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I feel that, to the greatest extent possible, children should be encouraged to read. I feel that this applies even when the content of the books they chose to read would be considered excessively graphic, violent, or sexual for children their age were it present in another medium (video games or movies, for example). Relatively young children reading, say, Ender's Game or Lord of the Flies doesn't bother me at all; on the contrary, it makes me glad to see that they're reading for pleasure, and I hope that experiencing a book with themes that they might not be ready to process helps them to grow as readers and as people.
That said, I was more than slightly disturbed when I saw a 12 year-old toting around 50 Shades of Grey today.
Once you scrub your mind of that image, head down below the break for my review of Ringcaat's The Combinatorics Project.
Impressions before reading: To be honest, this looks more like a drunken challenge given form than a fanfic, at least on the surface. It's not clear going in if I'm going to get five separate stories or one overarching plot--the story description speaks of everything being part of "the same fanfic" while also placing the various ships in "five parallel universes"--so I don't have a good idea going in of how this is expected to hang together. Honestly, I'm not getting a lot of good vibes going into this. My one hope, though, lies in the author's tagging the story "random:" this is a pretty ridiculous concept on which to hang one's fanfic, and if Ringcaat embraces that ridiculousness, then maybe this will turn out better than I expect.
Zero-ish spoiler summary: In five separate but connected universes, five different combinations of main-six pairing take place. Along the way, the inhabitants of each universe deal with their world's own idiosyncrasies, be they social, technological, or otherwise.
Thoughts after reading: I really have no idea where to start with this, for lack of a better word, "story." Let's begin by describing what it is: The Combinatorics Project begins with four chapters, each of which take place in alternate Ponyvilles, and in each of which the main six are paired up with one another in different ways. Each of these chapters essentially functions as an independent story, and each involves some increasingly ridiculous characterizations and worldbuilding, moving from the "mere" oddness of the main six going six-for-six on the whole platonic-friendship-to-sexual-romance train in the first, to gender-swapping shenanigans in the third, and on to crackpot theories about how the Elements of Harmony work in the fourth. Then in the fifth, the final pairings are introduced, along with a multiverse storyline designed to tie all the worlds together, albeit tangentially at best. Then there are a few appendixes further detailing some of the hijinks that a dimension-hopping Pinkie Pie and an army of dimension-eer Scootaloos get up to.
I simply have no words to describe how baffling this all is to me. I know in the pre-reading comments I talked about not being afraid to be ridiculous with the premise, but I was kind of assuming when I wrote that that "random comedy" would be the endgame. Reading this, especially the later chapters, feels more like an extended foray into someone's increasingly nonsensical headcanon than it does like the deliberate use of absurdity. That's not to say there's no humor to be had--on the contrary, some sections of the story are full of it--but the setting itself is not part of that humor. All that stuff about gender-changing and Scootaloo mobs and what have you are clearly not part of the joke. The fact that all the dimension-hopping is based on an extended fourth-wall theory--I hesitate to call it a "joke" because it's not used in a particularly comic manner, but it simultaneously makes no sense unless it is treated as a joke--only compounds my confusion.
Characterization is variable, by design. Ringcaat makes liberal use of the Alternate Universe element to the story to change the personalities of one or more ponies in every chapter. For me, that lessens the appeal of the story significantly (I'm just not a fan of using the AU tag as an excuse to alter characterization, personally), but I'll give this much credit: the author makes sure that at least a few close-to-canon (personality-wise, anyway) interpretations of each pony are present throughout. There's enough there, at least, to convince me that s/he had a reasonably firm grasp on those characters.
But having a decent grasp on the characters can't make up for having a "plot" seemingly concocted on a dare. I mean, there's really nothing here that makes sense, and not in a "Haha, it's funny because it's nonsense!" kind of way. When the author is pulling out stuff like "straight couples are ostracized by the majority homosexual ponies" and using them not for comedy, but for drama... again, I'm just baffled.
Have you ever had someone start telling you about something crazy, and you're laughing along with them as they keep talking, until you realize they're being serious? I have a friend who told me once, at great length, about how the western US had been "completely irradiated" by fallout from Fukushima, and was "basically uninhabitable" already; according to him, it was going to be weeks, maybe months, before every living thing within a few hundred miles of the Pacific Ocean started dropping dead from radiation poisoning, and this was all being covered up to prevent a panic. It's kind of funny, but also kind of unsettling, when someone doesn't seem to realize how silly the things they're saying sound (says the guy writing lengthy fanfic reviews. I know, I know).
Reading this story felt like that to me. It was sometimes entertaining, and some parts (at least, in the early chapters) didn't strain credulity far beyond the levels already reached via the shipping, but most of the story came across as someone throwing worldbuilding elements out willy-nilly without any regard for what sense, if any, they made.
Star rating: ★☆☆☆☆ (what does this mean?)
This story occasionally entertained, but mostly had me shaking my head in uncomprehending bemusement. Forget the "shipping every combination of pony together" part; that's one of the most normal things in this fic. Almost no plot element makes sense, even the majority which are seemingly supposed to be taken seriously.
Recommendation: If you like increasingly weird delves into crazy fan theories and nonsensical headcanon, go for it. Otherwise, this is probably one to avoid.
Next time: The Archer and the Smith, by Sharaloth