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I've been trying to stay away from "definition" posts in this series because I think there are already plenty of fandom dictionaries and encyclopedias floating around the Internet. My problem is that I did a casual search on the term "alternate universe" before I started working on my upcoming posts, and there were a lot of confusing or conflicting definitions. I want to make sure that my readers are on the same page here. For the purposes of this blog series, I'm going to use the definitions that I've been familiar with since way back in the age of the dinosaurs when fanfiction was mostly published in print fanzines. They are not the only valid definitions. They're probably not even the best definitions. They're just the ones I use.
So. What is this thing called AU that I keep talking about?
AU is an abbreviation that stands for "Alternate Universe." Star Trek fans might be familiar with this concept mostly in terms of the Mirror Universe, which we see several times in different incarnations of the franchise starting with the TOS episode "Mirror, Mirror." The premise of the Mirror Universe is pretty simple: "an alternate reality where everything is socially, philosophically, and morally inverted. And Spock has an awesome goatee." The same people exist in roughly the same roles, but for some reason that isn't really explained, the United Federation of Planets is an Evil Empire. And Spock has an awesome goatee. (Yes, it bears repeating.) Star Trek and a number of other sci-fi franchises have also played around with the Many Worlds Interpretation (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qm-manyworlds/) to present episodes that deal with alternate history. The idea there is that for every major decision or event, each possible outcome manifests as a parallel universe or an alternate timeline.
Usually on those episodes, the goal is to restore the timeline or send all the people back to their proper universes. Fanfiction approaches things a little differently. The goal is usually not to have the different realities collide with each other but to present and explore one particular alternate possibility. While the goals of the fanfic writer are usually different from the goals of the television writer, we use the same mechanisms when we dream up our AUs. An AU is usually either an "alternate reality" like the Mirror Universe where the setting is changed in some way but the characters usually fill the same basic roles, or it's an "alternate history" where the setting is relatively stable, but events have unfolded differently, and characters may or may not be filling their canon roles.
So, for the purposes of this blog, AU means "Alternate Universe." It's an umbrella term that encompasses any story that creates a new "version" of the franchise universe where something is significantly different from how it is portrayed on screen or in authorized print.
"Alternate Reality" is a subtype that refers to a changed setting where the entire background is noticably different. In addition to Star Trek's Mirror Universe, I've seen alternate realities that take the characters and put them in high school when their canon counterparts are adults, or that change scifi technology to magic and dragons.
"Alternate History" is another subtype which refers to a stable setting and changed events. Like Qui-Gon not dying in his fight with Darth Maul or Jacob Carter not dying at the end of SG 1 season eight.
Alternate history stories usually exhibit some kind of ripple or butterfly effect as the initial change in canon events creates broader, more far-reaching changes down the road. Alternate histories tend to be the more common kind of AU fanfic, and when most people hear the term AU, this is the kind of story they expect.
The concept of AU tends to be polarizing in fandom. I know people who love them and people who hate them. I don't think I've met anyone who doesn't have an opinion. I've been on both sides of the fence. I'm a Dune fan, and I love the concept of endless possibility, but I've seen a lot of sloppy AU. If you're reading my 100 Things series, you probably found it through my fanfiction, or at least you know that I write AU stories. This next section of the series is designed for either folks who have an idea for an AU but aren't sure they can pull it off or folks who enjoy AU stories and want to learn more about the process of creating them.