Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Fandom Classics Part 74: The Last Human

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

One of the odd things about middle-schoolers (well, teens and pre-teens generally) is that they're desperate to forge an identity for themselves, often with little regard for how well it fits.  Even if that identity literally doesn't fit at all, even.  Where I work, the "Mexican" kids hang tightly together--even though the kids in question don't seem to really understand what "Mexican" is, using it to vaguely encompass anyone Hispanic who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, and encompassing kids born not just in Mexico/raised by Mexican parents, but also students from Salvador and third-generation Americans.  But not an actual Spanish student, who speaks Spanish "wrong," nor a white teacher who was raised in Tijuana.  On one hand, it's kind of cute, and I get that creating an identity is part of being that age.  On the other, these kids need to know what the words they're using mean.

Speaking of identities, here's a story that features that as a theme!  Identities, that is, not Mexican-ness.  PatchworkPoltergeist's The Last Human: Tales of the Pre-Classical Era, below the break.

NOTE:  This review contains ending spoilers.  Don't worry, they're behind a spoiler tag you have to click to read... but since I can't figure out how to put multiple spoiler tags into a single post, that means that today's star rating is unspoiled.  Just FYI!

Impressions before reading:  A The Last Unicorn crossover, eh?  It's probably been more than two decades since I read the story, but I liked it a lot when I was little.  I watched the movie much more recently, though; it ended up taking me two tries to watch it, as the first time I quit in disgust halfway through the butterfly's scene (seriously, who drops showtunes and barbershop standbys in the middle of a medieval-fantasy tale?).  I was only convinced to give it another chance when I was promised Christopher Lee, and to be fair, the awful butterfly bit was just a one-off thing.  Anyway, given the obvious reversal, I'm interested to see what this does with a flipped script.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  A human, living alone in the decaying ruins of his city, discovers that he may be the last human remaining.  He sets out to discover what happened to the others of his kind, a journey fraught with peril as he confronts the inheritors of the planet; few remember his kind at all, and those who do are not all friendly.

Thoughts after reading:  This story hews very, very closely to The Last Unicorn, and this proves to be to both its benefit and detriment.  Let's start with the good: the prose in this story is stunningly immersive, drawing heavily on Peter S. Beagle's style.  At a glance, it might be easy to write this off as "just" a good aping, but that wouldn't do Patchwork justice for two reasons.  First, mimicking someone's writing style when one isn't actually plagiarizing them is no mean feat in and of itself; it requires plenty of skill and effort to consistently match the vocabulary, cadence, and construction which go into anyone's writing.  Second... well, this isn't just plagiarizing.  The writing is consistently florid but readable, and slightly distant, and the way it's constructed makes it a pleasure to read.  Moreover, the character voices do some very nice things; the slightly formal way in which the ponies speak reinforces the idea that this is in the distant past without being distracting, and the author shows comfort in writing a variety of voices, and in expressing personality and background through vocabulary and phrasing.

What I was less impressed with was how the story elements of The Last Unicorn were translated to this story.  Many of them are nearly scene-for-scene matchups, and while the lore and peripherals were wonderfully ponified, some of the events proper don't seem to have been totally integrated.  Moreover, there are some issues with how the protagonist is handled.  While using Amalthea as a jumping-off point to relate what unicorns are like works fine, the reverse doesn't necessarily; the readers are humans, after all, and when the protagonist is used as a racial exemplar the talk often falls flat.  Some of this exemplar-ifying is clearly in-character, but other parts seem narratively sincere, and these tend to rankle.

Other decisions are simply odd, such as the insistence on not revealing the main character's name until the very end of the story.  I've never liked names as a reveal in principal; if the character's name had turned out to be Todd (spoiler alert: he's not named Todd), it would have changed exactly nothing about the story, which makes it feel like a minor element relative to the weight placed on it.  Couple that with the fact that the narrative reveal (that is, when he tells someone his name) is separated by multiple scenes from the reader reveal (when his name is first actually typed out), and finding out what the protagonist's name is is a remarkable anticlimax.  Similarly, the amount of time which passes from chapter to chapter is often buried several pages in, which detracts from some of the developments in the later chapters as it's not immediately clear how much the passage of time has impacted the character in question.  These choices and others tend to weaken crucial moments, making the story feel more staid than it properly should.

With that said, the narrative arc is still a strong one.  It's true that much of it is, again, taken from the book it's inspired by, but this is comfortably on the right side of the tribute/ripoff divide.  Human uses the same progression as its inspiration, but the differences in what the protagonist is like, what he seeks, and most of all in the world around him, all set this comfortably on its own two (four) legs.  The one place where this collapsed for me is at the end, but I can't really talk about why without spoilers.  So, click the tag below if you don't mind knowing how the story ends!  For the rest of you, I'll just say that the ending suffers from us, the readers, knowing what Equestria's future looks like.

Star rating: 

This is a wonderfully well-written story, not just in the sense of showing technical competence, but in executing a consistent, enjoyable, evocative tone through narrative, character voices, and overall style.  It most often fails when it tries to hew too closely to The Last Unicorn's construction and specific scenes, but while this did sour some patches, my overall impressions are still unquestionably positive.

Recommendation:  People specifically looking for a The Last Unicorn homage will doubtless be very happy with the skill and love with which this was executed.  More general readers may enjoy this as a sprawling, worldbuilding, G1-allusion-filled adventure, but those bothered by drama-reducing slip-ups or the presentation of humans generally might not find this to their tastes.

Next time:  In Her Majesty’s Royal Service, by Sagebrush


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Bleh. Need to pay more attention.

      Anyway, a human in maybe-Equestria-maybe-not is going to need a lot more fanfare than that to get me interested.

  2. We're trading reviews, I see. <.< I have Last Human on my follower get list and reviewed Royal Service a little while ago.

  3. I'm absolutely in love with The Last Unicorn, so I guess I'll read this one.

    (Also, being a non-native English speaker, the butterfly thing flew over my head. I literally didn't get what the hell was that supposed to mean -- I take from your words that it, uh, sings showtunes? ...Weird).

    Still love that freaking book.

  4. Ouch? Only three stars? I thought Patchwork's outstanding prose would have earned it more than that :(