However. An old friend contacted me on the first day of my trip, asking for recommendations for either "the three best sci fi novels? Or your three favourites?" I didn't really have time while travelling to give this the thought it required, so I outsourced the question to friends on Twitter and Facebook. The results indicate only the views of a bunch of people responding to a straw poll on a Sunday evening or Monday morning, but I hope that they are interesting. I recorded 264 recommendations for 143 different books by 101 authors. (I slightly lost count of how many people had contributed to the discussion, but given that people were generally recommending three books, it must have been around 80-90.)
The top two, with 19 and 18 votes respectively, were not hugely surprising: Dune, by Frank Herbert, and The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Dune has its faults, but it has a lot of merits too - the ecology, the planetary politics, the role of religion in society - and I think it's fair to say that by reading it you get a good sense of where sf has come from in the last fifty years. The Left Hand of Darkness is one of the best books ever written about sexuality without being particularly erotic; its politics is ever so slightly more progressive than Dune's.
Le Guin was the top nominated author on the list, mentioned by 31 people. This is mainly because the third book in the overall poll, The Dispossessed, with 10 votes, is also by her. (The other three Le Guin votes went to The Lathe of Heaven.) The Dispossessed is even more political, partly a parable about how where you stand affects what you see. These are all great books, and I am heartily recommending them to my friend if he wants only three.
As you would expect from a survey like this, people generally opted for the classics rather than more recent work. In fourth place, with seven votes, is the only book published this century that got more than three recommendations. It was, of course, Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, which blew most of us away when published in 2013 - a book that is more military and cybernetic than Le Guin, but equally feminist and progressive. I think it would be particularly interesting for someone unfamiliar with the field to read it soon after The Left Hand of Darkness. In fifth place, with six votes, is a personal favourite of mine, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, which I will admit has dated a bit but is still a good read about men and women trying to be gods. I'm quite pleased that the top five include three books by women.
Finishing off the detailed reporting, three books by men tied for sixth place with five votes: Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (which my friend has surely already read), Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut (which I'm sure he has at least heard of) and Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson (which I suspect is less well known outside the genre). Probably I should allow Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy here too, if I combine all the votes for it. I loved all of these when I first read them, though again I don't think Asimov has aged well.
My friend can stop reading here, as he's got his top three (indeed top nine) recommendations, but I'm sure others will want to know the final scores. The following six books, by four men and two women, got four votes each:
• Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
• The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
• Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
• Neuromancer, by William Gibson
• The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks
• The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells
I like all but one of these; if I had to pick a favourite, it would probably be The Handmaid’s Tale (recently a TV series of course). Personally I can't take Neuromancer, but I know I'm in a minority.
Eight books, by five men and three women, got three votes:
• Cyteen, by C.J. Cherryh
• Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
• The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin (counting also votes for the Broken Earth trilogy)
• The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
• The Lathe Of Heaven, by Ursula K. LeGuin
• The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
• The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
• Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein
It's difficult for me to choose a personal favourite between The Lathe Of Heaven, The Man in the High Castle and Stranger in a Strange Land. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? is of course the basis of Blade Runner. The Man in the High Castle is another recent TV series. Both are by Philip K. Dick, who got six books on the list, the most of any author. Particularly significant is that The Fifth Season and its two sequels won the Hugo Awards for Best Novel for 2016, 2017 and 2018, the only time an author has managed to win it three years in a row. Myself I'm not all that excited about them, but clearly lots of other people are. It's also the highest ranking on this list for a book by a writer of colour. Here my disrecommendation is for Cyteen, but again I know that most other readers think it's great.
Seventeen books by thirteen men and five women (one book is co-authored) got two votes. Five of these were published this century (marked with a copyright symbol ©).
• Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith
• Blindsight, by Peter Watts ©
• Brasyl, by Ian McDonald ©
• A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
• A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge
• Flow My Tears The Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick
• Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
• Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
• Kindred, by Octavia Butler
• The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers ©
• Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood ©
• A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs
• Roadside Picnic, by the Strugatsky brothers
• A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick
• The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
• The Star Fraction, by Ken MacLeod
• The Three Body Problem (counting also a vote for the trilogy as a whole), by Cixin Liu ©
Again there's one here I really bounced off while everyone else was excited by it, and it's Blindsight. (Also not wild about A Fire Upon The Deep or Hyperion.) I confess that I may not have actually read A Princess of Mars. But there's a particular favourite of mine here as well, A Canticle for Leibowitz. I also very much like Brasyl, Flowers for Algernon, Kindred and A Scanner Darkly. I am not sure if The Sparrow will stand up to re-reading.
Do you want to know what the other 105 books that got one vote each were? OK, though I must warn that the gender balance is a little embarrassing. For the record, they were:
Accelerando, by Charles Stross; Austral, by Paul McAuley; Babel 17, by Samuel R. Delany; The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal; Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut; The Child Garden, by Geoff Ryman; Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke; Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky; The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham; The City And The City, by China Mieville; Creatures of Light and Darkness, by Roger Zelazny; The City and the Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke; Dahlgren, by Samuel R. Delany; The Dark Side of the Sun, by Terry Pratchett; The Death of Grass, by John Christopher; The Demolished Man , by Alfred Bester; Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth, by Terrance Dicks; Dogs of War, by Adrian Tchaikovsky; Downbelow Station, by C.J. Cherryh; Enders Game, by Orson Scott Card; Engine Summer, by John Crowley; Europe In Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson; Excession, by Iain M. Banks; Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury; The Female Man, by Joanna Russ; The Fifth Head of Cerberus, by Gene Wolfe; The Forge of God, by Greg Bear; The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse; God's War, by Kameron Hurley; Green Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson; The Hammer and the Cross, by Harry Harrison; Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami; Helliconia Winter, by Brian Aldiss; Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree Jr; High-Rise Darkness, by J.G. Ballard; His Majesty's Starship, by Ben Jeapes; Hothouse , by Brian Aldiss; I am Legend, by Richard Matheson; If/Then, by Matthew de Abaitua; The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson; Isle Of The Dead, by Roger Zelazny; Jizzle (anthology), by John Wyndham ; The Kraken Wakes, by John Wyndham; Komarr, by Lois McMaster Bujold; Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon; Light, by M. John Harrison; Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow; Little, Big, by John Crowley; Lock In, by John Scalzi (who was one of the contributors to this survey); Look to Windward, by Iain M. Banks; Madd Addam trilogy, by Margaret Atwood; The Man Who Fell to Earth, by Walter Tevis; The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury; Martian Time-Slip, by Philip K. Dick; Memoirs of a Spacewoman , by Naomi Mitchison; Mission of Gravity, by Hal Clement; The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein; More Than Human , by Theodore Sturgeon; The Mote in God’s Eye, by Niven & Pournelle; The Murderbot stories, by Martha Wells; Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock; The Name of the Wind , by Patrick Rothfuss; Nemesis Games, by James SA Corey; The Neutronium Alchemist, by Peter Hamilton; The Night Sessions, by Ken Macleod; Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny; Nova, by Samuel R. Delany; Old Man's War, by John Scalzi (as noted above, a contributor; he did not vote for himself); On A Red Station, Drifting, by Aliette de Bodard; Passage, by Connie Willis; Past Master, by R. A. Lafferty; Permutation City, by Greg Egan; Pollen, by Jeff Noon; The Reality Dysfunction, by Peter F. Hamilton; Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke; Restoration Game, by Ken MacLeod; Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds; Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban; The Roderick trilogy, by John Sladek; Science Fiction for People Who Hate Science Fiction, edited by Terry Carr; The Separation, by Christopher Priest; The Shadow Of The Torturer) (and sequels), by Gene Wolfe; Shadow's End, by Sherri S. Tepper; Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut; Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem; Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente; The Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison; Star King, by Jack Vance; Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon; Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers, by Harry Harrison; Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein; The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by Philip K. Dick; The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells; Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer; 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke; Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks; Voyage Of The Space Beagle, by A.E. van Vogt; Who Goes Here, by Bob Shaw; The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss; The Wrong Man, by Danny Morrison; Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent; and The Year of the Flood , by Margaret Atwood.
Thanks, everyone who contributed.