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Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818. I wonder if most readers would consider the book within the science fiction genre. It certainly has claim to the Gothic and horror genres as well. If you do see it as belonging to science fiction, do you know of any earlier female science fiction writers? 1818 is very early, so there may not be any older female writers whose work could reasonably fit within science fiction, but I’m curious.

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Mary Shelley is almost certainly the earliest woman science fiction writer, seeing as she has a good claim to being the earliest science fiction writer period. – user14111 Mar 6 at 23:52
    
If you're certain, do you want to post your comment as an answer? That's what I thought, but I wasn't sure. – rosesunhill Mar 7 at 0:05
    
No prob. I actually responded to @user14111 before I saw your comment, but you raise a worthy question. – rosesunhill Mar 7 at 0:10
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Personally, the first thing that popped into my head after reading the title was Frankenstein, so that's one vote for considering it science fiction. The premise is remotely plausible, especially given the science of the time. And, in keeping with much of modern sci-fi, the story explored what it means to be "alive", what rights an engineered being should have, how an engineered being might respond to its newfound existence, how humans might respond to this alien... thing, and the kinds of potentially conflicting emotional responses the creator might have as a result of his success. – MichaelS Mar 7 at 2:04
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@user14111 : Jonathan Swift could lay good claim to being an earlier sci-fi writer (period, not female) with Gulliver's Travels - his sailing bluster/jargon was the "dilithium crystals" of its day, and an astronomical observation (the moons of Mars) that was confirmed almost 150 years later! – Brian Drummond Mar 7 at 17:59
up vote 52 down vote accepted

It depends on which works you consider to be science fiction. The most obvious candidate would be Mary Shelley, who, as you mentioned, wrote Frankenstein in 1818. She also wrote The Last Man in 1826, which by some accounts has an even stronger claim to being science fiction than Frankenstein does (thanks to Hypnosifl for this). But depending on how narrowly you define “science fiction,” there are a few other candidates.

Thanks to 22nd Century Fza’s answer on a related question, we have Margaret Cavendish, who wrote The Blazing World in 1666.

And now, from Wikipedia1, here are some other female authors, up to the early 20th century:

I don’t know how to evaluate how close each of those works is to modern science fiction without reading them all, but I suspect that your answer will either be Margaret Cavendish or Mary Shelley, depending on where you draw the line between science fiction and proto-science fiction.

For further reading, see the Wikipedia article Women in speculative fiction, and the question What is the earliest work considered to be Science Fiction? on this site.


1 From Wikipedia’s articles on the timeline and history of science fiction.

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Also, even if you don't count Shelley's Frankenstein due to its mention of Victor Frankenstein taking inspiration from various Renaissance alchemists like Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus (suggesting that alchemy or other 'magic' may have been used in creating the monster), her book The Last Man (1826), which depicts a future Earth (a date of 2092 is given at one point in the book) in which humanity has been driven almost to extinction by a plague, seems like it falls into the science fiction genre. – Hypnosifl Mar 7 at 17:20
    
@Hypnosifl I'm wondering at what point the practice of alchemy diverged from possibly being considered scientific and became associated with magic. This doesn't seem a question strictly within the guidelines here, but it's an interesting question. I'm not sure that scientists like Newton saw much difference between the two pursuits, but we certainly do. – rosesunhill Mar 10 at 21:28
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@rosesunhill - That's an interesting point, the simple history here shows Shelley was writing at the dawn of modern atomic theory. But the text of the book itself makes a point of how Frankenstein had become interested in a lot of "outdated" authors like Agrippa--he tells of how he first came across a book by Agrippa and his father saw him reading it and called it "sad trash", and he comments "If, instead of this remark, my father had taken the pains to explain to me that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded – Hypnosifl Mar 10 at 21:51
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(cont) and that a modern system of science had been introduced which possessed much greater powers than the ancient, because the powers of the latter were chimerical, while those of the former were real and practical, under such circumstances I should certainly have thrown Agrippa aside ... It is even possible that the train of my ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin. But the cursory glance my father had taken of my volume by no means assured me that he was acquainted with its contents, and I continued to read with the greatest avidity." – Hypnosifl Mar 10 at 21:52

As others have already pointed out, a lot here depends on how you define "science fiction".

For my nominees, the question would be whether you include writing about science that the author believed to be true, but has long since been shown to be almost pure nonsense.

For example, I'd include Arignote and Asclepigenia, who were Greek philosophers circa 500 BCC and 430 BC respectively. Each wrote about science, and didn't particularly intend that what she wrote would be false, but it turns out that essentially all of it was--and perhaps just as importantly, neither followed anything like the procedures that would now be recognized as how non-fiction about science is written.

Rather, she basically sat down, imagined how things might work, and wrote down what she imagined--as such, although intended as non-fiction, both the way it was written and the result fit pretty closely with what we'd now normally classify as fiction (and specifically, science fiction).

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I think that describes most of the Greek philosophers, upon who's "imaginings" much of our modern science is either built, or at least owes a debt of gratitude, – Lucien Stals Mar 8 at 4:12

Adam Roberts’ book The History of Science Fiction (part of the Palgrave Histories of Literature series, published 2007) discusses Shelley’s Frankenstein more as an influence on the development of science fiction as opposed to the first science fiction novel. He says that the novel had an ‘enormous impact [...] upon the development of SF with Frankenstein.’ (p.95)

The first mention of a novel that Roberts deems actual science fiction is by Marie Corelli (1855-1924):

Her first novel, The Romance of Two Worlds (1886), reads like an especially prolix throwback to the mystical voyages of Kircher and Swedenborg. The book details a trip around the solar system under-taken by the narrator-heroine in the company of Azul, an angel, taking in perfected societies of spiritual life on Saturn, Venus and Jupiter, the voyage achieved by a mystical variant of electricity. (p.115)

This is the first reference I can see in the text that refers to a novel as both science fictional and written by a female author.

Before that, there is one other reference in Roberts’ book: Cornelie Wouters, Baronee de Wasse’s work entitled Le Char Volant; ou, Voyage Dans la lune (The Flying Chariot, or Trip to the Moon), written in 1783. Roberts describes it as a ‘lunar fantasy’ and Wikipedia refers to it as a ‘philosophical tale’.

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I'll have to get a copy of his book. Thanks! – rosesunhill Mar 8 at 20:24
    
Good find. Did you happen to see any other female influences on sci-fi (before 1886) that aren't listed in my answer? – amaranth Mar 8 at 21:07
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Yes, there is one other reference in Roberts book - Cornelie Wouters, Baronee de Wasse's work entitled 'Le Char Volant; ou, Voyage Dans la lune' ('The Flying Chariot, or Trip to the Moon') written in 1783. Roberts describes it as a 'lunar fantasy' and wikipedia refers to it as a 'philosophical tale'. – Kindred_Nick Mar 9 at 20:59
    
Thanks! Next time I'll get around to doing it myself. Appreciate it. – Kindred_Nick Mar 16 at 16:50

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