Old Women in SF—the List

by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

When we think about women in speculative fiction, it seems to be fantasy figures that quickly come to mind: Lady Olenna, the Queen of Thorns, Professor McGonnagal and Sir Terry Pratchett’s wonderful witches. When it comes to science fiction, however, the landscape seems to change. The traditional roles for old women in fiction, the wise old crone, the meddling mother, the crazy cat lady, and the retired sleuth don’t appear in our science fiction novels in the same way. I have spent the last year searching for old women in major roles in science fiction novels and I can tell you, it isn’t as easy as it seems. So far I have discovered just thirty-six examples over a period spanning one hundred years.

I wrote an article for Nature Magazine about the project, Space Aging: Why Sci-fi Novels Shun the Badass Older Woman, which talks a bit about my findings and lists just a few of the thirty-six books.

Since then, I’ve been inundated with messages pointing out that the article does not mention Remnant Population nor The Expanse series, both of which have wonderful old women in major roles… and both of which are on my list. I’m very excited that the SFWA has offered to published my list of the thirty-six books to highlight those fantastic old women who steal the show in science fiction novels.

Atherton, Gertrude (1923) Black Oxen
Banks, Iain M (1994) Feersum Endjinn
Bear, Elizabeth (2004) Hammered
Bryant, Samantha (2019) Going Through the Change
Bujold, Lois McMaster (2015) Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
Chambers, Becky (2018) Record of a Spaceborn Few
Cherryh, CJ (1981) Downbelow Station
Corey, James (2013) Caliban’s War
Elgin, Suzette Haden (1984) Native Tongue
Gloss, Molly (1997) Dazzle of Day
Hamilton, Peter F (2004) Pandora’s Star
Hamilton, Peter F (2004) The Reality Dysfunction
Heinlein, Robert A (1952) The Rolling Stones
Holmqvist, Ninni (2009) The Unit
Howey, Hugh (2014) Wool
King, Stephen (1978) The Stand
Liu Cixin (2006) Three Body Problem
Marley, Louise (1999) The Terrorists of Irustan
McDonald, Ian (2015) Luna: New Moon
Miller, Sam J (2018) Blackfish City
Mitchison, Naomi (1962) Memoirs of a Space Woman
Moon, Elizabeth (1996) Remnant Population
Nagata, Linda (2017) The Last Good Man
Newitz, Annalee (2017) Autonomous
Newman, Emma (2015) Planetfall
Pratchett, Terry (1981) Strata
Reynolds, Alastair (2005) Pushing Ice
Russell, Mary Doria (1996) The Sparrow
Sawyer, Robert J (2007) Rollback
Scalzi, John (2005) Old Man’s War
Starhawk (1993) The Fifth Sacred Thing
Sterling, Bruce (1997) Holy Fire
Tchaikovsky, Adrian (2015) The Children of Time
Tepper, Sheri (1996) Gibbon’s Decline and Fall
Wright, Helen (1990) A Matter of Oaths
Yuknavitch, Lidia (2017) The Book of Joan

When I started this, I didn’t realize I was starting on a journey. I just wanted to see if old women existed, let alone had an impact on the story. The result has been an adventure. The resulting eclectic collection of books to read has been eye-opening, treating me to a broad range of themes and subgenres. There are many, many books here that I would never have picked up if it weren’t for this project. And it’s also re-introduced me to the pleasure of talking about books, something I hadn’t even realized has been missing from my life.

I’d love to hear about books you think should be included. You can sign up for my mailing list at https://intrigue.co.uk for the most up-to-date version of the list and maybes or just mail me at oldwoman@intrigue.co.uk to mention science fiction novels (in English) that you think I should look at.

•••

Sylvia Spruck Wrigley was born in Germany and spent her childhood in Los Angeles. She emigrated to Scotland where she guided German tourists around the Trossachs and searched for the supernatural. She now lives in Tallinn where she writes about plane crashes and Estonian air maidens, which have more in common than most people might imagine. Her fiction was nominated for a Nebula in 2014 and her short stories have been translated into over a dozen languages.  Her first novella, The Borrowed Child, was published in 2015 by Tor.com and is available now at all good book stores. You can find out more about her at http://www.intrigue.co.uk/

9 Responses

    1. Sylvia Wrigley

      Susan Calvin is a personal favorite but I don’t think you can claim her as the main character of a novel. Short stories seem to present differently. I do think it is noteable that Calvin as a logical and competent old scientist showed up so early and yet that kind of character remains so rare.

  1. Dusk Peterson

    Thanks for that lovely list!

    A search through the juvenile literature lists might be fruitful. Here’s a few possibilities I can think of.

    The Miss Pickerell series, started by Ellen MacGregor, features an elderly female protagonist and centers on science; some of the titles are science fiction.

    https://pellack.public.iastate.edu/MissPickerellseries.htm

    Old women appear in a number of Madeleine L’Engle’s novels, most notably “A Wrinkle in Time.”

    https://www.madeleinelengle.com/books/

    I’m not sure whether it counts as major roles, but old women have recurring roles in the Freddy the Pig series; some of the later novels in the series are science fiction.

    https://www.tor.com/tag/freddy-the-pig/

    I haven’t read many of her novels, but would Andre Norton be a possibility?

    1. Sylvia Wrigley

      I love A Wrinkle in Time but Dr Kate Murray isn’t really old; she is described as creamy skin with violet eyes — having reread, I don’t think she can be much over 40.

      I don’t know of any Andre Norton books that star an old woman but I will have another look! Freddy the Pig is new to me!

      And Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars certainly looks like a likely candidate! Thank you!

  2. Catherine Lundoff

    Hi there. I’ve got a mixed science fiction and fantasy bibliography of older women in sf and f that I’ve been working on for the past couple of years that might be of interest to both you and other readers of this article.
    There’s a 2 part list on my blog that includes short fiction (updates coming very soon) – https://catherineldf.dreamwidth.org/261709.html?thread=862541 and a Goodreads list that includes inputs from multiple people: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/114723.Old_er_Women_in_SF_F_

    1. Sylvia Wrigley

      Hi Catherine! I know your Goodreads list and was very glad to have found it. Unfortunately, most of it is fantasy.

      I hate to say it, but the problem with allowing multiple people access is that it can become a bit of a mess. For those that are SF, the age range is pretty broad, with women as young as late 20s included (Kill Process). I got excited when I found Up Against It by MJ Locke, which I had forgotten about and was eager to reread, but although she’s cited as mid-80s, the text also makes it clear she is middle-aged. Another character is described as 100 years old and on the cusp of old age. It’s pretty sure that 85 is the new 40 in our world.

      I have been asked a lot about short fiction, though, and would happily point people to the list that you are maintaining it. If you are working on an update, have you considered a specific short fiction list? There seems to be a lot of interest.

  3. Praisegod Barebones

    Tricia Sullivan’s ‘Sweet Dreams’ has at least one old woman in a central role (not the viewpoint character, but certain,y an important one.

  4. Mark Duffett

    For your consideration: Teela Brown (as a Protector) in Larry Niven’s “Ringworld Engineers”?

    Meina Gladstone in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos?

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