Monday, June 29, 2015

Fandom Classics Part 115: What I've Become

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

Remember to pop over here and answer a few questions for me, if you're so inclined!

I'll be leading with that for the next couple of posts, by the by; I've gotten about 30 answers already, but I want to make sure I catch any semi-regular visitors--I know some folks pop by weekly, for example, and I want to make sure they have a chance to tell me stuff, if they're interested in doing so.

Anyway, on to reviewing!  My thoughts on Knight Breeze's What I've Become, below the break.

Impressions before reading:  A human-gets-dropped-into-Equestria story, eh?  Can't say that's a genre I've had much luck with, in my past reading experience.  Of course, this fic also has Carrot Top right on the cover, so surely that's worth something!
To be honest, though, my biggest red flag doesn't come from anything in this fic's description, but from the short description of the sequel, which I couldn't help reading when it was sitting on the right-hand sidebar from this story: "Though no longer plagued with a face that would give Slender nightmares, Alex continues to struggle against a monster far worse than the one he was..."  I'm really hoping that that's not indicative of the quality of presentation in this story.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Kidnapped from earth by aliens and mutated into a hideous beast, a lone (former) human becomes stranded in the woods of Equestria, terrified to expose himself to the local populace for fear of what they'll do to the monster he's become.

Thoughts after reading:  This is actually a really interesting story to discuss, because it does several things extremely well... and several other things extremely poorly.

Let's start with some good, though!  To wit, Knight Breeze does an excellent job finding the right place to begin the story, and parceling out information from there at a pace which is neither overwhelming nor frustratingly slow.  The story begins with the former-human out hunting, and thrusts the reader immediately into action.  Frankly, it was refreshing not to have the one or two chapters of seemingly obligatory backstory-dumps which I've come to associate with the early goings of these kind of fics.  Instead, What I've Become chooses a logical pseudo-in media res moment to begin, then provides context and background as needed, mostly in relatively organic ways.

The excellent pacing of the information-parceling, however, belies the generally poor structuring of the story itself.  By far the biggest offender here is the tendency to repetition; although this is occasionally done with intent (scenes which overlap from different points of view are common), many times the narration expounds upon what characters have just finished discussing, or a POV shift will be accompanied by the new focus character traveling down the same tracks of logic that the reader had just been guided down by the previous character.  More than once, the narration will describe an event, and then (either immediately or shortly thereafter) a character who was present will describe that event, in detail, to one who wasn't.  This kind of redundancy is a near-constant throughout the story.

Pacing is also an issue when the "aliens" issue comes to the fore near the end of the story; without giving too much away, the story moves from one ex-human and a bunch of ponies to that plus a full-fledged sci-fi subplot involving intergalactic politics, shadowy conspiracies, and a bit of plans-within-plans-ing.  I actually liked the alien stuff a lot, in and of itself--but it's such an overwhelming addition, crammed into so little space (and much of it setting up the sequel, rather than fully resolving), that it feels almost like a completely different story.  On the other hand, this all did give a perfectly adequate (at least, in the context of the story being told) reason for our human-turned-living-nightmare to end up on Equestria in the first place, and I appreciated there being some sense of logic to that.

But then we come to the human himself.  At his first introduction, I was mildly impressed; considering how his background is essentially "human given body of terrifying killing machine," I was pleased to see that this wasn't a case of an author living out some power fantasy in his fanfiction.  I'm sure anyone who's read even a moderate amount of fanfiction knows the kind of thing I'm talking about, and if so, you can imagine how relieved I was that not only wasn't the protagonist's "predicament" a thinly-veiled excuse to dominate everyone and everything around him, but was... well, was pretty horrible for him, as one imagines being genetically altered against one's will must be.

However, there is a strong wish fulfillment aspect to this story, and it's all about pity.  The protagonist's had a rough go of things, to put it mildly, and the story doesn't shy away from acknowledging that... but instead goes the other direction, focusing on showing how sympathetic literally everypony is to his plight.  I think all of us wish, from time to time, that others would recognize just how hard our lives are.  The protagonist here feels like a manifestation of that desire, a miserable ball of self-loathing whom nopony can help but feel sorry for, and whom everypony invariably realizes is not a monster, but a fragile creature in need of tenderness and kindness (note that I'm in no way accusing Knight Breeze of writing this story to vicariously soak in the sympathy the protagonist receives; I'm simply pointing out that, deliberately or not, this character is an incredible sympathy sponge.  "Wish fulfillment" is sometimes used interchangeably with "author insert power trip," but they are two very different things, and this is clearly not a case of the latter!).  The ponies often go absurdly over the top to establish how special he is in his suffering, and how much he deserves their sympathy, as in this exchange between Luna and her guards shortly after she's visited his dreams:
"His form is not his own. He was turned into this shape by creatures of unfathomable cruelty, forced to do a great many horrors in their name, only to finally awaken and see the horror that he had become,” Princess Luna said, shivering a little as she spoke. “He is not a monster, but he sees himself as one, and he fled from us because he assumed that we would treat him as nothing but. He thought that any encounter with ponies would result in his death and dissection, so he has made it a point to avoid all contact with us.” 
Captain Seeker nodded in understanding at this, compassion in his eyes. 
“How long has he been alone?” 
“Six months.” 
Captain Seeker blanched at this, his eyes filled with worry. “I'm surprised he hasn't gone mad by this point!” 
“He is incredibly strong willed, this much is true,” Princess Luna said as she sat down on the cool grass that lined the riverbank.
Note how careful Luna (and others, in other places) are to make clear that the protagonist has never done anything wrong, at least of his own accord; suffering is only truly sympathetic if unearned, after all.  The point is that the protagonist's defining characteristic is that he has suffered, and that much of the story ends up being about showing how his suffering is uniquely awful to such a degree that no one could possibly fail to pity him... and they don't (fail to).

When not focused on his misery, though, the story does give him a fairly pleasant voice.  In his internal narration, he's a bit defensively jocular, but never insulting nor world-weary, and this humor gives a nice lift to the story at times ("[The pony] had wisely decided to beat a hasty retreat.  Unluckily for her, however, she had failed to notice the tree that had stealthily spent the last seventy or eighty years growing in the exact spot where it could conk some poor soul attempting to flee from an alien monster").  This voice quickly falls apart outside of the protagonist's narration, however; although the humor mostly evaporates when the POV shifts (as it should, since it's no longer "his" voice), the word choice, tone, and style stay virtually identical throughout.  It's rather distracting that the protagonist and Princess Luna, for example, use the same internal vocabulary.  There are also some regular appeals directly to the reader, which I found an unwelcome breaking of immersion.

But beyond that, the story has one thing going for it that kept me engaged until the end: it's got Carrot Top in it.

...Okay, seriously though: the thing I really appreciated throughout was that, even when it indulged its most maudlin tendencies, this fic remained interesting.  Whether it was big things like the galactic politics toward the end, or smaller moments like Pinkie being Pinkie, or even throwaway bits like the protagonist's quest to figure out how to make pants so he doesn't have to wander around naked all the time, What I've Become is never stingy with features which are intelligent in conception, and interesting in their own right.  Not all of those elements don't fit well into the story as a whole, but if nothing else, the patchwork they make is regularly engaging.

Star rating:

There's a lot here that doesn't cleanly come together, and a lot more that feels uncomfortably like looking in on the protagonist's personal (interplanetary!) pity party... but there's also a lot of neat ideas stitched together here.

Recommendation:  If you aren't put off by the idea of a protagonist as sympathy magnet, this one might be worth checking out for readers looking for a good example of how to justify getting a human to Equestria without loading down a story with explaining, and showing some of the challenges of that transition effectively.

Next time:  Of Apples and Roses and Thick Purple Proses, by RavensDagger


  1. Eeeeeeeh... It sounds like the author put a lot of personal effort into this story, but pretty much everything you've described about it corresponds with my list of things that bug me in pony stories. Especially the pity thing. Goodness gracious the pity thing. Having characters in the story monologue about how much pity the protagonist deserves actually makes me pity them less. It's like watching one of those really bad movies about protecting the environment. Don't coddle the rain forests! Let them stand up for themselves for once! Actually let 'em earn some respect instead of telling me why I should feel bad about their problems!

    On the flip side of that statement, I should probably say that having characters sympathize with the protagonist isn't what actually bothers me, but sympathy and pity are different things. You pity pathetic things; things like children and filthy peasants. Even if you admire them for putting up with their hardships, it's very condescending. For me, sympathy is more of an adult emotion. It's seeing someone as an equal, understanding what hardships they've gone through, then appreciating them for fighting the good fight, as compared to simply enduring a beating.

    I once read a quote that said, "Life's not a race; it's a burn ward." I always liked that way of putting it. With racing it's all about pushing yourself to be the best. You win by beating everyone else. In a burn ward, everyone's burned. The goal isn't to win; it's to persevere, heal, and learn to deal with your scars; the same scars everyone has, to varying degrees. In stories, the heroes shouldn't be seen as something special for having problems. The hero should be seen as special for having integrity, or resolve, or a particularly endearing form of insanity. Something that would make other characters like them, and want to help them not just because they need help, but because being around them is inspiring!

    In short, when it comes to stories, I don't pity the fool, but I do appreciate their foolish efforts.

    1. Wow, you really need to check your privilege. White cishets, like you probably are, have been persecuting rainforests for thousands of years. We aren't "coddling" them, we're working to repair the millennia of damage caused by you rapists! And they don't need to "earn" your respect, biophobe, they deserve it by virtue of being one of Gaia's precious snowflakes. Meatsacks like you make me sick #SaveTheRainforest #NatureOverMurder #KillAllHumans

    2. As a #Wrongskin tri-sexual identifying as an attack helicopter, I would like to offer a #SafeSpace for the Professor to connect with the anger caused by oppressive binary-rigid shitlords and their problematic subconscious patriarchal auras.

      I have vegan cookies and a ball pit.

    3. ...Wow. I didn't understand a single thing either of you just said. How many made-up words has Tumblr created at this point?!

    4. I don't think that number is quantifiable, nor is it staying on tumblr...

    5. We are not here to educate you! It is so triggering that you're denying xer experiences by not even bothering to know what xer are talking about.

      Also, "Life's not a race"? Excuse me, but that is literally denying the experiences of millions of Bodies of Color, and is like saying that slavery never happened. You are clearly pro-genocide.

      (Way, WAY too many made up words...)

    6. It's a hard life being an aneurotypical transabled heteromantic demisexual machinekin. Damned heteronormative mechaphobes.

      (seriously, this is like home away from home right now)

    7. Goddammit, I'm cracking up way too hard at the "attack helicopter" and "ball pit" parts of your comment, Scott XD

    8. Thank you. That made my day :)

    9. It made mine too. You are all wonderful people and I love you dearly.

  2. Ahh. next one is a story that I promised myself for ages that I'd get round to reading – mostly for T.D.'s sake – but I never did. Will be interesting to see it broken down.

  3. This just in: Chris in support of LoHaV/Displaced! News at 11.

    The word you're looking for is "Sympathy Sue". :B