Best SF recommendations
I recently updated my book recommendation box to list the very best recent SF to read from the last few years. This is SF that meets my goals for great SF. I see somewhat "hard" SF that speaks about important and real ideas, while being entertaining writing at the same time.
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (2011)
This astounding first novel rates as best of 2011 for me. Except it came out in 2010, but in limited release in the UK so most people did not see it until 2011. An amazingly constructed post-singularity world that deserves all the superlatives. The next book is eagerly awaited. Particularly remarkable is that as a Finn, I presume his first language was not English. It is disappointing that it did not receive a Hugo nomination.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart (2010)
This novel was paid surprisingly little attention by the SF community, but in fact it's the best SF novel of 2010. A wonderful dystopian view of a failing USA where only dollars backed by the Yuan are valuable and the coveted jobs are in retail and media. A dark view of whuffie-like reputation where everybody's credit score is displayed everywhere they go, and at every gathering everybody is rated on fuckability (and you see where you stand.) The anti-hero works for an anti-aging company that is a marvelous parody but the topics are deep and serious. Not even nominated for the Hugo which is a terrible mistake.
The City and the City by China Miéville (2009)
The best of 2009 (tied for the Hugo award, too.) The City and the City at first may not seem like SF because the cities are so implausible, but it's really a fun experiment in social or political science to imagine two towns co-existing like this, partly overlaid in space while the residents are trained from birth to pay no notice to the other city. This is probably the weakest on this list, and indeed the co-winner that year (Windup Girl) was almost anti-SF as the science it it was fully bogus. But CatC grew on me as I came to see it as alternate-social worldbuilding.
Anathem by Neal Stephenson (2008)
It came 2nd for the Hugo, but even the winner, Neil Gaiman, declared it should have won. Read my full review.
Rainbow's End by Vernor Vinge (2006)
The Hugo Winner for 2006 is also my pick for the best of the decade. If you like your SF full of wonderful new ideas, in this case related to the near future rather than the more abstract distant ones seen in earlier Vinge triumphs, this is the book for you. The protagonist has recently been cured of Alzheimer's but that doesn't mean many of his memories weren't destroyed. He tries to fit into a world where everybody wears augmented reality lenses and clothes, education and play are radically different and a conspiracy is trying to develop a drug that makes you more accepting of suggestions. Note that 2006 also included the excellent Blindsight by Peter Watts available free here.
Other great reads
As noted above check out Embassytown (nominated for the Hugo in 2012) and other Miéville works, and Blindsight by Peter Watts. If you like Zombies, read Feed by Mira Grant -- or rather read it for its treatment of a future, blogger-centered media world. It and its sequel were/are Hugo nominated. Several by Charlie Stross rate highly, such as Halting State, which is probably the best SF novel of 2007 -- though the alternate history and Hugo winner The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a better overall novel. And if you're from the 80s like me you will want to read the recent Ready Player One, a novel about a world where the now richest man in the world created a globe-spanning MMORPG, and then willed it to whoever could solve a challenge in it. To win, you needed to know all the obscure 70s and 80s culture references that were dear to the deceased programmer.
Going back in the decade 2004 was also a very strong year with River of Gods being worth of a best-of-decade list, and The Algebraist and Iron Sunrise (particularly for its wonderful reMastered cult of the unborn god) are also very strong. 2006 had the very fun Old Man's War as a fine debut novel, and Accelerando is superb (indeed unmatched until Rainbow's End) for its ideas but lacking in its characters -- Stross gets better at this later.