7 Women Who Altered Sci-Fi As We Know It

Celebrating the women who reshaped everything from Aliens to Zeniths.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re featuring seven phenomenal women who have changed the face of sci-fi forever. These women’s contributions have ensured that not only science fiction change fundamentally but paved the way for others to contribute to the genre.

woman with cropped dark hair and large glasses with a book in front of her and books on shelves behind her
Photo: Getty Images

Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler began to tell herself stories when she was four years old to pass the time while her mother worked as a housekeeper. She would go on to become one of the greatest writers of all time. Butler’s literature transcends generations and genres, tackling themes of racism, power inequity, and corruption in works that go beyond sci-fi into universal storytelling. Parable of the Sower was one of her first works that I read, and it fundamentally changed for me what sci-fi could look like. “I write about people who do extraordinary things,” says Butler. “It was called science fiction.” ¹

painting of a woman with dark hair pulled back and staring directly at the artist
Courtesy of Richard Rothwell via CC BY-SA 3.0

Mary Shelley

Credited as one of the early inventors of science fiction with her work Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley generated a work that has clearly lasted several lifetimes. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss Shelley’s work in The Madwoman in the Attic as reaffirming masculine tradition, including the misogyny inherent in it, while simultaneously "conceal[ing] fantasies of equality that occasionally erupt in monstrous images of rage." Shelley believed that irresponsible uses of power, such as the power that Frankenstein wielded, would deviate into chaos, while responsibility and understanding of power contributes to a better society. She believed that truth, justice, and equity were what backboned solid communities.

Photos: Getty Images

Lana and Lilly Wachowski

Possibly the most famous example of women who changed sci-fi forever, Lana and Lilly Wachowski are the sisters behind The Matrix, V for Vendetta, Sense8 and Jupiter Ascending. Their knack for dystopian power structures coupled with complex and fascinating lead characters causes their narratives to be wildly compelling. Influenced by comic books and long-form narrative, their interests lie in serial fiction and translating it to cinema. Common themes of the Wachowski sisters are "interconnectivity and truth beneath the surface", ² "the paradox of choice and choicelessness", "transcendence ... transcending archetypal boxes, stereotypes", "race" and "gender ... it's one of our most significant cultural subjects". ³

a woman with dark hair
Portrait of N.K. Jemisin by Laura Hanifin, 2015

N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin is an American sci-fi writer who has also worked as a psychologist. Her works deal with cultural oppression and the accompanying conflicts. She explores themes of power and how the dynamics and complexities of power play out. Her writing style is inspired by dreams — she views them as portals to other worlds, and those worlds are what she brings back into our realm. Jemisin’s writing was encouraged by her father, who would take her on long walks and listen to her build worlds as they crossed the Williamsburg bridge — sometimes he would paint and she would write alongside him. Jemisin is also the recipient of the Macarthur Genius Grant.

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Photo: Portland State University

Grace Dillon

An academic and an author, Grace Dillon is best known for coining the term, “Indigenous Futurisms,” contextualizing the indigenous experience, and allowing room to project peoples often viewed as people “of the past” into the future. Dillon gives them space in a sci-fi setting that is often overpowered by white media representations. She also coined the phrase,“Native slipstream”, which refers to ways of talking about Indigenous people in space-time — not separating space or time, but incorporating them together, flowing together like a stream, or a multiverse. Dillon is redefining sci-fi with her anthology of indigenous sci-fi works, Walking the Clouds, ensuring that everyone gets a seat at the table.

older woman with grey hair holding a clear globe out to the person behind the camera
Photo: Getty Images

Margaret Atwood

Since 1961, Margaret Atwood has written 18 poetry books, 18 novels, 11 non-fiction books, nine collections of short fiction, eight children’s books, and two graphic novels. Her works deal with outsiderism and survival, and while Atwood rejects the term, “feminism,” her works focus on women’s rights. Perhaps most famously, Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, exploring dystopian systems of power that reduce women’s societal contributions to little more than cattle. Most frighteningly, she claims that The Handmaid’s Tale is not a work of science fiction, but rather speculative fiction, as it deals with a concept that isn’t too far off from what could easily happen. History is what interests Atwood, particularly the themes of Canadian history, such as settler colonialism and unquestioned loyalty to community. Literary critic Linda Hutcheon refers to her works as “historiographic metafiction” as Atwood explores the relationship between history itself and setting historical precedents.

¹ https://www.mtn-view.com/preserving-everlasting-memories/octavia-butler-she-wrote-about-power-because-she-had-so-little/

² McGrath, Charles (October 9, 2012) "Bending Time, Bending Minds". New York Times.

³ Hugo Weaving | Random Scribblings (February 17, 2013). "Cloud Atlas – Chinese TV Interview with Hugo Weaving, Lana and Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer (v.qq.com)"