Friday, March 30, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 52: Black and White

To read the story, click the image or follow this link

All I can think of when I see that cover art is Michael Jackson.  Not that that's necessarily a bad thing; I've always thought Black or White was one of his better songs, despite its cheesiness.  Heck, I like it because it's so cheesy, and in any case that face-morphing thing was pretty cool twenty years ago.

After the break, my review of Melionos's Black and White.

Impressions before reading:  I read this when it was first posted, and didn't much care for it.  Although it's been a while, I remember feeling unmoved by the plight of the principal character, and I was unimpressed by the musical descriptions.  Well, let's see if a second read-through dispels any of my reservations.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Out of the blue, Lyra receives a gift from her old friend Octavia: a book, written by her.  When Lyra begins to read, she discovers that the story it tells encompasses her friend's life, loves, and yes, Lyra herself.

Thoughts after reading:  Every once in a while, an author does such a good job representing something negative that it's no longer enjoyable to read.  In a strange way I suppose this is a complement, but that was my exact reaction to Octavia in this story.  It's clear that Octavia is emotionally stunted, and the author does an excellent job of displaying this through her writing, but in the end he does too good a job for me: the self-depreciation carefully designed to extract compliments, the victim complex, and the pseudo-philosophical "revelations" with which she fills her book are all perfectly in-character for the pony Melianos has created, but that doesn't make them any less maddening to read.  And since most of the story is a transcription of Octavia's book, I'd have to say that I found most of the story painful and unpleasant.  Likewise, her "I'll put on a brave face and soldier on (but not really, let me unload my emotional baggage on you)" non-stalking makes sense through the lens of her character, but the fact that I don't find her actions character-breaking doesn't mean that she's relatable.  Instead, she evokes a strange mix of pity and disgust from me--I hope she gets the help she needs, but that doesn't make her any more pleasant to be around/read about.

As for my remembered problems with the musical descriptions, they weren't really noteworthy, in either a positive or negative way.  No, I suspect what I reacted against when I first encountered this story were Octavia's musings on the subject, with which I take near-universal exception.  When explaining why she chose to write her book, Octavia says, "I did think about composing a song to tell this story, but music can be so vague sometimes, and I don’t want to write a musical or opera, or even give it lyrics. Music should be able to work its magic without those, if you ask me, and like I said, my talent is playing, not composing. Music can only convey vague—if powerful—emotions, but literature can be far more specific."  This is the sort of proclamatory pablum I associate with high-school instrumentalists, not professional musicians and composers.  Of course, this ties back into what I said above--Octavia's clearly still at the same developmental level as those high-school instrumentalists, so it's not like it's unreasonable for her to make sweeping statements of (at best) debatable veracity, even on the subject which she should nominally be best-versed in--but as I also said above, that doesn't really make it more enjoyable to read.

Also on the subject of Octavia's book, I felt like it was a real weak point from a narrative format.  The fact is, it wasn't a very interesting book in-universe.  Replace all the ponies with humans, make Octavia a real-life marginally-famous instrumentalist and everyone else total unknowns, and I can't possibly imagine that it would sell in the real world.  On top of that, the book is transcribed in its entirety and comes out to about 17 pages, single-sided.  I wasn't expecting Octavia to write the next War and Peace, but did she really publish a story that's probably less than a dozen printed pages long?  As a narrative tool, the book left me unimpressed.

On the plus side, the writing and editing on Black and White were both excellent.  Melianos does a great job of capturing the self-absorbed yet self-conscious dichotomy that defines the attitudes of many young teens, and the narration outside of Octavia's book is crisp and clear.  As I've basically said elsewhere, Octavia's characterization is excellent in the sense that it's believable and consistent, and Lyra (the only other character who gets much fleshing out) is treated equally well in this regard.

The story does make a few assumptions that I think are out of place.  First, it explains away the rampant lesbianism on which it (along with most shipping stories in this fandom) relies by stating that the male-female ratio in Equestria is 12-1.  I've seen similar explanations in a number of stories, but I think I've only seen one or two that made it work, in both a social and biological sense.  Otherwise, saying "Well, there aren't a lot of male ponies in the show, so those numbers must extrapolate over the entire planet!" seems like a massive cop-out to me.  Melianos also makes the bizarre assumption that the musical numbers from the show are a literally accurate; that is to say, when we see Winter Wrap-Up or Becoming Popular or whatever, that what we are seeing is not a storytelling convention, but that the ponies really are all singing and dancing along to their background music.  I say this is bizarre because it would seem to render musicians obsolete, as professionals if not as hobbyists.  When free, pre-choreographed, professionally orchestrated music is an intrinsic part of daily life, why would anyone pay money to go see a professional performer?

Finally, I want to note that at the end of the story, the author plays a little guessing-game with the reader, telling us a bit about how the real-life people he apparently based the story on would react if they read it.  I found it grating and self-indulgent, since neither I nor most other readers will have any idea who these people are or why I should care if they would recognize their ponified selves, but that's neither here nor there.  I don't really judge author's notes, though I know some people are put off by them; personally, I find they're easy enough to skip if I'm not in the mood, and occasionally interesting if I am.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

In the end, I think this is a fairly well-executed story.  Unfortunately, I also can't help but feel that it isn't a very good story--its protagonist is self-absorbed, determined to cut off her nose to spite her face, and generally makes it impossible to enjoy spending time in her presence.  Since reading this story is an exercise in getting to know her, I can't say I enjoyed it.

Recommendation:  The portion of the fandom that sees Octavia through rose-tinted glasses will no doubt enjoy this, as they'll be able to gloss over her more irritating qualities.  And as a character study in stunted interpersonal growth and emotional maturity, it's really quite insightful.  But for general readers, I would not recommend this.

Next time:  Shades of Midnight, by Phoe


  1. >musical descriptions weren't really noteworthy

    I see what you did there. :3

    1. Good lord, that smiley is horrendous in this font. D:

    2. Too much like a ball-sack?

      (If you haven't anything nice to say - and I don't - just talk bollocks...Duh-Dum...Tish)

  2. Eh, I suppose we were bound to disagree sooner or later. Then again, I haven't read this in ages, so maybe I'd change my tune (no pun, hell, you know I meant to do it) if I read it again with these criticisms in mind. In any case, it's always refreshing to see fan fiction put under the light like this, even if the end result doesn't always match my own personal opinions.

  3. Initially I was not going to read this story (or at least read it much later), but the line quoted from the story about music not capable of expressing specific emotions bothered me enough that I had to (and it still does bug me) because I felt I needed to see it context in order to fairly assess it. And by the end of “Black & White”, I wish I hadn’t read this in some ways. Short answer: it left unsure me about what to think about it.

    While I know my interpretation of Octavia here isn’t really different from Chris’s (emotional withdrawn, self-pitying teen), my reaction was in some ways (and to be honest I’m rather confused about she was seen as disgusting, this isn’t Salvador Dali we’re talking about). For starters, I never got involved with Octavia. She’s too unlikable and a struggle to read through. It’s not impossible to write good stories with unlikable characters; Poe did this wonderfully with his mad characters in the mad worlds he created. The difference being is that Poe could weave a story about such a narrator into a tale of such conciseness and brevity, so that it would actually be below the EQD word minimum, that it never feels like you’ve held your breath for too long. This story is too lengthy for that to work and to be honest, I felt the ending was cheap (was it suppose to be a representation of the conversion to bronyism, because that’s what it felt like). But aside from the times she evoked near pity party levels of annoyance with her constant “Woe is me”, Octavia also hit a little too close to home. I’ve been through that part of my life (my own adolescent development with loneliness) before, and this opened a box of depression for me and made me think about my own life in the past. So in a way the piece got me on that level (I see a difference between what a work makes me thing about myself and what it makes me think about its characters). Basically, I wasn't moved by Octavia's own plight but I did see some of my own. So, it at least feels accurate (but not quite real).

    But in the end, I really don’t know what to think about this narrative. I suppose I thought it was better than Chris suggested and honestly, it’s hard for me to take points off for an accurate deception of a lonely adolescent as opposed to a stock emo. But it wasn’t fun to read and at times it was silly (both in Octavia’s depression and other parts). In short, its greatest weakness was also in some ways its greatest strength; in this case Octavia. I guess the closest fanfict that I think of in comparison to this is “Bubbles” (and maybe “Somewhere Only We Know”); there’s quite a bit I admire (and a few bits I don’t) in them, but at the same time it’s hard for me to give a clear definite opinion on it besides "I don't know" . The fact that I’m seemingly contradicting myself on “Black & White” by calling Octavia at one moment accurate, at another time silly, and elsewhere annoying pitiable, should be taken as a sign of this confusion. And it bothers me.

    I suppose what also bothers me about this fanfict on a personal level (and this is certainly not Melionos’s fault) is that some themes, characteristics of Octavia, and the like are matching up a little too closely to a current fanfict that I’m working on and it’s casting doubt if it’s worth it in the end, after seeing them in the work of another and not too successfully (plus I hate feeling that I’ve taken ideas from others). I know a number of cases where a writer’s work inspired someone else, but this might be a first for the opposite case (or at least the first time I’ve seen it happen). Wouldn’t be the first or the biggest fanfict I’ve abandoned writing.