Friday, August 3, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 89: Progress

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

Okay, back and full of commentary!  Andrew Joshua Talon's Progress, reviewed below the break.

Impressions before reading:  I read "Luna vs. Microwave" when it was first released.  As I recall, I found it reasonably entertaining.  I quit following the series partway through "Luna vs. Lodging," though; I don't recall feeling any particular antipathy towards it at that point, I think I just decided it wasn't something I was interested in continuing to read.  So, catchup time!

There are two incomplete arcs, "Luna vs. Vigilantism" and "PONIES!  IN!  SPAAAACE!"  I'll be skipping over them and reviewing the rest.  Also, I see there are a few side-stories--I'll glance at them as well, but as usual, my focus is going to be on stories by the original author.

POST-READING UPDATE:  Looks like the SPAAACE arc has been tentatively discontinued, and an additional chapter has been added on FIMFiction to help set up "Luna vs. The Dreamlands."  For the FIMFic version of Progress, click here.  Also, I'm going to divide the review into two parts: early arcs, and later arcs.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  After a thousand years spent away from Equestria, Luna's far, far behind the times.  She tries to bring herself up to date on history, technology, and social conventions, but it's an uphill battle.

Thoughts after reading: (Luna vs. The Microwave, Baseball, Lodging, and Communication)

It's really hard to say that something is stupid and make it sound like a compliment, but damned if I'm not going to try.  The early chapters of Progress revel in lowest-common-denominator jokes and insipid storytelling, but that shouldn't be taken to mean that either of these elements are done poorly.  Indeed, they're executed quite well for the most part.

When I say lowest-common-denominator jokes, I don't mean crude sexual humor (that's mostly saved for the side-story Luna vs. Threesome, which I recommend only to those of you who want to read about, well, Mr. Talon's version of Luna being part of a threesome.  Don't say you weren't warned).  What I mean is that the jokes are simple, one-note affairs.  For example, a recurring gag is made of Luna getting hit by baseballs (and developing a phobia of them as a result).  This is Three Stooges-level comedy: the joke is that Luna keeps getting hit in the head with baseballs.  That's it.

And that's fine.  Because although the jokes are simple, they're still effective.  So long as reading about Luna taking foul after foul to the noggin remains entertaining, there's nothing inherently wrong with it.  Likewise, the uncomplicated plots and ham-handed morals (Celestia's last line in vs. The Microwave has all the subtlety of one of Twilight's letters to the Princess) are no less functional for not being suitably highbrow.

Where I did run into problems was pacing.  The fact is, there's not enough narrative action in these chapters to give the story any impetus, and so whenever the jokes stop, the story grinds to a halt.  Although the frequency and regularity of comic elements increases after the first two chapters, both of those have stretches that are neither particularly funny, nor particularly engaging in their own right.

The early chapters are also, of course, where a lot of characters and repeated features are introduced.  Of the former, the major OCs are Sundance and her coltfriend, Hoyden, who both feel woefully incomplete at times (Less so with Hoyden, but it feels at times like Sundance exists solely to play the foil to Luna, and lacks any interests or motivations not ultimately derived from her interactions with Hoyden or Luna.  The fact that the stories are not primarily about her only partially excuses this).  Of the latter, the above-mentioned baseballs and increasingly absurd imagine sequences are prominent.

Then, there's the abacus.

If you've ever run into a story, comic, or whatever in which Luna had an abacus (and if you've been exposed to any pre-S2 Luna, you probably have), then you can thank Progress for that.  I have always found such inclusions to be annoying when subtle, and infuriating when blatant.  I realize this may sound hypocritical given that I spent multiple paragraphs at the start talking about how stupid isn't necessarily bad, but other writers and artists lifting the abacus into their otherwise unrelated works for an easy laugh invariably felt cheap and unsatisfying to me.  So yes, I admit that I have a bad attitude about the abacus at this point.

That said, Mr. Talon's use of the abacus obviously isn't derivative, and although it's a stupid, one-note joke, it's the kind of stupid, one-note joke on which this story thrives.  "Luna treats a mathematical tool like a teddy bear" gets played over and over again, without significant variation or expansion, but so do most of the jokes here.  Again, they aren't bad--just dumb.

And a random thought to close this section: although I doubt it would bother most readers (heck, I doubt most readers would even think about it), I find references to leather in MLP fanfics incredibly creepy.  I don't know what ponies use in its place, but I really doubt they make clothing out of cow hide.

Star rating:    (what does this mean?)

Reading the early chapters of Progress was a little like the time my friend's daughter asked me to read her Captain Underpants (a popular series of children's books).  It clearly wasn't aimed at me, and it was lowbrow without a doubt, but once I started reading I had to admit that it was good for what it was.

Recommendation:  This story isn't going to appeal to anyone looking for great depth or intelligent comedy.  But for readers looking for some meat-and-potatoes humor wrapped around a simple story, this is a very well-executed bit of writing.



Thoughts after reading:  (Luna vs. Ponyville, The Heat, The Facts of Life, Storytelling, The GGG, Wedlock, and The Dreamlands)


Although I lump them together here, these arcs actually vary in tone and quality dramatically.  As usual, I'll use the previous review as a basis for commenting on these stories.

One thing I was sorry to see as the Progress series continued was Mr. Talon's increasing reliance on fan-jokes and memetic references, rather than actual comedy.  No matter how lowbrow, there's still inherent humor in someone getting bonked in the head with a baseball, after all.  On the other hand, when the "joke" is that Hoyden took Sundance to see Fallout: Equestria at the movie theatre, or that one of the characters said Lauren Faust's name... well, it's not really a joke.  It's just an attempt to provoke a reaction, by using an incongruous name which the reader will hopefully recognize.  This was especially disappointing since the author had shown in previous chapters that he was perfectly capable of writing stories which didn't rely on cheap shoutouts.

Also disappointing in the later chapters was the dropoff in editing quality.  While the early arcs were extremely clean in this regard (in fact, the biggest problems with them were two or three repeated/repetitious sentences, presumably the result of editing a line and not deleting the old one), homonym mistakes begin showing up with increasing regularity starting in Luna vs. Ponyville.  Oddly enough, the biggest offender was its/it's confusion (which was not a consistent problem in the earlier chapters), but other errors of that stripe began creeping into the text with some regularity.

I do want to take a minute and mention that Storytelling (and to a lesser extent, The Dreamlands) are both very different from the other chapters in tone.  While the other arcs are all varying degrees of comic, Storytelling instead tells a very touching fairytale-esque story from Luna's past.  I found it quite powerful in fact, and I was extremely surprised to see it wedged in between Twilight accidentally blowing out all the windows in Ponyville and an extended foray into Luna's over-the-top romantic imaginings.  I can't help wondering if it would have been better off as a stand-alone (granted, it would have to be slightly re-written); it's really a wonderful little piece that seems like it deserves better than to be an interlude in an endless series of Cupcakes and Warhammer 40k references.

And a random thought to end this section: although it's certainly not the most egregious example of a missing comma ever to be seen, I got a real kick out of this line: "Angel shot Fluttershy a glare she knew quite well, and translated as, 'Of COURSE I can see that, that was the point, make me a sandwich mare.'"  The tale of Angel's species- and gender-reassignment surgery so that she could fulfill her lifelong dream of selling hoagies out of a cart in downtown Manehattan is an inspiring one indeed.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

Although they aren't terrible, the later chapters are something of a letdown.  The increasing focus on meta-humor and fan references is a disappointment, and frankly, some of the jokes just get old after a while.  Physical comedy is one thing (even in a written medium, it has a certain degree of staying power as a source of humor), but strangely specific denials eventually stop being a joke so much as a routine: comforting in their familiarity, but ultimately unnecessary.

Recommendation:  The later chapters have the same sensibilities, by in large, as the earlier ones, and readers who enjoyed Luna vs. Lodging will probably enjoy Ponyville and The Heat for similar reasons.  However, those put off by increasingly repetitious and reference-heavy jokes may not want to continue.

However, I do recommend Luna vs. Storytelling, even to those who didn't particularly enjoy the other stories.  And of the other side-stories, Celestia vs. Time makes for a nice followup to Luna vs. Microwave, told with similar sensibilities but from the perspective of the other Royal Sister, and Luna vs. Videogames has a style and structure unmistakably like that of its inspiration, albeit with poorer writing.

Next time:  A Cup of Joe, by The Decendant

20 comments:

  1. As a former major fan of Progress, I have to agree with most of this review.

    When you boil the story down, it was never anything very special. Much like Past Sins, you have to look at when it was written to get an idea of why it had such an impact and attracted such a dedicated fanbase back in the day. Not only was this the First Pony Drought, but it was also the time where Luna was at her most popular. That made it the perfect time to hatch such a tale.

    One of the things that attracted me to "Luna vs. the Microwave" when it first came out was Luna herself. In this story, she was almost entirely angst-free, and when she did pout and whine it at least felt appropriate for the situation. Instead, she was like Twilight Sparkle on steroids: incredibly intelligent but utterly incompetent when it came to socialization. I even loved the first few stories that followed.

    My love for the series began to fade, however, shortly after "Ponyville" began. By then, the series seemed to be falling into a definite rut. Luna's awkwardness had been amplified past the point of plausibility for me, as did her complete naivete. The references became far too much for me, and officially crossed the line once she read a cheap shout out to Twilight. By the time Pinkie's parents turned out to be servants of the God-Emperor, I was done.

    Sadly, Talon wasn't. Progress really should have ended after "Ponyville," but just kept going. And while the later stories have their moments, for the most part the series had just burnt itself out.

    I never really cared much for the OCs here. As you said, they felt underdeveloped and existed mostly to serve as foils for Luna. Sadly, I really wished this version of Celestia was used more; while she was rather flat as well, she still had a motherly/big sisterly quality to her even while getting frustrated with Luna's frequent mishaps. And the side story where she blows up the kitchen is fantastic.

    I NEVER LIKED THE ABACUS JOKE. Okay, I'm lying, I liked it when it first appeared. It was a nice bit of comedy that fit perfectly with the story. But the story just took the idea waaaaaaay too far. Again, it stressed how much leeway I was willing to give the story's interpretation of Luna, and by the time she was dressing the thing up in pajamas and read it bedtime stories, I could take it no more. And don't get me started with all the stories that used that little bit of silliness as a defining character trait.

    Progress is a lot like The Simpsons for me. If it had ended at the height of its fame, or at the first sign of things slipping, it would have been remembered as an absolute classic of a series. Now, it's known mostly as the thing you read the first few stories in, but never touch the rest.

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  2. Back when Progress came out, fandom standards overall were lower. The abacus became part of fanon, rather than an egregious shoutout, because we had far less to shout out about, and far fewer authors doing it. I admit that I don't always get pent-up about continuing to see it these days, and that's most likely because of my fond memories of the early arcs of this fic.

    Luna vs. the Microwave I still consider a classic. It's most likely sparse and underwhelming on a second read-through, but like I said, standards were different. Baseball was kind of ho-hum to me, but I loved Lodging because I really liked Sundance and Hoyden. Of course, now that you mention it, you're absolutely right about Sundance. She seems to exist only to get flustered at everything Luna does.

    But aside from the side stories (I did admittedly enjoy both Heat and Threesomes), Progress should have ended there. I remember getting about two chapters into Ponyville and suddenly feeling let down and irritable. Luna was, after all, still basically an OC at this point in time, and suddenly it looked as though the author was trying to shoehorn interactions between her and each of the mane six (a big no-no with OCs), just for... well, something. I never finished reading that arc.

    Despite that, I liked Ponies in Space to a point. It was a bit of a return to form, with the mane six used far better, and I was disappointed it was abandoned. Vigilantism got off to a really slow start and I had been waiting to see if it was going to be any good when I more or less gave up on the whole thing. I don't expect I'll be following Progress anymore, though that's largely out of my hands, since it updates so infrequently.

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  3. Never got past Luna vs Microwave with this one. The style of humour just really seemed to fall flat for me. Perhaps it was personal taste with what I find funny, but I found this story very unremarkable.

    But hey, to each their own!

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  4. This is one that still baffles me to this day. I can at least comprehend why stories like Past Sins, My Little Dashie, and Through The Eyes of Another Pony are popular even if I don't particularly care for them, but Progress...I remember approving because I thought the first story was mildly amusing as a oneshot. To watch it blow up the way it did (not to mention that goddamned abacus joke...almost as bad as everybody harping on about Lyra's obsession with humans today) was something I never expected, and still don't fully understand.

    Guess that was just how we as a group reacted to Luna back then.

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    1. NOTHING is as bad as Lyra's fanon obsession with humans.

      Just sayin'.

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    2. In my opinion, AJT is one of the few authors in the fandom whose writing (in every way other than technical quality) has gotten worse and worse as time goes on. The later chapters of Progress (Ponyville onward), the outrageously bad "Beating the Heat", and "Hands" which is one of the worst HiE fics I have ever read.
      The only exception is Pony Tales: Belle Runner, which was exceptionally fun. Yet this is the exception which proves the rule as he is leaving the concept series it should have blossomed into of original and entertaining stories in the dust to pursue whatever he thinks is more worthwhile to write.

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  5. I remember when I first read Luna vs. Baseball (it was one of my earliest), I just laughed my ass off (I really miss the google docs version of the story). That said, I nearly quit on vs. Lodgings and to be honest I probably should have. Ever gag seemed to decrease in the three B's of comedy and then there were the basic sitcom neighbors in the form of Sundance and Hoyden. Plus there were the increasing amount of fandom references such as the Cupcakes or references to Seth being John Depp's character from Pirates. By the time Luna left Ponyville, there wasn't anything left at all to enjoy, so I stopped.

    Progress is really something of a dinosaur (and has been for quite some time). It's a relic of the past back before there was really any character (so you could do whatever you wanted with her) for Luna (heck, her idiot of an alter-ego had more personality at the time) and the fandom was just obsessed with her (I don't know why but then again I've never been truly interested with the background characters; it took me months to figure out who Derpy was and what made her special).

    Oh, and Chris, leather can come from more than just cows (crocodiles, ostriches, pigs) plus we've seen it in the show (unless Braeburn's vest is made of sheep's wool). Oh, and I think "Talon" would like his name spelled correctly.

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    1. I don't know what Braeburn's jacket (or Applejack's hat, or any of those saddles) are made of, but I chose to believe that it's not the skin of dead animals. In a world where most creatures seem to have at least some level of sentience, that just creeps me out.

      On the other hand, a comedy about animals that want to be carved up into fashion accessories when they die (a la The Restaurant at the End of the Universe) would be pretty funny.

      And there's a very good reason why I put an extra L in Mr. Talon's name every time I typed it. I just can't remember what it was, so I'm going to go fix that now and then maybe get some ice out of the freezer to salve my reddened cheeks.

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    2. They're willing to kill worms and fish. I believe there's been gelatin on the show as well, though I can't recall when. I was going to say that synthetic glue would require a higher than necessary tech level, but apparently you can make glue from cow milk

      Just assume the leather was made from a lower lifeform

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    3. I supposed they could also cure hides of creatures after they die; in the case of the sentient ones, it could be like donating your body to science. (Note that I know nothing about leathermaking.)

      I did run into this problem recently, in a story where Applejack's hat (the nice one she got from her father, not the ratty one she wears all the time) started out being leather and ended up being felt because I didn't want to get into "Did she know this hat in life?" Weird things you have to deal with in this world.

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    4. I am cackling madly as I'm reading all these comments about the sapient animals of Equestria.

      Mystic knows why.

      Excuse me while I go off to the corner and cackle a bit more.

      AHAHAHAHAHA.

      (And I find it awesome that leather is the thing that's being harped on rather than the fact that there are domesticated* animals at all)

      * Not tame. Domestic.

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    5. Well, it was obvious from a fairly early point that the pony race is superior to all others. It's not like they keep every member of the lower species in subjugation, after all. They are benevolent masters.

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    6. There is a plot point in the fic "School Daze" where one character has a leather jacket fashioned from a long dead friend. It walks a very fine line between creepy and endearing, but mostly tends to the later.

      Maybe it can be excused if they have a different relationship with death?

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    7. This show is just dark, man. There is no way around it when you stop to think about what half of the interactions with other animals implies, haha.

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    8. Oh, if I had words to describe it...

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    9. I agree with Chris that leather is creepy in this universe. I avoid the issue by always specifying vinyl, since they obviously have it if they can make records.

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    10. @ Crowind

      HAH! I see what you did there. :P

      (Watch me change the title to Baconnaise or something.)

      On a side note, I'm really glad you're not dead!

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  6. I had to come back to comment on this one, considering I was waiting for it to be raked over the coals. All I have to say is 1) review was fair 2) Oh dead Lord, that asshole boyfriend character ACTUALLY GOT LUNA INTO A THREESOME!? As someone who got burned on the show in part because of the fandom's tendency to sexualize the characters, that just takes that dumb, gross joke and makes it SO much worse.

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    1. You think that's bad? Ever read "Beating the Heat" by the same author?

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