I wonder if I might share some personal thoughts and experiences about SF in order to shed light on the way I read "Exit West"?
I must have been about 6 or 7 when I was in big trouble at school for refusing to read the books we were given, and disrupting lessons as a diversion. Janet and John's escapades were incredibly dull, I thought. My grandmother, and my mother must have got talking, because I shall never forget that first Wednesday evening when The Eagle landed on the mat at the front door. There was Dan Dare blasting off in the Anastasia to who knows where, with Digby and co, and I just had to know what they were saying in those speech bubbles. So I taught myself to read through SF, and interest in the genre, to varying degrees, stayed with me all my life. (As a matter of interest, I went from bottom of the class to top in reading, in less than a year!).
I read my first SF novel, Wells' "War of The Worlds", hiding in my bedroom in Lisbon, aged 14. Much of the SF I grew up on was about adventures in outer space, alien invasion, fear of the unknown, coming mainly through radio, TV, and comics. In the 80's, we had “Journey into Space” on the radio, and “Twilight Zone” on TV. The movies gave us “Them,” “The Day The Earth Stood Still”, ”Earth vs The Flying Saucers”, “Things To Come”, all about thrills and excitement. During the 90's and 2000's, more novels and short story collections began to appear, together with a number of blockbuster movies. But for most people in Portugal, SF meant “Space 1999”, and “Star Trek”.
When I once again started attending The British Council, in the 1980's, many of the pupils were interested in SF, mainly because of the huge success of Hitchhiker's. You see, all through the twentieth century, the general message that ordinary folk got was that SF was light entertainment. Some of the bright "cool dudes" started talking enthusiastically about Asimov, Fred Pohl, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, and the amusingly named Philip K. Dick. The lunchtime chats soon indicated to me I was way out of my depth, and so I realised if I was going to be of any use to them, I needed to get into some serious reading, and get beyond Hitchhiker's and Red Dwarf! Within a couple of years I had read the key authors, and was able to bring Robert Sheckley, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Joe Haldeman, and Christopher Priest to the table. Naturally there was a strong tie-in with some of my main subjects, and so we also got to see SF illustration work by the likes of Michael Whelan, H. R. Giger, Chris Foss, Jim Burns, Frank Frazetta, Rodney Matthews, Tim White, Patrick Woodroffe, and many more, and some of us also learned how to use the air brush.
It was like being into computers back in the day you were a geek or nerd. Now everyone is into it because you can shop and date. Everyone's into SF now because it's become mainstream Hollywood culture. But really most are not into it. It's sane to think about the universe and question it and wonder about it. Those who don't are dull. I think Arthur C. Clarke said those people haven't any soul. That's why I keep looking up at the stars. Is it possible to feel a real sense of otherness by books that tell of lies we have not told, fights we would not have, monsters we won’t face, murders we would not commit and accidents we probably won’t have? To admire universes that exist solely in our minds? Dangerous novels give us that frightening feeling of being so close to the Other; in SF like this it's not so ease to attach labels. That's the best kind of SF there is. “Exit West” makes me believe there's still hope for SF.
NB: Some people will never be able to enjoy SF on the same level as, say, D. H. Lawrence, because they are unable to suspend belief and enter a fantasy world. Strangely, I can take that genre on trust, but not so sword and sorcery. I love the artwork, but not the literature (with some exceptions).
SF = Speculative Fiction.