Strong-chinned blokes with muscled forearms all too often bear the role of savior to the cliched damsel in distress. But the days of polished knights on stallions may be winding down, for the times, they are a’changin’. Yes, women are resurgent everywhere you look—as they should be! From the wide realm of comics to the IMAX screen, strong female leads are storming the stage and letting the world know they’re every bit as rough n’ tumble as a "man of steel," and certainly just as clever as the "world’s greatest detective." To recite the words of playwright David Mamet, "What one man can do, a woman can do!"
But many authors of sci-fi books already knew all that. In fact, I think I happen to have a list of such works around here somewhere. Where did I put…? Wait, let me go ask my wife to help me!
Ren and Toby from The Year of the Flood
The indomitable Margaret Atwood has never held back on the grit and grim— her dystopias are harsh! Coming hard on the heels of the devastating Oryx and Crake, the follow-up novel, The Year of the Flood, throws two young female protagonists into the same literary wasteland. Toby’s an orphan peddling "Secret Burgers," which may or may not contain human bits (I’m guessing they do). Her boss is a sex predator keeping a lecherous eye on her. Her friend Ren is a former "God’s Gardner," once dedicated to the preservation of plant life on Earth, now keeping busy as a stripper. But when the pandemic introduced in Oryx and Crake begins eradicating civilization, Toby and Ren are both spared the dire consequences of the "Waterless Flood." They may’ve been better off dead.
Sweeping in scope and sheer inventiveness, The Year of the Flood is pure Atwood… and like the flawed heroines of her prior novels, Toby and Ren (whose names were picked through a charity event) endure a plethora of events which might crush the souls of any lesser characters.
Cordelia Naismith from Cordelia's Honor
What we get in Cordelia’s Honor is a triple whammy—two sci-fi books and one short story bound into one! Bujold’s novels Shards of Honor and Barrayar and the story "Aftermaths" begin the long and winding tale of Captain Cordelia Naismith, whose extra-planetary survey crew are attacked… leaving her stranded with Aral Vorkosigan, a lord from Barrayar with a very poor reputation. But the more they get to know one another, the less evil he seems. Soon he’s offering to free her if she’ll marry him, but other events get in the way of the blissful ceremony. Prince Vorbarra of Barrayar has launched an attack, via a wormhole, on another populated planet. Naismith helps Vorkosigan take up arms against Prince Vorbarra, but she is soon abducted by yet another wicked antagonist—Admiral Vorrutyer. The hits keep on coming, as Vorrutyer attempts to rape his captive before being murdered by the insane anti-hero Sergeant Konstantin Bothari. Escaping with him to a prison camp, Captain Naismith discovers the captives are mostly female rape victims. She assists Vorkosigan in rescuing them before finally rebuffing his earlier proposal of marriage. In Bujold’s created universe, men are just too screwed up to make good husband material.
Lessa from the Dragonriders of Pern Series
Talk about prolific! Dragonriders of Pern reaches across 23 novels (some written by McCaffrey’s son, but most by her) and two collections of short stories. That’s a lot of dragon-riding! A unique amalgamation of Renaissance Faire and Steampunk, the backdrop of Pern takes second stage to the characters and their social hierarchy of Weyfolk, Holders, Crafters, and the Holdless (a group of nomads with whom I can identify). And then, of course, there are the genetically engineered dragons with their own matriarchal culture. Dragons are vital to the survival of planet Pern, for only they are capable of battling the world-devouring nemesis known as Thread, a creature from a neighboring orb who drops by on occasion to eat everybody. Dragons form strong telepathic bonds with their riders, and the dragon Queen’s rider is thus the most important human around. This person happens to be a female named Lessa. Thus starts an ongoing trend within McCaffrey & Son’s epic fantasy/sci-fi book saga of people and dragons fighting for their lives against a force so ominously random that the citizens often forget the existential danger it poses… just as they’ve also forgotten their ancient technological heritage. Luckily, a chain of powerful female protagonists helps get them back on track!
Nell from The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer
Grab a notepad, an abacus, and a bottle of aspirin, because we’re going back down the rabbit hole into the world of Neal Stephenson. Things get complex in a hurry. In his postcyberpunk novel, we find a little girl and an impoverished thete living on a diamond island. Nell, as she’s called, comes across a subversive, interactive book designed to indoctrinate and manipulate its reader so he or she might have a better life. Raised by a neglectful mother (named Tequila!), Nell and her brother Harv have grown up in a world completely influenced by nanotechnology, where all basic human needs are met for free through matter compilers. But society itself is clustered into phyles, under the umbrella of the Common Economic Protocol… an umbrella out of whose protection Tequila and her offspring fall. Thus using the book A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer to improve her odds of survival, Nell ultimately discovers John Percival Hackworth, the author and creator of the Primer. Hackworth is caught in his own web of controversy after making an illegal copy of the book for his own daughter Fiona, with whom he struggles to maintain a relationship. Meanwhile, the Primer itself, which contains a feminine personality, develops a rapport with Nell as it works in lieu of Nell’s own mother to provide for her wellbeing… a stark prediction of how mobile tablets have come to replace human interaction among many young kids today!
Lauren Olamina from Parable of the Sower
The title comes from the Bible’s Book of Matthew, but perhaps the parallels end there. Imagine the world as if the Purge films had come true. Anarchy reigns— there’s no law and order, and it's every person for him or herself. Lauren Olamina was raised in this world, and thanks to her mom’s drug addition, she was born as a person of hyperempathy, meaning she can feel the pain of others. It is a difficult life. To cope, she invents her own religion, Earthseed, which she intends to spread in northern California after narrowly escaping a brutal death at the hands of looters who destroyed her community and murdered her family. Rejecting her now-dead preacher father’s view of God, Olamina envisions a god which can be shaped by the individual; to her, the "seeds" of life itself may be picked up and relocated, scattered to other worlds where they will take root and thrive. The concepts of Butler’s fictional faith were inspired by actual existing movements, and in turn Earthseed has since spawned derivatives of its own! Unfortunately, Butler died before completing the third novel in her intended trilogy… however, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents form a cohesive tale on their own.
Kin Arad from Strata
Terry Pratchett is best known for his fantastical Discworld series, which rely heavily on magic as well as tech. But in Strata, one of Pratchett’s first sci-fi books, the only magic to be found is in the literary style itself. In the future, humans come in a multitude of varieties, and are therefore able to stave off extinction. New worlds are terraformed to create habitats for these offshoots of Mankind, and the engineers which build these new worlds must follow strict guidelines. But there’s always a joker in the pack, and often the bored engineers embed incongruent elements within the planets’ geological structures, in order to intentionally screw with future archeologists. One of the less prankish engineers, Kin Arad, discovers an insider joke creation of staggering proportions—an entire "flat Earth" inhabited by people who have no idea their world is artificial… and on the brink of mechanical breakdown. Arad is unamused by the recreations of "magical" objects such as flying carpets, which are completely technologically driven. She eventually establishes communication with the AI that runs the flat world. Striking a bargain, Arad agrees to terraform a planet to transfer the inhabitants. Meanwhile, she begins to suspect the prank may be far larger in scale than even she could have imagined!
Stephanie Alexander-Harrington from the Honor Harrington Series
Who says men can’t write great female lead characters? David Weber does it all the time! I hate to draw comparisons between his Royal Manticoran Navy officer, Honor Stephanie Alexander-Harrington, and Starfleet’s most notorious captain, James T. Kirk… because, most likely, Honor would judo-chop Kirk in the throat and call it an easy day. Once a small town girl from the suburbs of Craggy Hollow, Honor was born into the blue collar class. Thanks to her genetically engineered superior intellect, she’s able to rise above the plateau of her intended status. With her trusty telepathic Sphinxian treecat in tow, the series chronicles her evolution from brilliant cadet to fleet admiral and galactic diplomat. A solid template for any hardcore military or political female figure, Honor Harrington is literary evidence that a woman can do anything (and everything) a man can. This pistol-packing, sword dueling, ship commanding veteran pilot is also a master of the martial art coup de vitesse, as well as a mathematical egghead and tactical wizard. That’s what you call a Renaissance Woman!
Dr. Ellie Arroway from Contact
Made into a movie by Robert Zemeckis, Carl Sagan’s novel drops the talented Dr. Ellie Arroway into the optimistic SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) to listen for signs of interstellar life. The odds of finding such a signal are bleak at best, but for Arroway and her crew, nothing is hopeless. Picking up a weak signal from the distant Vega system, Arroway’s antennae perk up and she meets with the President to discuss their options. Soon a far more complicated message is discovered, masking the plans to a space vessel which listeners should be able to decipher. The government decides to build the spacefaring machine based on the encoded plans, and send an envoy across several light years to visit Vega. Far from shy, the determined Arroway volunteers to pilot the untested vessel upon its completion. She’s confronted with an unexpected foe in the form of religious philosopher Palmer Joss, but eventually finds passage aboard the dodecahedron-shaped vessel and traverses several wormholes to arrive in the middle of the Milky Way. Arroway and her fellow travelers become the first humans to establish contact with an alien civilization, which take the form of the travelers’ deceased loved ones. As creepy as that is, the events following her return to Earth are even more unsettling…
Ofelia Falfurrias from Remnant Population
Remnant Population really brings it in, eschewing the vast-scale cosmic setting of most sci-fi books and instead focusing on one obscure settlement of the Sims Bancorp Company. Ofelia Falfurrias and her husband had volunteered to be timber colonists years ago on an unnamed distant planet. The colony has since utterly failed due to a number of reasons, from poor site choice to general mismanagement. The workers themselves don’t know what they’re doing, and mistrust of each other is widespread. When the colony is bought out by a new company, everyone is forced to evacuate. She chooses to remain, unwilling to attempt the trip due to her advancing age and seeming loss of productiveness. She doesn’t mind staying back—in fact, she begins to enjoy her simple life of peace and freedom, until one day a new fleet of colonists approach. Clearing a landing strip, this new fleet has only just begun to settle in when they are inexplicably wiped out by the heretofore unseen indigenous species of the planet… a species which had, up to that point, been content to let the humans do as they pleased. Uncertain of her pending fate in the face of this massacre, Ofelia soon establishes contact with the native species and develops a close bond with them, advancing to a revered honorary rank within their community—that of "Nest Guardian," a valued person of age and wisdom.
Torin Kerr from the Confederation (Valor) Series
We finally get an enlisted female with Tanya Huff’s flinty Marine Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr! Sergeant Kerr leads a rough life as a chosen protector of the Confederation, a group of advanced pacifist races who require the military services of lesser beings to allow them to live the lifestyle they prefer. Kerr doesn’t mind at all—but when she’s sent on a diplomatic mission to entice the Silsviss to join the ranks of the Confederation, she soon becomes worried of imminent boredom. She has nothing to worry about, though, for the enemy Others will offer her a chance at combat action… a chance at which she gladly jumps. Thus launches the gallant Kerr and her ragtag platoon’s series of fast-paced space adventures. They undertake one risky mission after another, their intrepid, take-no-prisoners sergeant leading the charge through thick and thin and alien guts. Fans of hardcore military sci-fi better grab their bags and boots and get ready to deploy; Gunnery Sergeant Kerr doesn’t have the patience to wait around, and you don’t want to get on her bad side!
Lenie Clarke from Starfish
Book one of Watts’ Rifters Trilogy, Starfish, introduces yet another greedy mega corporation, but this one’s not engaged in cosmic power struggles. Instead, the Company’s intent is to exploit geothermic natural resources from the bottom of Earth’s ocean. Doesn’t strike you as too malevolent so far, does it? Of course, in order to best explore the ocean’s darkest depths, they decide to create—you guessed it—genetically enhanced humans who can operate not only under water, but under the heavy pressures and eerie low light conditions of the deep (and you thought your job sucked!). Takes a special sort of mental fortitude to endure such a work environment… jerks and criminal psychotics often fit the mold nicely. But in 2050, good jobs are hard to come by, and workers are willing to risk being eaten alive three miles under the surface of the ocean if that’s what it takes to get a decent paycheck. Unfortunately, these may not be the types of persons you’d want to entrust with the fate of the planet! As amphibious crew leader Lenie Clarke and the other gaggle of misfits go about their dreary daily routine at the Juan de Fuca Rift, they stumble into the sort of high-stakes responsibility they never asked for. The victimized Clarke, for one, is certainly not mentally equipped to handle the destructive power at her fingertips. A survivor of many years in a crucible of abuse in the world up above, she is now put to her final test under the most extreme stressors, in the most inhospitable realm imaginable…