So, I've said before that Cold in Gardez is awesome. The first story I read of his was Naked Singularity, and it made me laugh so hard I had to stop for breath. The rest of his work is just as good, and the fact that he writes it from a barracks in Afghanistan only makes it more impressive. He's a talented and determined writer, and today, he wrote a post for One Man's Pony Ramblings.
You can find the original link above, and I've copied all the text down below. It's terribly flattering—though I don't think first-person writing is training wheels thank-you-very-much—and it serendipitously arrived just as I was about to start writing Vision again over my break. So, while I get back to that, enjoy!
Hello again! And thank you to Chris for once more turning his cherished blog over to me for the day. I had to sign all sorts of paperwork and legal waivers before he would let me submit this guest post, which goes to show how much he cares.
Or maybe he's worried about legal indemnity in case I libel anyone too badly. It was hard to get a read on him at the time – he was busy packing and muttering something about 'sunny beaches with no ponies,' but whatevs.
So, onto the meat of this post: 17 pages of adulatory, slavish reviews of every single story Cold in Gardez has publish—
Wait! Come back! It was a joke! We're really here to look at one of my favorite authors in the fandom: GaPJaxie!
First, a caveat: despite being one of my favorite authors, I am almost certain to misspell GaPJaxie's name several times in this post. Even right now, with his user page open in another tab as I write this, I'm not sure I'm spelling it correctly. After you finish reading this post and racing off to read his stories, be sure to drop a comment on his user page asking where his handle comes from. Then, if he answers you, drop a line on my page so I can find out too.
So with that all out of the way, let's start from the beginning.
Twilight messes up a spell! Antics! Lessons learned! So start approximately half of the stories in this fandom, and IFIWT starts off by taking us down this well-worn path. We even get a nice dose of Twilight-hubris, which I can never resist:
“Don’t be silly, Spike! We just make a quick trip to tell Rarity that I’m going to have to meet her this afternoon instead of this morning. Then it’s back home and I’m revolutionizing magic before lunch!” Twilight proclaimed, a happy spring in her step that Spike might have found more endearing if he weren't riding on her unsteady back.
Oh Twilight, how could anything go wrong with a setup like that? Surely Starswirl the Bearded's lost, forbidden spell could have no negative consequences, the likes of which drove him to shred his notes and destroy any evidence of the spell's existence, except for a few lines in his private journal which clearly said “Starswirl the Bearded's Private Journal, NO PEEKING” on the cover.
Never a pony to be deterred from accomplishing SCIENCE! by clearly worded warnings, Twilight goes ahead and casts her dark magics, and lo! they do go wrong, and so begins one of my favorite stories about personhood, morality and friendship.
Starswirl's spell does something rather terrible – it duplicates the caster. We now have two Twilight Sparkles running around Ponyville. Twice as much fun, right! I bet they get along great.
Except, not so much. If you think about it – and this story will force you to – having an exact duplicate of yourself is actually a pretty terrible thing. For one, both of you are now sharing the social position, job, friends, resources, even family of the original. It's like your parents just got a new child! Just like their other child! And poor Spike suddenly has not one but two older sisters, each of whom find themselves in competition for his affection.
And, let's be honest with ourselves for a moment, there's a strong chance that if we met our exact duplicate and suddenly had to share our lives with them, we might not get along too well. In fact, we might even grow to hate each other. And then our friends would get dragged into it, just like with a feuding couple, except worse because how are your friends suppose to decide which of you to favor?
IFIWT explores all these issues and more in heartbreaking detail. I think I can write, without spoiling the ending, that eventually lessons are learned and friendships are mended, but even as everything seems to be working out for the Mane 6+1, another, final lesson is waiting just around the corner.
JaPGaxie actually had a fair amount of trouble with this story, and it spent over a year on hiatus while he tried to unpaint himself out of some plot corners. He just finished it recently, making this both his oldest and his newest complete story, and definitely worth a read. The ending shares a lot in common with one of his later, simpler stories: The Arbitrage of Moments, which we'll get to in a bit. But first!
Twilight's a smart pony – except when she isn't. For some reason I'm known as a comedy writer, and some of my most popular stories in that genre exploit the odd dissonance between Twilight's genius-level brains when it comes to magic, science, math, astronomy, etc, and her somewhat lacking knowledge of more human pursuits like relationships, love, and friendship.
Oh, and sex. Let's be honest again and admit that anything to do with Twilight and sex has the potential to be absolutely, cringe-inducingly hilarious. Because we're bad people.
There's no actual sex in 'Regarding the Need for Sex Education,' except by implication and innuendo. The basic premise is that Twilight has finally admitted her love to Celestia, who quite appropriately loves her back, and they fall swooningly into a blissful, loving sexual relationship filled with sighing, kissing, caressing, and of course sex. None of which we get to see.
The story also assumes that Twilight either slept through or skipped her biology classes, for when things do get physical, she... well, here, I'll just let her say it:
“N-no, Rarity. You don’t understand,” Twilight said, letting out a faint whimper before she continued. “Princess Celestia and I... we’ve been seeing each other for years. And now I might be carrying her foal!”
Yes. Twilight... well, her parents never gave her “The Talk,” which I suspect most of us never had either, since it's so much easier to just let schools do that sort of thing (at least in America, which is why our teen pregnancy rate is nearly zero and effective birth control is almost universal). Twilight here understands that sex leads to foals, but she missed out on some of the particulars. Important particulars.
“Regarding the Need” was actually the first of GaPJazie's stories that I ever read, and it wasn't until I stumbled across his other stories that realized they were by the same author. This is an absurdist comedy through-and-through, and it accomplished what it set out to do – make me laugh. It requires a certain level of willing disbelief, that Twilight Sparkle somehow skipped over her biology studies, but if you can accept that little requirement, this story has enough to keep you laughing for a while.
We occasionally see flashes of Jaxie's humor in his other stories, notably the 'Vision' series, but this is the only story where the comedy takes center stage.
Speaking of comedy, we next turn to “The Arbitrage of Moments,” which is... actually this isn't a comedy at all. It's about the value of life, which sounds uplifting, until you get a few pages in and realize that the author is exploring the value of life through its ending. Which is certainly effective! But not happy, nor a comedy.
“Arbitrage” was the story that made me realize how much I love GapJaxie, in a totally platonic and non-stalkerish manner. Rather than bumble through trying to explain it, I'm just going to repost my original review:
[Essential background knowledge: Tick Tock is an old stallion who discovered a way to steal another pony's body, thus preventing his own death. It's great! Except for the part about stealing another pony's body and having to live as them. Also getting caught years later and having your friends realize you're a body-stealing monster.]
This is one of those rare stories that sticks with you after reading. The ending is not a cheap twist but rather a revelation that brings all the other pieces we've been presented with together. Everything suddenly makes sense.
The best stories force the reader to ask a question about being human. Arbitrage succeeds on several levels.
The most obvious, and probably the one most readers will take away, is how we deal with death and what we would do to avoid death. It's a question of fairness and justice, and it does a good job there.
But Tick Tock's choices and sins weren't the real focus of this story, were they? You didn't choose Applejack as the narrator as a stand in for the reader -- she is not a Watson. This story really is about Applejack.
Why Applejack? Well, the best stories also feature a protagonist who is forced to make some sort of significant moral choice. Often this choice is the true climax of the story, more important than any physical struggle or puzzle they must solve. They must make an informed choice of some sort that will, if they take the morally right option, exact a tangible cost. Whether they make right decision or not is based upon their character.
Applejack is rightly angry with Tick Tock, and has no obligation to extend any courtesy toward him. And yet, toward the end when he is dying, she stays with him. When his hearing fails, she embraces him, so he knows he is not dying alone. She willingly endures significant emotional pain -- as we see in the epilogue -- in order to alleviate some of his. All this, for a man who committed a heinous crime against her friend.
The best part? GaJaxie wrote a story featuring Applejack as the main character, and it wasn't boring! Sorcery.
'Vision' consists of two books so far: “Siren Song” and “Daring Do.” Both are set in the crossover undersea dystopia otherwise known as Rapture, of the Bioshock video game fame. Several other authors have made stabs at this crossover, notably Aquaman with his excellent story Harmony. So in that sense, GaP's not breaking strictly new ground.
What he is doing is introducing a bevy of new characters who are outrageously well realized, and a world that is among the most engrossing of any I've had the pleasure to read in this fandom. He uses first-person present tense throughout, which I usually view as the literary equivalent of training wheels, but the ease with which he eases you into the main character's head and makes you privy to her thoughts, so much so that you really do believe they might be your own, is simply stunning.
The Vision stories are set at some indeterminate point in the future – 10 to 15 years seems like a reasonable bet, based on the ponies we meet. During those blank years, which we are only privy to in snippets of conversation and architectural details, we learn that Something Bad happened in Equestria. There was a war, and for whatever reason Celestia and the Mane 6 were not on the same side. After the war, the surviving Mane 6 (everyone but Twilight, we're led to believe) hies off to the underwater Utopia that is Vision, a massively huge underwater city that was probably a stunning wonder of engineering at its height, but now, just a few years later, feels like it's starting to fall apart. The rot is setting in, and nopony seems able to stop it.
Siren Song, the first of the books, follows the titular character, Siren, as she visits this nightmarish world (why, precisely, she chooses to visit is still something of a mystery, even into the second book). We know that she was Celestia's student, much like Twilight Sparkle was, but we learn very quickly that her character is not a match for Twilight's. She is vain, and prideful, and everywhere she goes she is absolutely convinced that she is the smartest, most cunning pony in the room. She is also utterly at a loss to interpret the society of Vision, the ponies she meets, and their motivations. Sadly, she is also stunningly un-self-aware, completely unable to recognize her own faults and biases, and this eventually leads to a vicious moral trap: there are evil ponies in Vision, and in fact they pretty much run the joint. They are ponies we once knew and loved, but something – the war, or what came after – broke them so badly that now they are monsters. Vision is also awash with tonics and mantles, special potions that grant ponies powers, but – like the video game – extract a terrible cost. To use them it to exchange a tiny bit of your soul for power, and in the end, every pony in Vision has to use them. (Well, except for a few hold-outs, but everypony who matters.)
I won't bother to rehash the entire plot of Siren Song or its sequel, Daring Do. I'll only say that they are excellent works, and the major plot point of both is one of my favorite topics: obligation. What do we owe the people in our lives? What would we sacrifice for our friends? Would we betray our ideals for them? Was that what led to the war that so badly wounded this world GaPJaxie has drawn?
GPJ has a few other stories in his repertoire, but they're mostly errata that – while interesting to read – can't really be said to contribute to his body of work. He is one of my most-admired writers, his style makes me realize how much I myself have left to learn, and every time he posts a new chapter or story or blog post, I know what I'll be doing that night.