Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Mini-Reviews Round 10

Just a few fics this go-round; the things in my life which aren't pony have been keeping me busy lately, and they have a disappointing tendency to demand precedence over my fanfic reading.  A few thoughts on some casually-read stories, below the break as always.

1)  Mission: Implausible, by John Perry

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Vinyl Scratch and Octavia are secret agents for the crown, sent to investigate a cartel operating in San Fransiscolt.

A few thoughts:  I've reviewed a couple of Mr. Perry's stories previously, but this one never cracked the six-star barrier.  Pity, that; I liked this story a lot, and would go so far as to say I liked it even better than those other two.

The overall vibe is light action/comedy, and while the tone does occasionally wander towards heavier action staples (some (non-explicit) sex jokes and references to ponies dying feel out of place against the rest of the story), it mostly maintains an engaging readability.  It's also full of the name puns and comic/expository asides which I love to see in humorous works, but never becomes so obsessed with being silly that the plot gets overwhelmed or tossed aside.  There's a nice balance of elements here, on the whole.

Recommendation:  Anyone looking for a mid-length (about 30k words) bit of light reading will probably find this entertaining, and I highly recommend it to readers who want to see an author do something with Vinyl and Octavia other than ship them unconvincingly.  Heads up, though: if you're one of the people who react violently to any hint of LUS, this fic will drive you batty.

2)  Two Beats, by NickNack

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Crossfade is an industrial worker by day, and a DJ by night.  His life is also rapidly spiraling out of control, as he tries to balance these two lives--and the addictions that are maintaining and destroying him.

A few thoughts:  This is another one of those "pony in name only" stories.  I always kind of wonder why the authors of these don't just write original fiction, if there's nothing about the setting, tone, characters, or meta-commentary to connect the story to its nominal source material.

Be that as it may, this is a powerful story on its own merits.  A casual read might leave one feeling that it strained credulity a bit too far with some of its contrivances, but these contrivances make their own point about Crossfade's present state.  The ending, without revealing too much, is one that will probably frustrate, but in the service of driving the reader to think about the story--the best kind of frustration to have.

Recommendation:  To be clear: anyone looking for any semblance of the tone, sensibilities, or worldbuilding of FiM will not find it here.  But readers who don't mind a bit of original fiction which happens to be enacted by ponies will find this a brief but powerful piece.

3)  Mortal, by BenMan

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Twilight's friends are old, but having become a princess, she remains as youthful as ever.  Twilight has the power to grant them immortality as alicorns, but must not... something not all of her friends can accept.

I'm pretty sure the premise has been shot down by show staff since the author began writing, but never mind that.

A few thoughts:  The additional tags on this story are "I hope you like melodrama," and that's as good a review as anything.  To be clear, I actually liked this story, but it's mostly ponies arguing back and forth.  The draw here isn't so much the story as the moral and ethical arguments made, plus one key fact: I genuinely had no idea what was going to happen for large chunks of the story.

The biggest compliment I can pay this story is to say that, although the dialogue sometimes edges towards the cliche, the story events assiduously avoid falling into predictable tropes throughout.  It's a rare story that can make me say "Wow, I never would have thought that's where this was going" without adding "...because that's really stupid," but that's exactly what the author accomplished multiple times throughout this work.  As much as anything, I finished this story because I was curious to see just how (or if) everything was going to resolve.  Add to that strong characterizations, the apparent variances with canon of which are all addressed over the course of the fic, and there's a lot here to keep one going.

Recommendation:  Folks looking for a story that's heavy on ethical dilemmas, and one which will keep them guessing, should absolutely check this out.  But readers seeking something less debate-oriented (despite the high stakes, some of the conversations can get rather dry) and/or heavier on action and narration may find this too dull for their tastes--or rather, the wrong kind of interesting.


  1. Pardon my ignorance, but what is LUS?

    1. "Lavender unicorn syndrome," where a writer tries to come up with different descriptors for a character to avoid saying "he/she" or the character's name over and over again, but winds up messing up the flow of the story and annoying the reader with their new descriptors (so instead of just "Twilight," you wind up using "the lavender unicorn," "the purple mare," "the purple unicorn," etc.).

    2. Ah, thank you. I'm aware the term, but I couldn't make the connection with just the initials for some reason. That certainly makes more sense in context than Lafayette Utilities Systems. (Thanks for nothing Google.)

  2. To be fair, Mission: Implausible was published after EQD dropped the star rating system, so there was no possible way for it to crack the six-star barrier.

    Maybe I should consider going back and fixing up the issues with that fic. Normally I'd just shrug and accept these as mistakes of the past and turn my attention to making new work, but that particular fic does keep drawing in new readers. I dunno. Revising just isn't much fun.

    1. Yeah, once I'm done with a story, I'm done. Except for one. I will revise the one...

  3. >despite the high stakes, some of the conversations can get rather dry

    If you recall the specific parts where this happened, I would very much like to know. I'm aware that this sort of thing is the biggest flaw in my current style, and I'm trying to fix it.

    >I genuinely had no idea what was going to happen for large chunks of the story.

    Now I feel all fuzzy inside. I was trying to play with the expectations surrounding the Sad Twilicorn genre to provoke exactly this response.

    1. I'm pretty sure I noted a passage or two as I read (that's what doing these reviews for a year and a half has done to me; I take notes even when I'm "just reading for fun!")--I'll see if I can't find them and send you a pm with a bit more detail.

      Glad you appreciated the review!

  4. Hey, someone read Two Beats (after I sent it to you in an email, heh). I guess here's the point where I talk about the review, so here goes:

    >A casual read might leave one feeling that it strained credulity a bit too far with some of its contrivances
    First, would you mind clarifying this point?

    Secondly, I'm not entirely sure where I stand on the "pony in name only" point that you made. I know what you mean by it—and I partially agree; I set this several miles away from the location and atmosphere of Ponyville (I'd say the show, but between Canterlot, Appleoosa, and the Crystal Empire, things get notably darker every time the main six venture out of Ponyville).

    However, I'd argue that Two Beats at least partially remains parallel to the main theme of Season 1 (it was first written in August 2011), which was centered around "Twilight Sparkle learns lessons about friendship." Now, there's no friendship report at the end of Two Beats, but Crossfade does learn a pretty important lesson about life: sometimes, you've got to compromise between your passion and your livelihood, or at least, it's risky to pursue your dreams.

    Again, I'll agree that labeling this a My Little Pony fanfic is a dark subversion of the show's tone and family-friendly atmosphere—that was part of my goal in writing this. But... really, I'll leave the limit of keeping things kid-friendly and happy to the show's writing staff. The whole point of fanfic is to expand on the show's universe in the first place, right?

    Finally (and I apologize if the last three paragraphs seemed combative), I'd like to thank you for taking the time to read, review, and link the story. It even seems like you... sort of enjoyed it, too, so I'll take as a success!


    1. To the first: I'm referring specifically to the nature of Crossfade's hallucinations, which aren't terribly convincing, medically or psychologically speaking--long-term and large-scale hallucinations may be believable or realistic to the person having them, but they're rarely believable or realistic in and of themselves, as she is. Although playing fast and loose with dreams and/or hallucinations is a practice as old as literature itself, it tends to work better in a whimsical or fantastical setting (whether dark or lighthearted), whereas this story is definitely more on the gritty and "realistic" end of the spectrum. It's definitely not something I'd consider a deal-breaker (as I said, this kind of contrivance is pervasive in most forms of literature), but it is something that I noticed.

      To the second point... well, let me start out by saying that I did like the story, if that wasn't clear. But, I think I'd have liked it even better if I wasn't trying to reconcile the drug-guzzling, foul-mouthed, spiritually broken main character with a nominal setting (Equestria) in which he and his life simply don't seem to belong. While none of those elements are by any means impossible to justify within a story, there really wasn't any effort made here to explain why there are few if any common cultural elements between Twilight and co.'s Ponyville and Crossfade's Stalliongrad. Those differences certainly could have been explained within the story, but I'm not sure it could have been done without detracting from the central conflict. Thus, I'm left thinking it would have been an equally powerful story, and one less likely to make the reader question the premise, if the story had been exactly the same, only about regular old humans on regular old earth.

      Anyway, those are just my opinions, obviously. I'm glad you still liked the review, and you can definitely call this story a success, if your goal was "write something Chris will like." Thanks for commenting!

  5. Oh my. Thanks (not) for reminding me about "Mortal"; I'd lost sight of that one at the chapter end with the funeral and just now went to see where it went.

    Suffice to say, this wasn't a place I was expecting the story to go, and frankly I don't think it did the story any good to go there. Yes, it was surprising, but more in a "what a tweest!" kind of way, i.e. the really bad kind of surprising, where you read on in the vain hope that this might turn out alright even after such a massively unnecessary swerve.

    I can't fault the story's premise or character development, except for its main protagonist; a Twilight who does such incredibly misguided things (and make no mistake, this story is a setup for a dystopia of Orwellian, or more precisely Huxleyian proportions) would never have received this gift in the first place. And I certainly can't say it didn't cause any emotional reaction in me; unfortunately, it was the exact wrong kind of emotional reaction. This story made me angry enough to downvote it on Fimfic, and I very rarely do that (I have maybe four or five of those red thumbs to my name). Congratulations, you're in the "distinguished" company of "Cheerilee's Garden" now. (This is NOT, let me stress, comparing those two stories in any other way.) If anything, the later chapters prove just how right Celestia was with everything she said, and making her the speechless antagonist does not do her character justice.

    And what about that final scene on the moon? What was the point or purpose of that? Yes, dearie, you done goofed. Live with it.

    I honestly have no idea where this story could have gone. Learning to come to terms with the disadvantages of immortality was what I was hoping for, and while it appeared that the story might go that way, it took a left turn at the corner of Fourth and Dystopia somewhere around its middle mark. It's a shame, because I hate to see potential go to waste, and I've rarely seen that happen to more potential than here.

    1. I just read Mortal after seeing how polarizing the reaction was and, idk, I think you might have really missed the point of this fic.

      "where you read on in the vain hope that this might turn out alright even after such a massively unnecessary swerve."

      A happy, or even narratively satisfying ending was way out of the question for a story like this one. It was not a "three-act structure, strong viewpoint and then catharsis pie" kind of story but a "let's explore philosophical issues with a loose narrative and in an open-ended kinda way" kind of story.

      It's what you see a lot in the "what if" sci-fi, and this might be kinda weird, but it sorta reminded me of some of Asimov's stuff. You know, the ones where he's like, "ISSUE! People dithering around. People deal with issue! CONSEQUENCES!!!!! Weird new future. End."

      "If anything, the later chapters prove just how right Celestia was with everything she said, and making her the speechless antagonist does not do her character justice."

      And once again, idk. I'm pretty sure that the only reason Celestia was the antagonist was because the story was presented from Twilight's point of view rather than the other way around. Also, I hope you realise that using storytelling elements to present flaws in a character's opinions IS actually the story demonstrating that the character's opinions are flawed. (So long as the author is doing it on purpose, that is—I do know that some writers are terrible at conveying viewpoints other than their own and lacking the skill to convincingly argue against yourself will always turn characters that don't hold your viewpoint into strawmen.) It's just a lot more subtle (to the point where it can be hard to tell whether it's the author or the character who's failing to see what's right in front of them) than having another character simply demolish their arguments and flagrantly show them how wrong they are.

      That said, I don't think it was a very good story story. As in, there is a plot here, and there's conflict and drama, but very little of it was engaging.

      I suppose if you go into Mortal with all the expectations of a traditional narrative, it's a little bit like picking up A Song of Ice and Fire and anticipating the same sort of stuff you'd get out of Wheel of Time. The characters in the former aren't there to be heroes, or admirable, or even nice. They are there to provide an interesting viewpoint in this fakey-fake scenario. I mean, sure, you can treat ASoIaF or Mortal as a traditional narrative with clear cut antagonists if you really wanted to, but boy are you going to be disappointed. Still, given that it's a pony fanfic and all, I guess that's a reasonable assumption.

    2. I could have lived with an unsatisfying ending - a story like this is set up for that. But this story was exploring its themes in one way right up to the funeral chapter, and then suddenly turned on a dime into something completely different. Making everyone out to have differing, yet valid viewpoints and then suddenly having the main protagonist cave in was not me missing the point of the story - it was the author doing that.

      As for Celestia as the speechless antagonist, this would have been far less of an issue were we talking about another character. But here we run into the problem of writing a character who is (supposedly) immortal, unbelievably old and wise beyond imagining - if you want to explore differing-yet-valid viewpoints, casting such a character as the mouthpiece for one of them is not a good decision, especially when the mouthpiece for the opposition is Rainbow Dash. They argue equally valid positions here, but they shouldn't. Celestia should be able to run circles around everyone else in any debate, yet after a certain point she never even tries to do that, and considering that (as Cadance rightly points out) Twilight is destroying the world with what she's doing, I think that's a pretty glaring flaw in the narrative. She is giving up her world to the new immortals, and ... no. Just no. That is not how this character works.

      "What if" science fiction usually explores issues caused by new discoveries or collapsing empires, that sort of thing - larger-than-life, impersonal topics, and how individuals and society deal with them. This story is told on a very personal level at first and then tries to expand into that, and it tears at the edges because of that expansion. Basically, what sets this story in motion is the misguided, positively idiotic idea that Twilight could handle the responsibility given to her. She can't, and Celestia should have been able to tell beforehand (again with the "wisdom of millennia" thing). I don't expect everyone in a story like this to be perfect, but having Celestia make terrible mistake after terrible mistake is borderline character assassination. Also, I don't see any reason why a story exploring this particular topic needed to swerve into an epic let's-destroy-the-world fable halfway through. It doesn't do this story any good, because this topic can be explored on a personal level, and everything else is just distracting.

      Bottom line: Yes, perhaps I missed the point. Or perhaps the author didn't realize what he had on his hands here and switched horses mid-stream. Either way, to quote the great Roger Ebert, I hated, hated, hated this story.

    3. >It was not a "three-act structure, strong viewpoint and then catharsis pie" kind of story but a "let's explore philosophical issues with a loose narrative and in an open-ended kinda way" kind of story.

      Not intentionally, at least. My aim was to build the three-act structure around Twilight's relationships with Rainbow Dash and Celestia, and then use that to ground the big debate. It looks like the high concept stuff overpowered the character-based elements for some people, especially the readers with the most visceral pro-death views. I'm not sure if there was anything more I could've done to keep the focus on the characters, or if that's just a hazard of writing about contentious stuff, or what.

    4. As I think I implied down below, I think if you want to make a philosophical issue out of something you need to neutralize as many variables as possible to maintain focus.

      Otherwise it's like when someone tries to throw a Sophie's Choice at me and I just ask endless questions about the setup until the inquirer gives up. Then I can just say that I don't have enough information on which to base a decision--a philosophically valid play. Asking a question without a sufficient understanding of the situation can easily create meaningless answers. In this case, there is nothing in canon that I can see which suggests that Celestia 'chose' Twilight [to be a princess] at all, let alone that she was chosen because of her personality. The only question I have is whether that interpretation was crafted to support the story, a measure of your head-canon, or your genuine belief of how the show is playing out. Without some fixed point of understanding, things can devolve into sophistry fairly quickly.

      Beyond that, it's a hard thing to make sense out of things that were never designed to make sense to begin with. The show gets away with it by simply never asking the questions, but authors needs to be aware of that limitation to avoid it. Even Chris ran afoul of that when writing Letters from a Junior to a Senior Changeling, and that was about as well crafted as anyone could expect.

      No, I honestly don't think the issue is with the writing or the conceptual implementation--I think that it's about the philosophy being built on sand that was never meant to support it. Not sure there's a whole lot you can do about that. Still, top marks for having a go anyway.

    5. Oh, another thing that slipped my mind (as if I really needed any more nasty things to say about that story): if you want to represent two conflicting viewpoints equally, having all the main protagonists of the series jump onto one side of the scales is not doing you any favours. One of the remaining Mane Six (or Four at that point, spoilers) not jumping at the "opportunity" (yeah, you can pretty much tell where I stand on this issue, can't you?) would have made a world of difference here; Big Macintosh simply doesn't play in the same league.

    6. >if you want to represent two conflicting viewpoints equally

      That is not a thing I want.

    7. I just want to jump in and say that I don't think the author was intending to represent all viewpoints equally, but rather to represent them as plausible reactions to the situation presented. I rather liked how the story didn't tie itself in knots trying to give every viewpoint equal time, but instead let the results speak for themselves, as it were. I'm with you, Ospero, in that I can't see how Twilight's actions could end in anything other than the planetary disaster which the other Alicorns fear, but I didn't feel like I needed a more effective mouthpiece for that opinion; the fact that there's someone there to acknowledge the point, and that it isn't dismissed or rejected (effectively), allows for that as a valid view.

      Of course, you're still free to not like it for taking that approach--I just think that this was "a feature, not a bug," as it were.

    8. ...Aaand the author leaves his thoughts, negating the need for my comment, as I'm typing it. Go me!

  6. Well, after seeing come up a few times now, I had to go and read Mortal for myself.

    For me, it highlights the dangers of trying to develop a serious plot alongside too much fanon. The number of assumptions made following the plot extremely difficult. When you change or add important details about the setting, it makes it very hard to establish a strong sense of empathy with the characters involved. Rainbow Dash was being a dick, Celestia was being an idiot, Cadance... I don't even know what was going on with Cadance.

    The whole just didn't make a lot of sense, like a jigsaw made up by someone who wanted the pieces to go together, not what fit appropriately. Equestria didn't make sense. Celestia didn't make sense. Twilight didn't make sense. Rainbow Dash made sense as an emotional reaction, but there was no payoff to putting up with an irritating character.

    Overall, I think this is a story that wanted to cleverly intertwine with canon, but fails to do so badly enough that it became frustrating. A story needs to focus almost entirely on the few changes or additions that raise the conflicts, or it needs to move far enough away from canon that multiple additions/deviations aren't an issue.

    I think the wedding scene may have put me off quite early as it felt entirely extraneous to the whole story, as did many of the side-scenes. I kept dropping out of the story and thinking 'why is this relevant?'

    Overall, it just didn't come together in any way that made enough sense for the choice to mean anything. It's a hypothetical choice in a hypothetical situation by a hypothetical variation on a character. It's neither traditional story nor engaging dilemma, even if it is well written at almost every turn.

    P.S. Why--oh gods above why--does anyone think Luna was actually banished to the surface of the moon to wander around? That section just blew out what little tolerance for the world building I had left.

    1. Footnote: BenMan can write Crabapple until the cows come home. He's almost as much fun as Sessalisk's rendition of Twi's parents.