Science fiction and fantasy are often lumped together and treated as indistinguishable from one another, save for one detail: science fiction is usually more male-centric. Many lists covering “female heroines in Science Fiction” often end up extending to fantasy for just this reason, with their magical worlds and fantastical creatures. But science fiction is far more about the rise of the machines than the world of the fey, and women kick ass there too.
Women have been kicking ass in science fiction longer than the genre’s name. Most people know about the Victorian science fiction writers credited with creating the genre, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Conan Doyle. But some of our writing foremothers got their first, like Mary Shelley and Mary E. Bradley. Some, like Thea von Harbou, who wrote Metropolis, were then overshadowed by the men who remade their work — in her case, her husband, Fritz Lang. But most early science fiction writers, male or female, centered men in their stories.
Thankfully, not all did, and since the turn of the new century, more stories have been putting women front and center. Here are a dozen female heroines of science fiction and where to find them.
Most female writers from before the 1900s have been erased from history. However, Lady Margaret Lucas Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, is one whose work still stands as not only the earliest science fiction story (published in 1666) but one that starred a woman. “A Young Lady,” to be precise, who is kidnapped, only to find herself made Empress of the Blazing-World, where she holds learned conversations on science and philosophy with the greatest minds around, before triumphantly leading her armies against invasion.
The story predated the modern novel format by nearly a century, so the story isn’t laid out the way most modern readers are used to. But the Empress of the Blazing-World stands as the first female badass in science fiction history, and her romantic adventures laid the foundations for everything that’s come since.
Most of Nnedi Okorafor’s Afrofuturism is more fantasy than sci-fi. Still, Remote Control is one of her few stories set on Earth, starting in Ghana, and spilling across the continent. The story’s heroine, Fatima, travels the land to learn why she seems to have become the “Adopted Daughter of Death.” As she travels, she is renamed Sankofa by the locals, as piles of bodies seem to follow in her wake.
Though the story feels magical, it’s one where the magic is all technologically based, albeit in mysterious ways, no more controllable than the wind of the rain. And though there are all the hallmarks of Chosen One fantasies, Sankofa’s origins and fate always have a solid, real-world explanation, should you choose not to believe the legend she leaves behind.
Not to be confused with the 1912’s A Princess of Mars, The Empress of Mars is the 2003 novella written by Kage Baker, in which, late in the 21st century, the British Arean Company, a private firm, attempts to colonize Mars but fails. Mary Griffith, a xenobotanist-turned-barkeep, runs the only watering hole in the wild west colony left in the wake of the BAC’s pulling out and heading home.
Proclaimed the Empress of Mars” by the locals, Mary’s leadership is vital in defending their small town against those who resist building a society. She also leads the fight with those who would turn it into a fundamentalist Neo-Pagan religious outpost and interference by the BAC as the company sees its failed program naturally develop into a healthy, thriving city.
Station Eleven didn’t get nearly the ratings it should have when it was adapted by HBO in 2021 due to being a dystopian tale of the population being wiped out by a pandemic that was released in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But for those ready to return to those kinds of stories, the novel is on shelves waiting, as is Kristen, its heroine. A young girl at the time of the outbreak, 20 years after the world ends, she’s part of a traveling band of players. As much a mystery as a science fiction tale, Kristen’s story, and how it intersects with others who tried to survive the plague, is a fascinating tale that feels almost more like a fable than anything else.
The 2009 novel Leviathan kicked off Scott Westerfield’s alternate history of World War I trilogy, where the Allied Powers are geneticists facing off against the mechanization of the Central European nations led by the Germans and Ottoman Empire.
Deryn, a Scottish girl with dreams of fighting the war with her brothers, poses as a boy and winds up on the crew of the fleet’s biggest airship, the titular Leviathan. There, she winds up teaming up with the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Aleks, and the two discover the power of combining their two sciences into a single force. Aleks has the polish and the upper-class background, but Deryn’s quick thinking saves the day over and over again.
Considered an early Cyberpunk masterwork, 1991’s Synners is as impressive for how much it gets right about the trajectory of technology as how relevant it still feels 30 years on. Its heroine, Gina, is old enough to remember before the entire world was automated, to the point that people now fear systems that aren’t controlled by machines. Her old-fashioned attitude is mainly expressed through rock and roll (this book puts the punk in cyber-punk). It’s also the key to her humanity that makes a world of machines unbearable for her.
The love of her life, Mark, who chose automatic and the internet, can no longer connect with her, unwilling to take personal responsibility when machines can be blamed instead. But when “sockets” hit the market – because capitalism never dies, Gina finds a new outlet than might bring Mark back to her or swallow them both whole.
S.L. Huang’s debut novel, Zero Sum Game, was called many things when it arrived, from near-future science fiction to a noir superhero thriller.
The heroine, Cas, is a mathematical genius anti-hero and a “retrieval” specialist hired to rescue a girl kidnapped by a Mexican cartel. But Cas’ badassery is tested to the limit, as the girl’s disappearance is only the tip of a much larger global conspiracy that includes mind control. When Cas becomes the next target, it’s her own survival trying to retrieve.
Nearly everyone knows Katniss Everdeen, thanks to Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of the character onscreen in the quartet of blockbuster feature films based on Suzanne Collins’ trilogy. But the movie version has many rough edges shaved off and more romance infused into the story.
The Katness Everdeen fans meet on the pages of The Hunger Games is far harsher, more survival-focused, and much angrier than in the film version, and that’s before the sequels, which are as much a parable for PTSD and survivor’s guilt as they are dystopian fiction.
Before AppleTV+’s For All Mankind, the idea of a “Lady Astronaut” alternate history referred to Mary Robinettee Kowel’s series, which initially kicked off with 2012’s short story The Lady Astronaut of Mars. The Calculating Stars is a full-length prequel novel in which a meteor obliterates most of the Eastern Seaboard in 1952 after hitting the Chesapeake Bay. The resulting accelerated climate change jumpstarts the race to the Moon and Mars, with WASP pilot Elma York as one of the leading scientific lights in getting us there.
The novel sometimes defaults to making York a little too perfect and rule-abiding. (She will remind everyone that the object that hit the bay was a meteorite, thank you very much.) But her fight to force society to address its inherent biases against women and minorities with the same speed it does getting to another planet will have you rooting for her.
Initially published in 2011 under M.J. Locke, Up Against It is technicallyy a story of two protagonists, Geoff and Jane, but like the gender-neutral pseudonym, that’s just a ploy to see if hiding that this is a story by a woman about women will get men to buy it.
As the resource manager of Phocaea, a distant asteroid colony on the Solar System’s frontier, Jane is the longtime bureaucrat keeping the plumbing running on this artificial island of humanity. But when an interplanetary criminal syndicate tries to take over Phocaea, it’s her decades of experience (plus some hacking help from the teen boy) that savvily keeps the colony turning.
Originally written in Swedish but translated to English in 2017, Amatka is the name of an agricultural colony ruled by a totalitarian government where objects must be constantly named regularly to prevent them from dissolving into “gloop.” (Yes, that’s the technical term.)
The story’s heroine, Vanja, arrives to gauge the marketing potential for hygiene products, only to find a mystery afoot as things begin to increasingly dissolve and rebel foments as the government tries to cover up both crises. Vanja, at first, is a distant figure, trying not to get involved until things reach a point where she can no longer turn a blind eye.
Ani Bundel is a TV and movie writer at Elite Daily covering all things peak TV and an Associate Editor at PBS/WETA’s Telly Visions, where she co-hosts a weekly podcast by anglophiles for anglophiles. A self-taught journalist from the school of hard knocks, Ani came up blogging in the fast-turn-around era. Ani’s other regular bylines can be found on NBC News THINK.