Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Fandom Classics Part 141: Ascend

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

Guess who spent yesterday shoveling almost a foot of snow?  This guy!  Have fun with that when it hits ya, east coast; knowing the way media responds to snow in the midwest vs. snow in New York, I'm sure I'll get to hear aaaall about it on the news.  Should you get snowed in, I'm sure you'll want something to read; would xTSGx's Ascend be a good choice?  Find out what I think, below the break.

Impressions before reading:  Well, going by the dates, this story about Twilight unexpectedly becoming an alicorn was written during season three--I imagine the author felt a flash of despair upon first discovering what would happen in the season finale, and then realizing there was no way they were going to finish their story first.  But hey, un-cannoning doesn't bother me!  The description is a bit ominous-sounding, but the comedy tag suggests it should be read playfully, rather than as being sinister.  We'll see what tone the story settles into.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  One day, Twilight wakes up to discover that she's grown a pair of wings.  Fearful of destroying society as Equestria knows it, she desperately tries to hide her "affliction" from everypony, while preparing to testify before Parliament about the recent changeling fiasco.  She does about as good a job of concealing her alicornification as you'd imagine.

Thoughts after reading:  This story and I didn't get off to a good start.  The first chapter is preceded by a copyright/ownership (dis)avowel--fine by itself, but concerning both in that it indicates that the story will be quoting TVTropes verbatim, and insofar as there's a misspelling before the story even begins.  And the first few chapters did little to improve my attitude.

The first half of the story, give or take, is full of meta-humor and references, both comic and non-.  While some of these are both funny, and make sense in context ("'That sounds even more unlikely than Daring Do climbing into a fridge to escape a-'" Making fun of Crystal Skull may be shooting fish in a barrel, but dangit, some fish deserve to be shot), the larger part serve no obvious purpose beyond providing readers with a chance to congratulate themselves on recognizing a reference.  The humor is also heavily reliant on Twight's snarky, self-flagellating inner thoughts.  Conceptually, this was fine, and in fact, Twilight has some amusing exchanges with herself throughout this portion of the story.  However, it's dramatically overdone; Twilight ends up mentally commenting on literally every third paragraph over some stretches, and much of her commentary is one-note and repetitive, even when it is humorous.

Beyond construction, there's also the matter of how arbitrary the fic's major beats feel.  The "alicorn out of nowhere" bit is arbitrary by design, of course, and the author occasionally lampshades how unlikely it is that Twilight's ruse is revealed to one of her friends in one way or another, or that she has to appear before parliament this particular week, or that this particular week is also the one time she and Celestia can't exchange messages via Spike, or... well, the list goes on.  The lampshading sometimes casts these narrative conveniences in a comic light, but for the most part they're played straight.  The effect is to cast the story as a string of authorial contrivance, which undermines the slice-of-life segments of the story by casting most of the action as more or less arbitrary.

Things changed significantly in the second half of the story, however, as the story began to shift away from inner monologues and referential humor (though it never abandons either), and toward more political humor.  I'll start out by admitting that the story essentially promoting a "democracy just ends in cronyism and bickering, authoritarianism is needed to actually get anything done" viewpoint sticks in my craw (and, at least in the case of Celestia, has never seemed to me like a particularly likely character interpretation), but that notwithstanding, the story finds its stride with plenty of ribbing the "wonderful" world of bureaucracy, and by projecting ponies' tendency to overreact onto the government--and society--at large.  That overreacting also makes Twilight's early dread (which is frequently painted in dramatic, rather than comic, tones) feel a bit more believable.

One thing that doesn't ever change are pacing hiccups.  While the story as a whole breaks into two halves, each with fairly strong arc-level pacing, individual scenes frequently have a broken or uneven flow.  Much of this comes, in the first half, from Twilight's frequent thought-intrusions, but other issues exist throughout the story.  Part of this is a tendency to shift perspective, jumping into another character's POV for short passages without warning; part of this is the introduction of irrelevant details (and sometimes, both: in one story segment, Twilight offers a hug to a storeowner who's going out of business, who appears only in this single passing scene and is never mentioned again; the narration shifts away from Twilight's perspective to intone "If only Twilight knew how much that hug meant to Open Cluster" as the scene ends).  Scenes and story segments meander or peter out rather more frequently than I appreciated, even as the larger structure appealed.

The ending seems to mostly be setup for an apparently-abandoned sequel, but it works remarkably well as a conclusion on its own.  A major theme of the story is that Life Goes On, and the story reaches a point of resolution which nevertheless is open-ended and promises adventure to come.  Especially in the second half, the story manages to mix a fair amount of worldbuilding in, both for comedic and lore purposes, and in both cases I generally found the additions unobtrusive and enjoyable (though occasionally, they created the sort of pacing issues I mentioned in the paragraph above).  This is definitely a story that improved as it went along.

Star rating:

Unfortunately, I feel like the kind of reader who would most enjoy the second half of the story isn't the sort who's particularly likely to stick around through the first half; my experience is that the crossover between readers who like extensive referential non-humor and those who like (even light, silly, easy-to-follow) politics isn't huge.  Then again, a lot of the first half beyond that is peaceable slice-of-life, which maybe isn't that much of a turn-off after all.

Recommendation:  Readers who don't appreciate a lot of meta-awareness in their stories should stay far away, obviously, and although the story isn't a dark one by any stretch, it's probably also not a good choice for those who dislike manipulative princesses.  For readers looking for light, eclectic humor and some bureaucratic mockery, this might not be a bad choice, however.

Next time:  Fluttershy and Celestia Play Chess, by BronyWriter


  1. "democracy just ends in cronyism and bickering, authoritarianism is needed to actually get anything done"

    I rag on democracy all the time, and even I find this ridiculous.

  2. "democracy just ends in cronyism and bickering, authoritarianism is needed to actually get anything done"
    I can't entirely deny accepting this as a story element, because I have trouble not seeing Ghost's Civil Service-verse as being pretty close to it. With, of course, a hypercompetent bureaucracy rather than (I take it) an incompetent one.