So much of science fiction is filled with woe, a parade of apocalypses, and wretched, soul-crushing dystopias.
These books are slightly happier! In them, things are generally fine. Some bad things do happen (gotta keep the story interesting), but they won’t spin you off into a miserable, existential funk.
Special thanks to reader Amanda Reber for the idea for this list.
When an extra-terrestrial visitor arrives on Earth, his first impressions of the human species are less than positive. Taking the form of Professor Andrew Martin, a prominent mathematician at Cambridge University, the visitor is eager to complete the gruesome task assigned him and hurry home to his own utopian planet, where everyone is omniscient and immortal.
He is disgusted by the way humans look, what they eat, their capacity for murder and war, and is equally baffled by the concepts of love and family. But as time goes on, he starts to realize there may be more to this strange species than he had thought. Disguised as Martin, he drinks wine, reads poetry, develops an ear for rock music, and a taste for peanut butter. Slowly, unexpectedly, he forges bonds with Martin’s family. He begins to see hope and beauty in the humans’ imperfections, and begins to question the very mission that brought him there.
“[S]illy, sad, suspenseful, and soulful.”
Ten thousand years in the future, our solar system is an interplanetary utopian society filled with immortal humans. Within the frame of a traditional tale—the one rebel who is unhappy in utopia—Wright spins an elaborate plot filled with suspense and passion.
Phaethon, of Radamanthus House, is attending a glorious party at his family mansion to celebrate the thousand-year anniversary of the High Transcendence. There he meets first an old man who accuses him of being an impostor and then a being from Neptune who claims to be an old friend. The Neptunian tells him that essential parts of his memory were removed and stored by the very government that Phaethon believes to be wholly honorable. It shakes his faith. He is an exile from himself.
And so Phaethon embarks upon a quest across the transformed solar system—Jupiter is now a second sun, Mars and Venus terraformed, humanity immortal—among humans, intelligent machines, and bizarre life forms that are partly both, to recover his memory, and to learn what crime he planned that warranted such preemptive punishment. His quest is to regain his true identity.
Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes, he is required, as is the custom in the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer—a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.
The world into which Mycroft and Carlyle have been born is as strange to our 21st-century eyes as ours would be to one born in the 1500s. It is a hard-won utopia built on technologically-generated abundance, and also on complex and mandatory systems of labeling all public writing and speech. What seem to us normal gender distinctions are now distinctly taboo in most social situations. And most of the world’s population is affiliated with globe-girdling clans of the like-minded, whose endless economic and cultural competition is carefully managed by central planners of inestimable subtlety.
And in this world, Mycroft and Carlyle have stumbled on the wild card that may destabilize the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life…
“Bold, furiously inventive, and mesmerizing…It’s the best science fiction novel I’ve read in a long while.”
―Robert Charles Wilson, author of Spin
Seven suburban misfits are constructing a spaceship out of old tanker cars. The plan is to beat the Chinese to Mars–in under four days at three million miles an hour. It would be history in the making if it didn’t sound so insane.
“The heart-pounding space race is on! [A] riveting SF thriller… with hilarious, well-drawn characters, extraordinary situations presented plausibly, plus exciting action and adventure.”
Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and is looking forward to a life of leisure. There are places to go, books to read, and movies to watch. So it’s a little unfair when he gets himself killed crossing the street.
Bob wakes up a century later to find that corpsicles have been declared to be without rights, and he is now the property of the state. He has been uploaded into computer hardware and is slated to be the controlling AI in an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets. The stakes are high: no less than the first claim to entire worlds. If he declines the honor, he’ll be switched off, and they’ll try again with someone else. If he accepts, he becomes a prime target. There are at least three other countries trying to get their own probes launched first, and they play dirty.
The safest place for Bob is in space, heading away from Earth at top speed. Or so he thinks. Because the universe is full of nasties, and trespassers make them mad—very mad.
Winner of the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for Best Novella.
Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.
Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.
If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself—but first she has to make it there, alive.
“Prepare to fall in love with Binti.”
—Neil Gaiman, co-author of Good Omens
Book 2 of the 16-book Vorkosigan Saga
Discharged from the Barrarayan academy after flunking the physical, a discouraged Miles Vorkosigan takes possession of a jumpship and becomes the leader of a mercenary force that expands to a fleet of treasonous proportions.
First prize in the Skyway Soap slogan contest was an all-expenses-paid trip to the Moon. The consolation prize was an authentic space suit, and when scientifically-minded high school senior Kip Russell won it, he knew for certain he would use it one day to make a sojourn of his own to the stars. But “one day” comes sooner than he thinks when he tries on the suit in his backyard—and finds himself worlds away, a prisoner aboard a space pirate’s ship, and heading straight for what could be his final destination…
It’s Fall 2007. A well-timed leak has revealed that the US government might have engaged in first contact. Cora Sabino is doing everything she can to avoid the whole mess, since the force driving the controversy is her whistleblower father. Even though Cora hasn’t spoken to him in years, his celebrity has caught the attention of the press, the Internet, the paparazzi, and the government―and with him in hiding, that attention is on her. She neither knows nor cares whether her father’s leaks are a hoax, and wants nothing to do with him―until she learns just how deeply entrenched her family is in the cover-up, and that an extraterrestrial presence has been on Earth for decades.
Realizing the extent to which both she and the public have been lied to, she sets out to gather as much information as she can, and finds that the best way for her to uncover the truth is not as a whistleblower, but as an intermediary. The alien presence has been completely uncommunicative until she convinces one of them that she can act as their interpreter, becoming the first and only human vessel of communication. Their otherworldly connection will change everything she thought she knew about being human―and could unleash a force more sinister than she ever imagined.
“Suspenseful and inventive, but also funny and full of action, Axiom’s End remixes the Hollywood alien-invasion playbook.”
It’s New Year’s Eve 1982, and Oona Lockhart has her whole life before her. At the stroke of midnight she will turn nineteen, and the year ahead promises to be one of consequence. Should she go to London to study economics, or remain at home in Brooklyn to pursue her passion for music and be with her boyfriend? As the countdown to the New Year begins, Oona faints and awakens thirty-two years in the future in her fifty-one-year-old body. Greeted by a friendly stranger in a beautiful house she’s told is her own, Oona learns that with each passing year she will leap to another age at random. And so begins Oona Out of Order…
Hopping through decades, pop culture fads, and much-needed stock tips, Oona is still a young woman on the inside but ever changing on the outside. Who will she be next year? Philanthropist? Club Kid? World traveler? Wife to a man she’s never met? Surprising, magical, and heart-wrenching, Margarita Montimore has crafted an unforgettable story about the burdens of time, the endurance of love, and the power of family.
“Looking for a lighthearted read? Maybe something that will remind you all to live your best life? …A charming, quirky story about aging and self-discovery.”
Every day in Minor Universe 31 people get into time machines and try to change the past. That’s where Charles Yu, time travel technician, steps in. He helps save people from themselves. Literally. When he’s not taking client calls, Yu visits his mother and searches for his father, who invented time travel and then vanished. The key to locating his father may be found in a book. It’s called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and somewhere inside it is information that will help him. It may even save his life.
“A brainy reverie of sexbots, rayguns, time travel and Buddhist zombie mothers… Packed with deft emotional insight.”
In South Africa, the future looks promising. Personal robots are making life easier for the working class. The government is harnessing renewable energy to provide infrastructure for the poor. And in the bustling coastal town of Port Elizabeth, the economy is booming thanks to the genetic engineering industry which has found a welcome home there. Yes, the days to come are looking very good for South Africans. That is, if they can survive the present challenges:
A new hallucinogenic drug sweeping the country, an emerging AI uprising, and an ancient demigoddess hellbent on regaining her former status by preying on the blood and sweat (but mostly blood) of every human she encounters.
It’s up to a young Zulu girl powerful enough to destroy her entire township, a queer teen plagued with the ability to control minds, a pop diva with serious daddy issues, and a politician with even more serious mommy issues to band together to ensure there’s a future left to worry about.
“Drayden’s delivery of all this is subtly poignant and slap-in-the-face deadpan… Lots of fun.”
—New York Times Book Review
When an elderly customer at a Swedish big box furniture store―but not that one―slips through a portal to another dimension, it’s up to two minimum-wage employees to track her across the multiverse and protect their company’s bottom line. Multi-dimensional swashbuckling would be hard enough, but those two unfortunate souls also just broke up a week ago.
To find the missing granny, Ava and Jules will brave carnivorous furniture, swarms of identical furniture spokespeople, and the deep resentment simmering between them. Can friendship blossom from the ashes of their relationship? In infinite dimensions, all things are possible.
“The mixture of corporate drudgery and dimension-hopping adventure will hold the reader’s attention as well as Ava and Jules’ post-break-up foibles do. Recommended for those interested in sf that features queer relationships, minimum-wage labor, and many worlds theory.”
Once every cycle, the great galactic civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix—part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Species far and wide compete in feats of song, dance and/or whatever facsimile of these can be performed, based on whatever anatomy the species may have. And if a new species should wish to be counted among the high and the mighty? Well, then they will have to compete. And if they fail? Sudden extermination for their entire species.
Now it’s Earth’s turn.
“Valente has pulled off another spectacular feat of world building (it’s worth reading just for the descriptions of previous performances) and a story which is uproariously funny, sweet, and hopeful.”
—Booklist, starred review
In the ashes of a dying world, Red finds a letter marked “Burn before reading. Signed, Blue.”
So begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents in a war that stretches through the vast reaches of time and space.
Red belongs to the Agency, a post-singularity technotopia. Blue belongs to Garden, a single vast consciousness embedded in all organic matter. Their pasts are bloody and their futures mutually exclusive. They have nothing in common—save that they’re the best, and they’re alone.
Now what began as a battlefield boast grows into a dangerous game, one both Red and Blue are determined to win. Because winning’s what you do in war. Isn’t it?
“[An] exquisitely crafted tale… Part epistolary romance, part mind-blowing science fiction adventure, this dazzling story unfolds bit by bit, revealing layers of meaning as it plays with cause and effect, wildly imaginative technologies, and increasingly intricate wordplay…”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
Captain Eva Innocente and the crew of La Sirena Negra cruise the galaxy delivering small cargo for even smaller profits. When her sister Mari is kidnapped by The Fridge, a shadowy syndicate that holds people hostage in cryostasis, Eva must undergo a series of unpleasant, dangerous missions to pay the ransom.
But Eva may lose her mind before she can raise the money. The ship’s hold is full of psychic cats, an amorous fish-faced emperor wants her dead after she rejects his advances, and her sweet engineer is giving her a pesky case of feelings. The worse things get, the more she lies, raising suspicions and testing her loyalty to her found family.
To free her sister, Eva will risk everything: her crew, her ship, and the life she’s built on the ashes of her past misdeeds. But when the dominoes start to fall and she finds the real threat is greater than she imagined, she must decide whether to play it cool or burn it all down.
It takes a special mind to combine Disney and cyberpunk, and author Cory Doctorow apparently has it (in his head, or in a jar, I don’t know the specifics).
Jules is a young man barely a century old. He’s lived long enough to see the cure for death and the end of scarcity, to learn ten languages and compose three symphonies…and to realize his boyhood dream of taking up residence in Disney World.
Disney World! The greatest artistic achievement of the long-ago twentieth century, currently in the keeping of a network of “ad hocs” who keep the classic attractions running as they always have, enhanced with only the smallest high-tech touches.
Now, though, the “ad hocs” are under attack. A new group has taken over the Hall of the Presidents, and is replacing its venerable audio animatronics with new, immersive direct-to-brain interfaces that give guests the illusion of being Washington, Lincoln, and all the others. For Jules, this is an attack on the artistic purity of Disney World itself.
Worse: it appears this new group has had Jules killed. This upsets him. (It’s only his fourth death and revival, after all.) Now it’s war!
“Jules’s narrative unfolds so smoothly that readers may forget that all this raging passion is over amusement park rides. Then they can ask what that shows about the novel’s supposedly mature, liberated characters. Doctorow has served up a nicely understated dish: meringue laced with caffeine.”
The Culture—a human/machine symbiotic society—has thrown up many great Game Players, and one of the greatest is Gurgeh Jernau Morat Gurgeh. The Player of Games. Master of every board, computer and strategy.
Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel and incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game… a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game, and with it the challenge of his life, and very possibly his death.
Book 4 in the Old Man’s War series.
How do you tell your part in the biggest tale in history?
I ask because it’s what I have to do. I’m Zoe Boutin Perry: A colonist stranded on a deadly pioneer world. Holy icon to a race of aliens. A player (and a pawn) in an interstellar chess match to save humanity, or to see it fall. Witness to history. Friend. Daughter. Human. Seventeen years old.
Everyone on Earth knows the tale I am part of. But you don’t know my tale: How I did what I did―how I did what I had to do―not just to stay alive but to keep you alive, too. All of you. I’m going to tell it to you now, the only way I know how: not straight but true, the whole thing, to try to make you feel what I felt: the joy and terror and uncertainty, panic and wonder, despair and hope. Everything that happened, bringing us to Earth, and Earth out of its captivity. All through my eyes.
It’s a story you know. But you don’t know it all.
Robert Gu is a recovering Alzheimer’s patient. The world that he remembers was much as we know it today. Now, as he regains his faculties through a cure developed during the years of his near-fatal decline, he discovers that the world has changed and so has his place in it. He was a world-renowned poet. Now he is seventy-five years old, though by a medical miracle he looks much younger, and he’s starting over, for the first time unsure of his poetic gifts. Living with his son’s family, he has no choice but to learn how to cope with a new information age in which the virtual and the real are a seamless continuum, layers of reality built on digital views seen by a single person or millions, depending on your choice. But the consensus reality of the digital world is available only if, like his thirteen-year-old granddaughter Miri, you know how to wear your wireless access―through nodes designed into smart clothes―and to see the digital context―through smart contact lenses.
With knowledge comes risk. When Robert begins to re-train at Fairmont High, learning with other older people what is second nature to Miri and other teens at school, he unwittingly becomes part of a wide-ranging conspiracy to use technology as a tool for world domination.
In a world where every computer chip has Homeland Security built-in, this conspiracy is something that baffles even the most sophisticated security analysts, including Robert’s son and daughter-in law, two top people in the U.S. military. And even Miri, in her attempts to protect her grandfather, may be entangled in the plot.
As Robert becomes more deeply involved in conspiracy, he is shocked to learn of a radical change planned for the UCSD Geisel Library; all the books there, and worldwide, would cease to physically exist. He and his fellow re-trainees feel compelled to join protests against the change. With forces around the world converging on San Diego, both the conspiracy and the protest climax in a spectacular moment as unique and satisfying as it is unexpected. This is science fiction at its very best, by a master storyteller at his peak.
Carl Sagan was one of my heroes growing up (along with Jim Henson and Jacques Cousteau) and I read everything of his I could get my hands on. When Contact was released, I read it with the highest expectations, which was a bit of a mistake.
Contact is a great First Contact book, with plenty of hard science, interesting characters, and a good story. Unfortunately, the ending left me a little disappointed—actually, I got angry—so if you read this, be prepared for a fun ride and meh ending.
It could just be me, though:
“[Sagan’s] informed and dramatically enacted speculations into the mysteries of the universe, taken to the point where science and religion touch, make his story an exciting intellectual adventure and science fiction of a high order.”
Rosemary Harper doesn’t expect much when she joins the crew of the aging Wayfarer. While the patched-up ship has seen better days, it offers her a bed, a chance to explore the far-off corners of the galaxy, and most importantly, some distance from her past. An introspective young woman who learned early to keep to herself, she’s never met anyone remotely like the ship’s diverse crew, including Sissix, the exotic reptilian pilot, chatty engineers Kizzy and Jenks who keep the ship running, and Ashby, their noble captain.
Life aboard the Wayfarer is chaotic and crazy—exactly what Rosemary wants. It’s also about to get extremely dangerous when the crew is offered the job of a lifetime. Tunneling wormholes through space to a distant planet is definitely lucrative and will keep them comfortable for years. But risking her life wasn’t part of the plan. In the far reaches of deep space, the tiny Wayfarer crew will confront a host of unexpected mishaps and thrilling adventures that force them to depend on each other. To survive, Rosemary’s got to learn how to rely on this assortment of oddballs—an experience that teaches her about love and trust, and that having a family isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the universe.
“A quietly profound, humane tour de force that tackles politics and gender issues with refreshing optimism.”
A bleak moon settled by utopian anarchists, Anarres has long been isolated from other worlds, including its mother planet, Urras—a civilization of warring nations, great poverty, and immense wealth. Now Shevek, a brilliant physicist, is determined to reunite the two planets, which have been divided by centuries of distrust. He will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have kept them apart.
To visit Urras—to learn, to teach, to share—will require great sacrifice and risks, which Shevek willingly accepts. But the ambitious scientist’s gift is soon seen as a threat, and in the profound conflict that ensues, he must reexamine his beliefs even as he ignites the fires of change.
“One of the greats… Not just a science fiction writer; a literary icon.”
To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of the funniest science fiction books I’ve ever read. It isn’t a silly, knee-slapping romp like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but a calmer story that relies more on character interactions than external craziness.
Time travel exists but is primarily a method for historical research. It’s also exhausting, and Ned Henry has done far too much of it. But instead of getting some much-needed rest, he’s sent to Victorian England to recover something called a bishop’s bird stump. He gets help from Verity Kindle, a fellow time-traveler who has shuffled a cat between timelines, an act that has the potential to completely upset all of history.
Ned and Verity are a great team as they try to patch everything up, and the eccentric Victorians they run across are hilarious.
“Willis effortlessly juggles comedy of manners, chaos theory and a wide range of literary allusions [with a] near flawlessness of plot, character and prose.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
6 thoughts on “The Best Optimistic Science Fiction Books”
Why put a dampener on the end of Carl Sagans “Contact” ?
I have just started reading it and now when I pick up my Kindle it is with negativity !!!
I didn’t feel that Contact ended on a down note.
The key players know what >really< happened. And what happened was very, very good.
Also, I was please to find my favorite Heinlein novel, Have Space Suit, Will Travel, listed. It always leaves me feeling good. I've re-read it many times.
I love The Humans, it’s one of my favorite books of all time. Highly recommend.
Thank you for the list! I’m unfamiliar with most of these entries, so I really appreciate the work you’ve done.
One of the few I have read is The Player of Games, and I’m curious how you think it’s optimistic, however. Without ruining it for others, it does feature a scene in which a minor character receives a horrifying punishment, a punishment so severe it dominated all other features of the book for me.
It’s optimistic in the general “humans are doing fine and living good lives” sense. It’s not post-apocalyptic or dystopian.
This is quite the list of 24 books, I have read several of them.
21. Red Thunder (one of my six star books)
20. We Are Legion (We are Bob) (one of my six star books)
18. The Warriors Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold (another six star series)
17. Have Space Suit- Will Travel
8. Down & Out In The Magic Kingdom
6. Zoe’s Tale
5. Rainbow’s End
4. Contact – I saw the movie
1. To Say Nothing Of The Dog (awesome book !)