Carnage and Consequences by Marc Tassin, editor
Published by Walkabout Publishing
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
For the most part, writing is a lonely business. The writer works in isolation, pounding out manuscripts and sending them to one market after another, hoping to find someone interested in publishing them. Sometimes it feels like you're pushing stories into a slot on one side of a black box and waiting for responses -- the longed-for acceptance or the far more common rejection -- to come out the other end. And then we're left puzzling why the story we think is wonderful gets rejected time after time.
Things aren't quite as bad now that we have the Internet to tie us together. We can go online, run a Google search for "writers' groups" or "writers' workshops" and find dozens of communities where writers can get together online and exchange war stories of editorial peculiarities and the woes of the submission process, or read and critique one another's manuscripts.
But there's still something special about the opportunity for meeting face to face, to talk shop in realtime, and to critique in a group setting. Conventions are one opportunity for such meetings, and as the world's largest gaming convention, GenCon provides just such an opportunity.
This anthology grew from the annual GenCon Writers' Symposium, bringing together a number of stories that were workshopped there. As such, they represent a wide variety of experience levels, from well-known professionals to up-and-coming beginners.
The first story, "Jed and the Titanium Turtle," is the work of Michael A. Stackpole, who has written a number of novels in the Battletech game universe as well as his own original fiction. This story concerns an alien invasion and is told from the point of view of the people in a small town somewhere in the Midwest, within driving distance of Omaha. As a result it is told in skate, that is, the vernacular dialect rather than the literary language of transparent prose.
The Eillyaar don't come as the usual overwhelming conquerors in the tradition of H G Wells and The War of the Worlds. Instead they are very selective in who becomes the targets of their military might -- North Korea, various Middle Eastern dictatorships, other troublemakers on the international scene. And they provide wonderful things like cancer cures, for a small fee of course. So a lot of people are seeing them as saviors rather than conquerors.
It's interesting that the first sign of trouble should be the dislike that dogs take to them. Dogs can often tell when someone means ill to their humans, and I've heard many stories of people whose dog responded with hostility to a new boyfriend or a repairman, and only later discovered the individual had a criminal history.
And then Jed becomes convinced that the cancer center is one in another sense of the word. Nobody takes him seriously, since he has PTSD from his wartime experience, but when he starts talking about blowing things up, people start getting worried. By this time, the evidence is beginning to build that the Eillyaar are up to something sinister, but most people have concluded that humanity is so badly outclassed that there's no point antagonizing aliens who've done us so much good. But sometimes it only takes a spark to shake people out of their go along to get along complacency.
Jean Rabe's "By Thy Rivers" is almost mainstream or literary fiction, with little or no overt speculative content. It's the story of a woman who comes to Utica, Illinois to visit her parents' graves, and ends up falling in love with the town.
In "The Rider" Mary Lou Eklund gives us a ghost story of a family tragedy echoing through the generations. Many years ago a man had left his son with a local family and returned to his family homeplace to take care of business. But he never made it, for the river was in flood and both he and his horse were swallowed up and drowned. Ever after his ghost has haunted the river, attracted to boys who long for an absent or deceased father, and unwittingly drawing them to their doom in his vain effort to find his son. when the protagonist's longing for his soldier father entangles him in this ghost's hopeless quest, his ailing grandmother hatches a plan to lay the ghost to rest for good, and in the process to free herself from a life that's become a burden to her.
Matt Forbeck's "Goblintown Justice" takes us to a magical realm ruled by an ancient and powerful dragon. The protagonist's a member of the Imperial Dragon's Guard, a magical police force, and comes upon a murder. It takes him on an unpleasant journey into the seamy side of an extraordinary city.
Most of us are familiar with the term character assassination for smear tactics that damage a person's reputation and make it difficult for them to function in society. In the story of that title, Kelly Swails gives us a story of two assassins with a very peculiar relationship.
Jennifer Brozek takes us to Viking Scandanavia in "Asta's Choice," the story of a young girl who wants to fight alongside her father and brother. And then the war goddess appears before her and tells her that she must choose whether her father or her brother will die in battle. And there will be no weaseling out -- if she refuses to choose, both perish. It's a dark and painful story, yet the conclusion is all too right psychologically.
In "Days of the Shadows" Donald J. Bingle gives us a historical fantasy of Javan folk belief colliding with Western colonial expansion. The protagonist is torn between two worlds, until the day a natural disaster sweeps away his familiar life and makes his choices for him.
Anton Strout's "'tique" takes us to a world where technology and magic blend, where minds can be adjusted by powerful magicians. Yet much like cosmetic surgery in the Primary world, it doesn't always turn out quite like people intend.
Clowns are supposed to be figures of fun, yet there's a peculiar scary undertone to them that has led to some very scary circus stories. In "Circus di Bella" Wes Nicholson gives us a story of a divorced father who's taken his kids to the circus for a day's amusement. They're old enough that he let them look around on their own instead of staying together as a family group, but now he's beginning to wonder if that decision was a big mistake. When he goes to the manager, he discovers a very ugly secret.
Linda P. Baker's "Vicarious Dreams" is another dark story with a circus theme, only in this one the troubled protagonist belongs to the circus. As it moves from town to town he roams the countryside in search of the woman who haunts his dreams. He's certain that if he can just find the right one, he can put and end to both their torments -- but so far his bloody trail has brought him only frustration.
In "Time War: Second Front" Stephen D. Sullivan gives us the story of a century-old elven diplomat thrust into an interdimensional war between Order and Chaos. The respective gods have been plucking people from a multitude of universes to fight for the cosmic prize. It makes me recall the Peter Davison Dr. Who episode "Enlightenment," in which the Dark and Light Guardians were holding a space yacht race in which mysterious beings known as Eternals were competing for the titular prize, which was supposed to take them to the next level and give meaning to their endless existence. However, although the character of the Professor does seem reminiscent of the Doctor, maybe to the point of being a roman a clef standin for the copyrighted intellectual property, the rest of the story feels more like one of those giant multi-universe crossovers you see in comics sometimes. Part of it may be the sense I get that a number of the characters in this story are from other existing stories, and that I might enjoy the story even more if only I'd read those stories.
Dylan Birtolo takes us to feudal Japan for "The Consequences of Honor," the story of a samurai who has been commanded by his daimyo to capture the kami that is believed to be responsible for a certain village's crop yields. Such an act would be a grave sacrilege, yet the protagonist is honor-bound to obey. In this story we see the living embodiment of the old Japanese saying: "Duty is heavier than a mountain, and death is lighter than a feather."
The practice of slavery has cast a long and ugly shadow across the history of the Americas. In "Of the Seas I Dream" Maurice Broaddus tells the story of a man who's escaped his chains and taken up arms as a pirate against the slave-trading great powers of the time. But a pirate ship is a desperate place, and soon the crew takes to quarreling among themselves, with disastrous results. When they cast one of their number onto a deserted island and it mysteriously vanishes, it seems that they have descended into some strange form of hell. It's a dark tale, and even the narrator's survival is not entirely a happy ending.
The final story is editor Marc Tassin's "Mage Stalker," the story of Teer who has taken on a mission that is just a little more than she bargained for. The mechanics of the story are good, but I'm left with this awkward feeling of reading the log of a role-playing game episode polished into a story. I'd really like to see an expansion of Teer's story to ground it in some more in-depth worldbuilding and sense of character, so that it feels like a lived-in world and the sound of dice rolling doesn't echo in the background.
This volume is concluded by an about the author section that goes beyond the usual biographical facts to dig into the process of story development. These stories behind the stories are a fine antidote to the common notion that stories burst fully-formed from the writer's mind, needing only to be put into writing. The creative process takes some strange and often frustrating turns before it reaches the final product, and there are times when the published story bears little resemblance to what the author originally set forth to write.
Table of Contents
- "Jed and the Titanium Turtle" by Michael A. Stackpole
- "By Thy Rivers" by Jean Rabe
- "The Rider" by Mary Louise Eklund
- "Goblintown Justice" by Matt Forbeck
- "Character Assassination" by Kelly Swails
- "Asta's Choice" by Jennifer Brozek
- "Day of the Shadows" by Donald J Bingle
- "'tique" by Anton Stout
- "Circus di Bella" by Wes Nicholson
- "Time War: Second Front" by Stephen D. Sullivan
- "The Consequences of Honor" by Dylan Birtolo
- "Of the Seas, I Dream" by Maurice Broaddus
- "Mage Stalker" by Marc Tassin
- About the Authors and Stories
Review posted August 20, 2012.
Buy Carnage & Consequences: Stories from the Gen Con Writer's Symposium Authors from Amazon.com