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|Trope · Genre|
|Synonyms:||AU, Alternative Reality, Altiverse, Alternate Reality, Alterniverse|
|Related:||Uber, Canon AU, fusion, constructed reality, crack, crossover, Mirror Universe, What If|
|See Also:||Shared Universe|
|Tropes · Slash Tropes · Tropes by Fandom|
|Click here for related articles on Fanlore.|
Alternate Universe (often abbreviated as "AU") is a descriptor used to characterize fanworks which change one or more elements of the source work's canon. The term most often refers to fanfic, but fanart can also invoke AU tropes (for example, steampunk versions of universes). Constructed reality, a term used in Vidding, is essentially the visual counterpart to AUs in written fanfic.
AUs: An Introduction
AU fanworks cover a great deal of creative territory. The most strictly defined AUs may diverge from their source canons in a single specific way (for example, a Star Wars AU in which the first Death Star is not destroyed, a Merlin AU in which Merlin comes to Camelot as an agent of Nimueh, or a Castle AU in which Johanna Beckett was not murdered). More broadly, an AU may transplant a given source work's characters to a radically different setting, shift the genre in which their adventures occur, and/or alter their professions and goals, such as those popularized in the Xena: Warrior Princess "Uber" genre. Fortunately for purposes of classification, a large proportion of AU fanworks fall into recognizable subgroups.
Nor is the concept of AUs restricted to fanworks. A growing number of commercial story-universes have incorporated AU elements to one degree or another in the source canon itself, and some of these have developed specific fan followings of their own. Among the most notable are comics publishers including DC (Elseworlds) and Marvel (What If...?), Star Trek (as early as TOS, in the episode Mirror, Mirror, and more recently with its Myriad Universes anthologies), and Supernatural (episodes in which supernatural creatures put Dean and Sam in various alternate universes, including one where they're swapped with actors Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki).
It's generally agreed that the most effective AUs are those in which -- even in the most radically changed circumstances -- the transplanted characters are clearly recognizable in relation to their canonical counterparts. However, there is much controversy in fandom as to what makes such characters recognizable and precisely when an AU deviates so far from canon that it effectively becomes original fiction -- at which point it may no longer be considered "proper" fanfic, and may no longer appeal to fan audiences.  
AU fanworks are notable for allowing fans to stretch themselves creatively and to engage in flights of fancy. They may also serve to promote fandoms with small canons, to present the writer's views regarding canon-related controversies, and/or to provide social commentary related either to the source canon or to some aspect of the AU being presented.
Categorizing AUs is complicated by the fact that over time, different naming conventions have been used by different fandoms and fan groups. For example, some fans use alternate reality to describe stories that diverge from source canon at a specific point, while others use the same phrase to describe stories that drop characters from their source canons into an entirely different milieu. Likewise, the 1990s saw an effort made to adopt "extended universe" to describe narrowly divergent stories and to limit "AU" to describing more radically divergent works. (Not surprisingly, it didn't take.)
- AC - alternate characterization
- AL - alternate life
- AS - alternate setting
- AT - alternate timeline
Another taxonomy discussed differences between types of fanworks characterized as AUs or ARs especially pertaining to canons that themselves already include alternate realities and alternate timelines, such as Stargate and Star Trek, distinguishing between fanworks set in:
- AR - alternate reality, such as ones shown in various episodes of Stargate, Star Trek, and other shows (e.g. Mirrorverse, Mensaverse, Supernatural's The French Mistake verse). (Closely related to the canon reality and canonically crossing over with the canon reality.)
- AT - alternate timeline, such as ones shown in the SG-1 episode Moebius and in the reboot Star Trek film. (Canonic offshoots created by manipulating the timeline of the prime canon reality.)
- AU - alternate universe. (Not referenced in canon, purely transformative works that widely diverge from canon with alternate settings for the canon characters.)
"Canon AU" has two common definitions:
- an AU that originates within the commercial source work itself. Examples include
Star Trek's "mirror-verse"
The "Wishverse" from Buffy
The universe of "The Cordy Show" from Angel S3
The "Djinnverse," "It's a Terrible Life (Smith/Wesson)" verse, or "The French Mistake" verse from Supernatural
The Mensaverse or Vegasverse from Stargate Atlantis)
The "Alt-Clark" universe without Lois Lane from Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
- a fanwork AU that diverges relatively narrowly from that of its source work. For example, in Merlin fandom, "canon AU" is used to describe works set in the show's medieval time frame, distinguishing them from "modern AU" works.
Fanworks based on source-canon AUs may be labeled in various ways as well, sometimes using source-canon episode titles (as listed above), and sometimes coining new terms. In Stargate Atlantis fandom, Mensaverse or Mensa AU denotes works spun off from the episode "McKay and Mrs. Miller", while in Xena fandom, Conqueror tags stories set in the world of the Hercules episode "Armageddon Now".
Fusions -- works in which two (or more) fictional universes are condensed into one -- are sometimes considered a special case of AU; more often, they're considered a subtype of their own, standing between AUs and crossovers.
While the Hollywood-coined term "reboot" -- popularized in connection with Star Trek XI (2009), which went to great lengths to characterize itself as existing in a parallel timeline to that of Star Trek: The Original Series -- often arguably describes an AU version of a previous source work, fandom has not generally adopted the term either as a descriptor for fanworks or of the fandoms arising from commercial reboots.
In some cases, an AU fanwork can become popular enough that its readers are inspired to create additional works in the same setting. This can result in a "shared universe" consisting of anywhere from a handful of stories to hundreds. (This usage of the phrase differs somewhat from that of professional writers working in "shared world" settings such as the Wild Cards or Thieves' World books.)
UAs are very similar to AUs, but instead mean "Universe Alterations". Unlike canon divergence, UAs are set in the canon universe, but with "alterations", as the name suggests. For example, a character is born younger, a certain things exist in an otherwise-unchanged universe, etc.
While AUs exist in nearly infinite variety, a high proportion can be grouped into recognizable subtypes, with examples that can be found in a variety of fandoms. Among these are:
- All Human AU
- Animal Transformation (or Anthropomorfic)
- Elf AU
- Genderswap AU
- Magical Girl AU
- Noir Detective AU
- Pirate AU
- Pornstar AU
- Royalty AU
- Superpowers AU
- Vampire AU (or Werewolf AU)
- Barista AU
- BDSM AU
- Fairy Tale AU
- Fandom AU
- Harlequin AU
- Harry Potter AU
- High school or College AUs
- Hunger Games AU
- Mundane AU
- Prison AU
- Space AU
- Band AU
AUs in Japanese fandoms
AU-type stories are common in Japanese doujinshi as well, often featuring characters recast as high school students or animals. Some animanga canons include AUs as well. The One Piece anime has several specials which portray the cast as superheroes and supervillains, or denizens of a Tokugawa-era Japanese town. Kazuya Minekura wrote Executive Committee, a silly high school AU of her manga Wild Adapter.
- Alternate Universes In Fan Fiction (essay) by Lynn C. (1994)
- AUs, and You! by taraljc (1999)
- Alternative Ain't Necessarily Good by Lena W. Jones (2000)
- AU's, and You! When is an alternate universe not an alternate universe by ljc (2000)
- How to Construct Alternate Universes that Work as Fanfic by Rat Creature (2001)
- The AUness of It All by James Walkswithwind (2003)
- Of Alternate Universe Fics and Their Nature; archive link by jessicaqueen (2005)
- Presumptions of Heterosexuality - Mo's Journal, Archived version (July 2005)
- Why AUs don't work for me; archive link by zebra363 (2005)
- AU and You by penknife (2007)
- Happy 2009! post by cofax, includes "And now, it's time for some rambling meta about AUs." section, more material in comments. (2009)
- What's In An AU? by yourlibrarian, more meta in comments. (2010)
- Merlin AUs (and why I don't like them); archive link by Jane Elliot (2010)
- Alternate Universe Big Bang
- Leave No Soul Behind, example of a not-really-AU story set in an alternate reality of the canonical alternate timeline of the reboot Star Trek universe.
- See Category:Merlin AU for a list of AU stories and art in Merlin fandom
- Marian Through the Looking Glass An epic Robin Hood (BBC 2006) fic in which two alternate realities are explored.
- Alters #6: Supernatural by vito-excalibur, Sam and Dean are black
- Doctor Who/Peanuts fusion by jigglykat
- The Horcruxers, by Glockgal, an Harry Potter/The Avengers fusion
- Kittyhawk by Pentapus, a Wright brothers SGA/SG-1 AU
- Noir by Odella, film noir AU with the Order of the Phoenix is a private investigation agency
- We Are Floating in Space by steammmpunk, Merlin/Arthur Space Cowboys AU
- The Winchester sisters by ileliberte, SPN genderswap
- The Palace of Eternity by nix_this, illustrations for an AU Star Trek story loosely based on Milton's Paradise Lost
Comments by Fans
Why do AUs, so many of them just seem like they were written to get the guys in different costumes. I firmly believe in fun role-playing, and fantasizing about what B and D would be like in a Victorian London setting seems like perfectly harmless fun to me. Obviously, as I said, it requires some work to make them recognizable and to make the plot interesting. I see the point of an AU to be having events happen that couldn't happen in the standard CI5 or Federation setting.And for all those republicans out there who say "but I LIKE the CI5 universe" or "the Federation is so cool", ask yourselves how often do slash stories ever really use the original universe to good effect? Stories that get the lads to a cabin in the woods, away from their standard setting, are propping up my bookcases by the zillions. At least when someone scribbles an AU, there is some energy and thought going into setting and plot, rather than just "who gets the bed, heh heh," and "the heat doesn't seem to be working, fancy that."
- Lena W. Jones. Alternative Ain't Necessarily Good. Posted 9 July 2000. (Accessed 2 October 2008)
- RatCreature. How to construct Alternate Universes that work as fanfic. Posted January 2001. (Accessed 2 October 2008)
- James Walkswithwind. The AUness of it All. Posted 4 February 2003. (Accessed 2 October 2008)
- What's in an au post by yourlibrarian, Sep. 30th, 2010. (Accessed 21 March 2011)
- which I'm having trouble finding again, will continue to hunt
- Interview with Star Trek XI writer Bob Orci
- comment by Lynn C at Virgule-L (quoted with permission), October 9, 1993.