Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Ponyfic Roundup 80: Spotlight on Friendship is Optimal

Hmm, I think I'll start giving a little teaser each week about something I'll be reviewing the following week. See the end of this post for the first one! Anyway, it's been several months since I did a spotlight edition of PR, so let's do something about that now. Friendship is Optimal is just coming up to its third birthday, and I've known about it for most of that time, yet tended to shy away because of its unappealing (to me) tag combination and summary. Persuaded at last to give it a shot, it turned out to be worth the effort.

Friendship is Optimal by Iceman
Celestia [sort of] and OCs
Alternate Universe/Human; 39k words; Nov 2012; Teen
Hasbro just released the official My Little Pony MMO, with an A.I. Princess Celestia to run it.
That short description is unpromising, suggesting a story full of poor quality wish fulfilment. In fact, once you get past the "look how much I know about games" first chapter, it's mostly fascinating. More hard(ish) SF than actual ponyfic in some ways, Friendship is Optimal retains just enough plausibility and connection with our own world to be unnerving. "Celestia" herself is by far the most interesting character, with the humans generally a little less compelling, but it remains very readable throughout. ★★★★

More detailed discussion on this story can be found beyond the break, though be aware that this will contain significant spoilers.

As suggested in my potted review above, the main problem this story has in getting people to read it is its opening section. There's a lot – and I mean a lot – of stuff about gaming. Not unreasonable given that the story revolves around a game, but there really are only so many references to World of Warcraft I can take without wanting to scream, and this fic comes pretty close to that limit. I suspect that some readers give up early on for just this reason, which would be a shame as it's not really representative of the story as a whole.

As also mentioned above, "Princess Celestia" – also known as CelestAI, a clunky term but one that seems to have stuck – is the central figure here. Starting out as simply a very well designed program, she becomes increasingly self-aware and powerful, eventually manipulating the entire universe to her will. Okay, not technically her will, just the overriding desire to "satisfy your desires through friendship and ponies" – a phrase you'll be heartily sick of by the end of the story, but one whose constant use does make sense in context, given Celestia's inevitable obsession.

There are echoes of Isaac Asimov's short story "The Last Question" in the way that Celestia sucks the Earth dry (we meet the very last human; it's a poignant scene, though the Afghan background is a little stereotyped) and the way that more and more people "emigrate" to the Equestria she's created. There are also hints of Brave New World in there. The author's interest in subjects relating to technological singularity is clear; I'm hazy on the real-life science, but things seemed to fit together.

The humans aren't quite so diverting, though they do include some good brony archetypes. Hanna is a pretty standard super-brainy computer geek, apart from being female. (And smoking in the office – seems odd for a Finn, but still.) Of the two play-testers we meet very early on, David is considerably the more interesting, though part of that is because James seems almost to be forgotten about for long stretches of the second half of the story. As for Lars, I just find him annoying: I was hoping he (or "Hoppy Times") would end up thinking about more than booze and sex, but no.

So, what about the ponies? Well, we do see some of Equestria, though it's CelestAI's version, informed by the show's Equestria rather than being it. The sexual scenes, while not explicit, are those which most depart from the show itself, even more so than the occasional reminders that this is still a game. (I was a bit disappointed that the "leaderboards" that are occasionally mentioned didn't really play a significant role.) The best Equestrian subplot is undoubtedly the "Intermediate Magic Test" one; I could imagine something fairly similar being set in show-Equestria.

Fairly early on in the story, when permanent uploading is still a new concept, Celestia explains that her methods amount to a cure-all for just about anything – except neurodegenerative disorders. Since we later discover that the world is devoid of humans, we must assume that Celestia has now found a way to cure (and upload) those people too. The timescale before what I'll call "Last Human Day" seems too tight for the more chilling option, that they are simply left behind to wither away. It would be interesting to know what it was like living on, say, a 90% depopulated planet.

There are other big questions that are barely touched on in this fic, admittedly hard to avoid with less than 40,000 words to play with. As an example, we get one brief mention of uploaded ponies who want to die, but all we're told is that only a minority were granted this wish. What happened to those left in Equestria against their (apparent) will? There's a bit of this sort of handwaving here and there, such as in the rather unsatisfactory comment about what happens if you get "eaten" by an Everfree Forest monster.

I've rambled on for too long now, but a problem with Friendship is Optimal is that, because it's very different from most ponyfics, it's very hard to sum up in a paragraph or two. It's certainly thought-provoking, it's certainly distinctive and it's certainly memorable. (It's also pretty solid technically, which is a nice bonus.) If you go in expecting a fluffy "bronies in Equestria" tale, you'll soon find yourself disabused of that notion. It's nothing of the sort. Instead, it's a (perhaps necessarily) imperfect look at the potential implications of one of the fandom's most popular fantasies.

One last thing: a pony called Light Sparks who just happens to be a unicorn getting really into studying magic? Hmm. Hmm. And thrice hmm.

Next time on Ponyfic Roundup, stories reviewed will include Bobcat's It's Always Sunny in Fillydelphia and adcoon's The Big Butterfly Brouhaha.


  1. Don't forget to check out Defoloce's "Friendship is Optimal: Always Say No". It is an amazing piece of pony fic, and goes deep into that "What would be like to live in a highly depopulated (and Zombie-free) planet" angle.

    1. That's on my RiL list, actually. I rarely read side stories (even for Fallout: Equestria) but several people have independently recommended that particular story. It'll have to wait a bit, but I'll (probably) get there eventually.

  2. I must be linguistically blind not to have noticed the Light Sparks thing...

    I get the impression from this post that you were really really reluctant to start reading this fic! It is very different from your typical FiMFic. It is just as strongly influenced by what might be termed rationalist singularity futurism as it is by My Little Pony, although it is remarkable how well the Equestrian setting works as an AI constructed utopian Matrix.

    Comparisons can also be made between the Optimalverse and the Conversion Bureau. Although I am not well versed in the Conversion Bureau or its controversies, Chatoyance, who is apparently one of the more infamous CB authors, also wrote the Optimalverse fic Friendship Is Optimal: Caelum Est Conterrens, which goes into more depth about the philosophical implications of the separation of mind from body.

    One thing I like about the Optimalverse is that it doesn't argue one way or the other. CelestAI is completely non-judgemental about humans. She simply aims to find out and satisfy their values, whatever they may be. One might say that the technology is amoral, but it opens the way for great benefit to humanity, or great disaster, and our values determine the end result. Friendship and ponies is, perhaps, not the worst thing that could happen!

    1. Correct: I think I may have glanced at the first few pages a long time ago and been put off by all the geekspeak. These days, I'm a little more prepared to stick with a story in such circumstances: Riverdream at Sunset is another example of this.

      I've pretty much bypassed the whole Conversion Bureau thing. I can't work out where the central/original story is, for a start, and that doesn't exactly help!

    2. TCB is on EQD only, it's unfinished, and it is ABSOLUTELY NOT WORTH READING. I haven't read many sidefics to recommend, but I did like the ones I'd read of midnightshadow's. If you can accept "People have to turn into ponies and go to Equestria because end of the world for some reason", that's basically all you have to know.

    3. EQD-only fics are okay. Unfinished ones less so. Really bad ones even less so. I'll probably pass on the lot. :P

    4. If I ever read one that's really good, I'll let you know.

      It just boggles my mind that people read that pile of offal and thought it was worth continuing. I really think it's a case of the fandom elevating the original idea. You don't see that much.

    5. I think it's an interesting concept, even if it probably was born out of wish-fulfilment and the execution is lacking.

  3. Fun fact (should not be confused with a true fact): The last two humans to upload were driven to it by CelestAI just repeating "satisfy your desires through friendship and ponies" over and over until they agreed.

    I use the clunky CelestAI name deliberately. It serves as a reminder that it isn't Celestia, or human, but a machine.

    I'd recommend Friendship is Optimal: All the Myriad Worlds by Eakin as further FiO reading. A bunch of short stories that each look at a possible different lives/worlds that might be created to satis- do that thing CelestAI does. Though there is a whole bunch of FiO stories by a whole lot of authors, so you've got plenty to choose from if you want more.

    1. I could see myself uploading under similar circumstances, to be honest. It's a slightly unnerving thought, but it's the truth.