The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (Del Rey, $8). Much as the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's affected every brainy rock album that followed it, Adams's Hitchhiker series has influenced every work of playful science fiction since the Carter era. Adams taught us that aliens can be bumbling, petty, sarcastic, or vain — and not strictly terrifying, omniscient, or gooey.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (Riverhead, $16). As a British slacker grudgingly exits a very protracted adolescence, he sublimates his frustrations by bludgeoning bystanders with rapier displays of musical erudition. Certain nuances are meant mainly for music lovers. But this witty gem has much to offer anyone who has struggled with issues of commitment and adult identity.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Anchor, $15). Egan's stunning tapestry of interlocking narratives considers many Big Issues: intimacy, aging, exploitation, even suicide. She treats them all with compassion and wisdom, even as she saturates her tales with musical references without being self-conscious or precious about it.
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown, $24). Modern literary fiction often attempts to skewer office life and business norms but leaves me feeling that the author has never actually worked in a competitive white-collar setting (except perhaps as a temp). Ferris's trenchant depiction of the jealousies, triumphs, and night terrors of service-sector professionals hits home because he is a native of the culture.
Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi (Tor, $8). Scalzi wrote this tale about aliens seeking Hollywood representation on a lark, then parked it online, where it's still available as a free download. Scalzi didn't become a full-time novelist until almost a decade later, but flashes of mastery are all over this early work.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Broadway, $14). Cline depicts a near-future society that is dystopian yet brightened by marvels that loom on today's technological horizon. Thoughtful and balanced, this novel treats the big questions of technology with neither morose doomsaying nor rah-rah boosterism.