A Secret Santa List Of Optimistic Speculative Fiction Giving A Peek Into A Hopeful Future

Thinking of being a Secret Santa to someone who loves to read? Here's a handy collection of optimistic speculative fiction books that will keep you hooked.

Thinking of being a Secret Santa to someone who loves to read? Here’s a handy collection of optimistic speculative fiction books that will keep you hooked.

I have never really belonged, anywhere, and so an escape into ‘other worlds,’ is where I’ve always felt at home.

I was introduced to science fiction via my English language textbooks while at school.

One of the stories was by an Indian author, about an army scientist who loses a limb, and then performs experiments to try and grow it back, like a lizard grows back its tail. The title of the story, or at least of the chapter in the text book, was The Salamander Factor (as far as I remember).

The second was Asimov’s story, My Son, The Physicist, about an old woman who helps her physicist son solve a problem that has stumped NASA scientists. It leans quite heavily on ageist stereotypes about women being gossipy, but back then, as a tween, I was more impressed by the fact that it had a female character saving the day.

These two stories being the gateway drug, I was soon addicted to sci fi, and devoured whatever books in the genre I could access, even as I was made fun of for reading ‘weird books’ (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Journey to The Centre of The Earth, The Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, Animal Farm1984 etc.)

I find SFF to be an inclusive and welcoming space, with authors and readers from diverse backgrounds making it so.

Reading optimistic speculative fiction in a dystopia

One of my favourite SFF writers, Ursula K LeGuin, said that, “Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.”

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The times being what they are, there are voices calling for SFF that focusses less on the doom and gloom, and more on these, ‘other ways of being’.

As T G Shenoy, SFF enthusiast, columnist, critics and my go-to person for all things SFF, said in one of his articles last year, “it’s time for you – and me, and us all – to take a break from bleak visions and dystopian futures and escape the prison that the present seems to be, into a brighter future with optimistic science fiction and hope it comes to fruition.”

I’ve also noticed the increasing demand from readers, for cozier reads. Something that is not too horrifying, gory or unpleasant. Something to help them disconnect from reality.

This book list — a list of SF infused with notes of positivity, hope and comfort, is for those folks.

This is not an exhaustive list, by any means. Nor have I read every book on this list – but I trust the people that have recommended the books to me, and of course, I look forward to reading the ones I haven’t.

My personal favourites

Set in a fictional ‘Ladyland,’ Sultana’s Dream is not a novel, but a short story, written by the badass Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (feminist, writer and social reformer from Bengal), in 1905. Considered to be one of the earliest examples of feminist science fiction, it is a utopian vision of a society run by women. I love reading it every now and then, and have constructed a million versions of Ladyland in my own head. Every time a fool spouts rubbish about feminism in real life, that’s where I banish them to!

Satyajit Ray, the film maker, was also a talented writer, and his science fiction short stories, including those in the Professor Shonku series, and stand alone ones, are highly entertaining. The plots are simple, and relatable, but also wildly imaginative, and wise.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams, is cheekily known as a ‘trilogy,’ despite there being five books in the series. There exists a sixth book, written by another author (Eoin Colfer), but whether to count it as part of the original series or not has been a matter of enthusiastic debate! Funny, witty and requiring a great deal of suspension of disbelief, it is quite the escape, and I have spent hours chortling way, while reading it. It has a lot of wise (and timeless!) observations to make about the world we live in. I hardly disagree, for example, with the statement, “It is a well known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

The Wayfarer series, by Becky Chambers which begins with the award-winning 2015 novel The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, is a space opera that doesn’t shy away from exploring big ideas or tough questions, but does so with a light touch. It is joyful, optimistic, fun, and kind.

More recently, one of my best reads this year, has been Catfishing on The CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer. Featuring queer characters, and a cat picture loving AI (Artificial Intelligence), this heartwarming YA novel is an affirmation of the fact that online friendships are just as real and important as offline ones. As someone who is increasingly forming deep friendships with people I have never met offline, I found this very relatable. This Lodestar winning  novel, is based on the author’s Hugo award winning short story, Cat Pictures Please, which is also a pleasant read.

Another great read this year has been Upright Women Wanted, by Sarah Gailey, which is a sci-fi Western, about a young woman trying to escape an unwanted marriage who is on the run with some Librarians (yes! Librarians with a capital L!). Fair warning –there is a tinge of dystopia here, and some amount of gore, but there are also a lot of hopeful notes, and a heart melting queer romance.

I also greatly enjoyed Ted Chiang’s collection, Exhalation. The stories in this collection are fantastical, and yet grounded, because they speak to very human truths. The first story, The Merchant And The Alchemist’s Gate, is a time travel story with an Arabian Nights-esque feel, that left me wanting more; and the novella, Anxiety Is The Dizziness of Freedom, that is part of the collection, was a wonderful affirmation of the fact that even in a chaotic world, the tiny individual choices we make matter.

A book that I’ve purchased this year, but haven’t read yet, is the anthology Consolation Songs: Optimistic Speculative Fiction For A Time of Pandemic, with stories by well-known writers in the genre. The proceeds from the book are being donated to a COVID-19 appeal run by a charity that supports the University College London Hospitals NHS Trust.

Recommendations from those in the know

I also put out a call on Twitter, for recommendations from others, for their favourite ‘cozy’ reads, and I got some great suggestions there too.

T G Shenoy had some wonderful recommendations:

Aside from these, the article of his that is linked earlier in this piece, also has some suggestions.

Gautam Bhatia, author of The Wall and Senior Editor at Strange Horizons, suggests:

Many of the books suggested by Pranavi AR, who is an avid reader of SFF, and writer (read her story, Love In The Time of PPE, here), are books I have enjoyed too. Here are her picks:

Febin Mathew, also a reader and writer in the genre (check out his fabulously imaginative ongoing ‘serialised masala fiction’ here), recommends,

  • To Say Nothing Of The Dog by Connie Willis, and
  • Dawn by Octavia Butler. (He says he is unsure of how ‘cozy’ this is, and I have those doubts myself.)

I could keep going, honestly, because the genre is full of books and stories that have an optimistic and progressive perspective. There are many books that SHOULD be on this list, but aren’t. It is impossible to list every single one of them here, but if there is a book you love, which you think belongs on this list, please leave a comment, so that other readers can check it out too.

Magazines like Mithila Review, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, FIYAH, etc. keep publishing a wide range of work, and one is sure to find some beautifully hopeful stories there, so it does help to haunt their websites (and pay for subscriptions, if you can afford it!).

There are authors here, on Women’s Web too, who write in the genre.

The Girl With The Sealed Vagina, by Vartika Sharma Lekhak, is a powerful read and a personal favourite.

Assistants Don’t Have Emotions, Do They? by Rashmi Agarwal is an uplifting read too.

Earlier this year, as we went into lockdown, I wrote a pandemic story  –one that has premonitions of toil and trouble, but which does have a happy ending.

SFF that has elements of horror or dystopia, need not necessarily be gloomy or miserable. In fact, they can be a way of reclaiming power for those who are traditionally marginalized. So, those who are afraid to venture towards books like that, fearing that they may be too “negative,” may find themselves surprised.

Cory Doctrow, recently wrote a heartfelt piece about why he is changing the way he writes, to make them less dystopian, because, “New stories will help us understand the importance of seizing the means of computation and using it to build movements that break up monopolies, fight oligarchy, and demand pluralistic, shared power for a pluralistic, shared world.”

I do believe that going forward, we will see more work in the genre, that engages deeply with our realities, but which solutions, and which offers hope, not despair. In her insightful piece, about how the pandemic will affect the way SFF will evolve, Tashan Mehta, says the same. “In that need for catharsis and escapism, speculative fiction may have a larger role to play. The qualities this genre demands of its readers are the qualities this reality asks of us: imagination, empathy, and the ability to cope with rapid and startling change,” she writes.

It comes naturally to us, to look for the brightness of the stars, especially when the night is the darkest.

Image source: cocoparisienne from pixabay

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