(and thoughts on 11 others)
One of the things I sorely miss about SF (the city, San Francisco) is my SF (the genre, Sci-fi) Book Club. We started in March 2008, taking turns each picking a book. Our membership waxed and waned from nearly 10 to barely 2 or 3 at times. We had periods where we met every 6 weeks like clockwork, then some others where we couldn't get together a next meeting for months. Even in the face of all these starts and stops, we got through 21 books by the time I moved to the Boston Area in July 2011.
Despite being a very book kind of guy and card-carrying geek of multiple lineages (Star Trek, Star Wars, comics collector, D&D player, I could go on), I had actually never read much Sci-fi, so I was interested to see what was out there, and what I would think of it. From the admittedly not completely scientifc selection of the books picked by the guys and surprisingly large number of gals in our group, here's my vote on a top 10, in alphabetical order (spoiler light beyond the basic premises, since I hate spoilers):
1. A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge, 1993) In full disclosure mode, I must note that this is one of the ones I picked. That being said, I really didn't know a lot about it beyond being familiar with Vernor Vinge from his relationship to thought about the Singularity. It turned out to be a delight for the way it combined genres- at heart it's a kind of horror story, with a really scary ultra-intelligence monster. But the story gets told in a unique Sci-fi setting (a race across across the galaxy, which turns out to be segregated by zones where intelligence, and even the laws of physics, are more advanced on the edge, and get duller toward the center). And a great deal of the action happens in what is basically a fantasy setting, full of castles and palace intrigue. Really well written, delightful all the way through, and provocative.
8. The Mote In God’s Eye (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1974) There's also some feudality here, in that there are lords and ladies in an interstellar monarchy. This turns out to be a feature of several of the books we read, a portrayal of human civilization becoming more feudal as it spreads out across multiple star systems. The focus of the action, though, is first contact with the Moties. I'll leave it to you to find out all about them, but suffice it to say it is a superb portrayal of just how physically and culturally alien an alien race might turn out to be. Plus it's just good, character-rich, well-plotted, fast-paced fun to read.
Honorable Mention (9 other good reads):
Berserker (Fred Saberhagen, 1967)- May man versus killer robot spaceships always be so fun.
Eon (Greg Bear, 1987)- I think about this one a lot, almost a top 10. Stunning ideas about future human evolution, with a time travel twist. Plus great use of Ralph Nader. Really.
Flashforward (Robert J. Sawyer, 1999)- I told you that CERN supercollider would be trouble...
IQ83 (Arthur Herzog, 1978)- A potboiler? Yes. But damn would it be fucked up if this happened.
Quarantine (Greg Egan, 1992)- While this didn't make my top 10, I do think Egan is one of the finest, and most philosophically challenging, sci-fi writers out there. Check out Distress and Permutation City for further mind-bending.
Starship Troopers (Robert Heinlein, 1959)- Right wing? Left wing? Somehow to blame for the movie made from it? And Showgirls as well, through mere association? Or just damn fun reading?
The Divine Invasion (Philip K. Dick, 1981)- One of my favorite authors. If I hadn't already read his book VALIS before I got to the group, it would have been in the top ten above, and this is more from that same, very good, vein.
The Gods Themselves (Isaac Asimov, 1972)- I don't believe Asimov wrote a bad book. Besides which, anything featuring trisexual energy beings is an automatic yes.
The Road (Cormac McCarthy, 2006)- See The Sparrow above vis-a-vis Sci-fi and literary fiction. Either way, a great book that somehow manages to be heartwarming and unrelentingly grim at the same time.
Dishonorable Mention (2 cautionary tales)
Last and First Men (Olaf Stapledon, 1930)- It deserves props for ambitious future history, and recognition as one of the earliest sci-fi novels. It was also very dry and slow. The only one I never finished from the group, sad to say.
The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood, 2000)- Great book, albeit very slow to start and frequently quite bleak. Not Sci-fi, though it does contain a sci-fi tale within the tale. Discussions on group policy were had afterward.