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MIND MELD: The Best Women Writers in SF/F

We occasionally get Mind Meld topic suggestions from folks. Here’s one that comes from Mike Resnick:

Q: Who are the best female writers in science fiction and/or fantasy?

Read on to see the picks from this week’s panelists. And be sure to tell us your favorites!

Gene Wolfe
Upon his return from Korea, Gene Wolfe earned a BSME at the University of Houston. He was a working engineer for 17 years and an editor on an engineering magazine for 11 more. Many of his early stories appeared in Damon Knight’s original anthology series Orbit. Wolfe has been writing full time since 1984. His titles include The Fifth Head Of Cerberus, Peace, The Shadow Of The Torturer, Soldier Of The Mist, Nightside The Long Sun, The Knight, The Wizard, Pirate Freedom, and An Evil Guest. His most recent book is The Best of Gene Wolfe. He and his wife Rosemary have been married for more than fifty years; they have four children and three grandchildren.

That’s a good one – interesting and not terribly tough. Ursula K. Le Guin, Connie Willis, Kathe Koja, Kelly Link, Jane Yolen, Esther Friesner, Anne McCaffrey, Carol Emshwiller. These are in no particular order, just listed as they popped into my head; and I feel sure that there are some fine women writers out there whom I have never read.

Kelley Armstrong
Kelley Armstrong is the author of the Women of the Otherworld paranormal suspense series, the Darkest Powers YA urban fantasy trilogy, and the Nadia Stafford crime series. She grew up in Ontario, Canada, where she still lives with her family.

I’ll admit right off that I don’t feel qualified to say who is the best female writer. To even give my opinion on that, I’d need to be able to say I’ve read them all, and I know there are a few greats that I haven’t gotten to yet. So, instead I’ve picked a few excellent and highly influential writers.

Marion Zimmer Bradley – She was responsible for bringing many young women, myself included, to fantasy. Her blend of legend, fantasy and romance opened doors both to women readers and writers.

J.K. Rowling – Fantasy that captured the imagination of the world for a decade, and continues to captivate. A master storyteller who deserved her enormous success.

Anne Rice – Labeling her as a fantasy writer is controversial, I’m sure. But her books, like Bradley’s and Rowling’s, opened up the imagination of readers and writers to new possibilities and marked the beginning of a fantasy sub-genre. And, yes, as a writer in that subgenre, I’m completely biased, but I’m sticking by her inclusion on my list

Mike Resnick
Mike Resnick is the author of 50 novels, 200 short stories, a pair of screenplays, and the editor of 50 anthologies, as well as the executive editor of Jim Baen’s Universe. According to Locus, he is the leading award winner, living or dead, of short fiction. His work has been translated into 22 languages.

The single best (or at least my favorite) was C. L. Moore. Others I admire enormously include Leigh Brackett, Zenna Henderson, Nancy Kress, the Female Person from Colorado, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Kage Baker, Pat Cadigan, Octavia Butler, C. J. Cherryh, Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree Jr., Lois McMaster Bujold, Maureen McHugh, Kay Kenyon — and among those who have entered the field in the past three or four years, Naomi Novik, Elizabeth Bear, and my newest collaborator, Lezli Robyn.

Ian McDonald
Ian McDonald is a British science fiction novelist whose novels include the Locus-Award-winning Desolation Road (1988), Out on Blue Six (1989), the Philip K. Dick Award-winning King of Morning, Queen of Day (1991), Ares Express (2001). His widely acclaimed, BSFA-Award-winning novel River of Gods (2004) introduced readers to a future India of 2047. His follow up novel, the BSFA-Award-winning Brasyl (2007), was also well-received. His latest book is a collection of short stories set in the same future India, Cyberabad Days.

I could give you some names of the best writers who are female, which is different from what you’re asking. Having said that, this could be a short list because I’m not going to recommend anyone I haven’t read, and, like a lot of SF writers, I find the field so huge and diverse at the moment that I can’t read an overview. So you can rightly say, oh but what about her: profound, forthright, significant — no doubt, but I haven’t read her.

A true colossus — perhaps not the first metaphor that springs to mind — is Ursula Le Guin. No arguments here. She is the writer who has most influenced the way I write and consider the genre. Oddly, I find her at her weakest when she’s most forthrightly polemic: The Word for World is Forest, Tehanu, The Telling, and strongest when she is deeply rooted in individuals in society. I read The Dispossesed when I was in my teens, and of course, at that age, it’s going to fill you with idealism and pop-eyed at the possibilities of other political systems and ways of living. ‘Happy times in the People’s Republic of North Korea,’ or words to that effect, one reviewer described it, which is funny but misses the point entirely. There can be joy in Pyongyang. I could rattle on for pages about her lived-in futures, the worlds that seemed more solid than the sociological experiments as which they may have been designed (more joy in Pyongyang, people will always work the system for their own ends) and I loved the whole concept of the Ekumen, in which interstellar transport and communications are easy enough to make the system work –just– but slow enough to levy a high human cost. And of course, the deathless ansible.

Then there is Tiptree: strange how she’s been reduced to just a label, not James Tiptree Jr. any more. Just Tiptree. Her stories are some of the greatest ever written in the genre, consistent, walloping and core material. In longer form she loses the ferocity of focus, that unblinking sniper-gaze, but in the shorts she’s gang-busters.

Kate Wilhelm, the wonderful, wry intelligence fuelled by a deeply righteous anger. She’s an incredible placer of words on a page. Her sentences are jewels. These are all venerable Begums.

Who do I read in the current generation? Justina Robson continues to surprise, delight and be nimble. Tricia Sullivan never fails to startle, she’s one of the most individual writers in the field and every word seems to have come from another place entirely. One thing emerging here is how much more work a woman’s voice has to do in this genre than a man’s. Fantasy: the only writer I read at the moment is Kelly Link. At novel length: no. I’ve no interest in current Phat Phantasy, much less ‘Urban Fantasy’, which isn’t for me at all at all; I’m more interested in the Fantastic than Fantasy. These are a few of my favourite writers in my small reading experience–and the best, I’m that vain about my taste– who are women.

Sarah Beth Durst
Sarah Beth Durst is the author of Into the Wild, a 2007 Andre Norton Award Finalist for Young Adult Science Fiction & Fantasy, and its sequel, Out of the Wild. Her latest book, Ice, will be released in October 2009.

Right now, the YA field is flush with excellent female fantasy and science fiction writers. Virtually every subgenre has its stars. Tamora Pierce is writing very cool medieval police procedurals (the Beka Cooper series). Libba Bray has created a stunning historical fantasy trilogy (the Gemma Dolye trilogy). Shannon Hale (Book of a Thousand Days), Elizabeth C. Bunce (A Curse Dark as Gold), and Juliet Marillier (Wildwood Dancing) have all written gorgeous fairy-tale retellings. Holly Black (Ironside) and Cassandra Clare (the Mortal Instruments trilogy) have produced some fantastic urban fantasy. Laini Taylor (Blackbringer) and Jessica Day George (Dragon Slippers) have both written wonderful quest tales.

I also adore Nina Kiriki Hoffman (A Fistful of Sky), Diane Duane (the Young Wizards series), Diana Wynne Jones (House of Many Ways), Delia Sherman (Changeling), and Kristen Cashore (Graceling). I could go on and on. There’s certainly no shortage of fantastic female writers on my bookshelf.

Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer‘s books, including the bestselling City of Saints & Madmen, have made the year’s best lists of Publishers Weekly, LA Weekly, Amazon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many more. He has worked with rock band The Church, 30 Days of Night creator Ben Templesmith, Dark Horse Comics, and Playstation Europe on various projects including music soundtracks and short films. He reviews books for, among others, the Washington Post Book World, Huffington Post, and the Barnes & Noble Review, as well as being a regular columnist for the Amazon book blog. Current projects include Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for Twenty-First Century Writers and the noir fantasy novel Finch. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and serves as assistant director for Wofford College’s Shared Worlds writing camp for teens (Spartanburg, South Carolina).

When I thought about this question, I tried to compartmentalize it first to fantasy writers, even though that’s somewhat inaccurate given that many of my favorites write across genres. However, I’m not as familiar, in general, with writers who mostly write SF, so…Then I thought about the writers I enjoy the most regardless of gender, and, especially right now at the short story and novella length, they are primarily women. I think I skew slightly toward male novelists, but this might be because a lot of my current favorite writers, regardless of what length they’re mostly working at, are women not yet to mid-career who haven’t yet published novels. I’ve also covered a rather large set of the women writers I enjoy as a function of blogging about my favorite short story writers. Among established writers that I listed there, Elizabeth Hand and Kage Baker provide the most consistency–which is to say, I’ve never read anything by either of them that I didn’t enjoy on some level, and most of it I considered superlative in some way. Among up-and-comers, I personally find that Meghan McCarron and Rachel Swirsky are the most exciting and consistent (consistent in the same way as Hand and Baker), except they tend more toward non-traditional narratives, or finding ways to deal with trad tropes in a non-trad fashion. In fact, the pleasure for me in reading McCarron and Swirsky’s fiction is two-fold: first as a reader, but then secondly as a writer, because I feel like I learn things from reading their work. And I feel I’m watching two performers working largely without a net–fearless. That’s the kind of bolt-of-lightning, hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck-rising feeling that really means something to me. I would also say that the writer I consider the potential equivalent of an Angela Carter is not on my original blogged list because I didn’t know about her at the time: Micaela Morrissette, who has had stories in Weird Tales, Conjunctions, and others. She, McCarron, and Swirsky have the scary-brilliant kind of writing talent and versatility that to me indicates the presence of future superstars.

Morjana Coffman
Morjana Coffman is a retired jill-of-all-trades, card-carrying Trekkie, also currently a Gater, and blogs daily on SciFi at Subduction Leads to Orogeny.

Diane Duane and Barbara Hambly.

I was introduced to both writers by their contributions of work in the Star Trek pro novels. Ms. Duane’s My Enemy, My Ally, and Ms. Hambly’s Ishmael are two of my favorite Star Trek pro novels. I enjoyed their writing so much, that I have read several of their original novels as well.

Ms. Duane’s continuing series, The Tale of Five (The Door into Fire, The Door into Shadow, The Door into Sunset) is not only a joy to read, it is challenging to read as well, as she writes a culture that embraces alternate sexuality. I enjoyed her puns (she writes of a nightmare, which turns out to be horse made out of night), her witty dialogue, and characters that loved each other.

Ms. Duane’s Young Wizards series predates the Harry Potter series and is also an entertaining read.

Ms. Hambly’s work embraces both scifi/fantasy and historical fiction. I’ve enjoyed her scifi/fantasy novels very much, as normally the novel’s protagonist is a woman — very strong, creative and heroic women. However, men are not “dumbed” down, they are written as equals. My favorites of Barbara’s (although I loved all her books) are the Sun Wolf and Starhawk and series and the Winterlands series.

Derryl Murphy
Derryl Murphy‘s novella co-written with William Shunn, Cast a Cold Eye, will be released by PS Publishing this summer. Other than that, he’s still doing edits on the damn novel.

When the time comes for end of the year wrap ups, I always find it interesting and curious to read the stats from some reviewers that mention what percentage of authors published in certain magazines were women (Rich Horton springs immediately to mind). I know that when I was an editor at On Spec the gender of the author was never anything that sprang to mind, and indeed there were a couple of times when we needed to fill a hole and I sought out an author who I knew could fill the bill, and that author just happened to be female.

However, I also know that as a teen and then young man, finding spec fic by women was a harder proposition. Le Guin, Slonczewski and of course Merril were authors I was familiar with, and I eventually learned that Moore and Brackett and Tiptree were women as well (a lot of this more from both not paying attention and not really caring one way or the other).

These days it isn’t so difficult, and this amuses me. In the world of general fiction and literature (what many SFnal types somewhat derisively refer to as “mundane”), quite a bit of what is written for women is sneered at as “chick-lit.” Somehow this appellation can even fall at the feet of Jane Austen, or, to name a contemporary author who we could look favorably on, Audrey Niffenegger. And while I’ll note that this hasn’t happened so much is SF/F (think of authors such as Catherine Asaro, writing hard SF that goes down well with romance readers), we are looking at a ghettoization because of the paranormal/romance mixture, which I wonder might not be partly the fault of the publishers and publicists and media, rather than the readers.

Blah blah blah. All these words and I still haven’t answered the question. As usual, though, the question raised more questions for me, and I felt the urge to at least touch on them for a moment. But now, on to the issue at hand:

Nalo Hopkinson, I think, should fit just about everyone’s definition. She has a remarkable voice and tremendous style. Holly Phillips, as well. I still think In the Palace of Repose was one of the finest debuts of the last decade. And at the risk of sounding like an absurd Canadian nationalist, I’d also give props to Elisabeth Vonarburg, AM Dellamonica, and Ursula Pflug. Beyond the borders, I continue to be impressed by Margo Lanagan, Kelly Link, Karen Joy Fowler, Maureen McHugh, and Elizabeth Bear.

I wish I could say that I have my ear to the ground and am keeping track of who the up-n-comers are, but that’s become more difficult as writing and family pressures put the boot to me. So many markets, small and large, are influenced or edited by women, and while I would never think that female editors are going to favor female authors over male, I am willing to believe that the presence of these editors will act as a boost to female authors looking for a place to send their work. And some of that work is bound to be new and fresh and exciting, and word will hopefully burble up to me. Hell, I look forward to digging up authors mentioned by other contributors to this Mind Meld.

Matthew Sanborn Smith
Matthew Sanborn Smith is a speculative fiction writer whose work has appeared in Chiaroscuro, Albedo One and Challenging Destinies. His ongoing Fiction Crawler series can be heard on the StarShipSofa podcast. Learn about his less-than-epic life at his blog, The One-Thousand.

I suspect most of the writers discussed in this Mind Meld will be described as some of science fiction and fantasy’s greatest writers regardless of gender, although if the question hadn’t specified, I think a lot of us, myself included, would have chosen male authors. That’s shameful given the caliber of writing of the women in the field.

I don’t know if it’s the pain carried by womankind that can’t help but come through, but so much of the great stories by these writers tear the readers’ souls out with suffering and heartbreak. Le Guin, Butler, Wilhelm, Sheldon, Willis, they make us feel universal loss in ourselves. Loss of power, loss of freedom, loss of loved ones. We’re moved to sorrow by their work, moved to tears and sometimes too, in Willis’ case, moved to laughter at the absurd.

But Julian May stirs something grander and more primal in the soul. May is a writer of epics in the tradition of Homer, Tolkien and Herbert. Her works, especially the Pliocene Exile books, give us adventure, but more than just adventure. They give us Love and War and Supermen on a cinematic scale, glass armored aliens adorned in the colors of the rainbow on hunts through the vast forests of ancient earth, sociopathic metapsychics at war like the titans of old. Large characters with passions and vendettas that rock the worlds they tread without falling into melodrama.

She peoples her novels with multitudes of real, flesh-bearing beings. We pick our favorites early on and ride with them through multiple volumes, across lands and generations to their ultimate glories or downfalls.

To read the novels of Julian May is to recall the Hollywood glory of yesterday, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur or Cleopatra. Those crowds kicking the deserts beneath their feet into sandstorms, those aren’t computer generated place holders, those are real people, each and every one of them, with all the costume and catering costs that entails. The reality of their presence can’t be synthesized. We feel the weight of those thousands as we feel them in May’s sweeping sagas as well. She breathes life into them all and not a one of them has a dull story.

Adventure truly seems too small a word.

Kristen Murphy
Kristen Murphy is a web developer at the end of the Internet, aka rural Maine. From this corner of the web she writes Fantasy Cafe, her thoughts, reviews, and commentary on science fiction and fantasy.

“Best” is a rather subjective term since it really depends on what one is looking for when reading science fiction and fantasy, but my personal favorite female writers in the genre are Sarah Monette, Elizabeth Bear, and Storm Constantine. Sarah Monette’s writing appeals to me because she excels at giving each of her characters a unique voice and depth. Her stories are dark, populated with tormented protagonists, and contain a rich history. Elizabeth Bear also writes some disturbing stories with broken characters, but what sets her apart is her ability to make them feel mythical and wondrous. Plus she crafts prose beautifully. Storm Constantine also has a gorgeous, densely poetic writing style, and her Wraeththu series impressed me greatly with its depth of characterization. It’s not for those who do not enjoy reading about relationships and interactions between characters but for those who do and like their stories dark, it’s a great series.

Although those are my three favorites, there are many other female authors I enjoy. Robin Hobb and Carol Berg both write excellent epic fantasy. For space opera, one of my favorites is Lois McMaster Bujold‘s Miles Vorkosigan series – it’s full of adventure and humor and she has imbued the main character with such a vibrant personality that he seems to leap off the pages. Catherine Asaro has created a fantastic blend of space opera adventure and romance in her Saga of the Skolian Empire series. Both Ann Aguirre‘s science fiction and urban fantasy books are fast-paced and entertaining with some romantic elements. For more idea-oriented science fiction, Nancy Kress is a good choice.

Other women writing in the genre I’ve only read one or two books by so far but definitely need to read more of include Lyda Morehouse, C.S. Friedman, Vera Nazarian, and Jacqueline Carey.

Jay Tomio
Jay Tomio is the co-owner of BSCreview and the editor of Heliotrope.

I took the question to mean currently and though we could argue the point of what ‘best’ implies, and beyond that personal tastes, I think there is only one answer to both questions (SF and Fantasy) – It’s Ursula K. Le Guin. It has been for about four decades. Titles and honorifics like ‘Grand Master’ are made for creators – and that is what masters are – like her, even if it later comes to house lesser achievement. Usually statements so absolute could run the risk of garnering derision, or at least the potential for it, but in this case I think other writers – women and men – can within some reason acknowledge the ease of the choice.

It is because of the leviathan-in-the-pool status, not out of disrespect, that I want to act as if Le Guin is an understood choice, and thus give me space to mention others. In my formative years as a Fantasy reader I was spellbound by the beauty of Patricia Mckillip‘s prose. I thank Tolkien for introducing me to fantastic landscapes and granting an explorer’s visions to behold, but it was Mckillip who first made me hear a book. It’s really odd, and though I’ve had an opportunity to communicate and interview a number of writers, I sometimes get his stray feeling that I owe Mckillip some personal gratitude. Thank you for the song.

Over the last several years I’ve felt that Justina Robson has been one of the most noteworthy SF writers, and I think her Living Next Door to the God of Love is one of the outstanding novels in that time frame. As I write this it strikes me that I dig Robson for concept/idea/execution, which is a bit different in the way I appreciate the others in that isn’t quite stressing the aesthetic that my other choices – I think – reflect. I’m not sure what that means, but it’s worth me considering on my own time.

Catherynne M. Valente just puts it down. If I look far enough back in my emails I will probably still find the one where KJ Bishop (who is only not noted here because I need a second book girl!) ushered me into Valente’s Labyrinth. Even as I read her other novels and stories, I’ve never really left, as within it are gardens of stories, orphan bards, and where mountains and river speak. To continue te sensory theme, I’m not sure if see or hear Valente’s fiction as much as you converse with it. It’s beautiful, and Emerson once said “Love of beauty is Taste. The creation of beauty is Art.” I picture Valente writing her drafts on canvas, brush in hand.

This might be an artificial category, but I’m a compartmentalizer, and when I think of writers who have put out both a recent novel and collection that are bought top-shelf, I think of Tamar Yellin with her The Genizah at the House of Shepher and Kafka in Bronteland. In terms of what I’d define as ‘power’, I’m not sure if many writers bring an emotional resonance and consistently employ them in such interesting back drops and situations as Lydia Millet does. Since 2002 she has written three essential novels in My Happy Life, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, and Everyone’s Pretty.

While many of the writers noted above are relatively new, a couple possibly even more fresher than I’ve enjoyed and who I look forward to reading more from are Dana Copthorn (The Steam Magnate) and for a bit more traditional (but not really) Lane Robins (Maledicte, and Kings and Assassin forthcoming) who I think went WAY under the radar last year.

In closing, if I could, I’d like to thank Leigh Bracket. Fans know.

Kristine Williams
Being born on April Fool’s Day has given Kristine Williams the perfect excuse. Environmental waste worker by day, writer by night, she lives with her sister and two cats, fighting crime in her own special way (read: videogame addict). When she’s not being a root vegetable, she also runs her own (teeny-tiny) indie press at and can be pestered vie email at Kristine at wavecable dot com.

When I hear “The women of SF/F” the premier name that springs to mind is Anne McCaffrey. I was handed The White Dragon when I was a teen, unaware it was third in what was at the time a trilogy, and I fell instantly in love. I think I devoured that book in a day, then rushed right out to purchase the first two – Dragonrider and Dragonflight. I knew right away I’d just found an author I was going to follow, and the timing couldn’t have been better. With my family in turmoil, Anne’s writing gave me a place to retreat to. A whole new amazing world that became a surrogate home. Her world building, her respect for the reader, her ability to immerse me so completely is something I became forever grateful for. Since then, I’ve gone through two copies of The White Dragon and still read it once a year.

From that moment on, I was hooked, and went on to start buying up her entire catalog, waiting impatiently for her to write more as I found myself caught up. From all the Pern novels, on to the Ship series: The Ship Who Sang, The Ship Who Searched, Partnership – Anne took me from Pern to space, and straight into another set of characters that jumped off the pages and filled my mind with ideas. And from there to Crystal Singer — a novel that came along at a time when I needed a dose of female empowerment and the courage to take risks. Then on to the Dinosaur Planet series – where we were introduced to sentient rocks called Thek, to the Doona series – which inspired my love of planetary colonizing adventures, to the Planet Pirates set putting women in the military in a big way, into the amazing Talents series — psyonic powers, anyone? — and the Freedom set — humans taken to space as slaves who then forge a new future of their own, on to her standalone books.

Her collaborations introduced me to authors like Margaret Ball, Mercedes Lackey, Jody Lynn Nye and Elizabeth Moon.

Even with her non-genre works, including Mark of Merlin (I had the pleasure of borrowing a rare edition bound in blue velvet), The Three Women, The Lady, etc. Anne’s work opened up whole worlds and went a long way to convincing me to start writing. With over 100 novels, shorts and collections under her belt – and on my bookshelf – her name remains for me the penultimate success for women in Science Fiction. And while her son has taken over the mantle, and some may argue her later works had begun to feel repetitive in character, Anne McCaffrey will always hold a very special place in this reader’s heart, and (in my opinion) a great inspiration to any woman writing Science Fiction today.

Lucius Shepard
Lucius Shepard is a writer who lives in Vancouver. The Best of Lucius Shepard, a career retrospective, will appear this summer from Subterranean Press, and next year will see the publication of a new as yet untitled novel.

I could list twenty or thirty names off the top of my head, but for the sake of economy I’ll limit myself to four or five women writers whom I feel deserve wider attention.

Lisa Goldstein has been consistently under-appreciated. Her novel Tourists, for instance, is brilliant.

Gwynneth Jones writes astonishingly good science fiction that does not receive its due, at least not in the US.

Justina Robson and Steph Swainston are both remarkable fantasists with series books.

The Australian writer Kaaron Warren has an excellent first collection, The Glass Woman, and a novel that I’m looking forward to reading.

Joe Sherry
Joe Sherry, noted cheeseburger enthusiast, writes about all things bookish over at his blog Adventures in Reading. He lives in Minnesota with his wife Sandy and three year old cocker spaniel Balou.

This is an odd question because the first answer that comes to mind is that the “Best Women Writers” ARE the Best Writers. Period. Can our next question be “Who are the best male writers in science fiction and / or fantasy”? Because really. Really.

On the other hand, here’s an opportunity to talk about some of the writers I am most excited about today. Many of whom just happen to be women. I’ll limit my response to women who are currently publishing because I suspect other responders will provide the great writers of yesteryear. Just in case she isn’t mentioned through some strange dis-alignment of the planets: Octavia Butler.

Let’s start off with the Campbell and Hugo Award winning Elizabeth Bear. Prolific as all-get-out, Bear has published fifteen books in the last five years, and has seven more in the pipeline for the next five years. Of particular note is her Promethean Age series of contemporary and historical urban fantasy novels. Four novels have been published so far, two linked duologies (though – The Stratford Man is really one book split into two). One can only hope there will be many more. Besides those 22 novels published and contracted for, Elizabeth Bear is also a writer for Emma Bull’s Shadow Unit project – which is a blending of Criminal Minds and The X-Files, freely available to read. Shadow Unit is quite honestly one of the best things going today. Period.

Emma Bull: Urban fantasy with War for the Oaks and Territory, a western with magic giving a fresh look at the events of Tombstone. I consider these two novels essential reading. If that isn’t enough, there is still that little thing called Shadow Unit, which I mentioned in Bear’s entry. Shadow Unit is ultimately Bull’s brainchild and readers are the beneficiary.

Cherie Priest has written a southern gothic trilogy of novels about a young woman who can see and talk to ghosts. Yeah, whatever you’re thinking, it’s so much better than you can imagine. The trilogy starts with Four and Twenty Blackbirds, but the finale (so far) volume Not Flesh Nor Feathers is not to be missed. The novel centers around the flooding of Chatanooga and is one of the most harrowing and haunting images I have encountered in a book. Ignore the unintentional pun. Want more? Try Fathom. Or, her forthcoming The Boneshaker.

Kay Kenyon: Her series The Entire and the Rose. Begin with The Bright of the Sky and move on from there. It starts out good. Then it gets better. Mutliple world science fiction. I can’t describe it in just a couple of sentences – but there’s an alternate / shadow universe out there bigger than ours with creatures and humans far older than ours.

Justina Robson: Mostly I’m thinking about her Quantum Gravity series, which features a lead character who is half cyborg warrior, half broken woman. It also features elves, demons, and multiple worlds that were discovered because of some sort of quantum bomb. The series begins with Keeping It Real.

Karen Traviss: Probably overall better known for her Star Wars work, the Wess’har Wars is one of my greatest discoveries of the last few years. I don’t say that lightly. Begin with City of Pearl. Thank me later.

Other names to look for: Nancy Kress, Mary Robinette Kowal, Jennifer Pelland, Jo Walton, Kelley Eskridge, Nicola Griffith, Melanie Rawn (not the newest stuff – go find Dragon Prince), Carrie Vaughn, Kage Baker, Justine Larbalestier, Sarah Monette, Catherynne Valente, L. Timmel Duchamp, Kelly Link, Mary Doria Russell, Maureen McHugh, Kij Johnson, Gwyneth Jones, Elizabeth Hand, Lois McMaster Bujold, Jacqueline Carey.

The thing is, you could argue as much with who I left off the list as much as who I included. And why.

The point is that when you ask about who the best writers are, it’s not about gender, it’s about who writes the best books. The answer is men and women both do. My list is just some of the women who do. Nothing more, nothing less.

Rich Horton
Rich Horton is the editor of three anthology series from Prime Books: Science Fiction: The Best of the Year; Fantasy, the Best of the Year; and Space Opera. His reviews and essays appear in Locus, Black Gate, Fantasy Magazine, SF Site, and many other publications.

Historically, my favorite woman SF writer of all time is Ursula K. Le Guin — and happily the present tense still applies in her case, and indeed her “present tense” work is still first rate. But what I love utterly is the work that made her reputation, such stories as “Winter’s King”, “Nine Lives”, and “The Stars Below”, as well as novels like The Left Hand of Darkness and (not really SF) Malafrena. All these appeared between about 1968 and 1979. But more recent work is still outstanding — I loved her Annals of the Western Shore books.

I would also be remiss not to mention Nancy Kress, particularly for her short story “Out of All Them Bright Stars” (1985), one of a my very favorite SF short stories of all time. And a writer whose work is very close to my heart indeed is Leigh Brackett, mostly for the atmospheric works set on colorful version of Mars such as The Sword of Rhiannon.

Still, as I read the question, the present tense seems critical. Who are the best female writers working today? Not forgetting that Le Guin and Kress still do excellent work, there are two women whose names excite me every time they appear on a TOC, whose work I most eagerly seek out. These are Kelly Link and Holly Phillips. Link perhaps needs no particular introduction. Award-winning stories such as “Magic for Beginners”, “The Specialist’s Hat”, and “The Faery Handbag” have established an enviable reputation well beyond the borders of our field. And the hits just keep on coming, as it were. “Lull”, “Stone Animals”, “Light”, last year’s “The Surfer” (her first forthright SF story), the upcoming “Secret Identity”, to name just a few. Link is clever but never facile, emotionally honest, unpredictable, knowing, gifted with a striking imagination.

As for Holly Phillips, I’ve loved her work since being stunned by her first collection, In the Palace of Repose, which featured mostly original stories, beautifully written and starkly felt. And she too has moved from strength to strength. I thought “Three Days of Rain” the best short story of 2007 — a simply gorgeous work that was externally very simple but opening up to impressive depths. Add last year’s devastating “The Small Door” and from this year “The Long Cold Goodbye”, as well as her very nice science fantasy novel The Engine’s Child (2008), and what we have is a really impressive developing career.

Of course there are many more outstanding women writers in our field — Elizabeth Bear, for example, who won a Hugo last year for “Tideline”, and who has published a spate of fascinating recent novels, both Fantasy and SF, my favorite being Carnival. Also the very new Rachel Swirsky, who has shown amazing range in the short stories she’s published to date, like “Heartstrung” and “The Monkey Will Never be Rid of Its Black Hands”; or recent Campbell winners like Mary Robinette Kowal (whose savage vignette “Evil Robot Monkey” is on the current Hugo ballot) and Jo Walton, best known for her supremely enjoyable World Fantasy Award winning novel Tooth and Claw and for her series of Alternate Histories about a Britain under Fascist rule: Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown.

Toni Weisskopf
Toni Weisskopf, publisher of Baen Books, has also edited the vampire anthologies Tomorrow Sucks (1994) and Tomorrow Bites (1995), both with Greg Cox, and two Cosmic Tales anthologies, Adventures in Sol System (2005) and Adventures in Far Futures (2005).

I opened up the question to all of the Baen in-house editors. I started out proposing Lois McMaster Bujold and Elizabeth Moon as the two modern authors who popped into my mind first. After surveying all the other suggestions, I realize I’d also include Andre Norton, C.L. Moore, Anne McCaffrey, Zenna Henderson, Leigh Brackett and Mercedes Lackey on my personal top list. I’ve enjoyed works by many of the ladies mentioned by the other Baen editors-oh, and J.K. Rowling!–but these are the ones who made the biggest impression on me.

So, in the interest of fairness, when are we going to be asked about our favorite male SF authors?

The results of the survey of Baen editors, more or less in the order received:

Hank Davis

BEST WOMEN SF WRITERS (in alphabetical order)

  • Joan Aiken
  • Pauline Ashwell (who also has written as Paul Ash)
  • Leigh Brackett
  • Rosel George Brown
  • Lois McMaster Bujold
  • C. J. Cherryh
  • Diane Duane
  • Carol Emshwiller
  • Zenna Henderson
  • Shirley Jackson (this list includes fantasy, right?)
  • Tanith Lee
  • Anne McCaffrey
  • Vonda N. McIntyre
  • Katherine McLean
  • C. L. Moore
  • Andre Norton
  • Kit Reed
  • Joanna Russ (though I liked her novels less after she got religion in the mid-1970s- religion in this case being radical feminism-but some of her subsequent shorter works still rang the bell)
  • James Tiptree, Jr. (alias Alice B. Sheldon)
  • Connie Willis

“I couldn’t hold it to ten writers, but managed to stop at twenty (sorry about that, Evangeline Walton — this list DOES include writers of fantasy, right?). ”

Laura Haywood-Cory

“Mercedes Lackey and Catherine Asaro, also Anne McCaffrey. Andre Norton. I have to put a plug in for one of my all-time favorite fantasy authors, then, Katherine Kurtz. Seconding Shirley Jackson and Octavia Butler. For urban fantasy, I like Emma Bull, Terri Windling, and Pamela Dean.

Diana Wynne Jones should get a mention just for her Tough Guide to Fantasyland, if for nothing else (it’s written as a guidebook to Fantasyland but skewers every fantasy clich&eacure; out there). I like the Star Trek novels by Diane Duane and Vonda McIntyre both, but sadly, haven’t read any of either woman’s non-Trek work.

I have liked Sherri S. Tepper in the past, but echoing Hank’s statement about Joanna Russ, she can get kind of heavy-handed and preachy at times.”

Jim Minz

I second Laura’s suggestions and add: Sarah A. Hoyt and Wen Spencer. Elizabeth Haydon, Robin Hobb, Octavia Butler, Nancy Kress, C.L. Moore & Madeleine L’Engle. Actually, Diana Wynne Jones for her YA fantasy. Ditto Patricia Wrede & Caroline Stevermer.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

26 Comments on MIND MELD: The Best Women Writers in SF/F

  1. I’m glad that Jeff VanderMeer and Rich Horton mentioned Rachel Swirsky because I completely blanked on her.  Swirsky is one of my favorite new writers and she is definitely one of the best. 

  2. Melinda Stees // April 22, 2009 at 7:47 am //

    I must suggest Mary Doria Russell–she has written about half a dozen novels, of which only two (THE SPARROW and CHILDREN OF GOD) were SF, but they are so wonderful that she has to be mentioned here.  These two books mix alien first contact with religious questioning and will definitely shake you up.  I wish she would write more SF but she seems to have switched to historical fiction now.

  3. John Joseph Adams // April 22, 2009 at 8:21 am //

    I can’t believe no one mentioned M. Rickert.

  4. That’s why we have comments.  šŸ™‚

  5. Another Julian May fan delurks in Mr Sanborn Smith. šŸ™‚  She was mentioned in a recent mind meld.

  6. Mary Gentle is very much underapriciated.

  7. LOL, just posted elsewhere that nobody listed my favorite: Mary Gentle šŸ˜›

    Her “Ash” deserves more visibility!

  8. All but one of my favorite female authors were mentioned except one: Patricia Briggs. She hasn’t written a ton of books, but she does amazing stand-alone and 2 book work. Raven’s Shadow and Raven’s Strike show a compelling world while Dragon’s Bones and Dragon’s Blood take the large, dumb hero motif and shake it up. Her paranormal romance series is generally good, but she really shines in the one and two book stories.

  9. JJA: I’m with you. MAP OF DREAMS is one of my very favorites books in the past long while.

  10. Louise Marley – excellent literary quality sf – Child Goddess, Terrorists or Irustan

    Kris Rusch – Maybe our best short work female sf writer in hard sf at the moment – and Nancy Kress right there with her.

    Patty Briggs is a good pick for Fantasy.  I read Bone Crossed non-stop.  Jacqueline Carey blows my mind.

    New and interesting – Devon Monk.



  11. Nice to see that someone remembered Jo Walton.

  12. Matte Lozenge // April 22, 2009 at 5:02 pm //

    A strong second for all mentions of Nancy Kress and James Tiptree Jr. Kress is one of the most prolific and reliably interesting writers in hard sf today.

    Also liked Mary Rosenblum’s Horizons a lot and am hoping for more.

    Also liked Justine Larbalestier’s Magic or Madness YA trilogy, especially the first book.

  13. I liked Patricia Briggs’ “Dragon Bones/Blood” stories. I have both of them. Easy, relaxing summertime reads.

    A.C. Crispin was a big influence on me, when I was young. I was guilty of thinking her a man for years, until I got to meet her and get to know her a little. Turns out she’s a woman. OR SO SHE CLAIMS.

    Who else…I enjoyed Kristine Kathryn Rusche a fair bit when I was younger, and this list reminded me of her and made me go dig out “The New Rebellion” which was one of my favorite Star Wars novels.

    Hm. It’s one of those questions that I just go blank on, even though I should know better. I know my wife is very fond of Kristin Britain’s Green Rider books. And we own a huge, huge number of Andre Norton books. For a long time, we worked to collect all of hers and did quite well at it. But I don’t enjoy her too terribly much (admittedly, I haven’t tried very hard.)

    What a fun question this one was. šŸ™‚

  14. Now I have to read Rachel Swirsky.

    And thanks for the mention, Derryl.

  15. Matt Denault // April 22, 2009 at 7:51 pm //

    Martha Wells (Death of the Necromancer, Wheel of the Infinite, and City of Bones are all good places to start) deserves mention alongside some of the other authors of cultural/adventure spec fic that were mentioned (McCaffrey, Bujold, et al).  I’d add Theodora Goss for short fiction (and also, though she is not very prolific, Veronica Schanoes).  And if we move off genre shelves, folks like Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood, and Sarah Hall.

  16. Dave Tackett // April 22, 2009 at 8:52 pm //

    Along with the many greats already listed I’d add Cat Rambo (a great contemporary fantasy writer) and  (the best humor SF writer of the 1950s)

  17. There are three writers who immediately spring to mind when asked who are the best women writing science fiction and fantasy.  First is Katharine Kerr with the Deverry series.  She manages to masterfully handle an interesting story, across multiple generations.  If her tom-boy main character seems a little too generic at times, it is a very small fault of the series and an otherwise splendid read.

    The second is Traci Harding.  I must admit that Traci Harding became a personal hero of mine when i was in high school.  Her Ancient Future trilogy was amazing.  Visiting the dark ages, atlantis and then moving forward to see the end of the world, was an adventure I will never forget and no matter how many times I read it, I want to read it again.

    Finally I have recently fallen for Anne Bishop.  Her Black Jewels triology is masterful, though at times quite dark.  The depth of her characters and the description of the world is amazing. 



  18. I will echo those who have already mentioned Anne Bishop, Mercedes Lackey, Sarah Monette and Ursula Le Guinn.

    One author I haven’t seen mentioned is Janny Wurts. Although she has written many books, all with very detailed world building and characters, my favourite is To Ride Hell’s Chasm.

  19. Aaargh! Having made my post I see the other contributions, and see that I have unconscionably left out some essential writers! Of course any list is too short, but I certainly should have mentioned the icomparable James Tiptree, Jr. and the glorious Karen Joy Fowler, without question two of my favorite SF writers ever.

    Rich Horton

  20. In addition to the many excellent women writers already mentioned, I’d like to add:

    Rachel Caine: Her Weather Warden series is great urban fantasy with not a vampire or werewolf in sight. She also writes a YA vampire series.

    Lilith Saintcrow: Another very fine urban fantasy writer, whose Dante Valentine and Jill Kismet series go beyond the usual clichés.

    Rob Thurman: Her Leandros brothers series is one of the few current urban fantasies with a male protagonist. Besides, Thurman writes probably the best first person narration in the genre at the moment. And yes, in spite of the masculine name and the fact that she nails a male voice so well, she’s female.

    Shanna Swendson: Her Enchanted Inc. series is a great example of contemporary set fantasy that’s funny rather than dark, but still has quite a bit of narrative meat. There’s also some clever subversion of fairy tale and fantasy tropes going on here. Swendson’s heroine, Katie Chandler, is special precisely because she is ordinary, so ordinary that magic doesn’t work on her (yes, it sounds a bit Mary Sue, but it’s not). And the chosen one, the most powerful wizard of his generation, is a painfully shy and geeky young man, who’d rather be reading a book than fighting evil. There’s also a geek villain who resembles the sort of not so pleasant fanboy one sometimes encounters at conventions, a clueless wannabe wizard who dresses up in Jedi robes, enchanted frogs, a fairy Godmother who’s more of a nuisance than anything else, etc…

    Dru Pagliasotti: A new writer who wrote an excellent Steampunk novel called Clockwork Heart.


  21. Thanks for your note, John.

    Not sure I want to repeat everything I said in my note yesterday, but a couple of points. And a word of caution – I’ve been really reading sf for only two years; have read the genre quite extensively in this period, but I think I still retain somewhat an outsider’s view.

    I’m really amazed there is no mention of Mary Shelley, of all the women authors! I’ve read 3 of her stories, including Frankenstein – not just very influential, but very easy reads too.

    Other important name I don’t see here is Jean Auel – one I forgot in my post too yesterday, sorry. While her two most recent novels are a bit draggy, first 3 are superb; I don’t know of many better ways of getting introduced to the down of humanity.

    My note essentially talks of why Mary Shelley & C L Moore work for me, & why Anne McCaffery & Alice Sheldon (aka “James Tiptree, Jr”) don’t.

  22. Definatly Margaret Atwood needs to be on the list. She doesn’t always write science fiction, but when she does she is exceptional.

  23. I took the question to be women who are working now, which ruled out Tiptree and Butler, among others. I thought about Jo Walton, but I only recently read Farthing, and am kicking myself I haven’t read her earlier and plan on getting to the rest. Like Rich said in the comments, it’s a kick in the butt to see all these other great names that I forgot to mention.


    I will toss out one other: Sandra Kasturi, a poet and one of the editors at Chiaroscuro. I quite love her speculative poetry and wish more people knew about it.



  24. Anastasia // April 30, 2009 at 7:35 am //

    Some notable omissions:

      Karin Lowachee

      Joan D. Vinge

      Mary Gentle

      Ekaterina Sedia

      Chris Moriarty

      Julie E. Czerneda

      Tanya Huff

    Names which I expected to be mentioned more than only once:

      L. Timmel Duchamp

      Tanith Lee

      C.S. Friedman

      Storm Constantine

      Justina Robson

      Lyda Morehouse

      Carol Berg

  25. ronincats // October 9, 2011 at 10:58 pm //

    Lots of good names above, including all of my favorites EXCEPT P. C. Hodgell. Her God Stalker Chronicles are outstanding.

  26. I’m so happy to that I found this. I only knew maybe half of them, but I’m actually trying to promote a new female  writer on my blog. Hopefully you guys will check it out!

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