Monday, December 9, 2013

Fandom Classics Part 25: Friendship is Optimal

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

The next time someone asks me why I tend to prefer slice-of-life/problem-of-the-week episodes to epic adventure/worldbuilding ones, Daring Don't is going to be my exhibit A.  While I really liked some of the interplay between Dash and Doo (and Dash and Twilight--arguing arcana while the "normals" look on in bemusement was great), throwing Ahuizotl and company into "real Equestria" not only makes for a poor thematic fit, but introduces a whole bunch of questions without any really good answers.  I was still able to enjoy the episode (indeed, it exceeded my expectations--if only because the teaser image of Dash and company jumping into a book had me expecting even less sensical happenings), but I liked Daring Doo a lot better when she was an Indiana Jones parody, and not a "real" character.

Anyway, click on down below the break for my review of Iceman's Friendship is Optimal.

Impressions before reading:  Somehow, I had it in my head that this story was one of the fandom's high-six-digit-wordcount doorstoppers.  So my first impression was relief to see that it's about 40k words long--I don't have anything against long fics, but they do require a much larger time investment, after all.

Beyond that, the core idea (that Princess Celestia is a human-created A.I.) doesn't appeal to me at all in the abstract, but I could say the same about several stories which I've rated highly.  If nothing else, I know that this fic has inspired a lot of spin-offs, continuations, and other such, so clearly there's something here that resonates with a lot of readers.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Hoping to capitalize off of the unexpected adult male fanbase which FiM has sprouted, Hasbro inks a licensing deal for an MMO-type game.  But the world is dynamically created and altered by a "Celestia" AI, whose directive is "to satisfy everybody's values through friendship and ponies."  And that is exactly what it will do.

Thoughts after reading:  This is probably the most disturbing fanfic I've ever read, in no small part because a brief glance at the story's comments section shows that many readers don't find Celestia's actions (and their attendant fallout) disturbing at all.  I would describe this story as a warning about the seduction of hedonistic values--a warning about how easy it is to fall prey to a Nozick's Experience Machine when the "person" selling that machine is both smarter than you, and has few (for lack of a better phrase) moral compunctions.  Plenty of other people, it seems, would classify this story as a near-best-case scenario for the development of sapient AI--and would not mean that as a warning against the creation thereof.

Thankfully, Friendship is Optimal remains tonally neutral.  Celestia's logic and actions are presented through the often-incomplete perceptions of various characters, and Iceman shows a wonderfully light touch when it comes to suggesting motivations which those characters perceive.  This is very much a "what-if" fic, rather than a polemic, and what this story does incredibly well is present a compelling scenario, rather than advocate in any direction.

The greatest weak point of the fic is dialogue.  Although Celestia herself is written with a very appropriate almost-humanity which simultaneously emphasizes her alienness and her ability to understand humanity more fully than humans understand themselves, the actual humans in this story are less convincing.  Characters tend to be identified by one or two verbal tics, vocabulary and speaking style showing little other variation--both between characters, and between situations.

However, that was by no means a fic-ruining problem; the main issue was that the character voices were too similar, not that they were inherently poorly written.  And the characters behind those voices were all more than unique enough to stand apart from one another.  Sometimes people came across as excessively caricatured (e.g. Lars), but rarely beyond the realm of absolute believability.  And the exaggerated attitudes of the characters did serve a purpose in that they allowed the story to more fully show Celestia's ability to adapt (to) the individuals she encounters.

The story did get off to a slow start, I found, though I suspect that some of that may be that I've never played a WoW-type game.  As such, I had some trouble understanding what the characters were doing/trying to do in the early going--I didn't recognize some of the terminology (this was a rare but persistent issue throughout, in fact--though now that I've looked it up, "altaholic" is a great word in a D&D setting too, for people who "get bored" and want to roll up a new character every three sessions), and most of the player expectations (many were assumed, rather than stated) were lost on me.  Still, 1) I had no trouble following the events proper, 2) given the demographics in play, I suspect that having zero hands-on familiarity with MMOs is not a problem most readers will have, and 3) most importantly, once the story moved on to examining Celestia's goals and actions, these problems nearly evaporated.  And what was then left was often intelligent, pleasantly disturbing, and relentlessly interesting.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

This story is in the tradition of the best speculative fiction, so far as its plotting, tone, and willingness to dispassionately examine thorny issues are concerned.  It's so excellent in these regards, in fact, that I seriously considered giving it five stars, despite  the merely okay voicing and the fact that I had tremendous difficulty relating to the characters through the first two chapters.

Recommendation:  "In the tradition of the best speculative fiction" is a pretty apropos recommendation, actually.  If you're at all a fan of the genre, this is one worth checking out.

Next time:  Daring DONE!, by Aragon


  1. I'll give this one a shot, but that bit about MMOs has me worried. I've tried 'em a couple times (EverQuest and FFXI, specifically), but could never get into them, so I'm definitely not familiar with terminology. Most of my experience with it has been via its leak into newer editions of D&D, which produces the dual effect of making my eyes glaze over and causing me to retch. Seriously, what's with all this controller/CMD/build nonsense? I just wanna explore!

  2. Hey, I got another prediction right! I expected you to lean toward 3 rather than 5, though.

    This story is more about an idea than it is about characters. Or plot, really. But it's written very well and is indeed profoundly disconcerting. I feel that it might be more accessible if it were less about the gaming and (I can't believe I'm writing this) ponies, instead focusing on the unnervingly ideal persuasion techniques and value fulfillment. Regardless, I consider it a favorite without competition in its niche of dark sci-fi.

  3. I now want to read this story based entirely on your description of it as "disturbing". I've of course heard a lot about it in my tenure as a fanfic writer in this fandom, and I know quite a few people who have written stories in the "Optimalverse".

  4. The wooden characters:

    Reminded me of the strange, human-shaped creatures that inhabit most of Heinlein's stories. But then he did all right as a writer despite that, didn't he? :)

    Still, that and my unfamiliarity with computer games threw me out of this story halfway through chapter two. Sounds like I might wanna give it another go, though...


    1. The Heinlein comparison is very apt--or at least, I found it to be so. Iceman doesn't let his own morals run away with the story, though, as Heinlein sometimes did.

  5. The "Optimalverse" has a group devoted to it in (

    For everyone who enjoyed the creepiness of the story, I heartily recommend also "Friendship Is Optimal: Caelum Est Conterrens (Heaven is Terrifying)" at -- which I believe focuses even more strongly on the creepy/scary-ass elements of the story..

  6. In the process of writing this post, I quick opened the story to check a few facts. Now I want to read it again. So, yeah, good story.

    The juxtaposition between "transhumanist, post-singularity world" and "My Little Pony" is amusing. The author build up a fascinating world and technology chain that logically (if you're willing to accept some assumptions) leads to that world.

    Simultaneously, it's really creepy, in the way that a lot of transhumanist stories are. It ultimately does the big handwave: if if I'm scanned into another form that perfectly replicates my thought process, but that scanning process destroys my original body's brain, that original meat Alan is dead is irrelevant. That's a hell of a handwave, and very creepy.

    Societies adjustment to this creepy assumption seemed awfully fast. I'm willing to believe that as a society we might decide that it's true; the benefits are accepting it are amazing. But here everyone hopped on that train surprisingly quickly. It starts reasonably; it makes a lot of sense for the terminally ill to transfer. And there are hold outs and opposition. But society as a whole adapts with amazing speed. Sure, Celestia is literally superhumanly manipulative, but when step one is to toss your brain into a blender, I'd have liked to see more resistance. But this may just be a difference of opinion of how humans think and behave.

    Indeed, on opinions of how humans think and behave are where the author and I disagree. To an extent it's interesting to see another interpretation. The idea that people will prefer AIs tuned to them over other humans/ex-humans, even former friends and family is... interesting.

    On the other hand, There are a lot of moments that left me thinking, "no, that's just wrong, that's the mindset of a bright college kid who needs more experience in the world." If you're willing to accept that Celestia is willing to lie, and that Dave/Sparks is a bright college kid who needs more experience in the world, it works. It's particularly clear when Lars is interrogating Celestia; she cannot lie to him, and her model of humanity is a bit limited and built on stereotypical. At these moments, the characters feel particularly thin, and perhaps more of the author than intended shows through.

    Bonus in-world creepiness:

    - Equestria Online's physics, as shown to Light Sparks, don't work. That it doesn't work is okay, since we establish that Celestia can lie and a lie would serve Sparks's purpose just as well. Thus no research into the EO world can every be trusted. Discovery of "reality" is dead.

    - I would suspect that a lot of people would not be happy ("values satisfied") in Equestria Online. But it doesn't matter, since it's established that someone can realize that they won't be happy and can ask Celestia to modify their minds to allow them to be happy; and Celestia can even lie to them to convince them to give her permission.

  7. >There are a lot of moments that left me thinking, "no, that's just wrong, that's the mindset of a bright college kid who needs more experience in the world."

    When Celesta started spouting lines like "In the college dating scene, you have the top 70% of attractive females chasing the top 30% of alpha bad boys," I said to myself "Oh God, it's gonna be one of these stories." Once I got a bit farther in, and I realized that Celestia had been talking to a arrogant, self-absorbed, and generally immature college kid, and was telling him exactly what was most likely to get him to agree to upload himself. It would have been nice if the people Celestia was dealing with had felt a little deeper, but when I realized that Celestia wasn't just a mouthpiece for the author, my relief was palpable.

  8. Mentioning door stoppers, I almost feel a little sorry for you when you go back to catch up on the 6-stars and Project Horizons finally finishes, considering it's almost done.

  9. Not a bad fic considering it takes place in an alternate version of our world and all the ponies are either bronies or simulations created to entertain bronies.

    It's a fantastic sci-fi story but it's as much a FiM fanfic as a story about humans RPing as their OCs while watching the show.

    On another note, have you read The Library CLub? which is also "a warning about the seduction of hedonistic values" but with a much more relevant message.

  10. Sweet fuck, the journal post that I've been planning and am now writing about this story is pretty much everything you've said, up to and including the star rating.