10 Mind-Bending Hard Science Fiction Books by Women

These great reads prove hard sci-fi isn't just a man's game.

Hugo Award winners 2018

For years, so-called “hard sci-fi” – that is, science fiction that relies on credible science over speculative leaps or “hand waving” – has been seen as something of a boys club. 

But women have been writing hard science fiction for as long as the (sub)genre has been in play. Even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein relied on then-cutting-edge scientific theory.

As a result, there are plenty of fascinating and thought-provoking books by women that are every bit as scientifically rigorous as those written by their male counterparts – if not more so. From Hugo and Nebula Award-winners to lesser-known gems, these hard sci-fi books by women will make you think, and keep you turning the pages. 

Buy Playing God at Amazon

Playing God

By Sarah Zettel

Many sci-fi and fantasy novels revolve around winning a war. Sarah Zettel’s Playing God is all about ending one. 

The swan-like inhabitants of the planet Dedelphi have been at war for centuries, and if something doesn’t change soon, there won’t be much left. 

In a last-ditch bid for peace, they ask for outside mediation, which comes in the form of the Earth-based Bioverse corporation and an ambitious plan to relocate many of Dedelphi’s inhabitants into orbit. 

Overseeing the project is human architect Lynn Nussbaumer, who finds that building peace on an alien world may be the most challenging project of her life.

RELATED: Impactful Female Sci-Fi & Fantasy Authors You Need to Read 

Buy Lilith's Brood at Amazon

Lilith's Brood

By Octavia E. Butler

Winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, Octavia E. Butler has been called “one of science fiction’s finest writers” by The New York Times, and her Lilith’s Brood trilogy is one of her most thought-provoking science fiction series. 

Spanning three novels set in the wake of an apocalyptic nuclear war, humanity finds themselves interacting with aliens who seek to create a hybrid species that can survive where humans cannot. 

RELATED: 16 Octavia Butler Books: The Complete Canon 

Buy The Gatherer at Amazon

The Gatherer

By Colleen Winter

Designed as a boon to all humanity, the titular invention from Colleen Winter’s The Gatherer instead unleashes a plague that causes untold suffering. Now its inventor, also afflicted, is desperate to destroy it. 

But there are others who wish to use it – and her – to their own ends in this action-packed eco-thriller.

RELATED: Sci-Fi Books Featuring Unforgettable Female Scientists 

Buy Ancillary Justice at Amazon

Ancillary Justice

By Ann Leckie

The only novel to win the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards, Ann Leckie's debut also won a Locus Award for Best First Novel and was recognized by the British Science Fiction Association. 

This tale of a ship’s AI who must seek justice against her creators kicked off Leckie’s highly-praised Imperial Radch trilogy, which continued in Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy

RELATED: Hard Sci-Fi Book Series You Won't Want to Miss 

Buy The Calculating Stars at Amazon

The Calculating Stars

By Mary Robinette Kowal

The impact of a huge meteorite will soon render the earth uninhabitable to humans in this alternate history sci-fi debut by Mary Robinette Kowal, a prequel to her Hugo Award-winning short story, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.” 

The impact, which devastated the East Coast in 1952, led to an accelerated worldwide space race, as humanity desperately attempts to save itself by colonizing space. The Calculating Stars went on to win the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards, and made countless best-of-the-year lists.

Buy All Systems Red at Amazon

All Systems Red

By Martha Wells

Winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards, Martha Wells’ All Systems Red (the first book in her Murderbot Diaries series) chronicles the voyage of self-discovery of a self-aware security android who refers to itself as “Murderbot,” if never out loud. 

When Murderbot is assigned to guard a scientific mission on the surface of a distant planet, it's plunged into a mystery along with the team of scientists it is supposed to guard. But all it really wants is to be left alone...

Buy vN at Amazon

vN

By Madeline Ashby

Taking one of the staples of hard sci-fi—the android—Madeline Ashby crafts what The Guardian calls “a credible model for artificial life,” a story of self-replicating Von Neuman machines whose empathy enslaves them to humans. 

This first book in Ashby’s Machine Dynasty series chronicles three generations of these vN androids.

RELATED: Cyberpunk Books for Console Cowboys Everywhere 

Buy Lightborn at Amazon

Lightborn

By Tricia Sullivan

Tricia Sullivan’s high-tech zombie novel introduces the “shine,” a technology that gives people the ability to reprogram their own minds, to get away from the “essential apehood” that we are all doomed to, as one character puts it. 

But when something goes wrong, those who have used the technology become uncontrollably violent, leaving only those who haven’t yet reached puberty intact. 

Trapped within a city gone mad, 14-year-old Xavier needs the drugs that will help keep puberty at bay, while the military has started to suppress the city, block-by-block.

Buy Lagoon at Amazon

Lagoon

By Nnedi Okorafor

When aliens land outside Lagos, humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrials plunges the world into chaos in this book that iO9 called, “a fascinating entry into the science fiction of place.” 

As countless factions attempt to spin the landing to their advantage and world leaders contemplate a nuclear strike that would cost millions of lives, the only people able to save the world may be a rapper, a biologist, a rogue soldier, and an ambassador from the aliens themselves.

Buy Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang at Amazon

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

By Kate Wilhelm

Winner of the Hugo and Locus Awards when it was first published in 1977, this early sci-fi novel is by acclaimed mystery writer Kate Wilhelm. 

Tracing an isolated community’s perilous experiments in cloning, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang may be very much of its moment, but it also has strong warnings—and hopeful messages—about human nature and humanity’s future in the wake of an environmental cataclysm. 

This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Portalist to celebrate the sci-fi and fantasy stories you love.  

Published on 27 May 2020