Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Guest Review: Somewhere Only We Know

(Somewhere Only We Know can be read here)

In this post, Sessalisk (author of Darkest Before Dawn and frequent depositor of long, rambling missives in the comments section of this very blog (much obliged for the regular insights, by the way!)) breaks down one of the better-known stories in this fandom.  If you haven't read it already, you might want to before diving into this post: although it's (correctly, IMO) labeled a review, there's really no way to talk about the story without spoiling a lot of the effect of reading it the first time.  Besides, Patchwork Poltergeist's Somewhere Only We Know is only a few thousand words.  But whenever you're ready, you can read her thoughts below the break.

Now, I’m going to begin this with the caveat that it’s practically impossible to talk about this story without spoiling it. Even the story’s summary is a spoiler:

Every night in a little stable just outside of town, the mare lays down to sleep. And every night she has the same dream about her and her friends.

Any attempts to conceal the big juicy bits of this story would completely prevent discussion at all. So I’ll just say this now: if you want the full effect, you should read it before continuing. To those who don’t care or have read it already, carry on!

Many of you may already be familiar with this one. It certainly exploded with readers last June, and as its one-year anniversary came and went, it only seems fitting to give this an in-depth look.

It starts out with a scene of Rainbow Dash moving the all clouds around on a whim. As she puts it, the sky is a “perfect shade of blue.” This is a departure from the canonical workings of Equestria. In the show, pegasi are in charge of the weather; there are just as many examples of them causing rainstorms as sunny days. But here, and in this story, Rainbow Dash appears to be the sole arbiter of the clouds.

The prose in this section is florid, no bones about it. It goes on for several paragraphs about the subtle and magnificent beauty of skies in what some might consider to be excruciating detail. But in the middle of all of this, in all of the colourful description, it states chillingly, “There is no grey here.”

Soon after, Rainbow Dash goes on to comment about something that should be very obvious to anyone who watches the show, "I can do that because here I have wings. (I don’t know what I’d do without my wings. I don’t know how ponies without wings even live with themselves.)." She talks at length about being fast and how much she defines herself by her speed and the ability to fly, hammering in how emphatic she is about these things. At the same time, cryptically, she says that, “sometimes I even forget that I have wings, which is only the most ridiculous things ever. I mean, they’re only attached to my body; I was born with wings.” In the same paragraph, she goes on to recount the events of the sonic rainboom, giving a grisly account of what should’ve happened, how she should’ve died. And yet again, she says, “Bad things like that don’t happen here.” (Page 1)

Alarm bells should be going off like crazy.

Two pages later, there is an abrupt shift in perspective, from first-person to third-person limited. Even the font changes (in what some might say is a gimmick) from Garamond to Courier. If it’s not clear that something was wrong by now, then there is no helping you.

Over the next seven or so pages, the reader gets a grim account of an ordinary pony’s life, in what seems to be 19th century England. The mare in this section is old. She’s the only mare left at her master’s stable, and she’s seen absolutely awful things happen to all of her childhood friends. Though she used to be the fastest around, and while she used to take pride in her speed, even that has been taken from her, by injury, hard work and age. The sky is a constant grey.

She is broken.

And then, she lays down to sleep and Equestria comes to life around her once more, a place where she is young, where she is free to do as she pleases, and where she and all of her friends are alive and happy and whole. The story bookends itself with, “There is no grey here. Today the sun is shining. And my sky is a perfect shade of blue” (11).

Yeah, yeah, some of you may be saying. “It’s all just a dream!” is such a stupid cliché. You can slap that on anything and attempt to call it meaningful. That doesn’t mean it’s any good.

Not so fast, I say in response. While that may be true of a lot of things, it wouldn’t be wise to dismiss this one just yet.

If you’re not familiar with Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, now would be good to bring up that Somewhere Only We Know is clearly inspired by it. You could even call the fanfic an expansion of the closing line, “My troubles are all over, and I am at home; and often before I am quite awake, I fancy I am still in the orchard at Birtwick, standing with my old friends under the apple-trees” (Sewell 291).  [Having Black Beauty read to me as a young child left an indelible impression on me.  I still remember how horrifying I found the depiction of the thoughtless treatment of the horses as toys or ephemera, rather than living beings, which Sessalisk touches on below.  -Chris]

Everything from the setting to the treatment of the horses is drawn from that novel. For instance, take a look at a description of a bearing rein from Somewhere Only We Know:

The carriage pulled farther ahead, and Dash saw why Rarity hadn’t moved her head. It wasn’t because she wouldn’t, it was because she couldn’t. She was barely able to move her head at all.

Rarity wasn’t holding up her head from pride, it was held there by force. Her reins drew her neck backwards and her head way, way, way up so that her neck was in an almost perfect straight line. It was there to make Rarity look fancier, but it also made her exhausted. Looking closer, her breath was labored, often coming out in little short bursts and it made her cough. Dash wondered how it was even possible to pull when a pony was strained like that, especially a light and dainty pony like Rarity. She was never built for this kind of endurance. How she managed to bear it, Dash had no idea.

And compare a similar description of the same device from Black Beauty:

I had been driven with a check-rein by the dealer, and I hated it worse than anything else; but in this place we were reined far tighter, the coachman and his master thinking we looked more stylish so. We were often driven about in the park and other fashionable places. You who never had a check-rein on don't know what it is, but I can tell you it is dreadful.

I like to toss my head about and hold it as high as any horse; but fancy now yourself, if you tossed your head up high and were obliged to hold it there, and that for hours together, not able to move it at all, except with a jerk still higher, your neck aching till you did not know how to bear it.
(Sewell 48)

Thematically, however, the two stories are very different. Black Beauty, despite all its marketing towards children, was mainly written as propaganda to support the better treatment of working animals and the lower class. It was there to say, “Hey, we treat horses like crap. It’d be kinda nice if we stopped that, guys.”

In modern fiction, this is a moot point. Many of the criticized practices in the book have long-since been abolished, or are now at least highly-regulated (bearing reins, animal cruelty laws, and such). To harp on them would be beating a dead horse... so to speak. All things considered, Rainbow Dash’s owner doesn’t even seem to be that bad.

Unlike Black Beauty, this fanfic is not a commentary on animal welfare. The sticking point of Somewhere Only We Know is not just the treatment of horses, but also the situation itself — the drabness of the world, the inescapable nature of servitude, the dull resignation of finding one’s place in life, and finding it’s shitty as all hell.

We enter the story at a point in Dash’s life where everything is already unpleasant. She is old; her hurt leg keeps her from running; all her friends have been sold off to other people; and if she ever sees them, they’ve been horribly mistreated. We aren’t given a look at grieving process because all of this has already happened and moreover, she’s accepted it. The narrative doesn’t harp on any one bad thing (possibly because there are so many of them). It’s clear that Dash still cares about her friends and misses them, but she does not angst about it, “Dash flicked an ear and nickered at the thought of her old friend. She wondered what the mare was doing now. It had appeared as if the mare’s new master had gotten her for his children. Dash hoped that was the case, her friend would have liked that at a lot” (5). For context, this is about Pinkie Pie getting sold off to another owner.

It’s not that the narration is detached, so much as it is matter-of-fact. It’s almost saying that this is the end of the story, these are the things that have happened and there is nothing that can be done about it. That’s life. It sucks and you move on. To put it in layman’s terms, Somewhere Only We Know isn’t focusing on the sucky part to gutpunch the readers. It’s about the “moving on”.

Tragedies invoke pathos by creating a scenario where the reader can empathize with the characters or the circumstances. On top of that, the vast majority of “sadfics” like to do this through death or loss (you could probably spend days listing off the fanfics where characters — especially Spike or the royal pony sisters — mope about the ones they have outlived). This is where Somewhere Only We Know differs from stories like Bittersweet or Nocturne. That’s not to say that there is no loss here, but the people and things Rainbow Dash has lost are not the focus of the story. The important thing to take away from it isn’t that everything is a dream, or that good things have come and gone. The sadness of this is drawn from the coping mechanisms she uses to deal with life itself.

It is a commentary on escapism.

This leads us all back to why we read fiction, fanfiction, in the first place. Many people are willing to tolerate what might be defined as “utter tripe” in order to get more of something that they love, to experience this world in a way that would be fun or uplifting or inspiring. The whole purpose of a good chunk of science fiction and fantasy is to let imagination take you where life cannot.

It’s probably a bit of a stretch to say this is an intentional potshot at the human in Equestria stories, but one can certainly see the similarities. Here it’s Dash who imagines herself in Equestria to escape the bleakness of her life, to be together with all her friends again in a place where she has control over her own place in the world.

And therein lies the tragedy of the story. We not only get an uncomfortable look at Equestria, but one of ourselves.

If I had to be fair, the story could have definitely used more editing, or at least proofreading. There were a few nonstandard usages of grammar and punctuation, but the majority of them could be excused as artifacts of Dash’s first-person narration. However, even with those in mind, the first page alone has at least one missing comma and missing word, “At sunset my world orange and red and yellow”. There are also issues with repetitive wording, “and in its wake sunlight streams down all around me and I trail rainbows in my wake”, “I fell, this one time. A long time ago, I fell”. There are homonym mixups, “behind me rainbows peeled out across the sky”. And there are sentences that just don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, even with the conclusion in mind, “Far away from grey skies and bad vibrations.”

Still, I’d say the strength of the ideas here outshines many of its technical issues. The editing got better as the story went on, and most of the mistakes didn’t impair reading too much (at least the first time I went through it). At no point did I sit back and say, “lol. Did someone really write that?”. In the end, I would still rather have one very flawed story that pushes the envelope on fanfiction than fifty trite stories, perfectly proofed and perfectly edited.


  1. I realised only after I sent it to you that I made references to page numbers, but forgot to provide a bibliography.

    I only had one book, so if you want, here it is MLA-style:

    Sewell, Anna. Black Beauty. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1993.

    and APA style:

    Sewell, A. (1993). Black Beauty. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

    And if you want it in the Chicago Manual of Style then you can go eat a cheese monkey.

  2. Oh yeah, and since Black Beauty was published in like, flipping 1877, and the author died of hepatitis like a year later, it's been in the public domain since before anyone here was born (unless we have some centenarian or vampire bronies on this blog, in which case... Holy shit. Vampires are real?).

    You can read Black Beauty legally, and for free at Project Gutenberg.

    1. Yes, we're real. Ready to have your mind blown even further? We really do sparkle


  3. I've never read Black Beauty, so I can't really comment on that part of your post.

    I always find escapism to be one of the toughest things to honestly talk about, mostly because it's far too easy to fall on the "escapism is always bad and you should feel bad" side of the argument. One of the things about Somewhere Only We Know that makes me love it is that it doesn't really pass judgment on whether or not retreating into a fantasy is a bad thing. It's just how Dash deals with the terrible hand life gave her.

    To be horribly honest, I read this story once, and I will never touch it again. It's the same thing with the Return of Harmony two-parter. It's just too soul-crushingly sad to go through a second time. But where the episode is now unwatchable because of how unrelentingly brutal it is, this one just murders me to think about. It's just a depressing, hopeless tale of a poor mare that must imagine herself as a flying blue pony just to function.

    In other words, great article. Good work, Sessalisk.

  4. Huh. I'm either entirely dead inside (which is more possible than most people would know), or I am just so comfortable (or inured?) with the concepts involved that it just doesn't spark ANY emotional response with me.

    I read the review, and half found myself thinking that the points raised were reasonable ones, but they still didn't find much traction in my mind. The world outside your window is demonstrably crazy and irrational, so when it comes to escapism, I say fuck yeah. Like so many fics I have come across, this one just feels like a single idea (What if Equestria was the dream or real world ponies?) that wasn't fleshed out. I didn't find it sad, I didn't find it insightful, but maybe I'm just old as well as dead inside, and I've seen to much of the world to even blink twice at the thoughts evoked here.

    The important thing I want to make very clear, however, is that none of this diminishes the relevance of the fic. Coming to terms with the bits of reality that aren't so easy to wear is taxing on the best of us, and if someone wrote this to vent that expression, more power to 'em. So I guess what I'm alluding to is this:

    - Somewhere Only We Know isn't a story for me, it's an idea. It's an idea that makes me want to sit down with the author over a large, steaming cup of tea and have a deep and meaningful talk about life, the universe, and everything. So I don't mean to be negative when I say that I don't think it's a story, I just this it's a oversimplified label for something much grander, and perhaps much more important. Coping, because the world outside your window is crazy, so how will you?

  5. A little heavy on the summary there, but a good review once you get past that. I read this once because a friend was harping on it and Forever Is Forever being the saddest and bestest fics ever ever ever.

    Now me, I hate sad fics. I don't mind ponies going through losses in a grimdark setting, say, but I don't want to read things designed primarily to make me feel sad by the end. That's not ponies to me. Also, I cry about everything and I hate it.

    SOWK didn't get me that far, and I think my opinion was somewhat along the lines of Inquisitor's up there. I mean, yes it was sad, but not tear-jerkingly so. It's still a good story, I just sort of flat-lined at reading it. That so doesn't mean what I think it means.

    1. And of course I forgot to mention that I absolutely, abhorrently detest "Spike and/or the Princesses mope about those they've outlived" stories. Those are done. They're over. We've been through them time and again and there is no ground left to cover on the subject. All they are is an assured starting point for sympathy pains, and while they still work (see Never in the current /fic/ writeoff), it's time we looked to another source for inspiration.

      Like stories where Cadence outlives Shining Armor. :V Because I want her to suffer.

    2. Heh. I so want to write a fic where Cadence ages perfectly normally just to rub it in the face of all the assumptions that have been made over it.

      Well, all right, I don't want to actually write it, but you get my drift. I really could write a fic where Celestia is perfectly fine with ponies passing away though. That might be an epic spin. Would probably take someone with my skill-set to pull it off, too.

    3. @ InquisitorM

      I already wrote that one. :D

    4. Ahh. Read that...not really my cup of tea; nor is it really what I meant, but that is more to do with me not being specific!

      The deific stuff just doesn't interest me, and the 'dealing with death' angle feels hollow from the perspective of something inhuman (ref: stories about ponies are stories about people). Personally, I find these concepts degrading to the character of Celestia (and of course, Luna), so they're never going to work for me.

      Also, Trance Gemini (Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda) was an excellent take on the 'possible futures' trick, and I wouldn't dare try to do better!

      The idea would be to do a story where she has to deal with life and death like other ponies, and how she manages just fine with it. If there isn't a semi-reality based connection, there would be no point in it for me.

    5. Aha, I see what you mean now.

    6. Whether I can do it is another matter of course!

  6. I remeber first reading this back in September (it was probably on the earliest ficts I read) and to be honest it didn't move me. And it still hasn't the one or two other times I've read it. The problem is the same problem I have with "Bubbles"; stylistically both of them are brilliant, but when it comes substance I have issues. The biggest for me is that Derpy is a generic retard and Dash is a horse and neither one of them is an active character. If they win any sympathy it's because their settings are tragic, not because anything they do furthers their own misery. Part of why I really like "Simply Rarity" is because some of the things Rarity does only increases her own misforunate. If all Somber had done was just had bad things happen to Rarity, I probably would have finished the fict thinking it was sad but it wouldn't have made my eyes water.

    I have nothing againist Sad Fics and to be honest, reading a sad book and watching a sad movie is my way saying to the creator "come on, try and make me cry". The vast majority do not succeed (if we're just talking pony fiction, I think only four or five have made my eyes water, none have made weep). Frankly, the real-world is a far better creator of tragedy than fiction often is.

    Now, I'm not saying I disagree with most of Sessalisk's points on the "Somewhere Only We Know" or I think it's bad (although, I don't enjoy it). On the contrary, I think it's a good fict and if I was asked to put together a compliation of short pony fanficts, I would certainly consider it. But I'd rather read one of Steinbeck's books when I want to read something that has a regular mundane life feel; he gives me characters to care about, for one.

  7. I find myself pretty much halfway between Bugs the Curm and InquisitorM. I didn't find the story particularly sad upon reading it. It felt more wistful than sad, and I like the description that it seems more of an inspiration to have a nice philosophical discussion with the author. But then about 3 days after reading it, it did hit me as sad, and I still don't understand why. Nothing specific in the story struck me that way, so all I can think is that it has this general tone of hopelessness, in which the characters get their fix just to live another day. It's even up for debate whether they all do share some communal dream world, or if it's an individual creation. But Bugs is quite right as well that the characters aren't rally developed, except possibly Dash; they're just dropped into a sad situation. Pitiable for the sake of pitiable. At the end of the day, however, this story did really serve as food for thought, and those are always the ones I find most memorable and good in their own way, regardless of their other merits or shortfalls. As such, it resides comfortably on my favorites list, and I've recommended it to others.

    Interesting point about Black Beauty, though. I wasn't aware of that connection, and have never read that book. It's a bit deflating to realize this story didn't quite have the originality I thought it did.

    1. My opinion is always that originality is what you do with something once you've gone and taken it and made it your own. There is nothing new under the sun, after all.