Once more, I'm going to take advantage of this blog to blow off a little steam. If you're just here for reviews, they'll be back next week as normal. But if you do want to know what's eating me (fic-wise, anyway), I've buried my thoughts beneath the page break. See you there.
This is going to be about MLP fanfics eventually, but I'm going to need a while to get there. Just bear with me.
Steven R. Donaldson is one of my favorite authors. If you have never read his most famous works, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, I urge you to go down to the library/bookstore and pick up a copy of the first volume, Lord Foul's Bane, at once. His Chronicles are often credited with defining the anti-hero in modern literature, and are probably the most important/beloved books in the fantasy genre this side of Tolkien.
Being a fan of his, I've read his other works as well. Not all were equally good, of course (his first two mystery novels are pretty shaky, although the later ones are much better), but I never regretted reading any of them.
Then I encountered his science-fiction quintet, the Gap cycle.
I nearly quit reading after the first book, but I pressed on (out of respect for the author more than anything else). As I kept reading, the story seemed to improve, but I never really enjoyed it. Eventually, I put my finger on the problem: I hated all of the characters. Morn, Angus, Nick, even the supposedly more benign Min Donner or Vector Shaheed--I just couldn't bring myself to care about any of them. Every single person in that series is so unlikable, for so many reasons, that I found myself resenting fact that I was spending my valuable time reading about them at all.
Now, plenty of stories have one or more character who's inherently unlikable. Sometimes, it's even the protagonist (see Donaldson's own Chronicles for a classic example). There's nothing wrong with that, of course; it helps build conflict, which is a necessary ingredient to any story. But when everyone, even the minor characters, are just brutally disgusting, it becomes awfully hard for the reader to tolerate.
As I said, the story seemed to get better as it went along. Not because the cast became more likable; no, I'd have just as soon the narrative abandoned them entirely. But the universe Donaldson put them in was absolutely breathtaking. His descriptions of the Amnion, their culture, and their biochemistry made them one of the few truly terrifying alien races I have ever had the pleasure to read about. The politics and bureaucracy which swaddle Earth in later books are fascinating to see unfold. And the way he writes about future tech, space exploration, and FTL travel in general ring true in ways few sci-fi books manage to, yet never devolve into overly-technical ramblings. In short, the world-building in the Gap cycle is extraordinary.
Once I realized that, it made finishing the books both easier and more frustrating. I realized that I really didn't care about the story; who the "winners" and "losers" are doesn't much matter, when everyone is equally despicable. Instead, I read them all to find out more about space travel, piracy, and the ever-present threat of the Amnion, and I enjoyed those parts immensely. I just wished that so much of the story hadn't been about, well, the story.
In professional writing, it's rare (in my experience, anyway) to find a book that is incredibly successful in one aspect of its writing, yet stupifyingly terrible in another. Although any book will invariably have its strengths and weaknesses, seeing really massive differences in quality between different aspects of the story are uncommon. But in fanfiction, it's not at all unusual. Amateur writers as a group are more likely to produce inconsistent or mixed-quality works than professionals, for a variety of reasons. From absence of skill or experience to lack of editors who can help shore up a writer's weaknesses to plain and simple apathy on the author's part, plenty of fanfics end up with wild gaps in quality between world-building, technical prowess, characterization, etc.
As a reader, I find this one of the most frustrating things imaginable, because (just as I did with the Gap cycle) I can rarely resist the urge to read such stories, even when I'm not enjoying them. A fanfic that's terrible on all counts I can quit after a few pages and forget all about, but one that's only terrible in one or two areas is much harder to give up on. I'm sure I'm not the only person who has trouble putting down an otherwise good story with one or more poorly done elements, though perhaps it irks me more than others.
I could name plenty of examples in the realm of pony fics, of course, but I don't think it would be fair to the authors in question if I just threw their stories in a list. Instead, I'll mention one particular (and well-known) fic as an example, and allow myself to expand upon it a bit: Cloudy Skies's Within and Without. I dragged myself through all 22 chapters of Luna being deliberately obtuse, Twilight being unconscionably creepy, and some of the most annoying secret-keeping in all of fanfiction (there's a difference between creating a sense of mystery and just dicking your readers around) because woven throughout the story is one of the most interesting and engaging histories of Equestria I've ever read. Absent that, I'd have probably found the story dull but unremarkable, and given up on it after a chapter or two. Instead, I read the whole thing, and was left feeling vaguely upset that I "wasted" my time on it, even though I enjoyed the world-building so much.
And it doesn't only frustrate me because I "had" to read something that I didn't like--well, didn't like aspects of. On top of that, I'm left unsure of how to express my feelings about the story. If I'm asked if I'd recommend Within and Without, what am I supposed to say? One one hand, the towns and cities which Twilight and co. visit are vibrant and alive, and the griffon city is among the best realizations of that race which I've seen from this fandom. On the other hand, the way that the Trixie arc resolved was not only thematically unsatisfying, it was downright insulting (if any of you readers want to disagree about that bit of the fic, feel free to tell me why I'm wrong in the comments; I'd actually kind of like to hear from someone (anyone?) who didn't think it abominable).
Like I said, this has sort of been on my mind since finishing the Gap cycle. Stories with a mix of really great and really terrible elements are apparently my kryptonite, forcing me to spend my precious time on this earth doing something I don't enjoy for no reward. And the worst part is, it's not the author's fault--well, it's their fault for not writing something better, I guess, but they aren't forcing me to read their stories from start to finish. No, the only person I have to blame is myself.
So, yeah. I don't really have a point here, but I just wanted to talk about how frustrating I find this kind of thing. Good stories with badly done elements (or more rarely, bad stories with superbly executed elements): exponentially more frustrating than fics which are merely awful.