While recognizing the absurdity of listing, the utter impossibility of completeness, the various frustrations likely to be created, let me propose a list for my own readership: what 2 to 5 books do you think every literate SF reader should read before they die? Here are my suggestions, which I'm sure I will disagree with in the next hour:
The Fifth Child by Doris LessingWhat a bizarre, ridiculous list! Of course, I thought of at least 50 other books, but I settled on these because I liked how they talked to, at, around, and about each other. (Though I almost cheated and listed Lessing's The Fifth Child with its sequel, Ben, In the World -- two books which create their own dialogue by, in the first book, making readers loathe the monstrous title character, and then making them sympathize with him in the second book. Also thought The Fifth Child would go well with Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human.) All I can say is, I'd be curious to know what a person thought after reading those five books one after the other (not necessarily in the order I set out). Malzberg's Galaxies (discussed here by Adam Troy-Castro) is a book that I find particularly amusing when read by other people, because it inevitably causes a reaction. It's also one of the only purely metafictional SF novels I know.
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
Bill, the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison
The Start of the End of It All by Carol Emshwiller
Galaxies by Barry N. Malzberg
I was very much tempted to list anthologies, from Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection, which covers 1985 and is one of the single most remarkable anthologies I know, to various anthologies from Kathryn Cramer and David Hartwell, to Leviathan 3, Trampoline, etc. This desire to suggest anthologies reminded me that so much of what is valuable within the SF realm, so much that is worth talking about, is not of novel length. So here, then, is a list of a few stories I think it would be good for every SF reader to read and think about before they plunge off into the abyss of the beyond:
"Day Million" by Frederik PohlAnother completely inadequate list, but so it goes. With this one, I simply wanted to look at imagination and form.
"Unlocking the Air" by Ursula K. LeGuin
"Or All the Seas with Oysters" by Avram Davidson
"The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
"Heavens Below: Fifteen Utopias" by John Sladek
I'm sure some of you out there can do better.