A My Little Pony fanfic allegedly but not mainly about immortality

by PhilGoetz1 min read10th Sep 201245 comments

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My Little Pony (generation 4) has 2 immortal characters, who get a lot of sympathy from the bronies.  "How sad!  Poor Celestia and Luna must see everyone they know grow old and die.  How much better to die yourself!"

I tried to write a fanfic saying that death was bad.  But I had to make it a story, and it ended up having other themes.  I don't know whether I like it or not, but it was very popular (now approaching 7000 views in 3 days on fimfiction).

I was pretty sure the message "death is bad" was still in there, because Celestia says things like "Death is bad" and "I'm afraid of dying."  So imagine my surprise when comment after comment said, "Yes, immortality is such a curse!"

Why did so many people come away saying that?  Tell me what you think.  It will help to know that Twilight regularly writes "friendship report" letters to Celestia describing what she has learned about friendship, and that Twilight and Celestia have an especially close relationship.

Please leave comments on the google doc or here on LessWrong, not on fimfiction or Equestria Daily.  Please don't down-vote the story if you aren't familiar with the characters or aren't calibrated to fimfiction voting.

Mortality Report on google docs (comment-enabled), 4000 words.

Spoilers after the bar.

 


 

I can see two things that happened:

  1. I overplayed the "death is bad" angle, to the point where readers thought Celestia wanted to die to get away from having to deal with death.  These readers didn't like the story as much, because they thought she was being selfish rather than selfless.
  2. Most readers who figured out the evolutionary plan kicked back hard and called it evil.  That implied that Celestia was rationalizing very badly in agreeing to the plan in theory, and they then presumed her final actions were selfish.

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Maybe you guys should have a monthly brony thread :(

Why are the people up-voting this even reading this post?

1) To explain why I downvoted this thread. I like MLP and I like Less Wrong, but I don't want MLP discussion to become a significant fraction of what goes on here. I remember two other MLP fanfic threads posted in the last day or two, one of them by you. That's more than I want to see.

2) A monthly thread is actually a good idea, and I now intend to make one in October. It would give us a place to talk about these things while keeping it from flooding the discussion page. A similar approach works pretty well for the HPMOR folks.

EDIT: After reading PhilGoetz's response, I no longer think a monthly thread would be a good idea.

I disagree, for three reasons:

1) I'm not trying to ponify LessWrong. I post pony things here when they merit their own Discussion post on LessWrong. They are here as fully-qualified LessWrong discussion topics, not as pony ramblings. Otherwise, I'd rather see them in the fimfiction LessWrong group.

2) Creating a monthly pony thread would obligate people to put everything pony-related in that thread, even if it merited its own post. It would demote and degrade everything pony-related. It would ensure that nothing with the word "pony" ever reached Main.

3) It's rarely a good idea to ghettoize yourself.

HPMOR is a single story, so it makes sense for it to have its own post.

Let's at least wait and see whether the pony content increases.

IMO, LW's obsession with keeping even Discussion pristine has gotten a little nutty.

I am interested in MLP fic, but I upvoted him out of sympathy. It's a good idea.

I actually think it'd make for MORE total MLP related content, and I want that.

Another possibility is to use the media thread

I'd like to see more stories which present superlongevity as the default and normal state, then subvert our assumptions about "the human condition." Damon Knight did that in an interesting way in the 1950's with his story "The Dying Man." The negligibly senescent female protagonist, when she hears that her boyfriend has developed a mysterious ailment called "aging" which will eventually kill him, exclaims, "But that doesn't happen to people!"

My scan of that story:

https://www.box.com/shared/static/6vgqnt03vc.pdf

Two or three years ago, Analog published a story (the title escapes me) which heavily plagiarizes Knight's story and could just about substitute for it.

This is stunningly good. There are only a few flaws and they would be very easy to fix, like the explicit mention of "evolutionary psychology" - which can be fixed by just deleting the texts "from evolutionary psychology" and "the dominance of individual over group selection" and leaving the rest of the paragraph exactly unchanged...

...actually, I think that's the only flaw I found, which is amazing.

Just read over the story (okay, browsed really so I am working on incomplete information and thus this isn't a 100% proper assessment) so I'll list my thoughts on the matter.

[1] Celestia here doesn't seem to be having fun. I know well that this deals with the death of her prized student and that isn't a thing to be happy about but there are so many other things that she doesn't seem to enjoy. Such as when she mentions she doesn't look at the moon anymore. Her sister controls the night, had an episode 1,000 years ago when she thought her work wasn't being appreciated, and was recently freed from being imprisoned in the moon itself.

If Celestia made it a point to stay up and look at the moon more and maybe say, "For a millennium, I raised the sun at dawn but ignored the moon, I took it for granted. Then when I was forced to imprison my sister, I raised the moon as well. For a thousand years I carried that thing through the sky, looking at the picture of Luna imprisoned in it. Generations of ponies looke up and saw the "Mare in the Moon" not knowing who she was or if she was real."

"Then, Twilight came and with her friends freed my sister from her curse. That day I got my sister back, and for once I could watch her raise the moon as she did all those years before. That day, I and so many others were able to look up at the beautiful moon in the sky and see it as it had been before it had been used as a prison."

"I must say, the moon is beautiful."

Basically.... this is character who had seen things as they were thousands of years before and watched things grow and develop and had even orchestrated a thousand year long plan to save her sisters and (to an extent) restore the moon to the way it looked per-banishment. It would make sense that she would seek to look at the beauty in things.

Or even "Heh, I remember those first few years. Every once in a while after a hard days work I would prepare for bed as I have done for centuries. Then, I would look out the window and spot the moon... only it was different! I'd blink look again to find that the Mare in the Moon was gone and I'd panic. Hah hah... I remember once I was worried that Nightmare Moon had escaped when I wasn't looking! But then I'd remember how Luna had gotten out and Twilight freed her."

"Then, on those nights I would find my sister standing on the top balcony, looking up at the stars as she moved them into place. I would stand there and admire them as she worked."

"I can't believe I never appreciated the work she puts in all those stars."

Or whatever... I guess I'm saying that with immortal characters it would make sense to have at least one major thing that they really enjoy. Something they have done over the centuries that they are very proud of, or some hobby that they have tracked for all this time and they note how its changed. ("I pity the people who think cheddar is the only type of cheese around. I've traveled the world and had cheeses from all over... I've even got a 200 year old wheel of English Brie in the cellar... I really should crack that thing open one of these days for a special occasion. Hell, I'll do it this thursday. Make a party of it.").

[2] She seems to talk down to the ponies (or "mortals") around her. I think that's what gradually put me off Methods of Rationality and Luminosity is that the protagonists of these sorts of "Rational" stories seem to plop labels on others. Oh I know that deep down we all have habits and ingrained instincts and stuff and a sufficiently intelligent person can see those things as they really are but its rather off putting when the protagonists have such low regard of people who aren't immortal super geniuses.

"That was why I instituted cutie marks. Mortals are like apples, and will thoughtlessly grow wherever they fall unless you give them a good kick."

Because obviously labeling every singly pony in the world with a permanent symbol on their bodies that represents (what one can assume to be) their life goal is totally conductive to making ponies go about and try new things. IN OPPOSITE LAND!

(Sorry, about that. Its just the idea that sufficiently advanced intelligence would covertly label people with symbols to designate their status in life doesn't seem very friendly).

[3] As far as the life vs death thing goes... I'm of the personal opinion that living beyond the point where life isn't enjoyable isn't necessarily a good thing. If one can increase the happiness of a living person then that's great. If you can prolong the life of someone who is happy then that's also good. If you prolong the life of someone who isn't enjoying themselves... then it kind of defeats the purpose. (plus there are cases involving those who cause unhappiness for other in which case prolonging life isn't good) The Celestia in this story doesn't seem to enjoy herself so there really is no reason why she can't pass on the torch to someone else who might do a better job of it.

Or alternately, have Twilight analyze whatever magical essence allows immortality and try duplicating it.

As a side note: Living for the benefit of others is also a good thing (though not ideal). If someone doesn't personally enjoy their life but brings happiness to others then one can argue that suicide would be inappropriate.

"Twilight, I've never really said this before but I really don't enjoy life... oh, I don't hate it or anything but sometimes when I'm not working then I just feel... empty. Like whatever spark in me allows for self-enjoyment has been extinguised long ago. My purpose in this world is to raise the sun, to rule Equestria in a benevolent manner... and that's it. I've eaten so much cake over the centuries that it has stopped being a novelty, sex, games, theater, books... I've either experienced them all or reached the point where I can't imagine experiencing them would improve my quality of life in any way."

"It could be a chemical imbalance, some side effect of my condition, or perhaps my mind has had so many experiences over the eons that there just isn't that much room for anything else anymore."

"The point is that right now I live for others. I do not fear non-existance for my own sake, I just know that if I were to... die then my little ponies would not know what to do. They need someone to lead them and care for them and right now I think you would be an ideal candidate."

"A long and well-lived life is a blessing and I have lived over a thousand years before I found it no longer bearable. Perhaps you will last for two thousand? Heh... it is a puzzle, to live forever with only the limits of the mind to hold you back. I'm sure between you and Pinkie, you will find an answer to that."

(sorry this came out really long and the auto-formatting made it look weird)

Celestia here doesn't seem to be having fun.

I think this is the big one. Sure, Celestia says that death is bad. She also describes her life as prolonged suffering and says that she envies mortals because immortals have purpose but don't actually live. The opinions and example of Celestia aren't necessarily to be taken as the theme of the work itself, but I can understand why people might be confused.

There are some good ideas here - I wish now I'd written this post before posting the story. It's a little late to go back and change it now.

Hell, no! You can totally fix your stories afterward. I do it all the time. Why wouldn't I?

Well to be fair, if you hadn't posted the story then I wouldn't have been able to give input. One could say that it's better to make something, see how it could be improved, and then try again than it would be to stress over "getting it right the first time" and risk it never getting finished at all.

I think it's because the immortal character is mysterious, miserable-seeming, and hard to empathize with, whereas the mortal characters are likable and happy.

On topic: The primary impression I got was that Celestia didn't have the emotional firmness to carry out the plan she logically agreed was the best plan. As you put it, she has sentimentality, not true love. The story is about her abdicating, and about thrusting her duties onto Twilight. Twilight will shut up and multiply.

That is, I agree with your 1 and 2. (I don't think the evolutionary plan is evil- but I'm also willing to trust cold equations.) It also doesn't help that Celestia isn't saying "I like Twilight more than I like myself, I think Twilight deserves to live more than I do," Celestia is saying "I think Twilight will be more Stalinesque than I am, and that's what my little ponies need more than mothering."

The traditional way to make Celestia seem selfless is to have Celestia actually go native. That is, she's not just raising up Twilight so that Twilight can be the Bad Cop that leads Equestia to the Glorious New Dawn, but she's raising up Twilight because she thinks Twilight can come up with a better plan than Titania- the short-sighted ponies will figure out a way to abolish tradeoffs and make the world full of both glory and smiles and rainbows! I do not recommend this path: it is traditional but it is not correct.

Alternate, simpler explanation: people think the situation is sad because the situation is sad. Focusing on the parts that will make the situation happy will make people realize the things about immortality that are great. Celestia never visualizes the bright and glorious future that Twilight will usher in, and how Twilight will get to experience it when she might not. It's implied by her belief in the equations- but she spends more time fantasizing about the stallion she never got to have sex with / the foal she never birthed than she does fantasizing about Equus Superior. No wonder people think she's selfish!

Somewhat off topic:

I don't think you understand the impropriety of asking me to turn my friends' final moments into reports for you

Something that shows up sometimes in narratives might get called "the superagent assumption": basically, if something happens, the most strategic / powerful character intended it to happen. Thus, this is evidence that Titania both understands and intends the impropriety of these reports. (I'm not on TVTropes enough to know if has a name there.) It's not clear if that's what you intended- and if not, you might want to have Celestia express it as a value disagreement ("I can't express how much I resent" instead of "you sure you're doing this right?").

Off topic: I just realized that you wrote Big Mac Reads Something Purple, which is one of my favorite MLP fanfics.

Alternate, simpler explanation: people think the situation is sad because the situation is sad.

The situation is sad, but I was expecting people to think about causality. It looks like they may just be associating emotions with salient features.

If this is what happens, the Dark Arts potential for exploiting this are enormous.

Focusing on the parts that will make the situation happy will make people realize the things about immortality that are great. Celestia never visualizes the bright and glorious future that Twilight will usher in, and how Twilight will get to experience it when she might not.

Yes; but if Celestia did visualize that, she'd trust and follow the equations.

So, a writer has to write for two completely different audiences. One understands the story and thinks about it causally. One audience understands it only on the level of "immortal is sad, immortality bad".

(Which is larger: The difference in intelligence between these two groups, or between the second group and dogs?)

Off topic: I just realized that you wrote Big Mac Reads Something Purple, which is one of my favorite MLP fanfics.

Thanks! Maybe someday I will rework it and resubmit it to EqD. They didn't like it.

The situation is sad, but I was expecting people to think about causality. It looks like they may just be associating emotions with salient features.

If this is what happens, the Dark Arts potential for exploiting this are enormous.

Well, the authorial possibilities are certainly enormous. "The Sword of Good" runs on this, for example.

Yes; but if Celestia did visualize that, she'd trust and follow the equations.

Agreed. I suspect that you probably can't explain the story you want to the audience you have. Being more explicit about it might help, but... eh.

Which is larger: The difference in intelligence between these two groups, or between the second group and dogs?

This depends on what metric you use to measure and what purpose you want to direct those intelligences towards. In general, the latter difference is larger.

Thanks! Maybe someday I will rework it and resubmit it to EqD. They didn't like it.

From my reading of their response, if you drop the first two endings and make it explicitly a one-shot, it'll pass muster on word count. It's short, but that's because it's written with beautifully economic prose. (The "very flat" description just seems odd to me- that's the point! I don't know if you just need to find a sympathetic pre-reader or explaining the reason behind it will be sufficient.)

Yes, but the first two endings lead up to the third ending. Starting with the sad ending makes the happy ending happier. I really don't like making stories worse for EqD. (They're also bad about first-person narrative - the pre-readers sometimes complain about first-person narrative that isn't grammatically correct.)

The pre-reader's interpretation of the word limit rule was arbitrary - the rule just says "2500 words", nothing about alternate endings. It was silly for him to interpret the lower limit on words so that removing words makes the story appear to have more words.

The section about Pinkie Pie and how mortals seem to do a much better job of living in the moment might be triggering people's deathist reflexes. Also, Celestia in this story clearly lives a rather lonely existence, not getting to do a lot of the things she wants to. Not exactly the poster child for Fun Theory.

True. Showing immortality to be fun would be the most persuasive approach, but I gave that up early on - just couldn't think of a way to do it within the world of the show and under 10,000 words. Well, more truthfully, I couldn't think of a way to do it that seemed dramatic. Fun isn't dramatic. You could write a series of comedies showing the sisters having fun throughout the ages.

[-][anonymous]9y 7

Pinkie Pie becomes an immortal Alicorn and ensures a paradise of endless Fun for all of Equestria?

It's already well known in show that Pinkie can be quite the determinator on making other people happy, (A Friend in Deed) and one of the few things that Pinkie Pie seems to hate is being alone (Party Of One), so she'd have an obvious motive to make everyone else join her immortal fun party. Also, she's so random in show you could easily believe her somehow getting Alicorn status by accident. (Chapter 1: Celestia is crushed while bravely defending Equestria, Pinkie Pie takes on her role while everyone else is calmly discussing what to do, make some sort of Pinkie Pie-Pink Sky=Sunrise reference, of COURSE, she had unexplainable powers from the very beginning, clearly this was MEANT to happen!)

It might take more than 10,000 words though. And if any pony could make Fun dramatic Pinkie Pie could. She makes fun serious business.

You could take a tack along the lines of: "There isn't enough of this to go around, which spoils the effect."

I like the story The Light Goes Out that tackles mortality of Twilight Sparkle and immortality of Princess Celestia, but is hardly pro-death.

Not being that well-versed in the MLP-verse I didn't read the fic, but here's my two cents anyway:

If "I'm afraid of dying" didn't manage the intended emotional appeal, it may be because of those allegations of selfishness you already noted. One solution is to steer attention away from what death implies for her, and towards what it means for someone else. Altruism, if not overdone, should work better than self-interest (however enlightened). Here's an excerpt from one Damien's fanfic Ascension, which I felt worked quite well:

This Saria was just too young to understand. Paige didn't believe she had to explain herself to a child and her biases toward the Kokiri began to surface. "Well, Link is Hylian and he needs a Hylian to raise him and meet his needs. You're just a child, yourself, cursed to be young forever! What could you possibly know about children?"

Almost as soon as the words left her mouth, with a great suddenness the sky opened up and the rain began to pour down on the strange couple. Though her face remained angered, the fear that she was in a very magical place and that she may have over stepped her bounds, was creeping into Paige's bones. Looking at the face of Saria and the tears she was sure that were racing down the child's face lost in the rainwater, Paige knew the skies were mimicking the mood of the Kokiri.

"Is that so wrong?" Saria asked in a quiet voice that despite the roar of the rain seemed to echo through out the woods. "Blacky" the white wolfos, sensing the mood of her friend, nuzzled closer to Saria. "Is it wrong to be a child forever? What is so great about being an adult?" a bite of anger was starting to enter into Saria's normally angelic voice and a peal of lightening boomed from the sky. "Working all day… Worrying about this or that… growing gray, weak, old… Watching yourself and everything and everyone you know slowly decaying. What is so great about dying? I don't want those things to happen to him."

I have to agree with Eliezer here - stunningly good. I suspect that the problem you are facing is quite simple - at the end, Celestia dies. At the end, she did reject immortality, so readers interpreted that she was making a decision to rid herself of the 'curse' of immortality.

This story made me cry. It was very beautiful. Thank you for writing it.

I don't really understand how people misunderstood your story.

I don't get the "fall down and skin their knees" part. In order to learn your lesson, you have to survive.

For a society to learn a lesson, the society has to survive.

The individual ponies only know what society taught them. I can understand that Celestia might not be able to just reprogram a pony, but there's no reason society should be that hard to mold. If you just want to make sure the ponies are taught that there was a war, there are better ways to do it than fighting a war.

I read this a few days ago; it simply didn't work for me, but I can't really say why.

I'm asking specifically why people came away from the story with the impression that immortality was a bad thing.