Women writing SciFi: Your Picks?
February 8, 2008 4:52 AM   Subscribe

In your opinion, who are the best female science fiction authors? What are the best scifi books written by women?

Interpret the genre as broadly as you wish - "Hard" SciFi, Space Opera, Fantasy, Time Travel, Alternate History/Universe - it matters not! I especially love Steampunk, Cyberpunk, and New Weird, and am probably least interested in romances that just seem to have an incidental scifi setting and extremely politicized writing, but the most important criterion is overall quality - as long as the work is superior, I'm interested. I am asking for women writers because while I've read a fair amount of scifi, I realize I've only read a handful by women writers (most of which I've liked very, very much), and would like to read more.

I understand that I can go to any anthology of female scifi writers to get a list of names, but I'm asking for Mefites' personal recommendations for excellent women writers in this genre as well as specific books that stand out to you. I don't care if the author is not well-known or widely recognized - or, on the other hand, if the name is so obvious that everyone knows it.
posted by taz to Media & Arts (102 answers total) 104 users marked this as a favorite
Well, on the obvious side of the coin a couple of Margaret Atwood books fit the criteria, and are good reads to boot (Oryx and Crake; The Handmaid's Tale)
posted by bifter at 5:10 AM on February 8, 2008

Seconding Margaret Atwood, although she tends to stick to speculative fiction.
posted by furtive at 5:12 AM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Please, no. Atwood is a horrendous writer with serious hangups about sex.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 5:12 AM on February 8, 2008

I've enjoyed Lois McMaster Bujold.
posted by Wolfdog at 5:15 AM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ursula K. LeGuin, by a mile.
posted by rokusan at 5:18 AM on February 8, 2008

Um... like kalessin said. :)
posted by rokusan at 5:18 AM on February 8, 2008

Octavia Butler, of course! I also like Joan D. Vinge
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:19 AM on February 8, 2008

Julian May.
I've read most of hers (the Pliocene series is good) and I like how she uses language.
posted by geminus at 5:21 AM on February 8, 2008

Seconding LeGuin, The Dispossessed is one of my favorite books of all time, and there are a lot of other wonderful stories in the Hainish cycle that are often overlooked.
posted by dinty_moore at 5:22 AM on February 8, 2008

I remember reading Madeleine L'Engle when I was younger....they weren't too bad...
posted by Grither at 5:23 AM on February 8, 2008

Ursula K LeGuin
James Tiptree Jr (aka, Alice B. Sheldon)
posted by plinth at 5:24 AM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Mary Doria Russell. Not all of her books are science fiction, but The Sparrow is probably going to be one of my long time favorites.
posted by Plinko at 5:27 AM on February 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

James Tiptree Jr by miles. She made other authors look like the hacks they are.
posted by outlier at 5:37 AM on February 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

hmmmm, scanning the list...

for me, the lathe of heaven and the dispossesed by ursula k. leguin

a wrinkle in time, of course, by the late madeleine l'engle

and for fantasy the blue sword by robin mckinley and interview with the vampire by anne rice

oh and anthem by ayn rand! altho that may fall into "extremely politicized writing" as well :P
posted by kliuless at 5:37 AM on February 8, 2008

Ann Crispin (aka A.C. Crispin, AC Crispin) wrote a bunch of star trek books etc and I enjoyed them... but her own series of books called Starbridge was a fantastic series....
posted by chasles at 5:38 AM on February 8, 2008

Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed is my favorite book of all time. I've read it 3 times and will again. I've read a bunch of her books and liked them all, though I wouldn't consider them all to be masterpieces like The Dispossessed.
posted by bindasj at 5:38 AM on February 8, 2008

Connie Willis, who is smart and funny. And another vote for Bujold, a friend kept pushing me to read the Miles Vorkosigan books, and when I started I couldn't stop.
posted by beowulf573 at 5:44 AM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Jan Mark, if only for The Ennead, Tanith Lee for lush, gothy short stories
posted by runincircles at 5:46 AM on February 8, 2008

Um, I believe Doris Lessing wrote science fiction and she won some sort of award. Maybe the Hugo? No, thats not it...
posted by shothotbot at 5:53 AM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Joanna Russ
posted by Amy NM at 5:54 AM on February 8, 2008

A few of the better authors and books I can think of off the top of my head:

Ursula LeGuin (The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven).
Joan D. Vinge (Winter Queen/Summer Queen, the Cat books).
Maria Doria Russell (The Sparrow, which I swear I've recommended a zillion times here.)
Octavia Butler (Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents)
Connie Willis (The Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Passage)
C.J. Cherryh (Cyteen, Rider at the Gate/Cloud's Rider)
Robin McKinley (The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown)
Nancy Kress (Beggars in Spain)
Jane Yolen (the Heart's Blood books, though those were more young adult)
Madeline L'Engle (same caveat, but Wrinkle in Time and the related books)

I suppose Atwood counts, but her sci-fi-ish stuff is heavily political and Oryx and Crake was terrible in general (trite and badly written) - though Handmaid's Tale was quite good.
posted by ubersturm at 5:58 AM on February 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Nobody's mentioned yet:

Elizabeth Moon -- mostly military actiony SF, some not (Speed of Dark)

Nancy Kress -- try Beggars in Spain

Eleanor Arnason -- I've only read Ring of Swords, but it was good. I gather that her work is heavily anthro-based.

Linda Nagata -- I've only read Vast, which is sort of a space opera, sort of

Justina Robson -- relatively near-future AI-heavy SF.

Andre Norton -- one of the classics; I might argue probably mostly interesting as a historical artifact
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:01 AM on February 8, 2008

Joanna Russ (or is she more speculative fiction? The lines get a little blurry sometimes).

Nicola Griffith
- her novels Ammonite and Slow River are both really good, as are her non-SF novels.
posted by rtha at 6:03 AM on February 8, 2008

Connie Willis - Doomsday Book & To Say Nothing of the Dog & everything else she's ever written
Sarah Zettel - Fool's War
Anne Maccaffery - Dragonriders of Pern series
Ursula Le Guin - Earthsea series
posted by Argyle at 6:09 AM on February 8, 2008

oh hey and, fwiw, dorris lessing just won the nobel prize! i guess, in part, for her science fiction sequence canopus in argos, altho it too "as a whole falls into categories of social or soft science fiction due to its focus on human characters and social-cultural issues, and its de-emphasis of the details of scientific technology" :P
posted by kliuless at 6:11 AM on February 8, 2008

Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners is one of the best short story collections I've read, and she's a great writer - hard to describe, but sort of SFy magic-realist-esque fantastical horror (and Neil Gaiman thinks she's good too).

Nalo Hopkinson, particularly Brown Girl in the Ring, a near-future Caribbean-influenced magical cyberpunk novel set in a decayed Toronto.

Seconding Connie Willis: my favourite book of hers is "And to say nothing of the dog", which is a three-men-in-a-boat sequel (sort of), with time travel. But she's done lots of good stuff - check out her Hugo and Nebula award winners particularly.

Seconding Tanith Lee: she's generally lush fantasy horror, but her best straight SF book, I think, is Silver Metal Lover.

And yes, n'thing the classics like Ursula Le Guin and James Tiptree Jr.
posted by siskin at 6:14 AM on February 8, 2008

LeGuin, Tiptree, Russell, Butler, all seconded.

I would also recommend:
Justina Robson, Natural History or Living Next-Door to the God of Love
Gwyneth Jones, Life
Elizabeth Bear, Hammered/Wetwired/Scardown trilogy
Maureen McHugh, China Mountain Zhang
Elizabeth Moon, The Speed of Dark
posted by penguinliz at 6:22 AM on February 8, 2008

I see many favorites already listed and I would like to give an enthusiastic third or fourth or whatever to Bujold. But I would also recommend Robin Hobb - her three fantasy trilogies (Assassin/Mad Ships/Fools - and for the love of god read them in order) is as dark and moving as the stuff the big boys of fantasy (Martin, Erikson, Bakker, et.al.) are spinning right now.
posted by Ber at 6:28 AM on February 8, 2008

I especially love Steampunk, Cyberpunk, and New Weird

Pat Cadigan is often overlooked despite being the only woman in Bruce Sterling's classic cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades. Her early novels Mindplayers and Synners are great virtual reality mindfucks (esp. Mindplayers), and she seems like a class act herself.
posted by mediareport at 6:34 AM on February 8, 2008

I'd certainly give +1 for LeGuin and Mary Doria Russell. The other person that springs to mind, though mainly for fantasy, is Diana Wynne Jones.
posted by crocomancer at 6:41 AM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding Robin Hobb (can't believe it took so long for her to be mentioned) and Julian May.
posted by gaspode at 6:43 AM on February 8, 2008

I'd go along with many of the names mentioned here already, and add one more: C.L. Moore. One of the earlier SF writers. I read an anthology of her short stories, and it's always stuck in my head.
posted by adamrice at 6:51 AM on February 8, 2008

I like Angela Carter in addition to many of the women listed here. She's incredibly gifted and writes fantastically without being a sort of unicorns and wizards fantasy. My other top female SF writers who have been listed
  • Connie Willis - very talented and has a wide range. She writes SF with rich full characters and deep plots. Can write in different genres effectively, also she's funny.
  • Octavia Butler - I usually call her fiction a little too "rapey" for me because she has some books that, while wonderful are a little too disturbing for me to recommend to people
  • Ursula Leguin - sort of has a whole thing going on, has written great books, is a great person and generally a grande dame of SF writing.

posted by jessamyn at 6:55 AM on February 8, 2008

I remember liking Woman on the Edge of Timeby Marge Piercy when I read it in a Women's Studies class at university. Apparently her novel He, She, It (known as Body of Glass outside the United States) won an Arthur C. Clarke Award, but I haven't read it.

turtlegirl nths the LeGuin suggestions by proxy.
posted by terrapin at 6:55 AM on February 8, 2008

Kage Baker's Company series, dealing with a company that preserves cultural artifacts and endangered species using time travel and immortality technology, is great.
posted by Jeanne at 6:56 AM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Lois McMaster Bujold
posted by Karmakaze at 6:59 AM on February 8, 2008

2nd vote for Pat Cadigan if you like cyberpunk. Another personal favorite is Elizabeth Hand. I'd recommend her short stories and the post-apocalyptic novel Glimmering.
posted by aperture_priority at 6:59 AM on February 8, 2008

Most of my favorites have being named already, adding to them
Mercedes Lackey
Ellen Kushner
Marion Zimmer Bradley

Robin McKinley, Ellen Kushner, and Ursula LeGuin have been marketed under YA label recently, but their books are great reads for all ages.
posted by francesca too at 7:04 AM on February 8, 2008

Can't belive nobody mentioned Children of men by P D James.
posted by ilike at 7:07 AM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman series. I just wish she'd write more.
posted by edd at 7:08 AM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Andre Norton wrote hard, masculine science fiction books in an era when women didn't write science fiction books. It might not be some people's cuppa, but when it comes to classic, genre-defining sci-fi, I can't think of anyone (male or female) who wrote better books.
posted by muddgirl at 7:09 AM on February 8, 2008

Emma Bull - Falcon, Bone Dance
Zenna Henderson - The People stories
posted by notbuddha at 7:10 AM on February 8, 2008

Elizabeth Hand. I've read just about everything she's ever written and I adore her. On preview, drat you, aperture_priority!

Also, nthing Connie Willis, and has anybody mentioned Kage Baker? Time travel, evil corporations and good, tight, funny writing. Jo Walton, for fantasy. Katherine Kerr, who has written a couple of very good sci fi books as well as her fantasy stuff. And, Wilhelmina Baird! Her totally awesome cyberpunk trilogy is right there on the front page of that link.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:15 AM on February 8, 2008

I really like C. S. Friedman. The Madness Season, This Alien Shore and In Conquest Born are some of my favorite books. The Coldfire Trilogy has some wonderful characters too.
posted by slavlin at 7:36 AM on February 8, 2008

You might check out my good friend in Austin TX, Jessica Wynne Reisman. She writes both straight up SF and what might be called "magical realism." She is incredibly talented, uses language magnificently and is a hot mama, too.
posted by Mmothra at 8:09 AM on February 8, 2008

There are elements of romance and social commentary in most of Lois McMaster Bujold's works, but you'll be hard pressed to find a superior writer.
posted by Soliloquy at 8:29 AM on February 8, 2008

I think these have probably all been mentioned (don't have time to read first, sorry):

Octavia Butler
Ursula LeGuin
James Tiptree Jr
Andre Norton
Madeleine L'Engle
Connie Willis
posted by Grod at 8:32 AM on February 8, 2008

The Sci-Fan big ones are:

Andre Norton
Ursula K. Le Guin
Anne McCaffrey
Marion Zimmer Bradley

Honorable Mention:

Joan D. Vinge
Elizabeth Moon
Nina Kiriki Hoffman
posted by ewkpates at 8:33 AM on February 8, 2008

Connie Willis and Doris Lessing are, IMHO, two of the leading lights on the list. "To Say Nothing of the Dog" is brilliant in every way, and "Passage" is deep and surprising.

Many of the names mentioned here write terrible, terrible, well-within-Sturgeon's-Law crap, either one note above shared-universe gamer/D&D/Trek crap, or, occasionally, unreadable stuff in that subgenre. I'm half-surprised not to see hacks like Lisa Smedman and Jean Rabe listed here. FFS.

If Peggy Atwood hadn't started her career at a time when Canadian publishers were aching for a fresh, homegrown woman's voice, she'd have retired to teaching after her first book of poetry. Seven Governor-General noms, none of them deserving. Avoid, avoid, avoid.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 8:44 AM on February 8, 2008

Nthing Diana Wynne Jones, Ellen Kushner, LeGuin, et al.

For fantasy, the very best I've read in recent times (and possibly ever) has been the Elemental Logic series by Laurie J. Marks.

I really like Susette Haden Elgin, especially her Native Tongue stuff.

Ellen Klages is great. Green Glass Sea isn't SF per se, but it's informed by it and her short stories in Portable Childhoods definitely are SF/F.

If you think you might like Fantasy of Manners (i.e. fantasy in Edwardian England), check out Sorcery and Cecelia by Caroline Stevermer and Patricia Wrede.

I'm currently reading the latest by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu. I adored Zarah, the Windseeker, which was a nice hybrid of SF and F.

Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw is great fun.

Jane Lindskold makes Neil Gaiman look like an amateur when it comes to urban fantasy, IMHO.

One of my favorite YA authors is Diane Duane - big fan of her Young Wizards series.

And I keep meaning to check out Carol Emshwiller, but I haven't managed to yet.
posted by ursus_comiter at 8:50 AM on February 8, 2008

You also might want to check out the past winners of the Tiptree Award.
posted by ursus_comiter at 8:54 AM on February 8, 2008

You articulate my reservations about Octavia Butler perfectly, Jessamyn; she's the only SF writer I can think of at the moment who made me throw a book down on the floor as hard as I could in anger.

R. A. MacAvoy's Book of Kells is still the greatest single volume fantasy I ever read, I think, and her Lens of the World trilogy gives me goosebumps just writing the title.

Great thread.

Oh, don't forget Sorcery and Cecilia by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, each of whose work is excellent in its own right.
posted by jamjam at 8:55 AM on February 8, 2008

Ursula Le Guin (esp. The Disposessed and The Left Hand of Darkness)
Connie Willis (her older short stories in Fire Watch)
Nancy Kress (short stories, esp. the older ones in Trinity)
Megan Lindholm's The Wizard of the Pigeons (she's since become popular under the pen name Robin Hobb -- I haven't read those books)
C.L. Moore (wrote much of her stuff in collaboration with her husband, Henry Kuttner)
Maureen McHugh
Karen Joy Fowler
Kelly Link
James Tiptree, Jr.
Loved Madeleine L'Engle as a child, haven't reread as an adult to see if it holds up.

I hated the Sparrow so much I'll explicitly antirecommend it (though mine seems to be a minority opinion.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 8:56 AM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding Linda Nagata. Memory (2003) was great (well written, hard SF, full of new ideas) and, strangely, she doesn't seem to have published anything since.
posted by bru at 9:00 AM on February 8, 2008

Octavia Butler

no contest.

Start with Parable of the Sower
posted by subtle_squid at 9:02 AM on February 8, 2008

My goodness! No one has mentioned Leigh Brackett! Notable not only as an author but as a screenwriter -- and most interestingly, for this question, for The Empire Strikes Back.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:18 AM on February 8, 2008

Older generation:
- Ursula LeGuin (many classics like The Dispossed and Left Hand of Darkness; still prolific)
- Joanna Russ (70s angry feminist, brilliant but controversial; Female Man in particular)
- James Tiptree Jr (real name Alice Sheldon; many brilliant short stories)
- Kate Wilhelm (mostly I remember Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang)
- when I was young Andre Norton and Madeline l'Engle's books were important to me

Previous generation (ie. 80s-90s)
- Vonda McIntyre (Dreamsnake and the Starfarers series)
- Lois McMaster Bujold (Barryar series)
- Connie Willis (historical time travel books)
- Octavia Butler (have like all her books)
- CJ Cherryh (particularly Downbelow Station and Cyteen)
- Sherry Tepper (particularly Gate to Women's Country and Grass)
- Linda Nagata (I liked Deception Well and Vast in particular)
- Kathleen Ann Goonan (I liked her post-nanotech disaster books, Queen City Jazz, etc.)

More current:
- Kage Baker (the "Company" series, great fun)
- Steph Swainston (the "Four Lands" series starting with Year of Our War is very good)
- Maureen McHugh (I like them all; China Mountain Zhang is a contemporary classic)
- Melissa Scott (I might be in a minority but I loved the Dreamships, Dreaming Metal, Night Sky Mine, Shape of their Hearts books, not really a series but in a similar future history)
- Eleanor Arnason (kind of a current generation LeGuin, has an anthropological feel)
- Nancy Kress (I've mostly read/liked her late 90s books)
- Sarah Zettel (I've read the sf, Reclamation, Fools War; not really interested in her more recent fantasy books)
- Justina Robson (liked Mappa Mundi and Natural History)
- Tricia Sullivan (liked Someone to Watch Over Me and Dreaming in Smoke, have not yet read Maul)
- Karen Joy Fowler (Sarah Canary and Sister Noon; she made the crossover to mainstream fiction with her most recent book)

(Sorry for the long list. I've been reading sf for over 35 years.)
posted by aught at 9:30 AM on February 8, 2008 [9 favorites]

Can't belive nobody mentioned Children of men by P D James.
posted by ilike at 10:07 AM on February 8

I think there's a lot of backlash among regular sf readers against mainstream dabblers like Atwood and James. (Personally, I do think Marge Piercy and Doris Lessing have made better efforts at writing sf than either Atwood or PD James.) It doesn't help when Atwood and James (in particular) disparage sf in interviews and say their futuristic novels are not that stupid ray-gun-and-robots-sci-fi-crap, no siree.
posted by aught at 9:37 AM on February 8, 2008

For fantasy: I'm a big fan of Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince series, but it's been several years since I read them.
posted by bibbit at 9:42 AM on February 8, 2008

I'd have to recommend "The Year's Best Science Fiction" (ed. Gardner Dozois) if you're looking to broaden your SF horizons. I've discovered quite a few of the authors above via that collection, and there isn't a volume I wouldn't unreservedly recommend. (Obviously, there will be male authors in there too.) I see them all the time in the local used book shops.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:04 AM on February 8, 2008

Melissa Scott is good for cyberpunk
posted by bryghtrose at 10:10 AM on February 8, 2008

Another vote for Elizabeth Moon, though I think her best work is the Paksenarrion's Tale trilogy, which is more fantasy than sci-fi...
posted by Pantengliopoli at 10:24 AM on February 8, 2008

Lot of good suggestions so far (and some utter crap), so I'll just add Janet Kagan's Mirabile, if you happen to run across a copy. Reprints of stuff that was in Analog and Asimov's back in the 80's, just good, plain, scientific fun with good characters that are, sometimes, a little too good.
posted by QIbHom at 10:27 AM on February 8, 2008

So many favorites. Nthing Joanna Russell, Robin McKinley, Mary Doria Russell, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. LeGuin... almost the entire list really.

Also try Elisabeth Vonarburg (her books are eventually translated into English, start with The Silent City), and Gwyneth Jones' White Queen series.
posted by lillygog at 10:53 AM on February 8, 2008

Definitely Sheri Tepper- Gibbon's Decline and Fall and The Gate to Women's Country are my favorites, but the Arbai Trilogy and the Awakeners are also quite good.

Sharon Shinn, particularly the Samaria series. (If you're a fan of Jane Eyre, read Jenna Starborn. If you hate Jane Eyre, don't.)

Amy Thomson.

I will nth Kage Baker, CJ Cherryh, Connie Willis, and Ellen Kushner.

Kushner's wife, Delia Sherman, also writes really enjoyable mannerpunk.
posted by moonlet at 10:54 AM on February 8, 2008

Connie Willis is one of my favorites. Nobody's mentioned her novel Lincoln's Dreams - I loved it, but I have to be in the right frame of mind to re-read it because it's so damn sad.

My favorite Melissa Scott novels are Burning Bright, Trouble and Her Friends, and Shadow Man. Some of her protagonists/endings have a hint of grandiosity that annoys me, though.
posted by expialidocious at 10:57 AM on February 8, 2008

I love Ursula Le Guin. I love Robin McKinley. Both of these are more about people than plot, though, so if you like the Gibson/Stephenson/etc sort of Sci Fi, you'll be disappointed. I like CJ Cherryh very much, and her sci-fi is more traditional and less touchy-feely. She also wrote a fantasy novel called the Dreamstone that I liked, though it might be too traditional to be everyone's cup of tea.

I read one and a half Octavia Butler books. She struck me as inhumanly humorless. Margaret Atwood's universe is just depressing- axe grindy, violent and somewhat fatalistic. One can only hope this is just her fictional universe, but it doesn't seem like it.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:08 AM on February 8, 2008

The Finder comic series by Carla Speed McNeil is incredible and involves a lot of detail-rich worldbuilding. I can't recommend it enough.
posted by cadge at 11:10 AM on February 8, 2008

I'd like to second The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. It's so beautiful, dense, and detailed. It's one of my favorite books and I think I've read it six or seven times. Gosh, I think I got it in fifth grade.

I always thought Beloved was comparable to it. Beloved was assigned in 12th grade English AP and everyone in the class struggled with all the surrealism, non-linearity, and detail... except for me and the other science fiction geek, who was also a fan of McKinley. :)

I'd also like to second C.S. Friedman. My sister got me into the Coldfire Trilogy and it was love at first sight... or murder, as it were.

I definitely recommend Anne McCaffrey because the world of Pern is so detailed and there are so many books... you can wander in it for a long time. But heck, you've surely read the Pern books already! I also liked the Crystal Singer series and I liked the Ship Who Sang and I've read that several times. Other books in the Ship series were good, too.

I am also a Margaret Atwood disliker.
posted by halonine at 11:12 AM on February 8, 2008

Anne McCaffrey is ok if you aren't interested in quality. She is about on level with David Eddings: entertaining but has very little actual literary skill.

I heartily recommend (and I do not see her mentioned thus far) Patricia McKillip. She is an extraordinarily skilled writer and storyteller. Some of her books are somewhat like Andre Norton at her best but without all the misandry (and ye gods does Norton beat that dead horse).

Le Guin is quite good. Did not care much for Tehanu but really enjoyed every other book I've read by her. I find it really amusing that in her earlier works she basically is the flipside of so very many male authors in her inability to accurately portray the opposite sex. Especially in The Farthest Shore.
posted by Riemann at 11:28 AM on February 8, 2008

Read Atwood's stuff - the haters are wrong (can't stress that enough, really).
posted by longdaysjourney at 11:34 AM on February 8, 2008

Atwood may not be awful, but the poster asked for the best female SF authors, and Atwood certainly isn't that.

The best currently writing would include Lois McMaster Bujold, C.J. Cherryh, and Connie Willis. Willis isn't my cup of tea, generally, but there's no denying she is a major talent.
posted by Justinian at 11:41 AM on February 8, 2008

Nthing Nancy Kress.
posted by hjo3 at 11:52 AM on February 8, 2008

Ignore the nasty comments about Margaret Atwood and check her out for yourself -- make up your own mind. She is a fantastic writer, though more dystopian than sci fi. "Oryx and Crake" or "Handmaid's Tale" are equally good places to start, though "Handmaid's Tale" is more overtly feminist and "Oryx and Crake" focuses more on how we are destroying our environment.
posted by brina at 12:27 PM on February 8, 2008

I forgot Elizabeth Haydon in my earlier post.
posted by francesca too at 12:47 PM on February 8, 2008

I'll skip the recent writers (except for a hearty second to the great Joanna Russ and James Tiptree Jr.), because they're well covered, and give a boost to the oldies/goodies, C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and Miriam Allen deFord.

Many of the names mentioned here write terrible, terrible, well-within-Sturgeon's-Law crap, either one note above shared-universe gamer/D&D/Trek crap, or, occasionally, unreadable stuff in that subgenre.

This from someone who thinks Lessing is a good sf writer!

posted by languagehat at 12:52 PM on February 8, 2008

Some people think Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was the first science fiction book. (I really can't recommend it, though.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:07 PM on February 8, 2008

Sorry, I misread the question -- you want ones we can recommend. Delete! Delete! Delete!
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:08 PM on February 8, 2008

Everyone got all my favourites already, except one: Mary Gentle. She's really more fantasy than sci-fi, but she does kick some serious butt, especially writing about period military matters.

Other than that: seconding LeGuin, Butler, Kage Baker, Connie Willis, Robin McKinley, Diana Wynne Jones and Carla Speed McNeil.
posted by Pallas Athena at 1:48 PM on February 8, 2008

I liked The Ancient Future Trilogy by Traci Harding when I was younger.
posted by mjao at 2:04 PM on February 8, 2008

This from someone who thinks Lessing is a good sf writer!

I was wondering how long it would take before someone would go ad hominem against a poster in the thread."Your opinion of X is suspect because you like Y!" This isn't the place, and it isn't helpful.

If you took the finest words and ideas from every novel written by Moon, Hobb, McCaffrey and McKinley, stirred them up and gave a committee of Hugo winners an unlimited budget, asking them to forge the finest possible novel from the remains, it couldn't hold the barest glimmer of a shadow of a candle to the Canopus in Argos cycle.

For starters, none of them can actually draw characters. Ex.: The Deed of Paksennarion is based on a paladin in a D&D campaign, ferchrissakes, and has all the depth of programmed adventure module with cardboard miniatures and random die rolls.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 2:10 PM on February 8, 2008

That The Deed of Paksennarion does not contain brilliant (or even good) writing does not imply that Lessig's SF is of the highest quality. Both Moon and Lessig's SF fail in different ways.
posted by Justinian at 2:12 PM on February 8, 2008

I didn't make such an implication. I stated an opinion that one was better than the other, and gave one reason why I think that the lesser work has failed.

In truth, I think that Lessing's SF work is more than imperfect; it can be pedantic, dry and be both too dense and too sparse in detail. It's still better than 99% of what's been brought up in this thread, and by a huge margin. Given her influence, it's worth reading even if you disagree that it's good work.

Most of the other writers on the list, on the other hand, have never said anything compelling or new, and haven't said it well. A derivative work wrought poorly is, IMHO, less worthy of the reader's time than an original work wrought poorly.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 2:23 PM on February 8, 2008

Nthing Kage Baker and Nancy Kress, also suggesting Chris Moriarty.
posted by Joh at 2:30 PM on February 8, 2008

moonlet Sheri Tepper the Arbai trilogy? I only read Grass and I loved it. What are the other titles?
posted by francesca too at 3:22 PM on February 8, 2008

t's still better than 99% of what's been brought up in this thread, and by a huge margin.

99%? Really? That would imply that it's better than all but, maybe, one of the names brought up in the thread. Lessig is a great writer but her SF, considered as SF, is not anything like the quality of Bujold's best work. Cherryh's Cyteen is significantly better than Lessig's SF in virtually every way. Mary Gentle's best work (the one-volume Ash) is better than Lessig's SF. McKillip's work is wonderful if you like that sort of thing, which I don't.

And I haven't even brought up Tiptree yet. You are of the opinion that Lessig's SF is better than Her Smoke Rose Up Forever? That's a bold statement. And so on.

Yeah, Lessig's stuff stands up against crap like the Deed of Paksennarion because it reaches further. But it still fails. I think you must be giving props to Lessig's SF simply because it is by Lessig if you actually believe it's better than 99% of the suggestions in this thread.
posted by Justinian at 3:41 PM on February 8, 2008

Katherine Kurtz, esp. her Deryni books. Named my oldest daughter for one of her characters. Please ignore the hideous website; the books are quite wonderful.

Also, woo-hoo! Stuff to read! Library, here I come!!!
posted by ZakDaddy at 4:02 PM on February 8, 2008

Just to hit a couple who haven't been mentioned:

Rowling: Harry Potter might be too obvious, but while there are those who hate the series, it has very broad appeal to children and adults for a reason. The writing is solid and the characters are interesting, appealing and multidimensional.

Kathleen Duey: I haven't read any of her other books, but Skin Hunger was one of those books where I wanted/needed to know what happened to the characters and even dreamed I was one of them. It's marvelous, and I hope that she's working on the next one.
posted by Cricket at 4:17 PM on February 8, 2008

99%? Really?

Roughly. I agree that Cyteen is great; it's among the best of the books listed here, although I normally hate her narrative style, and much of her other work exemplifies deriviative hackery. And I think that writing about alien cat-people should be punishable by a prison term of no less than five years, with concurrent sentences of hard labour for the over'use of un'necess'ary punct'u'a'tion in names.

I think most of the abjectly terrible writers that get mentioned as favourites in threads like these have one good book in them. I'd rather that they be hunted down and stopped before they get that far, though.

Anyhow. Reasonable folk can disagree, and taste is untouchable. To the OP: try 'em all, or not, and read more of what you like.

Also, it's Lessing.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 4:58 PM on February 8, 2008

Yeah, I knew that. I was writing about Lawrence Lessig right before these posts and I suppose my brain got some wires crossed.

I do agree with you that lots of authors who get mentioned in threads like this are pretty awful.
posted by Justinian at 5:05 PM on February 8, 2008

I was wondering how long it would take before someone would go ad hominem against a poster in the thread.

That wasn't ad hominem. Ad hominem would be saying "tpoi is a bad person, therefore you shouldn't pay attention to their views on the subject." I know nothing about you as a person; I was pointing out that your poor taste in sf means your opinion on what is good sf shouldn't carry much weight. Even you admit that "Lessing's SF work is more than imperfect; it can be pedantic, dry and be both too dense and too sparse in detail." To go on to then claim it's better than 99% of everything else (i.e., real sf) is simply a way of dissing sf: "no matter how bad Lessing's sf is, she's a real writer, and ipso facto better than all those genre hacks." Which is a shitty attitude, and one that any sf fan is all too familiar with.

Cricket: Your picks are pure fantasy; the poster asked for sf. Most people favor one or the other.
posted by languagehat at 5:15 PM on February 8, 2008

I think most of the abjectly terrible writers that get mentioned as favourites in threads like these have one good book in them. I'd rather that they be hunted down and stopped before they get that far, though.

let's all agree that the rest of us have horrible literary taste. I'm just happy for my new list of entertaining books I want to read
posted by francesca too at 5:59 PM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Mod note: few comments removed - please take the SF/Atwood derail to email or metatalk, thank you
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:10 PM on February 8, 2008

Pallas Athena, I respect your right to enjoy Mary Gentle, but I only finished reading Grunts! because I was pretty sure that I had done something wrong that I had not been punished for.

Actually, I really finished the book because I picked it up and started it about 15 times. I was determined to get through it just so I could get rid of it and I have not tried any other of her books since then.

I guess what I am saying to the original poster is they may want to try 1 or 2 of her books first rather than picking up a huge stack.
posted by slavlin at 8:52 PM on February 8, 2008

Suzy Charnas' The vampire tapestry is one of the best Vampire books ever.
posted by dhruva at 4:31 PM on February 10, 2008

And also, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is very good.
posted by dhruva at 10:39 PM on February 10, 2008

Lois McMaster Bujold! I can't recommend her enough. Check out her Vorkosigan saga for "standard" SF. Her other works are more fantasy than SF, so that might not be your cup of tea.
posted by gakiko at 12:54 AM on February 11, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you very, very much, everyone!! Exactly what I wanted.

It's not possible to pick a best answer for a question like this, of course, but everybody who took the time to share his or her most admired authors and novels has given me a best answer. Thanks again!
posted by taz at 2:18 AM on February 11, 2008

Most of the obvious choices have been mentioned (Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler should definately be near the top of your list) but I'd very much like to add Joan Slonczewski, and in particular A Door Into The Ocean, which is an awesome peice of worldbuilding with some very neat biopunk twists with a political edge.
posted by Artw at 8:16 PM on February 11, 2008

I recommend "The Company" series by Kage Baker and agree with the Ursula K. LeGuin recs.
posted by nikksioux at 4:09 AM on February 26, 2008

Every time I turn around languagehat is making an ad hominem attack. Wow. When you suggest that ARGUER reflects in some way on the ARGUMENT, thats ad hom. You are a cereal ad hommer. Please stop. Just stop.

I feel horrible for having forgotten Susanna Clarke... her book of short stories Ladies of Adieu is very good, as is Mr. Norrell. Very very good. I feel a little guilty also about leaving Elizabeth Moon out. She's consistent quality. Jennifer Roberson is also good.

I liked the poster who listed by generations... that's an excellent way to organize this stuff.

But seriously, I'm sorry about forgetting Susann Clarke.
posted by ewkpates at 7:22 AM on February 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sci-fi, not so much fantasy recs:

Sherri Tepper - Some of her books are the best books I've ever read. Others suffer from not being as good, and unfortunately, enought repeating themes throughout many of her novels, which then drags down the good ones to familiarity (on a philosophical theme, so the actual content varies at least).
Therefore, space out & randomise reading her older and newer works.
Recommendation - *never* read reviews of the plots, don't get spoiled, just check the rating if anything.
I'd also recommend 'Grass' as a good first.

As a beloved non-rec, I think the first I read, before knowing the author was, was Sideshow - which starts with a pair of incestuous hermaphroditic Siamese twins, who get surgically adjusted to a boy/girl pair, and then got weirder from there. o_O
It made a lot more sense retrospectively after reading 'Raising the stones', but I held a certain fondness for the WTF? of the first half, before it descended (ascended?) into incomprehensibility for me.

Octavia Butler - Xenogenesis series is the most sci-fi-y (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago). Let her rest in peace though, and forget she ever wrote her last book. :(

Anne McCaffrey did actually write a tiny amount of really interesting sci-fi.
That was before she started stretching them out into novels, rather than short stories (literally - short stories were re-written as novels), gradually stopping with 'ideas' so much as characters & dragons etc, which for me, lost the idea-depth that them interesting sci-fi short stories.
People who like the pern novels etc do not tend to like, or find the same things they enjoyed in the novels, in the short stories. Not the first sci-fi author to have done that.
Anyway, yeah - I really like her pre-1980 short fiction:

(but then, I'm a sucker for 50s-70s short sci-fi)
posted by Elysum at 8:47 AM on November 8, 2008

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