Shared universe

Shared universe

A shared universe is a literary technique in which several different authors create works of fiction that share aspects such as settings or characters and that are intended to be read as taking place in a single universe. This can be contrasted with collaborative writing, in which multiple authors work on a single story. Shared universes are more common within fantasy and science fiction than in other genres. The Star Trek, DC Universe, Marvel Universe, Forgotten Realms and Star Wars franchises are examples.

There is no formalized definition of when the appearance of fictional characters in another author's work constitutes a shared universe. Fiction in some media, such as most television programs and many comic book titles, is understood to require the contribution of multiple authors and does not by itself create a shared universe. Incidental appearances, such as that of d'Artagnan in "Cyrano de Bergerac", may instead be considered literary cameos. More substantial interaction between characters from different sources is often marketed as a crossover. While crossovers occur in a shared universe, not all crossovers are intended to merge their settings' back-stories and are instead used for marketing, parody, or to explore what-if scenarios. [cite book |publisher=University Press of Mississippi |date=Mar 1994 |id ISBN=978-0878056941 |title=Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology |author=Reynolds, Richard] [cite book |title=Comics & Culture: analytical and theoretical approaches to comics |author=Magnussen, Anne and Hans-christian Christiansen, eds. |publisher=Museum Tusculanum Press |date=Apr 2000 |id=ISBN 978-8772895802]

The term has also been used in a wider, non-literary sense to convey interdisciplinary [cite journal |title=Contingencies of Professional Differentiation |author=Smith, Harvey L. |journal=The American Journal of Sociology |date=Jan 1958 |volume=63 |issue=4 |pages=410 |doi=10.1086/222264] or social commonality, [cite journal |title=Repetition in Conversation: Toward a Poetics of Talk |author=Tannen, Deborah |date=1987 |journal=Language |issue=63 |volume=63 |pages=574 |doi=10.2307/415006] often in the context of a "shared universe of discourse."


The modern definition of copyright, especially under United States copyright law, considers the expansion of a previous work's setting or characters to be a derivative work. [cite web |title=Copyright Registration for Derivative Works |author=U.S. Copyright Office |date=Jul 2006 |url= |accessdate=2007-06-14] [cite journal |title=Legal Fictions: Copyright, Fan Fiction, and A New Common Law |author=Tushnet, R. |journal=Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Review |volume=17 |issue=3 |pages=651–686 |date=1997] Especially for material being considered for publication, this often necessitates licensing agreements. [cite web |title=Copyright Licenses and Assignments |publisher=BitLaw |author=Tysver, Daniel A. |url= |accessdate=2007-06-14] For this reason, some fan fiction and other amateur works written in established settings without permission, are sometimes distinguished from shared universe writings or even described as a "stolen universe". [cite web |last=Blackmoor |first=Brandon |title=FAQ: What is a "shared universe"? |publisher=RPG Library |url= |accessdate=2007-01-14] However, fair use claims have been raised, [cite journal |title=Everyone's a Superhero: A Cultural Theory of 'Mary Sue' Fan Fiction as Fair Use |author=Chander, Anupam and Madhavi Sunder |journal=California Law Review |volume=95 |pages=597 |date=2007] and not all authors believe that fan fiction should be distinguished from other literature in this manner at all. [cite web |title=“Fanfic”: force of nature |author=Nielsen Hayden, Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden |work=Making Light |date=2006-04-25 |url= |accessdate=2007-06-14] In a process similar to brand licensing, the intellectual property owners of established fictional settings at times allow others to author new material, creating an expanded universe. Such franchises, generally based on television programs or film, allow for series of novels, video games, original sound recordings and other media. Not all shared universe settings are simply the expansion or combination of pre-existing material by new authors. At times, an author or group of authors has created a setting specifically for development by multiple authors, often through collaboration. Especially when a shared universe grows to include a large number of works, it becomes difficult for writers to maintain an internally consistent continuity and to avoid contradicting details in earlier works. The version that is deemed official by the author or company controlling the setting is known as canon. Not all shared universes have a controlling entity capable of or willing to determine canonicity, and not all fans agree with these determinations when they occur. [cite book |title=Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers |author=Pustz, Matthew |publisher=University Press of Mississippi |date=1999] A fanon may instead find some degree of consensus within the setting's fandom. [cite journal |title=All Shapes of Hunger: Teenagers and Fanfiction |journal=Voya |author=Moore, Rebecca C. |date=Apr 2005] Some writers, in an effort to ensure that a canon can be established and to keep details of the setting believable, employ tools to correct contradictions and errors that result from multiple contributors working over a long period of time. One such tool is retconning, short for "retroactive continuity", where later adjustments result in the invalidation of previously-written material. [cite journal |title=Retcon Tricks |journal=Star Trek Monthly Magazine |author=Jones, Nick |date=Feb 2002 |pages=18–21] The most severe form of retcon involves a wholesale rewrite of the groundwork for the entire setting. These reboots, most closely associated with DC Comics, are not always effective at resolving underlying problems and may meet with a negative reaction from fans. [cite web |last=Tipton |first=Scott |title=And Then There Was One |publisher=Movie Poop Shoot |date=2003-04-23 |url= |accessdate=2007-01-14] Contributors to expanded universes, also known as tie-in writers, have sometimes been stereotyped as "hacks" because such writing is perceived as less creative or of consistently poor quality. [cite web |title=Are Tie-In Writers Hacks? |publisher=The International Association of Media Tie-In Writers |url= |accessdate=2007-06-14] These stereotypes have been disputed by authors who consider contributing to a larger setting "intellectually demanding." [cite web |title=Sprinting the Marathon |author=Traviss, Karen |publisher=Emerald City |url= |date=Mar 2006 |accessdate=2007-06-14]

Readers may also object when a story or series is integrated into a shared universe, feeling it "requir [es] one hero's fans to buy other heroes' titles"cite journal |title="Blown To Atoms or Reshaped At Will": Recent Books About Comics |author=Burt, Stephen |journal=College Literature |date=Winter 2005 |volume=32 |pages=166 |doi=10.1353/lit.2005.0004] or leads to mischaracterizations and inappropriate comparisons. [cite web |title=Cronin Theory of Comics - It Doesn’t Matter If Bronze Tiger Can Beat You Up |author=Cronin, Brian |url= |accessdate=2007-06-14 |date=2006-09-11 |work=Comics Should Be Good |publisher=Comic Book Resources]

Expansion of existing material

In 1941, writer Gardner Fox at All-American Comics (later part of DC Comics) created the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics #3, credited with being the first superhero team-up and laying the groundwork for the DC Universe, the first comic book shared universe. [cite web |last=Tipton |first=Scott |title=Strength in Numbers |publisher=Movie Poop Shoot |date=2004-07-14 |url= |accessdate=2007-01-10] By 1961, Marvel Comics writer and editor Stan Lee, working with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, merged the bulk of the publisher's comics characters into the Marvel Universe. Both settings have suffered from the creative difficulties of maintaining a complex shared universe handled by large numbers of writers and editors. DC has substantially altered its in-universe chronology several times, in series such as "Crisis on Infinite Earths" in 1985, "Zero Hour" in 1994, and "Infinite Crisis" in 2005. As of 2007, Marvel has rebooted its continuity only once, in . They instead set stories in an increasing number of alternate realities, each with an assigned number in a greater multiverse.cite book |title=Marvel Encyclopedia Volume 6: Fantastic Four |publisher=Marvel Comics |date=2004-11-24 |id=ISBN 978-0785114802] DC and Marvel have also periodically co-published series in which their respective characters meet and interact. These intercompany crossovers have typically been written as self-limiting events that avoid implying that the DC Universe and Marvel Universe co-exist. Exceptions include 24 comics released under the metafictional imprint Amalgam Comics in 1996, depicting a shared universe populated by hybridizations of the two companies' characters. Marvel has since referred to this as part of its setting's greater multiverse by labeling it Earth-692.

The "Star Wars" franchise takes a unique view regarding the canon properties of its expanded universe, introducing a four-tier system based on compatibility with the six films. "Star Trek" canon is less well-defined, generally excluding not only licensed works such as books and video games and acknowledging that "even events in some of the movies have been called into question". [cite web |title=What is considered Star Trek "canon"? |url= |accessdate=2006-11-25] Furthermore, both franchises have blurred the lines between canon and non-canon content by adopting unofficial material into later official productions. [cite web |title="Star Wars": Planets |last=Saxton |first=Curtis |url= |date=2005-10-22 |accessdate=2007-01-12] [cite web |title="Star Trek: The Animated Series" |url= |accessdate=2006-01-09] The shared universe of "Doctor Who" licensed fiction is particularly complex due to the permissive stance on licensing and canon taken by the BBC. Contradictory material has appeared in various media, including novels, comics, and audio dramas, dividing the Whoniverse into competing subsets that vary from source to source, such as the Big Finish universe, the New Adventures universe, or a universe based on Marvel Comics appearances. [cite web |title=Gary Russell two |publisher=BBC |url= |date=2004-01-01 |accessdate=2007-01-14] Reviewer Robert F.W. Smith attempted to summarize the conflicting continuities: [cite web |last=Smith |first=Robert F.W. |title=The Gallifrey Chronicles |url= |publisher=Outpost Gallifrey |accessdate=2007-01-13] quote|As far as I understand it, the situation is this: the New Adventures universe is inside the bottle universe seen in "", which was built by BBC universe Time Lords, and in it, the NA Time Lords are all gone – they’ve gone to another bottle and left the NA universe to the Gods/Kings of Space. Most of the New Adventures happened in the BBC universe anyway, except in that universe, the 7th Doctor was the reincarnation of the Other and Rassilon escaped to roam the universe – in the BBC universe, he may or may not have been, and Rassilon probably didn’t. In the BBC universe, Faction Paradox, the Doctor and the Enemy between them have vaped the Time Lords, with the result that there are no longer any Time Lords in the BBC universe, except for five, the fundamental laws of the universe (the magic-and-science thing) have changed, and the Doctor is no longer a Time Lord at all originally but a crystal man named Soul from the end of time. Also in the BBC universe, an infinity of different universes have been released, which helpfully explains how all the shock companion-killings in the novels ever since "Eternity Weeps" either did or didn’t happen in our universe, according to whatever criteria you like, but Gallifrey didn’t survive in any of them. Despite this, Gallifrey will still be rebuilt in the BBC universe in some form, but it will presumably be much less powerful because it will now be a planet without the original’s special relationship with time, and it won’t have always been there. Where the Big Finish audios fit in is anybody’s guess; the new series can just about be assumed to follow on from the end of "The Gallifrey Chronicles", even though the Doc says he’s a Time Lord – not a crystal man from the end of time – in the second episode. There. Even Smith's summary does not address spin-offs such as the Bernice Summerfield novels and the Faction Paradox series that are legally distinct from the origins of their characters in officially licensed novels.

The expansion of existing material into a shared universe is not restricted to settings licensed from movies and television. For example, Larry Niven opened his Known Space setting to other writers initially because he considered his lack of military experience to prevent him from adequately describing the wars between mankind and the Kzinti. [cite web |author=Scribner, Ted et al. |title=Novel Collaborations |url= |accessdate=2007-01-13] The degree to which he has made the setting available for other writers became a topic of controversy, when Elf Sternberg created an erotic short story set in Known Space following an author's note from Niven indicating that " [i] f you want more Known Space stories, you'll have to write them yourself". [cite book |title=The Ringworld Engineers |author=Niven, Larry |publisher=Holt, Rinehart and Winston |date=1980] Niven has since clarified that his setting is still to be used only "under restricted circumstances and with permission", [cite web |title=Ladies and Gentlemen, Dr. Larry Niven |publisher=Slashdot |date=2003-03-10 |accessdate=2007-01-13 |url=] which Niven granted to the several authors of the Man-Kzin Wars series. By contrast, author Eric Flint has edited and published collaborations with fan fiction writers directly, expanding his 1632 series. [cite web |title=1632: About this Site |author=Eves, David |date=Sep 2005 |url= |accessdate=2007-06-14]

A setting may also be expanded in a similar manner after the death of its creator, although this posthumous expansion does not meet some strict definitions of a shared universe. One such example is August Derleth's development of the Cthulhu Mythos from the writings of H. P. Lovecraft, an approach whose result is considered by some to be "completely dissimilar" to Lovecraft's own works. [cite web |last=Tierney |first=Richard L. |title=The Derleth Mythos |publisher=Nightscapes |date=2004-09-09 |url= |accessdate=2007-01-14] Less controversial posthumous expansions include Ruth Plumly Thompson's and later authors' sequels to L. Frank Baum's Oz stories and the further development of Isaac Asimov's Foundation universe by Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, and David Brin. [cite web |title=Following Asimov's Foundation |publisher=Cyberhaven |date=1999 |url= |accessdate=2007-06-14]

Original settings

Although DC and Marvel's successful shared universe approaches to comics have set them apart from competitors in the industry,cite web |last=Fowler |first=Brant W. |title=Myth Conceptions: 'Summer Blockbusters' |publisher=Silver Bullet Comics |date=2006-06-05 |url= |accessdate=2007-01-10] other companies attempted similar models. Valiant Comics and Crossgen both produced titles primarily set from their inception in a single, publisher-wide shared universe, known respectively as Unity [cite web |last=Smith |first=Andy |title=The Valiant Comics F.A.Q. |publisher=Sequart |url= |date=2006-07-10 |accessdate=2007-01-12] and the Sigilverse.cite web |last=Lander |first=Randy |title=Negation War #1 |publisher=The 4th Rail |url= |accessdate=2007-01-12]

Many other published works of this nature take the form of a series of short-story anthologies with occasional standalone novels. Examples include Robert Lynn Asprin's Thieves' World, [cite web |title=A Conversation with Lynn Abbey |author=Silver, Steven H. |publisher=SF Site |url= |date=Oct 2002 |accessdate=2007-06-14] C. J. Cherryh's Merovingen Nights, [cite web |last=Cherryh |first=C.J. |title=C.J.Cherryh's Book Order Page |url= |accessdate=2007-01-10] and George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards series.

Role-playing games are inherently designed to include some aspects of the shared universe concept, as individual games are derived from the core material. Campaign settings, such as "Dungeons & Dragons's" Faerûn and Eberron, provide a more detailed world in which novels and other related media are additionally set. Living campaigns, including the RPGA's Living Greyhawk [cite web |title=Living Greyhawk |url= |publisher=Wizards of the Coast |accessdate=2007-01-14] or the AEG-sanctioned Heroes of Rokugan, [cite web |title=Heroes of Rokugan |url= |accessdate=2007-01-14] provide an opportunity for individual games hosted worldwide to take part in a single continuity.

The influence of the Internet on collaborative and interactive fiction has also resulted in a large number of amateur shared universe settings. Amateur authors have created shared universes by contributing to mailing lists, story archives and Usenet. One of the earliest of these settings, SFStory, saw its spin-off setting Superguy cited as illustrative of the potential of the Internet. [cite book |author=Engst, Adam C. and William Dickson |title=Internet Explorer Kit |publisher=Hayden Books |date=1994-01-15 |id=ISBN 978-1568300894] Another example is the furry-themed Tales from the Blind Pig created at the Transformation Story Archive, which differs from many amateur settings both by having an organized effort to maintain consistent canoncite journal | title = About the TBP Setting | journal = Anthro |url= |accessdate=2006-12-03] and by having seen at least limited publication.cite journal |title=Index |journal=Anthro |url= |accessdate=2006-12-03] cite journal |title=Stories |journal=TSAT: Transformation Stories, Art, Talk |issue=21 |url= |date=Apr/May 2002 |accessdate=2006-12-03] Other early examples include the Dargon Project [cite web |title=The World's Best Online Fiction 1995 |author=Carlson, Jeff, "ed". |publisher=eSCENE |url= |format=pdf |accessdate=2007-05-13 |date=1995] and Devilbunnies. [cite journal | |author=Miller, Steve |journal=Wired |issue=2.07 |date=Jul 1994 |url= |accessdate=2007-05-13]

At least one publisher has introduced a division specifically for encouraging and handling shared universe fiction. [cite web |title=The Shared Universe Project |publisher=Windstorm Creative |date=2006-12-27 |url= |accessdate=2007-01-14]


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