The current issue of Science Fiction Studies has an interesting "roundtable" on the current state and possible future of science fiction criticism, with contributions by many of the journal's editorial consultants.
My own contribution slips in a complaint that some science fiction criticism makes the mistake of treating science fiction as just another field of popular culture, more or less interchangeable with others.
However, that is not the main thrust of my argument. I argue that science fiction has been made possible by the widespread (though by no means universal) acceptance of two theses:
First, we inhabit an incomprehensibly vast universe whose origins lie deep in time. Our beginnings as a species are temporally remote and our final destiny unknown.
Second, all known social and cultural forms, including those we have experienced in our own lifetimes, are mutable.
Not all science fiction fully embraces these theses - some sf displays a degree of resistance to them, whether intentional or merely incidental and perhaps unconscious, as when people in future societies seem to show concerns and psychological characteristics that resemble those of current Westerners. Still, the genre could not exist without the development of these great ideas over the last few centuries - especially with the nineteenth century's double-whammy encounter with Darwinian evolutionary theory plus the process of rapid industrialisation and accompanying social change.
Another contributor, Nicholas Ruddick, makes a similar point: "I understand sf as an unprecedented literature emerging from the Darwinian revolution, and expect the good stuff to grapple with the predicament of the human species in a scientifically conceived universe." He suggests that the best science fiction of the Golden Age (the late 1930s to late 1940s when science fiction developed as a self-conscious genre under the editorial guidance of John W. Campbell) showed this kind of awareness.
Finally, I identify a third thesis about the human situation that is addressed (but sometimes resisted, rather than embraced) in much current science fiction:
Third, we, as individuals or a species, are technologically alterable, and may even be superseded by our posthuman mind-children.
I suggest that science fiction critics need to grapple seriously with this last claim on something like its own terms. Critics need not, of course, have personal opinions one way or another about the truth of the third thesis - which is highly controversial. In that sense, it is not like first two theses, which I think any educated person must now accept. However, scholarly critics of the genre should be aware of it, and be able to explicate how it appears, is endorsed, resisted, qualified, or complexified (or some or all the above) in science fiction texts.
Engagement with the three theses I've identified would give science fiction criticism a heart of its own, rather than being just the application of critical practice to one more area. Without this kind of focus, there is a risk that, as still another contributor (Brooks Landon) puts it, we may lose sight of the possibility that "science fiction might truly be a different way of constructing and interrogating our lives."