A Wrinkle in Time , Madeleine L’Engle
In this favorite childhood book of many girls (and boys), awkward nerd Meg Murry, along with her younger brother Charles Wallace and dreamy schoolmate Calvin O’Keefe, conquers the forces of evil and saves her scientist father through the combined powers of her considerable intellect and her familial love. Meg didn’t have all the answers and was neither a witch, nor a princess, nor a damsel in distress, but a regular (if smart-as-a-whip) geek with her family on the line, and we expect she will be a favorite for 50 years to come.
The Left Hand of Darkness , Ursula K. LeGuin
One of the first major works of feminist-minded science fiction, LeGuin’s celebrated novel is also (in our minds) one of the genre’s all-time best. On the planet of Winter, the citizens have no genders or sexual urges except for once a month for procreation purposes — LeGuin was interested in what would remain basic to human nature once gender was no longer a factor. War doesn’t exist, for example, though love and jealousy still do. LeGuin’s creativity and explorations of humanity make her another legend of the genre beloved by men and women (and those in-between) alike.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind , Hayao Miyazaki
Miyazaki’s Nausicaä is one of our favorite female protagonists, science fiction or otherwise. In this post-apocalyptic manga series, Nausicaä is the princess of a small nation pulled into a war as environmental devastation threatens the globe. A warrior and a peacekeeper all at once, Nausicaä discovers the secrets of the plague slowly overtaking her home, but chooses faith in the natural order as opposed to brute force to combat the threat.
The Windup Girl , Paolo Bacigalupi
One of the best new science fiction books of the past few years, this novel, set in set in 23rd century Thailand, follows Emiko, an abandoned Japanese-designed windup girl programmed to find a master and obey his every whim, as she fights to escape her fate and make a true, independent life for herself.
Ender’s Game , Orson Scott Card
While it’s true that the only two prominent women in Orson Scott Card’s masterpiece are relatively weak (Petra is the only one to crack in the final battle, Valentine is by definition a softer version of Ender), they’re both still pretty amazing geniuses. However, since we don’t think girls should only read books about girls (case in point: this was our all-time favorite book for many years), that fact doesn’t exile this amazing book from our list. What recommends it to science fiction newbies is its immediacy and relevancy, plus the fact that once you pick it up, you pretty much can’t put it down until you reach the end.
The Female Man , Joanna Russ
Russ’s obituary last year described her as a writer who helped “deliver science fiction into the hands of the most alien creatures the genre had yet seen — women.” Indeed, she was part of the vanguard of women working in science fiction, both in authorship and scholarship, and incorporated feminist ideas into her own work. The Female Man is the most famous of her books, following four women living in parallel universes that meet, each ultimately changing their ideas of what it does and should mean to be a woman in her particular world — and the world at large.
Stranger in a Strange Land , Robert A. Heinlein
This book is another mainstay of the science fiction genre, the masterwork of the prolific and important Robert Heinlein. Though the female characters in this novel aren’t particularly inspiring, we think the story is weird, brilliant, and universal enough to creep slowly into just about anyone’s head.
Frankenstein , Mary Shelley
Though it doesn’t involve space travel or alien life forms, many scholars consider Frankenstein to be the first true work of science fiction — and hey, it was written by a woman. This aside from the fact that everyone should probably read this book at one time or another.
Dune , Frank Herbert
Since it’s the world’s best-selling science fiction novel and all, we think there have to be at least a few girls behind this book. The first of a series, this is one of those books that just about everyone we know likes, a lush universe you can immerse yourself in without ever wanting to emerge.
The Handmaid’s Tale , Margaret Atwood
In this dystopian novel, women have been completely subjugated by a chauvinist society. The story is told by Offred (because she belongs to Fred), who is a concubine for the Commander, as she furtively struggles against the new regime and finds agency in the very femininity that is so maligned by those in power.