In praise of in-universe books

Harry Potter, Twin Peaks, Alan Partridge, Lost and even Mr Bean: we salute 'in-universe' books...

On November 17th, the new Harry Potter-verse movie Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them hit cinemas as start of what Warner Bros hopes will be a new and long-lived chapter for the franchise. Considering Harry Potter was considered “over” by its chief writer (except for the website, and the play… and now this…) it’s quite the achievement for Warner to have found a way to continue it in a way that does, at least, feel creatively valid.

Of course, Fantastic Beasts was a book originally released as a Comic Relief special in 2001 alongside Quidditch Through The Ages. Purporting to be written by Newt Scamander (the eventual protagonist of the movie), the edition as published claimed to be Harry Potter’s own copy, as annotated by Ron Weasley. Rowling clearly liked the idea, since she later wrote a collection of children’s stories from within the Harry Potter-verse, The Tales Of Beedle The Bard.

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But this approach – writing a tie-in as if it’s ‘in-universe’ – is far from unique to Harry Potter. Fantastic Beasts may represent the best-case scenario of how far a simple tie-in book can go given the chance, but most are little more than footnotes on a Wikipedia page somewhere.

Despite this, in-universe tie-ins are rare. Less accessible than standard novels and much harder to write, they tend to appeal to only hardcore fans. Whether fairly or not, most novelisations of existing media properties are considered bargain-bookshop fodder – cheaply produced cash-ins at worst, process-illuminating curios at best – but at least they can entice a casual audience. In-universe books have vanishingly little hope of doing so.

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For this reason, it’s worth appreciating the ones we do get. Not just because they might one day prove the basis for a multi-million dollar franchise, but because the time, effort and care that goes into them often vastly eclipses the returns they offer. These rarities are labours of love for people under no illusions about their commercial appeal. They exist because they’re fun, not because they’re going to make millions.

Here, then, is our list of must-own in-universe tie-ins…

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Mr. Robot: Red Wheelbarrow

I’m late to the Mr. Robot party but I’m in so deep that I bought the tie-in book basically the moment it came out, even though I couldn’t read it at the time because it would have spoiled me on Season 2. The book is ostensibly the journal of lead character Elliot Alderson, and plays a major role in the narrative of season 2 as he attempts to sort his head out.

Co-written by series creator Sam Esmail and series writer Courtney Looney, it doesn’t just offer an insight into Elliot’s mind throughout the second season – it also contains clues to what’s going to happen in next year’s third season. For a puzzle-box series like Mr. Robot, that kind of insight is invaluable, no matter how vague it may be.

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Furthermore, it’s not just a journal. In addition to the written pages it contains a number of packed-in artifacts – newspaper clippings, a flattened cigarette packet, leaflets and notes – as well as hidden URLs and QR codes to interact with, giving it the feeling of an all-in-one AR game. A must-buy.

Lost: Bad Twin

Speaking of AR games, Lost was no stranger to extra-media tie-in material. While it seemed like every season had its own tie-in game or website to hack, Season two went slightly further: once it had aired, a book ‘written’ by departed Oceanic Flight 815 passenger Gary Troup was published following the manuscript’s appearance in two episodes.

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Although intended to contain secrets and hints about what might be going on in Lost at a time when the frenzy for answers about the series was hitting its height, the novel ended up being heavily sidelined by marketing when it emerged that the ghost writer, thriller author, Laurence Shames, had written something more guided by his own interests and aesthetics than producers hoped for.

Still, the book briefly became a bestseller and it did heavily feature members of the Widmore family and corporation, and was incorporated into the AR game around the show. At one point, a message left for ‘Rachel Blake’ during The Lost Experience used the novel as a codebook by delivering page numbers. It remains an interesting curio, if not the essential part of the show’s story it might have been.

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I, Partridge & Alan Partridge: Nomad

Perhaps the simplest form of in-universe book is the standard autobiographical work. I, Partridge and Alan Partridge: Nomad both brought Partridge’s character to the page with near-seamless ease and huge doses of hilarity. Ostensibly written by Partridge himself, the books were actually written by four key Partridge writers – co-creators Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci, and writers Rob & Neil Gibbons, who have taken care of the character’s recent screen outings.

Packed with wit and wisdom (much of it mistaken), these books are essentially as close to being new episodes of an Alan Partridge TV show as it’s possible to get without moving images. As well as fleshing out the backstory of one of pop-culture’s most complex characters, they’re as quotable as Partridge has ever been and the first especially became an instant key text for any fan of the character (especially in audiobook form).

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Mr Bean: Mr Bean’s Diary

Most people in the UK are familiar with Rowan Atkinson’s near-silent character, Mr. Bean. The show is considered one of the UK’s comedy greats. None of that prepares you for just what a work of demented hilarity Mr. Bean’s Diary is.

Written by Rowan Atkinson and Mr. Bean co-writer Robin Driscoll, it gives the reader a rare insight into Mr. Bean’s mind and life as he documents the things that happen to him alongside his increasingly fragile mental state. Packed with sight gags details his inventions, schemes, absent-mind doodles, and printed-on items (the section where Bean briefly takes up “insect pressing” is a particularly grim one) it’s guaranteed to have you laughing.

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Indeed, it proved so popular that despite being released in 1993, it was reprinted for Bean’s 20th anniversary in 2010. You can pick it up for a penny on Amazon (plus postage), but let us assure you: that’s a penny well-spent.

Twin Peaks: The Secret History Of Twin Peaks

Written by David Lynch’s co-writer, Mark Frost, The Secret History Of Twin Peaks takes the form of an FBI file detailing the strange occurrences in and around the town of Twin Peaks. While some were disappointed that it wasn’t, as they hoped, a bridge between the old and new series, others have praised its thematic analysis and the rich backstory is develops for the town.

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While it’s clear that it’s not going to offer a lot to anyone attempting to start investigating the Twin Peaks canon here, hardcore fans will doubtlessly want to read it thanks to the involvement of Frost. It’s as close to being a canonical source as you can get, and for a series as open to interpretation as Twin Peaks, any canonical information it can offer is worth taking stock of.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time the approach has been taken by Twin Peaks: in 1990, Jennifer Lynch, daughter of David Lynch, wrote The Secret Diary Of Laura Palmer – an in-universe novel following the character from age 12 up until her murder – as a prequel to the TV series. It was republished in 2011.

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And the rest…

They didn’t make the list of our favourites, but here are a bunch more in-universe books that you might want to look at…

Mad Men: Sterling’s Gold

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Although not the autobiography the character wrote during the course of Mad Men, this book of quotes from Mad Men’s most quotable character is sure to please any fan of the series.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Legends Of The Ferengi

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By Quark, “as told to Ira Steven Behr and Robert Hewitt Wolfe”, this book is “a collection of stories, fables, folk songs, philosophical meditations and outright lies based on the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition.” Certainly a curio, though it did originate a few ideas that turned up in Deep Space Nine later on (such as Eelwasser and Slug-o-Cola!)

Doctor Who: Summer Falls & Other Stories

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Originally available as ebooks, this collection contains several stories which tie into episodes of Doctor Who season 7, two of which are presented as in-universe fiction.

Ghostbusters: Ghosts From Our Past

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The book co-written by Erin Gilbery & Abby L. Yates, this guide to the paranormal offers snippets about the characters’ backstory and helpful ghost investigation tips, such as ectoplasm cleanup techniques and a ghost identification guide.

Californication: God Hates Us All

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The novel written by Duchovny’s character Hank Moody in Californication was eventually published just before the start of season two. It’s sub-Bukowski stuff, but fans of the show will probably enjoy it.

Red Dwarf: Survival Manual & Log No. 1996

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Released at the peak of Red Dwarf’s success, these tie-in books offer supplemental Red Dwarf-themed jokes but are only really of interest to collectors at this point. Though if you own them, the current Red Dwarf revival might make now the perfect time to get them on eBay!

Finally, this wasn’t supposed to be an exhaustive list and we’re undoubtedly missing plenty – if you fondly remember any in-universe tie-ins that we’ve forgotten to mention, please feel free to share them with the group…!