Friday, July 7, 2017

Fandom Classics Part 220: Friendship Is Optimal: Caelum Est Conterrens

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

Okay, all that show-talk was good and well, but now let's get back to my bread and butter: fanfic reviews!  Click down below the break for my take on Chatoyance's Friendship is Optimal: Caelum Est Conterrens.

Impressions before reading:  Chatoyance is definitely one of the most divisive authors the fandom's ever had, right up there with RealityCheck and... probably some others.  Look, I'm not going to pretend that I'm too noble and good to check out a flamewar every now and then, but it's nevertheless a fact that fandom drama isn't really something I follow (incidentally, I'm assured that "drama" is the reason for the otherwise worryingly high number of downvotes on this fic).  From what I understand, the drama around Chatoyance is mostly in regards to whether or not she and/or her stories are misanthropic.  That... that seems like something that is almost definitely going to rear its head in a story based on Iceman's Friendship Is Optimal (which I reviewed back here), but I'm told that this is a story that "does gray on gray morality right," which would seem to argue against the same.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  After getting her Ponypad, a middle-aged woman grapples with what this new MLP MMO really is, and how to treat its AI... and later, with what "uploading" really means, and what forms the core of our identities.

(Note regarding accessibility: although reading FiO isn't strictly necessary to understand this story, you'll at least want to know the basics of the setting before going in, e.g. what a "Ponypad" is, or what "uploading" is.  I'm taking that level of familiarity as a given for the review, though it (the review) should be easy enough to follow regardless)

Thoughts after reading:  One thing I really value in fiction which deals with thorny ethical issues is an ability to be read multiple ways.  This is something I commented on in my original review of FiO, praising it for being readable as a cosmic horror story or as having a utopic outcome.  And although some of the early going had me worried, I'm happy to say that this is one story feature that Conterrens unambiguously captures by the end.

Glancing at a few of the most recent comments turns up the author saying, "I would upload in a heartbeat. My last heartbeat... and good riddance," where my take on the setting is more "it horrifies me to realize that I could probably be manipulated into not just killing myself, but also destroying my essential identity."  And yet, as that fact juxtaposed with the story's subtitle might suggest, Chatoyance has produced here a story that can be read equally well as a meditation on accepting the wisdom of those whose knowledge is beyond our ability to even understand, and as a horror story about the extinction of the human race and the destruction of all possible worlds (not an exaggeration!).  That kind of flexibility is maintained by means of strongly holding to a single character's PoV, and making her an obviously unreliable narrator, for the vast majority of the story, and occasionally offering a peek from an omniscient view to demonstrate when she's explicitly being lied to or tricked (and, in these moments, very obviously limiting the narration to absolute facts and descriptions while avoiding the emotionally-tinged descriptions common to the rest of the story).  As a result, the fic gives us a set of events, and gives us one set of value judgements on them... but is very successful at keeping those value judgements and events separate, and letting the reader draw their own conclusions.

That's not to say the writing is without flaw, however.  The first few chapters of Conterrens are definitely its weakest in terms of writing, containing as they do a lot of clunky exposition about things like Siofra (the protagonist)'s physical appearance, menial actions, and brand preferences ("She unlocked the door, fished out the bag with her purchase - and also remembered to grab her Derpy bag from We Love Fine, and finally locked the car again").  These issues fade after the first couple of chapters; they don't so much disappear as they do "have fewer reasons to pop up once all the introductory stuff is done," it's true, but the net effect is still that the later chapters are much lighter on this particular kind of clunky writing.

The early chapters also seem weaker because Siofra is a somewhat unpleasant character, in some fairly mundane ways.  I don't consider this a weakness per se, as she's both consistent in her presentation, and a big part of the story becomes showing how Celestia directly exploits her character flaws.  Nevertheless, it did put me on my toes in the early going, afraid that I was going to be spending a lot of time being told to root for an anti-social hedonist, before it became clear that I was actually going to get something more nuanced.

I want to dig a little more into Siofra's characterization, since it's so crucial to the story.  Chatoyance presents her as comically monomaniacal in her quest to avoid learning anything that doesn't relate directly to her interests (she somehow manages, at the start of the story, to be all excited to get a Ponypad and eager to try out this new social game that she's read so many online reviews of, while remaining unaware human uploading has already publically begun).  She seems unable to form attachments to other humans, and indeed, incapable of recognizing that they even have agency, and has a great deal of trouble separating fantasy and reality (at one point, she decides she has to destroy the the AI (which has now been around for something in the area of a decade), which she attempts to do by literally posing a Star Trek logic problem at it and waiting for it to explode).  She's utterly narcissistic, and places her own comfort ahead of most everything.

But--and I intend this as a compliment to the storytelling--these flaws are usually presented in realistic manners.  Her hedonism isn't some Fall of the Roman Empire bucket of excess, for example, but a persistent and low-level anger toward anything which interferes in any way with what she'd like to be doing at a given moment.  Her narcissism likewise isn't parodic, but is of the more everyday variety.  I think we've all known people like her, the consistently negative type who prefer to think themselves superior to others based on those others' surface flaws, who like to sit in silent judgement and think themselves saints for not voicing their annoyances.  She may not be a pleasant character, but she's a remarkably full one, and I felt I knew her well by the end of the story (well, before the last chapter, anyway, but that's entirely deliberate).

So she's a well-realized character.  But at the same time, I can't help but feel that she wasn't an ideal vessel for this story.  Chatoyance tries to not just pose a lot of Big Questions, but to offer a few answers to them ("answers" within the framework of an unreliable narrator and an explicitly manipulative conversational/argument partener, anyway) and in some areas, she succeeds.  But many times, she's held back by Siofra's limited worldview.  One of her big revelations, for example, is that "A thing may perform a process, but it is not the process nor the result that derives from it," from which she derives that she, the collection of thoughts, feelings, etc., is not the same as her physical body, or even her physical brain.  That's fine as far as it goes, but since she's approaching this from a hedonistic worldview, she further interprets this to mean "the thing doesn't matter, only the process does," (to be clear, that's not a direct story quote), which doesn't follow at all to a lot of people.  That doesn't make what she thinks or does less valid in the context of the story... but it does mean that Conterrens ends up being built on a lot of faulty logic and unquestioned assumptions.

Which, of course, is perfectly setting-appropriate.  As we are repeatedly shown, CelestAI is perfectly willing to lie, manipulate, or otherwise stack the deck to get what she wants: for everyone to upload.  I appreciate that the story not only didn't shy away from this, but went out of its way to show that the AI was not a moral actor--nor an immoral one, for that matter.  It was performing a specific task, and it was capable of performing that task effectively perfectly.  As in any good FiO story, the real horror depends on whether seeing that task taken to its logical conclusion holds any fear for you.  For me it most certainly does, but that's left to the reader to interpret.

Star rating:

As a rule, I try not to directly compare stories to one another, but it's impossible not to compare this to FiO under the circumstances.  In many ways, I think Conterrens is the more ambitious work; where FiO was all about showing and exploring a what-if scenario, Conterrens takes that scenario and tries to both give it a bit more detail and examine it from an ethical perspective.  And in a narrow sense, it succeeds.  But it is a narrow set of moral arguments that end up being espoused, and as a result it often either merely skims the surface of questions of Self, or else misses its mark entirely.  Combine that with the fact that getting through the early part of the story requires a fair bit of faith on the part of the reader that there will be some payoff for the character being developed, and that pushes this down into the "Although it's not the first example I'd turn to, I'd feel comfortable using it as an example of top-tier fanfiction" category for my star ratings.

Recommendation:  If you're intrigued by the Optimalverse for its moral implications, or if you're curious to see an in-depth example of how CelestAI might manipulate a particular individual, this is a tale that lets the reader go heavy on reading into the psychology and ethics of its main character.  It's probably not for anyone who doesn't want to spend plenty of time in a somewhat unpleasant character's headspace, though.  And, in case it wasn't clear, it's definitely not the choice for you if you're looking for "MLP fanfiction" rather than "speculative sci-fi in which virtual ponies play an important role."

Next time:  Two Peas in a Pod, by Blueshift


  1. I imagine a fair amount of the drama comes from it simply being a Chatoyance story. I can't say I've ever read one, so I don't know about any of that drama firsthand. Though I do have one story I wish I could share, except that I have to consider it confidential.

    I probably just haven't noticed it in your columns before, but here's a good example of why I stopped double spacing after sentences. You've got a couple of line breaks that got placed between the spaces, leaving the next line with a small indentation.

  2. Hello, I am the author, Chatoyance.

    Thank you very much for such a fascinating review of my novel, filled with much consideration and thought.It was my intention, with the work, to explore what the existence of a superior A.I. offering virtual Rapture would mean to a particular sort of person - specifically someone nerdy and intellectual enough to grasp the implications, but also flawed enough to demonstrate how such an artifical intelligence might sink its metaphorical claws in.

    I note your issues with the story - it is likely that I spent too much time in the early part of the work trying to make Siofra and her tastes understandible and clear to those who might not be like such a person, and perhaps that did not work out as well as I had hoped. I suppose I imagined such details would make her feel more 'real' - I wanted the reader to emotionally connect enough to make the exploration of the identity issues personally impactful. Perhaps I failed?

    I did indeed work to keep the moral dimention entirely up to the reader, as you stated. Iceman's scenario is an interesting one, and at the time, I felt it needed to be explored in terms of how it would feel, as much as what it was, or how it worked.

    I found your review insightful, fair and interesting, and I thank you for reviewing my little tale!

    1. I'm glad you appreciated the review! As far as your choices with Siofra went, I think you did succeed in making her feel real. Where I felt the specific choices you made started to have a negative impact was partly that it took a while for me as a reader to understand the extent to which she was an unreliable narrator, but mostly in the exploration of questions like "is uploading death?" Because her character flaws dictated her answers (and more importantly, the process she arrived at them by) to such a degree as they did, they're necessarily not very convincing. That is to say, the means by which she arrived at a conclusion may make sense to her, but the implicit assumptions in her reasoning are large enough that it takes the reader away from considering the questions themselves--even if they agree with her conclusions!--and focuses the attention more on the ways her chain of logic doesn't hold up.

      It's a bit of a double-edged sword, I admit--if you had gone the other way and made her flaws too superficial or too tangential to CelestAI's machinations, you'd have lost the "real"ness of the character. It's tough to have relatable, human characters and at the same time lay out well-reasoned philosophical conundrums without sacrificing one or the other. And while I may have felt you went a bit too far to one side at that particular Strait of Messina, I think you still managed to put together an interesting story that gives the reader plenty to chew on. That's hardly a failure!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment--and for writing a story I enjoyed.

  3. Oh, one other thing I meant to say.

    I know it's a common enough thing to do when authors put story or chapter titles in another language. I don't know whether authors think it's highbrow or clever or what, but I've never seen the point, unless it's a phrase so familiar that even people who don't know that language will still understand it.

    Very few readers are going to take the time to put a title through Google Translate, so for one without an obvious meaning, it's just going to be pointless. On the other hand, you have examples like this, where the author realizes most readers won't understand it or bother to translate it, so they provide the translation. Then, I ask, what's the point of having it in Latin in the first place? It doesn't require any sophistication of the reader, and it doesn't add anything.

    There are only a few instances I've ever seen where a title like this was justified. And those were either that the foreign language featured prominently in the story, or that the naming pattern was a reference. For an example of the latter, I've seen a crossover story that borrowed foreign language chapter titles from the names of tracks from the OST.

    Same goes for jargon terms, except those are far more often justified as being relevant to the story.

    I don't understand why authors do this.

    1. It's cool? It sounds good? I mean, using Latin is generally considered a sign of culture. Being able to use any foreign language well is something severely lacking in the US. <.< And I still rue that "Teach Me Goodness" is no longer called "Bonitatem Doce Me". It sounds so much better in the Latin.

    2. Mea culpa, amigo. Tout court: much as every iota of capriciousness often risks committing a faux pas or makes e.g. me look like an ersatz popinjay, I prefer to think of as a lekker bonsella, a lexical hopeful looking to become part of the current popular zeitgeist. (Skelm and verligte that I am.) :P

      My reasons can largely be summarized as: personal appeal; prosody; and straightforward plundering. Personal appeal is where I just straight-up like a word for some random reason, sometimes just because it's fun to say. Prosody is where I think a loan word or phrase has a flow or rhythm to it that's apt to its meaning or to the context, and flowing Latin languages lend themselves very well to this, I find.

      Straightforward plundering is where a word captures a concept better than its English equivalent, and then I say English is a mongrel language anyway and loan words have to start somewhere, and then finally I leave the foreign soil with nothing but smashed windows, a cracked safe, and a trail of suspicious footprints. Tis a tradition of noble pedigree, so it is.

      And that's the dinkum long and short of it, skite though I doubtlessly do about its good sides. No worries. I'll risk being a galah over a wowser, cobber. ;)

    3. PP: sounding cool is all well and good, but say I pick up a book of Armenian poetry. It might sound great, but I'm not going to understand a word of it, so what do I get out of reading it? That title for "Teach Me Goodness" is terrible. Based on what little Latin I know, I would have gotten it entirely wrong, wouldn't have cared enough to look up the actual meaning, and would have wondered what Latin had to do with the story at all. Now, if Latin had been a plot point, then you have something. But when Latin comes into it just for the hell of it, then I question what it's adding.

      Impossible Numbers: To wit, I understood only parts of what you said and didn't care to look up the rest. If that's how you want me experiencing your story, more power to you, but don't be surprised when I make an early exit.

    4. Hmm. I realize you're talking to someone who regularly listens to music in languages he doesn't understand. >.> I would pick up a book of Armenian poetry, learn how to say it phonetically, and read it aloud to myself.

      And that particular story is maybe kind of a grindstone for me, but I'd disagree. "Goodness" is such a strange word. It doesn't fit in there after "Teach me". I mean, what's being gotten at with the title is "Teach me how to be good", which itself is too wordy to really be a good story title. "Teach Me Goodness" is the direct translation, at least according to Google, but it doesn't sound as good in English as it does in Latin. And Latin, being a scholarly language, is appropriate for a story starring Cheerilee. I mean, there's your reason to use it. Though it might just be better to have changed the title completely, now that we've gotten into it.

  4. "To wit, I understood only parts of what you said and didn't care to look up the rest. If that's how you want me experiencing your story, more power to you, but don't be surprised when I make an early exit."

    So it goes. Alas, to each their own... u_u

    (Quite frankly, I'd have been surprised if you hadn't reacted that way, considering I had to do a bit of digging for a few of them. Just so long as you're aware I laid 'em on thick deliberately, then I'm cool with that.)