From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
A fictional universe is a self-consistent fictional setting which contains its own background elements including history and geography, and possibly also fantasy or science fiction elements such as magic or a means of faster than light travel, or other derived background elements. A fictional universe may also be called a fictional realm, imaginary realm, fictional world, imaginary world or imaginary universe. Most fictional universes are based directly or indirectly on our own universe, like the familiar "with a twist" world depicted in the popular Harry Potter series.
It is difficult to determine what actually constitutes a "fictional universe", but whether the universe is contained in a single work or consists of a succession of works, such as frequently appears in fantasy or science fiction series, the universe will be self-consistent and follow an established set of rules. Its history and geography are well-defined, and even languages may be constructed. When subsequent works are written within the same universe, care must be taken to ensure that established rules (canon) are not violated.
Sir Thomas More's Utopia is one of the earliest examples of a cohesive imaginary world with its own rules and functional concepts, but it comprises only one small island. Later fictional universes, like Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian stories, are global in scope, and some, like Star Wars, Honorverse, or the Lensman series, are galactic or even intergalactic. A fictional universe may even concern itself with more than one interconnected universe through theoretically viable devices such as "parallel worlds" or universes, and a series of interconnected universes is called a multiverse. Such multiverses have been featured prominently in science fiction since at least the mid-20th century, notably in the classic Star Trek episode, "Mirror, Mirror", which introduced the mirror universe in which the crew of the Starship Enterprise were brutal, rather than civilized, and in the mid-1980s comic book series, Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which countless parallel universes were destroyed. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, when considered as all 5 books together, flits back and forth between different universes, or perhaps it is more accurate to say, flits through different timelines and different dimensions involving different states of existence for the characters and for the earth itself.
A fictional universe can be contained in a single work, as in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, but nowadays is more common in serialized, series-based, open-ended or round robin-style fiction.
In most small-scale fictional universes, general properties and timeline events fit into a consistently organized continuity. However, in the case of universes or universes that are rewritten or revised by different writers, editors or producers, this continuity may be violated, by accident or by design—film productions are notorious for altering fictional canon of written series.
The occasional publishing use of retroactive continuity (retcon) often occurs due to this kind of revision or oversight. Members of fandom often create a kind of fanmade canon (fanon) to patch up such errors; "fanon" that becomes generally accepted sometimes becomes actual canon. Other fanmade additions to a universe (fan fiction, pastiche, parody) are usually not considered canonical unless they get authorized.
Fictional universes are sometimes shared by multiple authors, with each author's works in that universe being granted approximately equal canonical status. Some, like the Ring of Fire series actively court canonical stimulus from fans, but gate and control the changes through a formalized process and the final say of the editor and universe creator.
Other universes are created by one or several authors but are intended to be used non-canonically by others, such as the fictional settings for games, particularly role-playing games and video games. Settings for the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons are called campaign settings; other games have also incorporated this term on occasion. Virtual worlds are fictional worlds in which online computer games, notably MMORPGs and MUDs, take place. A fictional crossover occurs when two or more fictional characters, series or universes cross over with one another, usually in the context of a character created by one author or owned by one company meeting a character created or owned by another. In the case where two fictional universes covering entire actual universes cross over, physical travel from one universe to another may actually occur in the course of the story. Such crossovers are usually, but not always, considered non-canonical by their creators or by those in charge of the properties involved.
Real world settings as fictional universes
At some level, every work of fiction exists in a fictional universe of its own, regardless of whether or not the events described are said to take place in the "real" world. A book set in the United States, for example, may refer to events in American history that never took place or to contemporary American presidents who never existed, thus splitting the fictional work off slightly from established reality. However, this seldom becomes an issue unless sequels or fictional crossovers take place, where care must be taken to remain true to the timeline and history established within the primary work. The subsequent works can thus be said to exist within the same "fictional universe" as the original. Early examples of this include Thomas Hardy's Wessex, the semi-fictional county in which he set all of his novels, and Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.
- List of fictional universes - list of fictional universes by genre
- Setting (fiction)
- Alternate history
- Constructed world
- Fantasy world
- Fictional location
- Fictional country
- Index of fictional places
- Future history
- Imaginary world
- Mythical place
- Parallel universe
- Planets in science fiction
- Simulated reality
- Virtual reality