Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Fandom Classics Part 117: Mortality Report

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

I was Youtube surfing yesterday, and came back across this gem from early 2011.  Boy, that takes me back... none of the pony videos were in HD yet, PMVs were still novel (and rare) enough that you could reasonably watch most or all of them, and Dash got designated the "happy boy" because there were barely any male characters in the show yet.  Ah, good times; that video still puts a smile on my face.

Speaking of old stories, here's one from 2012!  Three whole years; in ponydom, that's practically forever!  And it's about oldness!  Triple-confluence!

...Anyway, click down below the break for my take on Bad Horse's Mortality Report.

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:  Bad Horse is an author I've had mixed experiences with; he's written at least two stories that I really loved, and several more which, for different reasons, were various degrees of misses for me as a reader.  But I know he's perfectly capable of writing something good, and I know he likes to write about/with Big Ideas, which I'm generally on board for.  So, despite the Sad tag and description, I'm pretty confident (and really hoping I'm right) that this isn't just another "alicorns angsting" fic.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  As an elderly Twilight lies on her deathbed, Celestia composes a letter to her Queen, detailing what the death of her latest student has taught her, and what she intends to do about it.

Thoughts after reading:  Yup, this is a Big Ideas fic.

To start with, let's get the details out of the way.  First, this is from well before the end of S2, so set your expectations for what was canon/was known about canon appropriately.  Second, there are several minor editing issues (a couple of missing spaces, a quill mysteriously turning into a pen halfway through the letter, etc.) which, despite occasionally occurring in highly-visible spots, don't impede comprehension.  Third, the story's got both line breaks and indents for each paragraph, if you're one of those people who gets worked up about that sort of thing (you strange person, you).

The story itself is interesting primarily because it's told entirely from Celestia's perspective, and there's a lot of ambiguity regarding how reliable (or at least, accurate) her understanding and decisions are.  I'm going to need to break out spoilers to discuss that, however.  If you don't mind knowing about the ending, click the link; otherwise, let's let "the most interesting part of this story is the ambiguity" stand.

Oddly enough, the biggest problem with this story is Celestia's characterization.  I say this is odd because the story is more-or-less a character piece about Celestia; 4000 words about the complex cauldron of loyalties and desires that bind her.  The problem is that the genesis of issues which by rights should have been visible since, or even before, she came to Equestria, seem to be shoved into the space of a single decision point by her need to enunciate them all in the letter she's writing.  To a certain extent, of course, this is a reasonable storytelling shortcut--the reader needs to find out those issues somehow, after all.  But when Celestia's spending time explaining her centuries-old decision to give ponies Cutie Marks to a Queen to whom she's nominally been sending reports for hundreds of years, it leads to the impression that either the conceit is being overlooked, either because Celestia should have mentioned this "lesson" earlier, or because this problem should have come to the fore long before Twilight was about to die.  The former suggests a weakness in storytelling structure; the latter, a distressingly static view of the world outside of that story.

That notwithstanding, this story is basically an explanation for Celestia's decision at the end, and that decision is basically a vehicle onto which one can project one's own interpretation.  That's not a kind of story for everyone--plenty of people prefer a more editorial take on Big Idea fics--but as a means to invite consideration, this story works.

Star rating:  

Mortality Report is, in a lot of ways, a very limited fic; its one that has little beyond, perhaps, a mild enjoyment of the "twist" to offer a distracted or lightly invested reader, and the wheels on the vehicle which drives it are rather too obvious for a more attentive one.  But with that said, this story does reward attentive (or rather, thoughtful) reading; the amount by which one can chose to read between the lines here is basically unlimited, and the openness to interpretation is excellently set up and maintained.

Recommendation:  If you like a story which gives you just enough of a frame to let you fill in the painting on your own, this finds that spot brilliantly.  Readers looking for something more clear-cut or narratively focused will probably find it less interesting, however.

Next time:  Eternity, by DawnFade


  1. This story sounds a lot less natural disaster and/or major war themed than I thought it was going to be from the title. Due to the fact that I think Twilight Sparkle is a cantankerous toolbag, I obviously disagree with Celestia's opinions entirely here, but it still sounds like a neat concept to delve into in the form of a short story.

    I don't know why everyone always gets so worked up about immortality though. I was immortal once, and it's not that different. You just take it day by day and make sure you don't get trapped underneath anything heavy and you're fine.

  2. Thanks for the review!

    I don't agree with main critique, though: "the biggest problem with this story is Celestia's characterization.... The problem is that the genesis of issues which by rights should have been visible since, or even before, she came to Equestria, seem to be shoved into the space of a single decision point by her need to enunciate them all in the letter she's writing."

    This is a trivial thing to get hung up on, even if it had any validity, which I don't think it does. Even if she discussed cutie marks in a letter (probably 1500 years ago), they're relevant to the point she's making at the moment, so she brings them up.

    It might be more of an objection to say that she should have discussed all these doubts with her Queen earlier, but 1. she has, as indicated repeatedly in the letter, and 2. those points she has not brought up before are ones that in my mind, she didn't want to bring up.

    I think the things clearly stated are as important as the things left ambiguous. The argument about the greater good that you dismissed as mere story logic is one of the things the story is there to present. Also, the different perspectives of mortals and immortals; the different character traits they might engender; the rationalizations mortals make. You said " This assumption (that immortality is good) is never touched on in the story," but Celestia made an extended argument against the idea that immortality is bad, explaining it away as a rationalization caused by desperation. All these ideas are important parts of what the story exists to talk about; being clearly and unambiguous presented doesn't make them mere infrastructure. Nor does it mean I am personally claiming they're true.

    "Again, the "good" of this is never questioned, because Celestia does not doubt it, even though she can't bring herself to do what she knows needs to be done; thinking about how much truth, if any, girds her assumption, and further speculating on what Twilight would be likely to think of the matter, is the real appeal here."

    That is a large part of what I wanted readers to think about. You're missing another part, which is whether Celestia is being honest with herself, or rationalizing. There are many clues that Celestia wants to be a mother more than she wants to be immortal, that she is not really being rational, and that she might see this act of literally giving life to Twilight to be the thing that will make her a mother.

    1. You're very welcome!

      My issue re. Celestia's characterization is actually that that there are a number of things that it's clear Celestia has discussed with (or at least, explained to) her Queen, but which she writes here as if she were explaining them for the first time (the cutie marks, how ponies deal with death, etc.). I see that first as a characterization issue, though one could also call it an issue with the conceit, specifically: that this is the last of a long series of letters explaining what Celestia has learned about this subject.

      As for what arguments of Celestia's should or shouldn't be considered open to interpretation by the reader, I think you gave your readers rather more leeway than you might have intended--and whether you did (intend to) or not, I think that it was a good thing that you wrote this story the way you did. Celestia doesn't make an argument against immortality being bad; she makes an argument against not being immortal, which is to my mind a crucial distinction. The latter is a lot more interesting to consider, precisely because it doesn't tell us why immortality is good, only why mortality is bad... and from what we can gather of Celestia's upbringing, beliefs, and mental state, I think you definitely left plenty of room for the reader to determine that immortality is not, in fact, something to be embraced.

      I mean, I'd embrace it, but that's a separate issue, too.

      The one thing I think is clear from the story is that Celestia isn't being honest with herself, but that's just one more delicious question to turn over; what's she being dishonest about? For example (though this isn't my reading), I think there's a valid case to be made that Twilight wouldn't want to be made immortal, and that one of the things Celestia is trying to convince herself of with this letter that she's doing right by Twilight, her presumable desires notwithstanding. Again, not what I see, but I could see a legitimate argument being made for that PoV from the text as written.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, and for writing such an interesting story! I know "three stars" doesn't look like much (I should probably go back to including that "what does this rating mean?" bit with the stars, come to think of it...), but I definitely enjoyed this story.