Yet science fiction can also be awesome. By placing humans into unprecidented situations and imagining the outcomes, it can be a powerful tool for casting light on human nature. By posing cultures and species against each other on a interstellar scale, it can give us analogies for our own Earthbound sociopolitics without all of the baggage that is entailed in writing about real-world events. Science fiction can warn us or give us hope about what we humans might in time become, about how events on the future path of technology might be best or worst dealt with.
But how to separate the wheat from the endless chaff? Me, I look for three elements in my science fiction.
I: Plausibility and Coherence -- Taking "Plausibility" with a grain of salt, perhaps. Most science fiction relies on futuristic technologies that may well be completely pie-in-the-sky, as far as we can tell from the here and now. What concerns me is, how are the societies for whom these technologies are available appropriated adapted to and affected by the technology? In the very worst science fiction, all you get is the author's contemporary society with a sprinkling of new gadgets.
II: Ecology -- If you are on another planet, that is pretty interesting! It's not likely to be much like Earth! So, what is it like? What of the natural processes we experience here on Sol III are also present there? What happens very, very differently? What kind of critters are there, and how do they survive in that strange alien environment? Do tell!
III: Character Development -- Fiction doesn't pull much weight without well-drawn characters. Generations of science fiction writers have been too excited about technologies and aliens to think about motivation and human (or non-human) experience, and thus there is a vast literature in which the characters are one-note cardboard cutouts. Dreadful.
Let's cut to the chase! You can now avoid the crap, and treat yourself to the official list of Science Fiction approved by michael5000! Lucky You!
The Official List of Science Fiction Approved by Michael5000, Installment #1
Iain Banks, the "Culture" Novels. Hugely popular in the U.K. and almost unheard of here, Iain Banks is probably too clever for his own good but not too clever to write extremely compelling science fiction. From 1987's Consider Phlebas, a rip-snorting episodic action-adventure, to 2008's Matter, a sort of historical romance set in a complexly nested hierarchy of civilizations at differing levels of technological achievement, the novels set in the fictive universe of "The Culture" are a diverse but hugely engaging collections. Often gruesome, always inventive, and beautifully imagined, these are probably my favorite books in all of genre fiction.
Orson Scott Card: the Ender Trilogy. Ender's Game, Xenocide, Speaker for the Dead, and Children of the Mind are a terrific four-volume trilogy (as one often finds in science fiction) that explores of what contact with alien intelligences might actually be like; the series can also be read as a metaphor for intercultural contact here on dear old Earth. The middle two books are the strongest, the fourth is strictly optional. It is vitally important that you do not read any of the more recent books that Card has accreted on to the trilogy, or for that matter anything that Card wrote after the mid-90s, when he inexplicably went dramatically from being an excellent storyteller to the worst kind of hack. Quite sad.
Sherri Tepper: Raising the Stones and Grass. Sherri Tepper can be a mixed bag, but these two, the best of her books, are dynamite. In both, characters face mysterious challenges that spring from the quirks of an inventive but plausibly rendered planetary ecology. Grass, in particular, puts a grim, grim face on the idea of symbiosis.