Fantasy writing Science fiction writing

Unseen worlds: the omission of women on SFF ‘best of’ lists

Nerine Dorman laments that best of SFF lists often exclude many female writers, and suggests a range of other names to read

SomeGuy (and there is always someone who will fall under this title) will invariably pipe up in any online discussion on gender and identity for science fiction and fantasy (SFF) writing. He’ll often say, “oh, I never see an author’s gender or sexual orientation as being relevant for fiction,” but as Juliet McKenna pointed out recently, and much more eloquently than I could, we still shouldn’t see apparent “top lists” of SFF that are essentially “pale male” fests with the same names appearing time and again.

Representation does matter

I’m going to argue right back against SomeGuy, and say, representation does matter. I stand with McKenna. The world inhabited by the likes of JRR Tolkien, where women were largely absent from literary circles no longer exists.

But when I trawl the top ‘best of’ lists spewed out by Google, I get the same old names, including JRR Tolkien, George RR Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, CS Lewis, Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson, Scotty Lynch, Stephen King, Guy Gavriel Kay, Neil Gaiman, Patrick Rothfuss, Terry Pratchett, Rick Riordan, Roald Dahl, Raymond Feist, David Gemmell, Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Andrzej Sapkowski… I can go on. Without fail, it’s the variations of the above, with the occasional woman tossed in, sometimes like an afterthought. I almost want to yell at the screen, “We exist, you know!”

A casual, recent request on my social media platforms for favourite female and/or queer authors threw out nearly 100 names in the matter of hours. Many of these authors, to my absolute shame, I’d never heard of.

Galaxy of SSF voices

Most often, you’d see the likes of Ursula K Le Guin, Robin Hobb, JK Rowling, and Sarah J Maas, almost as consolation prizes, with occasional alternatives such as Nnedi Okorafor, Octavia Butler, NK Jemisin, Naomi Novik, Tamora Pierce, Anne McCaffrey, Diana Wynne Jones, Ellen Kushner, Diana Gabaldon, Cassandra Clare, Leigh Bardugo, Madeline Miller, Holly Black, Rebecca Yarros, Andre Norton, Anne Rice, Janny Wurtz, VE Schwab, Lauren Beukes, Anne Leckie, Nisi Shawl, and Deborah Harkness. All are big names in their own right, and some, like Gabaldon, Clare, Bardugo, Rice, and Harkness, have successful, popular series and feature-length films with their names attached. I must make mention, especially, of Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle which was adapted by Studio Ghibli into a rather charming animated film. If you haven’t already watched it, do yourself the favour. You’ll thank me later.

Names we should hear more often

Names we should hear more often, in no particular order and including non-binary and queer folk, include Katharine Kerr, Kate Elliott, Storm Constantine, Tanith Lee, Neon Yang, Mercedes Lackey, Mary Gentle, Jacqueline Carey, Grace Draven, Trudi Canavan, Joan D Vinge, CJ Cherryh, Aliette de Bodard, Cherie M Priest, Laura A Gilman, Masha du Toit (read an interview with her) , Xan van Rooyen, RF Kuang, Barbara Hambly, Jane Yolen, Sabaa Tahir, Erin Morgenstern, and many, many others. (It’s a bit gauche for me to add myself to my own list, but consider this side note your little reminder that I, too, write SFF and have been publishing for nearly two decades.)

These authors are merely the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. If you’re willing to ask for recommendations from well-read SFF fans, you’ll have scores more tossed your way within minutes. Which begs the question, why do the same names always keep cropping up? Why are we predominantly biased towards regurgitating them?

Changing up that list of big-name authors (or making it bigger) in no way detracts from their incredible legacy. Instead, we’re expanding the incredible pool of work that enthrals us.

Make a list of favourite authors

Authors who have had a big impact

And, when I look at some of the authors who have had the biggest impact on me, I fear I am somewhat guilty as charged for sticking to mostly stalwarts, because more than half of them are made up of names that are long established, my list including good ol’ Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, Robin Hobb, and Ursula K Le Guin, but also authors such as Storm Constantine, Kate Elliott, CJ Cherryh, Jacqueline Carey, Anne McCaffrey, Mary Gentle, Katharine Kerr, and Mercedes Lackey, not to forget non-binary author Cat Hellisen, who has not only been a long-term mentor but is also one of my dearest friends.

However, I don’t feel too horrible, because when I look back on the books that shaped me during my younger years, I realise I was drawn primarily to stories written by women. I didn’t seek them out intentionally, but it was mostly women who wrote the types of profound stories that resonated with me.

Rereading books by women

That’s not to say that I’d never read books by men, it’s just that the books I keep returning to and rereading, tend to be by women authors. And I own that there is an entire galaxy of voices out there that I still need to discover, authors who write queer, non-conforming strangeness that I know I will fall head over heels in love with. That’s if I hear about them.

That’s not to say that I’d never read books by men, it’s just that the books I keep returning to and rereading, tend to be by women authors.

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So, here’s my challenge to you. Make a list of your favourite authors, the ones whose books appear the most on your shelves. Then go out and challenge yourself to find books written by people you wouldn’t ordinarily read, be they a member of a First Nation, be they genderqueer, be they a race or culture vastly different from your own.

10 female and/or non-binary science fiction and fantasy authors to try

If you enjoyed the book, talk it up

Then, if you enjoyed the book, talk it up. Tell your friends, post about it on your social media and, above all, leave a review on sites such as Goodreads or Amazon so that other people will discover them, too. If you regularly check books out at your local library, request that they purchase books you enjoyed so that others may discover them, too.

Look, there’s a part of me that agrees with SomeGuy. It shouldn’t matter what someone’s gender or other expression of identity is, but until we see diversity reflected broadly – in shops, in mainstream ‘best of’ lists, on the lips and tongues of as many readers as possible, it remains important for us to boost the voices of some of the best authors you may never have heard about.

Nerine Dorman is a Now Novel coach. She is a South African author and editor of science fiction and fantasy currently living in Cape Town, with short fiction published in numerous anthologies. Her novel Sing down the Stars won Gold for the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature in 2019 and The Percy Fitzpatrick Award for Children’s and Youth Literature in 2021. Her YA fantasy novella, Dragon Forged, was a finalist in the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature in 2017, and she is the curator of the South African Horrorfest Bloody Parchment event and short story competition. Her short story “On the Other Side of the Sea” (Omenana, 2017) was shortlisted for a 2018 Nommo award. Her novella The Firebird won a Nommo for “Best Novella” in 2019. In addition, she is a founding member of the SFF authors’ co-operative Skolion. You can connect with her on Twitter: @nerinedorman and on Instagram: nerinedorman. She blogs at:

10 replies on “Unseen worlds: the omission of women on SFF ‘best of’ lists”

Many of those authors you mentioned in this post are amongst my favourites. And I agree with both you and SomeGuy that it shouldn’t matter, but it does.
I talk about books I enjoyed and that influenced me, but none of my family and most of my friends are SFF readers. That makes it hard to spread the word.

You might consider adding Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, N. K. Jemison, Arkady Martine, and Maria Doria Russell (for “The Sparrow” and its sequel, “Children of God”) to your list of women SSF authors.

This was great! I took a screenshot of the 10 authors to try, so I don’t forget, although I admittedly gravitate towards female authors anyway. I’m a broken record with this, but my favorite SFF author is Lois McMaster Bujold, especially for the Vorkosigan Saga. I never connected with books as deeply as I did with those, and she inspired me to give writing a try, myself. I keep going back to “Shards of Honor” because it’s my gold standard, but I realized recently that it’s not exactly the writing that’s amazing, but the POV character that is so compelling.

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