Since I restricted myself to General Reading in yesterday's post, I thought I'd hit one of my favorite genres today: Science Fiction! A couple of the books in this list are borderline fantasy, but I maintain that anything with a scientific/rational background counts, even if the underlying tropes are closer to fantasy. So these aren't necessarily my favorites, but they're the ones I most recommend to others:
Startide Rising by David Brin - actually, the entire 6-book series is great, but this one (#2) is the best of them. This is one of the best alien-contact novels I've ever read. Despite being published in the '80s, it still feels very current. Plus - hey, talking, poetry-writing dolphins!
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - this is a fantastic YA novel in addition to being a brilliant dystopian novel. While you're at it, read the entire trilogy.
HellSpark by Janet Kagan - 50 scientists from 50 different cultures, isolated on a planet to decide whether the natives are sentient. This is an adventure novel, scientific mystery, comedy, and murder mystery wrapped into one!
In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker - the whole series "The Company" is just great, but this one (#1) really sets the stage for all that follows. This is a very cool time-travel concept, in addition to having love-lorn cyborgs and a great perspective on history.
Raising the Stones by Sheri S. Tepper - this might be the best Utopian/Dystopian novel I've ever read. It's the first in the trilogy that continues with Grass and SideShow.
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis - the best time travel book I've ever read. It's also hysterically funny. Fans of Regency romances will either be horrified or delighted.
Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold - this is fairly late in the long-running Vorkosigan Saga, but I think it's a great place to first enter the series. Any of the other books will do, too. (DH suggests Shards of Honor or Mirror Dance as alternate entry points.)
The Skinner by Neal Asher - for those who like their SF brisk and bloody, this is like catnip.
GlassHouse by Charles Stross - for those who like their SF subversive, thought-provoking, and gender-bending... this one is sheer genius.
The Prefect by Alistair Reynolds - a great SF mystery/ suspense novel. This is vaguely part of a longer running series, but takes place several hundred years before the others, so it's a good place to enter.
The Many-Colored Land by Julian May - this reads like epic fantasy but is firmly grounded in an esoteric branch of physics that allows time-travel. Yes, I just realized that I have three time-travel books on this list. In this one, they go back 6 million years and stay there, so it almost doesn't count.
And here are the ones that didn't quite make the cut:
The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov - I know most people would pick his Foundation series as their representative work, but I think this stand-alone novel is his strongest SF. The alien race is portrayed movingly and convincingly.
Sky so Big and Black by John Barnes - one of my favorite YA SF novels. Set on Mars, it follows a teen-aged prospector as she searches the highlands for water with her father. The novel is set within a larger series about the take-over of Earth by sentient programs, but this one pretty well stands alone.
DragonFlight by Anne McCaffrey - this, the first in the very long series, reads like fantasy, but later volumes set it firmly within the realms of SF. The whole series is pretty good but I still return to this one as my favorite.
Dune by Frank Herbert - I feel like this hasn't worn so well as other classic works, but it's still worth reading. Don't see the movies.
The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge - don't bother with the sequels, which lack the charm of this one. It's one of the coolest dual-culture novels out there, and has aged very well.