I promised Foxfier a thank-you post and today I deliver it. Allow me to list some science fiction stories, including several which precede the New Millennium, readers!
This list should be a good launch point for anyone interested in finding more fiction with strong female characters in the narrative. We are losing our memory of the great female characters we had in the past, and that is a shame. This loss is doubly lamentable in this day and age as there were amazing heroines in older sci-fi works who do not deserve to be forgotten.
At present, I am inclined to agree with the Pulp Rev movement when they say the shift to hard sci-fi largely made the genre more about scientific theories than adventure, and this denied us good characters and stories. While adventure was the main focus of science fiction as a genre, a writer could give a woman much to do, slipping in some genuine scientific speculation or plausible worldbuilding in the process. Once the field became dominated by “hard sci-fi,” however, the market became awash with stories more enamored of potential theory than of character and story.
None of which is to say there are no hard sci-fi tales that have great characters in them. It is to say, however, that these tales were largely swamped along with the adventure stories by the sheer amount of theory fiction. Most science fiction writers couldn’t get published unless they included something strictly scientific – the more theoretical, the better – in their stories. When you have to spend more time on research for the latest scientific theories than you spend on actually writing the story, readers, it means the love you had for the fictional concept either dies or is subsumed by your love of the theory.
Some writers can balance both theory and fiction equally well. But they are not the norm, and that is why female characters in science fiction are so much harder to find in the present, in my opinion. If you can’t write anything but theory, then why do you need to create a character of any kind except as a vehicle for said theory?
Anyway, here are the books I can list with memorable female characters:
The Cosmic Courtship* by Julian Hawthorne, recently republished by Cirsova Publishing. I have the book but have yet to read it beyond a quick skim of the first few pages. (Hey, I’ve been busy!) The entire story is kicked into gear by a couple of female scientists messing with a device one of them built. The second woman is psychically transported to Jupiter in an accident, and her lover has to go rescue her.
From what I skimmed, it appears that Hawthorne is at least as imaginative and good at predicting future inventions as Jules Verne. Or he is at least as good at predicting possible genre conventions before they were recognized as such. Hawthorne is not perfect – neither was Verne – but my preliminary scan suggests that Hawthorne had an inkling of where science fiction was going and could go. I am looking forward to reading this novel (looks under chair and desk) when I can find the time, of course. Sigh…
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs I read and loved. You can find my review of the book and the movie at Upstream Reviews here and here. At present I am (slowly) working my way through The Gods of Mars*, the immediate sequel to Princess. With Deja Thoris, Thuvia, and Sola – to say nothing of the vicious Phaidon, daughter of Matai Shang of the Holy Therns – the number of strong female characters in these novels looks about as likely to thin to a trickle as rain falling up rather than down.
Oh, yeah, right – Deja and John had a daughter later. I nearly forgot that. Can’t wait to see if she has her mother’s fire or dialed it up to eleven…
Witch World* and Web of the Witch World* by Andre Norton see Estcarp at war with the Kolder, aliens from another world. The Kolder have tanks, lasers, and the ability to turn people into their mindless minions via technology. You know, in hindsight, it’s rather like having the Borg show up to invade an ostensible fantasy world, only to find the natural defenses of the people living there can match and/or overwhelm their technology.
The rest of the Witch World series is a little iffy on technology, but these two novels play the sci-fi angle fairly straight.
Black Amazon of Mars and Queen of the Martian Catacombs by Leigh Brackett were reviewed here and here. If the titles and covers do not scream “strong female characters,” then the reviews will definitely put any reader’s concerns to rest. The women in these books are not fainting flowers and you do not want to end up on their bad sides!
The War Against the Rull* by A.E. van Voght has a woman try to murder the hero in the second act. Said woman has a child, and she is still committed to killing Trevor Jamieson even when it becomes clear he’s her best bet to stay alive and return to her child. That woman was a tough cookie, and Jamieson had a real fight on his hands convincing her to listen to her female instincts rather than persist in her mission.
A couple of other impressive female characters pop up in the book later on, but they do not leave the same impression as this woman. Highly recommended nonetheless – this is a good book!
No Woman Born by C.L. Moore is thus far the only story by her that I have had time to read, and it is a creepy retelling of Frankenstein. A singer named Deirdre is caught in a fire and nearly burned to death, but she is saved by an experimental surgery that preserves her brain in an android body. She seems fine, but her manager wonders if she can still sing, while the doctor who saved her believes she may no longer be human.
I cannot emphasize the creep factor of this story enough. It is scary, readers. Unfortunately, it is also not one of Ms. Moore’s stories available on Project Gutenberg. The Best of C. L. Moore* has this and other tales available within its pages, and I have got to pick up a copy in the future because Ms. Moore’s writing is worth the purchase price. Frightening as No Woman Born is, the writing is top notch and I would certainly recommend it for authors learning the craft of storytelling.
Forerunner Foray* and Forerunner: The Second Venture* by Andre Norton are two of the author’s best sci-fi stories. The first has the heroine and the hero travel back through time as they revisit “past lives” – er, sort of. Both are psychometrics – that is, people who can “read” the past of an item by touch. When the heroine is drawn against her will to touch an artifact of seemingly lumpy clay, the adventure spirals into the realm of the really weird but fascinating and suspenseful.
The Second Venture has a different heroine struggling to adapt to an ancient personality that moved from the original (preserved) body into hers. This dual identity makes her valuable – though not necessarily as a living specimen. She bails out of her spaceship and ends up stranded on an inhospitable, dying world. It is a good read but definitely on the weird side!
I would be remiss if I did not list Dune*, by Frank Herbert. Yes, I know, Riders, stop glaring! The book is already giving me the stink eye from its place in the TBR pile. Anyway, I’m conversant enough with the story to know there are several strong female leads within the narrative, not the least among them being Paul Atreides’ mother, Lady Jessica, and his future wife Chani. If you think the 2021 movie was good, read the book. It is better than the film.
The Great Starship Race* by Diane Carey has not only Lieutenant Uhura – one of Star Trek’s most famous heroines – in its pages, but a new captain named Nancy Ransom. Having somehow left Starfleet Academy (at the moment, I can’t recall if she flunked out or was expelled), Nancy began her own shipping company and has a grudge with most of Starfleet. This finds expression, unsurprisingly, in her extreme dislike of one James T. Kirk.
Nancy is more than a match for Kirk when it comes to willpower. All the ships in the race have to undergo some modifications to make it a fair competition, and Nancy is particularly determined that the Starfleet vessels be hobbled so they don’t have an undue advantage. It is a good reminder that, yes, the Enterprise and the rest of Starfleet are extremely strong, fast ships that normally no one with sense wants to engage. Although hobbling the vessels comes back to bite everyone later, it leads to a very interesting meeting between Kirk and Nancy which sees their differences resolved. I highly recommend this novel, readers!
All Cats Are Gray* by Andre Norton is a short story I read last year for Superversive’s Halloween livestream. I can’t recall just when I appeared on the stream, but the tale is available for purchase on Amazon and it is free on Project Gutenberg. It follows the adventure of Steena and her cat (named Bat – yes, really) as they seek to bring in the wayward starliner The Empress of Mars, which was mysteriously abandoned and left drifting in space.
The Gifts of Asti*, also by Andre Norton (available at Amazon and on Project Gutenberg as well), is set in the collapse of a seemingly ancient city. At least, early on we are left with the impression the city is a pseudo-Greek metropolitan state. Only when the heroine stumbles upon the remains of a spaceship in a lake full of water that preserves things from dying do we see this is a space adventure.
Ugh, I can’t say any more about this story or I’ll spoil it. Go, read it for yourselves! Enjoy!
The Dragon Riders of Pern* series by Anne McCaffrey is full of strong heroines. I haven’t read anything in this series yet, though I have had it recommended to me several times. At some point I will crack it open but, for now, I will list it here.
Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy* by Timothy Zahn, of course, has the only original Expanded Universe heroine to break the top twenty favorite Star Wars character list. None other than Mara Jade (future wife of Luke Skywalker) appears here, leaving her mark on the “Legends” timeline as well as the Disney one. X-Wing: Rogue Squadron series* by Michael Stackpole and X-Wing: Wraith Squadron trilogy* by Aaron Allston have several strong female characters who must not only fight alongside the men in the narrative, some have downright sticky positions to maneuver in. This is particularly true of the Imperial intelligence woman who joins Wraith Squadron specifically to sell them out…only to have a change of heart and fall in love with one of her fellow pilots, whose prior squadron she led into an ambush. He was the only survivor.
Yeah. Wow. What was that about complex, strong heroines being a 21st century phenomenon again?
Ender’s Shadow* by Orson Scott Card is so far the only book in the series I like. While Sister Carlotta is the most obvious woman of strength in the narrative, there are others. Poke is a far braver character than many, and though it costs her life, one has to admire the fact that she tried her best the only way she knew how. Petra Arkanian is a heroine allowed to make errors, even when she is trying desperately to help. You do not see that often these days, so the book is worthwhile reading for that fact alone.
The Road to Damascus* by John Ringo and Linda Evans is a hard book to read. You can find my review of it on Upstream here, readers. Suffice it to say that the heroine of the novel is one tough cookie. I would not want to get on her bad side for any money at all.
Republic and Empire (Imperial Stars, Vol. 2)* by Jerry Pournelle and Frank Carr has several short stories with memorable female characters in them. While not all of them win (this is a collection of tales about empires and republics, after all), you have to admire their resolve. Or pity it, perhaps, depending on the tale and the point it is making.
The Honor Harrington* series by David Weber and the Vorkosigan Saga* by Lois McMaster Bujold each have strong female characters within them. I have not yet had a chance to really read either series but they are both on my TBR list (far below all the OTHER books I need to read much, much sooner, mind). I have heard good things about both, which is why they make this list.
Both Young Jedi Knights* series – yes, there were indeed two* – have prominent young female Jedi within the narrative. One is Jaina Solo, oldest child and only daughter of Han Solo and Leia Organa Solo. The other is Tenel Ka Djo, daughter of the prince of the Hapes Consortium and a witch of Dathomir. If your only experience with said witches of Dathomir is the animated Clone Wars series, strap in and prepare for a surprise, readers. Tenel is not only physically different from those witches (being a human rather than an alien), but vastly different in her outlook and determination to be her own woman, particularly after she loses her arm in a lightsaber accident. If you are looking for a series to give your daughter, niece, or the girl next door to read, then this is one I highly recommend.
Around the World in 80 Days* by Jules Verne has a heroine rescued mid-adventure from the rite of Suttee by the heroes. She then travels with them the rest of their way around the world to London, where she marries the hero of the tale. Typical damsel in distress? Well, considering she was drugged when she was about to be burned alongside her husband’s corpse, she had a pretty solid excuse for needing to be rescued.
But she also bore the same hardships as the men, faced the same threats to life and limb, and told the hero she would indeed marry him when it looked like he had become a pauper by (it appeared) losing the bet that started the whole adventure. Considering all of that, I am hard-pressed to think her weak in any sense of the word. So that is why she is on this list.
Finally, a little plug for my own work, which was recently reviewed by the inimitable David Breitenbeck here. The titular story for The Guardian Cycle, Vol. 1: In Dreams and Other Stories* has a VERY tough heroine. Aisling Denton risks not only her sanity but her life to rescue her husband when he falls into the Dreamworld, a condition that occurs when someone is left in Dreamwater for an extended period of time. Dreamwater has the capacity to enhance men’s physical abilities and women’s psychic abilities – but it has a terrible cost. It is addictive, and if you fall into the addiction, you die.
For women, this is even worse, as their bodies enhance far more rapidly than men’s if they stay in Dreamwater too long. This means they die in agony if they receive too much Dreamwater in their systems, even via injections. But there is only one way Aisling can rescue her husband if she really wants him back. So guess what horrible fate my heroine and mother of five is willing to risk in this adventure?
Whew! Well, I hope this list has been helpful to you and that the suggestions are welcome. Do you know any sci-fi tales with strong female leads I missed? Address them in the comments below, and let’s spread the word!
*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.
If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth. She has also had stories published in the Planetary Anthology Series. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue, Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue, and another may be read over at Ember Journal. Her first anthology – The Guardian Cycle – is available in paperback and ebook as well. Order them today!
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