Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Fandom Classics Part 148: Flash Fog

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

Snow day!  And the first one of the year, too!  Man, I was starting to worry we wouldn't get any this year, after the winter's earlier storms all managed to hit on weekends.  Let me tell you something: you're never too old to get excited about staying home in front of a fire instead of going to school, even when school is also your workplace.

By way of celebration, let's have a fanfic review!  Sure, they come around a bit more often than snow days, but that doesn't mean they can't be celebratory, does it?  My thoughts on Kwackerjack's Flash Fog, below the break.

Impressions before reading:  I've heard good things about this story from people whose opinions I trust, which is always a good sign going in.  But looking at the description, I can't help worrying that "Fluttershy gets put in charge of handling excess fog" feels like a pretty sparse premise for a 128,000-word story.  Hopefully, there's a bit more to the fic than just that!

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  An accident in Cloudsdale dumps a massive bank of construction-grade clouds on the ground near Ponyville; clouds so dense and wet that they pose a serious danger to pegasi trapped in them, and even to other ponies who stay in the fog too long.  With an emergency unfolding, the Weather Bureau turns to the local fog specialist to coordinate cleanup and safety.  And that specialist is... Fluttershy.

Thoughts after reading:  This is, ultimately, a fairly low-stakes story, and one which frequently dithers on its way to its ultimate conclusion.  While there are more than a few moments of higher drama wherein one or more characters are in significant danger, the vast majority of Flash Fog deals with office drama, weather management planning sessions, debating the relative merits of humanity (more on that later), and other action-light material.  But despite this, it remains consistently engaging, thanks to both the pleasantly un-annoying myriad of subplots which comprise it, and the enjoyably on-point characterization.

To start, the latter: Fluttershy is the central character of the story, and her depiction is one of the strongest aspects of the story.  An on-point mix of soft-spoken, nervous, and uncertain, she nevertheless doesn't fall into the "weak-willed waif" trap that many writers (and sometimes, the show itself...) cast her as; she feels like a fully-fleshed out character who is, in fact, capable of being in charge (if there's no alternative).  The minor characters are generally strong, and although some are a bit one-dimensional, this is never to the detriment of the story.  An aggressive investigative reporter, for example, is defined pretty much entirely as "an aggressive investigative reporter," but for a relatively minor role/plot device, this is entirely sufficient.

The subplots are more of a mixed bag, though their handling is still very positive overall.  Flash Fog is full of tangents, side-plots, and other secondary elements, which nicely fill out the fairly straightforward main plot.  Some of these interpositions are almost entirely unconnected from the titular fog, but what they collectively accomplish is to showcase a wide range of Equestrian low-key goofiness, from the CMC building convoluted goldbergian traps to the insipid idiocies of a superior's pointlessly idiosyncratic speaking style.  Not all of these sub-plots resolve particularly satisfactorily (the way the above-mentioned reporter's arc concludes on a note rather far removed from any of the major conflicts, and this conclusion being given a place of prominence at the end of the story, being one example), but most are interesting and/or amusing in their own right.

Another issue with the myriad plots is that the sheer number of branches being tracked results in resolutions sometimes being put off long past the point where they should have been addressed.  The most egregious example of this is Fluttershy's initial fear that she'll be found to have committed tax fraud as a result of this whole fog fiasco.  It's clear (to the reader) from very early in the story that she hasn't actually committed fraud, and yet, it isn't until more than 50k words in that this is actually addressed.  Fluttershy not understanding what "fraud" actually is is one thing, but when the gap between reader inference and story resolution is literally dozens of chapters long, that's inevitably frustrating.  On other occasions, a side arc might be dropped for ten chapters or more while other characters and events are given focus; these gaps can be jarring, especially when that side arc isn't at an obvious ebb when it's temporarily abandoned.

That notwithstanding, it's worth noting that actually keeping track of everything that's going on is remarkably easy, thanks to both the vivid characters and the author's ability to unobtrusively "catch up" the reader on where a given story aspect left off via narration clues.  The latter was noticeable but not particularly distracting when reading the story through over the course of a few days, but for a longer reading experience (such as, say, reading the story chapter-by-chapter as it was published) it would have been absolutely necessary, and Kwackerjack's ability to write memory jogging cues into the story without resorting to deathly-dull blocks of "when we left off" summary serves the story well.  More broadly, the narration does a good job of being generally unobtrusive, allowing the reader to move quickly through the story; there aren't a lot of highly memorable passages or memorable bits of prose outside of character quotes here, but keeping a reading experience light and easy is something to recognize in and of itself.

The humor in the story is mostly on the light side; quite a bit is character-based, and bureaucratic comedy is also a recurring element.  That said, there's a not-insignificant amount of fandom-gaggery here as well, most obviously the (quite meaty) subplot about Lyra and Bon-Bon being obsessed with humans and certain that the "flash fog" is a government cover-up of their approaching Ponyville.  In the abstract, that sounds absolutely awful to me, but this story made it and (almost) all its other fan-theory callouts work remarkably well, folding them into the overall story and using them as character- or plot-advancing elements rather than letting them stew in the nominal "humor" of their own referential nature.  The girls' ongoing argument over whether the humans were coming to enslave ponykind or to give out tummy rubs went enough interesting places, and served enough of a purpose in itself, that I found it perfectly entertaining.

Despite all the humor (it is tagged comedy, after all), there are also a few reasonably serious situations involving major injury and/or the (non-cartoony) threat of death.  I found these a bit jarring on at least a couple of occasions; although there's nothing graphic, or which would require anything other than the "Everyone" rating the story has, they do make a stark contrast to the otherwise comic tone of the fic.  That may be down to personal preference, though if nothing else, I think it's fair to say that the story itself vacillates pretty significantly in terms of how seriously it wants to treat itself.  Regardless of that design-level treatment, though, I was consistently impressed with how the characters responded to events in-universe.  The author may not have been entirely consistent with how high the stakes should feel (as opposed to how high the stakes nominally were, which is entirely consistent), but the ponies met every problem with a very human/equestrian mix of courage, calculation, laziness, and... well, they approached it in as varied and haphazard a way as one would expect any group to approach an emergency situation.

Star rating:

I hesitated a bit between three and four; although I enjoyed this story a fair bit, and found the execution broadly impressive, my initial thought was that it was rather lacking in the "forward impetus" category.  But even though the unfocused nature of the story does make it a bit of a "fuzzy" reading experience, there's enough forward motion to each of the individual pieces that it isn't a problem.  To use my go-to metric, I don't feel like this is the sort of story one can put down and walk away from without a second thought, even if they're enjoying it.

Recommendation:  Readers looking for something fairly light but long will want to try this on.  I would especially recommend it to those seeking a story they can read in bits and pieces, though it holds up reasonably well to binge-reading as well.  It's not for anyone looking for tight plotting, though, and it's probably worth noting that one of the many subplots is a romantic one, if that's the sort of thing that really bothers you.

Next time:  Loyalty, by Arbarano

1 comment:

  1. That's very similar to how I found this fic. Not a lot else to say, I guess, since there's not really anything there that I can disagree with!