Have you ever noticed how it's much easier to see a problem - and its solution - when it isn't your own? You can confidently tell a friend exactly how to handle her pushy brother or her inconsiderate classmate. But you might fail to notice that your schedule is running you ragged or that your on-going fight with your swim team captain is affecting your grades.
Science fiction stories seem so far away from everyday life. When people are living far in the future or travelling through space, we view them as very different from ourselves. But great science fiction stories reveal much more about the human condition than about exciting future technologies. They show us human decisions and the results of those decisions. Reading about important themes and choices in a "far away" setting can actually help us view our own world with more perspective. And great science fiction makes us examine the choices we make today, as we consider the possible futures we are bringing about.
One of the authors considered a science fiction giant always insisted that he wasn't writing science fiction at all. Ray Bradbury -- author of Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and "The Veldt", just to name a few --claimed that his stories should be categorized not as science fiction, but as psychological fiction. He said that he was always writing about the human experience, no matter whether his characters were on Mars, on Earth of the future, or in 1930s Illinois.
In a world full of so much constant change, it is hard to gain perspective on the direction in which human kind is evolving. Are we as a species making good choices? What will the outcomes be of the decisions we make today? Are our governments just? Are our wars justified? Are our technological advancements helping us connect to one another better? How are we using our resources? Whoa! Big questions, right? One way to tackle these biggies would be to enroll in a philosophy or ethics course. But even then, we would be trying to view our own society, which is as difficult as viewing our own selves in some ways. We just can't see our own problems, and if we can, they feel overwhelming, so we can't see their possible solutions.
When we are transported to an unfamiliar world, a time or place totally outside of our experience, all of a sudden we are able to see which human decisions and actions are beneficial and which are harmful. We can float through thought experiments and "What if?" scenarios at our leisure. And we can come out the other side of science fiction novels not only wiser, but also full of hope about how we can attain or avoid certain futures.
If you never thought science fiction was for you, if you thought you weren't interested in "science" or interplanetary travel, check out this list. These are considered classic for a reason. Each novel or short story on the list focuses on people, not planetary exploration, and humanity, not holograms. Give one a shot for your next independent read!
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
"The Veldt" by Ray Bradbury
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
Dune by Frank Herbert
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
"Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Contact by Carl Sagan
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (which manages to be the one and only science-fiction-Victorian-romance I have ever encountered, and which is hilarious...)