Today’s story is engineered to be quite a moving tale.
Track Switch – Steel Dreams
[Slice of Life] [Human] • 12,434 words
Modern just in time supply chains require arcane logistics. The people I work for specialise in that special kind of magic. Me? I just make sure stuff gets from A to B. And I’m good at it. All over western Europe. Always at night. Always alone — just the way I like it.
FROM THE CURATORS: “I have never read a bad story about ponies and trains,” Present Perfect said as we discussed this story. “I don’t know what it is about the two, that they go together and inspire people to write great things, but I’m glad they do.” And while our discussion was full of nostalgia for other great railway writers, what quickly became clear was that Steel Dreams forged its own exemplary direction. “Celefin has basically created an entire subgenre all their own, one I can only describe as ‘Europone train drama’,” FanOfMostEverything said in his nomination. “It’s a pony-on-Earth slice of life with a focus on mundane pony-human interaction and vehicle engineering. It’s also a wonderful tale of found friendship and the intense drama that can be found in everyday life.”
We found ourselves getting sucked into that drama, in all the best ways. “Oof, this one hit me hard,” Soge said. “It has this quietly emotive angle to its writing, which — coupled with the sublime characterization work — made for a deeply empathetic portrayal of its protagonist.” Present Perfect had similar praise: “This surprised me with Celefin’s easy character-centric writing, introducing us to a whole host of folks all at once and making us give a darn about all and sundry. Then you’ve got the way the writing changes style when it’s just Nightline and her train. The words flow differently, the landscape feels different; it’s a really impressive feat the author’s pulled off.” And AugieDog praised how that solid characterization tied in to the story’s deeper themes: “I like how we get the pony character’s point of view on everything — I’m a sucker for stories that look at our world through an outsider’s eyes — and I especially like how it ever so gently gives us the point that even moving to a new dimension won’t change a pony unless that pony’s willing to change.”
While the story isn’t the first in its continuity, we noted it still made an excellent starting point. “Having read [the prequel] Frankfurt Calling first, I have a great deal more appreciation for the character of Penny than I think you might otherwise, but reading this by itself is fine,” Present Perfect said. Part of that was the power the story teased out of unexpected places. “It speaks volumes of the immigrant experience without ever drawing attention to that angle,” Soge said. “It is remarkably lifelike, particularly when it show the small ways in which Nightlight relates to the people around her, or how she goes about making (or not making) new connections.” So perhaps it’s no surprise that our most unanimous sentiment was — as RBDash47 put it — “I would love to see more of Nightline and Trax in a future continuation.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Celefin discusses sapient engines, biscuit imitation, and silver-haired memories.
Give us the standard biography.
I’m 41, married, and the father of three kids. I grew up in southwestern Germany because my parents stranded down there in the seventies, but since they’re both Danish nationals I also have a Danish passport. I’m bilingual Danish/German and studied and worked in Germany, the UK and Denmark. Guess I’m an academic nomad who’s always looking for that greener pasture that’s got to be somewhere behind that damn horizon. Currently living in Denmark and stuck in a university job I really could do without.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
Heh, that one goes back a long way. Back in the late nineties I played one of the first fantasy MMORPGs, Ultima Online, on one of the first private servers (under DOS 6.0, using a reverse-engineered game client and world editor) dedicated to actual roleplaying.
My second character was a female werewolf that in her human form had amber eyes and silvery white hair. Ended up frequently interacting with a group of elves that at some point gave me the honorary name Celefin, which in the Elvish they used means ‘Silver Hair’. That was almost 20 years ago, but there are so many good memories attached that I never changed it.
Who’s your favorite pony?
That has to be Lyra — she just speaks to me on so many levels. There are also so many great fanfics out there that have her as the main character. Close second is Luna, because dark and melancholic princess is best princess.
What’s your favorite episode?
Several to choose from, but I’ll go with To Where and Back Again. Absolutely loved how they explored the characters there and even got the action parts right. Apart from that: the very first. It’s the one that brought me into the show and I remember being struck by the completely unexpected depth of the cast and the worldbuilding.
What do you get from the show?
Not very much nowadays. Not because of the characters but because of the writing that’s really gone downhill for me. Haven’t watched more than a few episodes of season eight. But the whole setting is so rich and beautiful and has so many fanfictions that I really don’t miss watching the show. It’s a great place to dream.
What do you want from life?
If only I knew. Give my kids a good start, I guess. Apart from that I’m pretty cynical about any dreams, but I’d like to travel and see more of the world. I don’t need much. Maybe a pony.
Why do you write?
Because of the realisation that there are so many good stories never written out there, and if I want to read them I’ll have to write them myself. I don’t get much enjoyment from the writing process itself, but I love doing research and reading and sharing the final product. It’s also a good way to pry my brain away from academic texts, and I suspect it actually helps improve the science stuff I have to write at work.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
Research your stuff! I’m not saying that you should turn your story in a science project (because you really shouldn’t), but a sentence here and there which gives the impression that you know what you’re talking about can help make a story stand out. To me, the story feels more engaging as it appears confident in itself and the world it is creating — because the author can be smug about knowing obscure details that may never even make it into the text but feel good while you write. That feel-good effect shows.
Also, don’t be afraid to imitate the style of an author you love. Even the very best artists started out with references, so why shouldn’t authors do so too? With Frankfurt Calling I expressly set out to imitate Admiral Biscuit’s style because I love his pony-on-Earth slice of life. That accomplished, I developed my style into the one Steel Dreams is written in. Only a small difference, but definitely my own.
What inspired “Track Switch – Steel Dreams”?
Pretty much the ‘prequel’, Frankfurt Calling. While writing that one, I rediscovered my inner railway nerd after spending hours on researching Frankfurt Central’s layout and timetables. All the trains and platforms in the story are real and up-to-date as of the time of writing.
That was so much fun that I felt the need to expand on the setting while using Frankfurt Central as a story anchor because I was already familiar with it (and Penny, of course). I liked the atmosphere of nighttime rail and thought of the fact that a lot of cargo rail transport is done at night. That’s where Nightline came in and the company she works for, Euro Cargo Rail, a French subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn (so I could realistically use Frankfurt as a cargo hub).
Of course, the incredible response to the first story did wonders for my motivation. My eternal thanks to Admiral Biscuit for the shoutout. I doubt Steel Dreams would exist without that.
Is Trax a product of Nightline’s imagination, or is there more going on with the locomotive?
Yes and no. I think Nightline herself has something of a disconnect here. Objectively to her, Trax is an engine that she has developed a fondness for — like many engineers, captains or pilots do. Her subconscious has accepted her as a person, though, which is why she feels in good company while on the rails for long and lonely hours. At one point she shouts at Trax like she might do at a real person, only to call herself crazy for doing so right after. It’s … complicated.
To myself, Trax is semi-sentient when the batpony is there, and the longer Nightline is around, the more it borders on sapience. Ambient dream magic building up in the onboard computers and complex engine control systems? Magic does weird things to electronics in my world (when it’s not outright frying them). Whatever Trax is, she is definitively ‘aware’ of Nightline when she’s at the controls. The effect gets stronger the shorter the intervals between Nightline’s presence become, that much is certain. There’s also a Cutie Mark on her now. Does that do something? I have no idea (yet).
This story is already something of a sequel, but do you envision writing more about these characters and this setting?
I’ve started doing research on several things for a possible sequel already, so yes. I think I’ve fallen in love with Nightline and the rest of the cast and I want to know what happens next! Also, Trax. I think I’ve managed to intrigue myself with my creation here, but it may take a while. Regrettably, I’m not exactly the most productive author.
What attracts you to the “Ponies on Earth” subset of MLP fanfiction?
Combining the mundane and familiar with the absurd and magical via such an unlikely route as ponies. I’ve always liked to speculate about how human society would adapt to the presence of a peaceful alien species and also how that species would adapt to our world. I also love ponies. Combine the two and there you have it.
Since I work in applied science I also take great enjoyment from coming up with solutions to mitigate the four-legged disability in a society built for hands. Unicorns are of course the get-out-of-jail-free card here whenever it gets too complicated. They also have their small equine needs though, as seen with Penny’s hoofshoes. Possibilities, possibilities.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Only that I think this fandom will never cease to amaze me. Fanfiction that is often better written than published works I’ve paid good money for, amazing art, gripping music … I only found it because I was looking for something to pacify the kids for a Saturday afternoon and remembered that awful thing called My Little Pony that I knew from my own childhood. You know, that inane, pink trash. Sorry to all pony historians out there. I can see the appeal nowadays, but back then I most definitely could not.
Maybe they’d like it and I’d set the volume low so I wouldn’t have to hear it. Well. I looked over their shoulders for five minutes … and then we’d watched the first two episodes together and the rest is history.
My kids have moved on from MLP, but I don’t think I ever will. Even my wife got hooked.