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Best Science Fiction by Women

The 25 Best Science Fiction Written By Female Authors

Science fiction can appear to be a very masculine genre, all that technology just makes it seem like toys for the boys. But that is far from the truth. There have always been women writing science fiction, indeed some of the best and most important works of science fiction have been written by women. There are even those who would argue that science fiction wouldn't exist if not for a woman.

So get your head around stories that will seriously change the way you see the world. These are stories that have shaped science fiction, stories that explore the new in a way science fiction was always meant to do but so rarely achieves. Even so, the 25 novels and story collections we've brought together here barely scratch the surface of the great sf by women that's waiting to be discovered.

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Award Nominations:1975 NEBULA

Joanna, Jeannine, Janet and Jael are all versions of the same person living in four very different worlds. They are brought together when Janet, from the feminist utopia of Whileaway where men were wiped out by plague 800 years before, learns to travel between the worlds. In Jeannine's world we find that the Great Depression never ended, and in Joanna's world we find a place very much like our world of the 1970s. Worst of all is Jael's world, where an all-out war between men and women has been going on for 40 years. As Janet, who has never met a man, learns about the different ways that men and women behave towards each other, we find that all of our expectations are overturned.

Why it's top of the list: Because 40 years after it was first published, it is still among the most radical works of feminist science fiction you are ever likely to encounter. It may not have been the first work of feminist science fiction, but it was certainly the most powerful. And many of the women writing today can trace their influences back to this book.

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Okay, we could probably fill this list with works by Le Guin, and no-one would have any reason to complain. She is, quite simply, one of the pre-eminent writers of science fiction, of either sex, in our time. But if we have to limit our choice to just one title, it has to be this one.

Genly Ai is an ambassador who arrives on Gethen (Winter), to try and persuade it to join the Ekumen. He is hampered by the fact that he doesn't understand the nature of the people on Gethen. They have no gender, but once a month in a period known as kemmer they become either male or female depending on circumstances. It is only during an epic journey across the snow-covered landscape that Ai truly comes to understand the people of Gethen and how their unique biology has shaped a society that has never known war. But this revelation comes at a cost, as he ends up betraying the person to whom he owes the most.

Why it's on the list:

One of the rare works that has won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, this was the first novel to directly challenge the way we see sexual differences, and how that affects our social perceptions.

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It was, famously, the product of a rainy holiday in Switzerland. The guests at the villa Diodati challenged each other to write a chilling story. It resulted in Dr Polidori's The Vampyre, a precursor of Dracula, and Mary Shelley's peerless example of Gothic fiction. Brian Aldiss has since claimed that this is the very first science fiction novel, that we owe the whole genre to Mary Shelley.

She had passed Castle Frankenstein on an earlier visit to Europe, and she put that together with the new discovery of galvanism. The result is a story we all know: how a scientist reanimated dead tissue, but rejected the being he had created. What follows is a steady accumulation of horror ending in an epic battle of wills played out against the spectacular mountains of Switzerland.

Why it's on the list:

It is practically impossible to keep count of the number of stage plays and films that have been made of the novel, not to mention the endless variations on the story that have been published. Which means that even if we disagree with Brian Aldiss about the origins of the genre, Frankenstein can lay claim to being perhaps the most influential book in the entire history of science fiction.

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Also known as the Xenogenesis Trilogy, this was arguably the peak of Octavia Butler's distinguished career. The first book in the sequence, Dawn, begins with most of humanity wiped out in a nuclear war. The few survivors are rescued by an alien race, the Oankali, who offer to help the humans resettle their shattered world. There is a price: the Oankali want to interbreed with humans in order to raise a hybrid race. There are two problems with this deal; the first is that the Oankali are physically repulsive, even reading about them can make you feel queasy. The second is that the Oankali have three sexes: male, female, and a third gender, Ooloi, who are able to directly manipulate genetic material.

The three books follow the consequences of this deal over the succeeding years, tracing the tensions between the races and between the sexes, seen in particular through the new generation of hybrid people who are inevitably caught in the middle but who have the greatest promise for the future.

Why it's on the list:

Butler always wrote powerfully about issues of race and of sex, but never brought those issues out so effectively as in this trilogy.

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Before Tiptree was revealed to be the pen name of Alice Bradley Sheldon, wartime intelligence evaluator, one-time chicken farmer, and psychology student, the stories that began to appear in the late 1960s had mystified the sf community. Ineluctably male, had been Robert Silverberg's conclusion; except that Tiptree also wrote with great insight about feminist issues. The truth was that James Tiptree was a complete mystery, and the only thing that everyone could agree on was that the stories were like nothing that had appeared in science fiction before.

Tiptree was always best in short stories, and this collection brings together the most outstanding examples. "The Women Men Don't See" is an alien contact story with a difference, in which women welcome the alien. "The Girl Who Was Plugged In", which won a Hugo Award, is a precursor of cyberpunk in its story of a deformed girl who is given the chance to become a global celebrity via a remote, a beautiful avatar she controls through a computer. "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death", which won the Nebula Award, is narrated by an alien creature who tells how the sex drive leads him to murder and cannibalism, an equation of sex and violence that runs through much of Tiptree's work.

Why it's on the list: At her best, as so many of these stories are, James Tiptree was without compare, one of the very finest short story writers science fiction has produced.

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Awards Won:1992 CLARKE
Award Nominations:1991 NEBULA

Mention cyberpunk and who do you think of? William Gibson? Bruce Sterling? Perhaps Neal Stephenson? Well, you're missing one of the most important of the cyberpunks: Pat Cadigan. And her novel Synners, which won the first of her two Arthur C. Clarke Awards, is a gritty, fast-paced account of what can go wrong with the human-computer interface. It's the story of an outlaw band of hackers jacked in to artificial reality when a computer virus starts killing them. It's a pell mell adventure that starts at high speed and doesn't slow down, racing through a clogged urban future where the only escape is into cyberspace, and cyberspace has suddenly become deadly.

Why it's on the list:

This is a woman trespassing on an area mostly associated with men, and proving she can do it better than most. Science fiction adventures don't come much harder, faster or more exciting than this.

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Right from her debut as an adult novelist with Divine Endurance (she has an equally long and successful career as a children's writer), Gwyneth Jones has been a writer to watch. Her plots are complex and politically charged, you need to have your brain in gear when you're reading her work, yet her writing is vivid and engaging. Though Divine Endurance is probably her most popular work, it is the Aleutian Trilogy, White Queen (winner of the James Tiptree Award), North Wind and Phoenix Cafe that is her most arresting.

It is an alien invasion story, but what is most interesting is not the invasion itself but what happens afterwards. When Earth is colonised by the Aleutians, we are presented with all the problems associated with that. There are linguistic differences which make it difficult for coloniser and colonised to understand each other; there are problems with the fact that the Aleutians have a sort of immortality; and above all there is the new sense of inferiority that leads many humans to have themselves surgically altered so they look more like the aliens.

Why it's on the list:

Colonialism has been a theme of science fiction at least since the work of H.G. Wells, but no-one has spelled out exactly what it means to be colonised the way that Gwyneth Jones does here.

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Award Nominations:1992 NEBULA

In the Pacific North West of the 1880s a strange, silent white woman suddenly appears in a camp of Chinese workers. Where she comes from, who or what she is, no-one knows, but she has a profound effect on everyone she comes into contact with. From the inmates in the local insane asylum to the pioneering feminists in the nearby town, Sarah Canary is drawn to the outcasts and the downtrodden in this rough frontier territory. Yet she never speaks and she remains a mystery, even after the transcendent ending we cannot be sure whether she is an escaped lunatic or an alien, or possibly even an angel.

Painting a remarkably vivid portrait of this very particular place and time in American history, Karen Joy Fowler manages to make it seem mysterious, so that the mystery of Sarah Canary seems to belong naturally here and it is only afterwards that we start to ask ourselves what she could possibly be.

Why it's on the list:

Depending on how you interpret the ending of the novel, Sarah Canary may not even be science fiction, and yet it feels profoundly science fictional. It is an extraordinary balancing act that Karen Joy Fowler has managed to perform in much of her best work. As a result, she makes us question what we believe science fiction to be.

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You can't escape Ancillary Justice; it was easily the most talked about novel of the year (2014), and it achieved an unprecedented sweep of the major science fiction awards. Part of the attraction clearly lies in the story. This is a superb example of new space opera, that reimagining of traditional genre to make it fresh. So we have interplanetary empires, strange aliens, fascinating planets, and above all massive spaceships whose controlling AIs can break into innumerable parts (our viewpoint is a portion of one such ship).

But alongside this, Leckie uses the same pronoun for everyone, regardless of gender, which means that we are constantly having to rethink whether the characters we are following are male or female. Which means it is a novel that keeps us on edge, and that is exactly what the best science fiction is meant to do.

Why it's on the list:

Leckie's influences are plain to see, from Ursula Le Guin to Iain M. Banks, but she mixes these influences together in a new way. It could be that this is going to be equally influential in its turn.

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By the time Burroughs came to write the first of his Barsoom novels, the idea of Mars presented by Percival Lowell had been pretty much dismissed, but that didn't matter. Because for Burroughs the idea of a dying desert world was just the setting he needed for a fast-paced adventure story full of sword fights and derring-do and lots of ridiculous escapades.

John Carter, a Civil War veteran, is escaping from Apaches in Arizona when he is suddenly transported to Mars. Here the lower gravity means he has super powers, which gives him a real advantage when he becomes involved in the war between the green, six-limbed Tharks and the red humanoid Martians. Of course, there's a beautiful Martian princess, Dejah Thoris, for him to rescue and fall in love with. And there are all sorts of big set piece action scenes to keep the whole story rushing along.

Why it's on the list:

A Princess of Mars was just the first in a series of 11 Barsoom books that Burroughs would write over a period of some 30 years. Let's face it, you don't read them for literary quality or scientific verisimilitude, but they are incredibly readable, and created the colourful planetary romance that was one of the most popular forms of science fiction over the next half century or more.

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Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, sometimes known as Mad Madge, was an amazing figure, a friend of major thinkers like Descartes and Hobbes, she was an early exponent of atomism, and persistently tried to join the Royal Society though women were not allowed to be members at the time. Above all, she was one of the first women in England to publish books under her own name, and to make a living at it.

The Blazing World is full of incident. Our heroine is kidnapped by pirates, shipwrecked at the North Pole, finds another world attached to ours at the pole, crosses to that other world where she encounters a host of strange animals, then she goes into the interior of the world which is ablaze with jewels and has herself made Empress. On top of all of that, she then starts to communicate with the Duchess of Newcastle in our own world, so that the author thus becomes a character in her own novel. We might wonder whether The Blazing World might have been acclaimed as a precursor for postmodernism if it hadn't been written by a woman.

Why it's on the list:

This is the earliest substantial work of fiction written by a woman that is recognisable as science fiction, and it is still fascinating to read today.

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Awards Won:1982 HUGO
Award Nominations:1982 LocusSF

We often tend to slip into the notion that before the advent of writers like Ursula Le Guin and Joanna Russ, science fiction was an exclusively masculine domain. But that couldn't be further from the truth. There have always been women who played a prominent part in the literature. C.L. Moore is a case in point. With her very first sale, "Shambleau", in 1933, she created one of the creepiest and most effective of all weird tales, with a story of a planetary adventurer and his encounter with a beautiful but deadly alien vampire.

She was just as adept with straight science fiction stories, such as the wonderful "No Woman Born", which tells the story of a glamorous and celebrated performer who is killed in a fire; but her brain is preserved and put into a specially-designed robot body. For the men in her life she thus becomes an object of fear, a powerful woman that they cannot control, but for the performer herself she suddenly realises that she can achieve so much more than she ever did before. With her husband, Henry Kuttner, Moore also collaborated on classic stories such as "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" and "Vintage Season", which were written as by Lewis Padgett or Laurence O'Donnell.Practically everything she wrote was at short story length, and as the title suggests the best of them have been brought together in this collection.

Why it's on the list:

From the 1930s through to the 1950s, C.L. Moore was one of the leading genre writers who had a profound influence on the shape of weird fiction as well as "golden age" science fiction.

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We often tend to slip into the notion that before the advent of writers like Ursula Le Guin and Joanna Russ, science fiction was an exclusively masculine domain. But that couldn't be further from the truth. There have always been women who played a prominent part in the literature. C.L. Moore is a case in point. With her very first sale, "Shambleau", in 1933, she created one of the creepiest and most effective of all weird tales, with a story of a planetary adventurer and his encounter with a beautiful but deadly alien vampire.

She was just as adept with straight science fiction stories, such as the wonderful "No Woman Born", which tells the story of a glamorous and celebrated performer who is killed in a fire but her brain is preserved and put into a specially-designed robot body. For the men in her life she thus becomes an object of fear, a powerful woman that they cannot control, but for the performer herself she suddenly realises that she can achieve so much more than she ever did before. With her husband, Henry Kuttner, Moore also collaborated on classic stories such as "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" and "Vintage Season", which were written as by Lewis Padgett or Laurence O'Donnell.

Practically everything she wrote was at short story length, and as the title suggests the best of them have been brought together in this collection.

Why it's on the list:

From the 1930s through to the 1950s, C.L. Moore was one of the leading genre writers who had a profound influence on the shape of weird fiction as well as "golden age" science fiction.

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Depend upon each other, and gradually lose their sense of individuality. This becomes apparent when one member of the family becomes separated from the community and gives birth naturally. As her son grows up, he becomes aware that, along with their individuality, the clones have also lost their creativity. Eventually he sets up his own community, in a bid to breed individuality and creativity back into the survivors.The novel is made up of three linked novellas that carry the story on across the generations. The result is a richly imagined and humane portrait of a society as it changes over time.

Why it's on the list:

Kate Wilhelm is one of the more important but often under-rated figures in science fiction. A highly accomplished crime writer as well as a science fiction writer, she was also, with her husband Damon Knight, the founder of the Milford Writers' Conferences and the Clarion Workshops. Many of her novels and stories went on to win awards, but it was Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang that perhaps best represents the quality of her writing and the humanity of her vision.

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Award Nominations:1998 BSFA

New technologies are the life blood of science fiction as we imaginatively explore the effect they are likely to have upon the way we live our lives. One of the new technologies that started to attract interest in the 1990s was nanotechnology. In fiction, however, it was all too often presented as a sort of magic, a click of the finger and anything is transformed into anything else. It was Kathleen Ann Goonan's enthralling Nanotech Cycle that first began to picture how we would live, what society would be like, in a nanotech world.

The first of the four novels to be published (though not the first by internal chronology) was Queen City Jazz, and encountering the book for the first time was a shock to the system. Everything had been transformed, so that the reader is constantly having to ask whether we are witnessing a disaster or a benefit, whether each new thing we meet is a threat or an aid. Often it could be both at once.

Written in a free-flowing, jazz-tinged prose that would become typical of her work, the central story tells of the quest of a clone to revive her dead boyfriend and recover her telepathic dog. In a world where even the cities seem to have acquired a sort of transcendent sentience, the novel is crowded with invention and strangeness. It was one of the most arresting sf debuts of the 1990s.

Why it's on the list:

The novelty, the quality, the imagery, everything that we look for in science fiction is in this novel.

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Science fiction is filled with writers who have a devoted coterie of admirers, yet who seem to have missed out on the awards and honours that normally come with such success. Kit Reed is a little like that, she is what you might call a writer's writer. Her fluent control of the language takes the breath away of anyone who is trying to be a writer themselves, her stories always catch you off guard; and she's been doing that consistently since the 1950s. By rights her shelves should be groaning under the awards she has amassed. The fact that they are not is more of a failure on the part of the genre than it is on her part.

Of course, it doesn't help that she does not limit herself to one genre. Read through the stories gathered in this career retrospective and you'll find crime stories and weird fiction, mainstream and horror, alongside the science fiction. And within the science fiction you'll find everything from monsters to dystopias, mysterious disappearances and women going to war against their stultifying existence. Themes do recur, and yet every story feels different.

Why it's on the list:

This is an essential collection for anyone who wants to know how much the science fiction short story can achieve.

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In the early 1980s a young girl escapes the witchcraft of her controlling mother for a girl's boarding school, where she discovers science fiction. There's magic in the novel, though it feels low key and domestic; yet this is combined with a realistic account of school life at the time, and a recollection of the science fiction an eager and undiscriminating reader was encountering then. It's a curious mixture that shouldn't work; yet it does, as is shown by the awards that were showered on the book.

Above all, it is a testament to science fiction. Jo Walton writes fluently about the sf novels she reads at the Tor.com website, and there is something of the same quality replicated in this novel. But here we see the books Mori reads, everything from Asimov to Delany to McCaffrey, as a way of confronting and dealing with the various horrors in her life. Because on the one hand she must lay spells to protect herself from her mother who may be a witch or may be insane, or may be both, and whom Mori blames for the death of her sister; on the other hand, she has to cope with the day to day experience of a school where she doesn't fit in and where she has few friends among the other girls. We see science fiction, therefore, not as an escape, but as the key to growing up.

Why it's on the list:

Science fiction about science fiction has a curiously long tradition, but rarely has it been as direct, as affectionate, and as affecting as it is in this novel.

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What if Hitler won the Second World War? Hardly an original idea, is it? There are shelf-loads of novels and anthologies devoted to the idea, some of them classics, most of them not. But none is a match for Swastika Night. Because this breath-taking novel was published, under the pseudonym Murray Constantine, in 1937, two years before the war started.

When Hitler proclaimed the "Thousand-Year Reich", Katherine Burdekin saw what might result, and wrote this novel. Set hundreds of years after the end of the war, we enter a world in which Jews have been eliminated, Christians are marginalised, and women have been deprived of all their rights. It is a brutal, misogynistic society in which history has been rewritten so that Hitler is remembered as a tall, blond god who single-handedly won the war. The suppression of women is also having a long term effect on the viability of the society. Then a visitor to the Reich stumbles upon a secret from the past.

Why it's on the list:

Katherine Burdekin didn't just initiate a whole strand of alternate histories, her scathing attack on power and the suppression of women made this one of the classic novels of inter-war science fiction.

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Award Nominations:1986 BSFA, 1987 CLARKE

Josephine Saxton was one of the stars of the British new wave during the 1960s, writing a string of intriguing off-beat short stories and complex, challenging novels. But she has had a chequered publishing history. After her third novel, Group Feast, she disappeared from the scene for the best part of a decade, only returning in the 1980s with a series of novels that used science fiction as a means of exploring ideas taken from Carl Jung. The best and most intriguing of these was Queen of the States, which was shortlisted for both the BSFA and the Arthur C. Clarke Awards. The states of the title could refer to the USA, since the heroine, Magdalen, believes she is reigning in the White House. But it more accurately refers to her states of mind, because Magdalen is also a patient in a mental hospital. On yet another level, she has been abducted by insect-like aliens, who are busy exploring her various states of mind. What makes the novel work so well is that Magdalen moves freely between these various realities, and none is privileged, none is clearly and consistently identifiable as either truth or delusion. What emerges, through Magdalen's engaging voice, is a sharp and revealing insight into what it is like in someone else's mind, someone else's view of the world.

Saxton's writing is never easy, we don't know from one moment to the next where she is going to take us or what we are supposed to believe. But that is precisely what makes this novel so fresh, so intriguing, and so good.

Why it's on the list: There is no-one quite like Josephine Saxton. This novel can be read as straight science fiction, as a mainstream novel, or even as a UFO abduction narrative, or as all three of these at the same time.

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Award Nominations:1991 CLARKE

Pat Murphy is another writer who has not produced nearly as much fiction as we might like, but what she has written has a distinctive feel to it that makes each novel welcome. The one that perhaps best represents her work is The City, Not Long After, in some respects a love song to the artistic bohemia of San Francisco.

At the time, Murphy was working at the San Francisco Exploratorium, a museum designed to give a hands-on experience of the relationship between arts and sciences. And something of that sense is conveyed in this novel also. Set after a plague that has depopulated the city but left it largely intact, it tells of a group of artists who make the whole city the focus of their art. When a military force arrives, intent on establishing a police state, art becomes the principle weapon used to defend the city against the threat. Through art, reality is changed, and it is this change that allows San Francisco to retain its peaceful independence.

Why it's on the list: There are any number of science fiction books about art, but none appreciate the way that art can change our reality the way that this novel does. The fact that it is so firmly and lovingly rooted in San Francisco also adds to the book's appeal.

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There is a very long tradition of alternate histories in science fiction, usually hinging on war and political change as a way of questioning the reality we so readily accept. But in recent years a new trend has emerged in which alternate histories explore the different lives open to an individual woman during the course of the twentieth century. Examples include My Real Children by Jo Walton and The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, but the novel that started the trend and that is still the best is Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

Beginning on a snowy February morning in 1910, Ursula is born, and immediately dies. Then on that same morning, Ursula is born and lives a little longer. Her life constantly starts again at the same point, and each iteration takes a different path. She dies in the influenza outbreak of 1918, she is killed by an abusive husband, she commits suicide in the ruins of Berlin, she dies in the Blitz. Each death is a reset button, and each new life opens up new possibilities, and new limitations. Exploring what it was to be a woman in the twentieth century provides an extraordinary insight into the different ways our society can be shaped.

Why it's on the list: Kate Atkinson is better known as a crime novelist and mainstream writer, but she has flirted with the fantastic before, and in this book she engages wholeheartedly with the central mystery of science fiction: time. The result is beautifully written, engagingly structured, and absolutely fascinating, and it also lays down the template for what is already starting to look like an important new subgenre.

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Awards Won:2011 CLARKE
Award Nominations:2010 BSFA, 2011 WFA

One of the most fascinating things that science fiction can do is serve as a distorting mirror to the world we see around us. By shattering and twisting the image, it forces us to see the familiar in a completely new way, and that can be very revealing. That was especially the case with Lauren Beukes's Arthur C. Clarke Award winning Zoo City. Set in Johannesburg, especially in the inner city area of Hillbrow, the novel captures the social and criminal problems of the city by rendering them surreal. In this universe, anyone convicted of a crime is "animalled", that is, they are magically bonded to an animal familiar which, rather like the familiars in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, reflects the inner character of the criminal.

Journalist Zinzi December has been animalled to a sloth after causing the death of her brother. Now she ventures ever deeper into the fractured Johannesburg underworld as she attempts to find a missing pop star while also struggling to pay off her debt to a drug dealer. The psychic zoo proves to be a sharp and disturbing way of illuminating the city's many social problems. Why it's on the list: Lauren Beukes's background in South Africa comes out in the strange and powerful imagery that informs her novel, taking us into places that we were not previously familiar with.

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Award Nominations:2003 BSFA, 2004 CLARKE

What is the most characteristic thing in our contemporary urban lives. It is not the computer or the mobile phone or any of the other digital devices that surround us, it is the shopping mall. Here is the natural habitat of modern consumerism, a place for outings and social meetings as much as for buying. It is the hub that draws us all in at some time or other, and it is the all-encompassing magnetism of the place that lies at the heart of one of the two linked stories in this novel. The mall is the dystopia that all our lives are building towards, the setting where gangs of teenage girls engage in bitter warfare amid the goods that are forever beyond their reach.

That is the near future strand of the novel, but it is balanced by a strand that takes us to a more distant future. Here men have all but disappeared, and the girl gangs of one future have turned into the ruling sisterhood of the other. A world without men has become a cliche of feminist science fiction, but though there is a feminist message underlying Sullivan's book, it is not an easy or a straightforward one. On the contrary, Sullivan constantly subverts and questions the notion, particularly by juxtaposing the seeming utopia with the violence and malice displayed by the girls in the dystopia.

Why it's on the list: Feminism is a fundamental if sometimes unstated element in all of the books on this list; it is, after all, the different light that these authors have to shine upon the world. But no ideology should be unquestioned, and what makes all of these books interesting is the way they disturb and overthrow any simplistic notion of what feminism is. One of the things this particular novel does so well is dramatise the nature of that questioning.

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However much science fiction reinvents itself, as it must do constantly, one of the most consistently satisfying aspects of the genre is when a writer asks a simple question, then examines the ramifications subtly and systematically. That is what Nancy Kress did triumphantly across the trilogy that began with Beggars in Spain. What, she asked, if there were people who did not need to sleep? From that simple question arose a complex and richly textured portrait of the near future. There is an awful lot that goes into the mix: the rapid technological developments that follow when people can spend 24 hours a day thinking about the problem; the new ways that people organise themselves socially; the class divisions that emerge between the sleepers and the sleepless; the conflicts. All is coherently and comprehensively presented. Yet in among the technological science fiction, the genetic modification that is so thoroughly explored, the novel also a devastating critique of the selfish ideology propounded by Ayn Rand. What, she asks, do the superior owe to those who, through no fault of their own, are less well off? It is this that gives a philosophical depth to the science fiction.

Why it's on the list: Science fiction is supposed to do the future well, that's what the genre's about after all. But few do it as convincingly and as thoroughly as Nancy Kress does in this trilogy. Add to that the philosophical questions about how society should be organised for the benefit of all, and you have one of the classic works of science fiction.

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Sugar and spice and all things nice? Don't let Victorian misconceptions about women fool you. Open this novel and you are in a predominantly female world that is as nasty and brutish as anything. When a novel opens with the heroine casually cutting someone's head off, you know you are in for a book that takes no prisoners. There's a war that has been going on for generations, and it has sucked nearly all the men out of society and into the front line. So women have filled the niches left behind, including Nyx, our heroine, who is a bounty hunter and who spends large portions of the novel giving or receiving beatings, torture or other violence.

Gender doesn't define how people behave, social context does. And as Nyx's adventures bring her up against the implacable forces that rule this world, we see how her environment has necessarily made her tough. Elements of military sf are incorporated into an account of the plots, betrayals and assassinations that emerge from a matriarchal society divided against itself. The result is a fast-paced, hard-edged novel of breathless action and cruel violence.

Why it's on the list: It is refreshing to find a novel that demonstrates that women are equal masters of the sort of tough-guy story usually considered to be the exclusive preserve of men. And one of the points of this list is to overthrow any and all preconceptions about women writers.

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