Future perfect

Where to start when you've got changing the worldâe"or worldsâe"on your mind

SCIENCE FICTION is a term that encompasses more than it excludes. From Star Wars-style space opera to speculation about the mechanics and ethics of future technologies, from sociological tales that look at where humanity may be headed to light-weight futuristic thrillers, the genre is a vast literary smorgasbord with something for every reader.

For people new to SF and looking for works with a social conscience, a good starting place can be a collection of short fiction, like the Canadian anthology series Tesseracts. Canadian SF tends to be passionately engaged with landscapes and all things geographical, making it a good match for the environmentalist reader. In his 2004 collection Wasps at the Speed of Sound, for example, B.C. writer Derryl Murphy grapples with global warming and the death of the planet; Ontario's Peter Watts, meanwhile, has written a show-stopping set of novels, starting with Starfish (2002), whose dark subject matterâe"mass extinctions, global epidemics, corporate criminalityâe"is offset by the work's sheer inventiveness and the dramatic sweep of the story arc.

Moving beyond our borders, obvious recommendations stand out among the dense crowd of thought-provoking works. Readers who like a little whimsy may want to check out Connie Willis's literary time-travel comedy To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998) or perhaps Douglas Lain's upcoming collection Last Week's Apocalypse, which will be out in January 2006.

More somber mirrors of our present reality can be found in Jack Womack's Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1993), the diary of a young girl struggling to survive as U.S. society collapses, or Kristine Smith's action-packed Jani Killian adventures, which feature that rarest of SF protagonists, a middle-aged woman. Special mention also goes to Louise Marley's novels The Terrorists of Irustan (1999) and The Child Goddess (2005). Marley's elegant dissections of class issues, sexism and imperialism also offer a subversive take on traditional gender roles; more importantly, they are also great stories.

Finallyâe"continuing to look at gender and sexualityâe"one last terrific way for those curious about science fiction to find potentially rewarding titles is to visit the sites of two of the industry's more intriguing awards. The James Tiptree Jr. Award is for fiction that expands or explores our understanding of gender, while the Gaylactic Spectrum goes to stories and novels that include positive explorations of GLBT characters, themes and issues. Both award foundations publicize a short list as well as their chosen winners, creating a delicious menu of mind-stretching reading opportunities.âe"A.M. Dellamonica

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