• Member Since 11th Apr, 2013
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Icy Shake


There is a time to tell stories, and there is a time to live them.

More Blog Posts30

  • 63 weeks
    BC2019 Top 16 Review: The Railway Ponies: Highball

    This is a review I did for "Luminaries," a now-defunct project I was invited to contribute to: getting a number of reviewers together to each write an in-depth essay on one of their favorite stories, each covering one by a different author. I jumped on The Descendant's The Railway Ponies: Highball as fast as I could, and as far as I know was one of only a few people (along with

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    9 comments · 149 views
  • 63 weeks
    From Pratt St. to Pratt St. and Back Again: A Bronycon Report

    My Bronycon experience this year started out rough: following a weeklong push to get a presentation together for work and consequently not doing much travel prep ahead of time, I was up until after 3AM Tuesday the 30th, with a disappointing amount of time spent on something that ended up never mattering at all—getting together a couple Magic decks that I’d be OK with losing in

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    8 comments · 120 views
  • 64 weeks
    Bronycon 2019

    In the airport, will take off in an hour. Looking forward to another con, hope to catch up with people from last time, meet some new ones. And pick up some books. Probably too many books.

    Also looking for suggestions of either things to do solo in Baltimore, especially Wednesday and Sunday nights, or info on open-invite/public/whatever con/pony people related events to check out if possible.

    1 comments · 79 views
  • 155 weeks
    Happy Halloween, Ponyfolks!

    Have fun, stay safe, party responsibly!

    Read More

    7 comments · 239 views
Aug
9th
2019

BC2019 Top 16 Review: The Railway Ponies: Highball · 1:18am Aug 9th, 2019

This is a review I did for "Luminaries," a now-defunct project I was invited to contribute to: getting a number of reviewers together to each write an in-depth essay on one of their favorite stories, each covering one by a different author. I jumped on The Descendant's The Railway Ponies: Highball as fast as I could, and as far as I know was one of only a few people (along with TheJediMasterEd and I believe Bad Horse, though I'd be happy to be proven wrong about that) to finish one. Since the book will never happen and I've been prompted by Bronycon 2019's "Ponyfic: There Can Only Be One" top sixteen bracket, here it is.


Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, and one widely shared. It gives us our comfort food, influences our tastes and thinking, lets “home” mean somewhere you haven’t lived for years. And it’s a mine for stories, most prominently in the resurrection of classic Hollywood franchises: Jurassic World and The Force Awakens in science fiction, or Nightmare and Friday the 13th in horror, or so many others. But you can do more than take a broad object of nostalgia and use it as the basis for a story. The underlying emotion itself can be captured and explored, can be made to suffuse and drive a story independent of any particular nostalgic trigger. It’s not as straightforward, but when done right can be far more meaningful.

Nostalgia, after all, tends to be a very personal thing, unique to each in experience if not in object. To capture it requires an intense focus on the character who feels it, what inspired the feeling, and just what the relationship between the two was. (The more so if you’re trying to avoid the perception that there’s nothing there but rose-colored glasses, that the underlying events were as described, and the emotions and connections felt at the time as well as in retrospect.) Communicating, relaying, drawing a reader in to someone’s nostalgia is a steep task, and one which offers little room to stumble—a little bit of deviation goes a long way to derailing a story built around a feeling—but when done well, it forms powerful ties to people never met, things never seen, which may never have existed at all.

It’s not an easy path to tread, but that’s just what The Descendant did in The Railway Ponies: Highball.


Highball is the story of two ponies working for the Baltimare & Ohayo Railroad—a distillation of years into points and blurs of time where their lives crossed. The first is the titular Highball, the old-timer engineer of steam engine #3803. The other is the unnamed narrator—let’s call him “colt”; everypony else does, when they call him anything—just starting out on the rails.

The story begins, in fact, with just that:

I have always thought that if there was ever a stallion and a steam engine that were made for one another, then it was old Highball and his longtime partner, #3803.

You might guess from the opening line, correctly, that this isn’t a fast story, not in the least; one of its charms is how naturally it follows the rhythms of someone reminiscing over days long past. It tints the story, imparting a fondness onto what might otherwise be mundane or even boring. It invites you into the story, and maintains a certain story-level cohesion, as the narrator drops hints about the future, or takes a break from the flow of events to develop the setting as needed, even as the flow of events is broken. 

In keeping with that style, before much happens in terms of activity we see a great deal of the world as the colt remembers. Steam engines that are “the closest ponies have come to making life itself,” where “each one feeds, breathes, feels, reacts. Each has its own personality,” which are beautiful and lovely, and partners in their engineer’s life’s work; the little jealousies everyone had for their tools nopony else could touch, no matter what the B&O stamps or stickers had to say; the path of honor from wiper to firestallion to finally becoming an engineer, and having an engine of your own till retirement or replacement or yes, death, does them part. For it was not a world without its dangers.

But most of all, that world is Highball and Ten-Wheeler #3803, and Highball is who the colt wants to be. And he starts, slowly, moving towards that goal. The two first meet when the colt is cleaning up and prepping 3803 for her run, and takes the opportunity to impress Highball with his capability and spirit. And for a while, things go on like that—the colt doing the best he can by the engines in his charge, moving up, getting assigned to work more with Highball, who’s taken a shine to him. And all is well.


Something I’ve noticed, over time, is that in stories where nostalgia is a powerful force, you tend to see important limits on the agency the characters have. Oh, it’s not that they can’t make any choices about their lives, or even affect how things go. But it just follows from the emotion; if you long for something about the past that’s gone, it must be you couldn’t do anything to stop it going, or could have but didn’t, or brought about its passing yourself, whether you regret doing so or not, whether the reasons were good or bad or all just a tragic mistake.

But it’s gone, now, or going, and there’s no changing that.

It’s something that I see particularly in Tolkien and his elves, especially once you get up to the Lord of the Rings days. It’s not that the immortal and most sophisticated of Middle Earth’s peoples is powerless, not entirely anyway. But there are necessities beyond them, facts of the world pushing it away from the one they knew when it was young, when they were young. Oh, they have some power to preserve, little places, little things, but even that comes with a price, one which they can’t pay forever. 

The more so with smaller tales. There aren’t many ordinary people who can change the world or hold back the tide of history. But if nothing else, each of us gets to choose how we deal with change as it comes.

Catastrophe.

May Celestia grant that I never hear a sound like that ever again. May she permit that the sights and sounds of a locomotive making splinters and shards of steel out of a caboose and reefer cars never meet my ears as long as I live.

May the sound of an engine losing her song–of an engine suddenly twisting her frame and lurching into the air–never meet me again… that I beg.

Or nearly so, anyway. Everypony walks away alive, but not unchanged.

The colt can go on more or less as before, but the railroad says Highball can never drive an engine again—too dangerous, and not just for him.

As the story moves from idyll to dealing with tragedy and alienation, the close, intimate tone remains, but functions not so much to draw the reader in with a comfortable character’s development into who he wants to be, in the space he loves and still perhaps belongs in more than any other, but to hold them close as it inflicts the pain of growing up, the pain of loss, the weight of responsibility. 

“The company sympathizes, Mr. Highball,” said a representative of the management, a pony whose name I never took the time to learn. “But given the seriousness of your condition, we can’t, in good conscience, allow you to continue in your position as an engineer.”

Highball swayed back and forth in his chair. Mrs. Pillow continued to stroke his hoof.

“You wouldn’t even want to take to the high iron again, not with how #3803 is now,” Grease Pit added, surprising us all with his bold statement. “The engine’s in shambles, Highball, and not fit for more than grunt work.”

“Is it true, colt?” Highball asked. “Is it really true what they say about her… about 3803?”

I didn’t try to meet his eyes, as he had not moved. His gaze still searched the horizon, and his ears flicked at the distant sounds of the whistles in the railyard beyond.

“She… it’s not the same engine,” I said. “I’m sorry, but it’s not.”

So much was done, in the good times, to build a rapport with the characters—Highball and the colt, #3803 and the railroad and all the little ponies dancing around the edges—and come the bad times, it hurts. Caring hurts, and it’s hard not to; it’s hard to be indifferent to the stallion who was everything that little colt wanted to be, had everything he wished for and was exactly as he was supposed to be, and lost it all; hard not to empathize with the colt who has to decide whether to break his heart all over again, has to watch his hero suffer, can’t do a thing to fix it. To ignore it when a boy’s hero and mentor tells him, “I just… I just want to run trains, is all. It’s what I was meant for. It’s my mark,” and all he can say back is, “I know. I know you do.”

Highball is, in a lot of ways, an extremely grounded story for ponyfic. Most aspects of its world translate pretty closely to our own; sure, the characters are talking horses and you have a train going up to Canterlot that looks like a cute, plastic, impractical toy set, but there’s very little surface-level magic to any of it (and the toy train’s design decisions make it a nightmare to operate). The horses are still shoveling coal into furnaces for the boilers; people in accidents get injured or die; the most direct magic brought up in the operation of the railroad was for clearing and reshaping the landscape for a straighter right of way, which I’m sure could have been done just as well with dynamite. 

But all this, I believe, is accidental to the story, which is rightly considered fantasy in the sense that (to borrow TheJediMasterEd’s words and more of Tolkien’s ideas) moral and magical law have the force of physical law. That’s where real magic comes in, not the spells and formulae of Twilight Sparkle and her like, which often could simply be recast in the mold of science fiction with different natural laws—it’s not unicorn levitation and pegasus flight or so much else that makes Friendship is Magic a fantastical setting, but the Elements and the Crystal Heart, the power of virtue and friendship and love; or cutie marks and the promise that you’ll know your purpose, and that the world will always have a place for you; or the knowledge that no matter how bleak things may seem, they will always turn out happy in the end, that catastrophe will by the virtue of the heroes and the necessity of their land transmute to eucatastrophe.


Oh, the story doesn’t end there, of course. It’s set in the magical land of Equestria, after all, for all that it looks a bit more like Industrial Revolution era America or England than we might be used to. It takes its time to come around to it, but Highball’s world has a place for him, right to the end. 

How it happens I’ll leave you to find out for yourself. It’s not the how that matters so much as the feeling behind it, and that’s the key. Every little step of the way, we’ve been guided into an understanding of Highball and the colt—the narrative voice, the rules and mechanics of how the little slice of the world that is the Baltimare & Ohayo Railroad works, the stories and episodes and brief little exchanges, the earnest care for the great breathing machines, the nods of approval, the joy of following a dream and the grief of seeing it stolen away, they all build up more than anything to knowledge of and empathy for these two people—an understanding that tells you just what their world is supposed to be, and what it will take to make it right.

And as the story rolls down the last stretch of track, piece by piece that world is put back together. From grinding lows it is built back up to heights of rightness, of beauty and happiness and a promise at long last kept, yet pierced all the same with the knowledge that for all that, things never really are the same—and it’s true, they aren’t. 

The colt, for his part, had learned that hard lesson before. And to be sure, he keeps it with him always. But one of the great victories he achieves through the youthful years covered by his reminiscence is the one that came right at the end, and which he would go on to use to carry himself through all the hard and ugly and changing times ahead: finding the bedrock certainty that you never outlive your cutie mark, and as long as the rails called to him, he’d sing their song of steel.

A concern that comes up for stories from time to time is if they are Pony enough. The almost complete use of original characters and the groundedness of Highball’s setting would seem to open it to that accusation. I think that’s wrong, though. Shift some things around, change some names, and you have a story that takes place in the real world’s past—but one which feels dishonest, overly saccharine, distorted, especially in the climax and resolution. But take the same series of events and put them in Equestria, and it feels true and natural as breathing. That’s the magic of the setting and the reason I believe the story works as well as it does.

It connects us with a vision of the past, beautiful in the eyes of our guide—before long, our friend—changed forever, if not in truth lost. And because this is Equestria, the voice saying that’s not how it was, or that no hero ever lived up to the vision of them, is absent; because cynicism isn’t the order of the day, it’s effortless to connect, to take it at face value, to become engrossed in the vision and submerged in sadness as it’s lost and anxious for a reprieve for the colt and his hero—and ultimately joyous as for a brief shining moment, everything is made right and beautiful and whole again.

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Comments ( 9 )
PresentPerfect
Author Interviewer

Dang, it's a shame Luminaries never happened.

He said, secretly grateful he doesn't have to write his review. c.c;

[applauds] :)

Dammit, you convinced me to add another story to my RIL. Maybe if the fandom dies, I'll finally have time to read through it. :derpytongue2:

5102553
Yeah. What had you signed up for, anyway?


5103119
Hard to ask for more than that, I tend to feel the same way about my RIL.

PresentPerfect
Author Interviewer

5103769
In the Place the Wild Horses Sleep, of course. :B

5103829 I'm confused. I just began reading it again now, after seeing PP's comment, and I don't remember there being any MLP-specific ponies in it when I read it. Did it change?

PresentPerfect
Author Interviewer

5103882
Railway Ponies, or Wild Horses? :B The latter has the mane six, at least obliquely...

5103898 It does now, but I thought it didn't have them before.

PresentPerfect
Author Interviewer

5103991
It's been long enough since the first time I read it that I can't be sure anything changed. I suppose it's possible?

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