the James Tiptree, Jr Award (for science fiction that "expands or explores one's understanding of gender") is also often a decent bet.
posted by severalbees at 3:26 PM on July 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

Also two other books come to mind:

Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep is one of those "several viewpoints" novels, but it features three (or four) main female characters. Chief among them (and something I'd imagine might please a few people around these parts) is, in fact, a very non-stereotypical librarian/archivist.

Alastair Reynolds has already been mentioned, but let me toss in one of his non-Revelation Space books, the excellent Pushing Ice. The two main characters are women.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 3:30 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Xenogensis series by Octavia Butler. Honestly, nearly everything written by Octavia Butler works.

The Telling by Ursula K. LeGuin

As a bonus: Science Fiction written by a man with a female lead (in a nearly completely female universe): Breathmoss by Ian R. MacLeod
posted by dinty_moore at 3:32 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

SM Stirling's Island In The Sea Of Time series has several main characters who are women.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 3:36 PM on July 26, 2009

Heinlein: To Sail Beyond the Sunset
posted by Confess, Fletch at 3:37 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Last Dancer (pdf) by Daniel Keys Moran
posted by Confess, Fletch at 3:41 PM on July 26, 2009

Tanya Huff's "Valor" series. Military SF with a Fem. lead who is smart, strong, gets hurt, solves problems, leads, and has a romantic interest.
posted by leafwoman at 3:49 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

'The Years of Rice and Salt' by Kim Stanley Robinson follows three protagonists through many reincarnations, female and male in roughly equal proportions.
posted by plep at 3:53 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Elizabeth Bear's Jenny Casey trilogy (Hammered/Scardown/Wetwired) have a strong female ex-military protagonist.The Carhullan Army (published as Daughters of the North in the US) by Sarah Hall is a near-future dystopia set on an all-female commune, with mostly female characters. A lot of Gwyneth Jones's fiction has female leads, in particular Life and White Queen. If you count alt history as SF, then Jo Walton's Small Change trilogy (Farthing, Ha'Penny and Half a Crown) is about an alternate fascist England, and they all have a female narrator who narrates half the chapters.

More generally , the Feminist SF wiki has lists of notable female characters and writers and might be a good starting point. If you're interested in the history of feminist SF, I found Daughters of Earth a really interesting read - it alternates classic stories with essays which put them in context.
posted by penguinliz at 4:34 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I really liked City of Pearl by Karen Traviss. It's about a woman who leads a team of Marines and scientists to a planet populated by a human colony and several alien species.
posted by groar at 5:26 PM on July 26, 2009

Most anything by Elizabeth Moon; there are other serieses in addition to the Vatta one. All with Baen's classy "IT'S A CHICK IN SPACE ARMOR AND THERE IS A SPACESHIP AND IT IS ASPLODING!!!!!" covers.

Varley's Steel Beach... sometimes.

Charles Stross's Halting State

See also his Eschaton books.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:32 PM on July 26, 2009

Best answer: Recent classics:

Charles Stross' Saturn's Children is the story of a post-human femmebot with a soul.

Bruce Sterling's The Caryatids tell the tale of "the four surviving female clones of a mad (female) Balkan genius".

Classic classics:

John Varley's trilogy Titan, Wizard, Demon has a strong female lead. The first one is a must read, as is The Persistence of Vision.

If you can grab a print version of Guy Pellaert's (Youtube link) Pravda La Survireuse, consider yourself lucky (but thanks anyway, I didn't know about this glorious video).
posted by bru at 5:37 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Mrs. Quizicalcoatl suggests anything by Octavia Butler.
She also suggests Slant by Greg Bear.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 5:55 PM on July 26, 2009

Noone's mentioned CJ Cherryh? Sheesh.

Try Cyteen (hard sci-fi political manoeuverings, cloning and moral dilemmas) the Chanur books (hard sci-fi political manoeuverings with cat people in spaceships) and the Morgaine books (fantasy political manoeuverings against an implicit sci-fi backdrop and a chick with a portable black hole sword).

Bruce Sterling's Vacuum Flowers is also worth a look (post human biopunky political manoeuverings with, um, flowers/ vacuum).
posted by Sebmojo at 5:58 PM on July 26, 2009

Nthing Sheri S. Tepper. First one who came to my mind when I saw the question.
posted by mikewas at 6:09 PM on July 26, 2009

C. S Friedman's books have several strong female characters. I really recommend the The Braxi/Azea duology and, if you like fantasy as well, The Magister Trilogy.
posted by slavlin at 6:17 PM on July 26, 2009

Best answer: Nancy Kress is always awesome. The Probability Trilogy (Probability Moon, Probability Sun, Probability Space) has some tough spacefaring women.

Space Mongoose, by Tobias Buckell, has more female leads than some of his other novels to date.

Connie Willis has strong female protags. Her novella D.A. features a teenaged girl who's the wildest tiger at the space academy, but most of her other work is about time travel, not space opera.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:21 PM on July 26, 2009

Connie Willis' Passage and Doomsday Book both have smart, fully dimensional female main characters. And while her To Say Nothing of the Dog is narrated by a male character, it also has a kick-ass female character. (And it is one of my favorite books. Ever.)
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 6:30 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yoko Tsuno. Not quite what you are looking for but it is scifi with a female lead.
posted by amusem at 6:31 PM on July 26, 2009

I just finished the Mistborn (Brandon Sanderson) trilogy and was totally surprised at how good it was. (just a random pickup). Has a group of people you follow, but nearly all time is spent from the main girl's point of view.
posted by lundman at 6:35 PM on July 26, 2009

Cory Doctorow's short stories Anda's Game and After the Siege are both female POV stories and they're among my favorites. They're available for free download on his site, and both have exceptionally well done readings by narrators who actually know how to voice act, if that's your thing.
posted by NoraReed at 6:50 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, Octavia Butler.

I've not read any of the Tiptree award winners (at least none that I know of) but works by Tiptree are also definitely worth checking out. There is also a fascinating autobiography if you are into that sort of thing -- James Tiptree, Jr. by Julie Phillips.
posted by librarina at 7:52 PM on July 26, 2009

Wow, can't believe we got this far without someone suggesting Weber's Honor Harrington

Or Mike Shepherd Moscoe's Longknife stuff
posted by legotech at 8:03 PM on July 26, 2009

I just today finished the Species Imperative trilogy by Julie E. Czerneda, which features a kick-ass woman biologist whose research skills are put to use against an implacable threat.

I believe Czerneda's other series also feature female leads.
posted by Squeak Attack at 8:46 PM on July 26, 2009

C.J. Cherryh has many many strong and interesting female, as well as male, characters in her books.
posted by Lynsey at 9:43 PM on July 26, 2009

I'm surprised that nobody's mentioned Neil Stephenson's Diamond Age, which just happens to be an excellent book as well as one with great female characters.
posted by KatlaDragon at 10:14 PM on July 26, 2009

Shelter by Susan Palwick has two female POV characters, as does Dust by Elizabeth Bear.

Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman books have two kickass heroines; I highly recommend them.

The books are

The Steerswoman
The Outskirters Secret (These first two are combined in The Steerswoman's Road)
The Lost Steersman
The Language of Power
posted by creepygirl at 10:42 PM on July 26, 2009

Against a dark Background is a really good read, like the best movie you'll ever read. Iain Banks.
posted by mattoxic at 10:51 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Feminist SF Wiki's (already posted by penguinliz, above) Characters page has links to a bunch of different lists of female characters, and characters indexed by various roles. For instance, there's list of notable female characters.
posted by Zed at 11:13 PM on July 26, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the fantastic answers - there are loads of books on this list I'm going to look up now! I could have marked them all best but I've stuck to the ones I'm going to read first :)
posted by cardamine at 1:50 AM on July 27, 2009

Some other authors to consider: Sheri Tepper, Nalo Hopkinson, and Justina Robson (but avoid the Quantum Gravity series.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:08 AM on July 27, 2009

Rogue Angel Series by Alex Archer
posted by wildrider at 7:59 AM on July 27, 2009

Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio and Darwin's Children are pretty awesome. They follow several characters, but the female protagonist is, to me at least, the main character.
posted by papayaninja at 12:15 PM on July 27, 2009

No love for Arkady Darell in Second Foundation?
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:13 PM on July 27, 2009

This is a great question, and I am glad you asked it.

The Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells.
Jack McDevitt's Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins books
And, for some of the best funny stuff, don't forget any of the books featuring the Witches and/or Susan in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series
posted by natalie b at 8:26 PM on July 27, 2009

Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, the main character in Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold is a completely kick-ass, believable and funny female protagonist. The book also features several other strong female characters.
posted by shimmerbug at 10:26 PM on July 27, 2009

Tocohl Susumo, the main character in Janet Kagan's book Hellspark, is most kick-ass. Also smart, funny, tough, and resourceful.

Amy Thomson writes some interesting female main characters — Juna in The Color of Distance and the sequel Through Alien Eyes, and Teller in Storyteller. (Also Virtual Girl, but I haven't read that one yet.)

S. M. Stirling's Dies the Fire trilogy has a small mob of main characters, as I recall, of whom many of the toughest and most creative are women.

Just about all of Sheri S. Tepper's books (I love her stuff) have female main characters.

Lois McMaster Bujold is also one of my favorites. In the Vorkosigan universe, Shards of Honor and Barrayar are primarily from Cordelia's POV. (The whole series is worth reading. Further in, Komarr and A Civil Campaign include many female primary characters and POVs. Bujold is masterful with limited third-person narration — you can always tell which character's eyes you're seeing the world through when she writes.) On the fantasy side of things, I loved Ista, the main character in Paladin of Souls, in the Chalion series. I highly recommend starting with the first book, The Curse of Chalion, in which she's introduced along with her daughter (also a smart, tough woman) and her daughter's best friend (ditto, although less fully drawn). Also on the fantasy side, the Sharing Knife series has two POV characters, one male and one female. And it's always entertaining to play "spot the mistakes in the cover art" with Bujold's books — they get it so wrong! "Oh, look, that's directly contradicted by the text... and so is that... and that bit there... and this entire section... argh!"
posted by Lexica at 7:29 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Holly Lisle: Talyn. One of the best books I've read all year.
posted by lazy robot at 4:35 PM on August 3, 2009

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