Part I of this article, which ran yesterday, can be found here.
I didn’t start reading Jane Austen novels until my 20s – or rather, it was only after trying Pride and Prejudice for the fourth time that I finally got into it. While trying to get through them all, I also picked up the book A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz, which discusses the morality lessons of the Austen novels. Deresiewicz’s exploration of Emma is my favorite section of his book, a quote of which I want to extract here:
By eliminating all the big, noisy events that usually absorb all our interest when we read novels – the adventures and affairs, the romances and crises, even, at times, the plot – Austen was asking us to pay attention to the things we usually miss or don’t accord enough esteem, in novels or in life. Those small, “trivial,” everyday things, the things that happen hour by hour to the people in our lives: what your nephew said, what your friend heard, what your neighbor did. That, she was telling us, is what the fabric of our years really consists of. That is what life is really about.
This perfectly describes one of my favorite genre of fanfiction: Alternate Universe fanfiction, or AU fanfic. AU fanfic is something you find mostly dealing with action/adventure science fiction, but it does a curious thing and strips them of the science fiction — and most of the action and adventure –and places the characters in a smaller, cozier community. These AUs can be set in a coffee shop, a news agency, a high school, a college, etc. – anywhere people have to gather in large groups that tend to break up into communities (or regulars, as coffee shops are wont to have). Marvel Nine Nine is an AU of the MCU.
AUs focus on those everyday things. Instead of being blockbuster events of life and death, the characters’ relationships become the impetus, the focus, because underneath those explosions are the beating hearts of humanity.
I asked a few people who read and write fandom what their particular draws were. Charlotte Geater noted that her favorite AU was graduate students (incidentally, she’s a graduate student). Prolific fanfic writer Anna Andersen noted that several of her AU ideas came from a fanfic prompt called 30 cheesy tropes. “It’s been a really fun exercise,” she told me over email. “I try to do something that’s not obvious: I wrote a genderbent AU where Cas touched the staff of Tiresias and ended up in a female body; I wrote a desert island AU where they were Jack and Sawyer in LOST.”
New Yorker and AO3 writer and reader fennecfawkes says, “I don’t often write purely AU fics. I’m much more apt to set something within a fandom and tweak canon ever so slightly to allow, say, Coulson and Clint Barton to have some alone time. When I have done AU, it’s been high school and college stories, simply because it’s a lot of fun to write from a teenage perspective.”
The idea of high school AUs recall shows like X-Men Evolution and even the webcomic JL8, which puts members of the Justice League in elementary school (!).
There’s a common theme of work and the workplace in these AUs. “I have also read very involved AUs where superheroes are suddenly lawyers, or teachers,” notes Charlotte. “It’s a good way to easily throw together a lot of different people? I’m also a big fan of slow-burn and misunderstandings and pining and misery, which work well in a setting where people see each other a lot but not necessarily by choice.”
Anna says, “The impetus behind my long AU (the bookstore ‘verse) was honestly that I missed working in bookstores. The whole thing, in between the falling-in-love and porn, is a love letter to the concept of the independent bookstore. Which is very silly, and self-indulgent, and I sort of love it. (And I double-plus love it when commenters are like “I want to shop at this bookstore!”) YES. YES YOU DO.”
fennecfawkes likes reading stories that “feature those characters on different career paths—Tony Stark went into politics! Phil Coulson is a nursing professor! Thor is a carpenter for some reason!—or that re-cast them as superpower-free high school or college students.” In writing, she is “much more apt to set something within a fandom and tweak canon ever so slightly to allow, say, Coulson and Clint Barton to have some alone time. When I have done AU, it’s been high school and college stories, simply because it’s a lot of fun to write from a teenage perspective.”
Let’s examine a case study, one you don’t have to watch nine movies, a crappy TV show, and a fun one in order to understand. The plot of the movie Pacific Rim is simple: the world comes together against aliens (“kaiju”) moving through a rift in the Pacific Ocean by building giant robots (“jaegers”) that are powered by two people through a neurological connection called the Drift. You can watch the prologue here if you prefer Charlie Hunnam’s British idea of an American accent. Ridiculous. SO RIDICULOUS. But I love it.
And it gets EVEN MORE RIDICULOUS: The Drift requires that the co-pilots have a special connection. In the movie, proposed couples include husband and wife, father and son, and brothers, but the main plot comes through the burgeoning literal power couple Raleigh Beckett and Mako Mori, who learn they can make a great team, a connection not from their good looks (though they are both so incredibly gorgeous, oh my God) but from their chemistry in working together. The movie’s fast clip means each relationship is explored with all the subtlety of a telenovela – brother mourns brother, people die in battle, father and son work out their relationship, girl avenges her family – paired with the unruly excitement of robots fighting monsters.
A lot is glazed over: there’s only one main female character, characters are introduced but given little or no airtime, and the relative diversity is still not diverse enough for a story that involves international cooperation. What’s interesting about the movie for our purposes is that there are several AUs that rewrite the whole story exactly…minus the huge international crises. Instead of finding out that they are “Drift Compatible,” teachers Mako and Raleigh fall in love when she joins the school faculty. Instead of learning to pilot a Jaeger together, Raleigh helps Mako study for her engineering degree. Instead of avenging her family’s death at the claws of the giant kaiju Onibaba, Raleigh follows Mako’s plan to take down the corporation whose use of dangerous chemicals in foreign countries led to her parents’ fatal illnesses. In these reimagined stories, the small things take the place of robots versus monsters, with the characters at war with each other and themselves and the small injustices we face. It’s fair to say these stories are scaled down, but the reason these superhero movies are so compelling is that they turn small community stories into huge crises.
Often there are continuations of the storyline in Pacific Rim that include the characters who died in the movie, partly because the deaths in the movie are somewhat glanced over. The flipside of this is a superhero movie that makes a personal crisis the actual problem of the movie.
Big Hero 6 does have elements of large-scale destruction in the city of San Fransokyo, but not unlike Pacific Rim, it’s about a young man getting over his older brother’s tragic death with the help of a giant robot. Bilge Ebiri expands on this idea in his review:
“But it’s also rare for a film like this to have such a palpable sense of loss…the film keeps returning to this primal hurt. His brother’s death leaves a huge hole in Hiro’s already orphaned heart, and nothing — not even Baymax, really — can quite fill it. We’re reminded of this constantly….[H]ow we deal with loss eventually emerges as the film’s key theme….The loss gives a real urgency to this otherwise-familiar story of a boy and his robot. Here’s a kid who’s lost everything, you start thinking. Please don’t let him lose this, too.”
And maybe that’s it. In this case, fandom goes beyond the ideas that superhero movies are a reaction to terrorism. Those jokes, the silliness, the gathering of friends fighting over nothing and overcoming their personal obstacles and fighting small battles together. How we permanently change when we lose those people, how deeply it wounds us. That’s the reaction to the reaction: that these “everyday things” matter, very deeply, and should be cherished in an uncertain world.
Sulagna Misra writes about the weird things that pop into her head when she's not paying attention. She's on Twitter so she can not pay attention more effectively.