Today’s story will offer a little “light” reading.
To Bring Light to Eternal Darkness
[Adventure] [Drama] • 34,992 words
In the days before Equestria was even a dream and mares are second-class citizens, a pony with a solar cutie mark, Sunny Daze, decides to help her brother become a mage. She doesn’t realize that she and the sun have an appointment with destiny.
FROM THE CURATORS: Sometimes, it’s impressive how much difference a change of scenery can make. “In many senses, this is something I read a dozen times before — young Celly is in a bad situation, then she learns how to raise the sun,” Soge said as we discussed this week’s feature. “But just by replacing the more typical western European fantasy background, with a modern Saudi/Wahhabi inspired one? Bam, so much potential is unlocked.” And what we found as we dug into our reading was a story which capitalized on that potential tremendously. “I was blown away by this story from the word go,” Present Perfect said. “This is a really powerful work, a must-read for everyone.” FanOfMostEverything’s nomination said the story stood out on numerous levels: “It’s not just the characters and world that feel real, but also the society. scifipony presents a strongly regimented culture that provides a fascinating case of an ‘It’s terrible, but it’s mine’-style mental dissonance that resonates throughout Celestia-to-be’s actions.”
We found ourselves repeatedly praising the exemplary handling and realism of the deeper themes the story built up around that society. “The writing is exceptional, the origin story and world-building are strong and unique, and most important, the message is never lost in minutiae,” Present Perfect said. “Many writers would, for instance, have told the story of Sunny Daze breaking out from her patriarchial oppression the moment she met a mare from Unicornia, which doesn’t suffer under the propoli and mare-cloaks. And while that story would have cathartic value, it would feel cheap because it would ignore the realities of growing up under a stringent society divided along gender lines.” Soge agreed: “I don’t feel bad in saying that most explicitly political fiction is garbage — it creates politically-themed obstacles for the characters, leaving them as just a backdrop to the message, and in the process manages to dehumanize all involved on the ‘other side’. ‘To Bring Light…’, instead, belongs to that rare breed that takes inspiration from real-world issues, but keeps the focus tight on the characters, leading to this lived-in world full of interesting scenarios, but without ever making the backdrop the most important thing in the story.”
And the characters were vivid enough to sustain that focus. “This also got major points from me for its strong portrayal of autism in Summer Daze, especially in the way his sister understands and dotes on him,” Present Perfect said. “She’s proud of him for being able to interact with others to the extent that he does, she gets his tics, and she doesn’t begrudge him being unable to express himself the way other ponies do.” That was merely one of the factors which added up to a top-tier story. “I could go on and on,” Soge said, “about how great the supporting cast is, how good an antagonist Umbra was, or the great world-building and magic system. This fic is a pure delight.”
Read on for our author interview, in which scifipony discusses good gibberish, hayburger messes, and bounty-hunting mothers.
Give us the standard biography.
Where to begin? Okay. I write fiction. That’s what life’s about, right? Except the true parts, of course.
I became a big science fiction fan when an uncle gave science-nerd me Andre Norton’s A Breed to Come, a post-apocalyptic novel where cats rule the Earth and the humans who return from space are aliens. In a sense, I’ve been reading message-heavy fiction about human stand-in characters since my teens (1973 to be exact). My writing career started in community college when I prepped really hard for an analytic geometry final only to arrive and find it was not only easy but open book. I redirected the pent-up creativity to write my first novella. Not surprisingly, it was about a girl unreasonably constrained by the culture she lived in. Oh, yeah, she was a feathered dinosaur and becomes caught between her friendship with a human boy and her people who consider humans the enemy.
Feminist issues are a recurring theme in my fiction. I was raised by a single mother, despite the best or worst efforts of various stepfathers. In my youth, my mother was a bail bondsman covering seven Midwest states, back when that was legally possible, and she did her own bounty hunting. So long as I stayed quiet, I met crooks and gangsters and very strange people. I learned to become observant and to judge character. My mom liked to hunt. I learned to ride horses with her and to shoot a rifle. I got a very different viewpoint of gender roles from my peers.
For the record, I dislike hunting and the smell of horses — I mucked out many a horse stall in my day. Chores. I had a pony once, named Daisy. One hot day in the Ozarks, riding along a stream, she decided to cool off by rolling over. With me on top. I can recall looking up at the surface from underwater. And now I’m writing pony fiction. Life is weird.
I started college as a science major, biology being my declared interest. I reprogrammed the OS on my Apple][ and dabbled in electronics breadboarding. I adored Jane Goodall. The math requirements ultimately defeated me. I liked the liberal arts electives I took and, as a writer, could definitely handle the massive number of research papers and essay questions that entailed.
I went to the dark side.
I earned a degree in Ethnic Arts specializing in Folklore and Mythology. That meant I studied non-western art, music, dance, and culture, which qualified me to become a museum curator, a professor, or an author. I chose the latter, and was living in Bali, Indonesia, when my fellow classmates were receiving their diplomas in the hot California sun.
In the fantasy genre, much of the magic and culture is borrowed from various European mythologies and cultures. This should not surprise you. Some writers have noticed this and borrowed from less popularly explored cultures. I used my studies to ensure I didn’t borrow from anywhere. My studies of non-western cultures, and having lived in one I’d studied at university, made it simpler to depict alien civilizations and to create languages. My understanding of science helped me create logical magic systems.
Yes, I’m a published author. There are a surprising number of them on FimFiction. You knew this, right?
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
I expected to write a lot of SF. I’m only now writing my third real SF story on site. (Cuts Too Deeply and A Timey Little Nightmare are the two I’ll admit to.) My usual handle online is sfwrtr, so ScifiPony wasn’t a big stretch for FiM fanfiction. SF is the literary term for Science Fiction (I hope you didn’t guess San Francisco). Scifi refers to media other than the written word, but I decided Scifi would be better understood on-site.
As an aside, I’d like to define Science Fiction. Greg Bear put it best: The effects of technology on people. Technology can be time travel, surveillance methods, magic, spaceships, or other applied-science concepts, so long as the rules by which it works is discernible to the reader. It’s science, right? Good SF follows its internal rules consistently. By these criteria, The Hunt for Red October and CSI are both science fiction. You decide.
Who’s your favorite pony?
I have the greatest connection to Fluttershy. My shyness is the single thing that has most interfered with my writing career (and other life goals). I strongly empathize with Fluttershy and understand that being faced with dealing with someone new — or asserting one’s will without another’s explicit permission — can be totally disabling. And automatic. And impossible. Filly Vanilli, Putting Your Hoof Down, and Hurricane Fluttershy ring so allegorically true to life that it amazes and comforts me each time I see the episodes.
Despite this, Starlight Glimmer is my favorite pony. This is not entirely due to her on-screen depiction, though I do feel she is the most fully fleshed out character in the show. Her cycle of redemption and self-rediscovery on a children’s show astonishes me. Adult shows rarely delve that deep, or simply reject the idea that certain things can be forgiven.
My interest was piqued by her first episode. As an SF writer, I immediately recognized the Orwellian aspects, including ponifications of double-speak and Big Brother. It was The Cutie Map Parts 1 & 2 that pushed me over the edge into writing fiction again.
I’d run into troubles with my agent in 2001. The latest work I’d written was a three-novel fantasy series, but I couldn’t get him interested. I like to complete novels before selling them. A failing, I know. The amount of time spent with no results, with no free-time, with no life beyond writing alone at my desk…
I burnt out. I did not write fiction for over a decade.
It was the audacity of the fifth season opener coupled with Starlight’s unexpected escape without being either redeemed or reformed that got me past my trauma. An idea popped into my head about how she might deal with her loss of Our Town, show contrition, and thus earn redemption. Lesson Learned was the result, where Starlight employs her cutie mark magic as a folk cure but is noticed practising by ponies who think they might use her talent. She must decide between being good and evil.
The time-travel/parallel universe season finale, The Cutie Re-mark, sealed the deal. Read Rediscovering Harmony for a revisionist AU version of that episode with a more challenging path to Starlight’s redemption. Both the opening and finale episodes of that season were SF at their best. Both followed the rules of good SF writing and played out with internal consistency. I’ll give It’s About Time a shout-out as another great FiM SF story. The Cutie Map did get nominated for a Hugo Award, but the nomination was part of a right-wing anti-diversity political stunt (see Sad Puppies and 2016 Hugo Finalists). Most people in the SF fan community missed the feminist Orwellian dystopian bonafides of the episode — written for a target demographic the SF community would sorely like to make into fans — including, I believe, the miscreants who nominated it. Truly sad. I think the nomination was earned.
Starlight’s dangerous attitude in her two episodes just cried out for a really thorough backstory about how she went from a cute little pigtailed book-nerd filly to an evil OP mare putatively stealing cutie marks and ultimately destroying Equestria a half-dozen times. I started with runaway and bodyguard for a gang boss, then blank flank. My expositions on how homelessness affects people started here. The ideas spawned The Enforcer and Her Blackmailers. Starlight’s backstory, of course, had to end with her angry enough to found Our Town and willing to steal cutie marks to make that happen — and to make her believe she was doing good by doing so — because I wanted the story to agree with canon. The story includes bad-attitude Sunset Shimmer’s backstory for good measure and a run-in with Princess Celestia to really cement Starlight’s convictions about cutie mark magic. The story became the first in my Enforcerverse Series of stories, which feature the backstories of Sunset Shimmer, Songbird Serenade, and Princess Celestia. Princess Celestia mentions some of her early history in Celestia and the Battle for Sunset; the detail ultimately led me to writing To Bring Light to Eternal Darkness.
Starlight is the one pony to rule them all. Just saying.
What’s your favorite episode?
Crusaders of the Lost Mark. I like redemption stories with strong female characters. Diamond Tiara’s is the one that grabs my heart the most. I love the song, especially. I do think I could have written the dialogue where Diamond Tiara tells off her mother less awkwardly, but I still love the episode. It brings tears to my eyes.
What do you get from the show?
For a few short minutes, I get a sense that the world is kind and tolerant. It makes sentimentality okay. I feel it gives me permission to act this way in real life without feeling awkward. Though it is a show about ponies, I find it very humanizing.
It has also changed what I like to write about. Slice of life issues and day to day routine can be very interesting, and they can serve to firmly ground stories that feature adventure or intrigue by creating an intense contrast. Everyone eats and sleeps, has parents or friends, and has to make a living — even people who fight monsters. Being a messy eater of hay burgers “humanizes” a character who must fight Lord Tirek. My just-finished Knight of Equestria series exemplifies the intense contrast between one’s mundane life and being a reluctant hero.
What do you want from life?
I want to make people think about things that they might otherwise dismiss, like girl-culture, homelessness, the true nature of royalty, autism, etc. I’m ready to return to writing SF and fantasy to do that.
I will admit that writing stories for instant publication and gratification on FimFiction is absurdly addictive. The life of an author can be lonely, writing large tracts of words with no outside input at all. Even if a work is accepted and published, the time between acceptance and print publication can be a year or more. Direct and timely feedback is a drug. I’ve used the instant back-and-forth to perfect writing in first person; however, my time to return to serious writing is approaching.
That said, I not only want to return to publishing SF and Fantasy novels, I want to go further. As a feminist writer, I’d also like one of my stories to earn the James Tiptree Jr. award. It is an award for exploring gender roles in SF, something I’ve always done. It’s what I did with To Bring Light to Eternal Darkness.
Why do you write?
If you are asking about pony fiction…
That was a conscious decision. I was looking for an excuse to get back into writing. I inched in by writing a blog where I reviewed all the episodes before the new season named Marathoning Pony. I think Equestria Daily had previously done that, but hadn’t that year. Essay writing I could do, but it wasn’t the same as fiction writing. And I got no feedback.
This caused me to think deeply about why I had burnt out in the first place. Mostly it was about spending long hours writing material that nobody would ever read. However, thinking about it another way, and a decade out from the burnout, I remembered my agent had always said I wrote great stories, but sometimes I didn’t write well.
From the beginning, I’d written solely in third person, but the demands of genre writing pushed me into a special narrow version of that. Essentially, it’s a strict version of third person where everything is “reported” unerringly from the character’s POV. Everything is assumed to be what the character notices and nothing else. The narrator disappears. Written well — and C.J. Cherryh is the exemplar of the style — it feels extremely intimate and immediate.
This type of third person is astonishingly hard to do. You break the magic if you report something that the POV wouldn’t notice or let in a stray author observation.
Sounds like first person written in third person, doesn’t it? I’d been cautioned professionally not to write SF in first person (though I’d read published SF written that way), but I thought, what the hay? (Pony reference.)
Staying in point-of-view becomes easy. “I” either can or can’t do, think, feel, or see something. It’s an easy test for whether you stayed in POV or not. In exchange, writing in first person gave me as the narrator the freedom to become the character, to express opinions, to notice only what “I” as the character would notice, to censor information the character would not express for reasons of embarrassment or culpability, and to outright lie — all in the service of the story and the message.
Third person demands a truthful narrator unless the narrator is the POV.
First person is a character testifying about their experiences. We rarely tell others what won’t benefit ourselves. This dynamic as a character balances confession against gain makes for an interesting narration, and a mystery for the reader as unfolding events don’t exactly jibe with the narrator’s characterization of them. Celestia and the Battle for Sunset, where the princess admits to editing history, and Sunset Shimmer Goes to Hell, where Sunset is trying to impress a colt she has a crush on, are prime examples where characters are invested in their image but the truth leaks out. This is the reason why the Celestia story’s single chapter stream-of-consciousness is titled An Examination of Character.
After writing Lesson Learned, I realized I liked first person. FimFiction gave me a venue to practise it until I could become really good at it. It has gotten to the point that I’m willing to write non-pony SF again.
If you are asking why I write in a more general sense…
It’s a compulsion.
I was a “be seen and not heard” kid. I observed a lot and found the better I understood people, the better I could predict what they would do so I could avoid conflict and not be seen. Remember, I’m shy. My mother was not into teaching me how to interact with people; the opposite, actually. I’m not so sure how well I could predict stuff, but I convinced myself I could. I would find myself writing long scripted dialogues in my head. What would happen if I didn’t have the correct change for the bus driver? What would he say? What would I respond? What would he say to that, etc. (I use that lame example because that is actually one of my self-inflicted childhood traumas that eventually led me to find help by attending Est, which probably saved my life.) Basically, shy me would try out ways to deal with “challenging” interpersonal situations. I think in psychology this is called “rehearsing.” I became really good at that. Eventually, I found I could put myself in the shoes of a bus driver, a teacher, a police officer, or a celebrity and try on their life.
It turned out to be a great toolkit for writing dialogue.
Ultimately, I write because I need to talk about the things I observe. The inequities of being denied what you could earn because of your gender, privilege whether racial or royal — or the wonders that might be found out amongst the stars or in realms of magic. So when I think of a good character or a good situation that needs to be resolved, I write it down. Occasionally, it’s good enough to share.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
The hardest thing about writing is getting around the little voice in your head that says you’re not good enough, that the story will suck, that it’s too hard, that you won’t finish…
Find the voice. Ignore it. Exterminate it.
Writing is very much a zen thing.
If the paper before you is white, or the screen empty, just start filling it. Gibberish is good. Start anywhere in the story. Get over your inertia and at some point you’ll discover the beginning.
Continue writing once you’ve started. Assuming it’s not a really short story, stop in the middle of the action, not at the resolution of the action or scene. In the middle of a sentence, if that helps. Write a brief note about what needs to happen next. It’ll get you over the inertia of starting tomorrow and quiet the voice of dread in your head.
Have a definite goal in mind for the story. Imagine the scene, the situation, everything that must be achieved or lost. Stick to that and judge every day’s work as to whether what you’ve written has fulfilled the goal. If not, you might need to scrap the writing of the day, or change the goal (a last resort).
Characters are the currency of fiction, and the best ones come alive and talk to you. You are always telling how their past is affecting their choices for the future. They have history. They have flaws. They have a price. And they have an agenda. One story I wrote started as a detailed outline. I had goals for each chapter and character sketches. About a third of the way through, I noticed one young woman had a white streak in her red hair and a hand with an odd scar. I decided to think about why and I jotted notes about her history. That turned into a long treatment about her telling me how she became who she was, which I decided was far more compelling than the original novel, so I wrote it. And sold it. When your characters start speaking to you, listen.
I wrote a series of blogs on writing titled Be an Author about the stuff I learned over the years, which I try very hard to follow. Check them out.
As a feminist, what guides your writing?
I’ve observed that wherever we live, we live in a society that, like a living creature, prefers that we cause no trouble, conform, and stay out of the way of others’ goals (especially people with greater wealth or higher status). Society and religion exist to govern us. Our culture and traditions define the roles that we can fulfill with the least overall friction against the society as a whole. They place us in a hierarchy not necessarily of our choosing.
There are homogenous societies and societies that host many religions, ethnicities, and races. The one thing both have in common is that just over 50% of the people in them are women, and that both always constrain women more than men.
I see gender roles as shackles for both women and men. It’s a cultural agreement that thou shalt not do this and thou shall do that. Gender roles are blind and deaf creatures that ignore capability, deny talent, and scoff at the concept of individual desire. This seems unfair to me, and unfairness is often where I start a story.
Of course, gender roles can be a refuge instead of a prison. They can guide your life and allow you to think about important things other than how to act and relate to the opposite gender. Do you like sports and do you fight to be perceived as self-reliant? Do you care for others and feel sentimental? Are you comfortable with that? What’s your math aptitude? What’s your language aptitude? Gender roles reinforce all these “gendered” traits. In the case of To Bring Light to Eternal Darkness, Sunny Daze’s comfort in her gender role is the starting point for the young main character. She’s happy with her lot in life and the concealing clothing she wears. It is while trying to fulfill her gender obligations that she runs afoul of others’ expectations and discovers the lack of power her gender role allows her at key junctures.
I think a lot about why I am who I am, and why others are who they are. Most of the people in my life defy the roles society wants them to play, whether it’s running a business or running a home, or body image, or living life.
Ultimately, character guides my writing. Specifically, people dealing with what they want versus what they can have. Ponies are people stand-ins, don’t think they aren’t. I’m writing allegory. Having read the history of the women’s movement, having studied the archeology of the Middle East, having watched family members struggle to maintain and succeed in a male-dominated patriarchal world, and having grown up with very few good female role models in literature, I’ve striven to right that wrong.
Plus, everyone likes a good underdog story.
A desert society, strict patriarchy, mares in body-covering clothing: might there be a real-world inspiration for the High Desert?
I discuss that part in the author notes of the last chapter of the novella. Most individuals welcome their gender roles, understand them, and mostly adhere to them as long as they get what they want. Beyond statutory law, parental pressure and peer pressure serve to enforce the rules, and we want to be comfortable — so we go along. As I hinted at answering the previous questions, unfairness and prejudicial treatment is often the result of people trying to enforce the gender roles of others to their own advantage. Having studied many cultures around the world, and having traveled abroad extensively, I ascribe to a kind of cultural relativism where every society is generally good for most of its members.
FiM introduced Saddle Arabian ponies in Magic Duel. (Don’t get me started on the warped symbology of saddles in a fantasy world populated by mostly female equines!) The show has a tendency to make place name puns, but later episodes introduce other Saddle Arabians that reinforce the reference to a real people. I did not want to get into religion, something that has no substantial part in the show, but I wanted to examine a culture where women generally agree on certain norms far different than those modern western culture considers reasonable. Look at the pair of ponies on the grandstand at the end of Magic Duel and see what you see.
If you didn’t know already, the main character of the story is Princess Celestia before she earned her wings, her title, or even her name — before anything. I wanted to understand how a feminist paradise like Equestria could come to be, and why its staunchest protector would strive to keep it that way.
In the story, I modelled Unicornia, especially the High Desert, after the Saudi Arabian peninsula, its geography (specifically the Hejaz), climate, ecosystems, and especially the patriarchal culture. The mares cloak is a hijab. The cultural reasoning for wearing the garment, and when, is the same as for the real world cognate, minus the religious aspect. I wanted to see what it would be like being a teen girl looking out from all-enveloping clothing, and to witness how she might grow up into someone courageous enough to change the world.
What in particular inspired the character and portrayal of Summer Daze?
I first referenced her in another story as Princess Celestia muses about her past, about the origins of Hearth’s Warming (the history of which she admits to editing, which nicely makes the truthfulness of anything she relates suspect).
At some point afterwards, I was searching for a way to get back to the roots of my writing. I wanted to write a coming of age story for a young woman that must battle for everything she holds dear.
About the same time, I read some articles and news about people complaining about the hijab and demonizing muslim women who chose to wear it outside of their parent cultures. (To be clear, head and body covering for women is a very Judeo-Christian tradition, with the exact same reasoning for its existence as in Muslim tradition, but mostly discarded by Western society just in the past centuries. Muslim culture appropriated the reasoning and tradition at its roots.)
While we could argue choice versus female oppression, I thought writing about choice would be far more interesting. I now had a character that was interesting because Sunny Daze was Princess Celestia when she was young. The character would appear to be constrained in her gender role, but wouldn’t feel constrained. I still needed something to make a story gel.
I watched the excellent movie The Accountant. The main character has a form of high-functioning autism, and I knew I wanted to write about that, too. (I’d already tackled alcoholism and homelessness.) The idea surfaced that Sunny Daze had a brother. She sees an aptitude in him for magic, but to help him, she must learn to read. I made that prohibited for mares.
That was enough. At that point, I knew Sunny Daze’s special talent would surface and put everything she held dear in jeopardy. Her brother, her life, and the continued existence of the entire world.
Where might future installments of Celestia’s early days lead?
This is the start of the Hearth’s Warming tale. The story mentions the Queens Platinum. There must of course be a Princess Platinum. And somepony is moving the moon. I wonder who?
I have so many question about intractable divisions between tribes depicted in Hearth’s Warming Eve. Will Celestia try to repair them and run afoul of politics? Two alicorns need be made, but as far as she knows, the deed requires a blood sacrifice from all three tribes. (Re-watch Twilight’s alicor-a-nation scene and notice the red stream of magic that comes from her heart. Sorry, I made that creepy!) I suspect Queen Platinum won’t like somepony more powerful than her and will crush the threat. The Windigos come, why? If Alicorn Celestia rebels against Queen Platinum and fights back, will she become responsible their coming and Unicornia’s fate? In Sunset Shimmer Goes to Hell, the story references the Rainbow Crows who helped Celestia in her worst time of need before “winter” came. They must show up. In the Knight of Equestria series, Luna mentions that Unicornia once had knights but that Equestria never did because Unicornia’s knights were somehow despicable. Are they actually fell creatures of magic? Will Celestia fight or will she redeem them?
How will these events change her outlook into the princess she would become?
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I feel extremely fortunate to have discovered the Friendship is Magic series.
I had grown bored with what I’d been watching on Netflix and found the kids category. I had thought to find something like Rocky and Bullwinkle, but instead found a cute Twilight Sparkle icon with the legend “My Little Pony”. I remember thinking little girl’s show, but also popular and wondering why… as my feminist side kicked in. Mind you, I could have found Runaway Rainbow or A Very Minty Christmas, titles that I think were available then. Or Rescue at Midnight Castle, which introduced Lord Tirek, arguably pretty good in the right context. But I had found the current series, between seasons 3 and 4, and played it.
I remember being intrigued by the seriousness Twilight Sparkle displayed amid subtle comedy and weird but fully differentiated characters. Friendship is Magic Parts 1 & 2 did have girly elements that, as a feminist wary of media trying to inculcate “normal girl culture,” frightened me, but the plot struck me as well thought-out and gave me a glimpse of an intricate fantasy world that emphasized female empowerment. Initiatially, The Laughter Song (“Giggle at the Ghosties”) turned me off, as did Nightmare Moon’s regression to a child, but friendship being the spark that made the magic work felt like genius. As did Nightmare Moon’s use of “foal” in place of “fool”; I recognized a subtly building theme of a horsey civilization. The Ticket Master did nothing to convince me, but at Applebuck Season I was hooked. Good stories. Consistent characters you could empathize with despite obvious flaws, like Rarity’s repeated lying. Except for the trope of writing a letter about what was learned, I saw no talking down to the target demographic of young girls. It tackled hard life subjects head on. When I first watched Party of One, it actually frightened me. (I had had a bipolar stepfather, so the depiction hit a nerve.) The episode also awed me. This was a show aimed at young girls, for children, yet it could speak to the heart of any viewer of any age. The power of the stories and the dichotomy between what I expected and what I found turned me into a fan.
It saddened me when I watched the last Netflix show, The Magical Mystery Cure. I soon learned there would be more episodes, though.
Through the years, the FiM fantasy world has become more and more detailed with new lands, people, creatures, and self-consistent magic. It feels weird to be talking about endings again. I suspect that Hasbro has its plans for the franchise and what the writers built. Until then, there’s the vibrant fanfiction community.
I’d like to think I’m helping with that.