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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 BombsFor 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