Fictional Femmes of STEM
This list is comprised of titles that feature highly competent, dynamic, diverse, but fictional women feverishly working in fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Their genius is compulsory and their formidability and passion are inspiring and, at times, terrifying.
These recommendations are for anyone who is interested in reading across different literary genres and hungry for well rounded and realistic representations of women in STEM -- as well as those those who are lovers of science fiction and fantasy.
Girl Genius Volume 1: Agatha Heterodyne & the Beetleburg Clank by Kaja Foglio and Phil Foglio
Agatha Clay is the orphaned, unlucky, scattered-brained lab student and protagonist in this title, the first entry in the Girl Genius graphic novel series. She is also an engineer navigating low self esteem caused by repeat failure and repeated reproach because of said failure. Despite this, her drive to create remains unsullied. After the only link she has to her parents is stolen, it sparks a series of events that set Agatha on a path to more confidence, skill, and terrifying creations. Agatha's story is set in nineteenth century Europe and has lots of clanky Victorian-style tech, airships, Frankenstein monsters, mad science, and monocles. There is also romance, revenge, and death. It’s fast-paced and action-packed with bold artwork that matches the story’s hyper and cartoony tone.
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
The first person perspective of this novel, the first in the Murderbot Diaries series, comes from a snarky, misanthropic and murderous hybrid construct called Murderbot, who finds human interaction so painfully awkward (and asinine) that it limits contact. The story is set in a space-faring future, where corporations have more power than governments, and bots and constructs are not treated as autonomous, sentient beings. Dr. Mensah is the elected administrative director for the steering committee of the non-corporate entity called Preservation Alliance where bots and constructs have full citizenship -- but we first see her as a field scientist and team leader conducting surface tests on a distant planet. Murderbot, who secretly has given itself full autonomy by hacking its own government module, is the team’s contracted security guard. Things of course go horribly wrong and we see Dr. Mensah shine not only as a scientist but a decent human being, as she possesses all the characteristics of a strong leader. It's never an ethical dilemma when it comes to choosing people over the data, which is refreshing.
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
This sequel to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, which also features remarkable women in STEM, tackles some very weighty topics around technology, post humanism and survival. Central character Pepper is an excitable and warm tech expert who owns and runs the Rust Bucket, one of the best repair shops in an underground tech market. She is so good at what she does that her refurbished tech often outperforms brand new tech. She’s also Sidhra’s friend. The story of how Pepper came by her skills is revealed through flashback. The story’s present follows Sidhra, a spaceship’s artificial intelligence who woke up in an illegal new body with no memory of her prior existence. Pepper supports Sidhra as she discovers who she is and who she wants to be while not getting caught. The tone of the novel is heartwarming and optimistic. The book features diverse and detailed aliens and occasional interruptions by underground anonymous message boards, mating rituals, tattoos and clones.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Binti is the first novella in Nnedi Okorafor’s trilogy. It tells the story of 16 year old Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka of Namib. Binti is the first of the Himba people to be accepted to Oozma University, the most prestigious institution of higher learning in the Milky Way. But going would defy the most traditional parts of herself. The Himba (modeled closely on the Himba of southwestern Africa) are a technologically advanced but very insular people with a deep connection to their homeland who therefore do not leave it. Binti, who is a master harmonizer (a practitioner of “deep mathematics”), has been dreaming of attending Oozma since she “knew what a university was.” So instead of taking over her father’s astrolabe shop as expected, she breaks tradition and leaves her city for the first time to run off to university. She’s resourceful, reflective, and brave. Readers will witness her go from never leaving her city to using harmonizing to solve diplomatic problems. Binti is a great read for anyone -- but especially young adults and lovers of Afrofuturism.
Proof by David Auburn
A groundbreaking, mathematical proof is discovered among a deceased prodigy’s 103 notebooks. Did he write it or did his twenty-five year old daughter? That’s the central conflict in the drama Proof, which follows main character Catherine as she mourns her father even as she fears she may be susceptible to his own debilitating mental illness. As she grieves, Catherine must also face all that she put on hold to care for her father as his health declined; specifically, she must navigate her own mathematical brilliance (which only her father nurtured), others' sexist skepticism of her academic capabilities, a visit from her estranged and intrusive sister, and the unknown intentions and hovering of her father’s former student. The play itself is not science fiction or fantasy, and it is serious in tone and completely engrossing. It gives those of us who are not in the know a glimpse into the field of mathematics through the struggles of a believable -- and bitingly witty -- character.