Overrated – Underrated: Fictional Universe

Writers these days are finding fertile ground (i.e. they’re making lots of money) by penning lots of stories in the same background, or “universe”. You’ll almost always encounter them in science fiction and fantasy. There’s the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”, Middle Earth, Star Trek’s Federation, and many more. Of course, this means that some are overrated, and others are underrated.

Overrated: The Potterverse

J.K. Rowling pretty much created the modern YA series with her Harry Potter stories. Fans immediately took to the world, doing everything from pretending they were a member of House Gryffindor to trying to make a playable version of Quidditch. But when you step back and look behind the curtains and in the corners, Hogwarts isn’t as good a place as it seems.

First of all, it’s a terrible school. Students learn nothing about the real world that they’ll be living in when (or if) they graduate. Even if you consider it to be a specialized school, even real world specialized schools like Stuyvestant High insist that students take courses like history, social studies, and a foreign language.

Secondly, the place is a death trap. How often do we see students narrowly escape death or even injury due to terrible (when it exists) security or incompetent faculty?

Third, the Ministry of Magic, which runs the place, is an outright tyranny.

What would you think of a government that engaged in this list of tyrannical activities: tortured children for lying; designed its prison specifically to suck all life and hope out of the inmates; placed citizens in that prison without a hearing; ordered the death penalty without a trial; allowed the powerful, rich, or famous to control policy; selectively prosecuted crimes (the powerful go unpunished and the unpopular face trumped-up charges); conducted criminal trials without defense counsel; used truth serum to force confessions; maintained constant surveillance over all citizens; offered no elections and no democratic lawmaking process; and controlled the press?

– Benjamin H. Barton, University of Tennessee College of Law, “Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy”, Michigan Law Review, Volume 104, Issue 6

Finally, what good is a degree from Hogwarts? A good estimate (based on Rowling’s own numbers) is that the school has about 70-80 graduates each year. Are there really that many openings in the wizarding world? Remember, the Ministry of Magic wants to keep itself secret from the “Muggles”. I just can’t see there being that much growth in a field that wants to stay hidden. Where are they all going? And what happens to the students who flunk out?

Maybe that’s where all those gnomes and “house elves” come from…which is even worse to think about.

Underrated: Known Space

SF writer Larry Niven is the creator of this quite fully developed future interstellar society. There’s FTL travel, along with many other standard SF tropes and toys. Fleshed out alien races for you to deal with, and plenty of unexplored worlds to discover. And remnants of an ancient civilization for more mystery. A massive interstellar war (which Niven refers to, but doesn’t write about much, saying he doesn’t have enough military experience or knowledge to do it right – so he left that era open to other authors). Even a super secretive police organization working behind the scenes trying to keep order, if you want something a little dark and “gritty”.

Why hasn’t this taken off as much as any other universe?

I’d say that it’s because (except for one story that Niven himself adapted for the animated Star Trek series) there’s never been a video adaptation of any of the stories.

Other than the humans, the aliens are really alien. You can’t slap some skin paint and prosthetics on a human actor and turn him into a Kzin. They are eight foot tall anthropomorphic tigers…. The other major race in Known Space is the “Puppeteers”. Picture a large ostrich with a third leg – and two heads…. Yeah. Even motion capture isn’t going to help you there. The minor races? There are a few humanoids, but… The Jotoki are amphibious starfish-like beings. The Grogs are sessile telepaths. And the Outsiders are squid-like creatures that live in interstellar space. All better suited to animation, because you sure as heck can’t cosplay as any of them.

It’s a shame, too, because Niven thinks BIG. There’s his famous Ringworld – picture a ribbon thousands of miles wide encircling a star…with an atmosphere and inhabitants….big enough to contain an actual size “map” of the Earth…. Whole planets being used as spaceships…. And only a tiny portion of the Milky Way has been explored. There’s plenty of room for whatever kind of adventure you want to have.

Give me a starship built on a General Products #2 hull, and I’ll be happy.

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