They say you always go back to the classics — and today’s story digs back all the way to Equestrian antiquity.
Friendship is Physics
[Slice of Life] • 3,143 words
Star Swirl the Bearded, exiled by Princess Platinum and worried for his continued survival, sends a letter to Clover the Clever briefly detailing his views on ponykind’s origins, the nature of the physical world, and the future of his species.
FROM THE CURATORS: Many authors have speculated about Equestria’s origins, physics, and mythology, but this story takes an unusual approach: it offers us theories that are deliberately wrong. “The show has kind of given us the impression that Starswirl nudged about the edges of the whole ‘friendship is magic’ thing but never quite got there, and this does a really nice job of bringing that idea to life,” AugieDog said. Chris agreed: “Friendship is Physics wowed me with its grasp on how the passage of time can make once-progressive theories seem embarrassingly backwards.”
One thing which caught our attention was the fragmentary presentation of the material. “Like Lost Cities, this is an archaeological dig where we glimpse a culture from its few surviving artifacts,” Horizon said. “It feels very much like a piece of Equestria’s historical record, though I’m not sure it’s a story, per se.” Friendship Is Physics earned easy praise regardless. “Story or not, I love this,” Present Perfect said. “It’s a fantastic example of in-universe writing. The various myths alluded to feel like serious world-building, for all that Star Swirl’s conclusions are ultimately wrong.”
Right or wrong, the theories in this story are fascinating. “I love that this is, in its own way, something of a Grand Unified Theory of Friendship,” Horizon said. But more than that, Chris noted, the ideas are rooted in Earth’s own ancient history. “Star Swirl’s theorizing borrows much of its tone and design from the Greek philosophers,” he said. “Much as we might look back on Aristotle’s theories today, I can easily imagine Twilight reading a copy of this letter, torn between respect for the first pony to try and form a universal theory of friendship, and cringing at the casual racism or seeming acceptance of grossly inhumane experiments which underpin his writing.”
And that, as Present Perfect summarized, is what made this story so exceptional: “Taking the track of having someone like Star Swirl be cognizant of the world, trying to figure it out, and ultimately come up with a clever yet incorrect idea, is just amazing.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Violet CLM discusses lexicalized appellations, swerving lightning, and the irony of intelligent design.
Give us the standard biography.
Mildly genderfluid computer programmer who has never accepted the term “brony.” These days I’m arguably more into the toyline than the show’s fandom, but I keep up with new episodes and talk about them a little bit, and I was constantly watching for new Friendship Games images for a few days after that premiered.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
I needed a handle to join some online servers in Jazz Jackrabbit 2, and picked Violet, because I liked the color. CLM was the abbreviation for a level-making group, but eventually it just got lexicalized, and now I use the name basically everywhere.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Rarity. Just … everything about her, really. She and Rainbow Dash are the characters who would be the “popular kids” of one stripe or the other in some media, and instead they’re main characters, and that’s neat. But Rarity has a solid visual design, and realistic aspirations, and genuine talent, and everything she says is just so fun. It’s never quite clear how seriously she takes herself.
What’s your favorite episode?
The show has not yet surpassed Suited for Success. My other favorites tend to involve Fluttershy, but at the top sits Rarity where she belongs.
What do you get from the show?
A greater interest in female protagonists and female-oriented media. Like five years ago I would have had no interest in the Disney Fairies series, but it turns out they’re actually great. (I can’t say the same for Winx Club, though.) So MLP makes me think about gender I guess. That’s neat.
What do you want from life?
oh god I don’t know
Why do you write?
So that people will tell me I’m clever.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
Cut out everything that doesn’t matter. Arguably the most important (for hooking readers) aspect of this is the common edict to start the story as late as possible — it can be taken for granted that Twilight did in fact wake up, and the sun was in fact shining at the time — but it remains true throughout the story. Don’t give full backstories for characters who only appear for ten seconds (unless that’s the joke — RIP Candy Mane). If you have to choose between two minor characters for some purpose, and you like the first one better but they’d take more explanation to make them work, go with the second one.
Actually, here’s a case study: Friendship is Physics, this story right here, was a cut detail from another (unfinished) story. In that story, the characters were going to Tartarus, and I started wondering how exactly Tartarus worked (light? gravity?), and I decided to let Twilight give a brief summary because she is the exposition horse. But that section got much too long, and it had nothing to do with the actual story. So it was cut and expanded and now you have it (but you still don’t have the original tale oh well).
Should Star Swirl’s casual racism be interpreted as a product of the times in which he lived, or do you think there’s more to read into him as a character in that regard?
Okay so in general I’ll offer a disclaimer that pretty much anything that didn’t get written in this story, I intentionally didn’t decide on. So basically, for all this stuff? Think whatever you want. But …
For this question, I don’t think the two answers presented are exactly incompatible, but the first one is somewhat more interesting. This is the Hearth’s Warming Eve leadup period, I guess slightly prior to even figuring out what Windigoes were. The pony races are not friends with one another. Obviously they’re going to hold negative beliefs about each other, and even if they’re not intentionally hateful, there will still be all those stereotypes floating around unconsciously affecting their thinking. Were all pegasi actually warlike? Probably not. Did everyone think they were? Sure, at least a little! And the more pervasive something like that gets, the harder it is even to notice for an individual.
But I don’t think any of that is really noteworthy commentary on Star Swirl as a character in the context of this fic. There is no reason given to think he would be any worse than anypony else — hopefully, though, he’d be slightly better, since he seems to have been explicitly preaching tolerance to Platinum. So, say that he’s well-intentioned but unconsciously prejudiced; the thing is, that’s normal. I mean, aren’t we all? It needs a story built around it to be interesting, it’s not interesting by itself.
(I don’t want to say that there couldn’t be such a story. For example, suppose the banished Star Swirl survives the Windigo winters and is eventually reinstated to Platinum’s court after the ponies join forces. At that point his personality/character starts actually mattering, because he’s around other ponies again and also he didn’t get to participate in the initial reunification events due to being banished at the time. There might or might not be something readable in there, but the point is, this is not that story.)
In the comments section of your story, you talk about the various ancient Greeks who inspired portions of Star Swirl’s personal history. Were there any direct inspirations for his actual theories, or was that influence limited to his style and backstory?
Lightning got a paragraph or two because Lucretius talks about it. I think the “downward-blowing wind” thing might also have been Greek, maybe even Lucretius again — I forget what terminology he uses in that area, beyond the infamous “swerve” — but lightning is definitely the thing that least needed to be there (and I even got in joking hot water for in the comments) but was there because some particular Greek guy did it.
Less directly: perhaps the major pre-Socratic theme was, why are some things different from other things? How is it that a rock and a feather behave differently? Unfortunately, I didn’t have an interesting explanation there, so I wrote a few sentences about individual temperament and hoped for the best, simply because I felt I had to at least mention a question so fundamental to the source materials.
In your mind, what was it that prevented Star Swirl from developing a more accurate theory of the Magic of Friendship? Was it his political situation? His cultural outlook? His inherent temperament? Something else? Or, if you prefer to flip the question on its head: what allowed him to make the progress that he did?
This is a tough question, because as I mentioned in the comments, I don’t know how Equestria really works, only that it clearly doesn’t work the same way as Earth does. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to think that Equestrian stars are far-off suns. The fact that raising the sun seems to be a once-a-day action suggests that maybe the world really is flat. So the stuff in there that most directly correlates to what we think of as “physics” — and remember, “science” just means “measurable philosophy” — is what I’m most hesitant to say is or is not correct.
What was, I think, most intentionally written as wrong was the subject of the origin of ponies, concluding that the world created them because the world likes friendship. This is done by aping the Herodotean style of taking nonsense stories as absolute fact and building a world view around them, so rereading the question, I guess I’d say Star Swirl was limited by not having a rigorous understanding of verification. He heard things that he didn’t know were untrue and built conclusions off of false premises. But that section is also written somewhat tongue in cheek, because we know that this whole thing is a fictional cartoon about talking horses, and as it happens, their world was deliberately designed around them. Whoops!
As for what enabled him to make progress, with all the applicable caveats applied, I think the introduction letter does give the remainder a political nature. The three pony races are fighting; that’s why the theory is so insistent that friendship is the most important thing in the world and literally how everything holds together. The importance of friendship to the continued survival of the pony race is why Star Swirl would see this as worth writing down in the first place.
What do you view Clover’s contributions as being, both in terms of Starswirl’s theories, and his historical stature?
This is utterly ambiguous/undefined. Maybe she fixed up the grammar. Maybe she added the political nature I just mentioned. Maybe she added the casual racism. Maybe she made up the whole thing herself! I have absolutely no stake in this question … even within the political context, it doesn’t matter whether it was Clover or Star Swirl who was more interested in getting Platinum to play nice with the others.
(The question says theories plural, and asks about historical stature, and there too: no idea, doesn’t matter. This was never a story about their relationship.)
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I remember writing Friendship is Physics and thinking it was one of the least mass market stories (is that the right word?) I could write. It was never going to become a 200+ Liked megahit, and that fact was part of the fun. “Take that, fimfiction, I don’t need to follow your fads.” I was pleasantly surprised when some people wrote comments who were themselves familiar with presocratic philosophy, and I’m pleasantly surprised now too that this little exercise (which I often forget having written) somehow found its way in front of the reviewing circuit. So, thanks!
I do find it interesting that these questions are about Star Swirl, and I did not write the story to be about Star Swirl. I conceptualized the story as a general theory of friendship!physics, but because it was deliberately wrong enough in some respects that I didn’t think readers would accept it being written by Twilight or somepony, I shifted it back a thousand years and gave it to Star Swirl. Then I sort of retrofitted a … storyline? onto the theory by having him get banished for preaching friendship. And yet the questions are about Star Swirl. Does this mean I failed on one front, or that I succeeded on another, or that we’re simply most accustomed to thinking about characters? I don’t know. But I do find it interesting.
Anyway, this story was dedicated to my Ancient Humanities class in college. (Not as much as my joke-filled Plato/Aristotle smutfic was, but obviously I can’t link that one here.)