Well, maybe not the definitive answer. Here's what we did: We took the first sentences of five stories from July’s issue of Lightspeed Magazine (kindly provided to us in advance by John Joseph Adams) and attempted to predict the plot of each story. [Note: Ann and Rachel attempted to predict based on the first sentence alone, while Aliette, Cati, and I also looked to the title for clues.] Links to the results from the first four stories are below.
Our fifth and final story is "The Child Support of Cromdor the Condemned" by Spencer Ellsworth. It begins:
Cromdor the Caldernian, thrice-condemned, (I've forgotten the rest, but believe you me, there is thrice more) had nearly finished his tale when the traveler slipped in.
So... what's going to happen to Cromdor? Let's guess. We can do it!
(I've put a link to the full story at the end of the post.)
Our Guesses (order of authorship has been randomized):
This is the story of a deadbeat dad evading supporting his kid in the same way that he evaded capture and punishment.
Or perhaps he is a womanizer and doesn’t even know about all of the bastard children he has left behind in his life on the run and finally the process server (aka “the traveler”) has found him, thanks to a tip by a barmaid to a private investigator.
Or maybe this is like that story with Duane “The Rock” Johnson where a kid he doesn’t know exists suddenly shows up at his house and he is forced to become a dad rather just a sperm donor.
This “Cromdor” guy does not sound like someone you want to hang out with, unless you like getting into trouble.
This sounds like a story told in a bar, over a big pint of whatever they call beer. This story also must take place in a world where there aren’t so many people with the same name, so that you can say “Cromdor the Caldernian” rather than “Cromdor the Frugductorian” (or whatever) and know they are two different people, and that the name “Cromdor” is not equivalent to John or Steve.
Each of the three times Cromdor was condemned, he managed to bargain for some more time--he agreed to accept each sentence of death on a prearranged date, far in the future. Far enough that he might die accidentally before then. Except he doesn't--his executioners are supernatural and as the proverb goes, a man won't drown if he's destined to hang. Quite the contrary--his luck has been quite good, he's escaped every attempt on his life (and believe me there have been plenty, Cromdor did not make himself popular in his youth), and, now too old for all that wandering around and pillaging business, he's met a rich widow and settled into life as a prosperous innkeeper.
Tomorrow is the agreed upon day. The first of Cromdor's executioners has just come into the inn, disguised as a weary traveler, a pilgrim to the shrine a few towns away. The other two can't be far behind.
Cromdor, of course, has a plan. There are three executioners, three separate condemnations on separate occasions. Each of those executioners is determined to deprive Cromdor of breath and life. But while it was easy enough to condemn him three times, he can only be executed once.
If Cromdor plays his cards right, all he has to do is introduce all three to each other and then run. Then again, Cromdor never could just do the obvious right thing, and besides, he doesn't really want to run away, he's been enjoying the whole rich innkeeper thing too much.
I love the juxtaposition in the title. Cromdor is some muscled, greatsword-swinging hero. Evidently, he is entangled in a legal battle about child support. He is thrice-condemned not because he is evil, but because of the misjudgments and political cluelessness that go along with his barbarian attitude, perhaps even a stand on a principle of honor. And that dalliance with the fair maiden, well, what do you expect? Child support will be owed. The fair maiden knows her rights under the new statutes.
Cromdor’s tales are embellished. Of course they are! He’s relating them in a lively, torch-lit tavern of the sort where so many tales of adventure begin. But did he expect a legal adventure, with codicils and notaries public and underpayment of estimated tax? No. No, he didn’t. The traveler sees through him. Slips in. Thinks he is smarter than Cromdor.
There will be at least two clever twists and Cromdor will win partly but not entirely by luck, happily ever after, and the child will be supported. Cromdor may still be condemned, but the punishment need not fall. He’s in a different jurisdiction now, and they cancelled the extradition treaty after that dust-up about the eighty-year-old mining claims from the Aldunian League.
For the traveler and the maiden I foresee a mixed resolution, with both consolations and regrets.
The notary public will be the only one who gets exactly what is expected.
Aliette de Bodard:
Guessing this is going to be a humorous story in a Sword and Sorcery world. I'm guessing Cromdor is some kind of barbarian, and he will find in the course of the story that one of the maidens he's slept with has a child and wants him to take the child along on his adventuring.
Stipulation: I know a little bit about this story because I interviewed Spencer Ellsworth for my blog so I’m going further afield here than I would natively.
The traveler has news of a quest! The quest is to defeat a dragon. But when they reach the dragon, it turns out that this is a portal fantasy instead. The dragon is actually something technological from the future—a war robot or something. The traveler ventures through the future, giving us glimpses of both the perspective of his own past world and this future one, and then discovers that there is actually a dragon in the future. It is an alien invasion of dragon-like evil things. The war robots are dispatched, but it’s up to Cromdor and his companion to go back to the portal and bring back other barbarians and warriors from their fantasy realm because no one knows more about how to fight dragons than epic fantasy folks.
Also, his tale from the beginning that he was telling at the tavern, is relevant somehow.
We mostly agree: Cromdor is a well-muscled barbarian fighter, and he tells his tale in a tavern. That’s already kind of an interesting consensus, since neither of those facts is explicitly mentioned or directly inferable, yet somehow the author has effectively triggered those standard fantasy tropes. Also, we mostly to agree that this will be a humorous story (there’s already a joking tone in the first parenthesis), that the child support will have something to do with sexual exploits in Cromdor’s former life of adventure, and that probably that there will be some cleverness and unexpected twists.
Further Thoughts from the Contributors:
What I like about this line by Swirsky:
The alliterative name catches attention. It also gives a clue about what the reader can expect in the story because the name so specifically evokes a genre. The parenthetical establishes some humorous tone, and a particular narrative style. Then there’s a traditional movement “the traveler slipped in and did what?”
Diagnosis of our guesses (warning: SPOILERS) by Schwitzgebel:
What we got right: The stuff we mostly agreed on, we got right: Cromdor is a barbarian, he’s telling stories of past glory in a tavern, he owes child support from his wild past days of bedding maidens. The story is humorous and clever. I was right that the laws are changing and Cromdor is caught up in them, that the condemnations don’t fall for jurisdictional reasons, and that the child is supported at the end – and there’s even something about a mining rights!
What we got wrong: Contra Porter, Cromdor is good at heart (despite dubious morals). Contra Leckie, it’s not mostly about Cromdor evading his death sentences. Contra me, the traveler is the child himself, not an attorney or scammer, and the child ends up supported more in a sweet and symbolic way than in a monetary way. Contra de Bodard, the child doesn’t seek adventure. Contra Swirsky, no portals, and ice giants instead of dragons.
The first sentence clearly activates some standard fantasy tropes, but then the term “child support” in the title doesn’t fit with those standard tropes, suggesting a kind of cultural change toward legalism and recognition of women’s and children’s rights. We are invited to think that the traveler at the end of the first sentence introduces the factor that breaks Cromdor out of the fantasy world – both the fantasy world of his tales of adventure and the world of the swords-and-sorcery fantasy culture in general. A lot of good setup work in just one sentence!
Group grade: 70%.
Coming Soon: Did We Learn Anything from This Preposterous Exercise or Does Our Ignorance Remain Divinely Unspoiled?