Had she not passed away six years ago, today would have been beloved science fiction author Octavia Butler’s 65th birthday. Butler not only made waves for being a phenomenal writer, but for being one of the remarkably few African American women authors writing in her genre. In honor of the occasion of Butler’s birth (and because lady sci-fi authors never get enough love) we’ve put together a list of the greatest lady authors of science fiction and fantasy in this or any time — in our own humble estimation of course. Click through to read our list, and don’t forget that these are our own personal favorites — since there are many more than ten fantastic lady sci-fi/fantasy authors out there worthy of your time, please add to our list and let us know which of your own favorites we missed in the comments!
Ursula K. LeGuin
This is an easy one. The author of A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed has won a National Book Award, five Hugo awards, six Nebulas, and a record-breaking nineteen Locus Awards for her fiction, not to mention the fact that she’s been named just about every type of Grand Master there is. LeGuin’s work is not only gorgeously written, but it’s always socially and ecologically conscious — for instance, she typically writes characters of color, shrugging, “most people in the world aren’t white. Why in the future would we assume they are?” Indeed. But maybe even more importantly, as LeGuin has stated, “These are human stories. I’m using the other worlds and the other races as metaphors. All I know how to write about are people and animals — and trees. Still, nothing that is alien.”
Not only is Butler one of the absolute best of the few African American women writing in her genre, she’s also one of the absolute best of the humans writing in her genre. Like LeGuin, she has won multiple awards, and in 1995, she received the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, the first science fiction writer ever to do so. Her lean, frankly written works are concerned with ecology, religion, gender, and race, and always seem to bend the boundaries of each, a wry sense of humor mixed in with all that gravity.
We don’t know about you, but Madeleine L’Engle penned what was probably our first interaction with science fiction of any kind, the phenomenal Newbery Medal-winning A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, starring independent Meg Murray and her delightfully advanced little brother. Her writing is forthright and timeless, her ideas original and utterly captivating, and we don’t know where we’d be without her.
Carter’s fantastical, subversive Gothic fantasies are wonderfully alarming, razor sharp, and darkly beautiful, every sentence cutting to bone. After her death, her friend Salman Rushdie wrote that “she was that rare thing, a real one-off, nothing like her on the planet… With Angela Carter’s death English literature has lost its high sorceress, its benevolent witch-queen, a burlesque artist of genius and antic grace.” Thankfully for us, her writing lives on.
A relative newcomer compared to most of the eminent standbys on this list, we love Kelly Link’s fluid, sexy, funny fiction that slips easily between sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mystery, and magical realism. She is absurdly good, and we hope (and expect) that in time she will produce lists as long and storied as the other ladies mentioned here. After all, she’s already won a Hugo award, three Nebula awards, and a World Fantasy Award, so we’re pretty confident that she’s going to be with us for quite some time.
Though we’re not sure Anne Rice’s works could be strictly classified as fantasy, and definitely not as science fiction, we still think the queen of the damned herself deserves a place on this list. Sure, vampires are traditionally horror novel fare, but they’re also a special kind of fantasy (even if they’re not accompanied by broadswords and dragons), and Rice is an eminent writer of all kinds of creatures of the night. So we’re counting it.
Funny, fantastic Connie Willis has, among other things, won eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards, to which we can only say: wow. But the lady deserves it — her science fiction is witty and weird, filled with strange, meticulously researched trivia and slapstick humor pressed up against skillfully handled portrayals of love and loss.
Clarke is another writer who sits on the edge of her genre, or perhaps on the edge of many genres, something that we think adds greatly to her strength. Of her most famous work, her debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, she has said, “I think the novel is viewed as something new … blending together a few genres – such as fantasy and adventure and pastiche historical – plus there’s the whole thing about slightly knowing footnotes commenting on the story.” Indeed, the early-19th century tale is much more concerned with the tension between reason and madness than the typical fantasy fight between good and evil, something that is a wonderful breath of fresh air in the wide world of recycled tropes and familiar broadswords.
In 2007, Lessing became the eleventh woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Swedish Academy describing her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.” Lessing is by no means limited to science fiction — she’s dabbled in almost every literary form you can think of — and in fact, her “space fiction,” as she calls it, was at times not very well liked by literary critics. We think her Canopus in Argos sequence is pretty amazing, though, so we’re sticking to our guns.
Marion Zimmer Bradley
A very popular author, most famous for The Mists of Avalon and the Darkover series, Bradley was extremely prolific — but even so, fans couldn’t get enough. Both her Avalon and Darkover series have been taken up by other authors compelled to continue writing them even after her death — now that’s commitment. In 2000, Bradley was posthumously awarded a World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement.