It’s a grim, grim world out there, folks. The bad news is… Well, all the bad news is the bad news. That’s not a shocker. I won’t repeat it.
If you’re still reading this, you know why.
Humanity’s ancient obsession with battles between the darkness and the light, good and evil, exist because human beings so neatly encapsulate both. We are capable of great cruelty and horror, especially in large groups. Yet, we are also capable of great kindness and awe-inspiring collaborative works. These are the battles we fight—as individuals, as parties, as nations—the constant war between our best selves and our worst impulses. It’s why these conflicts are so pervasive in the stories we tell across every medium.
As you’ll discover based on the books I’ve chosen for this list, I’m a big fan of the “ragtag team of misfits” novel. Perhaps this is because I know that everything we’ve gotten done as human beings—whether that’s getting to the moon or the genocide of millions—has only been possible through the passionate, messy collaboration of ordinary humans trying to achieve something wonderful or terrible.
My fascination with group dynamics is likely why I wrote my own team of head-chopping adventurers in Apocalypse Nyx, and why such books have a special place in my heart. My protagonists engage in the best and worst humanity has to offer. But for today, let’s concentrate on the good.
Humans can be good.
So here are a few pieces of uplifting speculative fiction that emphasize our collaborative greatness over our despair. Our passion for creation over destruction. Our struggle to become better together than we are individually.
Let them inspire you to imagine a better future.
Planetfall by Emma Newman
I love the first book in Newman’s series of loosely-connected books about a future where a prophet forms a cult that works together to reach a far-off planet where the prophet believes an alien entity has called to her. While the second book in this series, After Atlas, is a little too grim for this list, Planetfall was a stunning look at how at least one fragment of humanity could come together (with all its messy infighting and problems, yes, but still!) and reach another star. While nothing in this novel is meant to last forever, the ultimate ending was, for me, entirely uplifting.
Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi
This is a winner of a book for anyone who liked Firefly, and for fans of Becky Chambers. Alana Quick, a “sky surgeon” who repairs starship engines, stows away on a cargo ship whose crew is looking for her sister, hoping that she can weasel her way into a job aboard the vessel. But of course, this rollicking crew of spacefarers is a hot mess with problems of their own. Featuring bonus non-traditional relationships and a tough, differently-abled protagonist with her own prickly personal issues, this is a fun, fast read.
Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman
One of my favorite surprise discoveries of the last few years, Dark Orbit is old-school science fiction at its finest. This “science saves the day!” plus “sense of wonder!” standalone novel features a smart, capable scientist who must use her wits to survive. Alien contact, mystery, murder, wondrous landscapes and breathtaking discoveries (bonus dark matter!)—this one has it all.
River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
A roaring good tale of adventuring in an alternate 1890s where hippos are cultivated for food and transport in the southern United States (which was a real proposition at one time! For good reason. Horses and swamps just don’t mix). Gailey’s writing always conveys a sense of fun and playfulness, even when the subject itself may be utterly serious. Featuring another ragtag band of misfits out for adventure and revenge, you will fall a little bit in love with all of them. And their hippos. Did I mention the hippos? Savage, fast, adorable, human-chopping hippos.
The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
Wells has been consistently writing exceptional novels for decades (I started reading her when I was a teen! Egads). Yet, it’s only in the last few years that her work finally seems to be getting the greater recognition that it deserves. Her novella All Systems Red hit the New York Times bestseller list, won a Nebula Award, and has been shortlisted for a Hugo (if I was going to list six books here, I’d list All Systems Red, even though the protagonist is a robot. It is a delightful robot). The Cloud Roads is the first in Wells’s Raksura series about an outcast shapeshifter who can transform into a winged creature. Like many of Wells’s protagonists, he’s an immediately likable loner searching for his place in the world. His journey leads him deep into the unknown of a shapeshifter colony, where his presence upsets the balance of power for the entire community.
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Stars Are Legion, the award-winning essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, the God’s War trilogy, and the Worldbreaker Saga. Hurley has won the Hugo, BSFA, and Sydney J. Bounds awards and was a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke, Nebula, and Gemmell Morningstar awards. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Entertainment Weekly, the Village Voice, Bitch, Popular Science, Lightspeed, and many anthologies. Her newest book, Apocalypse Nyx, is now available from Tachyon Publications.