Monday, March 4, 2013

6-Star Reviews Part 135: Our First Steps

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

You remember on Friday, where I talked about the Las Pegassist stuff?  Well, I'd like to take a moment to thank WTFHIW, who didn't just put up the winning bid for my auction, but paid for the second-place bidder to get my services as well.  Overall, there was a lot of generous bidding, so kudos to everyone who participated, as a buyer or seller!

Below the break, my review of Mrakoplaz's Our First Steps.

Impressions before reading:  My first thought, of course, was: PONIES!  IN!  SPAAAAACEEEE!

Past that, I'm interested in the idea of space-faring ponies, but there's a lot of reconciling that would need to be done to match a story about the equine equivalent of the Mercury program with both the (admittedly fluctuating) technology level seen on the show, and the cosmology of Equestria in general.  Hopefully this story addresses those things.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  The tale of Equestria's fledgling space program, through the eyes of more than a dozen ponies involved in the conception, construction, training, launching, and other fields which it encompasses.

Thoughts after reading:  I'm having a hard time figuring out what exactly to say about this story, so I'm going to start out with the broad and then work into specifics.  I enjoyed reading Our First Steps, even though there were parts about it that I found annoying, ill-considered, or simply unfortunate.  The single biggest reason that I enjoyed reading the story was because it did such a wonderful job of bringing to life not just its characters, but its entire setting.  This fic is about the Equestrian space program as a whole, and the way it sprawls through so many ponies' stories (many of which only occasionally intersect) lets the reader see that program from a variety of angles.  Building a spaceship is a massive undertaking, and the way this story is written succeeds brilliantly in capturing that sense of scale.

The sheer scope of the story does cause some problems from a narrative standpoint, though.  Many of the minor characters either aren't fleshed out enough to be readily identifiable, or appear infrequently enough that it's easy to forget who they are.  Moreover, the fact that there are so many "major" characters means that most of them, even the four or five most important, are often shortchanged when it comes to background.  For example, Cherry (a test pilot) is slightly estranged from her father, but this is mentioned so tangentially early on that the reunion towards the middle of the fic lacks much in the way of resolution; it's something that simply wasn't emphasized enough to justify the importance later attached to it.  In truth, many important elements lack an appropriate buildup, and several times something is made to seem important only to be ignored--the question of what happened at Cape Coltaveral that turned it into the blasted wasteland it is in the story is woven throughout most of the story, but turns out to be a red herring, answered only tangentially and without addressing most of the characters' actual in-story questions.

Pacing is another sometimes problematic area.  By its nature, a story such as this is going to be somewhat erratically paced--jumping between so many sub-stories and perspectives could hardly result in anything else--but the amount of time dedicated to various parts of the story is often wildly out of whack with their seeming importance.  About a fifth of the fic is consumed by a single near-disastrous test launch, for example (this is a fic which spans most of a year not including epilogue, and a significant minority of it is taken up by that single day).  That at least has obvious importance to justify its wordcount, though.  A smaller but more unfortunate example would be an extended foray into the politics of a settler community near the launch facility which, although it initially comes off as an interesting sub-plot, becomes a major story element without ever really integrating itself into the story proper.  Despite having the obvious endgame of launching a pony into space, First Steps often seems to lack direction.

Editing is reasonably good in most regards, though there are regular of isolated mistakes of the missing word/wrong tense/incorrect word ending variety.  Also, Mrakoplaz consistently uses "wonder" for "wander" and vice-versa, which started to really annoy me after a while, but word use was otherwise quite good.  Plus, he managed to work the phrase "ad equim attacks" into his story, which has to be worth something.  In fact, there's a great deal of such low-key humor throughout, and some of the best parts of the story are the slice-of-life segments which dot the slower sections of the story, and the dialogue therein.

Perhaps my biggest problem with the story, though I'm not sure to what extent others will share it, revolved around the unfortunate implications surrounding Willhelmina (the director of the space program) and, to a lesser extent, the security ponies who control the site.  The author presents Will's vision as one of social and economic equality, but the way he does so makes a great number of uncomfortably direct references to the Leninist/Stalinist USSR.  From her language use and attitude (she calls all the workers "comrades" but insists on total deference) to her visceral disgust with the bourgeois despite being one herself in all but birth to her directly quoting soviet revolutionaries (granted, she quotes Trotsky, but presumably only for the sake of the name pun; her totalitarian ideals are very much more in line with Stalin's brand of "communism"), she very specifically evokes the ideals and attitudes of the Russian leaders of that time.  Perhaps this was simply intended as a bit of humor, since it was that country which first put a man in space.  But basing a protagonist on one of the greatest mass-murderers in history... is not a good choice.  It paints her in a chilling light, and makes scenes that were obviously intended to be presented as moral dilemmas come across as much more sociopathically sinister.  "Our universe runs on equations, and they won't miss one dead pony," takes on some very disturbing connotations, against that backdrop.

Maybe I'm reading a little too deep into the story to see that, but I really don't think I am.  The parallels are clearly intentional; I suspect the author just didn't think through all the connotations of that era.  Maybe he was just trying for "Russian" and some of the Stalinist references are unintentional.  In any case, this was a major issue for me.

On a more positive note, the science behind the space program (and the flight itself) are presented in clear and engaging ways, and as far as I can tell, that science is dead on.  Mrakoplaz clearly either knows a thing or two about space travel, or else did some extensive research (or both, more likely), because the depictions of the technical construction, the training, and the launch all ring true.  I even looked up a couple things I wasn't sure of, and the author showed an admirable level of accuracy in every case.

Star rating:  ☆ (what does this mean?)

The way this story combines rich science with grand scope is impressive beyond doubt.  And when it gives its characters time to interact, they shine.  But too often, those characters are shuffled through too frequently to give much meaning to their interactions, and some poor decisions regarding pacing and historical references limited my enjoyment.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I did enjoy the story, but not as much as I'd have liked to... if that makes sense.

Recommendation:  Anyone bothered by ill-conceived inclusions, whether of the offensive or simply the tedious and unnecessary varieties, should give this story a pass.  But to those willing to overlook such flaws, there's a lot to like about Our First Steps.

Next time:  Frigid Winds and Burning Hearts, by Grey Prophet


  1. This one is a hard one for me judge, given it’s nature. By the time I finished the second chapter, I pretty figured out that this wasn’t really about characters, but more accurately about the project. To put it in perspective, it would be no different than if I picked up a book about the building of the Apollo Program or the making of the Suez Canal. That’s not to say there aren’t characters that constantly show up, because there are, but ultimately it’s about the project and the difficulty of doing something that’s never been done before (going through the red tape, the mistakes, the whole working overtime, etc.).
    The problem for me though, is that it makes a very dry read a lot of the times, in ways a book about an actual project usually are not. It doesn’t help when the characters are often boring themselves (seeing Dash reduced to someone blander and less vivid than she is in the show is definitely a bad sign). And certain areas of the parts with politics (mainly when it concerned Celestia) felt off. To be frank, the two moments that were suppose to be the most climatic were actually the parts I got bored most because they went on for far longer (not to mention poorly paced) than I really cared about them (and that just becomes a vicious cycle). Or there are parts that in the end I felt went nowhere and wondered why they were taking up space (the stuff with ZVezda and Ruby for example). This one was also guilty (early on at least) of capitalizing after semicolons, and that was kind of a push back.
    Having said that, quite a few scenes when taken as individually, actually were pretty fun to read about. And to be honest, it does a good job and showing the difficulty of getting projects such as this done. And really that’s the story is about, it’s not about the characters so much as what they want to achieve (you wouldn’t write about the Project Mercury itself in very individualistic terms). But that doesn’t always make the most interesting of reads, and I feel that it could be shrunk down in size and not much could have been loss.

  2. Ugh, I felt a little sick when you brought up communism. Crazy as it sounds, there do seem to be quite a few bronies - really, Internet people in general - that support Communism and its sociopathic leaders. I'm sure you're familiar with the popularity of Che Guevara merchandise (which I sincerely hope has him spinning in his grave). I've also heard quite a few defenses of Stalin's actions

    Points to the author for extensive research. That alone perks my interest. Should I ever get through my to-read list, I may check this one out

  3. Aaaand I just lost my post. :|

    Short version: agreed on the pacing and that scene with the launch failure; Bugs hits the characters nail on the characters head; I feel like this is the actual Equestrian space program, as in if they did it on the show, it would have to be this; surprised you didn't make more of a fuss about the East European punctuation; a good result for this review. :)

  4. Ooh, you're doing Of Frigid Winds and Burning Hearts next? I thought that was like passed up in the queue or something.

    Man, I have thoughts about that story.

  5. um, wilhelmina is not a protagonist. how could she be? she's a crazy misguided person who only cares about one silly childhood dream to the exclusion of everything else (including the lives of others), and has half-baked dumb political ideas she got from a book that doesn't work in real life (it's private individuals and not the state that actually make the rocket go in the end). being self-contradictory and wannabe-dictator goes hand in hand with that. only at the end does she actually see the error of her ways, hence becoming a school teacher as penance (to actually try and do some honest good to society for once)
    i mean, if nothing else, i thought the "universe runs on equations" line made it pretty much obvious

    1. There really isn't a protagonist in this story; the action is too decentralized to call any pony the lead character. Insofar as it does have lead characters, however, Will is definitely one of them. I believe she's behind only Cherry and Zvezda in terms of POV segments (and Dash is the only other pony who'd be close).

      I think you're conflating "protagonist" with "good guy," and while it's true that the two often go hand in hand, "protagonist" simply means "the main character." Usually they're the good guys, because readers typically are expected to empathize with them, but not always. Classic examples of unlikable or villainous protagonists include Humbert Humbert in Lolita, Richard III in Shakespeare's play of the same name, the title character in A Picture of Dorian Gray, and so on.

      So, while it's true that calling any pony the protagonist in this story is stretching the term a bit, I think it's a reasonable word to use for the four main ponies in this story. I definitely won't argue with your characterization of Will, though.

  6. As someone reading this fic as a space program history enthusiast, I mostly assumed Willhelmina's totalitarian attitudes were mostly supposed to be a reference to Wernher Von Braun, who seems to be her closest real world analog (something re-inforced by the fact they both had connections to nobility). Von Braun was at least tacitly a Nazi and was rather infamous, at least among some members of the US space program, for being somewhat blase about the loss of human life. Whether that's true or not is up for debate. The Soviet references seem to be his way of combining her with Von Braun's Soviet counterpart, Sergei Korolev, but it falls flat because Korolev was actively ANTI-Stalin, as his time in the Gulags showed.