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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