So much of science fiction is incredibly intense and dramatic, weirdly anti-science, or both. Which is fine, sometimes - but sometimes I just want to read something cozy in a non-dystopian future.
The criterion for inclusion on this list are a) no anti-science rhetoric, b) humanist ethos, and c) some combination of energetic and joyful or sweet and heartwarming. (As opposed to dark or angsty.) In other words, these are the sort of books you read in year three of a global pandemic when Russia is invading Ukraine.
While I'm very much open to suggestions, several books are intentionally NOT on this list because, while they might meet other peoples' definitions of "cozy", they are either too sad or intense to properly be a comfort SF read. Either that or I read them and just didn't like them.
Books I've read, by author:
Andy Weir. The Martian and Project Hail Mary. Both novels are adventure stories of smart men using science to Macgyver their way to safety again and again. Science is real and at the forefront, off-planet environments are lovingly rendered, and the protagonists of both books get things done. The film adaptation of The Martian is also a joy.
Dennis Taylor. We Are Legion (We Are Bob). Fun, adventurous, humanistic. Andy Weir vibes.
Becky Chambers. Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and the rest of the Wayfarers books; To Be Taught, if Fortunate; A Psalm for the Wild-Built (and presumably the rest of the forthcoming Monk and Robot books. Becky Chambers is possibly the writer of comforting science fiction. Her books are more character and relationship focused, and while I loved Long Way, I do think her writing has improved over time. Queer characters are the norm - Long Way's Rosemary is sapphic and enters an inter-species relationship, Monk and Robot's human protagonist uses they/them pronouns, To Be Taught's crew features two sapphic women and a trans man in a polyamorous relationship, and an aspec (I presume asexual) man. Sex-positive while rarely depicting the act, which I'm sure is a point against for some folks but is a point strongly in favor for me. Additionally, Chambers grew up in a family of scientists and her love of space and deep sense of hope in science shines through everything she writes.
Martha Wells. The Murderbot Diaries. With Murderbot we're back to action-focused science fiction. Murderbot is snarky, constantly tired, and always saving its humans from peril. While this might not sound cozy, Wells writes Murderbot's found family (a racially diverse bunch featuring multiple queer characters) with such fierce love you can't help but feel Some Kind of Way.
Peter Brown.The Wild Robot. This one's a middle grade novel - great if you want something quick, or if you'd like to share your cozy SF read with a young reader in your family. This is a sweet, gentle "robot nature adventure story" about a robot who washes up on an uninhabited island and does its best to learn from the inhabitants, integrate with the community, and right the accidental harms it causes.
Fandom for Robots. "...Computron does not have any emotion circuits installed, and is thus constitutionally incapable of experiencing "excitement," "hatred," or "frustration." It is completely impossible for Computron to experience emotions such as "excitement about the seventh episode of HyperWarp," "hatred of the anime's short episode length" or "frustration that Friday is so far away.""
Works I haven't read but have heard good things about:
Rescues and the Rhyssa by T. S. Porte, Ihe Innkeeper Chronicles by Ilona Andrews, Star Kingdom Trilogy by David Weber (thanks to Alexis for these recs).
The Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series by Nathan Lowell. The vibe, from what I can tell, is "Napoleonic Navy, in space, but more chill". The author's described it as "about the people who spend months at a time sailing between the stars, not on a warship doing heroic battle with enemies foreign and fearsome, but on a freighter just trying to make a living [...] think of this as a kind of Billy Budd meets the Vorkosigans and gets a job on one of their ships."
Sector General books by James White. Classic science fiction from an era when hard military SF was abundant, this series focuses on a hospital that treats a variety of alien species. I've heard it's readable, empathetic, and holds up fairly well.
Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal. From everything I've heard, a smart, hopeful alternate history novel about women astronauts in the 1960's being extremely competent.
Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy.
The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss. A Quaker generation ship reaches its destination.
Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki. I have this one, just haven't cracked it open yet, but I've heard it's joyful and funny and wonderful. Hopefully I'll get to move it up to the 'recommended' list soon.
Movie: Prospect. Prospect is a weird sort of comfort movie, given that the protagonist's dad is murdered in front of her early on. The world is gorgeously rendered - the props and production design blow me away every time I watch. The narrative treats its teenage protagonist with deep respect. The story itself opperates on a small scale - the galaxy is not at stake, there's no grand political theater, it's simply about two people thrown together, just trying to survive.
take me home