At its core, science fiction is about the exploration of alternative worlds. Whether through space exploration, dystopian natural disasters, or technological advancement, science fiction authors seek to creatively imagine alternatives to our current world. Yet, the genre has been historically dominated by white men, who in turn write books featuring white male protagonists and white characters, set in white worlds. So what are the best science fiction books by black women? This list features seven black female sci-fi writers that push the bounds of speculative fiction.
Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is one of the most innovative examples of world-building in science fiction today, so it's definitely one of the best science fiction books by black women. Her novel is set on an alternative earth dominated by a single continent, called the Stillness, that experiences frequent extinction events. That’s right — in this world, volcanic and seismic activity wipe out whole civilizations every hundred years or so. From this premise, Jemisin constructs a vivid, complex world that defies every sci-fi trope out there. If that description isn’t enough, The Fifth Season won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2016, making her the first black author to win that category.
2. The Between
The Between is a bit of an anomaly on the list, as it’s more horror than strict sci-fi - but it’s vivid descriptions of the supernatural make it appropriate for this list. Hilton James is a man who begins suffering from a severe sleep disorder after his wife, a judge for Dade County, begins receiving racist hate mail in response to her judicial appointment. As his perception of reality begins to fade, Due pulls you into a chilling story that will be sure to keep your hairs standing for a long while after you put it down.
Nigerian-American Author Nnedi Okorafor’s YA novella Binti is a coming-of-age story that features intergalactic travel, aliens, and hijacked spacecrafts. The main character is a young woman named Binti, who is the first member of her tribe, the Himba, to be accepted to a prestigious off-world university. #5 in our ranking of best science fiction books by black women, this novel explores tensions between tradition and science, identity and place, and tribe and other (or in this case, literal aliens).
Midnight Robber follows the story of a young girl named Tan-Tan, who grows up on the a world called Toussaint. In the novel, residents of Toussaint (named after Toussaint L’Ouverture, a leader of the Haitian revolution) are busy celebrating Carnival when a grave act of violence suddenly interrupts the festivities. Tan-Tan and her father are exiled to a frightening world called New Half-Way Tree, where survival and safety are no longer assured, especially for young women. The book is a fascinating blend of futurism and Jamaican, Caribbean, and Yoruba folklore.
Brissett has managed to write a masterful, ambitious first book that might take a few pages to fully become immersed in. This is because the book traverses time periods and circumstances — the two main characters even change genders. But despite its complexity, Elysium still manages a poetic exploration of themes such as loss, love, and survival, that are most essential to the human experience.
Mindscape is another debut novel, one that turns its attention to themes of separation, immigration, and interconnectedness. In this Earth, an extraterrestrial, cosmic entity has created the Barrier, a force that has violently divided the planet into arbitrary realms that quickly dissolve into chaos. The Barrier obviously evocates all-too-relevant issues related to societal division and stratification that exist in our current world. In our judgment, this is the penultimate of the best science fiction books by black women.
Octavia Butler is one of the best known women sci-fi writers of all time. Her novel Kindred, originally published in 1979, continues to be a classic in speculative treatments of gender and race relations. The story opens with the main character, Dana, moving into a new apartment with her husband when she suddenly experiences a dizzying black-out. She wakes up to find herself inexplicably transported to nineteenth-century Maryland. She soon experiences in all its harshness life as a black women in slavery-era America. You’ve never read time travel like this, in our #1 pick for best science fiction books by black women.