Saturday, August 5, 2017

Fandom Classics Part 224: The Last Pony on Earth

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

One week until I leave on vacation!  If you're working on/planning to do a guest post, this weekend is the time to finish them up.  I'll plan to put together the posts and e-mail everyone with the days theirs will go up on Wednesday, and then guest postage will commence on the 14th.  From the columns I've already read, I can promise you all that there's some good stuff coming up!

But until the 14th, this is still One Man's pony ramblings!  So head on down below the break to see what that one man had to say about starscribe's The Last Pony on Earth.


NOTE: This review contains ending spoilers. Don't worry, they're behind a spoiler tag you have to click to read... but since I can't figure out how to put multiple spoiler tags into a single post, that means that today's star rating is unspoiled. Just FYI!

Impressions before reading:  "Survivalist fiction" and "Pony TF" are not things I particularly enjoy independently, so a story which combines the two doesn't seem like one calculated to appeal to me personally.  I suppose it's a good sign that the premise would seem to disbar a few of the most obvious pitfalls of both genres, though (I can't imagine that, if the main character is turned into a little pony and trapped alone in what's left of a big city, he's either going to be showing off his oh-so-cool survivalist weapon-wielding, nor buddying up to all of the main six within the first three chapters).  Sometimes, two flavors taste better together than they do separately, right?

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  One morning, Alex wakes up to discover that he's a pony, and that LA has been deserted overnight.  As he tries to deal with both short- and long-term survival necessities, he's also forced to confront myriad questions: what happened to everyone?  Are there any other survivors?  Are those survivors human, or equine?  And most of all... what will become of humanity, if his ad hoc "community" is almost all that remains?

Thoughts after reading:  Partway through the story, everything abruptly fell apart for me--but for a reason which seems, for whatever unfathomable-to-me-reason, not to bother the vast majority of readers, even very attentive ones.  It's the same thing that rudely yanked me out of the 2014 Godzilla movie.

See, that movie is mostly set in "the present day," but the weird thing is that, as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that this is some alternate universe where Godzilla never existed.  The dozens of movies, the toys, the franchise... all of it clearly was totally absent from the AU in which 2014 Godzilla takes place, because otherwise somebody (or rather, everybody) would recognize these monsters.  When you think about it for even a minute, this AU should have radically divergent movie conventions and technology at the very minimum, and would likely be meaningfully different in everything from Japanese economy to the popular conception of what a "monster" is to language itself.  In other words, this is a really big thing to ask of an audience, to pretend that there was never a Godzilla before 2014.

As you probably guessed, Last Pony appears to take place in a world where "my little pony" never existed.  Not just FiM, but as more characters appear, it becomes clear that there has never been such a thing as MLP in this world (or, less probably, that at least a couple dozen people, and probably several hundred, had somehow never so much as heard of it in any incarnation).  The implications of this aren't so grand as that of missing Godzilla, but it still feels like a really big ask to me, with a lot of implications for our AU which really need to be explored.  I know I'm in the tiny-to-nonexistent minority on this, so I'm not going to harp on it in my recommendation or anything, but I did want to discuss it a bit before I moved on to the rest of the story.

The story's biggest successes and failures alike seem to be in the field of how it uses its diary format, so that seems like a good place to start.  And for the most part, it is good; the vast majority of the story, presented entirely in the form of Alex's journal, hews to necessary restrictions of that format, and moreover, uses it to good effect.  The way Alex talks about himself and the first couple of ponies met (spoiler: Alex is not, in fact, the last pony on Earth) do an excellent job of revealing a lot about Alex's PoV and inner turmoil without resorting to just telling the reader things that it wouldn't make sense for someone to actually say/write.  Moreover, the particular matters on which Alex fixates do a good job of painting priorities and biases without necessarily having the narrator be self-aware enough to personally identify them.  The conversational style of the journals fits well with the conceit that Alex is using a text-to-speech device, and a few breaks from the established format end up adding a lot to the narrative in a non-immersion-breaking way.

On the downside, starscribe does occasionally resort to lazy cheats like crossed-out text (especially ridiculous in this format, since it's clear that Alex went back into the document after narrating it and, rather than deleting the text, went to the trouble to add strikethrough.  There are at least a couple of places where this appears as if it could reasonably have been a deliberate choice on Alex's part--that he wanted the text to appear, but in strikethrough--but others where it's simply ridiculous).  The author also plays coy with certain facts well past the straining point of credulity, in terms both general and specific to Alex's character.  There's one in particular that's worth looking at, but since it comes as a late-story semi-reveal I'll break out the spoiler to discuss it in more detail.  If you don't want to know some significant stuff that comes toward the end of the story, you can just take my word for that.  Or you can read the fic yourself!  But if you do want to know what that coyness that I found so improbable was, click the button:



That's enough about one aspect of the ending, though.  The majority of the story is about Alex and, eventually, a few other characters trying to scrape together a survival plan in a place that's quickly running out of modern conveniences like electricity and running water, is populated by a bunch of suddenly-abandoned hungry pets that are large enough to pose a threat to a little pony, and that can't support much if any growing without irrigation.  These parts of the story, as I noted before I started reading, aren't really a genre that I love, but they're undeniably well-executed.  Although the psychological toll is underplayed with Alex, it's somewhat explored in the other characters, in a variety of different direction, and there's just enough patina of believability to what they are and aren't able to accomplish to keep it feeling... well, extremely optimistic, certainly (apocalypse survivors will wish they could get half this much done), but at least vaguely believable.

With all spoiler-stuff noted, I'll say that Alex is generally a well-realized character as narrator.  Although there are a few slip-ups (he's well-versed enough in Tolkien to name his dog Huan, but he struggles to remember that a winged horse is called (a) pegasus? (maybe this points to an even deeper AU than I imagined--it's not just MLP that's missing from this world, but all knowledge of horsefiction has been suppressed!)), it's easy to get a feel for his fears and self-doubt, which come through clearly both in obvious ways and between the lines.  Part of this is that he's such a flawed human (pony), and that the author doesn't shy away from showing some of his deep-set misogyny or disdain for intellect.  He can be a little unpleasant to share headspace (journalspace) with, frankly, but in a delightfully realistic way.  He comes across as a little too obviously prepper-y a personality for me to really buy into, but not to the point of self-parody, and the suggestion that the few who transformed instead of disappearing helps ameliorate both this and some of the more convenient skills of his first companions.  Alex also has a good habit of showing an awareness of what questions the hypothetical diary-reader might have about his actions and setup, and tends to either answer those, or at least clarifies what he does or doesn't actually know.

Where the story lets down is in the reveals of some of those actual elements.  In some cases, as with the bit I talked about in the spoilers, there simply isn't any explanation (and bafflingly, Alex never even asks any of those who might conceivably know why).  In other cases, there's a revelation that, strictly speaking, tells us what happened, but leaves out some key whys and why didn'ts.  Generally speaking, I found that the story was good about answering questions (one of my notes, from about a quarter of the way in, was "what difference does it make that they're ponies, specifically?" and that was definitely answered in a meaningful way)... but not as good at providing satisfying and complete answers.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

Despite my misgivings, I still considered three stars for this; it's a flawed work in several notable ways, but the vast majority of my reading experience was a low-key, just-believable-enough look at how a driven generalist might respond to an end-of-the-world scenario.  It's not my jam, by any stretch... but I've read enough really bad post-apocalypse/survivalist fiction (both ponyfic and non-) to recognize a more solid example when I see it.

Recommendation:  If you enjoy survivalist fiction, this is an above-average example that doesn't sacrifice "how people actually think and act" at the altar of "rigging up cool stuff."  It's not for people who are hoping for a terribly satisfying payoff, though those who simply fear there won't be any payoff can rest assured that this fic answers (almost) all its big questions.

Next time:  The Magic Never Fades Away, by Thyrai

16 comments:

  1. That spoiler part...what a bizarre mistake to make. That's honestly baffling.

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  2. The word you're looking for is "preppy", Chris. Pre-ppy...

    I'm looking forward to reading this story someday, so I actually skipped the spoilers for once. I will say that "franchise exists within world it is set" isn't something I expect from honestly anything. I've seen it before, but I can't remember where now...

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    1. In ponyfic, you have "Forever!"/My Little Denarians, but those might be cheating a bit due to actual multiverse/writing fiction actually creates the worlds in question (though it's been a while, so I could have the details off there).

      In movies, you have (spoiler? it's been a while) "Cabin in the Woods," and of course "The Last Starfighter."

      In comics, DC Comics (and I think sometimes Marvel) exists in the Marvel Universe, and vice versa, even outside of explicitly meta-themed stories. Then with the more meta cases, you have stuff like Superboy Prime, who comes from a world without superheroes (other than himself), but with superhero comics including the DC stable and Superman, such that "Young Clark lives the first fifteen years of his life as a normal boy. However, one night, as he attends a Halloween costume party dressed as Superboy, the passage of Halley's Comet overhead triggers his Kryptonian powers." (My god, it's like Displaced. 0_0 )

      Then of course you have stuff like "Left Behind,"* where of course people who believed in and wrote about the rapture existed (before it happened). Granted, it does it poorly and ignores a lot of other things, like how aliens would be a perfectly reasonable explanation... [just go check out the blog]

      *Consider this my occasional plug of the Slacktivist, and his excellent liveblog of Left Behind, its adaptations, and its sequels.

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    2. I don't think there's a lot of overlap between preppers and preppies, honestly. Is this like when the tea party briefly tried to reclaim "teabaggers" as a positive?

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    3. I was not aware there was any difference in the terms. :B "Prep" and "preppy" are short for "prepper", are they not?

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    4. Well, they're associated preparing for different things--college vs. disasters or the fall of the government or whatever. Frankly, I missed the distinction until the comment thread, whereas I would have got what was meant with something related to "survivalist."

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    5. The only thing "preppy" has ever meant to me is someone who wears an abundance of LL Bean and Ralph Lauren. This comment thread is the first time I've heard it used to mean anything other than that (and, by extension, the lifestyles of the people who wear that).

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    6. AFAIK, "preppy" was a pejorative term used by working-class kids to describe upper class kids taking advanced "college preparatory" classes.

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  3. Aw, and here I was hoping it would be more of a reversal of the situation in "The Last Human" and riper for a crossover...

    (maybe this points to an even deeper AU than I imagined--it's not just MLP that's missing from this world, but all knowledge of horsefiction has been suppressed!)

    Now imagine what (a possibly more extreme form of) that means for Tolkien itself: what of Shadowfax, Rohan, the Nazgul--and for that matter, profoundly altering the literary traditions that influenced him.

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  4. Yeah, I'm sure I've said it before, because I know you've mentioned this previously, but I really don't get your hang-up with Godzilla 2014. I mean, I know what you're saying in the abstract - a world without Godzilla movies will be different in some ways - but surely this is one of those basic things that we accept about all fiction? The Die Hard movies don't exist in the world of Die Hard either. And actually, come to think of it, every previous Godzilla movie also exists in an alternate universe where Godzilla wasn't a thing.

    In fact, I'd argue that having a movie exist within its own universe, unless as a one-off comedic reference, is normally a really bad move, because then it almost necessitates a change of genre. If Godzilla movies had already been a thing in Godzilla 2014, it wouldn't have been about Godzilla at all. It would've been about "HOLY SHIT, FICTIONAL CHARACTERS ARE COMING TO LIFE. HOW THE FUCK DOES THIS EVEN WORK?" And all the characters would be asking questions about the nature of fiction and reality, and questioning their own reality, and it'd be really meta and a completely different movie. Which yeah, might be interesting, but it wouldn't really be a Godzilla movie.

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    1. Well... the thing is, I agree with you about Die Hard. If they remade it and set it in the modern day, wouldn't it be weird if nobody noticed that the terrorists were literally acting out the plot of Die Hard? I mean, news reporters already bend over backwards to connect terror plots to similar books or movies; wouldn't your credulity be strained if not a single person mentioned Die Hard in that scenario?

      Granted, the alternate "it's an AU where the original Die Hard franchise never existed" would be much more palatable in this case, since (as far as I know) those movies didn't have nearly the cultural, technological, and economic impact of the Godzilla franchise, but it'd still seem odd to me.

      (And the other Godzilla movies definitely aren't meant to be outside of one anothers' continuities--unless you're talking about the abominable early 2000s(?) remake, which was awful for a whole host of reasons unrelated to its AU setup)

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    2. Not super relevant, but there's a great moment in the movie Last Action Hero where they go to a video rental store and there's a billboard for Terminator 2 - Except it has Sylvester Stallone as the Terminator instead of Arnold, since he's supposedly a cop in LAH.

      Generally though, I agree with Danny; I think it's kind of just a mutually agreed upon fantasy that most movies exist in a world where anything that would reference them doesn't exist.

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    3. Okay, and I get that I'm alone on this, but it seems like a super weird mutually agreed upon fantasy for everyone to indulge, if the books/movies/shows aren't going to actually explore it but just leave it totally unaddressed in the corner instead.

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  5. Pretty good description of the story, and a fair evaluation, but for some reason it registered as a high three with me. That's weird because it has a bunch of flaws that usually drive me nuts, and I'm not the biggest fan of post-appoc fics, either.

    I'm now reading the second sequel, and I have to say that the writing has improved drastically, as well as the "focus." (The first sequel jumped around like a flea on speed.)

    I'm at that point in life where enjoyment trumps just about everything else, and by that standard (for whatever reasons) I'm still engaged with the series.

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    1. (The first sequel jumped around like a flea on speed.)

      On my first read of the series, I hated the first sequel. On the second reading of the series, it wasn't so bad as you have a lot more context for what the story is setting up. It's not bad, but it's definitely the weak point of the series.

      I think the biggest weakness the series has - as a collective work - is that, apart from everything being in the same post-apocalyptic setting, it doesn't really settle on a single genre, and frequently changes gears between major story arcs. While that's fine for someone who enjoys a wide variety of genres, it does make me wonder exactly who the target audience was supposed to be.

      Fortunately, I like the characters themselves - Cloudy Skies being my favorite - and characterization is the strongest part of the series.

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  6. Really glad to see you tackle this one, as I recently read the whole series alone *twice*, and am now re-reading through it a third time with my wife.

    Two things that I think your spoilered section misses out on:

    First: You seem to have missed the framing of the chapters where the reveal happens. Those three chapters are no longer in the form of journal entries, but rather through memory crystals that were designed to let a theoretical reader experience Alex's journey directly - including his internal thoughts. And the story is presented as if you are experiencing those memory crystals directly (just as it previously was treated as if you were listening to the audio recordings with the HPI instead of reading a transcript). Since the big reveal is such a critical part of Alex's experience, it makes perfect sense that it would be impossible for Alex to cover it up within the memory crystal - it's a fundamental part of his existence. That his thoughts about it are triggered by an innocent question actually makes perfect sense.

    Secondly, if you read the story a second time, you can see that Alex actually DOES constantly drop hints about that reveal long before the fact, but they're phrased in ways that deliberately have multiple interpretations. While it is very clear that Starscribe is intentionally screwing with the readers, it also strongly supports the idea that it's something Alex just really doesn't want to think about. I personally find it a bit of brilliance, as Alex KNOWS the reveal, and with that knowledge he has no reason to write the fact directly, but can still write about things with knowledge of the fact without breaking character. Those sections stick out brightly on a re-read, but are completely disguised on the first read. It's one of the most brilliant parts of the writing, in my opinion.

    Incidentally, having knowledge of what is hiding behind Alex's words changed my outlook on Moriah on my second reading. It completely twists the context of her altercation with Alex in Oregon.

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