Brian Aldiss turned 80 last year, and BBC Radio 7 just broadcast one of his short stories from the 1960s. Aldiss was part of the 'New Wave' of 60s science fiction, the time when the genre really grew up and became interesting.
'Man in his Time', the story in question, eerily evokes the consequences of a peculiar kind of time travel. The protagonist (called Westermark), an astronaut recently returned from Mars, has since his return been living 3 minutes in the future. Thus people hear him answer questions they haven't yet asked, and see him react to things that won't happen for three minutes. Those three minutes separate him from his wife, his children and the rest of the human race. Westermark, however, seems half in love with his separation. He finds the world perpetually new, as the objects of perception seem to glow from within.
The introduction calls the story an exploration of the consequences of space travel. I mention this because it begs a question: what is science fiction for (other than simple enjoyment)? To put it another way, if finally astronauts reach Mars, and they do not find themselves living three minutes ahead of Earth people, does Aldiss' story become worthless? How do we approach a story like 'Man in his Time' as literature, rather than futurology?
Put it another way: what does the story do? It explores a different state of consciousness. It makes us see the world in an unsettling new way. It makes us aware of consciousness itself in a new way. Against a rationalistic scientific background, it makes a Romantic vision. Westermark sees a transformed world -transformed by his changed consciousness of it. Wordsworth in space, sort of. This might sound flippant, but sf has a visionary strain. Think of Philip K Dick or JG Ballard.
Which leads me to my last point. Science fiction may be the first literature in the west to free itself from our Judeo-Christian heritage - some of it at least. Even the work of the most radical modernists - Eliot, Beckett, Brecht, Strindberg - becomes unintelligible without that heritage. They occupy the empty space left by the decay of Christianity, and they never escape it. Our Judeo-Christian heritage forms the background to all western literature of the last thousand years. 'Man in his Time' gives a glimpse of a new Eden, forever just out of reach three minutes into the future. It does this without reference to any of the religious baggage of Christianity. In fact it does it, astonishingly, on the back of the space race. The most hackneyed material of pulp science fiction - the conquest of space - itself becomes the food for visionary imagination.