Alternate Universes In Fan Fiction (essay)
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The Alternate Universes of Fan Fiction is a paper written by Lynn C. in 1994.
It was presented at the annual conference of the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts, in a session chaired by Jean_Lorrah. Portions were sent to the Virgule-L mailing list and are quoted below with permission. (The rest seems to have been lost.)
In the rest of this paper, I will concentrate on alternate universe slash stories, which are stories in which the setting is different from the source show's setting: for example, a Professionals AU might use Regency England instead of Thatcher's England. AU stories are particularly interesting since they are profuse in some fandoms and not in others; and they beg the question of what they give the readers and writers that the
original universe in the source show doesn't offer.
The concept of the AU in fanfic probably stems from the classic Trek episode "Mirror, Mirror," in which Kirk and friends are accidentally beamed into a universe in which the Federation is a militant and repressive Empire, and the familiar characters all have their evil counterparts. The interaction between the evil Spock and the good Kirk and McCoy is particularly interesting: Kirk doesn't want to have to kill Spock when Spock finds out they are not who they seem, because, as McCoy acknowledges, he is much like their own Spock. The good Spock later points out that Kirk and his friends were able to pretend to be evil and uncivilized since they have that side to their characters, echoing the episode "The Enemy Within," where Kirk is split into good and evil halves, neither of which can survive for long without reintegration. The implicit premise in "Mirror, Mirror" seems to be that given an environment like the militaristic, cruel Empire, the characters would have been evil and treacherous as well, as products of their environment.
The Mirror universe and the Mirror Kirk and Spock have provided a lot of slash fuel. Mirror AUs either show the original Kirk and Spock interacting with the Mirror ones, or deal solely with the Mirror ones. Frequently Mirror stories are very violent and feature rapes and enslavement; one fan complained in the K/S letterzine "On the Double," that they are "harsh, rough, and deal a lot with mayhem" (OTD 10, p.26). Alexis Fegan Black's story "Though This Be Madness" (Naked Times #2) features the Mirror Spock breaking through to the source universe and raping Kirk in his cabin. Kirk, who is in love with his first officer but hasn't approached him about it, notices things about this Spock that are different, but does not realize for several pages who is attacking him. It is when he remembers that the Mirror Spock forcibly mind-melded (metaphor for mental rape) with McCoy in "Mirror, Mirror" that he realizes who he is dealing with, and he gives in to arousal. He thinks to himself, "I wish it were you, Spock... But you ARE Spock." The evil Spock explains later to the good Spock that he has been called there to rape Kirk by the desire the good Spock feels but won't act on; and the evil Spock convinces him that he must act on it or suffer pointlessly from his repression. The theme here is clearly that the Mirror universe allows fulfillment of dark desires that cannot be expressed comfortably in the source show's universe.
Della Van Hise's "A Question of Balance" is a novel continuing that story, which combines another K/S AU type, the love-slave universe, into the Mirror universe story. In it, the evil Spock and the good Spock must join forces to rescue their respective Kirks from pre-Reform Vulcan (cf. Amok Time), by travelling back in time through the Guardian of Forever (cf. City on the Edge of Forever). In Vulcan's past they find the good Kirk enslaved by the evil Kirk, neither of them remembering their original universes or history. Through a misunderstanding, the evil Spock ends up paired with the good Kirk and the good Spock with the evil Kirk. After several sex scenes involving telepathic bonding, including a menage a trois, the memories are returned and the rightful pairs are established.
Other slightly more progressive slave and Mirror stories present Kirk struggling against his subjugation: in "Those Who Dare," by Marcella Belton, an enslaved Kirk rebels against Spock and finds love in the arms of a Romulan Vice Consul. In '"The Prize," by Ray Newton, Spock never rapes his slave Kirk, and they both realize they need each other and want a balanced, equal relationship (although Kirk remains a slave in a golden collar at the end of the story).
By far the predominant AUs in K/S are the mirror ones and the love-slave scenario, although there are a few other AU types. Not all AUs involve the characters from the source universe travelling to a parallel universe. The possibility of time travel in Trek gives access to other periods in Earth history and also alternate time lines, as in Leslie Fish's "The Weight." Other types of AUs involve no connection to the source universe at all. For example, "Sojourns," by Jean Hinson, features the "past lives" of Kirk and Spock on earth, including featuring them as Alexander and Hephaistion. "Sea Thief," by Vivian Gates, presents Kirk and Spock as pirates. It seems to be accepted, however, that AUs portray the characters as if they had been born in another universe, and therefore subtly changed. A review of Alexis Fegan Black's "Crossroads" says that it presents Kirk in another universe, where he "meets a man by the name of Michael, a man who would have been Spock if he'd been born in another place and time" (OTD #10, p.23). "The Weight" presents characters that Kirk and Spock would have been, if they'd been anarchists and female in another universe. A fan says of Gayle F.'s "Dancing On the Edge" that her AU version of Spock as a dancer worked because "Spock's grace of movement is one of the most attractive things about him, and choreography would suit his mind" (OTD #6, p.21).
Interestingly, in Professionals fanfic there is a takeoff on the '"Mirror, Mirror" idea in K/S, a story called "Looking Glass World," by Ellis Ward. Amusingly, in this story Doyle recognizes that their excursion into the parallel world is like an episode of Star Trek! Rather than making the Mirror universe simply nastier than the source universe, Ward presents a set of characters with a slightly harder edge, reminiscent of their characterization in other Professionals fanfic. In the Mirror world, Bodie and Doyle are gay, while in the real world they are not. Furthermore, the Mirror Bodie explains that he sleeps with Cowley to keep Cowley on his good side; this is a reference to other fan literature that pairs Bodie with their supervisor. In the course of the story, the Mirror Bodie takes sexual advantage of the real Doyle who has been kidnapped and brainwashed into becoming a hustler (Doyle as prostitute is another fannish cliche). The Mirror Bodie ultimately redeems himself by helping the real Bodie recover Doyle and escape from the Mirror universe. The function of the interaction with the Mirror universe characters again seems to be to make the characters in the real (i.e., source) universe recognize their attraction and the possibility of a relationship between them.
Professionals fanfic has incredible numbers of AUs; usually the source universe and the AU setting aren't connected directly via rifts in the time-space continuum or other science fictional devices: the AUs just present Bodie and Doyle in another reality entirely. Doyle is an elf in "The Descent to Humanity" and many other stories; Bodie and Doyle live in Regency England in "Bird in a Gilded Cage" by Meg Lewtan; "Bodie's Luck" takes place in CJ Cherryh's Downbelow Station science fiction universe; in Pam Rose's "Arabian Nights," Doyle is a clerk in Arabia who gets kidnapped by a Bodie who is an Arabian prince; in Lois Welling's "Whisper of a Kill," we meet a Bodie who is still a mercenary and has come to kill the head of CI5, but decides to join it instead; in Courtney Gray's "Night Moves," Bodie is a male prostitute; in HG's "Rainbow Chasers," Doyle is a male prostitute and later a rich businessman. The list goes on.
One particularly interesting AU is Pam Rose's "Professional Dreamer," inspired by the film American Dreamer; in Professional Dreamer, we meet Raymond Dibble, a curly-haired, green-eyed librarian, who is a great fan of a series of spy novels about Bodie and Doyle, written by one Philip Andrew, ex-spy and mercenary. We are presented with a description of Doyle from one of Andrew's novels, and it is a masterpiece of fannish cliche: "Ray Doyle was an alleycat of a man. Skinny and sleek, quick and sharp. His hair curled wildly, hopelessly mussed at times, brown with ginger-red highlights that caught the eye unexpectedly. The green eyes were even more catlike than the lithe body; wide and tilted exotically in the piquant face, ... they were both eternally suspicious and ingenuous all at once." Andrew, whose favorite character is Doyle, spends less time on Bodie in his novels, who is clearly himself; Dibble the librarian frets over wanting more scenes with Bodie. In the main text, Rose says, "Dibble couldn't perceive Bodie's total acceptance of his partner's off-and-on again affection, laying it rightly to the author's partiality. Certainly most of the books were full of Doyle. His likes, his dislikes, his bad temper and his wide idealistic streak. Always it was Doyle undercover, Doyle being hurt and tortured and falling in love with evil women and being hurt, with Bodie left to pick up the pieces of his partner's shattered heart and battered idealism." This is a sly reference to fanfiction which often focuses on Doyle and treats Bodie as his faithful smitten sidekick; and also it sets up the novel so that we know that Andrew is in love with his own creation, since we know he is also Bodie in his own fiction. During the course of the novel, Dibble is bumped on the head and wakes up thinking he is Doyle, and tracks down Andrew, who he thinks is Bodie. As they get to know one another past the handicap of Dibble thinking he is Doyle, the personality differences between Doyle and Dibble become clear, and ultimately Andrew and Dibble love each other for who they are. When they make love the first time, Andrew realizes that maybe this is what he wanted for the characters in his books, but hadn't been able to recognize it---which is a fannish comment on the source shows not offering the actual love, while they offer the context for it.
In contrast with Professionals and K/S, Blake's 7 lacks AUs for the most part. There are several possible explanations for this. To even get the characters in bed together requires a lot of work within the source universe, given the unhappy conclusion to the series (in which Avon kills Blake, and Avon and his crew are gunned down by Federation guards). Hence, many Blake's 7 stories revolve around the "fixing" premise, or reinterpreting the source show, usually by invalidating the aired events in some way. For example, fans of Avon/Vila [pairing] must cope with the fact that Avon tried to throw Vila out of the airlock over Malodaar when the shuttle couldn't escape the planet's gravity. "Last Stand at the Edge of the Universe" by Ann Wortham and Leah Rosenthal is a 5th season story in which Avon and Vila survive the shootout in the last aired episode, and it is revealed that Avon acted erratically for the last season because he had been drugged. A lot of stories feature both Blake and Avon surviving the carnage at the end, followed by Blake having to forgive Avon for shooting him and Avon having to forgive himself (which is usually harder than the former!). (See, e.g., "Reaching for Death," by Natasha Solten (Resistance 2).) In "Absolution," by Dovya Blacque (Resistance 1), it is revealed that Avon killed the clone Blake, not the real Blake. The mindwipe (or brainwashing) which is used in the aired episode "Terminal" to convince Avon that Blake is alive, is used in much fanfic to invalidate parts of the series: fans can reject the killing and resort to the old "it was all a dream" excuse, like in Susan Matthews proto-slash "Mind of Man" trilogy.
So why are AUs so prevalent in some fanfic? What do AUs offer readers that the original settings don't? Penley (1992) references Laplanche and Pontalis (1968) on "Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality," noting that setting is integral to fantasy. An AU may offer an alternate setting, giving the writer a chance to try role playing with the characters. For some fans, the setting of the orginal show is not intriguing enough for the erotic fantasy to work; one fan says she doesn't like Professionals stories set in the CI5 universe because spy stories bore her, but she happily reads the AUs. Others propose that AUs offer more plot options than the original setting alone provides. As Penley notes, the subject may identify with a number of different positions in the fantasy, and even in a "de-subjectivized form, that is, 'in the very syntax' of the fantasy sequence." AUs clearly allow a greater variety of possible syntaxes than the source universe does.
Other functions of AUs are the option for scenarios like rape, which can be excused if committed by evil Mirror characters, but not so easily excused if committed by characters fans know and love. In "Variations On a Theme" (Valerie Piacentini and Sheila Clark) we are presented with an AU Kirk who has been raped and abused by an evil AU Spock; Kirk has been rescued and rehabilitated by the good Spock, but we are given reminder after reminder of the treatment Kirk endured, which clearly serves an erotic purpose, while simultaneously being rejected as inappropriate: in fact the evil Spock was killed by the good Spock for his behavior. The sheer number of AUs (and even non-AUs) with rape and s&m and dominance games between the characters leads me to dismiss Penley's (1992) and Lamb and Vieth's (1985) argument that slash is feminist retelling of relationships as equal, balanced, androgynous romances. This is not a fiction that is utopian, it is a fiction that expresses erotic needs, as Russ (1985) points out. AUs allow fulfillment of some of those needs, and in K/S certainly the AUs are dark and violent.
So why are there few explicit AUs in Blake's 7 fanfic? I propose that there isn't need for the Mirror style of AUs because the source universe is already a dark one. Furthermore, since the characters in the source universe aren't acting on their attraction in any obvious way in the TV show, reinterpreting their universe as a lighter one provides the characters with some room for romance. For some fans, in fact, the revisionist versions of the show (with Blake and Avon living happily ever after) feel like AUs. This is probably because the happy ending stories are fulfilling a similar purpose as the Mirror ones do in KS: that of allowing the characters to escape the constraints of their source universe and explore their attraction for one another.
But not all AUs are about Mirror characters; why aren't there any AUs for Blake's 7 that simply transport them to another historical time period, for instance? One possibility is that since the show is a serial that builds towards a tragic end, the characters cannot be easily separated from their universe and the events that define their personalities. Susan C. remarks (p.c.) that AU settings usually provide a new source of tension between the characters via new plot devices, and that there is no reason to move Blake and Avon into another universe for tension. In a different political climate, they would be very different people, and they would have a different sort of relationship.
Professionals has relatively few Mirror type AUs---the Ellis Ward stories are the only ones I know of. I suspect that the Professionals universe is simply flexible enough to allow Mirror style characterization of the source characters if the writer wants: the "Consequences" rape stories are a fine example of Mirror type nastiness within the setting of the source show. "Consequences," is rumored to have been written as an anti-slash story. It proposes that Bodie, the ex-mercenary character, rapes his partner Doyle, and Doyle likes it. The fan who wrote this apparently believed any romantic relationship between the two macho, insensitive characters was impossible and wrote it to "prove" it. The story has sparked more fannish debate and sequels than any other in Professionals fandom. Some writers, who enjoyed the rape scenario, pursued the relationship as a dysfunctional one with more rapes following. Other writers tried to "fix" the characters as presented, by having Doyle receive counselling, for instance; while yet others tried to invalidate the entire premise, by arguing that Bodie and Doyle could not work together if Bodie were prone to rape any man at the least provocation. Alternative characterizations generally strike readers as AUish in tone, which makes sense according to the history of AUs in K/S. One fan says of the flexible characterization in Blake's 7, "It's really more a matter of whether the characters feel right to me than whether the setting does. [...] The story can be set in the universe and still be so far away from the characters as I see them that I never get that feeling of reading about Blake and Avon." The same argument may easily be applied to some Pros stories.
In sum: AUs allow alternate characterizations, notably exploration of the dark side of the characters; they also offer new settings which provide new sources of conflict between the characters or added interest for the reader. Blake's 7 doesn't have explicit Mirror universes because the characters are relatively dark and tension-ridden in the original universe. Characterization of the Professionals is loose enough that the characters may be portrayed as dark and violent or as romantic and sweet. The Professionals characters are also detachable enough from their source setting for complete AU settings to work, unlike the characters in B7.However, AUs that depart entirely from the source universe (i.e., in historical settings, or parallel universes with no contact with the source universe) are interesting to the readers only as long as the characters presented retain enough traits of the original characters to be recognizable. So while there is expected difference due to the different settings, there is a concomitant tension in the need to be related interestingly to the source characters. Ideally, the reader should be reading about personality aspects of the characters in the source show, as seen through a different universe's filter. Hence, the AU writer must work hard to create plausible interpretations of the characters within that setting. This work is ultimately a community activity, since the the community negotiates over what is plausible, through criticism and by writing stories in response to stories.