Note: I'm moderating a panel on Steven Universe and The Legend of Korra at the ConFusion convention in Detroit, Jan. 21 to 24. Stop by the panel to hear more of my views on these groundbreaking series.
And yes, there are spoilers below. Minor spoilers, but if you haven't watched at least the first season of Steven Universe you should read no more.
The latest StevenBomb is over, with five new episodes of Steven Universe airing last week on Cartoon Network. I enjoyed all of the episodes, with one of them — "The Answer," featuring Garnet sharing how Ruby and Sapphire met — ranking among the best of an already great series.
As an added bonus, another of these new episodes confirmed something I've long suspected about Steven Universe: The show is an alternate history.
One of Steven Universe's strengths is that it melds the different speculative fiction genres together, mixing fantasy and science fiction in compelling, eye-opening ways. Despite this, during most of the show's first season it appears the Crystal Gems merely live in a slightly wackier version of our current world. In fact, when I first saw the show's initial two dozen or so episodes I believed the Gems were using their warp pads to jump to other strange planets, not to other places on Earth.
However, I soon learned that these "strange planets" the Crystal Gems were always warping to were actually different places on Earth, places which didn't usually correspond to life and environments as we know them. There were also hints in the first season of a much deeper backstory involving the thousands of years Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl, and Rose Quartz spent on Earth.
This history eventually emerges in the first season's second to last episode, "The Return," when Steven's father Greg Universe tells his son that not all gems are like the Crystal Gems. He says the gems invaded Earth and there was a rebellion and war led by Rose Quartz, with many gems and humans dying.
At this point I knew that Steven Universe didn't merely meld together SF and fantasy. The show also brought in the genre of alternate history, with historical events unfolding in severely different ways from what's written in our current history books.
The new Steven Universe episodes confirm this. In the episode "It Could've Been Great," the Crystal Gems visit the moon and show us a map of Earth. As you can see from the map above, there are a number of differences with the Earth as we know it.
Yes, the show's distinctive art style can account for some of these differences. But others are absolutely deliberate. Part of Africa is missing and appears to be connected to South America. There's a new and massive body of water in central Russia, in the middle of which sits the red dot of a Gem colony site.
Considering how Rebecca Sugar and the rest of the talented Steven Universe creators continually sneak in glimpses of future storylines — such as how they foreshadowed Garnet being a fusion gem — I have little doubt this alternate history of Earth will receive increased attention in the coming seasons.
Alternate history is a difficult genre to successfully pull off because different historical events can cause severe changes to stories set in the "present." If a story's present time is vastly different from the world a reader or viewer knows, you have to explain that backstory and history. Which turns into a massive infodump and/or seems silly to said reader or viewer.
Steven Universe avoided this by creating a world which appears similar to our own but whose vastly different history is only slowly being revealed. That's a brilliant way to reveal the startling different history and world creation of Steven Universe.
But brilliance is what we've come to expect from this amazing show and its creators.