As a 10-year-old, I bought every title in the groundbreaking Adult Fantasy series edited by Lin Carter and published by Ballantine Books, which had made a fortune with the American paperback editions of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The Adult Fantasy series was an honor roll of fantasy literature: reprints of great 19th- and early-20th-century novels by E.R. Eddison, George MacDonald, William Morris, Lord Dunsany; Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast series; Peter Beagle's 1960s fantasies, most notably The Last Unicorn. By the time I'd worked my way through these, I was dangerously close to puberty, and at last began to sense something odd about the world Beyond the Fields We Know. Even though Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is widely considered the first science-fiction novel, a generation ago the field appeared to have few female protagonists, and few women writers.

Few, of course, does not mean none. Even as a girl, I was aware of the great editor and writer Judith Merril, whose annual Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy anthologies filled a sizable shelf in my hometown library. These books did more than act as portals to the vast range of writers producing extraordinary work between 1956 and 1968 (the years of Merril's editorship). They were also the first real introduction I had to the presence of a powerful woman in the field, acting to shape the literature itself while also producing her own fiction, most notably the short story "That Only a Mother" and the novel Shadow on the Hearth, works that anticipated more overtly feminist sf by a decade or more.

Zenna Henderson was another writer who often took the distaff view. Her 1950s tales of "The People" presented alien contacts in midcentury, middle-American settings. C.L. (Catherine) Moore's "Jirel of Joiry" stories, though originally published in the 1930s, were reprinted as a single volume in the 1960s, the first sword-and-sorcery epic I read that featured a woman -- Jirel -- who could have successfully arm-wrestled Conan the Conqueror. And Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series was one of the first to deal specifically with gender issues in an off-planet setting.

There were influential children's writers as well, in particular Joan Aiken (the Dido Twite books, among numerous others) and Susan Cooper, who in 1965 published the first volume of her brilliant The Dark Is Rising sequence. And in 1968 Ursula K. Le Guin's classic A Wizard of Earthsea appeared. By now I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up; I was actively (and sometimes desperately) looking for role models.

I lucked out. The late 1960s and 1970s produced an explosion of women writers in the field who continue to generate hugely influential and successful work. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, Joanna Russ's And Chaos Died and The Female Man, and Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang are just a handful of the best-known books from that time. In 1970, Ballantine's Adult Fantasy series published a new novel by one of the first and best of the Tolkien imitators -- Joy Chant's Red Moon and Black Mountain. Ballantine also reprinted two major works that were to have a lasting impact on the field -- Hope Mirrlees's exquisite and subtle masterpiece Lud-in-the Mist (1926), which influenced people like Michael Swanwick and Neil Gaiman (and this writer as well), and Evangeline Walton's Island of the Mighty (1936), a sexually aware retelling of the fourth branch of the Mabinogion. Walton's book was so successful that she went on to produce three other novels, dealing with the earlier branches of the Welsh epic; along with Lloyd Alexander and Alan Garner, she effectively opened up the Welsh myths for colonization by modern fantasists.

The greatest of all the writers -- male or female -- who appeared during this time was Angela Carter. After her untimely death (from cancer, in 1992), Salman Rushdie noted that, despite being dismissed as a fantasist during her lifetime, Carter had "become the contemporary writer most studied at British universities." Her lush, hallucinatory books ranged from early, non-fantastic works like Love and The Magic Toyshop to science-fiction novels -- the Dying Earth fugue of Heroes and Villains, the transgendered post-holocaust hero/ine of The Passion of New Eve -- to the fantasies The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, Nights at the Circus and, most important of all, The Bloody Chamber, Carter's groundbreaking feminist revision of classic fairy tales.

My first Carter novel was The War of Dreams (the U.S. title for The Infernal Desire Machines); I picked it up in a bookstore in 1975, read the opening paragraphs, and felt as though someone had pumped a drug into my veins: Here, at last, was the writer I'd been looking for all my life. Carter's prose was exuberant and expansive (big words! strange words!), completely over the top, and -- best of all to my 17-year-old self -- unapologetically erotic. And, despite the novel's male protagonist, it was obviously feminine in its viewpoint. Carter avoided the didactic pitfalls of many overtly feminist writers; her women characters were not unfailingly strong, smart, successful, sexy (though they often were; and almost always sexy). A Carter heroine was not simply "as good as a man" or better than one. She was, simply, human, and Carter -- along with the American writer Samuel R. Delany -- created a body of work that in its erotic and intellectual complexity is above all profoundly humanist, transcending the not-insignificant barriers of genre and gender politics.

The other writer who broke many of the remaining rules about "women" writers was James Tiptree Jr., who might have been created by Carter. Tiptree was the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon (who also wrote under the name Raccoona Sheldon). Sheldon lived in the D.C. area, working in the Pentagon; during the 1970s, she produced some of the best and most chilling feminist tales ever written. Stories like "The Women Men Don't See," "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain," "Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death," and the terrifying "The Screwfly Solution" were brilliantly constructed and devastating in their impact. They were so brilliant and devastating, in fact, that in 1974 when rumors began to emerge that the pseudonymous Tiptree was actually a woman, no less a figure than Robert Silverberg wrote (in a now-notorious introduction to Tiptree's 1975 collection Warm Worlds and Otherwise) that "It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing. I don't think the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man nor the stories of Ernest Hemingway by a woman, and in the same way I believe the author of the James Tiptree stories is male."

Oops.

Things are different now. By the 1980s, women writers, while not dominating the field, were a major presence; by the 1990s, happily, it no longer mattered -- much -- who or what you were. Writers like Ellen Kushner turned the sword-and-sorcery genre on its head -- her novel Swordspoint has a swashbuckling bisexual hero. (A sequel, penned by Kushner and fantastist Delia Sherman, will be published later this year.) Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Suzy McKee Charnas, Kate Wilhelm, Lisa Tuttle, Leigh Kennedy are all prolific and established writers who continue to produce invigorating work, along with Pat Murphy, Lynn Flewelling, Pat Cadigan and Robin Hobb.

Neither should one overlook such hard sf writers as Sherri Tepper, Eleanor Arnason, Lois McMaster Bujold and C.J. Cherryh. Many of these, as well as British writers Storm Constantine, Mary Gentle, Tanith Lee, Gwyneth Jones and Nicola Griffith, consistently win genre awards alongside their established grandme{grv}re, Ursula Le Guin. Judith Merril's mantle has been passed to Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, who each year edit The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. There is now a major literary award named for James M. Tiptree Jr. Mary Doria Russell's 1996 science-fiction novel The Sparrow became a surprise bestseller, while Octavia Butler has received a MacArthur Fellowship. Kelly Link's outstanding new collection of short stories, Stranger Things Happen, recently received glowing reviews in mainstream reviewing outlets. Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award this year.

And every month brings new titles, by Kathleen Ann Goonan, Nalo Hopkinson, Liz Williams, Kelly Keskridge, Jennifer Robeson, Candas Jane Dorsey -- the list goes on and on and on. And I know I'm inadvertently omitting many, many other fine writers.

But in a way, that's the point. Once upon a time, you could have listed all our names on a single page. Today, you'd need an entire issue of Book World, and an entire library for our books. And just maybe, sometime in the not-so-distant future, it won't be an issue at all, and we won't be women writers, or science-fiction writers, or fantasists: We'll just be writers.

That's when I'll know the Future has finally arrived. *

Elizabeth Hand's books include the novel "Waking the Moon," the short-story collection "Last Summer at Mars Hill" and the forthcoming "The Master Stroke."