Monday, October 31, 2016

Fandom Classics Part 185: A FLEet|ng LIght |n thE DArknEsS

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

Happy Halloween!  Try not to get your house TPd; I don't know what the weather's like where all y'all live (I assume "all y'all" live together somewhere, the better to discuss my reviews amongst yourselves.  Good planning on all y'all's part!), but around here we've got rain on the way; soggy toilet paper is even less fun to remove than the dry kind.

But you aren't here to talk about homeownership; you're here for fanfics!  And in the spirit of the season, you can head down below the break to see my thoughts on Flashgen's A FLEet|ng LIght |n thE DArknEsS.

Impressions before reading:  I read this around the time that it came out, an remember being distinctly underwhelmed.  However, I've heard basically nothing but good things about it since, enjoyed the one other story of the author's which I've read, and seeing as I can't remember anything specific that I disliked about the story, I'm hoping that I'll enjoy this on re-read.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  A transcript of Twilight Sparkle's journal, found in her home by investigators after Ponyville was mysteriously abandoned with no sign of where the inhabitants went.

Thoughts after reading:  Okay, I remember why I was underwhelmed: it was because I didn't understand a darn thing that was going on, and didn't feel any need to try to put all the pieces together.  Now that I'm doing a review, though, I have done my best to figure out what's going on here.  Unfortunately, this is a story that can barely muster up a cogent question, let alone suggest the outline of any possible answer.

Of course, that's more or less deliberate.  Fleeting (as I'll hereafter be referring to the story) is built on the classic horror axiom "less is more:" virtually no hint is given as to what is happening beyond a few physical observations and snatches of dreams, less is said of why, how, and what if..., and basically everything is left to the reader's imagination.  In fact, I was afraid that I'd have to use spoilers to discuss this story at first, but when I started to organize my thoughs, I found that there was almost nothing in the story to spoil; all there are are hints and whispers, for the reader to turn over an envision for themselves.  In and of itself, I enjoy that kind of horror story, and--in and of itself--I found it effectively done here

My problems began with the number of red herrings (I'm using the term liberally here--I don't mean by it "things which turn out to be false leads," as much as "things which are never again brought up after being introduced, and whose relevance, if any, is entirely speculative"), such as the state of the mayor's office, or the (possibly?) expanding distance between the town center and AJ's farm.  Such irrelevant-seeming mysteries ended up detracting from the horror experience for me rather severely, because they served to obscure what was supposed to be frightening; rather than trying to imagine what might have happened at this or that point in the story, most of my mental energy was spent trying and failing to tie together story threads which ultimately didn't connect in any purposeful way.

Another issue was the format itself, which I felt was extremely poorly realized.  Nominally a transcript of Twilight's journals, the text itself seems to vacillate between treating itself as such (complete with notes from the transcriber describing the speed or style of writing, torn or missing pages, etc.) and treating itself as the journal proper, such as with the use of invisible ink (when you see a lengthy blank space, make sure to try highlighting it.  This isn't a great story for e-readers, sadly).  Glancing through the comments on the story, I'm a bit surprised to see nobody else complaining about this--I found it jarring and confusing when I first encountered the invisible text, and spent some time fruitlessly trying to imagine what was happening to the transcriber (or copy-editor, perhaps?), before writing it off as a massive, inexplicable writing error.

Beyond that, the word use and structure on Twilight's journal is nicely consistent and fits well with what a character such as her might write.  The transcriber's notes are rather weaker in this regard, with word choice which wavers between informal and professional.  However, many of the Fleeting's most interesting revelations come from these passages, and they provide a very welcome semblance of context, at least in the early going.

(As an aside, I was also a bit thrown off by the journal being described as having a "leather" cover at the start--given where leather comes from, my first assumption was that this meant Twilight had gone/would go to some very dark places in this story, before discovering that she'd bought it on a whim one day and that the leather bit was of no further significance.  That didn't really affect my enjoyment of the story, since it was quickly made clear that the choice of cover material was aesthetic on the author's part rather than a portentous hint, but it's worth remembering to always make sure you've properly ponified your ponyfiction!)

What I found most disappointing, though, was the lack of depth to it all.  The title practically declares "there's a riddle to be solved here," and to an extent, there is... but the "riddle" is just discovering that the title hides an (admittedly kind of clever) anagram for the last line of the story, with no particular weight or import being assigned to either.  This is another example of where too much ambiguity in the non-horror elements ends up weakening the product: there's nothing done with that anagram, nor any suggestion that either the title or the last line are particularly significant in and of themselves (as specific phrases, that is, not in terms of what they communicate generally), and so you get a neat little puzzle (and it is a neat little puzzle, in and of itself!) that's completely divorced from the story.

Star rating:

This story had a lot of individual things that I enjoyed--the sense of isolation in the later parts of the story are well-done, for example--but the overall effect is of a bunch of neat bits adrift in a sea of unconnected ideas and bound together by a flawed narrative device.

Recommendation:  This story is not for people who are looking for something "easy" which they can turn their brains off and enjoy.  But it also doesn't hold up terribly well to analytical reading.  Between those extremes, though, I think Fleeting will prove very effective to readers looking for something atmospheric and creepy, which gives their imaginations room to wander but which doesn't actually ask you to keep track of and fit a bunch of pieces together.

Next time:  Couchtavia, by shortskirtsandexplosions


  1. This is the highest-rated horror fic on the site, though! :B And fuck, there's an anagram? This thing keeps unfolding.

    Also, from Fleeting Light straight into goddamn Couchtavia. You really know how to pick 'em, Chris. XD

    1. Well, technically, the sequel is the highest-rated one on the site, though it shouldn't be.

    2. Mm, true. Do you say that because you think it's not as good?

    3. Well, there's (also?) the sequel effect, where fewer people read it (looks like about a quarter as many) but they rate it higher (about half as many upvotes, a sixth as many downvotes) because of selection bias.

    4. Truthfully, I enjoy both of the stories I wrote, but I think some of the other stories in the top rated deserve to be higher than mine, like anything by Horse Voice.

    5. Ah, well, we can't always get what we want in that respect. I totally get the feeling, though.

  2. You know, out of everything I wrote in those stories, the one thing I never really thought about was the leather journal... I'm gonna go and edit out any mention of that, 5 years after I published the story. Seriously, I haven't seen anyone else mention the implication of that in reviews or comments before. It's messed up.

    Overall, I can agree with most of what you said in your review. The hidden messages were one of the things I enjoyed the implication of when I was writing it, but I feel that implication gets lost when I'm not the one reading it.

    The same is true of what goes on in the story. I definitely wasn't trying to be cryptic for the sake of it, but when you look at everything, it does come off that way. I'll definitely pay more attention to an outsider's viewpoint with what I write in the future.

    1. I'm constantly bugging authors about the implications of using leather in their stories, because I believe the majority of them are doing it unconsciously. A leather-bound book is supposed to be sophisticated and rare and expensive, right? Except leather takes on a whole new meaning in Equestria where most animals are semi-intelligent and cows are sentient. It's an easy thing to overlook.

    2. It's funny what seemingly minor things readers will pick up, isn't it? Though as I said, the leather bit didn't really affect my enjoyment of the story, given how quickly it became obvious that the implication was unintended.

      Thanks for commenting, Flashgen! It's always nice to hear from an author.

    3. Happy to stop by. And thank you again for the review.

    4. I'd add to the leather issue in Pony: parchment.

    5. The problem with parchment is that they use it in canon, don't they? I've gotten the impression they do, though I might not be remembering right.

      Now I'm going to check.

      A quick Google search for "parchment" turns up only one page of hits, and only one of those hits is from an episode transcript, but there it is, from "The Fault in our Cutie Marks." Twilight: "Oh, I hope I have enough ink and parchment to document everything!"

      I did a similar search for leather, and it turned up nothing from transcripts.

    6. But that still leaves the issues of 1: anything written before Season 6 did not have this justification, and 2: sometimes canon is ill-considered and better dumped in the memory hole if it's minor and ephemeral (see, for example, pies as nonlethal, non-injuring weapons that still somehow work in a battle--notably not brought back for the Crystal War timeline).

      And, of course, if you're okay with parchment being used (as a normal matter of course, not involving any dark implications) on the basis of canon, it's hard to justify having a problem with leather, especially when applied to similar purposes. It leads to things like, in this case, the absurd (or at least in need of explanation) "well, it's totally fine for them to write and maybe print on animal skins, but for them to bind books with it is troubling."

    7. My assumption was that while traditional parchment had to be animal skin, modern didn't, as long as it had the same weight and strength or whatever. But that's apparently not the case. I'm guessing the writers made the same assumption or just used the term without thinking about it. I might have even used it, though I would have intended it to mean some wood- or reed-based substance. Kind of like how everyone says Applejack wears a Stetson, though she really doesn't, but it's something easy to gloss over anyway. usually.

      I'm on board with the point here, though, that the possibly creepy context of leather potentially carries a lot of meaning in a dark story, and when it turns out to be a mere oversight, it can feel like a let-down.

    8. Very belated comment: parchment is mentioned in "Lesson Zero", so it's been canon for a long time (albeit probably accidentally).

    9. I honestly think that many people just don't realize that parchment is made from skin. On the other hand, EVERYONE knows what leather is.

      Regardless, if I was really invested in justifying use of the word parchment, I might try to make the case that in Equestria, it's shorthand for parchment paper (why ponies would write on parchment paper, or why it would have acquired that name in the first place, are open questions). It'd be tough to make any equivalent argument for the word leather, though.

  3. I was also left a little disappointed by some of the unanswered questions, but this story was still fantastic IMO, and besides, the sequel does its share of answering and is a lot clearer about the things it needed to clear up.

  4. "... but when I started to organize my thoughts... for the reader to turn over and envision for themselves."

    I actually love messed up implications like with the whole parchment issue, especially in a setting as kid-friendly as Equestria. It sets up an interesting contrast, and I've never felt that Equestria needs to be some kind of utopia