We here at The Portalist are big fans of female sci-fi and fantasy writers, but it's equally important to celebrate the nonfiction authors whose science and geek pop culture writing is changing the world around us. Below are 11 great nonfiction books by women, many of which outline the innumerable ways ladies have improved our lives. They all make great reading for International Women's Day—and the other 365-odd days of the year.
As always, this list represents just a fraction of the great reads out there. If you've got a title to suggest, let us know in the comments!
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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
The daughter of a NASA-Langley Research Center scientist, Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, and knew many of the women who worked at NASA as human computers. Her New York Times bestselling book (and its film adaptation of the same name) celebrates the accomplishments of NASA's Black female mathematicians who worked as 'human computers,' without whom America might never have put a man on the Moon—or brought him home again.
In this surprisingly funny book, Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy author Sam Maggs shines a light on 25 world-changing women whose accomplishments in science, exploration, and even espionage have gone largely uncelebrated (often thanks to men who were happy to take credit for their female colleagues' work). Wonder Women has a chatty, hilarious tone that makes its chapters feel more like conversations with a friend than history lessons, and features adorable illustrations by Sophia Foster-Dimino. It's definitely suitable for young readers, although adults probably have a lot to learn about these rad ladies as well.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman
Did you know that the character of Wonder Woman was directly inspired by the founder of Planned Parenthood? Or that Wonder Woman's creator was polyamorous? In The Secret History of Wonder Woman, historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore uncovers the fascinating and often paradoxical lives of Wonder Woman creator William Moulston Marston, and his romantic/professional partners Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne.
I sometimes struggle to stay engaged in historical nonfiction, but Lepore’s account of the kinky, controversial, and secret relationships that clearly influenced the creation of Wonder Woman is so enthralling that I couldn't put it down.
Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories
Nichelle Nichols is a goshdarn treasure. Renowned for her role as Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek: The Original Series, she’s also worked tirelessly with NASA to recruit women and people of color for the space agency, and even flown aboard NASA's Astronomy Observatory. (Nichols' most recent flight with NASA was in 2015, at the age of 82.) Her memoir Beyond Uhura is a fascinating, inspiring, and occasionally shocking account of Nichols’ early life, the pressures she faced as a Black female performer, and life behind the scenes of the most influential sci-fi series ever.
African American Women Chemists
In this nonfiction book, historian and organic chemist Jeanette E. Brown explores the history of African American female chemists. Brown has said she was inspired to write the book by Dr. Marie Maynard Daly, the first African American woman to get her PhD in chemistry in the U.S., and the first African American female chemist Brown ever met. Beginning with the life of pioneering Lincoln University professor Josephine Silone Yates, Brown's book recounts the accomplishments of 26 women, and the racist, sexist double standards they fought along the way.
The Geek Feminist Revolution
Kameron Hurley is known for fiction like The God’s War series, the Worldbreaker Saga, and her most recent novel, The Stars Are Legion. She’s also an accomplished essayist. The Geek Feminist Revolution is a compilation of Hurley’s essays about what it’s like to be a science fiction creator in modern America, ranging from deeply personal pieces to in-depth analysis of the modern questions faced by sci-fi creators and fans. How should one deal with online abuse? How forthcoming should you be on the Internet? And, perhaps most importantly of all: Why be a storyteller, if the stories you choose to tell just confirm the narrative that straight, white men must always be default? Tackling everything from Gamergate to True Detective, The Geek Feminist Revolution is an inspiring, reassuring read for sci-fi writers and fans. Notably, the anthology also contains Hurley's Hugo Award-winning military sci-fi essay “We Have Always Fought."
The Secret Loves of Geek Girls
The Secret Loves of Geek Girls is a compilation of nonfiction essays, comics, and more, edited by comics historian Hope Nicholson with contributions by some of the most influential women in geek culture. Margaret Atwood (Angel CatBird, among many other things); Kelly Sue DeConnick (Bitch Planet); Marjorie Liu (Monstress); Marguerite Bennett (DC Bombshells); and more than 50 other women changing today’s pop culture landscape share their own candid and incredibly varied thoughts on love in this sweet and unique anthology.
The Princess Diarist
The final book by the late, great Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diarist is a memoir that includes excerpts from a diary Fisher kept while filming the original Star Wars trilogy. Princess Diarist will thrill Star Wars fans in particular for its insider insight into life behind the scenes, but really, all of Fisher's books are deserving of a spot on this list. Fisher was a generous performer and author who helped de-stigmatize mental illness through candor about her own bipolar disorder, and a feminist who constantly reminded Star Wars fans and the wider world that her body was hers and her alone. Her contributions to pop culture and culture in general deserve to be remembered; Princess Diarist gives us a chance to do so through her own words.
You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)
Actress/writer/singer/performer Felicia Day has done a lot to change perception of women in geek-dom, particularly women in gaming. Day was the creator, writer, and star of The Guild, a web series about MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Game) culture. Her memoir You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) chronicles Day's unusual upbringing, and how she found creative and professional fulfillment on the Internet.
She's Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff
Edited by io9 cofounders Annallee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders, this 2006 anthology is exactly what it says on the tin. She's Such a Geek features insight from ladies in STEM like biotech scientist Roopa Ramamoorthi and astrophysicist Aomawa Shields, as well as contributions from cyberlaw professors and sci-fi/fantasy fans of all stripes.
Only the Longest Threads
Okay, I'm cheating a little bit here. But this is a book worth cheating for. Only the Longest Threads is technically fiction, but the history and complicated scientific theories it tackles are anything but — it's been called 'science in fiction,' rather than science fiction, and has incredible insight into the mind of a real-life theoretical physicist. Written by Pakistan’s first female string theorist, Tasneem Zehra Husain, Only the Longest Threads is a story-within-a-story that explores a different scientific concept in each chapter through the eyes of various narrators. Husain reveals the humanity behind major scientific discoveries, from the point of view of the men and women whose contributions have changed our world forever.