Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fandom Classics Part 10: The Combinatorics Project

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

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


  1. I've never quite understood the point of this fic. Shipping the mane six in all possible combinations is a fair and noble pursuit, especially if all of the relationships are drawn from an omniship, but changing the characters to get there removes the sport of it. I've never read this fic, despite my general enjoyment of shipping, and now I'll probably just continue doing that.

  2. Replies
    1. I don't know why you would, at this point. You'd think that once I typed a word a few hundred times, I'd stop misspelling it...

      Hows about I go gussy that up a bit, eh?

  3. This is one of my favorite fics because -- despite at least one severely flawed chapter (I forget the number; it included PinkieShy) -- its balls-out premise was laudable and the way everything wraps up by the end was wacky and outrageous. Truly outrageous. It also turned me on to a number of mane cast ships I otherwise had discounted and contains one of the best AppleDash scenes I've ever read.

    That said, it absolutely not the sort of story Chris should be reading. :V

    1. I'm not sure whether to find that last sentence incredibly patronizing, weirdly sweet, or both. In either case, now I'm going to picture you and your lackeys (you have lackeys, right?) as the controlling councilors to my benign but naive sultan, guarding me from the harsh realities of fanfiction.

    2. Of course Present has lackeys! Who do you think he is? To even suggest that he lacks lackeys... Present's got lackeys, lac keys and lax keese. Know why? 'Cause he's the Emperor Grand Wizard of Shipping, son, and don't you forget it!

      Also, I'm now picturing you as the Sultan Hamed (or was it Bobolonius?) from Aladdin, and I love the image in my head of Present rubbing his hands together conspiratorially

    3. I'm not charismatic enough to have lackeys yet. :B But I do have a posse.

      Chris, it's just a recognition of the stories and you, personally, tend to enjoy. Or at least, those you don't. I will totally Jafar to your Sultan, however. :V

  4. Archer and the Smith...

    This is going to be both fun and infuriating.

  5. This sounds like something I would write.

    Oh dear.

  6. You talk about some of the plot elements in this story giving you that "lol... Oh... You're serious..." feeling. Well hearing you actually take these plot points as the author's literal headcanon just because they are a point of drama or worldbuilding in the story rather than comedy is giving me that "lol... Oh... You're serious..." feeling. So good job exemplifying your own point while missing it entirely.

    The entire story is supposed to be ridiculous with only the connections between the mane 6 as meaningful. Everything in the story is a contrivance to frame the alternate versions and make the relationships in each more different than merely in the pairings.

    Do you actually assume that every idea that any story takes seriously is automatically considered right or reasonable by the author? Hell no. Plenty of authors write using themes, ideas, politics, personalities and content that they personally do not subscribe to. It's called writing a compelling story. Just because "write what you know" is an adage does not mean it is nor should it be followed at all times. To give a really tangential example: You can write Judge Dredd while being against capital punishment.


    This story is a weird experimental romance that was written for the amusement of the fandom using almost entirely left field plot twists and fandom tropes. While I fully respect your preferential opinion as to whether you enjoyed the story or not, and why, I feel that in some of the point you bring up you may have a bit of "critic's tract." Especially in the negative tone when you theorize this premise may have been a challenge/dare. I just do not understand why that should automatically be a negative point. Just because you like what you like based on a certain literary appeal does not mean that all works of fiction need to be assessed based on the same literary standards. This story is not literature so much as it is a non-derogatory send-up of shipping and silly plot-lines. If you go into this partial-parody with the same mindset you go into general fiction with you will badly misconstrue not the story itself, but the intent and and spirit in which it was written and should be read. And likely wind up just as confused and conflicted as you appear in this review.

    1. Hmm. There's a lot I want to answer here, so let me break this up a bit.

      1) I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with crafting a story premise based on a dare. I do think it's safe to say that having a story which feels as if it were written on a dare is a bad thing. For example, AugieDog's In Their Highnesses' Clandestine Corps was written for an "oddball shipping" challenge, but that's not something I would have guessed from reading the story alone. The shipping, whether one finds it convincing or not, is given context and integrated into the story's larger events. If an action only makes sense in the context of "because the author needs it to happen," that's bad regardless. And when that thing (shipping every character together in every combination, in this case) sounds a lot like a dare, I don't think it's unreasonable to say that it sounds like the author was dared to write it. I don't know that s/he was, of course; I'm just saying it wouldn't at all surprise me if that was the case.

      2) I do not think that this story represents the author's views on canon Equestria, though in retrospect it's obvious that comparing the reading experience to "an extended foray into someone's increasingly nonsensical headcanon" and to my Fukushima friend suggests exactly that. That's bad reviewing on my part--I should have been clearer that in both cases I was talking about the reader's experience, not the author's personal opinions. I do think that most of those elements are taken seriously within the story itself (hence the comparisons), but that's another matter.

    2. 3) I have to disagree that the larger worldbuilding was parody (keeping in mind that whether or not it was intended as parody is another matter altogether). The fact is that many of the worldbuilding elements weren't presented in a parodic or comedic manner. By contrast, the shipping itself often did at least straddle the line between serious and poking fun at fandom conventions.

      For example, the anti-straight angle in chapter three is obviously not parody (or if it is, it's an awfully poor one), seeing as it's much more mild than any of the fics it might ostensibly be parodying--parody is an act of exaggeration by definition, and here the heterophobia is never taken to the level of a typical serious heterophobic story, let alone to the point of comic over-representation (say, by having an angry mob ready to pie and feather Dash for her sexuality, or Dash having to pass a "straight test" to get government work--both of which would be only mild steps up from what I've seen in, ostensibly serious fics which use the premise). If this was intended to be poking fun at people who write heterophobic stories, it fell far short of the mark. I really do suspect that the device was intended to be used for drama, though.

      By contrast, Twilight and RD working out a seemingly intractable social dilemma and getting over a gender swap in the space of maybe two minutes could easily be read as a parody of deus ex machina shipping, where a couple declares undying love and all the fic's conflict is instantly, magically resolved (in this case, literally!). I certainly don't see the shipping here as "meaningful;" rather, I considered it one of the fic's comic elements.

      Or in the last chapter, Pinkie's reality-sensing ways might be seen as comic exaggeration... if they weren't the standard for an entire subgroup of fanfiction, practically its own genre at this point, in most of which she's rather more aware of what she's doing than here. I don't see the parodic aspect at all, and to me the natural reading is to treat this as a "serious" development. I don't think it works terribly well as a serious development, as I hope I made clear in the review, but it would definitely be worse if treated comedically--all one would be left with was the author playing the oldest meta-joke in the ponyfic book completely straight! By contrast, Pinkie explicitly acknowledging that she and Dash are going to hook up by going on a multiversal adventure together does make for a nice sendup of the "love by mutual questing" trope, and I thought it was genuinely funny to have the characters be aware that they were going to set themselves up by doing it.

      In short, I completely (or rather, exactly) disagree with your interpretation of the story. I think what we have here is some ridiculous shipping, around which is wrapped a lot of (ineffectually) serious worldbuilding. Whether this was the author's intent or not is another matter, but I went back over some of the key sections of the story before typing up this response, and I really feel that "silly and often comic shipping plus serious (or at least, ineffectively parodic) worldbuilding" is a fair assessment of what was actually produced.

    3. 1) I am fine with not liking the execution.

      2) I accept that.

      3) I did not mean to imply that all these details are purely parody, only that the fic itself is a partial parody.

      I think you are still thinking too hard about the author trying to make a statement with his ideas when it is quite obvious he was merely trying to throw weird and fandom trope supported (the heterophobia was surprisingly popular in S1 era) twists into the alternate realities. Not because they made sense but because it defined the world as different.

      You had the first 2 chapters as relatively close to canon so the rest got progressively wackier. Then he made the last chapter have a wacky story instead of world. That's all there is to it.

      You seem very hung up on anything that is not supposed to be taken seriously having to be charicaturized or comedic. It does not.

  7. As for 50 Shades, I have not read it myself so I do not know if it is a story with lots of sex or porn framed by a story. The former I would be OK with kids reading (I read at a university level when I was 12 so King, Koontz, Barker, Straub, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Butler, Rice, etc. were my formative years. And I'm not completely fucked up so yeah! But the latter could give a kid the very wrong impression of things, not understanding that sexual obsession is a hormonal tide that comes and goes and one should not focus too much time around it. A lesson that too few in this fandom know. In more comprehensive it is apparent that these values are held by people who are more then the sum of their (naughty) parts. In porn, story or no, the focus is on titillation and the characters tend to become the plot themselves rather than those who define it. The objectification of a characterization can be head to distinguish for younger readers as I myself discovered when comparing the eroticism in Anne Rice's regular novels with her erotica. The contrast was obvious and startling, but many readers don't have such a distinct lesson, especially with high-speed internet allowing anyone to seek out their wildest fantasy without the temperance of understanding or earning it.

    1. Anne Rice wrote actual erotica?! Considering how I reacted to The Vampire Armand in high school, I think that would be a bit much for me to handle

    2. Oh god. Armand. Marius was such a perv...

      Not a kinky as Lestat drinking that nun's period while eating her out at the end of Memnoch The Devil though...

      And nowhere near as depraved as the Witches series.

      But yeah, she wrote The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty (trilogy) of bdsm erotica under a pseudonym, as well a a novel called Belinda under another pseudonym.

    3. Ick, don't remind me of the nun! I'll never understand why Anne Rice had to ruin things with the straight stuff. Just gross

      Never read Mayfair Witches. Was that series any good? Only Rice work I've read outside The Vampire Chronicles was Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, which I guess is being adapted to film soon

    4. In my opinion her only truly good books were the original vampire trilogy. Interview, Lestat, Damned.

      Mayfair is her really creepy grimdark series. I do not like it at all.

      I recommend Servant of the Bones. It is by far her least fucked up book.

      But srsly. Nearly everyone in the vampire books is bisexual. If I don't squick over the gay, try not to squick over the straight.