Last month marked the 2018 Hugo Awards, honoring the year’s best fantasy and science fiction writing. Women swept up top awards in almost every category, including Best Novel (The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin), Best Novella (All Systems Red by Martha Wells), Best Novelette (“The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer), Best Short Story (“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse), and Best Graphic Story (Monstress, Volume 2, written by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Taken), to name just a few. Considering the well-documented sexism of literary prizes, as well as perennial issues with so-called “nerd culture” on the whole, this sweep of awards is especially exciting.
Science fiction occupies a unique space at the intersection of literature, philosophy, social commentary, science, and pop culture – an intersection at which women have been writing for over two hundred years. From early explorations of the role of science and nature of humanity in Mary Shelley’s genre-defining classic Frankenstein to Octavia E. Butler’s incredible cross-genre novel Kindred, science fiction has been shaped by the contributions of women who questioned the world we take for granted – the conventions of society, the limitations of science and technology, institutions of gender, sexuality, race, politics, and more recently, the environment.
Though essential in the genre, the achievements of women sci-fi writers are too often overlooked in favor of their male counterparts. Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Arthur Clark, Ray Bradbury – the familiar names are locked into required reading lists, leaving few openings for the women whose work was fundamental in development of science fiction as we know it today.
In honor of the achievements of the writers of the 2018 Hugo Awards, we wanted to take this opportunity to revisit some of science fiction’s most celebrated women.
Octavia E. Butler
Arguably one of the most masterful science fiction writers of the 20th century, Octavia E. Butler’s best-known work includes Kindred, in which a young woman time travels between 20th century Los Angeles and the antebellum south; as well as the Xenogenesis series, the Parable series (which includes Parable of the Sower), and numerous shorter works including “Bloodchild” and “Speech Sounds.”
Sometimes called the grandmother of Afrofuturism, Butler has won numerous Hugo and Nebula Awards, and she was the first science fiction writer to receive the so-called “Genius Grant,” a MacArthur Fellowship.
Ursula K. LeGuin
Beloved novelist Ursula K. LeGuin’s work spans literary fiction and science fiction, exploring social constructs including gender, religion, politics, and culture, often through imagined futures or alternate worlds. Her novels include The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, and the immensely popular Earthsea series, as well as scores of short stories and essays. She was named a Grandmaster of Science Fiction by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2003, and in 2014 was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Best known for the Dragonriders of Pern series, McCaffrey’s work helped move science fiction into the mainstream. Although use of dragons might make her work seem closer to fantasy than sci-fi, she actually draws more heavily science fiction than fantasy—space travel, an interstellar federation, genetic engineering, to name a few.
As a woman writing science fiction in the 60s and 70s, McCaffrey helped pave the way for other women in the genre. She was the first woman ever to win both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, was named a Grandmaster of Science Fiction in 2005, and and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2006.
One of the most vibrant science fiction writers working today, N.K. Jemisin’s groundbreaking books explore themes of climate change, culture, and world building. Her work includes the Inheritance trilogy, the Dreamblood series, and the Broken Earth series, as well as numerous short stories. Her work has received wide acclaim and multiple awards—not only was she the first African American writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2016, she subsequently won the same category in 2017, and 2018.
Nnedi Okofar’s imaginative work spans across both fantasy and science fiction, for adults, teens and children. She draws heavily from her own Nigerian background, incorporating cultural elements into magical, futuristic, and speculative worlds to explore racial and gender inequalities, political violence, and environmental concerns. Her work has won numerous awards, including Hugo and Nebula Awards.
James Tiptree Jr.
Eclectic writer Alice Bradley Sheldon published extensively under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr., managing to keep her true identity a secret for decades even among other writers. Best known for her short stories, Tiptree’s work ranges from pulpy adventure to intellectual. She was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012.
As one of the most prolific and widely-acclaimed short story writers in science fiction, Connie Willis’ classic stories appeared in numerous magazines throughout the 70s and 80s, exploring social and psychological themes as well as the implications of science and technology. Known for the Oxford Time Travel series, as well as the novels Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing About the Dog, she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2009, and named a Grandmaster of Science Fiction in 2011.