The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women


By Alex Dally MacFarlane

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This anthology showcases the most exceptional science fiction stories written by women in recent decades, from classic stars like Ursula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree Jr. to science-fiction greats such Nancy Kress, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Karen Joy Fowler to new award-winning talents.



Such pleasure in selection!

The anthologist more than any other knows

the universe is multiple.

—Sofia Samatar, “Snowbound in Hamadan”

I would like to say that women writing science fiction belong to an unarguably long history. Say: Margaret Cavendish, Mary Shelley, Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain – and more. Women fascinated by science and the stars are attested throughout human civilization. Hypatia of Alexandria (350/370 to 415 CE), philosophist, astronomer, mathematician. Mariam Al-Ijliya (tenth-century CE), who designed and constructed innovative astrolabes. Mary Anning (1799 to 1847 CE), excavating dinosaur bones on the Dorset coast.

Women do belong to these histories. The difficult word is “unarguably”. Perennial arguments question how long women have been writing science fiction compared to men, whether their science fiction is truly science fiction, what the definition of science fiction is – to the exclusion of sciences like biology, sociology or linguistics, to the exclusion of non-Western narrative approaches used by women who are not white or not Western. To the exclusion, too, of a wider understanding of gender around the world. Sometimes these arguments are men yelling at clouds. Sometimes they are publishers not buying science fiction books by women, or lists of classic science fiction that are almost entirely by men.

This is not a book of classic science fiction by women.

The universe of science fiction is multiple: I could have collected stories from an entire century – or more – or I could have condensed my scope. And then, in any breadth of time, which stories to collect? There are so many.

Science fiction is always changing: at its best, it is always exciting, always saying something new. To say that the best science fiction of recent years is pushing the genre into new places is not a new statement – but I am incredibly excited by what the science fiction of recent years is doing. More than before, writers from around the world and of many backgrounds – gender, sexuality, ethnicity – are being published in English, in original and in translation. Their voices are changing science fiction, taking it into more futures and looking at our present and past in more ways. If science fiction is defined as looking at as many worlds as possible, it is an excellent time to be a reader.

I wanted to take a snapshot of this.

The stories in The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women are all (bar one) from the last twenty years. Some of the writers have been working in the science fiction field for far longer than that – writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Karen Joy Fowler, Élisabeth Vonarburg, Angélica Gorodischer, Nancy Kress. Many started publishing quite recently – Zen Cho, Karin Tidbeck, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Sofia Samatar. Their approaches to science fiction are varied. Their stories are consistent in one quality: they all excite me.

This is not a solution.

It is a snapshot, a collection of stories by women working in science fiction today. I hope it brings these writers to new readers. It cannot deal a one-hit kill to sexism in the science fiction industry. It cannot solve another problem – the tendency to forget the contributions of women from earlier decades; although some of its contents deal very directly with the past: Karen Joy Fowler writing about Mary Anning’s life and discoveries, Sofia Samatar writing about Henrietta Swan Leavitt and the other women employed as human computers by Harvard College Observatory in the 1870s, Tori Truslow’s re-imagining of the Moon to examine the erasure of women’s poetic scholarship. They look at history, they remember it, but they are no replacement for it. They are an addition – as is this anthology.

It is also important to note that the conversation about gender is more complex than just men and women. Non-binary gender exists around the world and always has done, which tends to be forgotten. An anthology such as The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women is, by elevating the work of women, limiting itself to them (although the complexity of gender identity means that some writers in this anthology are not binary-gendered). It can only be one part of what needs to be a much wider conversation.

What is this book?

A contribution to the conversation about writing and gender that has gone on for centuries. A collection of thirty-three excellent science fiction stories by women. Look: Sedoretu on the planet O. A train journey to the Moon. Alternate universes. Postapocalypses. An exomoon that stops birds from singing. Living spaceships born in gas giants. Cartographic wasps. Callowhales on Venus. Constellations.

Look at what women have written. Enjoy.


Sofia Samatar

For Henrietta Swan Leavitt


In the 1870s, the Harvard College Observatory began to employ young women as human computers to record and analyze data. One of them, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, discovered a way to measure stellar distances using the pulsing of variable stars.

Quotations are from George Johnson’s Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe (W. W. Norton, 2005).

Harlow Shapley, director of the observatory, reckoned the difficulty of astronomical projects in “girl hours” – the number of hours a human computer would take to obtain the data. The most challenging projects were measured in “kilo-girl-hours.”


You were not the only deaf woman there.

Annie Cannon, too, was hard of hearing.

On the day of your death she wrote: Rainy day pouring at night.

Oh bright rain, brave clouds, oh stars,

oh stars.

Two thousand four hundred fires

and uncharted, unstudied,

the hours, the hours, the hours.


The body is a computer.

The body has two eyes. For the body, the process of triangulation is automatic. The body can see the red steeple of the church beyond the trees. Blackbirds unfold as they grow nearer, like messages.

The body never intended to be a secret.

The body was called a shining cloud, and then a galaxy. The body comforted mariners, spilt milk in the southern sky. The body was thought to be only 30,000 light years away.

The body is untrustworthy. It falls ill.

The thought of uncompleted work, particularly of the Standard Magnitudes, is one I have had to avoid as much as possible, as it has had a bad effect nervously.

The body sits at a desk. A high collar, faint stripes in the white blouse. In this rare photograph, the body is framed in light. The gaze is turned down, the hand poised to make a mark. The body says: “Take photographs, write poems. I will go on with my work.”

The body is not always the same, the body varies in brightness, its true brightness may be ascertained from the rhythm of its pulsing, the body is more remote than we imagined, it eats, it walks, it traverses with terrible slowness the distance between Wisconsin and Massachusetts, the body is stubborn, snowbound, the body has disappeared, the body has left the country, the body has traveled to Europe and will not say if it went there alone, the body is generous, dedicated, seated again, reserved, exacting,

brushed and buttoned, smelling of healthy soap,
and not allowed to touch the telescope.

The body gives time away with both hands.

The body, when working, does not know that time has passed.

The body died in 1921.

The body’s edges are so far from one another that it is hardly a body at all. We gather the stars, and we call them a body. Cygnus. The Swan.


Twelve o’clock.

My husband and children asleep.

To chart one more star, to go on working:

this is a way of keeping faith.

Draw me a map.

Show me how to read music.

Teach me to rise without standing,
to hold the galaxy’s calipers

with the earth at one gleaming tip,
to live vastly and with precision,
to travel

where distance is no longer measured in miles but in lifetimes,
in epochs, in breaths, in light years, in girl hours.


Kristin Mandigma

I apologize for this late reply. Our mail service has been erratic recently due to a spate of troublesome security-related issues. I don’t think I need to elaborate. You must have read the latest reports. These government spooks are hopelessly incompetent but they (very) occasionally evince flashes of human-like logic. I expect it will only take them a matter of time before they figure it out, with or without their torturous diagrams, at which point I may have to seriously consider the advisability of having one of our supporters open another German bank account. As a diversion, if nothing else, and I have had nothing entertaining to watch on cable television (which I believe has also been bugged because it persists in showing me nothing but Disney) for a while. Just between the two of us – I do believe that if fatuous, single-minded politicians were not an irrevocable fact of life, like having to use the toilet, we would have to invent them.

Now, to your letter. I confess to having read it with some consternation. I am well acquainted with your penchant for morbid humor, and yet the suggestion that I might write a short “piece” for a speculative fiction magazine struck me as more perverse than usual. What on earth is speculative fiction anyway? I believe you are referring to one of those ridiculous publications which traffic in sensationalizing the human imagination while actually claiming to enrich it by virtue of setting it loose from the moorings of elitist literary fiction? Or whatever? And for elitist substitute “realist,” I suppose. You argue that speculative fiction is merely a convenient “ideologically neutral” term to describe a certain grouping of popular genre fiction, but then follow it up with a defensive polemic on its revolutionary significance with regard to encapsulating the “popular” Filipino experience. To which I ask: As opposed to what?

I believe, Comrade, that you are conflating ideology with bourgeois hair-splitting. When it comes down to it, how is this novel you sent along with your letter, this novel about an interstellar war between monster cockroaches and alienated capitalist soldiers, supposed to be a valid form of social commentary? I do not care if the main character is a Filipino infantryman. I assume he is capitalist, too. Furthermore, since he is far too busy killing cockroaches on godforsaken planets in a spaceship (which is definitely not a respectable proletarian occupation), his insights into the future of Marxist revolution in the Philippines must be suspect at best. And this Robert Heinlein fellow you mention, I assume, is another imperialist Westerner? I thought so. Comrade, I must admit to being troubled by your choice of reading fare these days. And do not think you can fob me off with claims that your favorite novel at the moment is written by a socialist author. I do not trust socialists. The only socialists I know are white-collar fascist trolls who watch too many Sylvester Stallone movies. Sellouts, the lot of them. Do not get me started on the kapre, they are all closet theists. An inevitable by-product of all that repulsive tobacco, I should say.

With regard to your question about how I perceive myself as an “Other,” let me make it clear that I am as fantastic to myself as rice. I do not waste time sitting around brooding about my mythic status and why the notion that I have lived for 500 years ought to send me into a paroxysm of metaphysical Angst for the benefit of self-indulgent, overprivileged, cultural hegemonists who fancy themselves writers. So there are times in the month when half of me flies off to – as you put it so charmingly – eat babies. Well, I ask you, so what? For your information, I only eat babies whose parents are far too entrenched in the oppressive capitalist superstructure to expect them to be redeemed as good dialectical materialists. It is a legitimate form of population control, I dare say.

I think the real issue here is not my dietary habits but whether or not my being an aswang makes me any less of a Filipino and a communist. I think that being an aswang is a category of social difference – imposed by an external utilitarian authority – like sexuality and income bracket. Nobody conceives of being gay just as a literary trope, do they? To put it in another way: I do not conceive of my biological constitution as a significant marker of my identity. Men, women, gays, aswang, talk-show hosts, politicians, even these speculative fiction non-idealists you speak of – we are all subject to the evils of capitalism, class struggle, the eschatological workings of history, and the inevitability of socialist relations. In this scheme of things, whether or not one eats dried fish or (imperialist) babies for sustenance should be somewhat irrelevant.

I would also like to address in more depth your rather confused contention that the intellectual enlightenment of the Filipino masses lies not in “contemporary” (I presume you meant to say “outdated” but were too busy contradicting yourself) realistic literature, but in a new artistic imaginative “paradigm” (again, this unseemly bourgeois terminology!). As I have said, I would emphatically beg to differ. Being an aswang – not just the commodified subject, but the fetishistic object of this new literature you speak of – has not enlightened me in any way about the true nature of society, about modes of production, about historical progress. I am a nationalist not because I am an aswang, but despite of it. You only have to consider the example of those notorious Transylvanian vampires. No one would ever call them patriots, except insofar as they speak like Bela Lugosi.

Before I end this letter, I must add another caveat: my first reaction upon meeting Jose Rizal in Paris during the International Exposition was not to eat him, as malicious rumors would have you believe. In fact, we spoke cordially and had an extended conversation about Hegel in a cafe. I do think that he is just another overrated ilustrado poseur – brilliant, of course, but with a dangerous touch of the Trotskyite utopian about him. I prefer Bonifacio, for obvious reasons.

In closing, let me say, as Marx does, that “one has to leave philosophy aside.” You must inure yourself against these pernicious novels about cockroaches and spaceships (and did you mention dragons? All dragons are either Freudians or fascists), for they can only lead you to a totalizing anthropogenetic attitude toward the world. Concentrate on the real work that needs to be done, Comrade.

(For all that, let me thank you for the sweaters. I can only hope you did not buy them in that cursed cesspool of superexploitation, SM Shoemart. It is getting quite cold here in America, hivemind of evil, and it has been increasingly impractical for me to fly out without any sort of protective covering.)

Long live the Philippines! Long live the Revolution!


Vandana Singh

I am Somadeva.

I was once a man, a poet, a teller of tales, but I am long dead now. I lived in the eleventh century of the Common Era in northern India. Then we could only dream of that fabulous device, the udan-khatola, the ship that flies between worlds. Then, the skydwelling Vidyadharas were myth, occupying a reality different from our own. And the only wings I had with which to make my journeys were those of my imagination …

Who or what am I now, in this age when flying between worlds is commonplace? Who brought me into being, here in this small, cramped space, with its smooth metallic surfaces, and the round window revealing an endless field of stars?

It takes me a moment to recognize Isha. She is lying in her bunk, her hair spread over the pillow, looking at me.

And then I remember the first time I woke up in this room, bewildered. Isha told me she had re-created me. She fell in love with me fifteen centuries after my death, after she read a book I wrote, an eighteen-volume compendium of folktales and legends, called the Kathāsaritsāgara: The Ocean of Streams of Story.

“You do remember that?” she asked me anxiously upon my first awakening.

“Of course I remember,” I said, as my memories returned to me in a great rush.

The Kathāsaritsāgara was my life’s work. I wandered all over North India, following rumors of the Lost Manuscript, risking death to interview murderers and demons, cajoling stories out of old women and princes, merchants and nursing mothers. I took these stories and organized them into patterns of labyrinthine complexity. In my book there are stories within stories – the chief narrator tells a story and the characters in that story tell other stories and so on. Some of the narrators refer to the stories of previous narrators; thus each is not only a teller of tales but also a participant. The story-frames themselves form a complex, multireferential tapestry. And the story of how the Kathāsaritsāgara came to be is the first story of them all.

I began this quest because of a mystery in my own life, but it became a labor of love, an attempt to save a life. That is why I wove the stories into a web, so I could hold safe the woman I loved. I could not have guessed that fifteen centuries after my death, another very different woman would read my words and fall in love with me.

The first time I met Isha, she told me she had created me to be her companion on her journeys between the stars. She wants to be the Somadeva of this age, collecting stories from planet to planet in the galaxy we call Sky River. What a moment of revelation it was for me, when I first knew that there were other worlds, peopled and habited, rich with stories! Isha told me that she had my spirit trapped in a crystal jewel-box. The jewel-box has long feelers like the antennae of insects, so that I can see and hear and smell, and thereby taste the worlds we visit.

“How did you pull my spirit from death? From history? Was I reborn in this magic box?”

She shook her head.

“It isn’t magic, Somadeva. Oh, I can’t explain! But tell me, I need to know. Why didn’t you write yourself into the Kathāsaritsāgara? Who, really, is this narrator of yours, Gunaādhya? I know there is a mystery there …”

She asks questions all the time. When she is alone with me, she is often animated like this. My heart reaches out to her, this lost child of a distant age.

Gunādhya is a goblin-like creature who is the narrator of the Kathāsaritsāgara. According to the story I told, Gunādhya was a minion of Shiva himself who was reborn on Earth due to a curse. His mission was to tell the greater story of which the Kathāsaritsāgara is only a page: the Brhat-kathā. But he was forbidden to speak or write in Sanskrit or any other language of humankind. Wandering through a forest one day, he came upon a company of the flesh-eating Pishāch. He hid himself and listened to them, and learned their strange tongue. In time he wrote the great Brhat-kathā in the Pishāchi language in a book made of the bark of trees, in his own blood.

They say that he was forced to burn the manuscript, and that only at the last moment did a student of his pull out one section from the fire. I tracked that surviving fragment for years, but found only a few scattered pages, and the incomplete memories of those who had seen the original, or been told the tales. From these few I reconstructed what I have called the Kathāsaritsāgara. In all this, I have drawn on ancient Indic tradition, in which the author is a compiler, an embellisher, an arranger of stories, some written, some told. He fragments his consciousness into the various fictional narrators in order to be a conduit for their tales.

In most ancient works, the author goes a step further: he walks himself whole into the story, like an actor onto the stage.

This is one way I have broken from tradition. I am not, myself, a participant in the stories of the Kathāsaritsāgara. And Isha wants to know why.

Sometimes I sense my narrator, Gunādhya, as one would a ghost, a presence standing by my side. He is related to me in some way that is not clear to me. All these years he has been coming into my dreams, filling in gaps in my stories, or contradicting what I’ve already written down. He is a whisper in my ear; sometimes my tongue moves at his command. All the time he is keeping secrets from me, tormenting me with the silence between his words. Perhaps he is waiting until the time is right.

‘I don’t know,’ I tell Isha. ‘I don’t know why I didn’t put myself in the story. I thought it would be enough, you know, to cast a story web, to trap my queen. To save her from death …”

“Tell me about her,” Isha says. Isha knows all about Sūryavati but she wants to hear it from me. Over and over.

I remember …

A high balcony, open, not latticed. The mountain air, like wine. In the inner courtyard below us, apricots are drying in the sun in great orange piles. Beyond the courtyard walls I can hear men’s voices, the clash of steel as soldiers practice their murderous art. The king is preparing to battle his own son, who lusts for the throne and cannot wait for death to take his father. But it is for the Queen that I am here. She is standing by the great stone vase on the balcony, watering the holy tulsi plant. She wears a long skirt of a deep, rich red, and a green shawl over the delicately embroidered tunic. Her slender fingers shake; her gaze, when it lifts to me, is full of anguish. Her serving maids hover around her, unable to relieve her of her pain. At last she sits, drawing the edge of her fine silken veil about her face. A slight gesture of the hand. My cue to begin the story that will, for a moment, smooth that troubled brow.

It is for her that I have woven the story web. Every day it gives her a reason to forget despair, to live a day longer. Every day she is trapped in it, enthralled by it a little more. There are days when the weight of her anxiety is too much, when she breaks the spell of story and requires me for another purpose. Then I must, for love of her, take part in an ancient and dangerous rite. But today, the day that I am remembering for Isha, Sūryavati simply wants to hear a story.

I think I made a mistake with Sūryavati, fifteen centuries ago. If I’d written myself into the Kathāsaritsāgara, perhaps she would have realized how much I needed her to be alive. After all, Vyāsa, who penned the immortal Mahābhārata, was as much a participant in the tale as its chronicler. And the same is true of Vālmīki, who wrote the Rāmāyana and was himself a character in it, an agent.

So, for the first time, I will write myself into this story. Perhaps that is the secret to affecting events as they unfold. And, after all, I, too, have need of meaning. Beside me, Guna dhya’s ghost nods silently in agreement.

Isha sits in the ship’s chamber, her fingers running through her hair, her gaze troubled. She has always been restless. For all her confidence I can only guess what it is she is seeking through the compilation of the legends and myths of the inhabited worlds. As I wander through the story-labyrinths of my own making, I hope to find, at the end, my Isha, my Sūryavati.

Isha is, I know, particularly interested in stories of origin, of ancestry. I think it is because she has no knowledge of her natal family. When she was a young woman, she was the victim of a history raid. The raiders took from her all her memories. Her memories are scattered now in the performances of entertainers, the conversations of strangers, and the false memories of imitation men. The extinction of her identity was so clean that she would not recognize those memories as her own, were she to come across them. What a terrible and wondrous age this is, in which such things are possible!

In her wanderings, Isha hasn’t yet been able to find out who her people were. All she has as a clue is an ancient, battered set of books: the eighteen volumes of the Kathāsaritsāgara. They are, to all appearances, her legacy, all that was left of her belongings after the raid. The pages are yellow and brittle, the text powdery, fading. She has spent much of her youth learning the lost art of reading, learning the lost scripts of now-dead languages. Inside the cover of the first volume is a faint inscription, a name:Vandana. There are notes in the same hand in the margins of the text. An ancestor, she thinks.

This is why Isha is particularly interested in stories of origin. She thinks she’ll find out something about herself by listening to other people’s tales of where they came from.

I discovered this on my very first journey with her. After she brought me into existence, we went to a world called Jesanli, where the few city-states were hostile toward us. None would receive us, until we met the Kiha, a nomadic desert tribe who had a tradition of hospitality. None of the inhabitants of this planet have much by way of arts or machinery, civilization or learning. But the Kiha have stories that are poetic and strange. Here is the first of them.

Once upon a time our ancestors lived in a hot and crowded space, in near darkness. They were not like us. They were not men, nor women, but had a different form. The ancestors, having poor sight, lived in fear all the time, and when one intruded too close to another, they immediately sprang apart in terror. It was as though each moment of approach brought the possibility of a stranger, an enemy, entering their personal domain. Imagine a lot of people who cannot speak, forced to live in a small, cramped, dark cave, where every blundering collision is a nightmare – for that is what it was like for them. Their fear became part of them, becoming a physical presence like a burden carried on the back.


  • "Alex Dally MacFarland should be commended for putting together such a diversity of voices in one anthology. Amongst its pages you can find winners and nominees for Hugo, Tiptree, World Fantasy, and Nebula Awards, from established print magazines (Asimov's and F&SF), to online outlets (Clarkesworld makes a good showing, as does and stand-alone anthologies...There will be stories for most palates here, much to think about and argue with. An excellent showcase, subverting paradigms as well as expectations.
    --Locus Magazine

On Sale
Dec 2, 2014
Page Count
512 pages
Running Press

Alex Dally MacFarlane

About the Author

Alex Dally MacFarlane is a writer, poet, anthologist, and occasional Londoner. Her stories have been published in many anthologies and magazines, including Clarkesworld Magazine and the anthology The Other Half of the Sky. She is the editor of the anthology Aliens: Recent Encounters.

Learn more about this author