Sorry for lack of post today

I’m sick, and this is my first time spending more than an hour out of bed since I got home from work yesterday. Current plan is that the post that would have been today will go up tomorrow, and there’ll be no Fiction Friday this week.
If you’re looking for something to read, and on the off-chance that anyone who follows me hasn’t already seen it, here’s Phil Sandifer providing us the best thing on this year’s Hugos anybody has written or will write.

Quick Housekeeping Update

I fucked up, so Video Vednesday will be a few hours late. (It’s the one post type I can’t do during a break at work, because the place where I store the videos for Patreon backers is blocked by the office, and therefore I can’t pull one down to upload to YouTube. I forgot to start the upload to YouTube before I left for work, so I have no video to embed now.)

Also, because of various things I need to get done during this blog hiatus, I’ve changed my mind about Fiction Fridays–I won’t be doing them during the hiatus, because unlike the other regular features I’m keeping running, they take effort I’m not already doing. Sorry.

Suggestion Box Post

So, my traffic’s been steadily declining since I ended The Very Soil. This month looks likely to come in slightly lower than what I had in late 2013, which is not a great thing if I’m, say, hoping to be able to switch my day job to part time within the next five years.

So… what would you like to see me do? Or, since you’re already here, what do you think I could do that would get you to tell other people, “Hey, you should check out this blog?”/post links to it elsewhere/share it on Tumblr/whatever?

Throwing the suggestion box wide open here, though obviously I am not willing to change the core mission of the blog–I’m not about to start posting porn or pandering to the right wing or whatever.

Anyway, suggestions?

What am I gonna do? I’ll never win the competition now! (Rainbow Falls)

Sorry this is so late, everyone. Last I remember I was sitting at my computer working on this at about 9:30 PM last night, then suddenly I’m in bed and it’s late morning. It is entirely possible I have been overworking and undersleeping this week.

I have no idea who you’re talking about.

It’s January 18, 2014. The top song is “Timber” by Pitbull featuring Ke$ha, a heavily produced and highly repetitive song about sex and parties so generic it approaches being the Platonic ideal of mass-produced songs.designed to be played very loudly in crowded rooms where no one’s listening, and the top movie is Ride Along. In the news, Egyptians vote on a new constitution; the execution of Denis McGuire takes 25 minutes, prompting renewed debate about the death penalty in the U.S.; the Golden Globes are awarded and Oscar nominees announced.

In ponies, Corey Powell pens “Rainbow Falls,” which has the interesting distinction of being, to date, the only episode to be in two separate arcs, involving as it does both the Equestria Games and the quest for the keys. These are two very different kinds of arcs. The Equestria Games arc strongly resembles the first season’s “accidental” Grand Galloping Gala arc, where a single episode about preparing for the event spawned further references and eventually the event itself. Similarly, there was no reason to believe Season Three’s “Games Ponies Play” was part of an arc or that the Equestria Games would be mentioned again until Season Four’s “Flight to the Finish,” and there is no particular defined structure to the arc, other than the presumption that, like the Gala, the last episode of the arc will be the Games themselves. There is no way to tell, however, whether any given episode that mentions the Games is the second-to-last or twelfth-to-last in the arc.

By contrast, the quest for the keys has a clear structure. We knew from the season premiere that this would be an arc, since it ends with a focus on the question of what might be in the crystal and how it might be opened. There are six keys for the crystal container, six Elements of Harmony, and the Mane Six; Rarity has already received a souvenir for teaching another pony the essence of Generosity, which souvenir received end-of-episode focus and mysterious music as it shimmered with rainbow light; rainbows have been strongly affiliated with the Elements of Harmony. Already after “Rarity Takes Manehattan” fans were speculating that each of the Mane Six would have a focus episode in which they faced a crisis of their Element and earned some sort of souvenir, thus making the needed keys.

The challenge for the writers, then, is how to follow such a clear structure without falling into the formulaic, and here in the second “key” episode Powell succeeds admirably. The approach of merging the two storylines for one episode is, no pun intended, the key to this success. In “Rarity Takes Manehattan” the test of generosity was the episode’s only plot, and therefore its resolution the end of the episode. Here in “Rainbow Falls” we have two plots, the A plot in which Rainbow Dash struggles between her loyalty to the Ponyville team and her desire to be on the likely winning team from Cloudsdale, and the B plot in which the Ponyville team competes for a chance to be in the Equestria Games. Thus, even though the A plot follows the same structure as “Rarity Takes Manehatten” of “pony tempted away from their element, realizes this is wrong, reaffirms loyalty to their element and in the process teaches someone else its value,” the episode as a whole is able to add on an extended denoument in which the Ponyville team, including Rainbow Dash, competes to qualify for the Games and barely squeaks in. It’s a small thing, but enough to help prevent this from feeling like “Rarity Takes Manehattan 2: Rainbow’s Revenge.”

Oddly, this is also one of the few episodes so far this season not to feature some sort of external intrusion into Equestria or the show. Instead we have something of the opposite, a “greatest hits” tour of Rainbow Dash’s past focus adventures, including the temptation to abandon her friends to join an elite team (“Friendship Is Magic, Part 2”), a lack of confidence in advance of a big competition (“Sonic Rainboom”), pushing someone to praise her after she rescued them (“The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well”), faking an injury (“Read It and Weep”), and a shot where Rainbow Dash announces she’s made a choice, cut to someone assuming they’ve been chosen, then Rainbow announces she went with someone else (“May the Best Pet Win”). And Spitfire directly references being impressed by Rainbow’s performance at the Academy (“Wonderbolts Academy”).

However, this inward turn makes a degree of sense. The symbols on the Tree of Harmony in “Princess Twilight Sparkle” associated the Element of Loyalty and Rainbow Dash with the sephirah of keter, the Crown, the highest on the tree. Keter is the highest level of spiritual attainment, perhaps fitting for the high-flying Rainbow Dash, and the spark of inspiration from which all the other sephiroth descend. Rainbow Dash fits well in that position, both diegetically, as she created the sonic rainboom that gave all of the Mane Six their cutie marks, and extradiegetically, as what appears to be a possible early precursor to Rainbow Dash appears in Lauren Faust’s juvenilia. In turn, as the highest of the sephiroth kether is the farthest from malkhut, the Kingdom, which is where the incursion began in “Princess Twilight Sparkle.” Rainbow Dash, after all, almost never touches the ground.

The lack of outside incursion, however, does not mean we are therefore safe from the qlippoth. They are, instead, here before us. The qlippah associated with kether in the Hermetic tradition is Tauriel, the clash of opposing forces. All things are one in kether; just because it is the farthest from malkhut does not mean it and malkhut are opposed; failure to recognize this unity and balance leads to taking sides, eschewing completeness out of a desire for victory.

Rainbow Dash is, as befits the Element of Loyalty, somewhat prone to taking sides. So committed is she to all things “air,” for example, that she almost never touches the ground. Likewise, Rainbow Dash fixates on the competition instead of the contest, on winning rather than working together with her friends, and as such looses sight of her Element. She insists on seeing the qualifying trials as a competition for a limited resource, qualifying slots in the Equestria Games, and misses the larger view, in which it is a part of an event meant to entertain and showcase athleticism, in which the competitors are not enemies but rather allies encouraging one another to attain new heights. Once she remembers that it’s not about beating other competitors, but being with her team and helping them be as good as they can be, she also realizes where she belongs. She walks to the playing field to announce her decision–walks, not flies, because know she understands that even the ground is not her enemy.

Another lesson both learned and taught. Another key gained. Already we begin to gain an image of what might be in that box, based on what is needed to open it: something that teaches, something that unifies. We’re a third of the way there.

Next week: But first, shenanigans.

And tell that big dumb scary face to take a hike and leave you alone and if he thinks he can scare you then he’s got another thing coming and the very idea of such a thing just makes you wanna… (Pinkie ApplePie)

Oh wow, I’m really sorry about this one. I fucked up and queued it for the wrong day, and because I was staying with family overnight and all day I didn’t notice that it didn’t go up. I’m putting it up now, then once my service successfully picks it up and posts it to the various social media, I’ll backdate it to where it’s supposed to go.

That, or Pinkie’s been wifing in the club.

It’s January 11, 2014. The top song is still “The Monster,” and the top movie is something called Lone Survivor, which I’ve never heard of despite it spending the next five weeks in the top five. In the news, Australia beats England at cricket to reclaim The Ashes, as far as I know the only major international sports trophy to originate as a joke; Janet Yellen is confirmed as Chair of the Federal Reserve by the U.S. Senate, becoming the first woman to hold the position; and Spain invites the Sephardim, a large Jewish ethnic group exiled in 1492, and who now comprise the majority of Jews in North Africa and Western Asia, to return.

On TV, we have “Pinkie Apple Pie,” a very strong first effort by new writer Natasha Levinger that sends Pinkie Pie along with the Apple family on a road trip to discover if Pinkie is actually a distant Apple cousin. The episode weaves two strands together, Pinkie’s eagerness to be a part of the Apple family, and the Apples’ own struggle to keep up a good image of their family.

Then Slender Man shows up.

It’s an obvious move, really. The show’s been throwing sly references to pop culture over the target demographic’s heads for nearly its entire run, and has also incorporated at least two characters invented entirely by Internet fandom, Derpy Hooves and Dr. Whooves. It’s also been spending much of this season feature alien intrusions into Equestria and the pony’s lives, from the physical to the conceptual.

Slender Man, meanwhile, is public domain character created entirely by his own Internet fandom. Originating in a Something Awful thread about photoshopping old photographs to add ghosts, he is an impossibly tall, tentacled, faceless figure in a black suit, standing in the background of a photograph of children happily playing on a playground, his position and the composition such that he isn’t immediately apparent on first glance.

He quickly became memetic, and as image posts, CreepyPastas, and eventually blogs and YouTube serials about him proliferated, a consensus of a few core concepts accreted around him. He is silent, and rarely actually seen to move, but can apparently move tremendously quickly or teleport when not being observed. He causes video and audio distortions in cameras when he’s nearby, most often visual tearing or loud droning static. He seems to focus on particular people, being seen by or near them, and the people he focuses on tend to develop coughs, delusions, hallucinations, obsessions, and paranoia. Supposedly his preferred targets are children, but nearly every story has him stalking young adults in their early 20s. He tends to be found in liminal spaces such as forests, porches, windows, doorsteps, and hallways. He has no known weaknesses, has never been harmed, and was created by a Something Awful thread about photoshopping old photographs to add ghosts. Slender Man, you see, is a fictional being within his own stories. The more stories are told about him, the stronger he becomes.

He is among the most alien intrusions imaginable,  short of going completely Lovecraftian, and both a physical presence and a concept. This is the perfect season for him to cameo in.

Like most creatures of horror, Slender Man can be read as expressing a particular set of anxieties. He has the appearance of a faceless, anonymous being clad in the ultimate symbol of adult responsibility and tedium, the office worker’s suit. He destroys children, which is to say childhood. He is encountered in spaces that exist on the edge between two adjoining realms–the forest that lies between civilized regions, the hallway between rooms, the door and porch and window between the safe, contained Inside and the vast, unknown Outside. 
Slender Man is adulthood itself, and so of course he is stalking Pinkie Pie, who is probably the most childlike and childish of the Mane Six. Alone of them, Pinkie neither lives alone nor is the head of a household; she frequently appears to not understand serious situations such as Discord’s disruptions in “Return of Harmony”; and appears motivated almost entirely by pleasure-seeking.

Or is she? Because in this episode we see something new in Pinkie Pie. In discussion of past episodes, I’ve noted that Pinkie Pie has a severely stunted remembering self, and as such generally neither plans for the future nor dwells on the past. But here, right from the start of the episode, she is already intently interested in a particular aspect of her past, her ancestry.

The reason becomes clear when we consider what, precisely, piques her interest, and what it is she doesn’t want to remember. Pinkie Pie was miserable as a member of the Pie family, as shown in “The Cutie Mark Chronicles.” (This statement is complicated, but not negated, by “Maud Pie,” as I will discuss further when we get to that episode.)  She loves them (as, again, shown most clearly in “Maud Pie,”) and does not want to stop being a Pie, but if she can acquire an additional family with whom she fits in better, that is a major gain for her. Joining the Apples, in other words, is Pinkie’s first real attempt to fix the misery of her childhood rather than hide from it, and as such is inherently an attempt to regain her remembering self.

To that end, the efforts of the Apple family to seem “perfect,” and the high importance Applejack places on making the Apple family welcoming for her, are intriguing. Applejack is, in a sense, the anti-Pinkie Pie, in the sense that, while her case is less severe, she also suffers from the stunting of one of her selves. Most obviously in “Apple Family Reunion,” where she focuses so much effort on making the event memorable (the goal of the remembering self) that she forgets to make it enjoyable (the goal of the experiencing self), Applejack has a tendency to be too willing to sacrifice the present for the sake of the future, to focus so much on goals that she ignores her experience of the present. That she is so eager to invite Pinkie Pie into the close-knit Apple clan is primarily because of their friendship, but it is also suggestive of Applejack trying to invite some of Pinkie’s immediacy and fun into her life.

If so, then it follows that Pinkie is trying to accomplish much the same, deliberately seeking out an opportunity to build good memories as opposed to simply enjoy the present. Her constant snapping of photographs throughout the episode, and construction of a scrapbook at the end, strongly imply that her purpose in this journey is to remember it after, and her speech to the Apples–that she feels they are a strong family because they can get angry at one another–shows a much greater understanding of relationships than Pinkie has demonstrated in the past. Ultimately, her argument is that the Apples are a good family because even though being together isn’t perfect every single second, in the long run, they cherish one another. That is a very remembering-self type of argument.

Slender Man is, thus, not an alien presence at all. The specter of adulthood is present in the scene where Pinkie Pie makes her speech to Applejack, not because he is an invader from a realm of horror far outside the conceptual spaces of the show, but because the specter of adulthood is present in the scene. One important part of growing up for most people is leaving one’s family (generally not entirely, but at least partially) and finding a new family in the form of (traditionally) a romantic partner and children, or (frequently) close, lifelong friends. (Often both, of course, and sadly sometimes neither.) Pinkie has found a family in the Apples, possibly not a family by birth, but definitely a family by choice. This is probably the most adult thing she’s ever done.

Slender Man vanishes as quickly as he appears, never to be seen stalking Pinkie again. He doesn’t need to; the specter of adulthood has been met, and matched, and accepted, and thereby defeated and absorbed. There is, perhaps, a lesson here for all the other qlippothic invaders we’ve faced this season. Fighting them went rather poorly in “Princess Twilight Sparkle.” It might be better–and more in keeping with the spirit of the show–to invite them in. It worked for Rarity last episode, and Pinkie now–who will it work for next?

Aperiodic State of the Blog

So, the general consensus I seem to be getting regarding doing solo Let’s Plays is “don’t.” So scrap that idea.

I’m in a bit of a writing slump lately, and being ill hasn’t helped. (I am basically mildly ill about 90% of my waking hours this past month, occasionally flaring into something more debilitating. I know what it is and what caused it, it’s a chronic thing I’ve had for years. There’s basically nothing I can do about it in the short term, and I’m already working on the medium term. Long term… well, in the long term everyone’s got the same prognosis eventually, right?) My own stuff has been kind of lagging, particularly the Madoka book, but I’ve got some guest posts and collaborations coming up that I’m pushing my way through. As those go up I’ll link them here, of course.

Anyway, I’m going to try to keep churning through the last couple dozen pony posts each weekend, and I’ll try to keep up with quasi-interesting daily thoughts as well–and as I mentioned elsewhere, I have already written a six-part series to go up on alternate Wednesdays after I run out of Utena–but I make no promises regarding Fiction Friday (“oh no!” cried all zero fans of Fiction Friday) or anything else really.

Holy guacamole! (Power Ponies)

Sorry this is so late. I was ill again this weekend, and spent much of it asleep as a consequence.

Twilight is all wrong here. Everyone knows, primary
colors are for heroes, secondaries are for villains!

It’s December 21, 2013. The top song is Eminem feat. Rihanna with the interestingly layered “Monster.” The top movie is still The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. In the news, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, while Ukrainians protest the ties between the two, a conflict which will only grow in the coming months. Same-sex marriage becomes legal in New Mexico and Utah. And Uganda passes its controversial and brutal anti-homosexuality law with heavy backing from U.S. right-wing Christian leaders; the law will be struck down by the courts on a technicality in the summer of 2014.

In ponies we have yet another case of interpenetration with an outside context with “Power Ponies,” written by Meghan McCarthy, Charlotte Fullerton, and Camp Lakebottom co-creator Betsy McGowen in her first and only Friendship Is Magic writing credit to date. The episode is largely an entertaining bit of froth, in which Spike (yes, the same Spike who defeated Sombra) is feeling useless and gets an opportunity to prove otherwise to himself, while maintaining a rather higher standard of good behavior than is the norm for Spike-focused episodes.

Despite said frothiness, however, the episode does continue the season’s exploration of its recurring theme of encountering the alien. In this case, rather like “Daring Don’t,” it’s an interaction with an alien setting and genre; however, where “Daring Don’t” tries to bring a tonally incompatible story-space into Equestria, “Power Ponies” sends the cast out into a new, ideologically incompatible story-space. In this respect it is rather more like “Read It and Weep,” down to using a book as the device which transports the readers into a new world; in this case, however, the book’s magic and resulting transportation is literal, rather than metaphorical.

Unlike the Indiana Jones-esque adventures of Daring Do, the Mane Six and Spike slot quite neatly into the superhero/comic-book world into which they are transported. First, their role within Equestria is arguably that of superheroes, protectors with access to a unique power that allows them to confront threats to the realm. Second, though both adventure serials and comic books arise from the pulp tradition, comics, particularly the Silver Age style which the titular Power Ponies seem to be evoking, are more brightly colorful, more prone to silliness, and more likely to leave their villains alive at the end of the story. In this respect, Batman has more in common with Friendship Is Magic than he does with Indiana Jones; both Batman and the ponies are largely unable to kill off their villains, Batman because of the general unwillingness of comics to let go of a potentially compelling character, and the ponies because murder is generally not something parents want their small children to see. The outcome is that both the ponies and Batman become defined, where their villains are concerned, by hope; just as the ponies keep stubbornly trying to show Discord what real friendship is, Batman keeps stubbornly returning the Joker to Arkham Asylum in the hope that this time he’ll reform.

But as I said above, there is still an underlying incompatibility between Friendship Is Magic‘s storytelling and a superhero comic, one ideological in nature. This is perhaps most clear with the figure of the Mane-iac, the Power Ponies’ nemesis. She is treated as a fairly standard Silver Age comic-book supervillain, which is to say that the explanation of both her motivation for destroying Maretropolis, and her convoluted scheme for doing so, is a vague “insanity.” Played simultaneously as comedic and destructive, this “insanity” consists of her concocting elaborate schemes around the theme of hair, stealing and destroying property, threatening the lives of the Power Ponies and citizens of Maretropolis, and laughing constantly. Contrast to the depictions of psychological distress elsewhere in the series; while at times generically “crazy” ponies have appeared as part of a brief gag, such as the “barking mad” pony in “Read It and Weep,” most of the depictions of psychological disorder have been much more sympathetic, usually involving the Mane Six themselves. These include Pinkie Pie’s pathological need for constant peer approval (“Party of One”), Twilight Sparkle’s destructive perfectionism (“Lesson Zero”), and Rainbow Dash’s learning disability (“Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3”). By contrast, the villains of the show have been largely free of obvious psychological disorder; they’re just selfish, self-centered, or mean.

This differing treatment of mental illness and villainy is an artifact of, as I have said, ideological differences between Friendship Is Magic and the genre of the superhero. To finally address those differences, the core conceit of the superhero is that the powers that be are lacking in strength, will, or ability, and thus cannot fully contain threats to the well-being of the people. Fortunately, a singular, heroic individual appears, superior not only in ability but also in will and morality, to the common folk and their leaders. This unelected hero is able to rise against the corruption within society, and enact justice and the will of the people outside any structures (or strictures) of law and the courts.

The superhero, in other words, is fundamentally a romantic conception. It is rooted in the notion that human society is corrupt, “the masses,” are base, but that there is nonetheless a pure will or spirit of the people–Hegel’s zeitgeist–which can be expressed through an individual ubermensch. It is inherently anti-democratic and anti-rule of law. Indeed, this particular expression of romantic ideology–the superior human who cuts through the necessary compromises of liberal society in order to enact a nebulous “will of the people,” not might makes right or right makes might, but might is right–is a passible capsule summation of the essentials of fascism.

Which is not to say that any superhero, or any of their creators, are themselves fascists! (Well, maybe Mr. A.) Rather, it is simply that by drawing on a similar philosophical tradition–the Continental romanticism of Hegel and Nietzsche–the superhero genre ends up necessarily sharing some concepts in common with fascism. Included within these romantic notions is an equation of beauty, health, and goodness. Evil is seen as a sickness, and by extension, sickness is evil. Superheroes and villains very often share similar types of origins–exposure to a vat of strange chemicals, for example. But because Barry Allen is a superior man, his strange chemicals make him the heroic, classically handsome, empowered Flash; the Joker is an inferior man, so his chemicals make him psychologically broken, ugly, and evil. Up until the 1960s and the beginning of a conscious effort to create flawed and vulnerable heroes, there were few exceptions to a general rule of superhero comics: heroes are noble, healthy, attractive, and strong, villains are bestial, broken, ugly, and flawed.

By contrast, Friendship Is Magic is set in a world where everyone has both something to contribute and something to learn. The very concept of the cutie mark and “super special talent” implies that every pony is heroically capable in some narrow field. As many or more episodes are spent dealing with the Mane Six’s neuroses and struggles with everyday life as are spent battling evil threats to Equestria. Ultimately this is rooted in a humanistic, Enlightenment worldview in which all people have value and can better themselves, in which the world is not divisible into “good” and “bad” so much as “enlightened” and “ignorant,” with the latter needing only to learn a few lessons in order to change. Goodness is not inherently connected to attractiveness or health, which are not inherently connected to each other; rather, all people have flaws and issues with which they struggle, but said flaws can be overcome by working together. The Mane Six are not superior because they can battle powerful evil; indeed, this is not even the source of their worth. Rather, they have worth because they are people, and they improve themselves and their world by exploring their own potential, which may or may not involve confronting villains (primarily depending on whether this is a season premier/finale or mid-season episode).

Ultimately, Friendship Is Magic is as far from fascism as one can get while still remaining within more-or-less modern ideologies. Namely, in its emphasis on self-discovery within a cooperative community, it takes a fundamentally socialist worldview. Each pony contributes what they can contribute, and explores ways to better themselves and thus contribute more. Because each pony is equally valuable, these contributions are thus also of equal value; Spike’s efforts, his desire to help, and most of all Spike himself are not worth less (let alone worthless) just because the rest of the Mane Six are able to take care of the task of cleaning the castle without him. Spike lives in a story where people have value regardless of the size of their contribution, and so he has value; Hum Drum, by contrast, lives in a story where one’s contribution to society is the source of one’s value, and so he is the smallest, least powerful, and least able to do good of the Power Ponies.

In the end, this incompatibility between the liberal values of Friendship Is Magic and the romantic values of a superhero comic reiterate the tensions often present in modern comics. Explorations of the fascistic roots of the superhero have become increasingly common in the last few decades, starting with the work of Frank Miller (who wallows in them) and Alan Moore (who exposes and uproot them) in the 1980s, and continuing as a thread down to the present day–the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for example, unites the heroic SHIELD and villainous HYDRA into a single organization dedicated to totalitarian control, making the titular hero complicit in the very fascist ideology he was created to fight.

Ultimately, Friendship Is Magic has no answer to this tension except to retreat from it, back into the safe and familiar space of its more humanistic worldview. But this notion of the Mane Six as heroes, a superior breed with the power and responsibility to protect others, will return. They undeniably do have power, in their own world just as much as in the comic. If not fighting villains, or not just fighting villains, what are they to use it for?