Finding great authors of hard science fiction and space opera who happen to be women is my Holy Grail. They are most elusive creature there is, yet I do not give up. Here are my top favorites.
(Also: Sherri S. Tepper and Susan Palwick. It is my loss that I'm only familiar with a fraction of their work.)
Catherynne M. Valente
Catherynne M. Valente is probably the most talented writer working in the field of speculative fiction today. Her fiction is distinct by its dense weaving prose that makes my heart sing. She's been accused of writing poetry in prose form, although her successive novels have become more and more accessible and gaining mainstream attention as well as critical acclaim.
Palimpsest is a novel about a sexually-transmitted city, in the author's words, dark sensual gorgeous. It's also a 2010 best novel Hugo nominee.
I also highly recommend A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects, the second collection of Valente's poetry. Being a scifi geek, I don't read poetry, but made an exception for Valente, and glad I did. The very first poem in the book moved me to tears. And the last one "Grandmother Spider."
Storm Constantine's talent for sensuous prose, baroque yet crystalline desciptions, uniquely imaginative settings, characters who are so charmasmatic, they seduce you from the page, is unparalleled. She is also a diverse writer, not to be judged by only one work. She has a strong fan following, but deserves much wider literary acclaim.
Wraeththu was love at first sight. From the very first page, the langorous beauty of the language caught my attention and drew me in. Seductive story about the birth of a new hemaphroditic race, beautiful and tempestuous, their loves and travails, as they build a new civilization and a new mythology out of the ashes of humanity. This is the very first book written by Storm Constatine. If you can, get your hands on the Immarion Press edition of this book (available in UK) - this is the author's revised and preferred edition.
Calenture - An old man, the last of his race in a dead city, starts writing a story to dispel his loneliness. He imagines of a vast plain where cities float above the ground, constantly moving and sometimes colliding. This story follows two travelers, a cold arrogant drug-addicted priest and an eager young man outcast from tribe as a rite of passage. The lines between the old man's imagination and reality begin to slowly blur. Amazing, cathartic novel. The last page reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "100 Years of Solitude" in its power and poignancy. So sad, yet so beautiful, I cried.
Sign for the Sacred - Rich, baroque fantasy about the charismatic, enigmatic leader of a religious cult as several people search for him, each obsessed with him for a different reason.
"Sea Dragon Heir" I found far weaker than her other works.
Maureen F. McHugh
China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh was strangely exhilirating. The focus of the story is on a young gay man in NYC in the 21st century, genetically altered to appear Chinese (the leading world power), in post-workers' revolution Communist U.S., and on a Martial colony commune. It's just good, character-driven, literary fiction.
Nekropolis can be seen as McHugh's response to Lee's "Silver Metal Lover." After reading "Nekropolis," you see Lee's novel in an entirely different light, less romantic and far more disturbing. It isn't as strong a novel as "China Mountain Zhang," as it ends too abruptly. It's well-written, but leaves you perturbed and melancholy, and a bit frustrated - I got a maddening sense that it says something deep & profound, yet it's just beyond my reach.
More works by Maureen McHugh are "Mission Child" and a collection of stories "Mothers and Other Monsters."
An extremely capable and versatile writer. She started with hard scifi, and has gone on to write urban fantasy (in the vein of Gaiman, except better), fantasy, and alternate history. She particularly excels at weird, hybrid speculative novels:
Dust seems like a fantasy world but turns out to be a huge generation spaceship, adrift in space for centuries, fought over by mad AI personalities. This is the novel that has been best received by most people.
Ink and Steel: A Novel of the Promethean Age is an example of her steampunk, fairies in the Victorian age novels. I haven't read them, but my friends love them. Elizabeth Bear, when cornered, admitted that the Startford Man duology (starting with "Ink and Steel") is her best and personal favorite work. It constitutes a loose prequel to "Blood and Iron."
All the Windwracked Stars is part of the Sea Thy Mistress trilogy, a dark strange fantasy with Norse mythology. Strange, poetic and cool. The style of these books is very different from her other works. By the Mountain Bound (The Edda of Burdens) is the 2nd book, but comes first chronologically in the story, and this is the book that blew me way. Before I read it, I considered Elizabeth Bear a solid writer, but after that, she skyrocketed to the top of my list. I would recommend reading "By the Mountain Bound" first - the story is more linear and engaging: Children of the Light - Valkuries and Angels - spend their time drinking mead and protecting nearby villages, when a stranger comes out of the ocean, claiming to be a refugee from another world and the Children's promised goddess whose destiny is to prepare them for Ragnagok. There are intense love triangles and some gorgeous writing.
"New Amsterdam" is an alternative history novel of interconnected stories and what I have to read next.
L. Timmel Duchamp
L. Timmel Duchamp's Marq'ssan Cycle is an incredible achievement and a landmark work of feminist science fiction. These are serious, brilliant, dystopican political and psychological thrillers for adults. They are intense, uncomfortable in places, and immensely readable. I was intimidated for a while, and it was Samuel R. Delany's blurb on the front cover that convinced me to pick them up (I mean, how often do you see cover blurbs from Delany?) and once I started reading, I couldn't put them down.
Alanya to Alanya (Marq'ssan Cycle, Book One) is the first book, it's shortest and most plot-driven, and so is a good place to start. It may appear heavy-handed, but subsequent volumes recolor so much of what happened in different light. The brilliant thing about the Marq'ssan Cycle is that it is a true cycle. I believe it could actually be read in any order, and create a different narrative based on your choice. I actually read the 2nd book, Renegade, (Book 2) (Marq'ssan Cycle), first - that book chewed me up and spit me out, and that worked for me.
Story: aliens arrive on Earth in our near future, and attempt to influence our social order for the better. When ignored or subverted, they deploy an EMP, establish a feminist anarchist nation near Seattle (in later books, we see just how an anarchist state might work) and plunge the US into a civil war, which we see from the inside of the two ruling branches of the government. The main character is Kay Zeldin, a freelance spy for Security (the Homeland Security department taken to its natural conclusion), chosen to join a delegation of all women to the aliens' ship for negotiations.
I cannot recommend these books too much.
Octavia E. Butler
Lilith's Brood is a science fiction trilogy in one volume about aliens who want to mate with humans as an alternative to humany's extinction.
Then I would recommend reading Parable of the Sower and Seed to Harvest, an omnibus of 3 novels, one of which, "Wild Seed," is one of my favorites.
Elisabeth Vonarburg is a French Canadian author of science fiction. Her work is very literate, and deliberately written. It has that quality that even after I've skimmed to the end, I can still open the book in the middle and enjoy it.
Dreams of the Sea (Tyranael) is about an alien planet colonized by humans.
The Maerlande Chronicles is really fantastic post-apocalyptic science fiction. A thousand years from now, the land has been ravaged by technology and climate change, and humanity has changed: over 90% of children born are girls, technology is non-existent.
Very prolific author of fantasy, science fiction, horror, historical fiction, young adult books, may be the most versatile writer ever. She's unrecognizable from one book to another. People who love one may hate another.
Biting the Sun is uncontroversially good, highly recommended as an excellent book and a must-read piece of science fiction. We follow a teenager in a utopia where there's nothing for people to do but enjoy themselves, change bodies and genders at will, sometimes killing themselves out of boredom.
The Silver Metal Lover is science fiction with a focus on a romance between a girl and a robot. It's a divisive work. A lot of people love it, while not caring for Lee's other works (like my sister, she likes romantic fantasy but has low tolerance for dark sensual disturbing stuff, which is more or less Lee's calling card).
White As Snow (Fairy Tale) is a counterexample. A retelling of the Snow White tale through the lens of the Persephone story (Demeter searching the underworld for her lost daughter), it is strange. It starts with a rape, it features Tanith Lee's classical cold, detached heroines, the prince is a true necrophiliac, dwarves are mean. So you read and read, and then at the end, all of it comes together and it's like you're hit with a hammer - I was sobbing and through my tears telling my sister how sad and wonderful it was.
Catherine Asaro holds a PhD in physics and writes a delicious blend of hard sf, space opera, and romance.
Primary Inversion (The Saga of the Skolian Empire) and The Radiant Seas (Skolian Web) are two perfect gems of interstellar warfare, adventure, romance, political intrigue, science fiction ideas, and plain fun.
The rest of the books in the Skolian series is worth reading as well. The Last Hawk stands very well on its own.
The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon won the Nebula award. This is "soft" barely-science fiction, about an autistic idiot-savante. This man is a brilliant mathematician, but socially retarded. It was fascinating to see the world from his eyes. What's the value of "normal?" Read this if you liked "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes.
The Deed of Paksenarrion: A Novel (Baen Fantasy) is a military fantasy trilogy in one volume. A sheepherder's daughter joins a mercenary group. Very well-done, except for the last 100 pages, where it takes a strong turn down - strong WARNING of an excessive torture scene and religious preaching(however, the entire book is over 1000, so it's quite forgivable). Somewhat similar to Mary Gentle's "Ash."
Elizabeth Moon writes more military scifi that I'm not well familiar with. I read "Hunting Party," and despite a promising start, couldn't finish it, although other people have reported to like it. I liked the first half as the captain is guiding her spaceship and the tension with the impestuous cadet, but in the second half, as they land on a planet, the pace, setting, and story change, and I lost interest. However, I've been told that her "Vatta's War" series are great.
Lois McMaster Bujold
However much you may have heard of the Miles Vorkosigan novels, whatever awards they've won, they are still criminally underrated and underread. Bujold writes with warmth and humor and insight.
Young Miles (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures) is the omnibus with the first novels about Miles. Another good place to start is "Cordelia's Honor."
Celia S. Friedman is a stellar writer and amazes me with her versatility and breadth of talent. All her books are rich in detail, with sophisticated world-building, tight plot, and just so much... She is always a pleasure to read.
In Conquest Born (Daw Book Collectors) is an awesome space opera epic with the most memorable star-crossed foes ever. So packed with neat ideas, it could really make several books.
This Alien Shore is space opera cyperpunk better than Neal Stephenson ever could.
The Madness Season (Daw Science Fiction) presents a scientic explanation of vampirism.
Black Sun Rising: The Coldfire Trilogy #1 is the first in a dark fantasy "Coldfire" trilogy. A blend of science fiction with fantasy, the story takes place on another planet, where the local energies (fae) magnify emotions and allow for power. One of the main characters is a villain, an evil yet fascinating personality study.
Feast of Souls (Magister Trilogy, Book 1) is the first in a latest trilogy of dark fantasy.
Joan D. Vinge
Joan D. Vinge was once married to Vernor Vinge, another great science fiction writer. However, I must admit, I like her books even better than his.
The Snow Queen is set on a planet that alternates btw ages of superstition and ages of technology & interstellar trade. The queen has found an elixir of immortality and cloned herself, so that she can rule the dark ages as well.
The sequel, The Summer Queen (Snow Queen), is even better.
I read "Catspaw," and despite the good reviews, probably because it's more of a young adult novel, I found it be a light read, but not a sweeping epic on the order of "Summer Queen."
A Door Into Ocean (Elysium Cycle) is a hard SF (biology is a science!) novel that will keep you up all night. On an all-water, all-female moon, the people must adjust to the environment (not the other way around) and develop a unique, fascinating culture. When the planet attempts to take control, they fight back in surprising ways.
Brain Plague - An Elysium Cycle Novel is about sentient microorganisms that live in people's brains, either as parasites, taking over entirely, or as good colonists, obeying the host as a god.
Warchild by Karin Lowachee is novel of a military adventure in space, a fast entertaining read with dark undertones. A young boy's parents are killed by pirates and he's sold into slavery. The story follows him as he grows up. Good read, can't really point out any flaws, and a very promising beginning. Read this if you liked Card's "Ender's Game."
Cagebird is a sequel to "Warchild" and "Burndive," taking an even darker turn. These novels offer a haunting psychological insight into how war, love, promises, betrayal get inside a boy's head and shape his entire being.
The Wess-har series is science fiction about some serious themes: alien contacts and alien values, enviromentalism, and genocide. It will put you in a somber mood and make you think, but strangely enough, it's not depressing. These books have an almost addictive quality to them.
City of Pearl by Karen Traviss is the first in the Wess-har wars series. On an alien planet, three species co-exist: an amphibian race native to the planet, a small human colony of Christians, and a hidden city of the wess-har - a powerful, enviromentally-obsessed alien race. The planet reveals only faint signs of what's happened before - a planet-wide genocide of another colonizing alien race, wiped out by the wess-har to protect the fragile amphibians from the polution. Earth is showing new interest in the planet and sending a new group of humans there, yet it has no idea to what ends the wess-har will go to protect the environment. And what would the wess-har do to Earth itself if they found out the enviromental abuses and atrocities we commit on our planet?
The World Before is the next book in the series, there are 6 total.
ASH: A Secret History by Mary Gentle is a military fantasy trilogy in one volume. Someone said that this is the longest fantasy book written, exceeding "Lord of the Rings" in length. Similar to Moon's "Deed of Paksenarrion," yet superior in several ways. Very gritty, realistic potrayal of a young girl growing up as a mercenary in the medieval times. Written to resemble alternate history, you realize that the girl, Ash, is modeled on Joan of Arc, as she hears voices in her head giving her tactical advice. To us, the voices are recognizably those of a computer. Simply awesome. Also, although the emphasis is on Ash's military campaigns (holding back the invasion from the south), there's a romantic side-plot that was very well-handled. As a real and tough heroine, Ash doesn't fall stupidly in love. She fights the attraction and gets over it, not letting it distract her.
British science fiction author with a venerable history of writing hard SF.
Keeping It Real (Quantum Gravity, Book 1) is a blend of science fiction with fantasy, with a touch of humor, sex, and rock-and-roll, a fun romp. It captures the gleeful joy that makes SF so much fun.
Silver Screen is science fiction.
... and now for more fantasy
This author has a PhD in English Literature, a fact that did not suprise me at all. I was, however, quite impressed when I learned that she did a white-page re-write of her first novel.
Melusine is a dark fantasy novel, the first of a tetralogy. The author creates two very characters with very distict voices. Captivating, dark velvety sensuous read, the kind I always look for. Felix, one of the main characters, spends almost all of the novel looking out at the world with eyes of madness following a brutalizing rape. Adding to the pain, all his friends rejects him. This was written in a very powerful, haunting way. Fortunately, the dark tone is lessened as the story also focuses on Mildmay, Felix's long-lost brother, a unflappable and capable thief.
The Virtu (Melusine) is the next in the series, and just as strong a novel.
Transformation (Rai Kirah) by Carol Berg kept me up all night because of its superb characterization and excellent writing. It's a story of a slave, a former sorceror, who discovers that his cruel master, Prince Alexander, is targeted by demon, and must protect him. I particularly liked that the book doesn't end on a cliffhanger, it felt resolved and satisfied. It's followed by two sequels, "Revelation" and "Transformation," which my sister tells me were similarly awesome, complete, action-filled stories. Berg's other fantasy series starts with "Son of Avonar," one I look forward to.
This author can write some gorgeous prose.
Salt of the Air is a collection of short stories, fairy tales, some twists on traditional stories, some news, all delightful to read.
Lords of Rainbow or The Book of Fulfillment by Vera Nazarian is the loveliest book I've read. Like with Storm Constantine's "Wraeththu," my first reaction was almost of anger: "Why haven't I heard of this book before? How can something be so GOOD and so little talked about?" Fantasy, romantic, beautiful.
Dreams Of The Compass Rose is a composed of interconnected vignettes with an overarching theme, exotic stories of myth, dreams, illusions and desert.
Part 2 of the list:
Marion Zimmer Bradley
Mary Doria Russell
Lyda Morehouse - add "Resurrection Code"
Chris Moriarty - new book soon?
Sharon Lee and Steven Miller - delete? I really haven't read this enough to say.
Jacqueline Lichtenberg - delete?
Julie E. Czerneda
Linnea Sinclair - probably delete.
Need to read/add:
Carol Berg - describe new series - Spirit Lens and Soul Mirror - Renaissance magical murder mystery
Valente - Deathless
Bear - move down the list
Constantine - talk about Sea Dragon Heir and Crown of Silence
Lowachee - mention that Gaslight Dogs is not as accessible, and to recommend to start with Warchild
Susan Palwick - "Shelter" was awesome, and also the non-sff "Flying in Place."
Sherri S. Tepper - "Grass" took me a while to get into, but "The Gate to Women's Country" was great, and she's written so much more that I haven't read. "The True Game" is fun fantasy.
Kay Kenyon - the Rose and the Entire series
Nancy Kress - Beggars in Spain
Connie Willis - duh. But is she too obvious a choice?
Tanya Huff - my favorite for military scifi
Valerie Freireich - very underrated scifi author
Patricia A. McKillip