Monday, April 21, 2014

Fandom Classics Part 47: Minuette's Lesson

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

Hope you all had a happy Easter weekend!  Between time with the family and a surprisingly enjoyable (if scattershot, moral- and intent-wise) episode, it's been a good one for me.  Once you finish sleeping off your Easter dinner, drop down below the break to check out my review of Airstream's Minuette's Lesson.

Impressions before reading:  "Sweetie Bot" is one of those things I just don't get.  I don't understand why people think it's cute, I don't understand why people think it's funny, and I can't for the life of me understand how it's become such a fandom thing--I mean, the humor in the Friendship is Witchcraft series (which spawned the idea of Sweetie Belle as a robot) isn't generally to my tastes to begin with, but it's had plenty of running gags, musical numbers, and stand-alone jokes which I enjoyed.  Sweetie Bot has never been one of them.  Based on that, I'm not terribly optimistic about a story that's clearly based on the Sweetie Bot meme (even if it doesn't seem to be directly connected to FiW).

Also, I'm awfully worried about the AU tag, given the premise.  Hopefully, that just means that this is a somewhat teched-up version of Equestria to accommodate a sapient AI.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  After some bullies mock her, saying a robot can't be a "real pony," her sister/builder, Rarity, offers her some advice about what it being real really means.

Thoughts after reading:  In the end, my problems with this story aren't related to the writing, nor to the plot per se.  The former is solid, the latter is classic slice of life.  The moral is a bit simple and isn't explored in great depth, but it fits the work fine.  No, my problems with this story lay in the choice of characters and setting.

The AU tag here neither indicates what I hoped for going in, nor (as I briefly wondered) that it was a FiW fanfic rather than a MLP fanfic proper; it clearly is intended as the latter.  It means, rather, that Rarity in this world is an engineer rather than a dressmaker, who builds all sorts of automatons and ponylike robots, including one (Sweetie Belle) which has gained sentience.  Why Rarity is playing this role, I honestly don't know.

That is to say, I don't know why Rarity was used in this story.  If we answer "Because her relationship to Sweetie is at the core of the story," then that only begs the question "Why is Sweetie Belle a robot in the first place?"  The only answer I can come up with is "because it's a fandom thing."  Now, just because something is or has become a fandom thing doesn't mean you can't use it in your story, but it's not in itself an explanation.  To put it another way: this story would be both thematically stronger and more immersive if it were written about two OCs rather than about Rarity and Sweetie Belle.  More, it would be stronger and more immersive still if it weren't written about ponies at all.

And there's the crux of my problem with this story: there's nothing inherently "pony" about it.  "Pony enough" is a murky line at best and almost entirely arbitrary at worst, but I feel it's a fair complaint to make when a story is actually worse because it's about ponies.  Place this story in a generic steampunk setting, change out the names, and find/replace hooves for hands (and the like), and Minuette's Lesson would not have lost one ounce of its meaning or weight as a story.  It would, however, have avoided a significant amount of thematic and characterization dissonance which the AU tag can mark, but in this case, does nothing to ameliorate.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

I don't have any particular complaints about the concept of this story.  However, I feel that the choice to use pre-existing characters, and then alter them to such a degree that they're all but unrecognizable, all while placing them in a setting which isn't natively supportive of the technological requirements of the story... well, when a plot is fairly insubstantial to begin with, those kinds of problems can quickly overwhelm the story.

Recommendation:  Hey, if Sweetie Bot is your sort of thing, and if you aren't going to get caught up in characterization or milieu issues, then by all means give this one a look.  It isn't poorly written, and it's pleasantly, inoffensively sweet throughout.  For most readers, though, I wouldn't single this out as something worth reading.

Next time:  Twilight Sparkle: Night Shift, by JawJoe


  1. Replies
    1. I've read this story, and the only thing it has in common with FiW is the whole "Sweetie Belle is a robot" thing. (Then again, that should probably be "appears to have in common", since I haven't seen much of FiW.)

  2. Been a while since I've disagreed with you quite this much, Chris :)

    1. While the story is very simple, both in its concept and execution, that just means less stuff to go wrong.

    2. It follows a nice path between fluffy and deep, straying neither into areas too twee to support the premise nor deep enough to make terminal philosophical errors.

    3. Given the subject matter, I'd say this was significantly more 'pony' than most stories. It really gets the point of MLP as a whole. It takes a simple concept, relocates it into a safe environment where it can be examined, and then does something heart-warming and meaningful with it.

    No, the only thing that lets this down for me is the quality of the writing. There are a lot of amateurish mistakes like repetition and lack of flow that keep this from being in the upper echelons of pony fiction, but I'd still give it three stars. With better prose, this could have been a four.

    Lastly. This story has as much to do with Friendship is Witchcraft as it does Star Wars or Lost in Space. I feel you're doing it a disservice by the comparison. I also have no issue with the use of Rarity for this purpose, since, unlike The Glass Blower, the distinction is clear and open. Then again, you did mark The Glass Blower down for the same, so you at least get marks for consistency.

    Aren't I generous?


  3. Sweetie Bot is great because

    A) Who turns Sweetie Belle into a robot for a parody show? I mean really, who would have thought of that? It's ridiculous!

    B) Her primary function is failure.

    Also, Rarity-as-engineer is actually a fairly old, if not well-tread, alternate universe trope. I first saw it all the way back in a fantastic AU fic that will never be finished (Storm Princess by MoronSonOfBoron, in which Rarity loses her legs in a horrible accident and learns robotics -- it's a futurist setting -- in order to get herself back on her hooves), and it continues to crop up now and then. Granted, I can't explain it either, but there you go.

  4. I've been following the blog for some time now, and as someone deeply interested in literary analysis and reviewing, I love the reviews here. I plan on going through all of fanfiction featured in the fandom classics and seeing whether or not I share the same opinions as Chris does. I may post my thoughts in the comments sections of those posts, I'm not sure yet.

    Anyway, on to this story. I just read it and I have to say that I really enjoyed it. I wasn't bothered by the fact that this is Rarity and Sweetie Bell, and I think that they fit the story for two important reasons.

    The first is that by using recognizable characters, the author can rely on them to connect with the readers and focus on the core elements of the story. I think the second reason is that Rarity and Sweetie's relationship is of two sisters, instead of father/daughter or mother/daughter which is usually seen is stories like these. The relationship between the two is already well-defined and clear, thanks to the show.

    (Sisterhood in fiction usually only gets focus if both are children, or if the story is about family in general. Exceptions like Frozen and Lilo and Stitch exist of course, but the rule is there regardless). Rarity is not Sweetie Bells mother, and their relationship is different because of that.

    In addition, Rarity being a engineer made sense to me, because the difference is clearly explained. Canon!Rarity focuses on making dresses and putting them on the outside of the mannequins, giving them a facsimile of life, but ultimately only for the purpose to show off her dresses for the living.

    This Rarity focuses on what's on the inside of the mannequins, making the likeness to living ponies even more clear. This Rarity chose to take her artistic nature to the next level, creating something more than (as the author put it) "fabrics and frills" but something that actually interacts with ponies. Sweetie Bell is just the obvious culmination of that interaction.

    What really sold me though, was the story's emotional weight and that it asks the reader to consider a very deep question but presents it a simple, nonthreatening way. The setting also fits the tone of the work, by making this set in ponyville, (as InquisitorM put it) by taking the heavy issue outside of the grittiness of real life and places it inside a world of pastels and idealism to keep the message simple and prevent it from becoming preachy.

    Another aspect is that the Author doesn't have to tell us who these bullies are, we know who they are because the show's done the bulk of the work in characterizing them, same with Twilight, Celestia, etc... This allows the story to focus on the message at it's heart without having to stop and explain the situations in more detail, the familiarity that the show brings allows the reader to fill in any gaps for himself.

    In conclusion, I think that "What is the difference between a machine designed to emulate human qualities and a human itself'?" is a fascinating question and the story comes to a very simple, but heartwarming conclusion. I'd actually like to see more of this alternate universe and more of Sweetie Bell. This feels like the beginning of Sweetie's heroic journey, and I'd like to see where she ends up after she accepts her calling to become something more than just a machine.

    P.S. InquisitorM already dealt with the flaws in the writing, and the only thing I can add is that I felt the prose to be somewhat dry at first, but I ended up becoming invested regardless. I'd definitely recommend this one, and it's getting an upvote, a favorite and Airstream is going on my watch-list.

    1. (Imma count this as a reply to Mr. M too, since it's going to cover the same territory)

      I do appreciate that this story was told from a sibling perspective, rather than a parental one; I thought that was a nice touch, actually. But what I don't see is how Rarity and Sweetie Belle add anything to it. The two characters interact as sisters, refer to one another as sisters, and honestly, I'm not sure what elements these two characters bring to the table that aren't completely covered by the fact that they identify as sisters.

      It might be that this is just how I expect sisters to act, but I couldn't identify anything which Rarity and Sweetie contributed as characters that enhanced the story in a way which a pair of ponies (or humans) who identified as sisters, but with whom I had no previous emotional connection, wouldn't have. Likewise, while it makes sense to use Diamond Tiara and the crew if you're going to set this story in Ponyville, I can't think of a single thing this story would have lost if Sweetie had just referenced "the bullies" to Rarity. And what I keep coming back to is that, if these things aren't adding to the story, and if writing the story involved making major changes to the characters to fit them into the story... well, what about that was a good decision?

      I agree with you both, though, that the way the moral was treated so lightly was refreshing change from most stories of this type. I don't believe the setting helped sell me on that (if anything I felt it detracted there as well--I find that the presence of literal magic can too easily allow for questions of technological morality to be sidestepped), but that's just my take on it.

      Anyway, thanks for the comments! I can see where you guys are coming from--I hope this post makes clear what I'm seeing differently. Have fun with the other Fandom Classics, Dicehoarder, and if you decide to comment on them, I'll be interested to hear what you have to say!

  5. I haven't actually read this story, so I'm speaking only on the principle of the matter, but I completely agree with Chris that it's a bad idea to shoehorn characters into roles for which they're not obviously suited without connecting the dots as to how they got there. I've never understood the argument that it makes sense to use a canon character simply because that means the author doesn't have to do the work of defining that character and her relationships. That's just a lazy shortcut of avoiding development of the author's persona in an original character. If one of the canon personalities fits the role, fine, but too many stories cram a canon character into a poor fit of a role for this very reason. Canon Rarity is not an engineer. If an author wants to make her into one, then he has to convince me the progression there from canon makes sense. Otherwise, it's not Rarity, and he's better served inventing his own character. Both require work. Too many authors don't want to do that work.

    1. But if you don't use canon characters, who would read the story?

      It's not necessarily laziness. Sometimes it's just smart business.

    2. That was my point exactly. If you use canon characters, then use canon characters. Don't redefine them into something they're not without ever bridging the gap. It may be smart business, but it's bad writing.

    3. Why not?

      If this story had been written with OC's instead of redefined canon characters, far fewer people would have read it, and if no one reads it, then what's the point?

    4. You're conflating two completely different things. It's a good marketing strategy, but that doesn't necessarily make for good writing anymore than slicker graphics make for good gameplay. The author got more people to read it, sure, but potentially at the expense of the story's quality. That may work for them, but not all of their readers going to enjoy the end result

    5. As an addendum to what ProfessorOats said: this strategy is also unlikely to work more than once on any given individual, and is therefore not a good long-term strategy. When canon characters are written so strangely by an author as to be basically OCs, I'm not going to come back to that author. They may pretend to be writing (insert favourite character here), but they're really not. Fool me once and all that.

  6. Could you hide your star rating behind a spoiler tag? Right now, my tendency is to read your introduction, pagedown to get to the meat of the review, see the star rating, and drop down to the comments, where I read InquisitorM's review instead, which defeats half my purpose in coming here, which is to read your reviews and comments from other people who write things worth reading.

    1. That's not a bad idea. I like to read the whole review before checking the star rating, but sometimes it pops into view as I scroll down

    2. The spoiler tag is a little annoying to use (because I have to go into the html, and I'm always terrified that I'll break the internet when I do)... but only a little annoying. I'll give it a test run on tomorrow's post!

  7. This has nothing to do with the story, but...

    Sweetie Bot is best pony. Sweetie Bot is the funniest thing in the fandom, and possibly the universe.

    It isn't just that Sweetie Belle is a robot. It's also that she's a robot in a world that's deathly afraid of robots, and she is unaware that she's a robot and is also deathly afraid of robots. It's also that nopony notices she's a robot when she's obviously a robot, even though they're anxiously watching out for robots. It's also that Sweetie Bot is the most caring pony in the FiW world, where everyone else is psychopathic and/or homicidal. It's also the scene in which Sweetie Belle accuses Rarity of being a robot.

    1. As a robot, you are merely programmed to say that.

    2. He's onto us. Quick, activate his toaster and microwave. He must not survive to spread the word.