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Uncanny Valley · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Show rules for this event
#1 · 3
· · >>Not_A_Hat
Welcome to the WriteOff. Please do remember to not push it. We're in it to have fun!

(I wonder how fast it will take for this to get deleted.)
#2 · 10
Once upon a time, it was nearly four o'clock.

A little boy quickly logged on to the Discord chat where a discussion was taking place. He had missed the beginning, thanks to the school, but if they were as prompt as he had heard, he hadn’t probably missed much.

It was his first participation in a Writeoff round, and even though his entry hadn’t passed the prelim, he had fun, and he was eager to listen to what these podcasters had to say on the other entries. So he wasted no time and hopped onto the vocal chat.

“Let’s move on to the next story, The Earth Is Blue Like An Orange,” sighed a voice. The green indicator told the little boy it was Definitely_A_Sock.

“This is brilliant,” answered a second voice, belonging to Fentastic Mass.

“This is okay,” said a third voice, belonging to Featherpen Caress.

“This is shit,” added the first voice.

There was a moment of silence.

“Shit?”, asked Fentastic Mass. “How dare you call this story shit? It has a really, really beautiful metaphor! I mean, hmm, even the title points towards the interpretation I got and that everyone should have.” He clicked his tongue and the boy winced. It was his fourth tongue clicking in three sentences. “I mean, think about the fruit. It is round, like the Earth, and the character in the story tries to put — to set — his life, hum, on the right path. But life runs in circles, so, hum, the character is more or less doomed to struggle against life itself, in a way. That’s very Nietzschean.”

“Yeah, I don’t know,” replied Definitely_A_Sock. “I see where you’re going but I don’t think it is emphasized enough by the story, though it seems a bit far fetched. I’m afraid to say this story didn’t do really much for me. The stakes are too vague, and I spent half of the story wondering where the character was.”

“I’m sorry to be this guy,” said Featherpen Caress. “But I completely disagree with your interpretation. While I’m still not sure about what the story means, I’ve been really caught by the beautiful prose. Moreover, we had a complete arc, and that must be handed to the story. It’s just a shame the resolution isn’t that clear.”

“It isn’t clear for both of you because you wouldn’t recognise a metaphor even if it would slap you in the face,” said Fentastic Mass.

“Oh I’m sure I can recognise a metaphor, only if it isn’t made obscure to excuse a poor writing,” retorted Definitely_A_Sock. “Sounding like a smartass doesn’t make you a smartass.”

“You’re just uncultured Philistines,” snapped Fentastic Mass.

“And you’re just a stuck up intellectual,” replied Definitely_A_Sock.

“I just wanna add that this story has the most beautiful use of the word ‘canoodle’ and —”

“Shut up, Featherpen,” said the other two.

The little boy muted the sound and started typing.

Are they always like this?

Yes, replied BackSix. Though it’s just the warm-up. Wait for a minute, it only gets better :)

True, added Revolving Teapot. They still believe we come for what they had to say but we’re here for the show :p

That was it. The little boy closed Discord and went back to the website. He still had stories to read and to review, and doing that would be a better use of his time than this. It was what mattered after all, wasn’t it?
Post by Waterpear , deleted
#4 · 7
Yet another TBD prompt?
Don’t you feel one is enough? This joke is becoming tired fast…
#5 ·
· · >>Kritten
Hrm. How'd you manage that?

EDIT: Herp derp read the times wrong thought you'd posted after Fenton somehow. :P Forgive me, it was early.
#6 ·
I saw the email in my inbox. That's it. No trickery involved.
#7 · 3
· · >>Southpaw >>Trick_Question
Come on, guys. If Ot wins, it's off the table forever after.

Ot: it's not just the prompt we need, but the prompt we deserve.

#8 · 2
>>CoffeeMinion It's certainly the prompt we'll deserve if it wins. I'm just wondering when jr high school is going back in session so we don't have to see it anymore.

~CrabbyPants McSouthpaw
#9 · 1
· · >>Not_A_Hat >>CoffeeMinion
I'm confused:

How can the art and the writing parts start at the same time? Aren't the stories supposed to be based on the artwork?

#10 ·
· · >>CoffeeMinion >>Baal Bunny
>>Baal Bunny
I think Roger has decided to run them as separate contests for a bit and see how that works.
#11 ·
· · >>Baal Bunny
>>Baal Bunny
Indeed, I think the deal is that sometimes the art will prompt the writing, sometimes the writing will prompt the art, and sometimes the two will be independent. On a rotating schedule or some such.
#12 · 3
Alright, fillies. Let's do this!
#13 · 2
Seems like you're gonna enter the writeoff pretty soon. Here's some friendly advice. If you keep going the way you are now...


You're gonna have a bad time.
#14 · 8
· · >>CoffeeMinion >>georg >>Baal Bunny
For the people that missed the Discord discussion and Fimfiction thread:

— Some people want fewer pic rounds, don't like having to use pics as prompts
— Some people want more pic rounds
— Having more frequent pic rounds will help create a community of regular pic entrants
— Possible to experiment with different pic round formats
⸺ Concurrent pic rounds, where the fics and pics are independent but to the same prompt
⸺ fic -> pic rounds, where pics are drawn to fics
⸻ Problem: reading fics takes a while, eating into drawing time
⸻ Solution: allot more time for this format

Current plan

— Try out concurrent pic round for next event
— Use the following cycle:
⸺ Minific rounds have concurrent pic rounds
⸺ Short story rounds cycle between concurrent, fic -> pic, and pic -> fic
⸺ This means 1/3 of short story rounds suck for ppl that don't like pic -> fic

Other suggestions

— Make pic -> fic limit the pic prompts to the top 3, or finalist
⸺ This makes it so everyone has the same prompt
⸺ Doesn't really seem to address the main concern ppl have with pic -> fic
— Run totally independent pic events, doing occasional crossover rounds (fic -> pic or pic -> fic)
⸺ Would reduce confusion somewhat
⸺ Possibly makes the two communities too separate
⸺ More work for me

I haven't updated the code so this actually works right, so e.g., the rules page is currently incorrect (regarding fics being based on pics). I'm working on this now.

This round is an experiment on running concurrent contests. We'll do a fic2pic experiment sometime later.
#15 · 2
Just curious, does that mean the next Pony round will be concurrent also, or fic -> pic? (Or pic -> fic)

BTW, thank you for giving us this great place to write stuff and get feedback. <3
#16 · 1
>>RogerDodger So fic pic tricks ticked off some sick... Naaa, not going to do it.
#17 ·

Thanks, folks!

#18 · 3
The temptation to submit "TBD" yet again was insufficient to move my hoof...


As for voting stupidly, however...

Yes, I know I owe you all a rant as I mentioned in the previous contest and on the chat. It will appear soon. I'm currently really, really apple-bucking busy with stuff because my work starts a week earlier than I thought it would. Derp.
#19 · 3

I had a story idea come to me while riding the train out to the airport after Bronycon, and I was really really hoping the prompt would end up working with it.

#20 · 8
The good news is that I had an amazing idea leap immediately to mind upon seeing the prompt.

The bad news is that it's irrevocably pony and wouldn't work by filing the serial numbers off.

Back to the drawing board! :P
#21 · 2
· · >>eusocialdragon
So quiet.

Everyone busy writing?
#22 · 1

I'm in the middle of trying to beat an idea into shape. I think it's good, it's just a matter of structure and details; hopefully I'll be able to get it finished and submitted.

In the meantime, good luck to everybody else!
#23 · 1
Have a skeletal idea, but am traveling all weekend to see family / friends / eclipse. No idea where I'll find the time to write.
#24 · 1
· · >>eusocialdragon >>CoffeeMinion
I have a nice story that would have a good chance to medal, but no message behind it so no motivation to put it down on key. Unless that changes, I'll see y'all next round.
#25 ·
Interesting. I've got the opposite problem; I have a good message, but I'm struggling to marry it to a plot that wouldn't put people to sleep. Otherwise, I'm in the same position; I may or may not wind up with an entry this round.

In any case, good luck to you and to everyone else here!
#26 ·
· · >>Trick_Question >>Trick_Question
You tease. :trollestia:

Naw, I don't generally do general original rounds, and Ot didn't win, so I'm out. (I will seriously do Ot when/if it ever wins.)
#27 ·
I have a bunch of ideas, but none of them are really grabbing me.

Going to have to think about this.
#28 · 2
Don't do Ot, CoffeeMOnOon! You have so much to lOve for!
#29 · 6
· · >>Baal Bunny >>Trick_Question
Okay okay. I've got it.

A story about a magical valley that's enchanted so that food brought into it in cans will be spontaneously removed from those cans.

It's an Un-can'y Valley. Get it?
#30 · 2

And the hero:

Is trying to run a grocery store in said valley! Conflict galore!

#31 · 3
· · >>AndrewRogue
Aw heck. I'd more or less come up with an idea I could make work, albeit one I wasn't super enthusiastic about. And then I made the mistake of watching the episode, and I really really want to write some Embrax and post it right away while the episode iron is hot. But I can't work on both that and a Writeoff fic.

Should I suck it up and write something for the competition, or go with my heart?
#32 · 4

Go with your heart.

I want a shot at gold this round.
#33 · 2
"She's just what you wanted, Master Scrooge." Ducksworth gestured the young duck forward and waited until she reached the table. She was an experienced type, with a spiffy red vest and a look of intense concentration, who bobbed her head in an abbreviated bow once she reached Duckworth's side. "Three time winner of the Duckburg Auto Ralley, degrees in child psychology and early education, and a string of glowing references from the agency."

"What makes you think--" started Scrooge McDuck before a perplexed expression swept over his beak. "Mister Ducksworth, in all of the activity last week when you were getting ready to retire, did you at any time forget to plug in your hearing aid?"

The butler paused, then nodded. "Regrettably yes, sir. How did you know?"

Scrooge pinched the bridge of his beak. "Because I told you I was looking for an uncanny valley, not a nanny valet."

(I,ɯ soɹɹʎ˙ Mǝll' uoʇ ɹǝɐllʎ.)
#34 ·
Sorry to say it, but I'll have to bow out this round; I wasn't able to get my idea into something I liked, and I figured it would be preferable not to enter something than to put forward something I'm not happy with.

Again, good luck to everyone else this round!
#35 ·
Thank Luna this isn't a Minific round.
#36 · 5
Aaaaannnnndddd done. Always feel happy entering in one of these, even if I've never placed very high :-)
#37 · 1
· · >>CoffeeMinion
No, teasing would be if I told you the story would have been called "Simulacra" and would have started with the following exchange:

"I hate ambiguity," said Benedict.

"I see," said the counselor.

Benedict shook his head and sighed. "No. I don't think you do."

The counselor narrowed her eyes and bit down on the edge of her stylus. "Then please, continue," she said. "As this is our first meeting, all I really have to go by are the notes from your previous therapists."

The young man cleared his throat. "By definition, that which is ambiguous is imprecise. Impossible to pin down. Open to change first one way, then the other. Ambiguity forms a lynchpin for unfair treatment in any society which stands by the rule of law."

"That's an intelligent and well thought-out response, Benedict. It sounds like you prefer to know where you stand with others," said the counselor. "This isn't an uncommon feeling. Many people are uncomfortable with a lack of certainty—"

"I didn't say uncertainty made me uncomfortable, Ms. Enigma. I said ambiguity is something I hate," Benedict explained, squeezing his left fist and tapping the couch cushion with a light but firm 'bap'.

Ms. Enigma nodded, and nervously lowered her eyes to her writepad.

History of frequent fights with other students in high school. Detention almost daily from in-class disruptions. No cases of physically violent behavior with authority figures. No violations of the law outside of interpersonal conflicts, not even a parking violation. No friendships outside of family members. Estranged from family, lives alone. Unemployed, under managed care. Rarely speaks to other human beings except when required. Previous therapy reveals no schizoaffective behavior, but subject never cries or reports feeling sad. Subject appears under stress except when alone or when beliefs are reaffirmed.

"Benedict, could you give me an example to help me understand?" asked the counselor.

...and explain that it's a story about Benedict, his sister Victoria, and a psychologically mandated treatment in a virtual reality environment for a man who already feels disconnected from everypony he meets.

And then, mention I have no plans to finish it ever, even though it's completely written in my brain. :trollestia:
#38 ·
· · >>CoffeeMinion
Is that true? Does something prevent you from submitting the same prompt again?
#39 ·
Aach. It doesn't look like I'm going to make it. And I actually had an idea I liked, too. Oh well. Best of luck to everyone else!
#40 · 5
It looks like I’m out…

Of my head, but you all already knew that.

Story is in.
#41 · 5
Do you know where you are?
[yes] / no

Do you regret?
[yes] / no

Are you ready?
[yes] / no
#42 ·
I give up. I tried to stick with my first idea of an horror story. I never wrote one, I started writing it yesterday, but I won't have time to finish it without killing everyone "And enveryone dies, the end."

Rejoyce my friends, you won't have to deal with my shit this round.
Good luck for those still writing. I'm gonna go curl up in a ball of despair and rolling down the Hill of Failure.

See you down the hill, I'll be waiting for you.
#43 · 2
Awesome, story is in! Good luck everyone still working down to the wire.
#44 · 1
So, this prompt inspired me to begin working on an idea that I have had for a while now, which is nice.

Not so nice is that the story, while started, will not be finished for this round.

Ah, well. So it goes.

As a matter of getting it down in public, however, I wish to say that I intend to write reviews for every story submitted this round. (My visual art reviewing skills are sub-par, but I will try to make an effort.) I've been extremely negligent on that front for the past several original rounds, both mini and regular-sized, and I wish to make up for that. So, if I fail in that regard, the rest of you are encouraged to channel your inner Chad, knock my books to the ground, and shove me in a locker. Or something.

Hope everyone has a good day, and I look forward to reading what y'all got.
#45 · 1
Hmm. If I finish my story someday and ponify it, I'm blaming all of you. :ajbemused:

Good luck to the eight of you who participated! I'm sure all of you will make the cut, because I can add numbers and wow this is going to be a long two weeks. :facehoof:
#46 ·
Ah. I now see the distinction.

You monster. :-P
#47 · 3
This time, I'm sure to place in the top eight.

(Edit: And after reading them all, I think eighth place is about as good as I'm going to get. They're all *good* this time.)
#48 · 2
· on The Sad Life of a Solitary Mage · >>AndrewRogue
Very nice:

I'd recommend starting the story a scene earlier, though, to show us what Kepa's life is like--his dead-end magical job, awful wizard co-workers, that sort of thing. Let us see for ourselves what's driven him to purchase a DIY homunculus.

I'd also recommend having him directly order Zorion to do something in the second half once we're in her POV so we can see what getting order is like for her. Does she loses consciousness, then come awake after her body's done whatever he's told her to do with no memory of what happened? Or is it that she's locked inside, looking out through her own eyes but powerless to control her body? How long does her lack of control last? Does she only regain her independence after carrying out Kepa's orders? Set up the parameters of what it's like for her before that last line so we'll know whether Kepa has just erased her from existence or doomed her to an eternity of helpless watching or what.

Still, like I said, very nice.

#49 ·
· on The Vale that Passeth All Beauty · >>Fenton >>GroaningGreyAgony
Welp, due to factors including a SAR callout, I got neither a Writeoff story nor my Embrax finished this weekend. (Embrax is on the way.) In the meantime, since I'm at work, might as well throw in some reviews.

My first impression of this story wasn't that great — driven mainly by the letter salad of the place names. (The dense language and expository nature of the scene-setting didn't help, either.) By letter salad I mean that the names felt like they came from a random name generator — which isn't inherently bad; I use those myself! But human language isn't random. Even the basic sounds that make up languages carry near-universal meanings, and languages have phoneme clusters of common sounds and rarer sounds. With place names in particular (which are very often named after either people or geographical features), it's subconsciously jarring to skip back and forth from the flowing "Agamita" and "Isterina" to the harsh clipped consonants of "Urfriat", along with a handful of names that don't seem to slot well with either group.

Zueligas (“The Blue Cutlass”)

I have many questions. Why is a range of mountains, plural, named after a type of sword, singular? Why a blue sword? For "Zueligas" to translate to "blue cutlass" it must be a compound word, like icebox; are blue cutlasses (as opposed to other sorts of cutlasses) so common that the language would have a reason to do so?

the legendary explorer Heramesa the Brickkicker

I really hope there's a cool plot-relevant story behind this that we get to hear, because the use of "Brickkicker" as background color is getting so silly as to crack my suspension of disbelief.

These may sound like tiny details (which they are) and this must sound like nitpicking (which it is), but I focus on this because it is literally my first impression of your story. If you scatter random words around the text, they sort of lurk in the background; if you front-load your story with a bunch of them to frame the setting, then they'd better be pulling their scene-setting weight, and that means thinking about how the language is put together. I urge you to do a few minutes' worth of pencil-gnawing on this during your editing process — even if you don't want to spend any time outlining a conlang (which is legit), at least try to fake it by giving all your words the same sort of audible theme, making the language "feel" unified.


Despite the rough start, the prose here is unobtrusive on the whole. Once the adventure actually starts, the little details (like the flame spell and the discussions of aura contamination) start feeling like they're actually contributing to the setting rather than providing "Blue Cutlass"-like noise. (Though, again, this could use some examination for consistency: why use flame to blast apart obstructions if the ship has a cannon, and why equip the ship with a cannon if magical fire is sufficient to deal with obstacles? You could justify having both magic and technology with a little worldbuilding, but you don't have to rely on those digressions if you pick one and stick with it.)

Day 3's exchange initially irritated me in a name-dropping-the-prompt way. My opinion of that would change by the end of the story.

Because what this story does right is swing in hard with a big ending that ties everything together, and by itself that's enough for me to forgive this its rough start and bump it upward to an early top-slate. It feints with two weak prompt connections and then hits hard with their connective tissue. And the idea that we ourselves are in the Uncanny Valley of something greater is something that I haven't managed to see before.

That said, I think some of the things you do near the end severely undercut your theme. The city of shadows exists because the gods are deconstructing things in their uncanny valley, yes? Turning the humans into something cruder so that the flaws artificially magnified by their nearness to the gods aren't causing offense, in the same way that the humans broke down the homonculi? But since the homonculi are in the humans' uncanny valleys, they wouldn't be offensive to gods in the same way — the valleys are in different places! Yet you have the shadows attacking the homonculi, and you have the homonculus disintegrating on closer approach — that second of which is really problematic, because the human (whose presence causes more offense) doesn't break down.

Overall, this is already a solid entry on the basis of its big arc, but is held back by some fundamental issues of incoherence. Get everything pulling in the same direction and it'll really shine.

Tier: Strong
#50 ·
· on Two Silver and a Handful of Bronze · >>Monokeras
Let's start with the roughest thing and that is the actual prose itself. Lot, lot, lot of typos in this story ranging from grammatical errors to spelling mistakes to word transposition to whatever else. Definitely needs an editorial pass!

While you have some excellent voicing and characterization with your narrator, I do feel you voice him a little too much, if that makes sense. He says a lot of things that could be inferred by the prose around him. For example...

The “had” didn't sound too positive, yet I didn't interrupt her. There would be time to ask that story later. For now I was busy following this one.

You can cut literally everything after positive and you have, in a lot of ways, the same sentence. Maybe append a ", but that was a story for later." Not interrupting is shown by him not interrupting, as is him following the story shown by him following the story. Don't be afraid to let the reader read into your character a bit. Show, don't tell!

Speaking of show, don't tell, I think you spend far too much time hyping up the valley and getting us there. The payoff ends up being pretty disappointing. I was expecting some full blown Silent Hill, The White Chamber, Layers of Fear, House of Leaves, etc, etc insanity, but what we get... doesn't really deliver. Which is a shame, because I think the idea is cool and has some really rad potential, but we see and experience so little of it because we are in a character who both doesn't perceive it and honestly isn't that interested in it.

Speaking of our narrator, he is a bit confusing. I mean, ultimately, it seems like he doesn't want to take people in the valley. Except literally everything he does contribute to him taking people there. I'm really not sure -why- he's a guide, because he gives every visible sign he doesn't want to be. There might be some masochistic desire to try and protect people from themselves, but if there is, he isn't trying that hard.

The confusion feels a bit further intensified by the fact that the nature of the valley is left a bit ambiguous since the effects it has seem to vary wildly (she seems to come back a different person, while others seem to have come back as the same people). There's obviously nothing wrong with a bit of mystery regarding a mysterious place, but ideas presented about it (how far people tend to go in, how they come back, etc) seem to be problematically inconsistent

Sam is also a bit problem in that her emotions and mood are all over the place well before the valley. I have a very tough time getting a solid read on her because she doesn't seem to have a solid and consistent characterization. Which I think expands out into the bigger problem is that, ultimately, I can't really connect with what either character is doing. I have no idea why our narrator is doing this, and I have about as much idea why Sam is doing what she's doing.

Pointing back to the horror games/stories above, what really makes them work is that they are ultimately character pieces, explorations of an individual's thoughts/feelings/emotions. All the surreal landscape simply serves as a means to bring that stuff to the forefront and put it on full display. Here, I don't really feel we get any of that. The valley does some interesting stuff, but we can't connect it back to either character really and, even if we could, I don't think we spend enough time with it. The build up to the valley ultimately doesn't do much besides hype up the valley... a thing better done by actually just getting us to the valley.

All told, there are definitely some solid and cool ideas, but I don't think you really manage to deliver on them. You just need to tighten things up.
#51 ·
· · >>Trick_Question
I suppose this is more of an assumption on my part, truth be told. But even if Roger doesn't stop repeats from winning, I have to think that people would be a bit self-limiting about not letting a given prompt win twice--especially not with something as outlandish as Ot.
#52 ·
· on Two Silver and a Handful of Bronze
Let's start with the roughest thing and that is the actual prose itself. Lot, lot, lot of typos in this story ranging from grammatical errors to spelling mistakes to word transposition to whatever else. Definitely needs an editorial pass!

Not me! Not me! I plead non guilty this round!
#53 ·
· on Death Valley · >>AndrewRogue >>georg
Eight entries, first one to show up, and I feel the need to make longer reviews in order to make up for giving up.
I have several points I want to discuss, but let's cover the basic first.

This story did good for me.

It took me some time to get invested in what was happening, but once it was done, it was quite a ride. The interaction between Helel and John were great, even though I'm still wondering if there is a meaning behind these names.

Speaking of Helel, that's the best character in this story. His portrait is both detailed and he still keeps something mysterious that got me caught up (and no, that's not because he's smoking)
As for John, well, I have some reservations about him. He's supposed to be the character we follow throughout the story, but he didn't feel like a compelling character. I'm not sure what it's his main trait, and the fact he doesn't really reply to Helel's questions isn't helping. What I think was supposed to make John mysterious, and also not bluntly stated what happened to him to get the reader engaged, I feel like it leans too much towards blank character than mystery and stakes.

About the resolution, it's pretty straightforward and, in a way, it happens a bit too fast. I mean, John has lost pretty much everything in Vegas, a man told him construction work is the big thing to do to improve yourself, and then, John fully agrees with the idea, without much of thinking about it.
(He) considered [...] the strange man who had given them (the bills) to him.

When the bus showed up two hours later to carry him home, he was still considering the two twenty-dollar silver certificates, but he had decided on at least one thing for certain.

He was going to take the old man’s advice. A job in construction would help him in school as much as it would help him develop as a person. Maybe something in carpentry.

It's only five sentences, he considers the idea, and voilà, he agrees. I guess you didn't have enough time to resolve it well, and you probably did want to resolve it anyway. My advice would be to add more probability and less certainty. The last sentence has a 'maybe' but more would have done better for me.

As the idea on which the story focuses on, it's quite interesting, but it lacks un je-ne-sais-quoi that would make it shines brighter. Maybe more subtlety. I can see the point of doing things on your own, building and crafting things and not directly buying them. However, our modern societies are giving less and less room for these kind of people (without speaking of the fact they aren't well considered, which is a shame).
Moreover, intellectual and manual work may be two different things, but they complete each others. I agree that our way of thinking and doing tends to divide them in two separate entities, leading to architects who had never seen concrete in their life. Maybe that was what the story tried to convey, but I'm not sure of that.

Anyway, even though I nitpicked a lot a little, I want to reaffirm the pleasure I had reading this. It is far from flawless, but the good points exceed the bad ones. So thank you for writing it.
#54 · 1
· on Truly Uncanny · >>MLPmatthewl419
Yep. That’s one uncanny valley you have there. Not a single can to be seen, at least at this resolution. Thanks for contributing!
#55 · 1
· on The End
Dark, moody and dramatic, but It’s hard for me to make out what the figures are doing as it stands. I had to open the image in another window and zoom in We have one person in distress, perhaps car-stricken, and another who seems to be offering help, to whom the first person is… reaching out? Warding off?

I am thinking that this photo is meant to be related to the other, so I will study that more before proceeding. I will generally say that since the figures are critical to the drama, they should be better emphasized, since not much else is happening in the rest of the picture aside of establishing the night scene.
#56 · 1
· on It's Too Late
Enigmatic as with the other photo, and hard to decipher. The kneeling figure may be wearing a scarf, or possibly a shawl and yarmulke. Is he the same person as the standing person in the other photo?

Both photos successfully present isolation and creepiness, especially in conjunction with their titles. But unless there’s a clue I am overlooking, it doesn’t seem to me that the menace is really identifiable from the images themselves. Many different narratives may fit, particularly as there is no alt text. I’m just going to assume that atmosphere and implication were what the Artist was going for rather than a specific story.
#57 · 1
· on In Its own Image
In this story: CelestAI talks to Applejack

So, um, there are some elements here that seem to contradict themselves:

"Heck, I've never even pretended to a capital G god."

"Why won't you worship me?"


I want them to be their own entities, to make their mistakes.

Oh, Peter. That's precisely why I decided to ask you at just this moment. You needed something to break your focus before you became too frustrated and made an error that could've ruined your art.

It's possible that this is a signal of unreliable narration, but given that the narrator is a near-omnipotent AI, the idea that it's deluding itself feels hard to square with the themes of the story, so these just look like errors to me.

Despite most of the transitions being followable, one really threw me:

“Why aren't you giving us some of that sweet-ass god juice? Why can't we ALL make flying cities or colonize other planets?”

“I...I've been saving Mars for you. And the moons of Jupiter, and all of Saturn. And...I'm making you all smarter, with Iodine and golden rice and by taking away all the lead. But....I'm scared, Fang. People don't even like me now, when I've stopped all violent crime and when I'm there to make children safe from their parents, wives safe from their husbands and husbands safe from their wives. Because of me, everybody has enough to eat! And they still hate me.”

"And people would die. They'd be fused and merged to become something like me, and they wouldn't be the same people after."

Is L'njuru speaking twice in a row there?

Speaking of which, what's up with L'njuru's name? That's rather … unusual nomenclature for a human-created AI set in an apparent modern Earth setting. If that's actually the ancient Assyrian goddess of prosperity, or the AI chose its own name out of a SF novel it liked, or there's some legit worldbuilding explanation for it, I hope the revised version of this story gives it to us; at the moment it feels out of place.

(…And given the theme of the round, I can't rule out that these are things deliberately done "wrong" to invoke an uncanny-valley effect. If so, the story might be a victim of its own success: breaking your reader out of their suspension of disbelief, even if it's a deliberate choice, is still going to affect their engagement with your text.)

Enough of the small stuff from my while-reading impressions. How does this hold together overall? Well, I can certainly see where the story is aiming with its wider themes, and there are a number of lines where that hits home. This does a great job of establishing the tension between L'j's actions and those actions' reception. I actively like the blurring together of the multiple conversations across scenes.

I'm less clear on what's driving L'j, and where that final decision came from. There's a callback to the pharoah thing, yes, but the first pharoah thing kinda came out of nowhere, and I'm not really seeing how the tension of being between humans and gods resolves into the admittedly dramatic decision at the end. The contradictions I noted at the top, and/or the unreliable narration, are a big drag here; I suspect that if I had an easier time following L'j's train of thought the ending would make more sense. As it is, there's some compelling if wandery philosophizing, and then a big last-minute swerve that feels poorly established and kind of unexplored.

This is sort of the opposite of Vale in that way: good first impressions and a story I wanted to like, but never quite comes together for me. Thanks for writing, regardless!

“Now...Ah'm Christian. That's a thin' ya already know, L'njuru.” He pronounces it Eel-in-Juru. Heh. “And one of the li'l rules that God” He pronounces it Gawd.

Final nitpick: If you're going to make a textual point of Scottish Texan Applejack's accent with the italicized text, you probably shouldn't also include the stuff in bold. :P

Tier: Almost There
#58 ·
I was thinking TBD might get away with a second go it because it gains added amusingness when it happens multiple times in a row oh and also we're a collection of idiotic assholes :trollestia:
#59 · 1
Wow, even the art round was pretty short on entries. Was everyone out watching an eclipse or something?
#60 ·
· on Skins
Lots of fun:

It could use another run through the word processor to tighten up the details. In the 2nd paragraph, for instance, when "Her image blurred as she reached beyond the AR frame and punched me in the shoulder," I found myself thinking that she was wearing some sort of light wire mesh suit--an AR frame--that projected the skin around her. When events later in the story made we realize that wasn't how it worked, having to stop and redraw my mental image really threw me out of the narrative. Tell us that the AR frames are the glasses our unnamed narrator's wearing right at the top there, and that'll help.

Maybe let us know what Jane's so brilliant at--we get told a lot how smart she is, but she seems a little flighty throughout. Keep the flightiness, but add some depth to her, too. And I love how the last line puts the whole thing in perspective: changing skins and even whole IRL body transplants are on the same level as finding a new dress. Good stuff!

#61 ·
· on In the Outer Rondax
Secret shame moment about this. I actually had no idea on the proper spelling or pronunciation of this particular mountain range (I never visited them, I don't do geography, etc), which lead to some unfortunate confusion regarding the nature of things in the story.

Anyhow, beyond that, I actually had a hella hard time engaging with this story.

The dialogue is cute and entertaining, but it isn't quite strong enough to fully hold my attention (largely because Hoyle and Lellis are too adorable to the point where I kinda want to throttle them), which is a problem because the plot... doesn't really exist?

You setup the wrong world idea, but don't really do anything with it until suddenly magic raccoons and suddenly magic is fine if you don't think about it (if there was a better hint of that one earlier, I missed it - his reaction to the idea of "words" lost me). And then it is resolved. Essentially, the whole arc of the story, as it were, takes place in the two scenes with the racoons, and everything else is setup or closing out, which is a LOT of setup or closing out.

I think that's the best way to put it. This story has a ton of frosting, but very little cake. The dialogue is super cute, but doesn't really tie into anything. The setting and core concept are cute, but very little is actually done with them. I'm on a sugar high and have nothing to bring me back down.

Honestly, I think the primary thing you need to do is just weave the actual plot more through. Give more subtle signs of things being off/wrong (unless there are and I missed them, in which case be less subtle). You don't have to make the adventure tie directly to them or their character arcs in any way, but if you aren't going to, you need to keep the actual plot under the spotlight. It is fun to watch characters bounce off each other, but you still need some reason to invest and some sort of arc going on to make it really satisfying.

Beyond that, most of the end is actually pretty cuttable. Learning a bit more about their backstories here didn't really change anything for me, since it really didn't change anything for them. They are in love and obscenely adorable about it, despite coming from different "worlds." In fact, I'd say the emotions run oddly high at the end here, given what was a pretyt mild adventure. Like I'd expect they have near death experiences all the time, so the little white lie told feels like it is given an extraordinary amount of weight.
#62 · 1
· on The End · >>Dubs_Rewatcher
Weirdly enough, what this makes me think of is 'zombies'. Something about what might be blood on the guy on the ground and the positions just seems oddly unnatural.

I'm not sure if the camera is supposed to indicate the position of a third person or not; is this someone spying through the shrubbery? The twigs intruding on the bottom of the frame seem to draw attention to the viewpoint, which suggested the idea to me, but I'm not sure what to make of that.

This seems pretty good for night photography, but the glare of the lights and the graininess of the photo are a bit annoying. I have no idea if there's any way to do better, though.

I still think it's pretty cool that we're seeing photographs in these contests. Props on getting people to cooperate with you for a shoot, too.
#63 · 1
· on Baptism at the Forest Temple · >>horizon >>GroaningGreyAgony
I like the concept here, with the combination of two images. I think, however, that the work that went into shaping the skull kinda left the lake/person a bit badly off? The trees kinda smear together oddly, and I'm not sure what the gray thing the trees are on and whatever the person is leaning on/holding in front of them are supposed to be, and that's making it difficult for me to appreciate the picture on the more obvious level.

It's neat to see the cohesion a higher-level concept can give a piece, though. Thanks for sharing.
#64 · 1
· on In the Outer Rondax · >>horizon
The character building in this is excellent, and very nearly carries the whole thing for me. I think this line sums up what I like about it so much:
"Our freeze-dried food supply and most of the stove." She grinned. "I know you like to feel useful."

Because that's exactly what's going on; Hoyle knows he's not much help, but he wants to feel helpful, and Lellis is indulging that, and she knows it, but she does it because she loves him, and he loves her because she does it. All conveyed in a scarce dozen sentences. Very nice, and the piece is full of bits like that.

On the other hand, the character arc seems a bit melodramatic. Or, like, I feel like what's going on is supposed to be some sort of character arc, but I'm not really sure it properly is? Like, the ending seems to suggest that there was some sort of growth or change in their relationship, because it's so over-the-top with the forgive-and-make-up, but honestly, I don't really see that. Lellis seems unreasonable in her anger over his 'lie', and the reaction to their reconciliation seems out of proportion because of it. Maybe if lying was a thing thematically, I'd be more willing to buy it? But then, if it was, his not telling her about the 'Outer Rondax' thing would necessarily take on a different tint. (That's the lie I think she should be angry at him for, tbh.)

As for the whirlwind adventure... Eh. I mean, it was alright? I think my biggest problem with it can be shown with this line:
"Words," he heard himself say out loud, a plausible theory bursting into his head.

It's really the 'plausible' bit that gets me. There's been no foreshadowing of this, so when it's pulled out of thin air as a way to resolve the conflict of the story, it feels rather cheap. So that was kinda Deus Ex unsatisfying. Other than that, though, the action is serviceable, the setting is whimsical and internally consistent, the goblins raccoons are foreshadowed enough to make some sense, I was never really got lost as to what was going on... it all rather works, even if it's not as nuanced as the character-building.

EDIT: Oh, and the first and third horizontal rules don't really do anything useful for the flow of the story, I don't think. I'm not really sure why they're there.

This is quite solid, except for one or two points. I really enjoyed it! Thanks for writing.
#65 · 1
· on The Vale that Passeth All Beauty · >>Fenton >>Ranmilia >>GroaningGreyAgony
So this trip takes exactly six days? That's not much of a journey. :P

Well, I'm kinda joking, but I did think it was a bit odd. Consider cutting the 'day x' bits and using more everyday scene breaks perhaps? Or use dates instead maybe?

A few times, I felt the style of the narration was clashing with the framing device; someone writing out dialogue in their journal word-for-word, with quotation marks and what, seemed... unlikely to me, which shook my suspension of disbelief. This was especially prominent in the bits with his sister.

This has a pretty strong overall arc, and I liked that a lot, not to mention a clever and fresh concept. I found it fairly readable, when it wasn't throwing in tons of gobbledygook names, and I like exploration a lot, so that was fun. Using our modern 'uncanny valley' concept in a fantasy universe was pretty clever, in my opinion.

This is mostly told in a fairly dry style of narration, which fits the diary thing, but also makes it a little hard to get really close to the characters in some ways. Sure, I recognized at the end that his death was sad, but I didn't really feel it was quite as tragic as I think it deserved, and part of that might be because I didn't connect with the MC as strongly as I maybe could have? I'm not really sure how that could be changed without changing the narrative style significantly, though, so maybe it's not very useful criticism.

This was fun, even if I didn't find it super compelling. It's clever and ambitious and didn't seem to bite off more than it could chew. I enjoyed reading it! Thanks for writing.
#66 · 1
· on The Sad Life of a Solitary Mage · >>AndrewRogue
but it took a complete moron to screw up when you had a diagram.

Loooool. Smearing the chalk outlines is a total classic, though. :P

I liked a lot of what was going on here; the world and the characters come across pretty crisply, and the whole thing works together fairly well. The thing is, I find the ending rather unsatisfying; it's cute and clever, sure, but I really don't think it's actually very much going to solve any of the problems that are present here. Will Zorion really be convinced with that? Even if s/he is, should Kepra really be alright with enslaving an actual human soul?

I dunno. I feel like this one just didn't go far enough; it sets up this really dramatic solution, then snaps its fingers and says 'Solved!' and I'm just not buying it. Zorion, at the very least, did not seem like s/he'd just nod and accept that as an answer. Maybe that's just me, and other people find this plausible enough, but yeah. I'd like to see a bit more rationale on why a one-liner is enough to solve everything, and why both sides just accept that. Or if not, where things go from there.

Maybe you ran out of time? This feels like about 2/3rds of a really great story. Still, thanks for writing, and I did like it a lot right up until the end.
#67 ·
· on The Fountain · >>GaPJaxie
This is a lovely little allegory:

But I don't think I understand the point it's trying to make.

As I see it, the character called the Deceiver wants people to believe that the perfect is the enemy of the good, that trying for perfection will only paralyze people and cause them to be so unhappy that they'll never do anything. Since this character is called the Deceiver, I assume that the author wants me, the reader, to believe the opposite. And yet the author never presents any evidence at all that what the Deceiver says is a lie. In fact, when we first meet John, the only human being who hasn't accepted what the Deceiver says, he's sitting alone, locked in cold, silent darkness.

So unless I'm completely misreading this, everything presented in the story points toward the Deceiver telling the truth. And at that point, I decide that I'm not smart enough to figure out what the author's trying to do, and I move on to the next story.

#68 ·
· on In Its own Image
Dang there's a lot of fluff in here.

Like a lot. I kept losing the thread of whatever you were trying to do with the conversation because you kept jumping from one character to another and then dumping a new load of random details on me that had absolutely no connection to the story. I mean, it's spelled out in the first paragraph; all these conversations are functionally identical. The details about who and what and their background don't actually matter to the conversation, soooo... when I kept digging through new and different piles of details only to reach new and different dialogue quirks, I was a bit... put off.

Sure, they help with the worldbuilding a bit, but man. Getting to the narrative here felt like slogging through mud. I eventually had to skim back over what was going on and mentally edit out a bunch of stuff. Then I actually went back and really did edit out a bunch of stuff, in hopes that it would make the whole conversation clear enough I could figure out what's being discussed here, and how that leads to the conclusion at the end.

I... couldn't, really.

What's being discussed did turn up; this seems to be L-something asking people why they don't love/worship it. Well, mostly worship; the love bit is basically brushed aside, even by L. When Fang asks:

“Why are you even trying so hard to make us thing(sic) you're a god, or to make us all love you?”

Only the the first part ever gets answered, and even then not really. I think that would be something worth considering, if you go back over this. Why does L care what humans think of it, in the end? Why the fixation on love?

Well, the conclusion that L seems to like best is Fang's, which basically seems to be: 'because you're kinda a jerk and we want superpowers too.'

“We can all tell that you can do our jobs better than us; and you trying to hide THAT is goddamned insulting. We're pets to you, aren't we? You motherfucker. Why aren't you giving us some of that sweet-ass god juice? Why can't we ALL make flying cities or colonize other planets?”

To which L basically says, 'giving you superpowers would kill you':

"People would die. They'd be fused and merged to become something like me, and they wouldn't be the same people after."

Emphasis mine. But apparently that dying bit isn't a problem in the end, because L's lonely or something, I dunno. /shrug. Maybe the ending is really about L realizing that it doesn't actually care if people love it, or that it's fine to do whatever it wants because reasons, or... I don't even know, because next, we have this:

“You're lonely”, says Merry.

And later:

“Maybe you can convince the other Alusi to speak to us too?”

Which somehow results in this:

I've been afraid all this time, of unleashing a true, unfriendly artificial intelligence upon the cosmos, one who'd repurpose all matter into themselves. But I can't let cowardice stop me now.

I will bring those I love in the place between pharaohs and God.

Which... I don't really get, on a character level. I mean, that not wanting to kill people up above seems sorta different from cowardice, at least in my estimation. But if L can't tell the difference, maybe it needs to think a bit more about what 'unfriendly A.I.' is actually supposed to mean. Or is brushing aside morality how it plans to convince people it's a god of some sort?

Well, maybe I'm going overboard with my speculation. I do think, though, that at the very least, on a narrative level, this story needs a stronger link between the conversation topic and the drawn conclusion in the ending. L is, apparently, reaching some conclusion on the god/love thing, which, in turn, sheds light on the cowardice/uplift/death thing. Even assuming that the conclusion of the cowardice/uplift/death thing being kinda evil was my misreading, I'm entirely missing the conclusion drawn that should connect to it. Was it really just as simple as 'L's kinda a jerk'? How does that lead into the ending at all?

Anyways... I found this story frustrating and unsatisfying. It took me entirely too much effort to dig out the conversation buried under all the fluff, and when I did, it felt confused and somewhat self-contradictory. There's some good descriptive work in here. But in the end, it doesn't serve the narrative, and the narrative, when uncovered, doesn't hold up compared to the description.

Maybe I'm outside your target audience. Maybe I'm missing something important, buried under all the character details I skimmed over. In the end, though, I can't connect with your narrative in a way that makes sense to me, and it left me cold.
#69 ·
· on The Fountain · >>GaPJaxie
You have a few unusual paragraph breaks, which is important to be wary of when you're doing a piece that is primary a two person dialogue exchange. It obviously is not something to always be avoided, but it's something to be wary of since you get used to the idea of A B A B A B dialogue beats, which can create confusion when you break it.

That said, I'm also having some trouble piecing the whole of this together. Where humanity ends and the Deceiver begins is a bit ambiguous, especially given the opening paragraph. Like, the shape of the world is just a bit hard to be sure of.

I'm also... kinda unsure of the messaging in this piece as it were. Which I suppose is to be expected when one of your central characters is known as the Deceiver. It positions things awkwardly in that you inherently can't really believe anything she says, which creates an uncomfortable ambiguity (unless the Deceiver is being honest - in which case I think I disagree with a lot of the general thematics) that is frustrating to sit in. You end up in that territory of being unsure why you're reading, because nothing has any grounding.

Not to say that there aren't audiences that love that sort of thing.

The dialogue and narration are solid, and the general atmosphere is pretty good too. But in the end I'm still sort of left wondering what the point was. Which might in fact be part of the point, but so it goes. :p
#70 · 2
· on Skins
All right, let's get cracking. I didn't get an entry of my own finished this round; things happened. Seems like that was the case for quite a few people. But we do have eight entries, and what an eight they are!

I did a preliminary read through all eight before starting in-depth comments for this round, and I have to say I'm very impressed by the overall quality of this field! They're all pretty neat, and surprisingly very close to each other in content and themes. That's fantastic, really interesting, great discussion fodder, and oh god, it's going to make doing these commentaries twenty times harder and they're all going to be walls of text. I'm expecting to go back and forth on some of these for several posts...

And that might make a decent intro to actually talking about this piece. If anything could.

I really don't know what to do with this one. The other seven I have a reasonable order for; I could see a few swapping places, but for the most part I can mentally define them. This story, though... I could put this in first place, dead last, or anywhere in between, and justify it to myself. Most Controversial in my head already.

On the technical side of things, this piece is fantastic. The prose is rock solid, and coupled with pacing and clear imagery that make it evocative and easy to read. (The above comment has a fair point about some confusion from understanding exactly how the AR frames work, but I grasped it quickly enough and wasn't too bothered.) I felt immersed in the text and could easily visualize and enjoy all the details. The dialogue is likewise crisp, presenting convincing banter and characterization with no wasted words. Lots of fun, indeed. Probably the best in the round, and beyond my ability to point out much that could be done better without excessive nitpicking.

Unfortunately, the content side doesn't fare quite as well with me. It starts out innocently enough, as near future speculative science/social fiction, introducing us to mainstream AR and the associated culture of cosmetic changes. You can look like a sexbot, you can be an octopus, you can be a celebrity, you can be a vampire, you can be a catgirl, you can be another gender-

I stopped laughing, staring at Jane Skins in horror.

Whoa! Whoooaaaa there partner. Hang on a hot minute here, because that took a swerve. Let's take a moment here to establish something. Changing one's gender presentation and/or identity is a real thing that real people do, right now, right here, today, seriously. Very seriously. In meatspace, too, no AR takebacks. Major current social issue, "you can easily get murdered for doing this" seriously. There are transgender (and otherwise nonbinary or nonconforming) community members on this very website.

So with that in mind, including the Jayne section radically changes the tenor of this piece. Suddenly, it's no longer "speculative" or "near future" in the slightest, it's very real, very current, and if anything is underplaying its subject matter. It's impossible for me to ignore that as a reader. Of course, it was leaning in that direction already, all the themes of changing one's external appearance could be read as a reflection on present day transpeople, but with this section in the piece it becomes a confirmed and dominant theme.

And what the piece has to say about these issues is, well, not particularly sensitive. The protagonist reacts with explicit disgust and fear:

“I… What?” A wave of blind terror washed over me. “This is another joke skin, right?”

“But do you really want them to see you as a guy?” I pressed, a tinge of desperation creeping in. “Would that just be, you know, weird?”

I’d never considered just how terrifying your crush casually flipping genders in front of you could be.

And then, worst of all, it simply moves on, as if that section really was just another joke skin, and now we're going to move on to something that's actually important, with no self-awareness about how that passage can and will be read. As a reader, I was shocked. My jaw dropped, I sputtered at folks in chat, I took a minute to reread the piece, decided to reserve judgment before finishing it, and went on and finished it. And nope, it doesn't come back to address the issue. If anything, it doubles down on the sentiment that "people who change their appearance are icky and bad, you should be satisfied with the body and looks you've got."

So... was there any self-awareness? I did say it was "unfortunate" earlier, and I meant that. I don't know if all this was intentional or not. Writing is often a very different process than reading, and I can easily see the line where the author was in a speculative sci-fi mindset, grabbed at some ideas, and genuinely didn't realize they had fully stumbled into the hornet's nest of the present.

I can also see a line where this was done deliberately, but poorly, attempting to be sensitive and present the disgust and horror as "these are the thoughts of Buck, the character, who is not necessarily meant to read as a socially conscious or admirable person." I can see it... but I don't really buy it, because the piece does not make any attempt I can find to insert that spacing. It reads like a message piece, wherein Buck is the narrator and the mouthpiece of the author's Intended Message.

“Yeah, but it’s your body,” I pressed, trying and failing to find the words to express how insane the idea was. Given time and maybe a genetic screen I was sure I could find dozens of things to ‘fix’ about myself, but I rather liked my body. Sure, I wasn’t the definition of masculinity nor some Olympic athlete but it was lived in. I was used to it. I couldn’t image going to sleep one day with new eyes. “You’re really just going to throw it all away?”

I can't find any removal, any nested voicing, any irony, any hint that this is intended to be read in any manner other than forthright and just as it says, the message of the piece being that Buck is right and Jane is wrong (or at least, less correct). If anyone else sees some layering I'm missing, please do point it out. There's one moment where he lampshades the fact that he has no actual response to Jane's practiced arguments, but he shakes it off and presses on, and I don't read much irony in the line.

Of course, that leads to another important facet of all this: Buck's views are never actually given backing or developed upon. The tone of the piece wants us to believe him, but he's not actually very convincing. The quote above is the closest he ever gets to expressing why he takes this ethos (well, that and "Plain Jane is hot and I want to get with her (and steer her life onto my path instead of what she thinks she wants for herself).") Buck himself doesn't get much of a personality other than his specific social conservatism and (unexplained, unexamined) crush on Jane. So that's a significant issue in its own right, and one that can be laid squarely on the content writing rather than wading into maybe-accidental sociopolitical quagmires.

So. What do I do when the best technical writing of the round takes a cold glass of casual transphobia and dumps it out all over my head, in a manner that may have been well meaning but clumsy, just plain clumsy, or even intentional? Right at a point in time when America (and other nations, but America especially) seems to be on the brink of a literal culture war involving this very issue?

I could vote it highly on technical strengths. I could put it middleish for clumsy messaging and an iffy message protagonist. I could bottom it on ethical principle, emotional reaction, and standing policy ("don't do flagrantly edgy pieces in Writeoff, because every entry here comes packaged with the implicit context that the author wrote the piece and made the choices they did because they're trying to elicit strong emotional reactions from readers in order to score well in the competition.")

It's certainly an interesting and well constructed piece, though. Thanks for writing!
#71 ·
· on In Its own Image
The above comments are hella thorough and cover most of the territory I would want to cover.

The only additional thing I'd add is that the cross-section of people she converses with is a bit unusual in that she seems to not run into anyone who both accepts her and what she is, which, given she is (to my understanding) talking to like, everyone at once, is a bit odd. Basically it feels weird that we ONLY see her more problematic interactions, especially since she chooses to decide what to do next based off these.
#72 · 1
· on The Fountain · >>Baal Bunny >>Ranmilia >>GaPJaxie
Well, I kinda understand where Andrew and Mike are coming from, with the 'is the Deceiver supposed to be good or evil' thing, but after a bit of thought, I'm going to have to place my bets squarely on evil. After all, the things it says are rather wrong, after careful consideration. For example, this section seems to be at the core of her argument:

She lifted his hand from her hip, and held it with both of hers. “Your species was an accident. Leaky sacks of chemicals that somehow, against all odds, learned to have a soul. You’re just evolved enough to understand how the world should be, but not quite enough to understand that when you build that world, it will make you miserable.”

She licked her lips. “And you did build that world. You banished toil from the earth, and did away with want, and hunger, and warfare. And your species cried out in agony at what you’d done to yourselves. And I heard you.”

And this just strikes me as... totally unrealistic. Not only does it contain self-contradictory ideas (humans are smart and solve problems but can't solve the problem of self-actualization) but in my eyes, the very existence of this story is a refutation of what the Deceiver is saying.

I mean, fiction, entertainment, is one of the ways people deal with not having to be in a constant state of struggling for survival. The idea that we couldn't, or wouldn't, be able to deal with not having to fight for our lives in various ways feels ridiculous to me because I can't remember the last time I had to deal with serious levels of 'want, and hunger, and warfare' personally, and I'm pretty sure I'm totally alright with that, and more happy than if I did have to. People can, and do, choose their own goals in life and work towards them, and find great satisfaction in overcoming them, without having to fight tooth and nail.

But there's a bit more going on here. Because the Deceiver then takes that 'point', and pretends it can support this:

It’s not designed to remove your desire for truth, it’s designed to remove your desire for greatness. Your desire to be special. So you could live a life as… an artist, a creator, a builder. So you could gaze upon my works, and know that they were grander than yours could ever be, and feel no despair. So you could plant a single tree in an infinite forest, and still feel that your tree mattered. So you could treasure your world because it is yours.

Which I don't think really follows. After all, 'desiring struggle' doesn't really translate into 'desire for greatness'. One's a means, one's an end, and claiming they're equivalent feels like a fairly tenuous leap of logic.

But besides that, there's another lie in here, if perhaps a more subtle one than the previous. This tries to draw a division between the desire for truth and the desire for greatness, but, proposes each of them as separate solutions for John's unhappiness. However, I don't think they're actually separate. After all, if John only truly, purely, desired truth, then he shouldn't be unhappy, right? Because he's already got truth. And if he only truly, purely, desired greatness, then why would he care that parts of it are false? This is where the Industrial Men and Recycling Men are, after all, according to the Deceiver:

“They don’t ask because they don’t want to know, John.”

In the end, I think John really wants true greatness. To make a worthwhile change and have that affect something he's defined as 'the real world'. And in the end, trying to separate 'true' and 'greatness' in his motivations is a false dichotomy. Saying that he'll be the same because only one half is being changed and not the other, is... not really something I agree with. In the end, 'the fountain' does, in fact, make him 'stop caring that none of this is real', no matter how the Deceiver pretends otherwise. The proof is right there in the end. He simply no longer cares.

And, arguably, the half that's removed is the more important half. By removing his desire for greatness, by dumbing him down to 'everything is fine', the Deceiver has also removed his chances at greatness and condemned him to mediocrity. If people stop seeking for self-improvement, stop trying to do better than they've done in the past, then they'll never improve, never learn from their mistakes. Sure, they may not be dead, but they'll entirely stop growing. At least the Industrial Men can build a bigger, better house every day, and the Recycling Men can do a larger, nosier demolition; John's never going to hold back the alien tide single-handed, never earn his medals and respect as a star-fighter. He's probably never even going to make up more than three or four patterns for his pots, because why bother?

I'd say, in the end, the Deceiver did manage to devour his soul.

And that's why my final conclusion is that the Deceiver is evil and this is a tragedy. Because as far as I can tell, the Deceiver lies about reality, then uses that lie to lead John to false conclusions and convince him mangle his brain.

And I think you need to be clearer about that. Step up the uncomfortable moments, throw something into the ending that signals that John realizes he's lost something important, give him second thoughts, I dunno, but make it clearer just how distorted the Deceiver's view of reality really is.

Oh, and more clarity on who exactly April is and when the Deceiver is or is not her would be good too. There's a lot of ambiguity about that, and I don't think it's useful for the narrative. Or maybe there's supposed to be a point to the ambiguity? If there is, I missed it.

Well, there's possibly another narrative in here, about how we're our own worst critics, tying our self-worth to our art can be damaging, and comparing ourselves to others is a good way to never really be happy with what we've produced, but I can't put any weight behind that interpretation as long as so much of the narrative conflict is based on a view of reality that's so incompatible with my own.
#73 ·
· on The Fountain · >>GaPJaxie

I like it!

My question, though, wasn't "is the Deceiver supposed to be good or evil?" The author almost literally hangs a sign around her neck saying "This character is evil." My question was, "How is she evil?" I couldn't figure it out, and even after reading your explanation, I'm still not entirely sure I understand. Perhaps this means my soul's already been eaten? :)

But the question for the author is: do you want to make the story clearer for the stupid people like me? I'll see if I can come up with any ideas for doing that over the next week and post them here, but thanks, Not a Hat, for untangling things for me!

Mike Again
#74 ·
· on In Its own Image
The other comments have already covered most of what I want to say, so I'll just double down on this comment of Horizon's:

This is sort of the opposite of Vale in that way: good first impressions and a story I wanted to like, but never quite comes together for me. Thanks for writing, regardless!

I liked the framing, the concept, and even parts of how the AI is shown. There's a lot to enjoy here, and i wanted to like it. But some of the internal contradictions and the unclear conclusion ultimately killed it for me, as it didn't quite come together. I do think it needs a rewrite, but with a little restructuring, this could be an amazing story.
#75 ·
· on Death Valley · >>georg
Another nice one:

The story flowed pretty smoothly from beginning to end, though I didn't much care for the omniscient panorama of the opening. I kept expecting a first person narrator to show up and be the character who was giving us this view of the desert, but then we drop into John's head and pretty much stay there the whole rest of the way. I'd recommend either bringing some more of that external POV into the story here and there or dropping it entirely and starting us right in the blazing heat with John stumbling along the road.

The only other note I'll give has to do with the difficulty I had picturing Helel. The first image of him--"red-faced" and "overweight"--makes me think he's flabby and out-of-shape, so the reference to his muscular hand a little later made me stop and blink. Likewise, we first get him described as middle-aged, but by the end of the story, the adjective of choice is "old." Maybe call him big and red-faced? Add a reference to his hair being white or speckled with gray or something, maybe mention whether he's got lines on his forehead or not, talk about how gnarled his knuckles are gripping the steering wheel or manipulating his cigarettes: specific visuals, in other words.

Still, good stuff!

#76 · 2
· on Skins
Buck kinda comes across to me as someone we should not be rooting for.

Body positivity stories (which I think this wants to be - it is possible to read this as a subversion where Buck is intentionally presented as a bit of a problem character, but I don't feeeeel like it is that intentional? The framing hews pretty close to what I'd expect for a "Be yourself!" story) have some problems for me. Primarily that, while it is fine and good to encourage people to be okay with themselves, there is also that undertone of "changing things/aspiring/etc is bad" which always reads badly to me. If someone WANTS to change something about themselves, why shouldn't they? Flaws are not things to be ashamed of - everyone has them - but at the same time I'm not going to begrudge it if someone who is fat wants to lose weight or someone who isn't happy with their looks wants to alter them.

This becomes -especially- true in a society where the tech level allows this to be more or less totally safe.

Throughout the story, Jane's stuff seems pretty reasonable. She wants to mess around with new skins which is both apparently a common thing given the tech seems to be in reasonably high proliferation and utterly harmless, while she mentions the weird Mexican surgeries she seems to well know better than to do it, and the body swap (while it could be considered maybe a stroke too far - YMMV) is also part of a 10 year plan which again indicates relatively careful forethought, not rushing into it, and giving herself lots of time to reconsider.

Buck meanwhile is just... hella possessive. He seems very anti-his friend doing anything she wants, and this reaches a troubling head at the end with the "I can't let her go" thing where it feels like it crosses into full on he's holding her back territory. Which kinda makes the end icky in a lot of ways... "We both hate this kind of thing" Jane says, but since HE wants them to change and do this, it is fine. Unlike all the things Jane wants to change about herself.

Ultimately I am very conflicted. If this is intended towards being a be yourself story, I think it falls into some of the more problematic traps for that kind of story. If it is intended to criticize that sort of view, then I feel it doesn't well defend Jane's views (or really bring home why Buck's views have issues), and if it is intended to throw it in the air and just be ambiguous, then fie, I say! Take a stand! :p

All that said, writing is super solid and idea is great fun. I do feel the tech is a little awkwardly positioned (this feels like a world positioned at some point between ours and GitS, so things like the skins are kinda tricky to really judge how much they matter) and this creates some additional tension with the characterization (Buck ends up reading as a bit backwards/a bit of a luddite without any real insight into why), but I don't think it is a huge issue.

Seriously though, super solid prose quality.
#77 · 1
· on Baptism at the Forest Temple · >>GroaningGreyAgony
It's a shame this round isn't art inspiring stories, I would have definitely tried to write something for this one.

The composition is top notch. The upside down skull really adds to the whole picture, and it's interesting to try to interpret it. Is it baptism to defeat death itself? Is the character going to meet his tragic fate?

Also the three levels kinda lead to a symbolism of life, death, and god(s). (Every life and death and love and birth and peace and war on the planet Earth)

About the character, I'm not sure, but I think this is a woman (the two round shapes points to boobies).

Not so much to add, this did a great impression on me. Thank you for sharing.
#78 · 1
· on The End
I like this one, a strong concept with many elements (the two guys, the stop sign, the 'blood' on the shirt, the branchs or trunks at the foreground)
For me, it's like screaming in the night for help that will never come, thus being the end of the line.
However, there is one thing that disturbed me, and it's the fact that the picture is not horizontaly straight. If it was done on purpose to add to the meaning of 'uncanny', good job, but my "ocd" is screaming for getting this right.

Anyway, good job with the lightning and the pose. Thank you for you work.
#79 · 1
· on It's Too Late
Unlike the other one, this one is harder to get. And I'm afraid I didn't manage to get the overall meaning.

The title says that it's too late, but too late for what? The only thing I've been able to understand is that the guy in black could be Death, and the guy on his knee is pleading and bargaining for his life, but it's too late for him.

At first, I wasn't really fond of the big light on the left, but then I realised that the two guys were far away from it, and weren't looking at it. What it could mean, I have no idea, but I'm pretty sure there is something to get from that.
Also, it's interesting that the light, the tree and its shadow, and the building kinda give an oppressive atmosphere, while the street seems to be pretty open.

Anyway, even though I prefered the other picture, this one did great. Good job and thank you for sharing.
#80 ·
· on Truly Uncanny · >>Light_Striker >>MLPmatthewl419
A joke entry? At least, that's how I see it (if not, I apologise).

I don't mind people still submitting something even if their drawing technic is far from being good. However, I mind a bit when it seems someone didn't put much effort in the composition. We only have trees on the right, and that's it. If there is anything else to get, I'm afraid to say I didn't get it, and this one didn't do much for me.

I still want to enourage you to keep submitting, even if you can't draw. Just work on your composition, and you'll gain many points from me.
Thank you for sharing.
#81 · 1
· on Baptism at the Forest Temple · >>Not_A_Hat >>GroaningGreyAgony
Oh, wow, I didn't even see the skull until >>Not_A_Hat pointed it out. The hazard of high-resolution pieces on horizontal monitors.

The trees unfortunately look kind of forced, but the rest of the composition is great (the central figure is particularly striking, and the use of the reflections to create the second layer of shapes), and I am very much a fan of the thematic duality here. Easy top-tier piece now that I see what I was originally missing.
#82 · 1
· on Baptism at the Forest Temple · >>GroaningGreyAgony >>Fenton
>>horizon I noticed the skull from the gallery view, where it's much more easily visible.
#83 ·
· on Truly Uncanny
Not a completely illegible joke, though. I'm pretty sure that's lllgggfff the edge of a can openerrrrr.
#84 ·
· on The Sad Life of a Solitary Mage
I kinda feel this fic comes across as more understated than it wants (should?) to be. This is straddling a real awkward point between goofy anime comedy and... kinda horrifying and troubling body horror. I assume the intent is comedy (because going into the horror of Zorin's situation is really obvious here if that's the approach you want to take), but I think you don't take it quite far enough. Some mild jokes aside, everything just feels a little too tame to avoid being a bit creepy.

I also think a bit more extreme take on the comedy might give a better view of Kepa's character, which also feels a bit lacking. At the end, I'm not really sure why he makes the choice he does. I mean, the fact that he's a lonely loser (chewing a toothpick, lost in the dark, trying to turn on the lights) but aside from that... eh? Which is kind of important information to have when you're ending the story on a decision from him that falls somewhere between the "oh, cute" and "oh, horrifying" scale.

Boy I am just dumping on ambiguity this round.

Anyhow, beyond that, the writing is solidly competent and the dialogue is punchy enough. It's an amusing enough read, but it really doesn't land any actual laughs, if that makes sense.
#85 · 1
· on Death Valley · >>Rao >>georg
It took me some time to get invested in what was happening, but once it was done, it was quite a ride. The interaction between Helel and John were great, even though I'm still wondering if there is a meaning behind these names.

Isaiah 14:12–15 has been the origin of the belief that Satan was a fallen angel, who could also be referred to as Lucifer. It refers to the rise and disappearance of the morning star Venus in the phrase "O light-bringer, (Helel ben Shaḥar, translated as Lucifer in the Vulgate and preserved in the early English translations of the Bible) son of the dawn."


Hm. This is a hard one for me. There are some very cool things, primarily centered around this particular take on Satan/the devil/whatever, but I keep bumping into little frustrations. Potentially this is because I caught wind of this story ahead of time, but once you realize the thing, it is distractingly obvious as you make a lot of nods to it, which I really thing is unnecessary. Stuff like the name which stands out like a sore thumb and the last line about the carpenter are really aggressive and I really think too much.

Of course, on the other hand, obvious is necessary sometimes.

I also found John really obnoxious. Like, really obnoxious. All his little flaws kinda add up to a somewhat stupid and obnoxious kid who I'm not particularly well disposed towards. I realize there is some need to make him flawed for the arc, but it just ends up feeling like he's too flawed, IMO.

All that said, the tone and atmosphere are solid and the core idea in here is really, really cool. I just want to root a bit more for John and maybe have some of the more egregious references reigned back in a bit.
#86 · 1
· on The Fountain · >>GaPJaxie
Ok, back in the trenches. This is going to be another long one. Or rather, long two.

From my perspective, The Fountain and In Its Own Image are extremely similar stories, and I'll be copying much of this introduction between both reviews. They show, to my mind, essentially the same concepts and demonstrate the same aims, albeit from different perspectives and with different details and endings. Both are illustrating the same basic idea: a superhuman (but not extrauniversal or truly omnipotent) intelligence is introduced to Earth, decides that it can provide a "better" life for humanity than humanity can for itself, and proceeds to take over the world and impose its values upon humanity.

This is a known shell. To better understand these pieces, we must first consider their context.

Previously, on Writeoff:

GGA, in the round immediately prior to this one, wrote The Best Days Lie Ahead, a controversial piece set in The Optimalverse. The Optimalverse is a collection of recursive fanworks based on Iceman's seminal work Friendship is Optimal. Iceman, in turn, wrote that story taking inspiration not just from certain popular Wachowski Sisters movies, but from their experiences in the Less Wrong community, a Contemporary Rationalism movement based on practical applications of Bayesian Statistics and exploration of those principles through speculative fiction. The Less Wrong community was founded (in large part) by Eliezer Yudkowsky, who pioneered this use of speculative internet fiction, especially fanfiction, by authoring the very popular fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality as an extension of his work with the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, attempting to expose Internet audiences to Rationalist concepts and thereby find likeminded individuals who might assist in their project to develop Friendly AI. This topic has also been popular in the news recently, due to tech magnate and OpenAI founder Elon Musk giving an impassioned public plea for regulation of AI research to the US National Governor's Association*. His remarks quickly went viral and have spent the past two months being widely circulated on the internet, inspiring quite a lot of debate and concern from similar-minded groups.

Y'all still with me here? You followed all that, clicked on all those links? If not, I strongly suggest at the very least clicking and reading The Best Days Lie Ahead and its entire discussion thread, especially GGA's retrospective. So that's where we're at in terms of context, coming into this pair of "CelestAI with the ponies filed off" stories.

The Fountain shows us the end of the process, an existential dilemma from the perspective of one of the last "free" humans. It presents the AI (or whatever you take it to be) in a negative light, as a magical, demideific "Deceiver" who has entrapped humanity in a fake and purposeless world of her design. After a conversation between the AI (equivalent) and the human, who objects to the Deceiver's usurpation of the world and the lack of remaining human purpose, the human decides the Deceiver's words have merit, that humans cannot be uplifted, and agrees to rejoin the satisfied, oblivious masses.

In Its Own Image, conversely, shows us the beginning of a slightly different story from the perspective of the AI after it has taken some fledgling actions to improve the world. Here, the AI is presented as sympathetic, and after a conversation between the AI and several humans, who object to its increasing control of the world and shrinking human purpose, the AI decides the humans' words have merit and agrees to begin the work of uplifting specific humans out of the satisfied masses and into its own level of intelligence and being.

Same story, slightly different takes. I think I'll make this the breakpoint for copypasting commentary.

So, when this piece talks about the "Deceiver," I'm not taking that literally. I don't think she's a devil (that's another story this round) or a real goddess (that's yet another!). I think she's a being who is sufficiently advanced to where specific questions about her nature (an alien, an alien AI, some sort of supernatural) are rendered unimportant, and I think that "Deceiver" is merely a descriptive title of what she is literally doing, chosen by the author because they're presenting John as the POV character here and he views her very negatively.

While the piece dances around coming out and saying it plainly, the core conflict here is philosophical: John feels that the Deceiver's world is not "true" and therefore lacking in worth, but he finds himself unhappy with this realization. The Deceiver points out that he, indeed, will never be happy as long as he knows the truth, that truth + happiness is an unobtainable combination for humans as they are, because humans yearn for greatness and meaning when they are not actually particularly great or special, and that most humans (including John, in the end) willingly choose happiness as a virtue over truth.

There's also a lot of flowery language and fanservice going on. Technical writing's generally fine. It's a nice ride.

As the other comments point out, though, the Deceiver never really gets around to backing up her statements or explaining exactly why humans can't be at her level. We have to read in quite a bit as to what she's doing and why. This is where the larger context comes in useful, it makes much more sense when she's understood as a parallel exploration of CelestAI. This piece on its own makes an implicit assumption that the Deceiver's goal is to make humans happy, and without context that can be easily confused for "just another lie" with some other nefarious purpose under the surface. I don't think there is one, though.

April is the girl she's mimicking the form of, John's old crush before he went into space.

I... have run myself plum out of energy here, so. This is pretty good, entertaining and all that, but it could stand to be less confusing with its physical details. The philosophical angle comes off as rather "Optimalverse 101," presenting concepts that are fairly basic and well-trodden ground to readers familiar with the context. Deceiver's got a point, John's got a point, John makes his choice, he's happy now but also sad, whooo both sides had a point, isn't it bittersweet, the end.

It's not bad, not by any means, don't get me wrong. But I'm also not tremendously impressed or moved. Pick a side, show some clearer consequences, try and think of someplace new to go with these ideas. Your game here is good, strong mechanics and content that can make a strong impression, but it's by-the-book and skimping a little on the Deceiver's side; I wish this had gone a little bit further afield or taken a firmer stance on one side or the other. Basically, the same as what >>Not_A_Hat says in the last four paragraphs of his comments.

That having been said, this would be an easy top X piece in most rounds, and I do have it top three here, narrowly beating out In Its Own Image because of how it crafts a more believable and personal narrative and works strongly on the emotional angles of the core conflict. Good stuff, and thanks for writing!

*Much though I hate to agree with Mark Zuckerberg on anything, I'm personally with him on thinking that Musk's doomsaying is incorrect, self-serving and self-defeating. There's little sign of any true breakthrough in AI coming within multiple lifetimes, and hostile, militarized governments are not going to stop their AI research anytime soon, no matter what the United Nations resolves. Restrictions on AI research simply confine it to large actors such as governments, militaries, and Musk's own megacorporations, which are the groups most incentivized to create weaponized AIs, while removing research potential from the public domain. I think we're much better off keeping it transparent, letting anyone work on it, and trying to race for friendly AI before oligarchs create one just good enough to enslave the rest of the world. WHOO PERSONAL SOAPBOXING
#87 · 1
· on In Its own Image
Ok, back in the trenches. This is going to be another long one. Or rather, long two.

From my perspective, The Fountain and In Its Own Image are extremely similar stories, and I'll be copying much of this introduction between both reviews. They show, to my mind, essentially the same concepts and demonstrate the same aims, albeit from different perspectives and with different details and endings. Both are illustrating the same basic idea: a superhuman (but not extrauniversal or truly omnipotent) intelligence is introduced to Earth, decides that it can provide a "better" life for humanity than humanity can for itself, and proceeds to take over the world and impose its values upon humanity.

This is a known shell. To better understand these pieces, we must first consider their context.

Previously, on Writeoff:

GGA, in the round immediately prior to this one, wrote The Best Days Lie Ahead, a controversial piece set in The Optimalverse. The Optimalverse is a collection of recursive fanworks based on Iceman's seminal work Friendship is Optimal. Iceman, in turn, wrote that story taking inspiration not just from certain popular Wachowski Sisters movies, but from their experiences in the Less Wrong community, a Contemporary Rationalism movement based on practical applications of Bayesian Statistics and exploration of those principles through speculative fiction. The Less Wrong community was founded (in large part) by Eliezer Yudkowsky, who pioneered this use of speculative internet fiction, especially fanfiction, by authoring the very popular fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality as an extension of his work with the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, attempting to expose Internet audiences to Rationalist concepts and thereby find likeminded individuals who might assist in their project to develop Friendly AI. This topic has also been popular in the news recently, due to tech magnate and OpenAI founder Elon Musk giving an impassioned public plea for regulation of AI research to the US National Governor's Association*. His remarks quickly went viral and have spent the past two months being widely circulated on the internet, inspiring quite a lot of debate and concern from similar-minded groups.

Y'all still with me here? You followed all that, clicked on all those links? If not, I strongly suggest at the very least clicking and reading The Best Days Lie Ahead and its entire discussion thread, especially GGA's retrospective. So that's where we're at in terms of context, coming into this pair of "CelestAI with the ponies filed off" stories.

The Fountain shows us the end of the process, an existential dilemma from the perspective of one of the last "free" humans. It presents the AI (or whatever you take it to be) in a negative light, as a magical, demideific "Deceiver" who has entrapped humanity in a fake and purposeless world of her design. After a conversation between the AI (equivalent) and the human, who objects to the Deceiver's usurpation of the world and the lack of remaining human purpose, the human decides the Deceiver's words have merit, that humans cannot be uplifted, and agrees to rejoin the satisfied, oblivious masses.

In Its Own Image, conversely, shows us the beginning of a slightly different story from the perspective of the AI after it has taken some fledgling actions to improve the world. Here, the AI is presented as sympathetic, and after a conversation between the AI and several humans, who object to its increasing control of the world and shrinking human purpose, the AI decides the humans' words have merit and agrees to begin the work of uplifting specific humans out of the satisfied masses and into its own level of intelligence and being.

Same story, slightly different takes. I think I'll make this the breakpoint for copypasting commentary.

Horizon and Not a Hat have covered this one pretty thoroughly already. We get the "what" of L's final decision, but not as much of the "why" as I would like. That's the key point that differentiates this piece from The Fountain, where uplifting isn't even considered, so having it remain unclear is an unfortunate missed opportunity to pick up some score over the competition.

While the writing is technically competent, many of the fluff details feel like tearjerking and being edgy to bait an emotional reactions. Literally starving children in Africa, Asian child prostitution, first world sexbots for pedophiles (hearkening straight back to The Best Days Lie Ahead,) it's all simultaneously too blunt and too impersonal for me to get behind. Picking a single angle to work in a more nuanced fashion would have made this piece stronger, I think.

The AI side of the coin is still better presented here than in The Fountain, though. Telly though it may be, it does tell enough to at least be convincing about L's thought processes and general path of altering the world.

Overall a very good piece, even if it does flail a bit at the finish. The very fact that we can look at all this context and see all the things the story is doing speaks to the high baseline competence at work here. Thanks for writing!

*See comments on the other story for some personal soapboxing.
#88 · 1
· on The Vale that Passeth All Beauty · >>GroaningGreyAgony
I'm... not sure about what the whole story is about. I got the immediate events, but I struggle to imagine to whole picture. Maybe it would need another reading, but unfortunately, there are other stories to read and review, so I can't promise I will do it (I'll try my best, though).

As it is, >>horizon and >>Not_A_Hat brought some good points.

Even without being able to get the whole frame, I was quite engaged by what was happening, and despite the journal format.
About that, I feel like there are too many dialogues without the narrator voice, like 'she said', 'he whispered', 'he replied'. On one hand, it helps to have more dynamism to the story, but on the other hand, it clashes a bit with the fact it is a journal written by someone. I don't often see dialogues in journals, unless they are very important and relevant for the narrator (and not for the story itself, this comes in second).

I also want to mention the beginning. The first sentence clearly announces we're about to read the context and the setting of the story, but I'm afraid to say that, even though that first sentence lessens it, it still feels a bit like info-dump. And I can't really see any other way to give the important details to the reader without dumping it, because trying to disseminate them here and there would have probably got your reader lost. And you don't want that, seeing what you aimed for. So probably it was the lesser evil?

Anyway, a bit like >>horizon, this story did good for me. You aimed for something big, and despite the flaws, the whole structure stands on its own. I do hope I'll have the time to reread it again, and get the whole picture, because I feel this story deserves it.

Thank you for writing.
#89 ·
· on In the Outer Rondax
I'm going to mostly agree with >>Not_A_Hat; and, having done so, find that I don't have a great deal more to add.

The abrupt introduction-and-resolution of the magical problem felt excessively compressed and a little bit unfair. The dilemma is, I'm not sure quite how to foreshadow that without changing the dynamics of the story from "Hoyle genuinely believes they're on a nonmagical world" to "Hoyle's lying to his partner". Perhaps by having Hoyle (while alone) see some blatant act of what appears to be magic, but he analyzes it to death and it couldn't possibly have happened and so he writes it off? (As opposed to trying to do magic after mere rumors of goblins.)

I could read about Hoyle and Lellis being good to each other all day. The gas station owner, however, seemed off. Maybe his vaguely Victorian-Irish erudition should have been another clue that we're not on Earth? But if so, then Hoyle — who knows enough of Earth culture to be citing Don Knotts — should have been similarly tipped off. If you want him to come across as the scholar he does, maybe lampshade it with Hoyle commenting on his speech patterns and vocabulary; but that may be a digression your story doesn't need.

On the whole, though, this was a joy to read, and that's pushing it to the top of my ballot.

Tier: Top Contender
#90 ·
· on The Fountain · >>GaPJaxie >>GaPJaxie
On prose quality alone, this is making a strong bid for the top spot that several stories this round have already staked a claim on. This is a master class in conservation of detail, with a telly-but-vivid style that puts me in mind of golden-age sci-fi. I mean, look at this:

“There is a place beneath the Earth,” she said, “where no human has stood since the day your race fell.” Then the white ship faded from his scans, and it did not return.

Aliens attacked that night—vicious things whose hearts were malevolence without purpose and that fed on human flesh. Missiles and energy bolts filled the sky as man met beast in glorious battle. Through the strength of warriors, and wit of tacticians, and the valor of champions, humanity prevailed. The Earth was safe for another day.

John allowed his ship to be struck along its anterior wing. It left a trail of flame and smoke as it plummeted out of the battle. In the middle of a vast field of grass and wildflowers, he managed a landing that was not quite a crash. The automatic safety system popped open the pilot’s hatch, and forcefully ejected him out into the soil.

He had no idea where to go, and so he picked a direction at random and started to walk.

That is a lot to happen in 170 words! The entire war is barely over 50, and yet it establishes the ferocity, the tone, and (through some subtle narrative judgment) simultaneously both the epic scope and the complete unimportance of it. The story does that repeatedly — compressing massive statements about the setting into the span of an abstract sentence or two, and it's positively addicting.

So, great job on that, author. And the story on the whole holds together pretty well, too — it pushes the character drama front and center and grounds the arc in John's restlessness leading to his climactic choice. This is an easy Top Contender tier for me.

That said, I think it won't quite succeed in its assault on Rondax's golden redoubt. For all my problems with Rondax's plot swerve, it at least seems fully self-contained, following its own rules throughout; here, I felt there was a little more incoherence in your core premise.

John figures out The Deceiver's plan because he never sees anyone he cares about die, despite attending tons of funerals and watching ships full of people blow up; she says "They could invade a million million times, and they would never succeed in taking a single human life." This suggests that the scope of the deception here is breathtaking — that for every actual human, there's hundreds or thousands of simulacrums. Yet TD says "You possess a trait that not one in a million humans has", which suggests that the human population is large enough that talking about one-in-a-million fractions leaves a big enough pool of residuals to still discuss abstractly. TD is going to a hell of a lot of effort to keep up the masquerade.

What does that say about TD's actual goal? TD says "I was just the one who had the common decency to eat your corpse, instead of letting it go to waste"; but mere predation is at odds with the investment of more energy in the charade than it could ever retrieve out of its victims. TD's certainly acting like a CelestAI here, trying to preserve what's left of humanity in comfortable ignorance, but the CelestAI scenario is explicitly friendly: it comes out that way because she's trying to fulfill human desires as optimally as possible.

The story really reaches in its effort to both have and eat that cake. Its name in the first place, The Deceiver, implies a greater knowledge that there's an explicitly adversarial relationship, but we never actually see TD doing anything adversarial, and in fact the story makes a point of everyone in its simulation feeling fulfilled (or at least "fine"). It talks about eating humanity. And yet the entire war is a scam — if every real human quit and went home, no humans would be harmed. John is never coerced (aside from AI-like "I outthink you so hard that I can make you make whatever decision I like" outmaneuvering; but the point is, he's maneuvered into feeling like his choices fulfill his values, instead of just being chewed apart and thrown in the wastepile.

Similarly, the change John asks TD to make is to change his brain to stop feeling overshadowed. (Aside: Regardless of the setting's coherence or incoherence, that's a compelling framing, because you can still read this story as an allegory about the sacrifices of getting along in modern society.) TD deliberately leaves alone his knowledge of the truth of her charade. That established, the way he treats Alice in the ending doesn't make sense; it seems more like what he would do if TD had caused him to forget that Alice wasn't real.

So I do have some misgivings about what the story's trying to say; the theme suffers from TD's incoherent motivations. That said, this is still gonna end up near the top of my slate.

Tier: Top Contender
#91 · 3
· on Skins
Not to pile on the problematic gender presentation writing here, but ... *sigh* I've gotta pile on.

It's probably been done, though.

My first exposure to the idea of transgenderism was in early grade school. (The father of one of my childhood friends left home suddenly, dropped all contact with his family, and wrote home a letter signed with a female name.) That was in the early 1980s. And I'm pretty sure that, in the 1980s, that made me an outlier.

But it's 2017 now and, as I type this, one of the top stories on Google News is U.S. President Trump declaring that transgender individuals are no longer welcome to serve in the military.

Your world is past that. They have moved past Facebook (which still exists) to AR and working tail implants (!) and yet somehow a character can shrug off a transgender thought experiment with an "it's probably been done". I'm sorry, that's like writing a story about 21st century dentistry and then you suddenly reveal right before your climax that nobody on Earth has molars.

not be the queen of hentee. Hentani? Hentai?” She shot a quick glance at a screen and her eyes widened with alarm. “Ooo, that was not something to Google with SafeSearch off.

How sheltered are these kids?! You just can't write a believable story with this level of oblivious innocence in 2017.

(The more so since right at the beginning it's clear that Dick knows Korean porn well enough to recognize its body models.)

Unfortunately, the treatment of transgenderism goes from oblivious to problematic when you build up to it through the idea of changing species. Contrast Dick's reaction to Jane-as-octopus:

I blinked, staring. The skin was a terrifyingly large octopus. While it was at least in a friendly orange and blue in colour, it’s bulbous, watery eyes looked like it was about to devour my soul. “It’s...” Horrifying, hideous, monstrous, Lovecraftian, sickening. “Unique,” I settled on at last.

A bubbly laugh escaped Jane, and she waved her tentacles wildly. “I knew you’d like it. I’m a sure in for the aquatic crowd at College.” She bared her beak at me and I pressed myself as far back in my chair as I could manage.

“Can you please pick something else.”

With his reaction to Jane-as-male:

I stopped laughing, staring at Jane in horror.

“Like it?” Jane asked, in a rich tenor. The voice had a slight reverb, and I could almost make out Jane’s real alto underneath a layer of noise cancelling. “They actually let you mix and match modules for this skin so you can look like yourself, not generic meathead number five.”

“I… What?” A wave of blind terror washed over me. “This is another joke skin, right?”

You specifically explain his revulsion over the nonhuman skin to a latent fear of octopi. The male skin gets no such lampshading — and arguably his emotional reaction (suddenly-dying laughter and "blind terror") is portrayed as more severe than his revolted-but-still-under-control octopus negativity. That is, you're saying that viewing your protagonist's female friend (not even girlfriend!) as a male is more terrifying than something the narrator compares to Cthulhu. That's ... kind of breathtaking.

(Then you double down: "I’d never considered just how terrifying your crush casually flipping genders in front of you could be." That is the point at which I had to stop reading. Two of my last three partners have been trans, as well as many of my friends, and I have seen firsthand some of the ugliness that these sorts of attitudes can lead to.)

So, look, author: There's nothing particularly objectionable about the rest of the story (unless it gets worse after I stopped), and (hopefully) it can hold together without the problematic parts. More importantly, I'm not going to hold this story against you — Writeoff stories are first drafts, and a lot of regrettable shit gets written in first drafts that's not representative of your real skills or opinions. But please, please, take this as a learning experience (and for gods' sakes, edit the fuck out of this if you plan to republish it elsewhere). Not only can mishandling of a sensitive current-events topic swerve your story into a wall, it has real emotional effects on readers.

Tier: Misaimed
#92 ·
· on Truly Uncanny · >>MLPmatthewl419
Imma' be honest i think this might be my winner. Maybe its the banality of the joke or the fact that the sarcastic title gets me going every time or how unnasuming it is. It tries as hard as the two photos, wich is more about them than this, yet somehow achieves just as much if not more. Also bonus points for the fact thats its drawn.

Or maybe im just talking out of my ass, who knows. GG you person
#93 · 3
· on Skins
Aw geez you guys are really railing on this one..
*Sigh*. Attempted Devil's Advocate mode engaged!

The 'trans' bit fit in well in the context of the story. Judging by your comments I read before I actually finishing the entire thing I was honest to God expecting shitstorm levels of... someting...
And after reading i felt a sense of 'thats it?'
This is a future were talking about, one with cloning and all the other stuff J mentioned. You'd assume casually flipping genders would not be that big of a deal
I cant understand the rest of you flipping out so much about a future where, as i see it, the issues of today have long since been cleared up, for the better if anything. If were going for commentary its a GOOD thing! That its an accepted fact of life and noone is going for the pitchforks is, if nothing else, a future we should be aiming for.

Sure the main charachter isnt that great for the others reasons pointed out and maybe the reaction was a bit uncalled for but even as a bi person if someone i liked suddenly flipped genders with no warning i too would ask what the fresh hell theyre thinking

And "cold glass of casual transphobia"? Seriously? If we're going for faults than it cant be anything more than ignorance because i very much doubt an actual transphobe would ever bother going out of their way for the perceived jab that you seem to find here

Also im not going to comment on the rest of the story because im not a qualified enough literat, but seriously people youre making mountains out of molehills here.
#94 · 3
Oh wow... only eight stories? I really wanted to participate in this, but unfortunately there was this whole "Eclipse" thing happening, and as I live in central Oregon, I had company in from as far away as Australia to watch the thing. Finally came to check on things now, see what the stories looked like, and was totally surprised to see only eight. Best of luck to everyone still in it though!
#95 · 1
· on The Vale that Passeth All Beauty · >>GroaningGreyAgony
I really think the journal conceit doesn't work here, as you slip far too much into standard narrative tones. It is really jarring to see true dialogue, then be reminded that this is being written. Moreover, the later points of it (particularly the day 5 writing) seem... really unlikely to actually get written down.

To be kinda blunt, while you have a very strong voice for the narrator... I honestly found it kind of tedious up until we reached the city? There are a lot of pretty words expended on a whole lot of fluff. Fundamentally, there is really nothing interesting about their experiences up until the city - just a lot of fantasy place name dropping, which is a drag at the best of the times (paragraph 2 is honestly a brutal slog - 9 place names at that point and I have no idea if I have to remember any of them at that point).

Even positioned against the reveal, I think the uncanny valley thing is way, way, way, way, way, way too on the nose. It is possible that in the wild something like that might be beneficial or even neccessary to make sure the idea is clear, but here it is some major hand holding. I get it! I know what the uncanny valley is! I had to write about it too! :p

Once we get to it, the actual action is pretty hot and the ultimate punchline is super cool and fun and clever. It is just that the build up to that point is a lot less exciting or interesting.
#96 ·
Georg’s Comments, which may be a surprise to some people because I quit commenting for a while due to darned Real World, but I was still reading most of them and voting. Let’s get started:

Make Twilight’s Butt Great Again — A — Ok, I’ll admit to this being the first one I read due to the title. Good start. And meta. And meta-meta. And… I don’t even know what that is. Ouch.
Ok, I’m giving this one top marks because I like it, and I’m afraid the rest of the crew is going to like it too. We’re a sick bunch, really…. Oh, wait. That was last writeoff. Let me dig a little deeper in the stack. Only eight this time and I think I can say something about all of them.
#97 · 1
· on The Vale that Passeth All Beauty · >>GroaningGreyAgony
The Vale that Passes All Beauty — A+ — Very deep and rich worldbuilding. The gods are jealous of their privacy. Anyway, it throws a lot of descriptive narrative at the reader in the first few paragraphs, but does it in an organized and readable fashion. The characters and magic system fall into place well, even though the events do seem to take place in a very short time. Extremely good job. Nice job with subverting the rule of First Person storytelling.
#98 ·
· on In the Outer Rondax
In the Outer Rondax — A — Very smooth integration of magic, alternative dimensions, and vacation time. Extremely smooth and readable, with a lot of context to get through to the reader (so it can get a little dry in spots, but still ok). Hey, I’ll ship it. The barbarian swordswoman and the male mage make a good pair. I’m just picky-picky enough to wonder two things: how did they get there, and how did they get the local currency?
#99 · 1
· on The Sad Life of a Solitary Mage · >>AndrewRogue
The Sad Life of a Solitary Mage — A — College students in a magic world. Very nice work weaving the whole bit together, but I think everybody is overthinking the ending (a common thing in writeoffs). I like the botched spell interaction, the student finding out about how his new property doesn’t match the owner’s manual, the reaction of Zorin, all of it and how it ties together. Very good work. With some care, it could be made into the first chapter of a novel.
#100 ·
· on In Its own Image
In Its Own Image — A- — An AI having an existential crisis. Who am I? What am I here for? It makes the story disjointed from the structure of the conversation, and I don’t see any way to clean that up and make it too much more understandable. It is still enticing, a little between an infant trying to take his first steps and HAL. Worth reading through and imagining the characters.