Broadcasting on all frequencies, today’s story comes to you from an Equestria that’s turned dark in more ways than one.
The Mare In The High Castle
[Alternate Universe] [Dark] [Drama] [Mystery] [Sci-Fi] [Thriller] • 161,695 words
“Hello, hello, hello, this is Thorny Bends coming at you live on Radio Free Canterlot, and from where I’m sitting, folks, the Land of the Eternal Moon is looking lovely. Well, except for that nasty smog cloud rolling toward us from the coast, but hey, that’s the price of progress. Still, if you’re heading outside you might want to think about an Easy Breezy-brand respirator, guaranteed to make the air taste like new. Buy yours from all major retailers today!
“As I’m sure you all know, it’s been almost a thousand years since the founding of our great civilization. And as the big day approaches, I sure hope the High Castle set their clocks right. I’d hate to find out it was really last Thursday. Ha! But seriously, folks. I’ve been doing a fair bit of thinking about our fair Canterlot, and I’ve realized it isn’t just somewhere we all live. It’s what we build together into something greater as we all reach for the moon. A symbol for a way of life and a state of mind. So, in honor of the thousand years, I’m taking an eye in the sky peek into the lives of the ponies on the streets, and a few in the penthouses too. I don’t often do real news on this show, but these are some genuine equine interest stories, folks. In their own small, unique way, these ponies are as vital to the city as the princess of the night herself. So settle down, get comfortable, and don’t touch that dial.
“You won’t want to miss this, I guarantee.”
FROM THE CURATORS: This story’s path to its feature started with a suggestion on our recommendation thread, and despite its 160,000-word length, it caught our attention right away with its vivid portrayal of an eternal-night Equestria. “This story is far from being merely a pony re-write of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle,” JohnPerry said. “The level of thought that went into developing this nightmarish — yet eerily familiar — alternate world and its cruel philosophies is astounding, and it manages to combine an epic scope with surprisingly intimate portrayals of its characters.” Chris agreed: “This is a wonderful use of the AU tag. It takes a single conceit — that something went differently a thousand years ago — and projects how that one change would reverberate to the present, butterfly-in-China-style.”
We all agreed that the characterization which followed from that shift was exemplary, and Horizon cited one of High Castle’s central examples. “Twilight Sparkle spends the vast majority of the story as a reprehensible alcoholic racist haunted by nightmares,” he said, “and yet the entire setting and theme of the story are crafted so as to make it clear that she is that way because their world is fundamentally broken, and the Twilight we see is just a reflection of that.” JohnPerry agreed, adding, “it’s incredible how ponichaeism managed to make the characters recognizable in spite of all the horrors of the world they are subjected to.”
The story doesn’t flinch from presenting those horrors as necessary to explore the dark corners of its premise, which earned high praise from Chris. “Can we take a moment to talk about Granny Smith?” he said. “Because she’s where the author most impressed me on the pacing front. … She’s slotted in right where she needs to be to have maximum impact with minimum premise-questioning by the readers, and (up until the end) that’s how I felt about most of the big revelations.”
But The Mare In The High Castle isn’t just a parade of bleakness. “It has a lot to say about the earth counterparts of the things it ponifies, but it has a lot to say about the ponies at the same time, and this is fundamentally and unquestionably MLP at heart,” Horizon said. “For instance, this is the finest Flash Sentry story this fandom will ever produce. He’s just as broken as the rest of this world, but he owns it, and he stands up and shows us that there can be beauty regardless. I want to feature it for that alone.”
Read on for our author interview, in which ponichaeism discusses Gnostic sects, uncarved blocks, and the curious collision of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski and Philip K. Dick.
Give us the standard biography.
Honestly, I like the cloak of anonymity the internet provides. I could be anyone. I could be Boris Johnson. I could be Kanye West. I could be George R.R. Martin, knocking off from writing The Winds of Winter. I could be the guy you just walked past on the street today, and you wouldn’t know.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
“The Crystal Empire” had just aired, and it had this very Gnostic or Hermetic duality of inner light versus corrupting shadow, as well as an Emerald Tablet-esque “as above, so below” message. I was thinking along those lines when I realized Manichaeism — a gnostic sect — just lent itself so well to a horse pun, which is by far the most important thing when considering a handle. So I was pretty much sold right then and there.
Who’s your favorite pony?
I don’t have one. Even though I’ve done my fair share of trolling about AJ being a background pony (I know, I’m terrible) I like her just as much as the other five. Or nine, if we’re counting Spike and the Crusaders (and we should). It’s an ensemble show, and like all ensembles the Mane Ten function better as a team; they bounce off one another, complement each other, and just generally create harmony from ten separate parts.
I’ve never played favorites in fiction, honestly. I never had a favorite X-Man or a favorite character from Lost or Farscape or Buffy or A Song of Ice and Fire. I’ve never found it useful to think about which character is better than the others; they all just are, as part of a well-balanced whole.
What’s your favorite episode?
As above, so below.
I’ve seen some make enormous ranked lists and agonize over which episode to bump down when a new one airs, but that is totally anathema to me. Some episodes are strong, other episodes are weaker. I can enjoy almost every single one in different ways. I’ve never felt the need to say, “This one is superior!”
What do you get from the show?
When I first started watching the show, way back in late October of 2011, it reminded me of, more than anything, what would happen if the Simpsons or Futurama took place in the world of Final Fantasy IX. So, really, I like it for the same reasons I like those things. It’s just a wonderfully funny situation comedy about these ten wacky friends getting on each others’ nerves and getting wrapped up in absurd hijinks, while living in this baroque magical fantasy land wherein they occasionally go on a grand adventure.
What do you want from life?
The greatest joy in life is for chain store retail workers to drive their bosses to the curb, to take away all the commodities the Home Office possesses, and to hear their lamentations as autonomism forces them out of a job for once.
Why do you write?
Storytelling is just second nature to me. I’ve been writing in many different media for nearly a decade now, and I know I’m good at it, so why not? I’ve got things I want to say, ideas to share, and humor to spread around….though there isn’t much to be found in this one, I’m afraid.
I love the shows and its tone, the fantasy, and most of all the characters and their sitcom antics. My favorite form of fanfiction is actually the kind that emulates the tone and style of the show. I’m terribly underrepresented on that front at the moment, but I hope someday to even that out.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
Divorce yourself from what you write. Throttle the root of desire and become like a loose lily floating down an amber river, unattached. “Clinging is the source of all suffering,” as the big round jolly guy once said (Not Santa Claus, the other big round jolly guy).
You, hypothetical future writer that I am addressing, may fantasize about living in Equestria and marrying Fluttershy, but aside from the handful of people who share that exact same desire, nobody else cares unless you’re actually able to write a compelling story about it. If you’re writing because you want to live some kind of vicarious wish fulfillment, it’s patently obvious.
Learn how to write a personality, including its flaws, and a story to complement that personality. Have your characters fail, have them make bad calls, have them be angry at perceived injustices where none actually exist. Make the story arc about the character coming to terms with that flaw and moving past it, not just having a static character wandering through life being perfect.
Any writer can enjoy writing their characters’ victories. The mark of a truly great writer, I think, is one who enjoys writing their flaws and failings just as much; turning a critical eye to their characters and digging in deep into their psychology to see what makes them tick in their own unique way.
Doing a pony take on The Man in the High Castle—or for that matter, any kind of large-scale alternative universe story—is undoubtedly a major undertaking. What spurred you to attempt it?
It would’ve been around August of ’13. I had just reread the original book, so it was fresh on my mind.
I had also heard “Madness” by Muse for the first time. Its tone was wonderfully dark and apprehensive, yet also bold and hopeful; the aural equivalent of being shrouded in darkness when light suddenly breaks through overhead. Lyrics like, “I need to know is this real love, or is this just madness?” gave me wonderfully evocative images of broken, battered, neurotic ponies crossing paths on the streets of a dark parallel Canterlot, oblivious that they’re best friends in another life.
But I wrote the ideas off. “Very emotive, but it doesn’t make any sense. If there’s an eternal night, how would they grow food?”
Then I thought, “Wait, in ‘Hearth’s Warming Eve’, didn’t Smart Cookie pick up a clump of dirt and make a plant sprout by her earth pony magic alone?”
All of a sudden, the whole setting just blossomed in my head. The way the productive forces would have to radically alter to accommodate an eternal night, the ideologies that would spring up to justify it, and the soul-crushing deterioration of the status of earth ponies simply because their magic can’t meet the food demands of an untenable and infertile land. This is not Equestria as it might be, but rather Equestria as it must be, in order to sustain itself.
After that, the end was contained in the beginning, as Orwell said. These ponies are all trapped by social and economic forces that go back a thousand years. All the conflict in the story was set in motion long before any of them — save the princess of the night — were born. They’re not “bad”, per se, but their identities have been warped by the circumstances of their world. From there, it was child’s play to extrapolate all the competing factions and ideologies and the ways they would conflict with each other.
I never intended the story to be a straight adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s book, but I did spin it into a broad homage of his oeuvre. I sprinkled little references all over the place and employed the themes and stylistic choices he often returned to: the difference between the artificial and the authentic; identity and its crises; the life of the everyman under fascism; the power of art and artists; brazenly philosophical and metaphysical digressions about the nature of reality.
That last one in particular made his book, which leaned heavily on Daoism, a good fit for FIM. Since the Yin-Yang symbol in the very first episode, the show has also been awash in Daoist themes. It’s all about getting in harmony with the way of nature and good leaders making the people think they did everything by themselves, and every time the CMC demand to know their destinies the older ponies tell them to relax and become the uncarved block instead.
So, inspired by the cover of PKD’s book, which depicts tremulous little world-bubbles against the immensity of the Dao, I sat down and wrote a scene where Twilight goes to her psychiatrist and tells him she’s having nightmares about the evil sun trying to burst through the walls of reality, in this Empire of the Moon that she’s convinced herself she loves so very much.
The rest of the story pretty much wrote itself.
(Well, mostly, as you’ll read below.)
If I may let my nerd flag fly for a moment: Philip K. Dick used the I Ching to make key decisions about the plot of The Man in the High Castle. Did you ever consider doing something similar with your story?
I’ve tried consulting the oracle with other stories I’ve written earlier, but I can’t say it led to anything spectacular. In fact, sometimes I’d do the opposite of what it suggested, because that would often lead to a much better plotline.
Unless that’s what the Oracle wanted me to think….!
(No, must resist existential paranoia!)
Ahem. Anyway. I never really read got around to reading the entirety of James Legge’s translation, which is on my bookshelf, so maybe I wasn’t using it right. In any case, my writing style requires far too much structure to leave any plot elements to the hot winds of destiny. I have pages and pages of plot points even without the universe writing my book for me.
Another factor which precluded me from using the I-Ching was that there wasn’t anything like it in the story, so there was no need. That said, I am planning on introducing something a divination device into the sequel, so maybe I’ll dust off the Book of Changes and throw some coins while I’m writing it.
What was the inspiration for Thorny Bends? Or for that matter, having a radio personality play a pivotal role in the plot?
Well, Hawthorne Abendsen was a character directly from the book. I decided to make him into a radio announcer because I wanted it to feel a little more sci-fi, at least by the standards of the canon universe. The Amazon.com pilot did something similar, I hear, by making Abendsen’s book into a newsreel.
I drew some inspiration from Howard Beale, though Thorny is more ironic and self-aware than him. This Alt-Canterlot is entering a new age and it needs its prophet. I wanted there to be a rambling pony on the airwaves, a voice in the lonely eternal night striking a chord in the broken souls listening to her.
When writing, I really wanted to play up the symbolism of the radio. Once, a magic box that lets you hear people who aren’t there would’ve got you hanged as a witch. Now, you can hear what’s happening halfway around the world instantly, but therein lies the rub. Because we must rely on the word of other people, the sticking point becomes, how do you know they’re telling you the truth? How much of these experiences you’re not directly involved in are real?
This miracle of science, the radio, is a double-edged sword. It beams a piece of worldview through the airwaves and, via the ear canal, directly into somebody’s brain. It is a tool of communication, and like all channels of communication it can be used to either tell the truth or to lie. And there’s not just one single worldview, but every channel has a different worldview you can tune into.
In the story, none of the characters get their ideas about reality from the world around them. They get it from books, magazines, art, radio programming, musicals. They all surf waves of simulacra, trying to reconcile them all into one grand narrative. Picking the right answer from the static.
How to tell the difference between the truth and the lie of an act of communication is a very meaty question. As a writer who isn’t always interested in easy answers, I loved chewing it over in this story. Some ponies are radically transformed by an experience that directly happens to them, while others only find the courage to perform a heroic act by interpreting what a piece of art is telling them, in ways that may be totally different than what the artist intended.
In the canon universe, they don’t have this problem. There are these archetypes, the Elements of Harmony, which they can tap into to bring life-sustaining energy into the world and restore harmony and bind their community together in love. Alt-Canterlot doesn’t have that. It was created by a terrible act of jealousy, and — as above, so below — that act is causing the magic that unites them to fade away, leaving only the bitter cold of the final winter.
But despite that, there is a voice of hope: Thorny Bends, who always seems like she’s your friend and says what’s on your mind. Who seems, as Abendsen from the book did, that she has access to a deeper well of truth in the constant barrage of artifice. Does she, though? Are the characters misinterpreting what she’s saying? Or is something else speaking through her? Is she the last hope for ponykind before the world dies, or merely another lonely voice in the night?
Well, folks, I have answers to these questions, and I’d be happy to share them with you … right after this word from our sponsors.
Did you run into any challenges while writing this story?
I chronically underestimate just how long a story is going to be, and this one was absolutely not an exception.
My first draft was about 70,000 words and I was nowhere near the end. There was too much going on, and considering the final story that’s saying something. Inspired by Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and my failed attempt to read Ulysses, I came back to the manuscript months later and decided, “Alright, this story takes place over one day and only involves things that could happen in twenty-four hours. Anything else is going out the window.”
Gradually I whittled the character arcs into the course of events you see in the final story, which happens over about sixteen hours. And it was a lifesaver, honestly. It let me get back up on the horse and ride into the sunset.
I did think of turning my discarded ideas into a sequel, of course, but even well into the second draft I wasn’t sure. I had an alternate third act ready to go, where, after the musical, the Civil Force would have hunted some of the main characters down and there would’ve been an ironic reveal about “Imaga” (a plot point which isn’t resolved in the final story) and a final statement, or as near to one as I would care to venture, about what it means to be equine.
But, as I neared the end, I realized there was still so much left to say about these dark reflections of the Mane Six and their journey back into the light. And so, a sequel was born to follow them.
Can you give us any hints about what we can expect in the future from the universe of The Mare in the High Castle?
The next story is Do Hippoids Dream of Electric Shetlands? because if I’ve learned anything from FIM, always use an endearingly awful pun in the title of your story.
Whereas the social landscape of The Mare in the High Castle is firmly in the fifties, a land of uptight and stifling conformity, the sequel is sailing right into the sixties counterculture. Psychedelic drugs, flower power, underground art, good vibrations, “I’m on the road to Shambhala”, and all that. And, of course, as the movement swells and grows out of control, even beyond the grasp of the ponies who created it, what lengths will the establishment go to in their crusade to protect their monolithic existence from peace, love, and understanding?
But, like the original book, it’s also a detective story about an intrepid sleuth penetrating the dense web of saboteurs, mafiosos, terrorists, security forces, and industrialists woven throughout the seedy underbelly of Canterlot, existing uncomfortably alongside the burgeoning peace movement.
I spent a good long time thinking up a character with a suitable detective quality — for the longest time I considered using Colonel Lightning Dust — before it struck me that the canon universe already had a character who starred in a fantastic detective movie of his own:
The ponified version of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski.
At first I thought it was absurd and had a good laugh, but the more I thought about it the more weirdly appropriate it became. The Big Lebowski was a rambling detective story to complement Dick’s own rambling detective story, the themes of the movie about the decline of American machismo and the conflict between highbrow culture and avant-garde art were highly apropos, and PKD had a very wry, dark, ironic sense of humor which was sorely underrepresented in The Mare in the High Castle. So I said, “What the heck,” and gave Dude Letrotski the Rick Deckard role.
In addition to the proper sequel, I’m also doing some one-shots to bridge the gap. The first one, Equestrian Time-Slip, has already been published, and I have two more in the pipeline, The Simulneighcra and The Zapp Gun. Not too long ago, I also put out a call on my blog for suggestions about other characters to write about, so there might be even more.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Aside from just a blanket “Thank you” for the goodwill and exposure, that’s pretty much it. I oscillate wildly between letting my work speak for itself and gushing far more info about it than I should, so I think I’ll exercise some self-control and stop right here. Besides, going any deeper would put us into spoiler territory, I think, and I live to surprise readers.