I liked Lesley's post on THE TIME MACHINE, but a contemporary reader might wonder what such a book offers us today. When read by Wells' contemporaries, it was a scathing commentary on the powers of the day; now it's also a wonderful opportunity to look back at how far we've come...or not. Really great speculative fiction stretches its readers this way on a regular basis. In many ways, it lives beyond its own time better than other genres.
Compare the slew of popular Cold War novels to a film like 2001. The year 2001 has passed, obviously, but the themes of the film 2001 are eternal. 2001 is not only now; it remains our past and future, and was meant to be both from its inception. Not that Kubrick would ever comment on the themes and meaning of the film; as he said: "You're free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film..." (Note the verb usage.)
But back to our Cold War spy novel: we live in a radically different world now than during the Cold War. Those old spy novels are still fun reads, but we'd be hard-pressed to find social and political commentary within them that wears as well as many universal spec fic themes.
One of my favorite things about speculative fiction, besides the intense what if? factor, is the ability to comment on this world from beneath the cloak of another. This device softens brutal blows against government policies, social issues, stereotypes and prejudice, religion...the potential is infinite. Taking the opportunity to put a theme into a new world also shows universality (sometimes literally). Alongside their deeper metaphors, many sci fi and fantasy novels state plainly: Folks is Folks, no matter the trappings.
A little book called THE ROAD recently came under a great deal of acclaim. Now, I think THE ROAD is a good, deserving book. However, its post-apocalyptic setting--and examination of parental love, the destruction of social convention, and the loss of what we believe makes us human--don't bring anything particularly new to the speculative fiction reader's bedside table. Even McCarthy's use of unconventional punctuation and grammar to exemplify base need and the destruction of society (a friend joked that all the commas must have been lost in the war), while clever, artistic, and appropriate, doesn't seem all that original to someone who reads science fiction's depiction of various forms of communication. I've even taken part in extensive discussions on how to treat telepathy in fantasy.
Fortunately, (and unfortunately, to some pulp fans) the bar has been raised for speculative fiction. The market expects a fresh, perhaps more literary approach. With all the real fears people face in the world today, the macabre must sting us in new, previously forbidden places. Some say sci-fi is dead because The Future Is Now; I say there's never been a greater need to examine where our burgeoning knowledge will lead us. In times of war, fantasy trope--that hero/ine who sweeps in to save the day--is always in high demand. Fictional heroes give us a more palatable vehicle in which to hope and grieve for our real heroes. Politics notwithstanding, humankind has rarely seen a time more ripe for social commentary, and writers are hard-pressed to find a better genre than speculative fiction in which to do so.