Hard Science Fiction Pioneers: The Female Vanguard You’ve (Mostly) Never Heard Of

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Even now, in 2014, there’s a misguided notion that women don’t read — much less, write — “hard,” or even “medium-hard” science fiction (SF).

This notion’s an artifact of history. Women still are outnumbered in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM fields). And the fulcra of the “hard’ SF aesthetic is rigorous adherence to scientific plausibility; the plots of this type of SF extrapolate future sciences and technologies accurately (but imaginatively) from current research and breakthroughs (adding the modifying “medium” to “hard” SF doesn’t dilute the expected meticulousness — it simply hints that in such books, the future science doesn’t play the most central role. It’s there, but not the star).

But, women do write hard/medium SF.

I do. My own work betrays my obsessions with human biology (aging and new diseases) and space exploration (alien first contact, colonization in a post-colonial time).

I’m not special (sorry, mom). I’m extremely privileged to have excellent contemporary colleagues in my “sub-genre,” such as Kameron Hurley, Justina Robson, MJ Locke (so many others I could name-check) . And all of us, are, in turn, privileged to be part of a grand tradition of women science fiction writers. We stand on the proverbial shoulders of giants, writers who cleared the path, whose work punched through the expectations and prejudice of their time…and whose work, is often unknowingly (woefully!) overlooked by readers outside academia (or who’re trying to cobble together a career writing in the genre).

So, grab your library card or e-reader, and check out the following books and stories. Many are now in the public domain and freely distributed, and a choice few have been thankfully reprinted. And, enjoy, dear readers: this list isn’t just a history lesson; it’s a map of some of the most delightful, intelligent science fiction — by women — (all but one) you’ve never heard of.

  1. The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle (1666): Published alongside Cavendish’s scholarly Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, The Blazing-World (as it’s commonly known) is a funny, readable depiction of an alien, utopian world — reachable by traveling to the earth’s North Pole. In it, Cavendish uses her own scientific knowledge to skewer the time’s politics of gender, power, and even science itself.
  2. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley (1818 anon, 1823 credited): Though you’ve definitely heard of this one, chances are you haven’t read it since high school. Shelley’s attention to detail (such as making the monster so tall because of the impossibility in replicating, perfectly, tiny anatomical components) was staggeringly erudite given the scientific knowledge of the day, and her insightful portrayal of society’s anxieties about the implications of scientific discoveries is still relevant.
  3. The Heads of Cerberus, Gertrude Barrows Bennett, writing as Francis Stevens (serialized 1919, published in book form 1952): Hailed as the first full-length alternate history science fiction book to be written in English (by male or female), the plot paints a hellish portrait of a Philadelphia in the year 2118: a terrifying dictatorship filled with destructive machines and out-of-control technology.
  4. “No Woman Born” (novella), CL (Catherine) Moore (1944): Best known for her work co-written with her husband, Henry Kuttner (including the basis for “The Last Mimsy” movie of recent years), in this short novel/novella, the brain of a horrifically burned dancer is placed into a cyborg body. Through Deirdre, Moore captures the tension between humanity and technology, as well as addressing the gendering/sexuality of machines.
  5. “And Be Merry” (novella: also published as “The Pyramid in the Desert”), Katherine MacLean (1950): A biologist performs — successful! — radical life-extending procedures upon herself (with, of course, resulting shenanigans). While many of the processes described by MacLean’s heroine (new, radical scientific theories at the time) have since been accepted common knowledge, the fears and moral questioning about extending lifespan are as fresh as ever.
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