Today’s story brings an unusual philosophical conundrum to life.
[Slice of Life] • 12,595 words
Twilight Sparkle conducts an experiment and succeeds in obtaining an unusual flower with some intriguing properties.
What it could teach her, however, might prove to be more than she bargained for. She finds herself having to face surprising — and maybe frightening — new possibilities about the universe. How does it work? What is ‘real’, exactly? And why are these suddenly such uncomfortable and challenging questions for her?
FROM THE CURATORS: You might think that a story with such an epistemological description would rise and fall on the strength of how it tackled those questions — and Black Lotus certainly delivers on that score. “This offers a really nice layman’s look at its central philosophical problem,” Horizon said. “Also nice was the way in which those questions were modified to address Equestria’s magical reality while still staying relevant for Earth readers. I’m always happy to throw a thumbs-up to something that can illuminate while it entertains.”
But Horizon was in the minority in focusing his praise there: the rest of us kept finding other things to appreciate. “What makes it work is it’s not just two ponies discussing deep philosophical concepts,” Present Perfect said. “The connection between heart and mind is every bit as important to the story as the true nature of reality.” For his part, Chris enjoyed the writing: “The author has a lovely, almost lyrical writing style,” he said. “The reason I liked the first chapters so much was because Winston managed to keep Twilight’s actions and concern opaque without being frustratingly coy, and without being dull.” And AugieDog appreciated how the story stayed authentic to the show and the characters: “I quite like the way this one unfolds, especially the way it starts from an episode and posits how Twilight might naturally have reacted to said episode.”
While that show grounding was excellent, we kept returning to the characterization in our praise. “Even better than the unfolding is how Twilight decides to deal with the things she discovers during the course of the story. This is our Twilight through and through,” AugieDog said. Chris agreed: “Luna’s advice may have been very much what I expected, but I liked the way Twilight reasoned — and reacted to what she reasoned.” Those reactions brought the story to a strong and unexpected close. “Most telling, I think, is what Twilight ends up doing with the lotus,” Present Perfect said. “That’s some powerful symbolism there.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Winston discusses black bodies, first Firsts, and empirical testing of the Tantabus.
Give us the standard biography.
Well … I grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, the oldest of four children. I was kind of a weird kid. Although I was always interested in reading about science and nature, I was sort of off on my own program and didn’t do particularly well in school. I wrote a little bit of fanfiction during my first years in college, for a different fandom, but it wasn’t very serious or ever intended to really be any good, just sort of a time-killer. Still, at least it made me aware in an introductory fashion that fanfiction was a thing. College didn’t work out too well, so when it became clear that the effort (or lack of it) wasn’t going anywhere, I decided to try something else where I thought I might serve some sort of actual purpose instead of just screwing around wasting time, so I spoke to a Navy recruiter and enlisted for the nuclear propulsion program.
I volunteered for submarine service, went through nuke training, and got orders to an SSBN (nuclear ballistic missile submarine) stationed here in the Pacific Northwest, where I’ve lived ever since. I was in the service when I discovered Ponies and started writing my first fanfics that I took seriously and intended to put real work into, although the pace of my output was very slow. I’d really never been much of a writer before then, so there’s been a steep learning curve getting from where I started writing horse words to where I am now.
After my enlistment was over, I went back to college, which is what I’m currently doing full-time. Fortunately, this time around, I’m much better equipped to handle it and I’m enjoying it a lot more and getting very good grades. I’m also managing to get a lot more writing done.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
I have to give my parents the credit for that one. They were awesome at naming their children. Winston really is my actual first name. I’d already been using it online for a long time before I signed up on FimFiction.net, and it’s what people knew me by, so I just kept going with it.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Rainbow Dash! I like them all, and I identify a lot with Twilight Sparkle and sometimes Sunset Shimmer, but I find Rainbow Dash to be very interesting in the way she’s so up-front and just says what she’s thinking (whether that’s always ideal or not), yet still has some hidden complexities that come out. She’s also done a lot of growing over the course of the series, and that’s been fun to watch.
I think I also like Luna, but that may be more of me wanting to like her because I’m sure that her story and personality is very interesting. Unfortunately, we haven’t been given very much of it, so there’s a lot of blank canvas. That freedom can be good for writers, of course, but it makes it hard to decide exactly how much I like who she “officially” is.
What’s your favorite episode?
Hurricane Fluttershy. The pegasi are my favorite kind of ponies, and that’s basically their episode.
I also like A Dog and Pony Show, and really most of seasons 1 and 2. Then from season 4 there’s a particular highlight for me in Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3, which I like for the interaction between Rainbow Dash and Twilight.
What do you get from the show?
A lot of things. All the characters are well done, and I love stories driven by character exploration. I enjoy watching every new episode that comes out, and I like going back and rewatching old favorites now and then. The world that the ponies live in and the show’s focus on the theme of friendship sometimes makes me feel optimism for our own world, which is important.
The fan community surrounding the show has treated me very well. For the most part, the people I’ve interacted with have all been nice. I’ve made some friends at a time I didn’t have many, and that’s been important to me. And, as cheesy as it sounds, I actually do think that the show and the experiences and people that it’s brought me closer to have helped me learn how to be a better friend.
What do you want from life?
Mostly I just want to be able to enjoy the time that I have. I’m not too worried about things like a lot of money or living a long time. There’s no telling what will happen to your bank account a day from now, and no way of knowing how many seconds you have left on the clock. At the end, I think all that matters is whether or not you were able to figure out how to be happy with what you had.
Although, if one vain luxury could be afforded, maybe just a little bit of fame. Fame and being remembered is a form of immortality, but one without all the fridge-horror implications of being trapped in a physical body actually living forever, so that’d be cool.
Why do you write?
It started because one day I realized there was something I had to say, and I didn’t know how. It was a point in my life where I didn’t really have anyone to talk to. It was also, fortunately, right about when I found ponies. I began reading these pony stories, and seeing the interactions of the authors and the audience, and realizing that these things are getting something across. People are actually understanding what these authors are saying and sharing. So I thought, hey, maybe I can do that. Maybe that’s what I need. I wrote my first story (oddly enough, entitled “First”), and it really worked, I found that voice I was looking for. Things just kind of took off from there.
A lot of why I write is to help myself explore certain things and better understand myself. Many of the feelings that characters in my stories have are drawn from my own experiences. There’s also a lot of people out there, I think, who can relate to those experiences, or at least certain facets of them, in some way or another. Those stories speak to them in some way and maybe help them understand more about certain things, too. I hope that I’ve made a difference to someone out there.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
A lot of that could be covered in this fanfiction writing guide that I wrote up a little while back.
Beyond what’s already in there, what I’d say is, don’t give up! Persistence pays off, because writing is something you need to practice a lot to learn how to do well, and it’s easy to get discouraged if you’re not good at it at first. The first MLP fanfic I ever wrote? It took me four years to get to a final revision that I really like. It was worth it, though.
Also, the best piece of advice I was ever given about drawing came from my high school art teacher, who said, “draw what you see.” Writing is the same way. Don’t write vague notions or indistinct ideas, not knowing where you’re going. Pay attention to what your writing makes you see, and shape your writing so that what it makes you see is real and engaging. That’s the biggest thing that really “makes” a story for me — whether it draws me in like that or not.
How did the Tantabus inspire this piece?
I just knew that Twilight’s always-ticking super-analytical brain wouldn’t be able to leave the question alone: how can phenomena in an entirely subjective dream world move directly from there into what’s supposed to be an objectively existent “real world”? That’s the challenge the Tantabus and what it threatened to do poses.
At the time I’d been looking a lot at simulation hypotheses, especially from Nick Bostrum, and epistemology and the nature of what consciousness is (or isn’t), and the idea just kind of fell into place: I knew that Twilight would empirically test whether the Tantabus could have actually done what it had set out to do, and I wanted to see what she would do with what the results implied about the nature of her universe’s existence in the sense that she had understood it up to that point.
Why a lotus, and why a blackbody?
Lotus flowers are a common symbol of enlightenment, and one of them brings Twilight to a new kind of understanding about her reality.
At the same time, the process leading toward enlightenment and change isn’t always comfortable or easy. Sometimes it feels menacing or like you’re losing something. Black suits that kind of uncertainty that it brings to Twilight. As a symbol, that synergizes well with the idealized physics concept of a perfect blackbody, which isn’t something that can be made in the real world. For Twilight to produce one shows her something that sort of stands in an ominous defiance of assumptions about an objective, “real” universe. It’s exactly what’s needed to topple her house of cards.
Do you have any experience with intrusive thoughts like what’s bothering Twilight at the end of this story?
I do. As you go through life, you run across certain things you don’t get to un-see or un-hear, or un-anything, really. Sometimes, too, there’s a struggle between heart and brain. Emotions aren’t always rational. Sometimes my mind doesn’t even agree with itself about what’s actually most rational, and there’s a lot of worry and back-and-forth “what if?” going on, whether I like it or not.
It’s one of the things about Twilight that I relate to the most.
What is the meaning of life? (No pressure…)
Largely, I agree with Twilight’s conclusion here. ‘Real’ is what you make out of it. It’s not objective, it’s not the same for everyone. You have to figure out what’s important and what means something to you.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The development of this story from start to finish was an interesting process. It started out as a single 6,000-word chapter that was pretty much just the dialogue between Twilight and Luna, so, more of a didactic essay about the simulation hypothesis than anything else. I don’t think that in that original form it would have been too good. My pre-readers must have seen something in it and believed in its potential, though, because they encouraged me to expand it out into a real story, and three drafts later, here it is featured in the Royal Canterlot Library.
This story is very much a team effort and those pre-readers deserve a lot of credit and the chance to come up on stage and take a bow, as it were. It would never have been what it is without them. Grand Moff Pony, The Dobermans, SIGAWESOME, Reese, Georg, and LCranston from FimFiction, and 63.546 and Slorg from over on EqD, thanks so much to all of you!
And thanks to my readers, too. You’re all awesome, each and every one of you.