I recently picked up an old issue of Wired magazine, and was browsing it while eating lunch. Inside I found an article that stated a point I have been trying to make to friends and family for years: science fiction is the most philosophical and intellectually stimulating literature out there.
I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks this. It's not that other kinds of fiction aren't interesting and great. But even when they're not sci-fi I still prefer books that don't deal entirely with what we perceive as reality.
I loved China Miéville's series that started with Perdido Street Station, and culminates in The Iron Council. It's not standard sci-fi. Miéville himself calls it weird fiction. Others have called it steampunk. But it's not the genre label that matters. What it does for the reader is pose a "what if" question, and explore the world that is parallel but different, in which something scientifically or historically false in our world is true in that world.
If you've ever had a shred of curiousity, and I hope we all do, you know that the what-ifs in the world are pretty much infinite. And exploring the social, cultural, scientific, philosophical and moral implications of alternate truths is FAR more interesting to me, than stories of the reality I live in now.
Science fiction often poses questions about how a new science or technology will influence the future. Novels by Stephen King and Michael Crichton often explore alternate possibilities of the present. In some ways, the books of China Miéville are about something in the past, though the reality there is so different, it's hard to draw an exact parallel.
Some what-ifs have had too much play in sci-fi. Like "what if, because of some natural disaster or environmental degradation, the human species had to leave earth and colonize other planets?" and "what if there are alien species out there, with designs on conquering earth?" But as sci-fi grows, new questions can be asked. Some of these questions and potential truths may lie in our near future. Such as: "What if we can create machines out of nano-particles? what would we do with them? how would they be used?" (This story about nano technology is NSFW.)
Science fiction is the future. Not just because authors usually write about it, but because if literature is going to continue to be interesting and challenging, it should also question everything we think we know.
Sometimes the future really happens. And someday we'll each have a jetpack. :P