Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Fandom Classics Part 205: A Change in Three Parts

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

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm not super bothered about Scarlett Johansson playing the Major in the new Ghost in the Shell movie.  I mean, yes, it's whitewashing, but I guess I don't expect Hollywood to be culturally sensitive to begin with?  My expectations are too low to be really disappointed.  It does kind of bug me that Batou looks so goofy, though.  He really should have, like, 100 more pounds of muscle and ocular prosthetics that don't make him look like he's constantly trying to stare down the tip of his own nose.  That just seems like (aesthetic) common sense, no?

Whatever; I'm probably not going to see the movie anyway (I see so few these days), so I reckon there's no point caring too much.  Instead, let's move on to my review of GaPJAxie's A Change in Three Parts, below the break.

Impressions before reading:  The last time I read a polemic by this author, I was unimpressed.  On the other hand, the last time I read something else by the author, I thought it was just fine.  So naturally... I'm reading another polemic, this time about transhumanism.  I'm starting to feel like maybe you guys aren't recommending the very best that GaPJaxie has to offer.  Alternately, maybe it's only his beat-you-with-the-message fics that get popular.  Either way, I'm not optimistic going in, but I'll hope that this is at least less disappointingly strawmannish than Would it Matter if I Was?

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  A pony named Dust has invented a way for to change from earth pony to pegasus to unicorn and back at will, and now wants to publish that information.  All she needs is Princess Twilight's approval--only it seems that approval isn't assured.

Thoughts after reading:  I was introduced to this as a story about transhumanism, so it's interesting to me that there's not actually any message in it about transhumanism, except perhaps extremely tangentially.  No, this is a story about freedom of information--except that neither the characters nor the story itself seem to recognize this, and instead devote their time and energy to superficially and unconvincingly addressing a completely different question, then turn around and claim that solving one (for a certain definition of "solved," at least) had solved the other.

Simply put, the crux of this story is whether or not ponies should have general, limited, or no access to the ritual(?) Dust used.  The rest of the main six advise Twilight against it for various reasons relating to the risks or dangers, and Dust attempts to refute them.  But none of those reasons have much, if anything ("anything" in the case of Dash's objection, certainly) to do with whether the information itself should be publicly available.

If anything, it's a little striking that GaPJaxie envisions Equestria as so radically different from modern western civilization in terms of its attitude toward this.  If I wanted to, I could go to the library right now and find all sorts of dangerous information--how to construct various sundry explosives, how to create a nuclear reactor, detailed descriptions of various torture techniques, and much more.  I could just as easily do the same at a library in Britain, or Australia, or most any other country.  As a society, we've collectively agreed that trying to prevent that kind of information from existing is both undesirable and ineffective, never mind in cases such as this story's where the information in question has plenty of legitimate uses.  Equestria having such a drastically different approach to the concept (essentially, it appears that in GaPJaxie's vision of Equestria, information may only be shared if it is deemed safe, socially beneficent, and possessing of some clear and tangible value) isn't exactly an impossible assumption, but it definitely strikes me as an odd one; it turns the story into an exercise in understanding the different approach to knowledge in Equestria, and takes the focus off of the knowledge itself.  This isn't a particularly damaging decision, since the story barely addresses its core question anyway, but it only contributes to the sense of misguided focus which permeates the story.

Because, as I said, all of the main six's reasons are totally tangential, and Dust elects to engage them on their turf instead of arguing for publication on any basis of logic or merit.  This is fine for what it is... but sadly, "what it is" is a transparently artificial set of strawponies being carefully set up for the express purpose of being knocked down.  Much as with when I read Would it Matter, I found this so disappointing because it's so easy to imagine there being some sort of reasonable objections, rather than patent silliness like "this new development is expensive, and it wouldn't be fair for rich ponies to have nice things, therefore we should destroy that information!"  Again, this could perhaps be attributed to a fundamental difference between pony and human mores (though one wonders how they ever developed anything approaching modern medicine with that particular attitude...), but that doesn't make it any less obviously flawed--and that robs Dust's counter-argument of basically all its power.

I will say that I appreciated the happy ending, even if the "I am making my case" strings were just as obvious there as they were in the arguments.  I was also pleased that the emotional tenor of this story was a bit more even-handed than I might have feared going in; GaPJaxie doesn't try to cast Dust as unfailingly calm and level-headed compared to the main six uniformly being rabid flailers, for example.  But that's damning with faint praise; "doesn't substitute empty emotional cues for actual arguments" is a very basic thing to expect of any story which attempts to argue a point.  While this story clears that bar, it nevertheless fails to match the case it argues with the situation it presents, and then fails to find anything meaningful to say about the case it does argue anyway.

Star rating:

If a polemic is able to advance some interesting or at least fundamentally valid arguments and then is able to make a case against them, it has some value as a polemic; it can effectively argue for its PoV, and might even get some people thinking.  Unfortunately, this story is only able to argue against points tailor-made to be defeated, and the only thought I can imagine it readily inspiring is people contemplating what a more reasonable argument might look like.  Or what one related to the story premise might look like, for that matter.

Recommendation:  As with Would it Matter?, there's really only two reasons to read this.  One, if you want to talk to other people about it.  And two, if you know in advance that you agree with the author's conclusions, and are looking for an opportunity to turn off your brain and smugly nod along as those silly and wrong people are shown just how silly and wrong their silly and wrong ideas are.

Next time:  Celestia’s Prophet, by Ageis Shield


  1. Reading between the lines, I'm going to guess you didn't like it.

  2. I went back and reread my review of this story, because it's been long enough I couldn't remember what it was about, exactly. I was surprised at the depth of analysis in that review, not to toot my own horn; it looks like I really had a good time picking it apart, and that's not something I do often. I considered it worth reading if only as a thought experiment, but I did notice something important.

    My first introduction to the story was listening to the author talk about it with Seattle's Angels, and that primed me to view it through his own lens, the message being "technology is good". Taken from that angle, this does at least state that idea plainly, but if you, unprimed, did not get that out of this, then I think it's a sign of this story being unfocused and, well, everything else you said about it. (And no matter how you look at it, Rainbow Dash's argument is painfully irrelevant to the matter.)

    Arguing via fiction is hard. :C

  3. I'm guessing some of what's going on here is that GaPJ doesn't (always--The Lies We Tell to Children seems quite a bit better, and notably much more of a story than Change or WIMIW) write great polemic, but it generates drama which draws attention independent of quality. And so people want to know what others who had stayed out of the fray think.

    My broad take on Jaxie is that he's usually really good when he decides he wants to write a story. When that's not his primary goal, he isn't.

  4. "...but I'll hope that this is at least less disappointingly strawmannish than Would it Matter if I Was?"

    Would it matter if it wasn't? :p *crawls back into hole, evading your tomatoes*

  5. "...patent silliness like 'this new development is expensive, and it wouldn't be fair for rich ponies to have nice things, therefore we should destroy that information!'"

    I'm glad you find this a silly argument , but this is a common concern with regard to new technologies for genetically engineering human embryos (e.g. see As a researcher who has studied gene editing, the story to me seemed to mirror the current debates about human germline gene editing, with the author representing many of the common arguments against the technology. However, I would agree that the author presents then somewhat as strawmen and framing the debate about whether to publish the information is problematic.

  6. So - I know this author. I've even dated and lived with him and we're still quite close.
    He's probably going to see this at some point (hi, Jax!) but I must apologetically agree with you on the general assessment. I don't really like this story that much and it feels like the characters were twisted around into strawmen.

    I forgive him in one respect, which is that I don't think there *is* a reasonable objection to this technology - but at the same token, I think this story should have had a different focus than on the arguments, because that's inherently the weakest part by virtue of there not really being anything to say about it.

    I know *why* he did it that way. The objections raised are actual objections raised by anti-technologists today. I still think that he took the easy way out there and, instead of showing those objections and dismantling them narratively, they're just sort of argued against.

    The comments about Jax having trouble writing good stories when he focuses on polemicism is, I feel, an accurate charge, and if you ever ask him why, he'll tell you straight out. We had almost exactly this conservation on a trip from Virginia to California.

    I commented on why I, despite being a fan of science fiction in general, wasn't really all that fond of many classic works within it because instead of writing good stories with a point, the point is really all there is and the story is just a rough wrapping, and he answered, roughly, "And?"

    His objections, laid out in that talk, was that good stories without a point are basically empty calories. The best novels, in his view, are the ones that change the conversation on a topic and that they're the ones that endure and that they're the ones that ultimately matter. Telling a good story is tertiary at best.

    Now, he's a complicated person, much as he tries to ignore this fact, and later on he did acknowledge that he feels pride in art (this is another long standing debate between us, don't ask :D) and that quality has value and meaning. I have told him that Change in Three Parts is my least favorite of his stories for this exact reason, and I think he learned from it. I like a lot of his work, and I feel he could tell meaningful stories as he wishes better by encasing them within interesting ones.

  7. It is I! GaPJaxie! Come to this comment section to deliver swift and terrible vengeance!

    Or to say that I'm sorry you didn't enjoy my story very much, but that I still appreciate the review. I might just do that instead of the vengeance thing.

    I'm not as hard on A Change in Three Parts as you, but I do agree it's one of my weaker stories. After reading your review, the biggest thing I would say in its defense is that the arguments presented are real. You may say that they aren't very substantive, or don't make a lot of sense, but people make those arguments in real life -- unfortunately often.

    For me, that was the point of Change -- it was written as a Take That to arguments I often see in real life that make me upset or frustrated. Its why writing it was tricky for me. On the one hand, I really did do my best to make the Mane 6 seem sympathetic and reasonable in their arguments. But on the other hand, there's only so much I can do to make an argument seem reasonable when it is quite obviously ridiculous.

    I guess in summary, you're right that Change is a message story. And if the message, "Fuck you, Luddites!" appeals to the reader's pre-existing beliefs and frustrations, I think they will enjoy it. Otherwise, you get reviews like yours. 1/5 stars!

    One other thing I might say, if you read the comment threads. You've read a lot of my polemic stories: "Racism is bad!" "Technology is good!" "Twilight, a mare can't get you pregnant!" You've commented that you feel like people aren't recommending the best of my writing, and you're right. The stories of mine you've reviewed are some of my least popular works.

    If I could make a request -- the next time you feel like reviewing one of my stories, I'd ask you take a look at Around The World in 81 Days. I consider it the best story I've ever written. Horizon called it the best story of all 2016 and maybe one of the top ten in the fandom ever. It's certainly a story with a moral, but I think, as you said above, that's quite different from being a moral with a story.

    Thanks again! Love your blog. :)