Best Books: Sci-Fi and Fantasy with Strong Female Characters and Political Themes

This list contains a few authors of science fiction and fantasy books whose work critiques while entertaining. Almost always political, these books are often feminist, and are, most importantly, well written. They have provided me with hours of relaxation and fascination as well as a relief from the dominance of hyper-masculine norms and the lack of believable female characters so often present in genre novels. Some use science fiction to demonstrate the constructed nature of our social world, creating planets and places with absent or exaggerated norms. Others provide a window into a primeval past and a way of re-imagining history. Many provide warnings and powerful critiques of society, power, and privilege.

 

Nicola GriffithCover of book Hild by Nicola Griffith

Griffith has authored books of multiple genre, her earliest being science fiction (Ammonite and Slow River), the middle period noir detective (The Blue Place, Stay, and Always), and her latest book a romp in medieval/fantasy  (Hild). All of her novels equally merit a read, depending exactly what it is you are looking for. Ammonite is science fiction at its purest, an examination of what a world of only women would be like, as a colonizing corporation sends its employees to the surface of a planet where a disease kills all men. The Blue Place, Stay, and Always feature 6-foot-tall Norwegian woman named Aud, who can and does kill men twice her size with her bare hands. These books are perhaps the darkest of Griffith’s work, examining the repercussions of violence and the roots of powerlessness, grief and love.

Hild was the first of Griffith’s books that I read, and is perhaps the best, especially for lovers of nerdy fantasy, but also for those who aren’t much interested in the genre. Hild, which is based upon true characters and events, is unique in examining what happens to women in the fantasy universe. The reader watches in horror as Hild survives a perilous position of power and importance as the king’s ‘seer’. Hild’s powers aren’t rooted in magic per say. Rather, she is an intelligent young woman whose mother has groomed her for this role from birth, starting with the fabrication of a commonly known prophecy, to understand the patterns of the events happening in the world around her. The reader follows Hild from childhood into marriage, seeing the horror of her first battle and watching her protect her people as the Butcher-Bird. When she is stuck waiting with the rest of the women as the climactic battle of the novel rages, we stay behind with her.

Griffith’s work is often included in lists of lesbian fiction, and Hild is best described as queer. Griffith’s characters are primarily women, and she lends a sense of humanity to them which is refreshing in a genre which too often focuses entirely on male experiences. For more about Hild, read this NPR book “With Nuanced Beauty, ‘Hild’ Destroys Myths of Medieval Womanhood”.

China Miéville51Z0rhofvuL

Miéville masterfully creates a weird world which wavers between science fiction and fantasy, with a whole lot of steampunk thrown in. His work is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s but much, much stranger. Mieville takes us to entirely new planets, from the outer-space Embassytown to the steampunk New Crobuzon, to the floating pirate city of  Armada. Miéville‘s work is threaded throughout with critiques of far right thugs, corrupt politicians, and absurd religions.

His book Kraken, which I think is perhaps the best, takes place in odd corners of London, featuring a criminal mastermind trapped in a man’s back tattoo, a disappearing giant squid, and whole host of religious cults fighting out their own holy wars in the back streets of the city. The City and the City is a bizarrely twisted police procedural which ingeniously exposes the absurdity of nationalism and citizenship in the guise of an easily read fiction.

Though most of Miéville’s characters are male, some main characters are female, and he has a propensity for creating secondary characters who are female and often the most interesting parts of the novel. The Scar features the hard edged Bellis Coldwine as the protagonist. She is an incredibly intelligent linguist, but an austere and introverted woman. Embassytown‘s heroine is Avice Benner Cho, a smalltown girl from a backwoods planet who became the universe’s equivalent of an outer space cowgirl, known as an Immerser, only to find herself back on her home planet when a complex war breaks out.

The Mongoliad Seriesmongoliad_bk3_cover

This series is a collaborative works most notable for its realistic description of medieval weaponry and combat techniques. It is set in Europe during the Mongol conquests, and follows a group of elite knights and a young woman who is a part of a mysterious all-female order. The book began as a sort of interactive app (in the style of role-playing games) but now five books in the series (as well as a whole host of ‘otherworld’ books detailing the plights of other characters not central to the Mongoliad plot) have been published by Amazon for both Kindle and in paper version.

Though the prose can be somewhat stiff (it gets better as the series goes on, most notably around the fourth book) it’s easy to read and consistently entertaining. The story is overwhelmingly realistic, meaning that most of characters are men, and deaths are frequent, though not nearly so tragic as those written by the infamous Martin of Game of Thrones fame. Instead, the authors manage to make the reader feel as though they are part of the company: occasionally the deaths of well loved characters happen outside the pages of the book, with only the passing mention, no glory, and some truly brutal detail.

The Mongoliad series addresses political and religious power, with themes that flirt with the classic in fantasy: duty, faith, honor. In Mongoliad male characters may be the most common, but the female characters are diverse, they use their wits as well as their steel and are generally the most evocative of the characters of the novels.

 

Margaret Atwoodmargaret atwood the handmaid's tale book cover

Atwood is most well known for her dystopian novel A Handmaid’s Tale. The novel is perhaps the most blatantly political of this list, a no-holds-barred critique of the direction taken by the USA a la Animal Farm. The book describes a hypothetical world in which the concept of terrorism has been used by a powerful religious political party to construct a new social hierarchy.  The world is divided into castes based on social status. Women are assigned to be wives to powerful men, sterile prostitutes, and handmaids, who function primarily as breeding stock for wealthy families.

Social control is achieved trough terror, and despite (or perhaps because of) a powerful puritanism, sex reigns supreme. The book speaks powerfully to the links between institutional religion, political power and gender based oppression.

 

left_hand_cover054Ursula K. Le Guin

Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula Le Guin’s sci-fi classic Left Hand of Darkness uses science fiction, as does Griffith, to examine gender and create a planet in which all gender norms are rendered obsolete by the inhabitants, who are neither and both simultaneously male and or female. Seen through the eyes of an off-world ambassador, the reader feels his confusion and discomfort at facing a people whom he cannot define based on the gender binary of his own planet. His time among these people, treated as a sexual deviant lends itself to a realization of the absurdities of the importance placed on the gender binary. Le Guin’s symbolic depiction of the fluidity of gender and sex is perhaps more effective and certainly much clearer than Judith Butler’s convoluted prose.

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4 comments

  1. I recommend Suzy Mckee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World which has a similar premise as The Handmaid’s Tale but written much in the 70s. Also, Judith Merril’s 50s short stories might be the most daring SF of the 50s in social content (but yes, the still “feel” 50s) — a good example would be “Daughters of Earth” which traces the exploration of space through the female descendants of a family — pretty amazing.

    • Both books sound really amazing, I will have to get my hands on a copy of each of them. Thanks so much for the recommendations. I’ve also followed your blog, looking forward to discovering many new exciting science fiction works in the future!

      • Thanks. I recommend browsing SF Mistressworks as well — a review collating site (and BSFA nominated — British SF Award). Ian Sales compiles reviews of SF written by women before 2000.

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