On STEM Heroines in Young Adult Fiction

Reading my recent blog posts on this site, it’d be impossible to miss my absolute head-over-heels obsession with This Mortal Coil. Before you despair that I’m writing yet another post on that book–yes, I’m going to take any excuse to gush about 2017’s loveliest post-apocalyptic thriller, but this is also gonna be where I take a moment to talk about the STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) heroines in YA fiction. Because TMC got me thinking quite a bit about the subject, especially when I received my pre-order swag in the mail and read, as part of the bonus secrets, that the author had written another book several years ago that she perceived to be more “safe.” That book had a main character who wasn’t into science, which you can tell by checking out Emily Suvada’s website that she really, really loves. This Mortal Coil, which she wrote “in rebellion” thinking it would be “unmarketable,” is basically nerd heaven in teenage fiction. (Shameless plug alert: Read it if you haven’t already. Of course.)

But when you think about it, YA fiction has historically reflected the real-life trend in that their heroines/supporting female characters are rarely the science types. Obviously, the real-life trend is an entire topic in itself that I couldn’t begin to talk about with any sort of authority; countless social scientists and writers have already weighed in. I don’t normally talk about representation in YA–maybe because I’ve never had as strong an opinion as some other reviewers who do see rep very significantly–but since I’ve had STEM women on my mind, and I find they’re not a group that reviewers talk about as much as diversity in race or sexual orientation, here goes a (nowhere near exhaustive) list of some of my favourite science-oriented girls in the genre:


1. Catarina Agatta, This Mortal Coil (geneticist, programmer)

Okay. Fine. I said I wouldn’t spend the entire post going on about one book, but arrrrrrgh, you just can’t make a list of STEM heroines without talking about Cat first. She’s the world’s second-best genehacker, meaning that she edits DNA, and is in the novel tasked with decrypting a secret hidden in her own genes in order to save the world from a zombie-like virus that’s decimated the population. In addition to being a brilliant scientist, Cat is in general frighteningly competent–she has so many secrets to her, of which a few big game changers are revealed eventually, and you don’t get to appreciate just what she’s been through and survived until almost the end. Plus her name is literally CAT AGATTA. And her love interest’s name is Cole FRANKLIN. (I loved that one. Take a look at my profile pic.) And her best friend’s nickname is CRICK. It’s not just name-dropping, either; they live up to the hype.


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2. Emika Chen, Warcross (programmer)

Warcross, as I’ve covered in my review, is a ridiculously fun novel. That’s thanks in no small part to the energy of its protagonist and narrator Emika Chen, who’s hired by prodigy billionaire Hideo Tanaka to act as a spy in that year’s annual Warcross Championships (think League of Legends tournament if it was as big as the Olympics) and root out a security threat. Emika is a genius hacker. Her intelligence isn’t that surprising if you’re familiar with Marie Lu’s novels, but what makes her a better character than the vast majority of “oh look, it’s the reincarnation of Einstein!” characters is the guileless sense of justice and slightly incredulous attitude towards what she’s been caught up in that carries her through the novel. The fact that Emika starts off the novel broke and on the brink of homeless keeps her from ever becoming entitled, which is always difficult to read in characters as smart as she is.


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3. Alia Keralis, Wonder Woman: Warbringer (biotechnology)

No, Alia isn’t as involved with her purported field of biotech as the other characters on this list or her own brother in the same book, but she’s still a huge badass that I couldn’t leave off mentioning. Imagine being told at the ripe old age of almost-17 that unless you evade would-be assassins and kidnappers to make it to some vague spring in Greece within the next few days, your very existence will trigger World War III and lead to the end of life as everyone knows it. That’s Alia Keralis. Her brother Jason may be the one who rubs arms with investors discussing the Keralis company’s latest tech, but Alia is no less savvy and a lot more courageous. As the quote above shows, she comes into her own in such a powerful way by the end of the novel.


4. Urbana, Now I Rise (engineer)

The thing to know about Urbana is, uh, she makes cannons. The deadliest, most powerful cannons found anywhere in 15th-century Europe. In fact, as another character accurately puts it, “her only loyalty is to creating the most stunningly large and effective means of killing people the world has ever seen.” In another book, that might make her a villain, but in Kiersten White’s Game of Thrones-like Conqueror’s Saga, she’s quite tame on the scale of evil. Urbana may be a supporting character, but she adds a healthy dollop of personality and even comic relief (who’d have thought, for a medieval Oppenheimer?) to the story. Her achievements are even more impressive when you consider that she comes from a time period when women were viewed as little better than incubators. “Insane, but she may also be a genius,” as she’s described.


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5. Yrene Towers, Tower of Dawn (medicine)

I know, I know, this could possibly be considered cheating, considering that Yrene is more of a magic user than what we’d think of as a scientist. However, I’m of the view that magic is merely science operating on a different set of physical rules than those of our universe, which makes Yrene a doctor. Plus, we see the healers of the Torre Cesme mention a lot of the same theory that’s now recognised by modern science, and the organisation itself operates much like a premier research institution. To her credit, Yrene is headstrong yet compassionate in addition to being an extremely talented healer, making her one of my better-liked characters from Sarah J. Maas’s novels.


6. Nova Artino, Renegades (inventor)

Marissa Meyer’s Nova is an inventor in the traditional sense, an eccentric genius bent over a table tinkering with weird and wacky gadgets. I don’t like her as much as some of these other characters for reasons that have nothing to do with her science, but I still think she deserves a shout-out for her abilities. Sure, Nova may be a prodigy (read: a mutant) with superpowers, but seeing as they’re not the flashiest of superpowers, her greatest assets are those gained through training and smarts. Such as her stun gun or gloves that allow her to climb up the sides of buildings.

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