Fanfiction Reviews

Despite the fact that I’ve been reviewing MLP fanfiction exclusively for the past couple of months, FiMFiction doesn’t hold a lock on good stories. With that in mind, here are a few reviews of standout fanfiction from other communities. As always, I abstain from assigning numerical ratings because I try to review only the really exceptional fics — there’s enough dross that I don’t feel the need to give less-than-amazing stories more exposure. And now, the reviews:

Free Radical (finished)
Free Radical

Fandom: The 1994 video game System Shock. Note that this is a self-contained work; you don’t need to be familiar with the source material to enjoy it.

Synopsis: In a dystopian cyberpunk future, a hacker leaving his youthful prime plans one last job as a final bid for continued relevance, invading the headquarters of the massive TriOptimum corporation. What he finds there takes him deep into the underpinnings of intelligence and AI, lending a new and startling urgency to the question, “What does a robot want?”

Review: Ahh, Free Radical. I’ll be up front here: This was the very first novel-length fanfiction I ever read, and it blew me away. Even now, years later, this is one of the primary sticks against which I measure other fanfics; I even liked it well enough that I was instrumental in formatting it for the dead-tree version.

While it does lean about as hard as you’d expect on action scenes, given that it’s an FPS/survival-horror fanfic, for me the real draw of the book is the smoothness with which it segues between that and fascinating digressions on the nature of intelligence (artificial and otherwise) and how it relates to the problems at hand. Gripping, page-turning peril flows seamlessly into solid, grounded explanations of the underpinnings of the cyberpunk dystopia the protagonist lives in. What’s more, while some of the details are obviously fabricated to further play to the futuristic setting, everything is plausibly extrapolated from current technology (a result of the author’s tech-savvy computer-programming background shining through).

Overall, the book maintains a steady flow of intriguing plot, consistent setting, edge-of-your-seat action, and insightful technical/social commentary from beginning to end, a feat which I’ve rarely seen duplicated. Seriously, go read it. You won’t be disappointed.

The Man With No Name (finished)
The Man With No Name

Fandom(s): Firefly and Dr. Who. Specifically, the post-Serenity Firefly crew and the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant), just after he lost Rose.

Synopsis: The Doctor hadn’t really counted on getting into a pub brawl over the color of his coat on some speck of a planet, or signing up with a crew of petty criminals. Still, he’d always wondered what really happened to those Lost Colonists from Earth…

Review: What really blew me away with this story was the sheer veracity with which the characters were portrayed. The story is told entirely from third-person limited viewpoints, and the word choice exhibited in each chapter is phenomenal. When a chapter is told from the perspective of Captain Mal, for example, both the dialogue and the descriptions simply drip with essential Mal-ness, reflecting his established vocabulary and thought patterns. The same goes for all of the other crew members, including some very credible River-perspective (!). The Doctor is likewise lovingly rendered, and the story captures the whiplash-like speed with which he changes from manic to deadly serious and back with high fidelity.

Of course, all of this attention to character detail comes at a price — of the three stories I’m reviewing today, this one is by far the most reliant on the reader’s familiarity with the source material. I woudn’t recommend this to anyone who hasn’t watched both Firefly and Serenity, although only a basic grasp of Doctor Who’s backstory is needed (as new elements relating to him are generally explained as they come up). Still, for those who have the requisite show/movie experience, the payoff is impressively substantial, weaving delightful slice-of-life character moments in with the much-needed closure that I felt was lacking in Serenity. Suffice it to say that this story has entered my personal headcanon for the Firefly universe.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (ongoing)
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Fandom: Harry Potter. This is pretty firmly alternate-universe, though, so only a passing familiarity with the setting is needed to appreciate it.

Synopsis: Petunia Evans married a biochemist, and Harry Potter grew up in a house filled to the brim with books, reading science and science fiction. Then came the Hogwarts letter, introducing strange new opportunities to exploit. And new friends, like Hermione Granger, and Draco Malfoy, and Professor Quirrell…

Review: What do you get when a respected logician and AI researcher decides to write, of all things, Harry Potter fanfiction? You get something like this story, which more or less spawned an entire genre all on its own — the “rationalist fic”, which drops a scientifically-minded, curious protagonist into whatever fantasy world currently needs parodying and sets them loose. It’s a genre which has a fair amount in common with the golden age of science fiction (such as Heinlein’s “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel”), imbuing its characters with a can-do attitude and an unbounded willingness to think creatively and (ab)use every scientific principle they can get their hands on in an effort to advance their Enlightenment-era goals.

One of the ideals I find most interesting in fiction is that of the inquisitive protagonist. When a character is presented with a new experience, the really interesting questions (in my opinion) are not “Do I believe in this?” or “How do I feel about this?”, but rather “How can I be sure this reflects reality and isn’t the result of a misconception on my part?”, “What are the implications of this if it’s true?” and “Once I’ve determined its validity, how can I exploit it?”. The rationalist!Harry in this story does an excellent job of embodying that concept — he gleefully probes the new boundaries and rules of the magical world he’s thrust into, applying the scientific method and generally causing mayhem on those around him. The only thing that stops him from ruling the wizarding world inside a week is that the author has a well-developed sense of balance and adheres to the so-called “First Law of Fanfiction”: “Every change which strengthens the protagonists requires a corresponding worsening of their challenges”, AKA “You can’t make Frodo a Jedi without giving Sauron the Death Star”. As such, several of the other characters in the story have been strengthened correspondingly, and the resulting situations are all the more gripping for it.

The other main draw of the story, apart from the aforementioned qualities, is simply how much fun it is. Currently weighing in at a massive 475k words (as compared to the 150k-ish count fics elsewhere in this review set), one might be excused for thinking that reading through it would be a slog; luckily, the precise opposite is the case. Rationalist!Harry’s sense of humor is highly refined, and he takes an unholy glee in making the lives of those around him more surreal. The conniptions of the professors as they try to deal with the disruptions he creates are highly entertaining, and even straight-laced Hermione finds herself wondering if she should be taking quite this much enjoyment from besting the Boy-Who-Lived academically. The chapters fly by, and when reading this I frequently found myself losing significant chunks of time as I was drawn into the story. Incidentally, I wouldn’t recommend reading this anywhere explosive laughter is frowned upon, as the narrative frequently descends into situations which, while internally consistent, are thoroughly ridiculous and difficult to read in silence. I highly recommend this fic, if for no other reason than as a vehicle for learning about myriads of sound cognitive principles in a very approachable manner.

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