Top 5 Fictional Universes

The criteria: Influence. Popularity. Originality. Depth of detail.

1. Middle-Earth.
2. The Star Wars Universe.
3. Springfield. The Simponsverse.
4. The Marvel Universe.
5. H.P. Lovecraft’s New England and the Old Gods.


52 thoughts on “Top 5 Fictional Universes

  1. Harry Potter’s not bad. Very popular. Very detailed. Maybe too early to call as far as influnce. Original, but builds a lot on what Tolkien and other fantasy writers have done.

    World of Warcraft wins points because it actually sucks in real people and makes them abandon their real lives in disturbing ways.

  2. Known Space by Larry Niven. The books aren’t as good as I remembered from being a kid. (The unfortunate reality of most literature I loved as a kid) But they still were great fun then.

    Asimov’s universe which includes his robot series and his foundation series culminating in a bunch of time travelers was great. (Even if the books written in his latter years weren’t that good – especially the ones tying the two series together)

    The Neuromancer series by Gibson was a great universe and much copied.

    Then there is the Tarzan/Pellucidar/Mars series.

  3. The three greatest:

    Shakespeare’s plays
    Balzac’s La comedie humaine
    Schubert’s 600+ lieder

  4. I’ll second Bill’s nomination for the Comedie Humaine universe. Incredibly complex.

  5. I’ll second Clark’s mention of the Larry Niven stuff. While the are some glaring inconsistencies the universe is large and complex. I’ll also suggest the Enderverse which is more limited but still pretty rich. Of course nothing compares to middle earth.

  6. The big problem with Niven’s worlds is that his aliens always seem pretty ad hoc. Niven’s plausibility with respect to biology was always his greatest weakness.

  7. The wife says Zelazny Nine Princes in Amber stuff. Also seconds Star Wars and adds Star Trek for influential.

    I second Dune. Good call.

    Groovy, Brian. Geek-o-rama!!


  8. How about the universe of D&D? I’m not so sure how it’s fared in the popularity category, but it should rank high in influence, originality, and detail.

  9. I SECOND AMBER!!! Zelazny is awesome.

    TS, I spent most of my childhood wanting to go to Xanth, then I found out it was just Florida.

    Narnia has to be in the top five.

    I also nominate Earthsea.

  10. Brian G says:

    Harry Potter’s not bad. Very popular. Very detailed. Maybe too early to call as far as influnce. Original, but builds a lot on what Tolkien and other fantasy writers have done.

    I think Rowling will have a very deep influence. This is already being seen in a lot of children’s and young adult fiction (see, for example, Rick Riordan’s excellent Lightening Theif series, among many others).

    I think Neil Gaiman’s created lots a great universes. I like American Gods an awful lot, and Anansi Boys was ostensibly set in that same universe (though on a much smaller scale).

  11. But how influential has any single one of Gaiman’s works been? I agree he’s great at creating universes (even in his picture books — has anyone else read Wolves in the Walls?). He’s got the originality and depth of detail, but I’m not sure about the other two criteria.

    I’d add Raymond Chandler and/or Dashiell Hammett.

  12. I love the original Dune book and some of the others are pretty good as well. One thing that is a little disconcerting for anyone who is studied Arabic is the degree to which the author wholly appropriates Arabic words and utilizes them directly (transliterated but otherwise unchanged in meaning) into his world.

    It still works though.

    I don’t know if the movie adaptations of Dune have done the story justice. It’s really quite exceptional stuff and the Baron Harkonnen (if done right) should be one of the nastiest cinematic villains ever.

  13. Comment 3’s mention of Greek Mythology was a shrewd suggestion, I think.

    I wonder, if this were to be developed fully, if mythology (of numerous countries and cultures) would have to become a special category.

  14. The Sacketts by Louis Lamour. Come on you loved them. While his later stuff wasn’t nearly as good as his main stuff, I still kind of dug the big books telling the history of the Sacketss going back to the 18th century.

  15. Star Wars seems to me to be very ubiquitous (maybe it’s because I’m 30+ years old?) – one can name many of the planets in its galaxy, where people are from, what they speak, what the places look like (no two worlds look alike!), etc. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal – it’s also a culture.

    Same with Star Trek. I’ve heard that there are people that actually speak Klingon.

    LOTR – I even have a book written by a linguist at Oxford about the languages of Middle Earth and their similarities with our languages (like the Runic-looking language of the Dwarves, etc.). Very detailed “universe.”

  16. BTW – no one listed Stephen King’s multiverse? Admittedly I’m not a huge King fan. I loved the first gunslinger book and then the fourth and liked about half the rest. But King is a very uneven writer and a lot of his stuff comes off as pulp. Which I liked as a kid, but now… Well I tried rereading my old childhood favorites of Edgar Rice Burroughs and I couldn’t make it terribly far. (As I mentioned above most of Burroughs books were set in the same universe)

    There’s also the Tom Clancy books that started off well but went downhill fast (IMO). They’re all, with the exception of Red Storm Rising, set in the same universe. Unfortunately so in my opinion. I think Clancy would have done well to not maintain an universe that diverged so much from our own while trying to maintain a connection with our own. (A problem that besets comic books as well)

  17. I was thinking about that too, Greg, but is it really a different universe? If so, it looks an awful lot like this one. You can’t put it in the same category as, say, Middle Earth or Dune.

  18. MCQ – I don’t see anything in the topic that limits the answers to fantasy. And I don’t think it can be argued that Faulkner’s works aren’t both fictional and influential.

    Neal Stephenson’s name should appear here also. Snow Crash alone is probably a worthy candidate, even though the Baroque Cycle is a lot more detailed.

    I’ll also put in a plug for Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker and Enders universes. I don’t think Card’s as influential as a lot of people mentioned here, but Ender’s Game is a pretty well-known and beloved novel in the science fiction genre.

  19. What’s the name of the world/continent that the Wheel of Time is set in? I think the fans call it “Rand Land” It’s a pretty decently detailed world (perhaps not universe) I guess Pern would be closer to a universe, at least.

    Seriously, who doesn’t want a dragon?

  20. I think the Wheel of Time world qualifies as a universe for these purposes, but as a reader of that series I have not found it to be strikingly original or influential. It is entertaining, however, which means it is quite popular and there is no doubt that it is detailed.

  21. If we’re mentioning fantasy series that never end then I’ll throw out the George R R Martin Song of Fire and Ice series. The books are incredibly detailed and he kills characters off at an astounding rate, so there have to be fresh characters with their own backstories to replace them. I almost dread him releasing the next book because I’ll have to go back and re-read the ones that are already out just to get my bearings.

  22. Greg, I’m reading the first volume of the Baroque cycle right now but I’ve found it hard to stay committed. (Unlike the Cryptomonicon which I couldn’t put down) I hope it gets better and goes someplace.

    Regarding the Circle of Time or whatever it was called. The first three volumes were great but it kind of went down hill fast after that. I’ll probably read the final book (books?) by the guy contracted to finish the series with the half written final manuscript.

  23. One of my favorites from childhood (and one that’s actually survived into adulthood) is the universe created by Madeline L’Engle for the “Wrinkle in Time” series. It’s still fresh and unique. I loved imagining myself in the world with Meg and Charles Wallace.

    The Pern books were fun when I was a teen, but didn’t age well. I read probably every Anne McCaffrey book I could lay my hands on, and at some point I just realized I couldn’t read anymore. Piers Anthony’s Xanth suffered the same fate–I read something like 20 of his books in the series in one summer, and can’t touch one anymore. Fun universe, but not one I care to continue following.

    Michael Crichton does a reasonable job creating universes for his books. Unfortunately, I get the impression a lot of people think his universes are less speculative than they really are.

  24. Clark,

    I’m a huge Stephenson fan and I could not finish the first book of the Baroque Cycle. He just keeps heaping on the detail without any payoff.

  25. Kristine “less speculative than they really are” is putting it mildly.

    John, I’m glad I’m not the only one. I love the idea but I just don’t see the point. Further, unlike in Cryptomonicon, the chapters just aren’t entertaining enough on their own.

  26. Clark,

    Once it became clear that there would be no more Shaftoe in that book I dropped it. I do know people that have read all three books and enjoyed them, but it wasn’t for me, and think I read Cryptonomicon in two or three sittings and loved it.

  27. John, I really love the idea – especially the period with Newton and company. It’s an era of scientific history I’ve enjoyed reading. But he’s lacking humor and there’s just no goal to keep one invested. Admittedly it was well into Cryptonomicon before you figured out the plot. But each chapter was so funny and well written you didn’t mind that it came off slightly as a Douglas Adams stream of consciousness. With this one it’s missing that…

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