In Wired, Clive Thompson calls science fiction–or, if you prefer, speculative fiction–“the last great literature of ideas.” And he makes his case in a language appropriate to the venue:
Here’s my overly reductive, incredibly nerdy way of thinking about the novel: Consider it a simulation, kind of like The Sims. If you run a realistic simulation enough times – writing tens of thousands of novels about contemporary life – eventually you’re going to explore almost every outcome. So what do you do then?
You change the physics in the sim. Alter reality – and see what new results you get. Which is precisely what sci-fi does. Its authors rewrite one or two basic rules about society and then examine how humanity responds – so we can learn more about ourselves. How would love change if we lived to be 500? If you could travel back in time and revise decisions, would you? What if you could confront, talk to, or kill God?
He makes a great, provocative argument. And though he cites some oft-cited examples of “literary” authors working in sf (Roth, McCarthy, Chabon, Lethem, Atwood), he’s also right on the money when he talks about why the genre gets “short shrift” from “serious” readers:
Probably because the genre tolerates execrable prose stylists. Plus, many of sci-fi’s most famous authors – like Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick – have positively deranged notions about the inner lives of women.
And a few generations’ worth of nerd stereotypes aren’t easily overcome, either.
My favorite line comes at the end of this paragraph:
Teenagers love to ponder such massive, brain-shaking concepts, which is precisely why they devour novels like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, the Narnia series, the Harry Potter books, and Ender’s Game. They know that big-idea novels are more likely to have an embossed foil dragon on the cover than a Booker Prize badge.