Just before the social distancing measures began in response to the new coronavirus, COVID-19, I made an impulse purchase. Into my virtual cart went one of those pet backpacks—the ones with the clear domes that make your cat look like an astronaut. I have used it every day since it arrived to transform my cat into a space-faring feline as we roam the mostly empty areas around our apartment. She enjoys it. So do I. In the moment, it’s not hard to imagine that we’re walking the grounds of a distant, unknown planet. Our walks are almost adventures—pleasant little escapes from unease, anxiety and isolation. Maybe you’re looking for that kind of escape too. You may long for a trip to a far-off corner of the galaxy or a romp through time and space. And you may want it without a lot of high-stakes intergalactic warfare or earthbound dystopias. You’re in luck. These 20 feel-good science fiction books will suit different tastes and moods, but they’re all comfort food of some variety.
Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes
Appropriately, let’s start with psychic space cats. The hypnotic cats are among the cargo on La Sirena Negra, a tattered ship with a matching motley crew. Captain Eva Innocente’s misfortunes and adventures are told episodically, as she and her crew run reluctant errands for The Fridge crime syndicate. These errands are dangerous but absurd, and it’s hard not to grin as Eva dodges mind-melding monks and space cannibals.
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
Could you use some forbidden romance? Red and Blue are opposing agents, working covertly to help their respective sides win a space- and time-bending war. Through the expansive conflict, they alternate roles: sometimes predator, sometimes prey. But then something else. As seen through letters, other feelings—impossible, inconvenient feelings—start to bloom.
Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
Eurovision may have been canceled this year, but you can beam a similarly zany experience directly into your home. A pitch-perfect read-alike to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Space Opera finds Earth competing for its very existence in a galactic talent competition. Our champions? British one-hit wonders Decibel Jones & the Absolute Zeroes.
Finna by Nino Cipri
The premise is delightful: When a customer disappears through an inter-dimensional portal inside an IKEA-esque furniture store, two employees (recent exes) have to track her down—after consulting the musty store guidelines for the situation. The execution is more poignant than slapstick, balancing the humor of the quest with meditations on heartache and friendship.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
If you’ll allow me to speak Star Trek to you: This kooky and cozy journey through space reads like a Star Trek: The Next Generation bottle episode with Deep Space Nine characters. The oddball crew of the Wayfarer are on their way to an epic job tunneling wormholes, but their journey (and the way they learn to interact with each other) is more important than their destination.
The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa Cole
The title of this audiobook tells you what you need to know. Regina Hall and Mindy Kaling lead an ensemble voice cast for this feel-good science fiction–tinged romcom. In a techy near future, Trinity Jordan becomes fascinated by her neighbor’s hunky but odd nephew Li Wei. Turns out the guy next door is less human and more humanoid.
How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason
This duology starter has been pitched as The Princess Bride crossed with Princess Leia. (What could be more definitionally feel-good science fiction?) In a clever twist, the classic tale of a princess blessed (and cursed) by the gifts of faeries takes place in a kingdom of space, not of earth. And the princess? Well, she has to rescue the prince from the galactic forces that would steal his throne.
Crosstalk by Connie Willis
You think we live in an age of information overload? We’ve got nothing on Briddey Flannigan, the star of Willis’s screwball sci-fi romcom. In the near future, Briddey and her boyfriend agree to undergo an outpatient brain surgery designed to increase their connection and empathy. Things go awry, and Briddey comes out of the ordeal connected to someone else entirely—with way more information than any one brain can handle.
The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden
And now for something completely different. Drayden’s first novel is a blistering, bonkers ride that blends science fiction, fantasy, and mythology. In a future South Africa, a cast of diverse characters converge as a dormant demigoddess attempts to regain her powers. Littering the landscape is a new addictive hallucinogen, an emergent AI uprising, and, naturally, a plague of dik-diks.
The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Hossein
Fantasy meets sci-fi in this novella about an awakened djinn in a future Kathmandu. After a millennia of slumber, Melek Ahmar descends to a city now controlled by an all-powerful AI, whose high-tech system of karma points has fashioned a surface-level utopia. The djinn is introduced to the system by an outlaw soldier; theirs is a pairing that will shake up the status quo.
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
It’s hard not to feel a connection to Murderbot. The moniker has been self-bestowed by a corporate security bot who’s hacked its governor module and become self-aware. Rather than do the bidding of the Company, Murderbot would rather be left alone in its quarters to catch up on soap operas. But when a mission goes off the rails, this droid can’t stay totally detached.
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
Conceptually, Yu’s work of metafiction is part Doctor Who and part Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series. Charles Yu (the character) is a time travel technician in a world where the boundaries between fiction and reality are more fluid. This is a story about mishaps in time and space, but it’s also a book about father-son relationships, with Charles constantly searching for his vanished father.
Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone
Found-family feels and hijinks fuel this space opera. When tech mogul Vivian Liao tries to go off the grid, she certainly succeeds. In the middle of a hack, Viv is transported millennia into the future by a mysterious glowing woman. She lands in the middle of a firefight, which she later learns is just a small blip in a larger confrontation with the Empress, the all-powerful ruler of the galaxy.
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
Sherlock Holmes in spaaaace. This standalone novella in de Bodard’s Xuya universe is a satisfying mystery. In this Holmes homage, Watson is The Shadow’s Child, a sentient mindship who makes a meager living as an herbalist of sorts. Enter Long Chau, a gender-flipped consulting detective who comes to The Shadow’s Child for help with (what turns out to be) a murder investigation.
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
The first book in the Lady Astronaut series combines two wonderfully comforting things: a righteous space race in the vein of Hidden Figures and competent crisis management. In 1952, a meteor strikes Earth, leveling most of the Chesapeake Bay area, including Washington, D.C. Suddenly, our home is no longer hospitable and the race begins to send man—or, in fact, woman—to colonize the stars.
Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimoore
New Year’s is a time when many hope to become new versions of themselves. Oona Lockhart experiences this more literally than most. When the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve 1982, Oona is set to turn 19. But then she wakes up as a 51-year-old in 2015. Each January 1, Oona finds herself at a different point in her own life, learning her identity in fits, starts, and wildly different hairstyles.
Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi
It’s not often a space opera is helmed by a queer woman of color with a chronic illness. But that’s Alana Quick, one of the best sky surgeons around. Skills aside, she’s still barely able to make ends meet. When the crew of the Tangled Axon arrives looking for her sister, Alana steals aboard the ship in the hopes of landing a job. Instead, she finds herself on a bewildering adventure.
Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor
St. Mary’s Historical Research Institute is not full of the fusty academics its name implies. The researchers at St. Mary’s are adventurers, documenting major moments in history from the scenes themselves—and, you know, trying not to die while doing it. This first book takes you from the Cretaceous Period to World War I, but the misadventures continue in 10 more books and a smattering of short stories.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
The most fun you can have with your flesh on. You may think a book about death gods and necromancer space politics doesn’t qualify as “feel-good science fiction,” but you’re wrong. In a world of death arts, the Emperor is holding a competition that will bestow power and immortality on the winner. Malcontent swordswoman Gideon is harangued into helping her nemesis Harrow in the competition. The result is foul-mouthed, ossifying perfection.
Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen
Time-traveling agent Kin Stewart has been trapped in our era for 18 years. Since getting stuck on a mission in 1996, he’s carved out a life in modern San Francisco, with a wife and a daughter. Now, his fellow Temporal Corruption Bureau agents have come to “rescue” and return him to 2142, eliminating all evidence of his life in the 20th century. But Kin’s not ready to lose his family just yet.
That’s feel-good science fiction. But looking for even more recommendations? Try these related Book Riot picks.