Science fiction is a great way to think about the world in a different way - imagining what it would be like if this or that aspect of society, or evolution, or the environment, were different. You might think it's about the future, but it's actually a commentary on the present.
SF is a wide-ranging genre which includes a number of different approaches. Essentially the question being posed by an SF novel is "What if...?" This may be speculation about the possible impact of a certain technology, as in Ursula K le Guin's stories of the Ekumen, where nearly-as-fast-as-light space travel is possible, and she explores the socio-psychological impact of time dilation, amongst many other issues. It may be the socio-psychological impact of a different social, psychological, or economic state of affairs than exists at present, as in Ursula K le Guin's The Dispossessed, the story of an anarchist planet. It might be an alternative history, as in the excellent Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, which explores a reality in which Europe is Muslim.
SF is much more than merely nerdy "toys-for-the-boys" space opera - it is a literary form in its own right, and one which mainstream writers are increasingly exploring. For example, Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, Never Let Me Go, is about clones; Margaret Atwood's classic The Handmaid's Tale, and her more recent novel, Oryx and Crake, are clearly SF, even though their authors deny it. Many SF writers are beginning to be taken seriously as literati, for example Neil Gaiman's excellent book American Gods has received favourable attention from critics.
Reading SF (especially Ursula Le Guin) pretty much formed my entire world-view.
There are many other fine female SF authors. Here are just a few book reviews to whet your appetite.
- Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (1993)
- Natural History, Justina Robson (1993)
- The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell (1996)
- The Speed of Dark, Elizabeth Moon (2003) - reading group guide
- Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
- Up the Walls of the World, James Tiptree Jr / Alice Sheldon (1978)
- The Telling, Ursula Le Guin (2000)
- Empire of Bones, Liz Williams (2002)