Take flight into an alternate Equestria in today’s story.
[Adventure] [Alternate Universe] • 44,226 words
When the Windigos attacked, the ponies had to find a way to put an end to the distrust and anger that fed the frozen fiends. The unicorns found a way. No more earth ponies, no more pegasi, no more problem.
A thousand years later, Princess Twilight Sparkle thinks that her ancestors may have made a mistake. Fortunately, she knows a way to test her hypothesis. She names that way ‘Rainbow Dash.’
FROM THE CURATORS: “This is a story I was hesitant to start based on just the description,” Chris said in his nomination, but from that humble beginning the superlatives flew thick and heavy. “Rarified Airs is an achievement in worldbuilding and characterization in an AU the likes of which I have never seen before,” Soge said, while AugieDog was hooked from early on: “The opening is just about as fine an example of how to introduce a setting as I’ve seen in a ponyfic. We get exactly as much information as we need exactly when we need it, and there’s not an infodump in sight.” Horizon was enthralled for different reasons: “It demonstrates so much emotional depth and tonal range that even as a worldbuilding fan I have to say that the amazing worldbuilding doesn’t feel like the biggest thing right, but just the cherry on top of the powerful coming-of-age tale.”
Over and over again, we cited one big factor in our discussion: “It’s a relentlessly interesting story, full of characters who blend the familiar and the unexpected in just the right combination,” as Chris said. As if to prove that point, everyone name-dropped different supporting cast members when citing what made it exemplary. Present Perfect: “Figuring out things like who Rose Quartz actually is, or what might have happened differently outside the whole marvelous ‘unicorns genocide the other tribes’ premise is so much fun.” Horizon: “The scene where Rainbow Dash throws up and converses with the anonymous guard is a microcosm of what makes the story so powerful.” And Soge: “The author managed to portray Blueblood making lewd remarks towards Rainbow Dash as sympathethic! That is nothing short of a miracle.”
The one major point of contention in our voting was the story’s final chapter. “So much of it is just so familiar to the Equestria we know, and it’s a real letdown,” Present Perfect said — and while most of us voiced complaints about that and the story’s climactic twists, “everything else was fantastic up to that point,” as Soge put it. “It is undeniable how powerful the other 90% of the fic was.” And even that ending managed to garner some praise. “It goes some surprising places at the end,” Chris said. “If not in the broad strokes, then in details like Blueblood’s character growth, or what happens to Diamond Tiara.”
Read on for our author interview, in which SpinelStride discusses solar repair, crystal descendants, and marshmallow fisticuffs.
Give us the standard biography.
Programmer by day; writer by whenever time, energy, and inspiration come together. I’ve had a few short pieces published, but still in the process of getting my first novel out there, with a couple of others in the works.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
I was toying around with a Fallout: Equestria concept for the fate of the Crystal Empire, where the Empire was lost to the ice, but a small outpost was just barely outside its reach. Spinel Stride was a descendant of those Crystal Ponies, who set off to find the missing Crystal Heart and re-awaken the Empire once more. I have the story plotted out, but never was enough of a Fallout fan to sustain interest in the crossover, so I suspect I won’t ever get around to writing the rest of the details.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Rainbow Dash, most of the time. Spike and Twilight have been known to poke their heads up when a recent episode has required Dash to carry the Idiot Ball a little too overtly.
What’s your favorite episode?
“Dungeons and Discords”. It was just fun.
What do you get from the show?
A starting point. The Target Market isn’t going to stand for too much sociological analysis in what’s shown on-screen, but the setting offers a wide variety of hooks to explore.
What do you want from life?
At the high level, to make a positive and memorable impact. At the immediate level, a few days to catch up on sleep is usually high on the list.
Why do you write?
Because I like to read it later, after it’s had time to settle, and enjoy the concepts I was playing with. Putting ideas down on paper lets me keep more ideas around than I can keep paged into memory on my own.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
Get really good at the mechanics of writing. The most straightforward way to do this is to read and write a lot, and compare your output with the well-done things you read. Nothing is as distracting to a good concept as a litany of grammatical and spelling errors. Once you know how to write properly, you don’t have to keep thinking about it; it becomes natural. Then you can spend that brainpower on the story itself.
Let your characters develop their own personalities. The question is never “What do I as the author need to have happen next?’ — it’s “How would character X respond to the situation they’re in now?” And it’s not a one-note situation; characters need to have multiple facets. Using the Mane Six as an example, you can assume that in a generic Bad Situation, Fluttershy will express dismay, Rainbow Dash will show bravado and arrogance, Rarity will be snooty, and so on. But when she felt a need to protect Spike, Rarity was perfectly willing to engage in fisticuffs on his behalf, because ‘class-conscious fashionista’ isn’t the only layer she has. This goes extra for alternate reality stories — you have to understand the originals and then figure out how they’d develop under other circumstances. In Rarified Airs, Rarity has been tasked with raising a foal who by unicorn standards is ‘handicapped’ — and she thus is called on to show her protective side to a much greater extent than in canon. Similarly, Twilight has grown up in a competitive, power-based society without a moderating influence from Celestia, and so has learned to be much more willing to use her magical power directly, while retaining her intellectual interests as a personal hobby rather than her full-time preoccupation.
What inspired “Rarified Airs”?
The Hearths Warming story, naturally. The ‘What If?’ I came away with was ‘what if they came up with a worse way to get rid of the Windigos?’ Given the tactical and strategic advantages of unicorn magic, the total defeat of the other tribes seemed like the most straightforward result. And then, having eliminated them, the only thing to do was to bring them back and see what happens. Also, I liked the idea of a Rainbow Dash who grew up without a hatred of learning and knew she had a very constrained future; it made it interesting to keep her recognizably ‘Dash’ but with those key elements changed.
Do you do a lot of planning before beginning to write, or do you prefer letting a story grow in the typing?
It depends on what I’m writing. For Rarified Airs, I had a few key moments in mind, and then let the rest flow. The Night of Rainbows, the final vote, and learning from a ponified Nietzsche were all floating around. I also wanted to make sure I had a chapter where events happened that Rainbow Dash didn’t get to see, because ‘every important thing in the world happens to or in front of the protagonist’ is a storytelling device I disfavor. It makes the world too small if one person has to see everything.
What do you feel are the most important elements to writing a solid “alternate universe” story?
Determine what your break with reality is (or, in this case, canon), and then stay faithful to that. Don’t add extra changes for the sake of changes, don’t try to force things to match some other pattern, just take the starting conditions and make sure everything flows naturally one step at a time from that.
As an example, I enjoy Harry Turtledove’s alternate history novels, but the ones I like best are his Worldwar saga — “What if aliens invaded in the middle of World War II?” He completely derails history at that point, following the events that result from the invasion of the Race. In a lot of his other works, like the ‘What if the South won the Civil War?” series, I frequently feel like he’s working to keep events ‘on track’ — making the Confederacy develop into a reskinned WWII Germany rather than letting events develop in a completely new direction.
The Season 5 finale alternate timelines were good examples of this — rather than keep charging forward along the canonical plotline, each alternate timeline centered on a single ‘What if’ moment and showed how things would have developed. “What if Villain X won?” — rather than having it be “Oh, six other ponies would have stepped up and nothing would have been substantially different.”
Have you had any thoughts about returning to this setting to explore how the story’s events have changed the world?
Not strongly. It would have to be side stories, as the primary plotline is really the development of a Philosopher-King type ruler, the unquestioned benevolent and capable monarch. To make a strong story after that, something has to challenge that figure, which would be disappointingly disruptive to the end state that Rarified Airs reached. ‘Social forces’ could be that challenge (unicorns who don’t want to grant the other tribes social status in particular), but they’d have a hard time overcoming a super-powerful ruler who is ushering in a lot of obvious improvements.
If I did come back for another bite at the apple, it would probably be from some other perspective, and after some time had passed. A second-generation earth pony trying to resist a growing social stratification into ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ status, maybe, dealing with lower-level and more individual issues through hard work instead of magical artifacts.
The story I’m more likely to return to is Unique, dealing with Spike discovering just why it is that every other dragon has wings while only he seems to have magical properties to his firebreath. In a way, that story is an inversion of Rarified Airs — the only ‘magic’ dragon in a world where ‘flight’ dragons were the winners. I have a few ideas in mind that would be fun to play with in that regard — and the plot arc hasn’t drawn to a conclusion there.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just a random idea I’ve had and never found the right story to put it into. The sun is magically damaged, and Celestia and Luna will need to concentrate all their strength and concentration on saving it for several days … but they can’t let Equestria freeze in the meantime. They also need someplace to put the outpouring of energy from the sun while they’re repairing it. They call on Rainbow Dash to fly around the world nonstop that entire time, pumping the sun’s power into her trail. Mostly I just like the image of a sun-bright rainbow arching endlessly over the sky with a single supremely alone pony at its head.