Science fiction novels are my favorite drug. There’s nothing like sitting down on a rainy day (or in a sunlit park) with a good book. It’s never a bad time to get lost in a sci-fi adventure. Especially if these adventures involve female sci-fi characters.
I’m a dude, so I can appreciate a fun, escapist sci-fi story with a two-fisted, muscular male hero. But to me, there’s something special about female sci-fi characters. A lot of the time, they’re more interesting than male protagonists. Female sci-fi characters have got more pressing problems. Most of the time, their personalities are more complex. Their motivations can be more mysterious, especially to a male reader like me. It’s always interesting to embark on a sci-fi adventure as seen through the lens of the opposite gender.
This being sci-fi Saturday and all, I thought I’d put together a quick list of my top four female sci-fi characters. These characters come from novels. I won’t be discussing video games or movies. (That’ll come later.) Maybe you’ve heard of some of these ladies, and maybe you haven’t. But if you come away from this blog post with one more book added to your to-read list, then my work is done.
Without further ado…
#1. Breq from Ancillary Justice (2013).
Anne Leckie’s epic Imperial Radch series has been turning heads and exciting sci-fi mavens for a good few years now. The first book, Ancillary Justice, has the best setup for a sci-fi plot that I’ve seen in years. And the protagonist may not even technically qualify for our list of female sci-fi characters!
Ancillary Justice is a space opera set thousands of years in the future, where the primary galactic power of human-occupied planets is the expansionist Radch empire. The empire uses AIs to control human bodies (“ancillaries”) that are used as soldiers, though regular humans also are soldiers. The Radchaai do not distinguish people by gender, which Leckie conveys by using female personal pronouns for everybody, and by having the Radchaai main character guess wrongly when she has to use languages with gender-specific pronouns.
The narrative begins several years after the disappearance of a Radch starship, the Justice of Toren, when the sole surviving ancillary (and fragment of the Justice of Toren‘s consciousness), Breq, encounters an officer, Seivarden, whom she had known 1,000 years earlier. The two are on an ice planet, and Seivarden is in precarious condition. The plot switches between two strands: Breq’s “present day” quest for justice for the Justice of Toren‘s destruction, and flashbacks from 19 years earlier when the Justice of Toren was in orbit around the planet of Shis’urna, which was being formally brought into the Radchaai empire. The reader eventually finds out that the Justice of Toren‘s destruction was the result of a covert war between two opposed strands of consciousness of the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, who uses multiple synchronized bodies to rule her far-flung empire. At the end of the novel, Breq associates herself with the more pacific aspect of Anaander Mianaai while waiting for an opportunity to exact her revenge.
Doesn’t that sound awesome? We’re not sure if Breq is really a female or not, though. She might be a man, and female pronouns just might be used for her. The Radchaai do not distinguish people by gender, as the summary said. If Breq is a woman, though, she sounds like my kind of woman. Plucky, assertive, competent, and not one to take any crap, even from her superiors. I love female sci-fi characters like that.
#2. Emiko from The Windup Girl (2009).
If you’ve never read Paolo Bacigalupi’s breakthrough science fiction novel The Windup Girl, drop what you’re doing and order it on Amazon now. This Nebula Award-winning book is set in futuristic Thailand. How many awesome sci-fi books do you know that take place in Thailand?
Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen’s Calorie Man in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories. There, he encounters Emiko. Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; instead, she is an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.
What happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits, when said bio-terrorism’s genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution?
Emiko, though she starts out quiet and passive (like most enslaved characters do), eventually comes into her own. She reaches her breaking point, becomes a fighter, and decides to take a stand against her captors. She strikes out on her own, even though the world of futuristic Bangkok is a strange and savage one. This is a rewarding journey to watch female sci-fi characters embark upon, no matter when or where the story is set.
Oh, did I mention there are Imperial mammoths in this book as well?
#3. Lady Jessica from Dune (1965).
Dune, if you haven’t heard of it, is one of the 20th century’s masterworks of science fiction. It won a Nebula Award and tied for a Hugo Award a year after its publication. Ostensibly about a feudal society inhabiting a distant desert planet whose main resource is “spice,” which enables humanity to navigate the hideous distances between the stars, Dune is really a subtle commentary on the political struggle for oil in the Middle East.
In the far future, humanity has eschewed advanced computers in favor of adapting their minds to be capable of extremely complex tasks. Much of this is enabled by the spice melange, which is found only on Arrakis, a desert planet with giant sandworms as its most notable native lifeform. Melange improves general health, extends life and can bestow limited prescience, and its rarity makes it a form of currency in the interstellar empire. Melange allows the Spacing Guild‘s Navigators to safely route faster-than-light travel between planets, and helps the Reverend Mothers of the matriarchal Bene Gesserit to access their Other Memory, the ego and experiences of their female ancestors.
Lady Jessica is the concubine to Duke Leto Atreides, the feudal lord of Arrakis, and the mother of Leto’s son, Paul Atreides. When the Duke is assassinated, Paul and his mother must go into hiding. They find shelter among the ruthless nomadic Fremen who inhabit the desert wildernesses. At every turn of the novel, Lady Jessica is a captivating character. As a member of an esoteric all-women order of mystics known as the Bene Gesserit, she has powers and secret ways unknown to almost all the other characters in the novel. But on the other hand, she is a loving and concerned mother to Paul. At first, she is his teacher. But then she gradually becomes amazed at his progress toward adulthood and his mastery of Bene Gesserit and Fremen ways.
This duality (competent Bene Gesserit, loving mother) makes her one of my favorite female sci-fi characters of all time.
#4. Leisha Camden from Beggars in Spain (1993).
Beggars in Spain is one of Nancy Kress’s most well-known novels. Critics hold it up as an example of remarkable prescience. Kress predicted several technological breakthroughs and emerging societal trends. The original novella won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. Beggars in Spain has one of the most unforgettable female sci-fi characters ever. She is the young, lovely, and potentially immortal Leisha Camden.
Beggars in Spain and its sequels take place in a future where genetic engineering has become a reality, and society and culture face the consequences of genetic modifications (genemods), particularly in the United States. The world of Beggars in Spain is also powered by cold fusion, named “Y-energy” after its pioneer Kenzo Yagai. Yagai also founded “Yagaiism”, a moral worldview Kress based on Objectivism, in which dignity is solely the product of what a person can achieve through his or her own efforts, and the contract is the basis of society. As a corollary, the weak and unproductive are not owed anything.
The novel’s title comes from its primary moral question, as presented by character Tony Indivino: what do productive and responsible members of society owe the “beggars in Spain”, the unproductive masses who have nothing to offer except need? This is underscored by the rift between the Sleepers and the Sleepless; the Sleepless are superior in mind and body, and easily capable of outperforming their normal cousins. All men are not created equal. Where, then, is the line between equality and excellence? How far should any superior minority hold themselves back for fear of engendering feelings of inadequacy in their inferiors?—especially if this minority is not hated and feared, but rather the elite?
Leisha Camden is the daughter of financier Roger Camden, one of Yagai’s most notorious sponsors. Roger Camden had his genes modified to be one of “the Sleepless,” a special caste of people who do not sleep. They also have higher IQs. They are 50% more productive than the rest of society, since they work through the nighttime. Leisha, as Roger’s daughter, was born Sleepless.
As a result of her genetic modifications, by the time she turns fifteen, Leisha is several grades ahead of her peers. At sixteen, Leisha takes a Sleepless lover, Richard Keller. She also meets other Sleepless, such as Tony Indivino. Tony suggests to Leisha that the Sleepless all band together in some sort of fortified area and form a private, socioeconomic enclave. Tony feels that the Sleepers will soon come to hate the Sleepless and will begin showing prejudice against them. Events begin to bear Tony’s thesis out. A Sleepless athlete is prohibited from taking part in the Olympics. Matters continue to escalate until Leisha finds herself on a daring rescue mission to save a young Sleepless girl from being violently abused by her parents.
It’s rewarding to see Leisha’s transformation from a privileged and relatively carefree woman into a socially conscious savior of her fellow Sleepless. Beggars in Spain is also a fascinating look at how genetic modification and immortality might affect our society in unpredictable ways. What does humanity become when he conquers his own biology…?
There ya go, Internet! I’ve shown you my favorite four female sci-fi characters in science fiction novels. Now go create some of your own!