.I was leafing through an old science fiction magazine the other day -- never you mind which one -- and I came across three -- count 'em! three! -- stories which can be summarized as: The protagonist is nursing an old emotional injury which makes him or her very unhappy. A series of extraordinary events ensue which result in the protagonist cheering up. And that's it. End of story.
There was no reason for these stories to be science fiction or fantasy. The protagonist could have been brought out the motivating subclinical depression by a few kind words from a saintly hobo or a wise-beyond-her-years five-year-old or even looking upon a host of golden daffodils and reflecting on the benevolent nature of the Deity. These are stories that should have been written as bad mainstream stories.
What happens in a science fiction story? Computerization allows monks to fulfill the purpose of the universe overnight and "one by one, without any fuss," the stars begin winking out. ("The Nine Billion Names of God.") A time traveller in the Cretaceous steps on a butterfly and returns home to find his own era horribly changed. ("A Sound of Thunder.") Male astronauts return to Earth to discover a functioning Utopia occupied entirely by women; who, to maintain their happy society, put the returning men to death. ("Houston, Houston, Do You Read?")
It's not just that the stories I read the other day are fables of consolation while the classics set out to overthrow the reader's complacency. It's that in the great stories things change. Irrevocably.
And science fiction is the literature of change.