I don't talk much about SF, for a couple of reasons.
For those reasons, I run the risk of seeming pretty damn out-of-touch if I talk about what SF I still hold dear after all this time. But if this gives you an idea of what I like and why, and you can recommend something that you think I won't cringe from, fire away. I could afford to get back into the loop and stop being such a refusenik (what a word).
Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination / The Demolished Man. It rarely gets much better than this, if only for the sake of the sweep of the man's vision and the ideas he corrals together. These were both very much a product of the Golden Age, where the universe was seen as something mankind could tame, rather than something he had to inhabit or share with others (or, as in [see below] Phil Dick's case, be wholly at the mercy of). But for sheer adrenal rush and "oh man, what happens now?" storytelling, these are the places to start. The former is a far-future retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo with the added element of humanity having learned how to teleport himself by force of sheer will as part of the way society works in that future. The latter has a similar powers-from-within-unlocked twist: telepathy is commonplace, and premeditated crime is very difficult to pull off ... which to one man sounds more like a dare than anything else. They've both dated, but not in ways that make them bad stories.
Something by Philip K. Dick. I'm being annoyingly nonspecific here for a reason; it's because I'm still having trouble narrowing down a couple of his books that really embody his whole approach, which didn't fit conveniently into any one niche. I will simply say that there are three that I come back to perennially and habitually — Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, A Scanner Darkly, and The Divine Invasion — all of which I read while still a wee lad and all of which I responded to by thinking, This is the first writer I've ever encountered who understands how I see the world. Bad Hollywood adaptations aside, he's still a giant.
Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human. Another one I encountered very young, and I had to come back to it over and over again as I grew up to truly understand it. Sturgeon's big theme was Love (much as Dick was also writing about Love, in a different way — love as the weapon against cosmic indifference), and when he put together this tale of many beings blending their strengths to become one, he was making a case for big-L Love as the thing poor old humanity would need to make its next evolutionary leap. Give me $10 million and I'd make a movie version of this that would blow your pants clean off.
Evgeny Zamyatin, We. Before 1984, before Brave New World, this bitterly funny Russian satire of a mathematically perfect society (written in 1924 or so) still stands up today. Zamyatin is virtually unknown either inside or outside of his native land, and has only this and a handful of other, shorter items to his name; he coulda been a contender. And, again, gimme some money for the movie version, please. It wouldn't be all that hard to shoot today. The version linked here is the third translation into English; the previous two (Gregory Zilboorg; Mirra Ginsburg) are good for different reasons but this one is unhesitatingly recommended for a new reader.
Stanisław Lem, The Star Diaries. Well, anything by Lem, really, but this is a fine place to start: comedy, tragedy, wonder, slapstick, the whole bit, all in nice bite-sized chunks. His novels are also well worth the trouble (Solaris having been filmed not just once but twice), but this was where I got started and I recommend it as a good place to get hooked, too. Viva Ijon Tichy!
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange. Yes, I know he has a ton of other books that may actually be better (The Wanting Seed comes to mind), but this is the one everyone remembers whether or not we like it. Most of the discussion about it is over the usual stuff — free will vs. determinism, or whatever you want to call it — but I see it also as a good starting point for a discussion about how the human being is seen as a product or endpoint.
Gertrude Freidberg, The Revolving Boy. The owner of my local used bookstore back home introduced me to this little gem, and it's gone in and out of print in the decades since it first appeared. That's a shame, because it's one of the two or three books most SF readers, let alone most readers, have never heard about and are grateful for when they are introduced to it. Go dig it up. Ms. Freidberg never wrote another novel that I know of, which means her batting average for masterpieces is about 1.000.
There's obviously a few things missing. There's no Heinlein, if only because I've never liked much of his work at all; there's little in the way of hard SF of the Niven/Pournelle variety (again, I just don't find it very interesting); no Ender's Game (obnoxiously overrated piece of stacked-deck storytelling, don't get me started); not much in the way of early pulp SF if only because it's dated very badly indeed and doesn't hold up well as either entertainment or curiosities. But this should give you a good idea of what I went looking for, when I went looking — and what I'd like to try and find again.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind