Back in the 1950s, science-fiction literature earned a reputation as the opiate of supernerdy teenage boys: sturdy but unimaginative prose that waxed rhapsodic about G-forces and interstellar trajectories. It wasn't quite fair even then; early works by authors such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke relied as much on clever plot twists and thought-provoking views of societal evolution as on visions of rocket ships and interplanetary travel. Still, there was sufficient truth for the stereotype to sting.

But while sci-fi may never fully shed its dweeby image, the reality has evolved along with the rest of pop culture. Readers can...

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