Wednesday, March 27, 2013

6-Star Reviews Part 138: Anthropology

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

Count me among the X-million Americans who went ahead and filled out a bracket for the NCAA basketball tournament, despite the fact that I watch virtually no college basketball besides a few tournament games each year.  With predictable results, no less; after the first week, I'm already getting thoroughly trounced.

Below the break, my review of JasonTheHuman's Anthropology.

Impressions before reading:  This is one of those stories that I'd never pick up if I weren't doing these reviews; Lyra and her human/hand obsession/fetish is something that I've long since grown sick of, and I already know the twist which comes in the first third of the story--a twist which is enough to tell me that I probably won't find Anthropology to be to my tastes.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Lyra knows that humans are real.  Bon-Bon knows that her housemate is crazy.  Wacky hijinks ensue, until...

Thoughts after reading:  Okay, I'm gonna spoil that first-third twist in this review.  If you don't already know it (it's pretty well-known) and want to go into the story fresh, stop reading now.  It's my opinion after reading, however, that knowing what happens at that point in the story is unlikely to harm anyone's enjoyment of the fic, and may help you better decide whether or not this is a story you want to read.  And in any case, it'd be really hard to talk about this story without mentioning anything after that point.  Fair warning.

...Okay, are we good?  Good.  So anyway, let's pick that summary back up: "...Celestia reveals that Lyra is actually a human from another dimension who traveled to Equestria by unknown means when she was just a baby.  Then Celestia turns her back into a human, and sends her to Earth."

To say that this story is a strange beast of a work would be an understatement.  The early going is very slice-of-life in tone, before veering off into... well, it's hard to find a single world that encapsulates what it veers into, but "incognito-alien-on-earth" pretty well sums up the general story feel for the next section of the work. With this comes a not-unexpected dose of disconnectedness; although there are a few hints dropped in the early going, the transition from Lyra playing conspiracy theorist to her being humanized and appearing outside Des Moines is so abrupt that the early and later portions of the fic are hard to reconcile.  The story's third act (which I won't spoil here) attempts to meld the two, but it ends up doing so in a way unlikely to satisfy the kind of reader bothered by such things in the first place.

Even more problematic, at least for me, than the fact that I seemed at times to be reading two tangentially related stories rather than a single cohesive one, was the obvious lack of effort put into justifying character actions. This was less noticeable in the Equestria bits, since Equestria is still a vague enough place after three seasons that it's not too difficult to make allowances for the way characters seem to frequently act the way they do not out of any intrinsic motivation, but in order to advance the plot.  But when the action shifts to more familiar territory, character behavior becomes a major weakness of the story.  Although a few half-hearted attempts are made to justify it, there's really no getting away from the implausibility of a sixteen year-old girl popping up in a major American city with no parents, no identification, no education (she's living with a teacher, no less!), and barely making a ripple.  Many of the developments throughout the story are transparent plot devices, and this I found terribly disappointing.

And yet... I kind of liked Anthropology.  Despite its many problems, I never had to force myself to press ahead in it, and I certainly didn't begrudge it my time, the way I occasionally have with some of the worse fics I've reviewed.  It took me a while to figure out why this was (the main reason this review wasn't ready on Monday), but in the end it comes down to a few things.

First off, there's the writing style.  JasonTheHuman uses very simple, direct, and near-invisible phraseology, which keeps the proceedings light and airy.  The tone set by the text thus encourages forward momentum, rather than careful reflection, from the reader, helping to mask some of the story's weaknesses.  There's also a fair bit of low-key humor scattered throughout the story (both on Earth and Equestria), especially in the dialogue.  Although the characters may have come across more as actors in rather poorly-written play than as real people/ponies, there are a surprising number of good lines in here, and they often succeed in giving the characters some sense of, well, character, where their actions fall short.

I'm still not much for Lyra's fandom personality, personally.  But in the end, that didn't stop me from enjoying this story.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

Although this fic has a disappointing habit of failing to justify its plot advances and character actions, it has a quick-pace and low-key style which helped mitigate some of its worse missteps.  That said... there were some pretty sizable missteps.

Recommendation:  This is a difficult story to recommend, because it goes so many different places.  It's definitely not one for people with a strong antipathy towards humans in their pony stories, or who aren't interested in giving human-obsessed Lyra a chance.  It's also not a good pick for readers looking for a story which holds up to close inspection, or one which holds together, period.  But for folks looking for lengthy but light fare with plenty of twists along the way, this might be a good selection.

Next time:  The Pony of the Opera, by Miyajima


  1. I was going to be divide this up into parts because there are some major spoiler elements that appear part way through, and I feel the need to break this piece up for the sake of others who haven’t read this, and I can’t talk about much in this fanfict without mentioning them. But Chris already broke the news, so... I'm still going to do because I go into further spoilers for the second part.

    The first few chapters are a bit on the slow going side. They don’t really have a lot to and really just serve as setup for the character. However, I eventually found myself enjoying them, mainly because of Lyra. Jason presents her as a conspiracy-theorist/ cryptozoologist, the kind of person who things that the government is trying to prevent the public from learning about the existence of Bigfoot. Such people are both amusing and scary at the same time (amusing because they’re rants are ridiculous, scary because they, well, are probably amongst the last kind of people you want to be right) and so I found myself enjoying reading about Lyra and how crazy she was. I say amusing, because I really didn’t find myself liking the character (craziness doesn’t equal sympathy or even empathy). But being amused is often good enough for me.

    If I had a compliant, it’s that there’s not much else I think is interesting. And to be honest, the whole thing never struck me as something that could last much longer. Crazy people (and ponies) stop becoming amusing after a while. But I was entertained, and that’s not something I can say about a lot of other fanficts.

    But, I want to say that the twist concerning Lyra’s origin was not to my liking. It seemed created simply to shock, rather that’s what the story called for (and again, it’s not answered how she ended up in the pony world in the first place). But anyway…

    When it comes to fiction, there are two kinds of culture shock. The kind of where the culture is just as unfamiliar to us as it to the character, who often acts as an audience surrogate (think Harry Potter) and the kind where the character is trying to adjust to our culture (I’m thinking the film Blast from the Past, the Beverly Hillbillies (Tv show), or (Ugh) The Little Mermaid). While I’ve rarely had a problem with the former, awkward has usually been my reaction to the latter. I feel bad for laughing at people, as these works often setup, so reading about Lyra munching on a flower as a human, just makes me cringe (after I chuckled; I’m horrible). The whole just makes feel bad (for myself and for the character). I often don’t enjoy reading about such things. Satire could help bridge the gap between the comedy and the awkwardness (the Beverly Hillbillies does this well in its early seasons), but there’s absolutely no satire in this piece, instead any criticism of human culture was incredibly adolescent (humans fight, so do ponies; after all, we created them). I hasten to add that overall Jason does a pretty good job with the culture shock. He doesn’t keep it just for one chapter and ignore it, but instead keeps it going throughout. And much of it is not for the sake of jokes, but instead a plausible of presenting Lyra in the human world (how she reacts to the use of paper money, for one). Overall, I was actually impressed by it.

    1. [spoiler territory]
      However, beyond the well-represented culture shock, there’s pretty much nothing in the earth chapters that’s worth praising. The characters Lyra meets are incredibly flat and indistinguishable besides the mere basics (if you were to ask me to name the difference between say Monica or Audrey, you might as well have asked me to move a mountain with my bare hands; I suppose inviting a someone you just met on the street is incredibly “weird” into your home to stay says something about you, but that’s done for reasons clearly more connected to plot than to character). As much as I disliked Bon-Bon as a character here (she has a tendency to get annoying really fast given her constant whining), she still had more going for her as a foil to Lyra than any of the humans that Lyra met.

      Plotlines also are handled inadequately. Lyra first job to search for her real parents, wasn’t really interesting to begin with (mainly because, like I said, Lyra is someone I find more amusing than sympathetic enough to care for her plight; that and I found it bothersome how Jason handled her relationship with the parents who raised her, we don’t always get along with our own parents but there’s nothing in their relationship (besides them discouraging her to read about humans) that suggests she would drop the moment, it’s just far too cold to be believable and it ultimately makes Lyra come across as well… an ungrateful bitch), but it’s resolved by mere coincidence and ultimately feels unearned for the character (she barely did any work to solve it). The next one involving Discord was more or less dropped on the reader with no setup (no explanation is given how he escape), and quite frankly I couldn’t buy how the humans reacted to the situation (for one, you would probably see a lot more shock at seeing a pegasus or a unicorn). I have my issues with the elements of plot device, but the use of them here was awful. The show makes it clear that friendship has to exist between all users, no just one. Some of the humans haven’t even met each, how can there be a friendship between such people so the plot devices work. And ultimately, it’s so anticlimactic and feels unearned for the character (why should I cheer for her victory). But it’s not the only problem with the plot.

      Elements are also setup for something larger but are not adequately resolved, if at all. Such things include as well as the possibility that Lyra might (through the use of “The Last Unicorn”) might have been in error to return as a human or what exactly the relationship between humans and ponies was in the past. The whole presentation of humans as so chaotic they would destroy themselves (not saying we wouldn’t, but that has nothing to do with chaos), was rather infuriating as well, it almost can across as misanthropic (and also came close to the whole “ponies are our betters”, probably the aspect that aggravates me the most with this fandom). Because of this, the whole story tests my patience far too often, and leaves me thinking, does this story even know where it’s going. There’s almost no real conflict involved and the characters aren’t developed enough to hold one’s interest for any “hot tub moments”.

      [end of spoiler]

      Final Thoughts

      Early on, I can understand why people like “Anthropology” and why it became popular. Yet, it falls apart the longer it gets (and that length doesn’t help either).
      In short, I conclude the following:

      • The only good things here are amusement that conspiracy theorist Lyra creates in the early chapters and the culture shock of the latter ones.

      • The characters are incredibly flat and indistinct.

      • The plot is poorly constructed and executed.

      • At the end, I didn’t like this piece and was bored or annoyed for much of it.

      • Seapony Lyra is the best Lyra.

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  3. Anthropology is one of the most frustrating stories I have read in this fandom. The first third is very well done, making great use of the characters and a tired meme while weaving the narrative through the episodes out at the time. But once it becomes about Lyra going to the human world, the story completely breaks down.

    The most frustrating part is how Jason seems to eschew anything remotely pony-related for the middle chunk of the story, and only seems to begrudgingly bring the equine antics we actually go to places like Fimfiction to read about into the fold towards the end. The human characters are utterly uninteresting, which makes the fact that we just abandoned the more three-dimensional supporting cast in favor of these wastes of words all the worse. And we give up the well-realized setting of Equestria for a near-perfect human world where nobody actually asks important questions anyone in real life would, while everything lines up perfectly for Lyra.

    To put it simply, it stops being a FiM story and becomes something I would expect a thirteen-year-old girl to write in creative writing. And Jason is a solid writer, so there is simply no excuse as far as I'm concerned. This story started so good, only to become more and more unfocused, cliche, and downright pointless as it went along.

    But none of this tops how much the ending frustrated me. It'd be charitable to really call it an ending, as the whole story just comes to a standstill. There's a lot of stuff still left unresolved, and since Jason has said that he doesn't want to do a sequel (unless he's changed his mind and I haven't found out yet), none of this will ever be dealt with.

    Also, as Bugs mentioned, the misanthropy is rather disgusting. I've certainly seen worse (I've dealt with Chatoyance in the past; if you don't know who that is, I envy you), but it's still a pet peeve of mine. I guess that the reason the human world is portrayed so perfectly is to counter Celestia's spiel a few chapters earlier, but it doesn't offset the fact that, again, humans are chaotic beings who can easily be convinced to kill each other.

    So we had a story that started off very good, but after the first third fell to pieces. What a shame.

  4. Is it weird that, out of all the well-realized characters who actually appear in the show, it's Lyra and (one of) her fan-crafted personality(ies) that I identify with most? Because it's true. Her obsession with humans ties in so well with a lot of my life, and the dumb thing is it's not even canon. I have a story planned around this, someday.

    However, I can't see how a story would work taking a human-obsessed character and not just sending her to Humania, but revealing that she is actually human. Unless antics stem from her still being obsessed with humans and hands and so forth while in a world where they are commonplace, that is.

    Also, this story spawned an awesome song.

    1. I hope that someday's soon. You could pull such a story off. Would she actually be obsessed with humans, or just human features such as hands or seated posture? I've always found the latter more interesting, with her either not aware of humans or only discovering them later. Just imagine her reaction when she learns there are creatures who possess everything she loves!

      Heh, just realized I'm wearing my Lyra shirt right now

    2. I keep seeing that shirt and really wanting one. Except that I'm totally incognito as a brony and have too many shirts as it is. :B

    3. Wait, you're in the stable?! (Chris, I think your blog may be haunted. I just heard a large, collective groan)

      You should definitely get a pony shirt. Feels great to go to work wearing "Daft Pon-3" or a mustachioed Rainbow Dash (well, before the union got all weird about the dress code, anyways), and it's always great when somebody recognizes the characters

      There are subtler options, too. Pretty sure I saw a Running of the Leaves hoodie that just looked like something you'd get from a marathon, and I have one with a picture of Tom. At least get the TrotCon shirt

    4. I have three currently, none of which are subtle enough to wear to work (the EQD University one almost is).

      And seriously, "in the stable"? You make me sound like I have a pipbuck. Yes, I just made a Fallout: Equestria reference. I blame you.

    5. I'm still waiting for someone to do something with Alcorn State University. Most people wouldn't notice the extra "i", or would think it was a printing error 'cause they wouldn't know what an alicorn was. It's perfect!

      I really wanna respond with some clever counter-reference, but all I can remember from that fic right now is that ghoul doctor and lesbian ponies *shudders*

      That's all on you. I just used a standard term, but you had to bring fanfiction into this (on a fanfiction blog? Seriously?) and now I look like a PTSD sufferer. Great going, Present. Jerk :P

  5. I know absolutely nothing about college basketball, but my bracket's not doing too poorly. I'm currently tied for 8th in the Brony Brackets, 10th in my uncle's thing, and winning the one my mom put together :D

    Shame about Anthropology. I was expecting something completely different. I actually still love human-obsessed Lyra, but her turning out to be a human sounds like a wish-fulfillment tale in reverse. Actually, that could work as a commentary/parody, but it doesn't sound like that's what this was

  6. "Lyra and her human/hand obsession/fetish is something that I've long since grown sick of"

    Jesus H. Christ flipping flapjacks in a log cabin, do I ever hear you there. Next to Twixie and hooking Octavia up with Vinyl Scratch, this is the fandom obsession that most makes me want to put a hole in a wall using my own head. It would be incredibly tiresome and obnoxious by this point even if it had been in any conceivable way funny or interesting to start with, which it certainly never was.

    1. No thumbs-up button here, so I'll just add a very heartfelt, "AMEN!"

    2. Winningverse Cloud Kicker being her default personality in every fic is far more annoying and I dare you to disagree.

    3. If that is truly the case, then you gotta hand it to Winningverse Cloud Kicker. It's testament to her irresistible charm.

    4. More a testament to the fandom's incredibly bad taste.

  7. Oof, this story was a tricky one for me, and it actually inspired a much stronger reaction out of me than other, shall we say "controversial" works from this fandom (like My Little Dashie), mainly because I really enjoyed the start of this story and was really disappointed by the ending.

    I don't mind the Lyra human-obsession stuff, and besides you can't really fault this story for using a tired cliche because it wasn't a tired cliche yet; Anthropology was the story that got that tired cliche rolling in the first place. But anyway, I loved the first third of this story, because it's just an easy-going, slice of life fic with an entertaining premise. Lyra is obsessed with finding out if humans exist, hijinks ensue, yadda yadda yadda. I really liked that stuff.

    But the problem is, just as you pointed out, there's a gigantic disconnect between the first and second acts of this story. And I feel like this is a flaw with the fundamental premise behind this fic:

    Much like My Roommate is a Vampire (another story where I loved the beginning and was disappointed by the ending) there's this big question hanging over the head of our protagonist (here it's "Do humans exist?"). And for the story to move forward beyond the easy-going slice of life stuff, at some point that question has to be answered. But the answering of that question causes a huge shift in tone, which makes the last two-thirds of the fic really hard to reconcile with the first third, to the point where they don't even feel like they're the same story (My Roommate is a Vampire isn't quite as bad as Anthropology in this regard, but a lot of the charm of the initial premise does get lost).

    So rather than a premise that builds to a resolution at the end, the author has created a fic that resolves the initial premise only a few chapters in, and then has to act upon that resolution. Indeed, rather than have one core premise that drives the fic to its conclusion, there are THREE: "Do humans exist?" followed by "Can Lyra adjust to being a human?" to finally "Can Lyra save the world?" It really is like reading three different stories that are only loosely tied together.

    And frankly, I think you were too easy on this ending. Yes, there was an attempt to reconcile the first two acts, but I found it incredibly rushed (especially next to the relatively easy-going first two acts), and we didn't even have a solid sense of a few of the humans who wind up playing key roles. It's like JasonTheHuman got bored with writing this thing and decided to just hurry it along to a climax.

    There are few fan fics I can ramble on like this about. I suppose this is a testament to JasonTheHuman's skill at drawing readers in - he does offer a compelling premise and his writing style isn't half bad, two things I can really admire about him. But the payoff of this fic left a whole lot to be desired.

    1. Oh no way! I was thinking the same thing about My Roommate is a Vampire.

    2. I have to agree that the first few chapters are the best, especially because the way it weaved the canonical events into the narrative combined nostalgia and cohesiveness. Indeed, I admit things got really interesting around the point when Lyra was at the Gala and expecting, at any moment, to be accosted by Celestia. It was an excellent moment of tension and suspense, and one of my favourite parts of the fic.

      There were some gems in the second part, but they were always in cases when pony culture was being compared to human culture. The problem was that, by this point, these gems were the main - eventually, the only - reason I kept reading. The ending I found anticlimactic because none of the human characters felt at all appropriate for the roles allocated to them, or were even vaguely interesting as characters. I came away not with any sense of satisfaction, but with a puzzled and annoyed "That's it?"

      My biggest peeve was how Bon Bon, the main skeptic, was essentially reduced to a jerk or a cosmic punching bag every other scene. Lyra was certainly entertaining, and I did enjoy watching her go after every detail to uncover the conspiracy even when I was shaking my head at her, but she came across as self-absorbed and oblivious to others for the most part. Even when the story tried a rather transparent character assassination by making Bon Bon utterly unlikeable at the end, I think it's not a good sign that I still sympathized more with Bon Bon than with the actual main character.

      In summary, I do admit I enjoyed it more than the OP did, but then I'd probably focus more on the first part anyway, and would agree that it's not so great after that.

  8. I enjoyed the first third but the transition killed whatever sympathy I had for Lyra. She abandoned every single friend she'd ever had and everything she knew, and entered an alien world, just for the sake of changing her shape. Someone that obsessed is scary, not sympathetic.


  9. I think this review sums up my opinions on the fic pretty well. Nice writing style, good initial premise, draws you in, but later on makes some bad choices and the narrative becomes disconnected. I still liked it well enough, I suppose. Not one of my favourite stories ever though.

    You know, I've noticed recently that my comments are always among the shortest on this blog. I feel so bad, because all the other intelligent people write their own little mini reviews in the comments, and all I can ever say is "I agree with this!"

    One day, you'll review a story I have a really strong opinion on. Then I can have my fun.

    1. Think of your comments as a counterbalance to mine. Like you, I have little to say about the fics (mostly because I haven't read most of them until after Chris reviews them), but I'll leave lengthy or multiple comments anyways. Taken together, our comments average out to a reasonable amount of "not-much-to-say"

      Alternatively, you could remind yourself that brevity is a virtue

    2. Oh, you always know what to say!

  10. I read this story on a plane. It was great to pass the time but nothing that blew me away. I think some of the questionable plot issues are more related to keeping the story family friendly and to focus on entertaining rather than storytelling. Then there's the "destiny" aspect explanation.
    Still I can't disagree, but I can easily be more forgiving for something that was inherently enjoyable as long as you are not trying to analyze it.