Investigating Amazon’s top 100 Sci Fi & Fantasy books list

Do you agree with Amazon's selection of the 100 best sci-fi and fantasy books? We look at what went into the decision-making...

If you had to limit your genre library to 100 books, what would they be? What if you could only read 100 genre books in your lifetime? Thankfully we’re not limited to that, but Amazon hopes to help guide you towards the books essential to a well-rounded reader of science fiction and fantasy.

As part of their ongoing ‘Books to read in a lifetime’ lists, last month Amazon Books released a list of the best 100 science fiction and fantasy books to read, well, in a lifetime. Ranging from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to this year’s Uprooted, by Naomi Novik, the books were chosen by Amazon’s editorial team on a range of factors from world building, storytelling, to characters.

“Our whole goal is to recommend books we love to readers,” says Adrian Liang, one of the editors who compiled the list. “We’re not looking at how much money we want a book to make: we’re looking for books that we feel passionately about and we think readers are going to feel passionately about.”

The list’s origin story

The program overall came about from the ‘best of the month’ list that Amazon does, 11 titles in different categories that the editors recommend monthly. Science fiction and fantasy were always one of those categories, and so when the ‘books to read in a lifetime’ lists started coming together, it made sense to include that category as a specific pull out. The decision process took about six months for the editors, starting from an overall list of 250 that had already been compiled. They also set up a list on Goodreads and asked for input from members.

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“The goal is to expose people to books that have really been mainstays of the genre, have launched the genre, and have changed the genre throughout the years,” Liang continues. “We’re just trying to remind people why these genres are so amazing, and that you should go back and read the older titles as well as new titles that are coming out every month.” The list includes everything from the hard science fiction Ender’s Game to the humorous Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

Defining the genre

Of course, one of the biggest debates in genre fiction is how to define it. What did the editors use as a definition for science fiction and fantasy? “It’s really murky,” Liang says with a laugh. “Even if you look at sub-genres within science fiction and fantasy: is it military sci fi? Is it space opera? Is it dystopian? Some of these books can be all three at the same time, and that’s actually one thing that’s very wonderful about the genre is that it’s constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable.” For the most part, however, the editors used their experience in the genre to determine whether a book was considered science fiction or fantasy.

As for the difference between the two, Liang says that the editors had considered splitting science fiction and fantasy into different lists. “I think that each genre of science fiction and fantasy do different things well,” she says. “With fantasy, it strips away a lot of our modern crutches and talks a lot of who you are as a person. Who do you want to become? Do you have heroic qualities? I think that’s very appealing. I think that for science fiction, it makes you question what’s going on right now. Are we really doing things the right way? Is society set up the right way? It keeps your brain sharp and keeps you from just accepting the status quo as the right way to do things.” In the end, though, the fact is that they are often shelved together in bookstores combined with how many crossover readers there are between the two genres meant it made more sense to keep them on one list.

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Science fiction and fantasy are well-known for having series, such as A Game Of Thrones or Harry Potter. Since the list was limited to 100, when it came to picking books that are known series, Liang says that they ended up choosing mostly books that were the first in the series. There are also a couple of short story collections, such as Lovecraft’s tales and I, Robot on the list.

Debate away

As with all such lists, Liang knows the list will spark conversation. “There was probably 20 titles that I wish we could have fit on the list,” she says when asked if there was a specific book that she had advocated for that didn’t make the final cut. “There were a lot more titles that we just didn’t have space for. It doesn’t mean that they’re not important, it just means that we only had so many slots we could fill.”

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As for current trends in the genres, Liang is hesitant to say. “I’m not seeing big shifts,” she says. “In science fiction, people want to push their minds out to the stars. Fantasy is getting grimmer and grimmer, but there’s also a lot of counter-programming in fantasy where it’s going a little bit sweeter, too.”

Of course, the ongoing trend of mainstream acceptance of genre is also something Liang is aware of. “Our lives have become so sci-fi already these days: we live in a sci-fi age now, so science fiction books seem a little less intimidating. I think that’s partially why apocalyptic fiction has taken off so much, because it’s really touching on what they see as their world, just slightly different.”

As for when (if ever) the team plans on updating the list, Liang isn’t ready to reveal just yet. “Looking at some of these programs, they’re only two years old. How many titles have come out in the past two years that are going to be complete game changers? I think that if we’re going to change the titles, we’re going to want to change more than one or two to make a big deal out of it, so at this time we don’t have any plans to go back and take another look at the list. Now, we’re looking at what we want to do for 2016, and we have a number of ideas in mind, but we’ve also changed our minds in the last week about what to do, so I’m not going to reveal what that is quite yet.”

But if there’s one thing Liang hopes comes from this list is more readers of the genre. “I’m a big advocate for this genre in general. There are people who don’t consider themselves science fiction or fantasy readers, and my personal belief is that they just haven’t found the right book. So many of these books can really change your way of thinking. That’s an amazing thing, and that’s really why I think people come back to books over and over again.”

The full list, in alphabetical order of title, is below. How many have you read? Do you agree with the selection?

Angie is a freelance writer who’s been published in LA Weekly,, The Mary Sue, and Stage Directions, among others. For more information about her and her writing, you can visit her website.

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1984 (Signet Classics) – George Orwell

2001: a Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke

A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller Jr.

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1) – George R. R. Martin

A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle) – Ursula K. Le Guin

A Wrinkle in Time (Time Quintet) – Madeleine L’Engle

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Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs Novels) – Richard K. Morgan

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

Among Others (Hugo Award Winner – Best Novel) – Jo Walton

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch) – Ann Leckie

Annihilation: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy) – Jeff VanderMeer

Assassin’s Apprentice (The Farseer Trilogy, Book 1) – Robin Hobb

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Blood Music – Greg Bear

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke

Cloud Atlas: A Novel– David Mitchell

Daughter of the Blood (Black Jewels, Book 1) – Anne Bishop

Dhalgren – Samuel R. Delany

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

Doomsday Book – Connie Willis

Dragonflight (Dragonriders of Pern – Volume 1) – Anne McCaffrey

Dune – Frank Herbert

Ender’s Game (The Ender Quintet) – Orson Scott Card

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

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Foreigner (10th Anniversary Edition) – C. J. Cherryh

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Graceling – Kristin Cashore

Grass – Sheri S. Tepper

Guilty Pleasures (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter: Book 1) – Laurell K. Hamilton

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H. P. Lovecraft: Tales (Library of America) – H. P. Lovecraft

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – J.K. Rowling

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Novel – Charles Yu

Howl’s Moving Castle – Diana Wynne Jones

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos) – Dan Simmons

I Am Legend – Richard Matheson

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I, Robot – Isaac Asimov

Interview with the Vampire – Anne Rice

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel – Susanna Clarke

Kindred – Octavia E. Butler

Kushiel’s Dart (Kushiel’s Legacy) – Jacqueline Carey

Lord Foul’s Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Book 1) – Stephen R. Donaldson

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Neuromancer – William Gibson

Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter

Old Man’s War – John Scalzi

Outlander – Diana Gabaldon

Pawn of Prophecy (Belgariad) – David Eddings

Perdido Street Station – China Miéville

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Ready Player One: A Novel – Ernest Cline

Red Mars (Mars Trilogy) – Kim Stanley Robinson

Red Rising – Pierce Brown

Riddle-Master – Patricia A. McKillip

Ringworld (A Del Rey book) – Larry Niven

Sabriel (Old Kingdom) – Garth Nix

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Sandman Slim: A Novel – Richard Kadrey

Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut

Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson

Solaris – Stanislaw Lem

Starship Troopers – Robert A. Heinlein

Stories of Your Life and Others – Ted Chiang

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Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein

The Colour of Magic (Discworld) – Terry Pratchett

The Curse of Chalion (Chalion series) – Lois McMaster Bujold

The Dark is Rising (The Dark is Rising Sequence) – Susan Cooper

The Dispossessed (Hainish Cycle) – Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dragonbone Chair: Book One of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn – Tad Williams

The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time, Book 1) – Robert Jordan

The Forever War – Joe Haldeman

The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel (P.S.) –  Helene Wecker

The Gunslinger: (The Dark Tower #1)(Revised Edition) – Stephen King

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

The Hobbit – J. R. R. Tolkien

The Hunger Games (Book 1) – Suzanne Collins

The Last Unicorn – Peter S. Beagle

The Left Hand of Darkness (Ace Science Fiction) – Ursula K. Le Guin

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 2) – C. S. Lewis

The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary, One Vol. Edition – J.R.R. Tolkien

The Magicians: A Novel (Magicians Trilogy) – Lev Grossman

The Martian – Andy Weir

The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury

The Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicle) – Patrick Rothfuss

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure – William Goldman

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

The Rook: A Novel – Daniel O’Malley

The Sparrow: A Novel (Ballantine Reader’s Circle) – Mary Doria Russell

The Speed of Dark (Ballantine Reader’s Circle) – Elizabeth Moon

The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester

The Sword of Shannara – Terry Brooks

The Time Machine – H. G. Wells

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

The Way of Kings (Stormlight Archive, The) – Brandon Sanderson

The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne

Uglies – Scott Westerfeld

Uprooted – Naomi Novik

Wool – Hugh Howey

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War – Max Brooks