So here we are in the year 2000. As we enter a new millennium and perhaps a new mindset, it's a good time to ask: Why are we still reading science fiction?

Back in the Sand Again

Each generation has, of course, come up with its own rationale for science fiction. In the 1930s, fans saw sf as a way of providing the wonder and excitement lacking in the misery of the Great Depression. In the 1960s, far too many readers saw it as little more than a legal drug that got you high for several hours of mind-expanding pleasure. And in the 1980s, when e-mail was confined to grad schools and defense contractors, fans embraced the cyberpunk movement as producing all the digital thrills that the clunky computers of the era could not provide.

But are today's computers making sf obsolete? If Hollywood special-effects departments can conjure up monsters and robots at the click of a computer mouse, if personal computers can allow viewers from Atlanta to Zimbabwe to check the weather on Mount Fuji or the boat traffic in Australia's Sydney Harbour, why read at all? How can novels compete with the wonders of the World Wide Web?

Sf publishers worry about these questions all the time. But there's something surprising about science fiction of the 1990s: Today's best sf writers are producing books that are in many ways superior to those of previous generations. In particular, "hard" science fiction -- sf that's technically accurate and often produced by writers with PhDs -- is better written and more interesting than in the past.

Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) is a monument of hard sf. Readers loved it not just for its science but also for Herbert's creation of the world of Arrakis, that desert planet filled with feuding clans, diabolical emperors, crazed traders desperate to maintain control of the lucrative interplanetary spice trade. Dune provided all the action and adventure any reader would want, which is why, unlike most sf of the period, it remains a fresh, readable and exciting book.

Herbert produced five more Dune books before his death in 1986. But these were more philosophical -- and more gassy -- than Dune, and by the time of Chapterhouse: Dune (1985), he had lost most of his audience. Now Herbert's son Brian and the prolific Kevin J. Anderson have revived the pleasures of Dune in Dune: House Atreides (Bantam Spectra, $27.50).

In a postscript, Brian Herbert explains that he originally wanted to write a continuation of Chapterhouse: Dune based on notes left by his father. But Brian Herbert made a wiser choice in setting House Atreides (the first volume of a trilogy) 40 years before the events of Dune. The result is a surprisingly good book.

Prequels, of course, have their own problems, since readers already know the conclusion in advance. But if you haven't read Dune in a while, you'll find that House Atreides has its own pleasures: doddering emperors; mysterious clans of genetically enhanced nuns; snarling, decadent merchants. The authors replicate all the intrigues of the original Dune, while wisely ignoring Frank Herbert's dime-store ruminations on the meaning of life. Though not as important as the original Dune, this is a highly entertaining adventure.

The Hard Stuff

A recent article in the British magazine Interzone celebrated "the new hard sf." If the old hard sf was heroic, optimistic and American, the new hard variety is pessimistic and non-American. The two most prominent writers of the new hard sf, Britain's Stephen Baxter and Australia's Greg Egan, have new novels: Manifold: Time (Ballantine/Del Rey, $24) and Teraneala (Harper-Prism, $24), respectively.

Though only in his early forties, Stephen Baxter has written over a dozen substantial novels. He is a literary descendant of both Arthur C. Clarke and John Brunner. Like Clarke, Baxter is often interested in transcendence and in what space travel might be like; but, like Brunner, he writes pessimistic near-future fiction based on a thorough understanding of social and political trends.

More often than not, a Baxter novel centers on the American space program. In Manifold: Time (the first volume of a series), his protagonist is Reid Malenfant, a Californian who, after being kicked out of the U.S. space program, decides to reach for the stars by constructing his own rocket from surplus space shuttle engines. It's the year 2010, and the world is dismayed by probabilistic mathematics that seem to prove that sometime between 2135 and 2220 a global catastrophe will destroy civilization. Two possibilities offer hope: Malenfant's renegade space mission and the rise of dozens of super-intelligent children who have made significant scientific discoveries before they reach puberty. Will Malenfant change the world -- or only accelerate inevitable global decay?

Nearly all of the characters in Manifold: Time are Americans. Baxter has a pretty good understanding of American culture and even gets most of our slang right (although his editors should have told him that Americans don't call their doctors "medicos"). And he has a very good understanding of American bureaucracy. But, like far too many other British writers, he feels compelled to stick it to the United States when he can; for example, he continues the time-honored convention that whenever American characters in a British novel start discussing the glories of the American Dream, something awful is about to happen.

It's easy to see an American taking Baxter's basic plot and turning it into a heroic tale of can-do, will-do engineers triumphing over wicked bureaucrats. But that isn't his intention: None of the characters in Manifold: Time is particularly remarkable. Even the conclusion, where several characters ride through a series of universes, leaves the survivors worse off than before.

Baxter provides his readers with intriguing ideas, good scientific extrapolation and a fast-paced plot. He's one of the more important sf writers to emerge in the 1990s, and readers who don't mind pessimistic sf will find Manifold: Time to be a very good book.

Greg Egan's Teranesia doesn't take place in America at all but is largely -- and boldly -- set in Indonesia. A few other sf writers (such as Paul Park and Lucius Shepard) have set novels in the tropics, but Egan's Indonesia is a fully realized world seen through the eyes of a resident, not a tourist.

Teranesia begins in 2012, with Prabir Suresh and his younger sister, Madhusree, growing up on a remote Indonesian island (which they call Teranesia) where their parents are studying genetic changes among butterflies. But as a result of a brutal civil war, soldiers slaughter their parents, forcing the Suresh siblings to join relatives in Toronto. There Prabir Suresh becomes a promising young geneticist, Madhusree Suresh a bright graduate student. Circumstances force them back to Teranesia, where the gene their parents studied appears to have produced a series of mutations that are both scientifically important and -- for genetic engineering companies -- highly profitable. The Sureshes must simultaneously conclude their parents' research and cope with the trauma of discovering their parents' rotting bodies and ruined laboratory.

In Teranesia Egan has produced a quiet, small-scale view of the future. There are no world-shattering events in his novel, just well-developed characters struggling to add small victories to their lives. He also has a very good sense of how science works, and readers who hunger for scientific speculation will find his ideas intriguing. Greg Egan is not quite a first-rate novelist, but Teranesia shows that he has the potential to become one of sf's best writers.

Alpha Centauri Flares Up

Not all hard sf today is pessimistic. Readers who want more old-fashioned adventure will enjoy Charles Sheffield's Starfire (Bantam Spectra; paperback, $13.95). Though it's a sequel to Aftermath (1998), Starfire is an independent work, half hard sf and half mystery, that makes sense even to readers who haven't read the earlier volume.

In Aftermath Sheffield told the story of how Earth was nearly destroyed in 2026 after Alpha Centauri turned into a supernova. In Starfire it's 2053, and remnants of the Alpha Centauri explosion are once again headed towards Earth. Can Earth military -- and its space station, Sky City -- manage to save the planet? For Sky City is also being stalked by a serial killer -- and Oliver Guest is sent to investigate. Can Guest find the killer before Sky City is threatened by the barrage of Alpha Centauri particles?

In the hands of a lesser writer the novel's serial-killer subplot could easily have been a typically dumb high concept (Hannibal Lecter in space!). But Sheffield is a subtle and gifted novelist who makes Oliver Guest a believable character, although the murderer's motive is quite implausible. The main plot is much more interesting: The author ably moves his vast cast through the planetary disaster. With a PhD in physics, Sheffield is particularly good at describing the investigation that determines the nature of the Alpha Centauri menace.

Starfire and the other novels under review show that science fiction remains a genre that's living, total and contemporary. As we enter the 21st century, it's clear that there's no longer any need to justify reading sf. We now know lots of things that science fiction won't do. It won't improve the world, rewire your brain or clear up your acne. Sf readers are not necessarily more noble or more decent than fans of mysteries or historical novels.

What sf does, at its best, is tell stories on a scope and scale no Hollywood studio can match. For those readers who prefer intelligent, heroic adventure, science fiction remains the best of all genres.

Martin Morse Wooster, an associate editor of the American Enterprise, frequently writes about science fiction.