Friday, 26 April 2013

An Unexpected Companion

Another day, another sheaf of paper slipped under my door...

Mission: An Unexpected Companion
Agents: Christianne Shieh and Eledhwen Elerossiel, DMS
Continuum: The Hobbit

I find myself somewhat drawn to this pair of agents, particularly Eledhwen. I think it's because, unlike many non-human agents, she hasn't thrown out her upbringing just because she's joined the PPC. Beginning early with her partner noting that she was essentially homesick, she displays a consistent love of and familiarity with Middle-earth that isn't often seen.

Her idioms are clearly retained from her former life - "she has to act like a wraith," Eledhwen says of Kestrel the Mary-Sue - and it's clear that her mindset is still that of Middle-earth. One of her strongest protests is at Gandalf being referred to as 'a magician' - "He is no more a magician than I am an elfling," Eledhwen declares. Later she refers, apparently entirely naturally, to the dwarves as 'the sons of Aulë'.

Of the three features which stuck out to me from this report, Eledhwen's representation is likely the most cheering. The second, unfortunately, is rather less positive, since this mission seems set to become a major part of the Kill And Scram debate.

Many years ago, the renowned Jay Thorntree was fond of the phrase 'major break in canon'. She and her partner took great care to never kill a Mary-Sue before such a break occurred - usually the Sue joining the Fellowship of the Ring. The key point was that something which happened before the story began - something which was part of the background to the plot, as it were - rarely counted as a 'major break'.

In more recent times, the guidelines Jay and Acacia followed have been stretched and bent, and this mission is a clear example of how far they can be pushed. Very little plot is seen - a Mary-Sue buys a necklace, lands in Middle-earth, and is promptly arrested. Yes, three noble dwarves have been torn from their final rest - but this took place before the story began. By the Thorntree Test, no major break has yet occurred.

In my opinion (and I am aware that the argument is raging in some corners of HQ), the problem here is that a mission, and by extension its report, is not designed simply to punish and excise bad writing: its true purpose is to show why it is a problem. Especially in a case where the spelling and grammar are (mostly) adequate, I would argue that it is essential to let the badfic run long enough for the consequences to become apparent. Why is it a problem that Mary-Sues come to Rivendell? Because they join the Fellowship of the Ring in defiance of canon. Why is it a problem that Thorin and his nephews are resurrected? We assume because they are then seduced - but because of the 'Kill And Scram' approach the agents took to this particular mission, we are not allowed to see.

Related to this debate is the question of how much of a badfic should be shown in a mission report. Christianne and Eledhwen's report gives a total of seven quotes, and a handful of narrative glosses. The rest of the badfic is conveyed entirely in the agents' commentary.

In many ways, this is a good thing. As seen in the direct quotes, there is nothing inherently interesting in the badfic's writing style, and the instances which are quoted include most of the 'bad writing causes unexpected effects' moments. The narrative glosses, and the agents' discussion, convey the majority of the plot well.

In other places, though, some more quoting would have made the difference between a good report and a great one. A notable instance is the transition between World One and Middle-earth - Eledhwen notes that 'most Sues do not take this much effort into describing their transition into Middle-earth', but we do not get to see this description, merely a summary of it. This has a negative impact on both the entertainment value of the report - is 'the sky above began to mimic a bathtub with the plug pulled' a semi-quote, or an amusing interpretation? We have no hints - and also the educational value. A report should highlight and dissect particular problems with a badfic - not merely provide an outlet for the agents' complaints.

I'm aware that I rather derailed this review into a continuation of the two parallel debates. Allow me to emphasise that these were not a primary concern in reading the report: it's only because both topics have been widely discussed in HQ that I noticed them at all. In the end, I read this report to be entertained, and I was. I was also, in places, deeply moved:

“I don’t want to go,” whimpered Kíli. Eledhwen swallowed thickly at the sight of the three suddenly-dying Dwarves. Christianne crouched at Kíli’s head, looking down at him with saddened eyes.

Many agents would have passed over this moment, both in their report and in the mission itself. It is a credit to Agents Christianne and Eledhwen that they noted, helped, and in a way mourned the passing of these canon characters. Their emotion comes through clearly in the writing, and affects the reader in the same way. This (to return to the terms of the debates above) is PPC writing at its best: the dreadful impact of the badfic is brought to the fore, and its true consequences allowed to play out. How many agents have been tempted to try and avert their favourite character's death? And yet none have done so. This is the meaning of the PPC - to understand the difference between desire and reality, between wish and will - and this mission captures it perfectly.

-T. Ryan, Dept. of Personnel, DOGA Archivist

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