Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Fandom Classics Part 198: Gazing to the Ocean of the Sky

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

Life is good.

Enjoy it.

Also, enjoy this review.

My take on David Silver's Gazing to the Ocean of the Sky, below.

Impressions before reading:  I really like the title; it's on the long side, but it feels evocative and vague in a way which draws my attention.  That's also a nice cover image, which is inarguably part of one's "impressions before reading."  That said, the recommenders of this story have me pretty concerned; both independently mentioned slow pacing and lack of direction, and said that I might find the story "boring."  When the people nominally talking up the story are preemptively lowering expectations, it's usually not a great sign.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  When Cherry, a young seapony, finds a broken poniform ocean floor exploration device, she discovers a knack for all things mechanical--a knack which quickly translates into repurposing two of its legs to allow her to walk on land.  From there, it's on into Equestria, and Ponyville, as she discovers the world around her... even as friends and rivals from her home continue to follow her into The Dry.

Thoughts after reading:  I usually make an attempt not to let outside knowledge of an author unduly influence my reading experience.  For example, if I know that an author has a particular fetish, I try not to hold it against them if something brushing up against that fetish shows up in one of their everyone-rated fics (assuming that element is relatively innocent and makes sense in context, anyway).  But in the case of Gazing, I'm finding it very difficult to forget that the author is best known for his P&P RPG work, because I find that many of my problems seem to be so neatly answered by the statement "this story is written like an RPG."

The heavy emphasis on largely self-contained "quests?"  Very D&D- (well, given the author's background, Pathfinder-)esque.  The tendency of NPCs--pardon, minor characters--to enter a state of limbo whenever the attentions of the main characters aren't upon them?  Ditto.  The fact that characters' families can simultaneously be a never-ending source of plot points and virtual nonentities in the characters' day to day life (and, for that matter, thoughts and feelings)?  Likewise.  A frankly silly extension of the idea that "crafting" is some sort of reality-defying skill which can fundamentally change the form and function of any item?  Sure thing.

These all are things that work in the context of an RPG because you have defined player characters, and the world actually is defined mostly in relation to them.  In writing, though, they result in the setting feeling artificial and even claustrophobic--the world seems to extend only as far as the focus characters' senses.  I don't claim to know whether "writing it like an RPG" was actually the root of these problems; it's entirely possible that I'm projecting based on what I know about the author.  But regardless of root, these flaws do exist in the story, and they do create an air of artificiality and minuteness which defines the story.

Having said that... this is a very readable fic, in most respects.  By "readable," I mean that it's easy to sit down and consume a few chapters, and that the characters, both original and canon, have bright and vibrant personalities (that these personalities are often also fairly shallow in no way detracts from their vibrance), and Cherry in particular is a fundamentally pleasant character, whose low-stakes explorations and general exuberance make for unchallenging, but in no wise unpleasant, reading.  And make no mistake: despite the occasional introduction of a monster or other seemingly adventure-y element, this is an extremely SoL fic.  Even the most seemingly dramatic events are resolved within a few hundred words (in fact, I can think of exactly one monster/enemy whose role as an aggressor lasts more than half a chapter), and most of the verbiage is devoted to things like Cherry's exploration of The Dry, exploration of her special talent, and "quests" such as getting access to new mechanical objects to deconstruct, or learning about cake.  Throw in some low-stakes drama elements (e.g. a puppy-love triangle), and you have a very mild but reasonably pleasant story.

But this low-stakes approach, when combined with the story's episodic (that is to say, broken into concrete and largely self-contained sub-stories--not to be confused with "episode-like") does have a notable flaw: it gives the reader very little investment in the story.  That's not a problem when you happen to be enjoying a given sub-story, but when you hit one that's less to your tastes... well, it makes this a very easy story to put down, and provides one with little impetus to pick it back up.  For example, I have basically no interest in Equestria Girls, so a several-chapter segment wherein Cherry and her friends go through the portal and have a few hijinks left me cold.  Had I been reading for my own amusement, I doubt I'd have continued past that point--not because it was particularly awful, but simply because it was less enjoyable for me personally, and the story doesn't really have anything other than it's immediate enjoyment to drive a reader forward.  In a 100k-word fic, there's likely to be one or more sections that any given reader will find less interesting, whether it's the introduction of a best friend, a trip to a train station, or whatever.  But when said reader hits that section, it's harder to push through than an inarguably worse-written (less interesting, more nonsensical, etc.) portion of a story with greater forward momentum.

Star rating:

This is not, by any stretch, a bad story.  It is, however, a story which offers only transient reading pleasures, and which undercuts elements which could broaden its appeal (e.g. wordbuilding) with decisions more suitable to other forms of entertainment than written fiction.  I can easily see it being something that someone would read through and enjoy as a (large) bit of low-key fluff... but I have trouble imagining many readers would find it terribly engaging, edifying, or enthralling.

Recommendation:  If you're looking for some unchallenging light reading which lends itself to chunked reading, this might be worth picking up.  It's probably not a great choice for anyone outside of the "looking for some unchallenging light reading" demographic, and it wouldn't surprise me much if many of the target audience end up moving on partway through, either.

Next time:  Statistics, by xTSGx

1 comment:

  1. I just read another story like this one (much shorter and as yet unfinished) that got the same reaction out of me: large, pretty cool world-building, but nothing compelling the story forward. Every time a conflict arises, it's dealt with quickly and easily, and what should be a story-long arc of conflict is completely disarmed by the aggrieved party being curiously unconcerned and compliant every step of the way. No setbacks, no obstacles, just steady unhindered progress toward the goal. As each chapter ends, there's nothing making me want to see what happens next.