The most important thing science fiction does is give us a way to answer the ‘what if?’ question that many writers of the Golden Age talked about. That might be Heinlein’s ‘If this Goes On’, or it might be something much more far-fetched. But what I think really covers the ground is the more current term ‘speculative fiction’.
Sure, every piece of fiction can be deemed speculative in one sense or other. But for science fiction, speculation is the main reason for being. Some of it is simple adventure, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But a lot of science fiction is designed to make you think – what if we were all suddenly telepathic? What would we all really do? What would the practical implications be? What would happen to society?
There are hundreds of ways to approach each of these questions, thousands of nuances to consider. Fitting it all into a story makes the difference between a research paper an intellectual entertainment. Stephen Gould‘s Jumper gives a teenage boy the power to teleport. He doesn’t use his power to save the world (not right away); he uses it to rob banks. That’s interesting, and it makes you think – what would I really do?
The other side of science fiction (and fantasy) is the more aspirational side, or the wish fulfillment side, if you want. It helps us to think big, to do some of what you talk about – here’s where we do save the world. Aspirational SF sets up struggles between good and evil, and lets good win. Where speculative SF confronts us with the hard choices and the gray areas, aspirational SF gives us black and white, and raises our spirits so that we go on to fight another day.
Of course, much of science fiction is a mix of the two. But to me the key distinction is that it makes you think. Whether it’s intellectual, philosophical SF by A.A. Attanasio or Racoona Sheldon and her “Screwfly Solution, it makes you think, and it’s thinking that makes the future better.