Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Fandom Classics Part 190: Fun With Changelings

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

In case you don't read Oglaf--whether because you've never heard of it, you don't like it, or because it has way too many uncensored penises--I want to point you to this week's strip.  If I lived in a high-magic fantasy world, I would totally worship a god whose spheres included "proofreading," and whose priesthood counted among their duties "critiquing other deities' mythologies."  Especially if those scroll-hats came standard; they look cozy and warm, two things I highly approve of in hats.

(Just don't go on to the second page of that comic unless you want to see way too many uncensored penises.  How many is "way too many," you ask?  WELL APPARENTLY IT'S FOUR or, well, two, but twice each)

But now, let's move on from penises entirely, and instead talk about lesbians!  That's right, it's Scratchtavia time; head down below the break for my review of of Shukumei's Fun With Changelings.

Impressions before reading:  "Changeling comes to Ponyville, has to overcome prejudice" isn't, and never has been, a particularly original premise... but that doesn't mean an author can't put a unique twist on it.  More concerning to me is that the description includes the sentences "My bid to make "Wubsy" a more official part of the fannon. Check the source of the fic image to see the comic that started it all."  Stories based on comics don't have a great track record 'round these parts, and a novel-length example of the same seems likely to be pretty heavy on filler.  Still, nearly a half-dozen editors and pre-readers are credited, including at least a couple of names I recognize, and that gives me some hope going in.

Oh, and I'm pretty sure this fic is pre-S6.  Call it a hunch.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  One of the changelings from Chrysalis's failed invasion of Canterlot ends up love-blasted to Ponyville, where Vinyl Scratch defends it.  However with that attack still fresh in everypony's minds, keeping it hidden is a clear necessity... especially once zealous anti-changeling patrols and changeling-blocking domes become part of the small town's "charm."

Thoughts after reading:  This story falls into a trap which I've seen claim many changeling fics with its general premise, so I'm going to take a moment to dive into it.

In a story where a good changeling (or in some cases, a changeling who learns to be good) must overcome the prejudice of the townsfolk, either changelings as a race must be misunderstood, or the story's focal changeling must be unusual or exceptional in some way.  Additionally, there must be some good reason why the ponies as a group are so changeling-phobic.  Not all stories that take the first path accomplish this, but most of those which take the "exceptional protagonist" route (including Fun With Changelings) don't particularly struggle here; after all, the reason the ponies as a group are distrustful is because they're basically right to be, and the protagonist is a unique outlier.

Where this story, and many like it, fail, is in recognizing that those townsponies are right.  In the particular case of this story, changelings are part of a collective hivemind, and changelings separated from that hivemind generally die quickly.  "Wubsy" is a previously unheard-of exception, who not only survives but achieves consciousness, free will, and general higher thinking abilities.  Which is all well, as far as it goes... but the story misses the important point, "since something like Wubsy has never existed before, and since there's no reason to believe that something like that could happen, ponies are completely justified in not allowing for the possibility that this supposedly impossible thing could happen when confronted with a situation perfectly explicable by normal means."  Really, it's just an extension of the whole "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" principal.

So when the bigotry of the townsponies is lambasted because they immediately assume that all changelings are bad news, it's a bit hard to swallow.  It's not really bigotry if it's a demonstrable truth which holds up to research and all past study, is it?  Likewise, the heavy-handed parables which the fic draws between sexuality and changeling-ness are, at best, misinformed, and at worst, highly offensive; they would seem to suggest that all homosexuals are, in fact, horrible monsters, and that the existence of any "good gay" would be a new and unforeseeable appearance.

Then again, I suppose it's true that there still are some people in this world who would argue that all homosexuals are monsters... but I rather doubt the story's intent was to suggest that their logic is entirely sound.

The problems with the story extend far beyond that, though.  Most notable is that all of the characters have a maddening tendency to expound upon their feelings and motivations out loud.  Take Octavia's apology to Vinyl after she calls her out for being careless and risking exposing Wubsy:
“Vinyl,” she said, her voice still firm but not near as volatile. “I’m not going to apologize for what I said. It’s something you need to seriously think about. But I am sorry for how I said it. I lectured you like a foal and I shouldn’t have done that; I know you understand how serious this is and I pressed the issue because I was angry and scared. I lashed out at you when you didn’t deserve it. I’m going to go to bed now because it’s been a very stressful day. I hope you can forgive me enough to come sleep in the bed with me.”
Despite what you might think, this is a fairly representative example of how characters talk to one another throughout the story.  And, feeding back into what I talked about up above, it means that characters are almost always self-aware about times when they should feel guilt... or rather, when the author has decided that they should feel guilty.

On the question of Equestria's morality in general, I'm of two minds.  On one hand, several of the more seemingly unbelievable bits of characterization (e.g. the bloodthirstiness of Ponyvillians) are given in-universe explanations.  But on the other, a number of elements one is simply forced to accept as they appear on the face of it--say, the creation of a paramilitary force that's half-gestapo (right down to the brown shirts!), half-keystone kops.  Oh, and Twilight was personally involved in their creation, at Celestia's request.  That's a tough pill to swallow.

When the story isn't dwelling on these kinds of things, it has a vaguely pleasant slice-of-life feel to it.  I say "vaguely pleasant" because most of one's enjoyment will center around whether one finds precisely archetypal Scratchtavia fluff (She's wacky and kinda dumb! She's uptight and refined!) rewarding.  I don't particularly, so I didn't particularly--but that's because I'm not the target audience for this kind of thing, and I know it.  I suspect that readers who enjoy a few pages of Exactly The Kind Of Banter You Expect When You Hear The Word Scratchtavia™ will find this fic very competent in that regard.  But in the end, it's the cement between a lot of very questionable bricks.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of questionable decisions in the field of... not so much writing, but just basic knowledge.  The most glaring of these is what appears to be an extension of the old "bashing someone over the head knocks them out cold for a few hours, with no lasting effects" trope.  Now, although that's obviously not how concussions work in real life, it's not something I'd think to complain about in a story.  Here, though, the author applies the same logic to breaking a pony's neck, which was baffling enough that I had to read the scene three times to make sure I wasn't misinterpreting what I'd read.  Other basic knowledge errors peek through as well, but to be fair, that's the biggest one by a country mile.

Star rating: 

One good thing I'll say for this fic: its technical editing is quite strong, and that's definitely not nothing.  Beyond that, though, the most effusive bits of praise I can think of mostly consists of things like "I've seen other stories do so-and-so worse."

Recommendation:  Stories of this kind are written explicitly for people who already know that the changeling is the good guy, and who don't need any sort of in-story (in-universe, in-context...) justification for casting characters who disagree in a villainous light.  If you are that sort of reader, enjoy fluff about the relevant ship, and don't mind characters regularly narrating their feelings, this would be worth consideration.  Otherwise, this is probably one to pass over.

Next time:  Fire Spores, by applecinnamonspice


  1. Wow, Chris, go easy on it, why don'tcha? :V (Here referencing the fact that I was not so kind in my review...)

    That's a really solid dissection of why these sorts of stories don't work, though. I've been looking for that for a while. :)

  2. As I've said elsewhere, changelings really don't work well as a metaphor for any real-life group.

    1. This is a problem in fantasy or sci-fi in general, really. As soon as your fictional race of creatures IS actually notably different in a majorly detrimental way, any parallel one might draw to real life issues starts to break down. Like how True Blood tried to make vampires an allegory for homosexuals, except that the number of vampire characters on the show who weren't murderers could be counted on one hand.

      Jeremy Whitley made this same mistake with dragons in the official MLP comics, using them to talk about racism and such. The whole thing was just a mess.

    2. And there are also the unfortunate implications of taking real-life races, then making their analogues different species in your SF/fantasy story.

  3. Anyone who remains unconscious from a blow to the head longer than five minutes has a very poor chance of escaping permanent brain damage or death. But the hours-long knockout followed by no consequences whatsoever is such an entrenched trope of modern entertainment, there's no way we're going to get rid of it.

    Just as entrenched is the ill-fitting changelings-as-persecuted-minority trope in this fandom. It's as stupid and unrealistic as the convenient knock out shot, but it's not going anywhere. Unfortunately.

  4. Last time someone linked me to Oglaf, I spent hours reading it. My only issue with the penises (besides their being a bit distasteful at times) is that the artist always makes them uncircumcised

    "... they would seem to suggest that all homosexuals are, in fact, horrible monsters..."

    Wait, are we not supposed to be? Crap

    1. My issue is that there are entirely not enough penises!

    2. Holy shnikes! You're back! I was actually just thinking the other day how we haven't seen you around here in forever

    3. Is it... is it really you? I had given up hope that this day would ever come.

      (weeps openly)

    4. Don't get too excited! If someone mentions Oglaf, I'm pretty much obligated to comment.

    5. Well, we may disagree on the specifics, but the important thing is that we all agree that Oglaf has the WRONG number of penises.

      Also, nice to see you around. I'll make sure to mention Oglaf every few months, if that's what it takes!

    6. The few occasions I've read Oglaf, I must admit that the circumcision status of the penises has never even occurred to me. But then I'm British, and over here uncircumcised is the norm unless there are religious reasons.