Friday, August 23, 2013

Fandom Classics Part 3: White Box

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

While doing a little cleaning today, I came across a character sheet for one of my players from a long-past campaign.  Not a surprise in and of itself; I can never bring myself to throw those things away, for some reason.  The sheet itself wasn't that interesting, either; a fairly typical fighter-type.  What was odd was a scrap of paper, in the player's writing, which was pinned to the sheet.  It read:
Strategies: Cocktail Bombs
Sneaking In
Surprise Lightning
Splitting Up
For the life of me, I have no idea what circumstances lead to the creation of that list, nor to its being given sufficient importance to be pinned to the character sheet.  Nor, for that matter, what it means.  Maybe next time I talk to the player, I'll ask him.

Below the break, my review of Chromosome's White Box.

Impressions before reading:  I tried to read this one when it was first written, found that the way the text was formatted at the start (white text on a black background) hurt my eyes, and decided to give it a pass.  I've since heard many people claim that it's absolutely incredible, and a few that it's gimmicky and pretentious (and at least one person who said it's both), and have been urged to give it another try several times.  I haven't actually gotten around to giving the story a second chance until this review, though--some 18 months later.  Yeah, I have a way of putting things off.  Still, I'm eager to see how this stacks up to the hype.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  The POV story of a dangerous pony, who's been prisoner inside a featureless white cell for as long as he can remember.

Thoughts after reading:  Let's start with the physical (digital?) construction of the story: the white text on a black page with the white gdocs setup framing it still hurts my eyes.  That said... a) I have terrible eyes, so I suspect my experience is uncommon, b) the coloration definitely adds to the story--its use is by no means frivolous, and c) if you can't stomach it, there's a more traditionally-formatted version on FIMFic.  So, I really don't feel like I have much to complain about vis-a-vis presentation.

The story is told first-person, present tense, and from an extremely limited point of view (the narrator's memory is spotty to say the least, as is made clear from the very first scene).  That's a challenge that could easily lead to gratingly unrealistic simpleton-speak, cloying mockeries of "obliviousness," and the other hallmarks of painfully pretentious writing.  Thankfully, Chromosome avoids these pitfalls at nearly every turn.  The narrator comes across as someone who really doesn't have a concept of life beyond his imprisonment, even as his descriptive vocabulary at times tells a different story.

No, the writing hurdles here were cleared remarkably cleanly.  What rankled much more was the story itself.  It becomes clear fairly early on that the narrator, and several other ponies, are being imprisoned in Equestria, by Equestria.  Given the ridiculously grim and traumatic events both before and after his incarceration (many of which are merely hinted at within the story), and given the exact nature of what he was incarcerated for... having read the story, it's only a step above the legions of explanation-less war oneshots that litter the ponyfic landscape.  You know the kind I mean; the ones that plop AK-47s into the hooves of the main six and have them shoot a bunch of zebras/griffons/other ponies without bothering to explain just what connection, beyond names and physical descriptions, any of this bears to the show to which it's nominally related.  This may be more on the psychological end of the spectrum than the physical end, but the result is the same: so far as I can tell, the only thing this story shares with FiM is a few place and character names, and the conceit that ponies are an apex race.

In a way, the slow reveal actually made this worse.  When Dash pulls out an uzi and starts firing away, at least you know what kind of fic you're reading.  But White Box suckers you in by introducing the mechanics of the premise long before the reasons, and even when those reasons start to emerge, they begin as just hints and suggestions.  Right up until the last five pages, I was still stubbornly hoping that the author would reconcile what we'd observed of the narrator's condition and situation with... well, with My Little Pony, my hopes buoyed by the obvious writing and storytelling skills which Chromosome displays throughout the story.  But, no.  There is no such reconciliation, either in terms of the attitudes and behavior of canon characters, or with Equestria itself.  Given that the author clearly knows a thing or two about compelling characters, having created one in the narrator, that's a tremendous disappointment.

Star rating:  ☆ (what does this mean?)

I'm tempted to give this story a single star, just to show how unhappy I was with the way the author apparently decided to interpret the canon characters and setting, but that wouldn't be fair.  If one overlooks that (and I realize that is one gaping chasm of an if), there remains a story which is remarkably well executed despite utilizing a style that lends itself to pretension and other abuse, and which uses a familiar narrator to good effect, investing the reader in his plight.  Adapted to a more generic fantasy setting, this could have been an excellent short story.

Recommendation:  Anyone interested in seeing how to use "gimmicks" (I use the term loosely) well in fiction writing would do well to consult this.  Even past that, there's a wonderfully, genuinely tragic tale here, and folks looking for such might want to check that out.  Readers who aren't interested in stunningly poor story/setting/character integration should steer well clear, however.

Next time  A Drop of Moonshine, by Pen Stroke


  1. I tried to read this one once, but just got bored after only a couple pages. It really just felt like it was a gimmick story.

    But hey, I like the next one. Which means you will probably hate it. Ah well, such is life.

  2. Wonderfully rare thing when I agree with Chris completely. This would be one of those times.

    trials and tribulations are one thing, but I like my Equestria to resolve these things, not be beholden to them.

  3. I don't have a good way to react to this. I'm starting to think I have a very different view of the show from the rest of the fandom, and that bothers me.

    1. Welcome to the club. I've never understood how so many bronies once thought Equestria was supposed to be some sort of communist utopia (is that an oxymoron?). How that even persisted into the second season is beyond me. Sometimes it feels like I'm watching a completely different show

    2. Granted, there were overtones of Tyrantlestia in this story (something I abhor) that nevertheless didn't diminish my enjoyment of it.

      Honestly, I could see this scenario as being such that they locked up these admittedly dangerous ponies because they simply have no idea what to do with them. It's a lengthy "figuring out" stage that may have turned into "we kind of forgot about them". (Granted, that sort of thing should come through in the narrative if it was intended; no headcanons for fanfics, that's silly.)

    3. Good grief. The problem is not that the story does not literally follow the very limited impression we get from the show. The problem is that if the show and the story are both taken at face value there are paradoxical inconsistencies that do not allow them to reconcile.

      For instance. Canvas' powers are literally easier to both limit and control than Twi's. That simply killing him would have been less cruel than his sentence. That the guards are allowed to abuse the prisoners. That Twi would be allowed to know of them. That most of Twi's friends aren't imprisoned there. That Celestia is not using these ponies in any way.

      The entire story is a nihilistic parable and that means it drifts far from the familiar.

  4. Been awhile since I read this one, but I recall being disappointed by the ending. I'd heard the first part of a dramatic reading on YouTube and developed a completely different idea of how it'd turn out. That first half, when I thought the narrator could've been a serial killer or something, was brilliant though

  5. I've heard so many people talk about this thing, and I STILL don't know what it's actually about or what happens in it.

    1. *SPOILERS (though I have terrible memory, so possibly not)*

      Twilight visits ponies that've been locked away. One is the narrator. He's been imprisoned so long he doesn't remember life outside of his white box. He dislikes Twi at first 'cause she's not white like his cell, but eventually grows to like her and she teaches him about other colors. Turns out he's in there, not because he was a bad pony, but because he's dangerous. He displayed powers as a youth which posed a threat to others. Twi then taught the prisoner ponies to control their powers, which they now use to defend a world which fears and hates them. Trixie's a magnet

    2. Everything except the last 2 sentences are true.

    3. O...kay... Well, then I've just got one other question then. Why the white text on black background? Chris said it serves some purpose and isn't frivolous, but I'm not sure what that is. I have seen some stories play with formatting in a clever way before (A FLEet|ng LIght |n thE DArknEsS comes to mind), but what does this story do with it?

    4. When it starts the character knows no colour but white. As he sees and relearns colours the text reflects that with coloured text in places. The text itself reflects the character's mind and brain relearning things. This is relevant due to what the character's massively unreasonably powerful secret magical special talent is.

    5. So he has some kind of colour related superpower then?

    6. *sigh*

      Anything he paints becomes real. Including living beings and natural disasters.

    7. Any particular reason this random unicorn was born a reality warper, or is this just a thing that happens in this fic's world?

    8. He is an earth pony. Cutie marks are OP apparently.

  6. Chris, the way you stated your objection doesn't tell me whether you have what I consider a valid objection, or you're just being closed-minded.

    Fan-fiction must always be reconcilable with the show? Certainly not. Sometimes you take what the show gave you and say, "Now let's imagine an alternate Equestria..." That's the basis of all Molestia and Tyrantlestia, which you've just written off en masse.

    What makes this specific alternate Equestria unacceptable? If there's a problem, it's that we can't tell exactly what the change in this alternate universe is. Is it a change just in Celestia? The existence of a level of threat that didn't exist in the show?

    1. I've read decent Tyrantlestia stories. Ones that address the depiction in their plots.

      Diaries of an Equestrian Overlord and Sunshine and Fire come to mind.

      The problem here in White Box is that it was never addressed. In fact there is nothing at all to indicate that the story is even AU other than the shades of tyranny.

      Many, like myself, do not require continuity with the series, or even general canon conformity, but we do tend to view these stories from the perspective of the common hub from which they all stem, which is FiM canon.

      These characters and settings and lore are bigger than any one story. In an original story the entirety of the world and inhabitants depicted therein exist solely on the pages between the covers. In fanfiction they are unbound, extending far beyond the reach and whims of any one author. So in other words, we are far bigger fans of the characters being borrowed by these stories than we are of the stories themselves. And yes, Author liberties, especially a negative depiction of a beloved character, no matter how artistically sound or plausibly written, will often be viewed as a negative creative decision by fans.

      This can be viewed as entitlement by readers as to what depictions they feel they can pass judgement on or demand from authors, but said depictions can also be viewed as entitlement by authors to redefine characters they did not create in any way that suits them.

    2. The way I see it, there are two potentially valid ways (depending, as all things inevitably do, on execution) to deviate from canon personalities in a fanfic:

      1) For comic effect in a story which has a significant "random element. Here, the humor is derived from juxtaposing incongruous character beliefs or actions with their established ones.

      2) For dramatic effect in a serious (well, a not-completely-silly) story. Here, reader investment is engendered by introducing seemingly out-of-character actions, then explaining or justifying them in a way which makes sense within the context of canon.

      The same rules apply to setting, with one additional explanation available:

      3) The setting is, in fact, NOT the canon setting. This can be a change in geography, such as by setting all or part of the story in "the griffon territories," or can involve an entirely different plane of existence.

      I've read a fair number of Tyrantlestia stories (not so many Molestia ones, I'm afraid), and have seen writers use both methods effectively. Heck, Diary of a Pliant Tyrant, which I promoted a few days ago (a few posts after this one) posits a very aggressively authoritarian Celestia, but ties her actions back to her established character in basically believable ways. So I certainly wouldn't say that either interpretation of Celestia is impossible to do well.

      But at a certain point, you must ask yourself, "What am I actually using from the show, on which my story is theoretically based?" In the case of White Box, there were some significant changes--not uncommon interpretations, but wholesale alterations--made in canon characterization (Celestia, Twi) and setting (how cutie marks work, the nature of magic), and those elements that were retained (the protagonists are talking ponies) are, at best, tangential to the story.

      For the life of me, I can't think of a single thing that would be worse about this story if it was set in a generic fantasy world, and the dangerous ponies were instead children who displayed terrifying sorcerous powers. Further, I can think of several reasons why such a story would be much, much better. So I'm left asking myself "In what way is this a pony fanfic?" and, more importantly, "Why is this a pony fanfic?"

      Hope that clears up my thoughts on the matter!

  7. This was in fact one of the stories that mildly inspired the somewhat gimmicky formatting and presentation of my own story White Space:

    Like Bad Horse, I loved this story and had no qualms with it not quite being canon Equestria. But different strokes for different folks.

    ~Super Trampoline