'Harry Potter' and the Key to Immortality

Fan fiction represents the power of a loyal, undying readership, and J.K. Rowling would be wise to harness it


Eliezer Yudkowsky

Something was troubling Eliezer Yudkowsky. He wondered: In all seven Harry Potter novels, had anyone actually explained exactly how, scientifically speaking, a household broom could achieve flight? How could Hermione reverse time? How could Dumbledore displace matter at will? No one had. So Yudkowsky began writing.

The Harry Potter in Methods of Rationality, Yudkowsky's ongoing fan-fiction series, bears little resemblance at first to J.K. Rowling’s oblivious orphan. This Harry is the beneficiary of a happy foster home and is a stubbornly devout disciple of science. It’s from this perspective that Yudkowsky approaches Harry’s universe. “Rowling was making up the rules of magic as she went along,” Yudkowsky told me over the phone. “It presents a very unique challenge to a scientist character.”

In one scene, the young skeptic witnesses magic for the first time:

The whole idea of a unified universe with mathematically regular laws, that was what had been flushed down the toilet; the whole notion of physics. Three thousand years of resolving big complicated things into smaller pieces, discovering that the music of the planets was the same tune as a falling apple, finding that the true laws were perfectly universal and had no exceptions anywhere and took the form of simple math governing the smallest parts, not to mention that the mind was the brain and the brain was made of neurons, a brain was what a person was -

And then a woman turned into a cat, so much for all that.

Methods of Rationality caused uproar in the fan fiction community, drawing both condemnations and praise on Harry Potter message boards like DarkLordPotter for its blasphemous—or brilliants—treatment of the canon. Hugo Award-winning science fiction author David Brin said of Methods, “It’s a terrific series, subtle and dramatic and stimulating… I wish all Potter fans would go here, and try on a bigger, bolder and more challenging tale.” Methods of Rationality remains one of the most popular stories on FanFiction.net, with more than 13,000 reviews. But more importantly, it demonstrated extent to which Potter fans have expanded the universe beyond Rowling’s original designs and helped amplify the series' popularity.

Fans like Yudkowsky and the legions of other writers, artists and musicians have put Rowling in the unique position to create Pottermore, the soon-to-open fan portal through which she will effectively hand the reigns of the series to her readers. The 1 million users who registered for the site’s July 31 beta launch will be sorted into one of the Hogwarts houses via online questionnaire. Then, they’ll have the chance to submit their own user-created material in the form of drawings, commentary, and even their own stories. Pottermore will harness the power of fan-generated media to ensure that the world of Harry Potter will not die (and Rowling won’t stop getting paychecks) when the last reel of The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is pulled from theaters.

The phenomenon of "Pottermania" descends from a rich legacy of formal and informal fan movements, from the Deadheads to the KISS Army, whose fanatic devotion kept the legacy of their heroes alive long after they ceased to be relevant or even extant. The KISS Army, from their base in Terre Haute, Indiana, aggressively and successfully promoted concerts and campaigned for radio play across America throughout the '70s and '80s, even threatening to bomb stations if they didn’t play “Strutter.” Today, reading the KISS Kommunity news blog proves more interesting than anything the band has released this decade. Meanwhile, the Dark Star Orchestra continues to bring the Grateful Dead to successive generations of fans. And the image of Trekkies mobbing the local convention center is probably clearer in the public’s mind than any scenes from the original TV show. Then, of course, there’s George Lucas, who in 2002 finally recognized the devotion of his fans with the official Star Wars Fan Film Awards.

Potter fans may give all their forebears real competition when it comes to the level of rabid influence they wield. In the 14-year run of Rowling’s books and movies, “Potter Mania” has gotten almost as much press, if not more, than Rowling’s works themselves. The release of every book and film has been accompanied by stories and photos of Potter fanatics mobbing theaters and bookstores, generating even more discussion on the series’ appeal.

This is how Harry survives, post-Deathly Hallows. Fan fiction writers have created a potentially endless universe, where countless combinations and permutations of characters and story lines spiral off in wild new directions. The range of approaches is staggering. Some stories remain faithful to the original material, choosing to carve out a niche in some unexplored territory. Dumbledore's Army and the Year of Darkness, for example, explores the lives of Hogwarts forgotten B-list characters during the Deathly Hallows as they prepare a revolt against Voldemort. Then there are stories like Methods of Rationality that use the series as a springboard for more-adventurous material. Crossovers with other franchises are common, with Harry making appearances in everything fromIndiana Jones ,Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and X-Men, toGrey’s Anatomy and It’s a Wonderful Life. The death of the series, it seems, will do nothing to stem this phenomenon. HarryPotterFanFiction.com, in defiance of the end, is even holding a new fan fic competition, declaring on their home page, “No, it won't end. We won't allow it!

The Internet has brought about a shift in how authors relate to fan movements, and Rowling has been on the forefront of the change. In the early days of the web, big franchise scribes like Anne Rice (The Vampire Chronicles) and Raymond Feist (The Riftwar Cycle) have tried to keep a lid on fan fiction, requesting that works based on their characters be pulled from websites. Rowling, on the other hand, wisely endorsed the fan fiction phenomenon, provided, of course, that it remained a “non-commercial activity” and steered clear of “x-rated” content. Twilight author Stephenie Meyer has also endorsed her fan fiction phenomenon and the results, in both cases, speak for themselves.

Pottermore may represent the next step in this evolution, bringing amateur, non-sanctioned series spinoffs inside Rowling’s own purview. She has touted Pottermore’s eBooks as its boldest (and most profitable) feature, but where her focus should really be is on the opportunities the website presents to the fan community. Imagine an ever-expanding Potterverse, powered by fans and guided by its author. It would be a much more worthwhile venture than just figuring out new ways to sell the books everyone already owns. In the end, eBooks will be a limited market. It’s through the passion and inventiveness of the readers, though, that Harry and his friends will live on.