The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

"Heads Down, Thumbs Up" by Gavin J. Grant: An Appreciation by Jeff VanderMeer

A story can reward on a first or second reading and then either expand in the mind or become an inert object. Or, a story can be difficult on a first reading and only reveal its true nature upon multiple readings. And sometimes the deceptively simple can have hidden depth. Such is the case with Gavin J. Grant's "Heads Down, Thumbs Up," a story that uses simple syntax to express a vastly complex idea: the shifting of metaphysical, cultural, and social boundaries, anchored by the metaphor of the physical shifting of countries. At least, that's how the general populace in the world inhabited by the child narrator has come to see the changes that occur. The brilliance of the story lies in taking what would usually be an underlying theme and making it a literal, concrete fact: gender identities, cultural norms, and much else literally change as the physical country borders change. And by doing this, the concrete fact itself takes on further metaphorical resonance, so that the setting could be our own world seen symbolically.

Grant uses hints of folktale, very specific detail, and the clear-eyed but limited viewpoint of a child to ground his story. Without the specific detail in particular, the story would fly away like a badly moored tent in torrential winds. The magic of the story for me lies in these simple moments. For example, "And then I knew what she meant, the other language coming over me like the dirty water spreading across the painting table when I knocked over my paint cup." Or when Grant describes the aftermath of violence: "She had tied a khaki shirt around her calf, and as we walked it slowly turned red, brown, black."

I've read "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" three or four times and I don't feel fully comfortable parsing its meaning. In a sense, it's the kind of story where the meaning exists in the reading of each sentence. We're not really traveling toward a destination—instead, we are leaving and arriving within each paragraph or set of paragraphs. This gives the story its power and adds a sense of reader confusion at the same time. We pass over the shifting boundaries with the narrator. We lose our confidence in our own telling of the story because of this shifting, then regain it, then lose it. We want the story to be a rigid beast, something that sits still and lets us parse it. But the genius of "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" is that it rejects this kind of reading.

Link to story.

"The Man Who Never Forgot" by Robert Silverberg: An Appreciation by Scott M. Sandridge

Silverberg's tale is about the life of a man who remembers everything, every single detail from the memory of his birth, to everything he's read and every conversation he's heard. I never had a memory as good as the protagonist, Niles, but much of what Niles felt and went through struck a painfully familiar chord in me.

"I could have been something special, he brooded, one of the wonders of the world. Instead I'm a skulking freak who lives in dingy third-floor back rooms, and I don't dare let the world know what I can do."

When I first read this story at SCI FICTION, these sentences jumped off the page and smacked me across the forehead. It was one of those epiphanies you often recieve while reading fiction, that little voice in the back of your mind that says, "Here is truth."

It may never be the "Grand Truth," but the personal truths are no less potent to the one it hits. It may not be a truth you want to hear, but it is always what you need to hear.

"I could have been something special . . ." How often did I tell myself that as I grew older? How often do people older than me tell themselves that? How often have I heard people say it during a moment of confiding?

So few of us ever allow ourselves to reach our full potential.

"He had a gift, a great gift, an awesome gift. It had been too big for him until now. Self-pitying, self-tormented, he had refused to allow for the shortcomings of the forgetful people about him and had paid the price of their hatred. But he couldn't keep running away forever. The time would have to come for him to grow big enough to contain his gift, to learn to live with it instead of moaning in dramatic
self-inflicted anguish."

Silverberg, through Niles' self-realization in this story, speaks to all of us. So throw away your self-pity and let your gifts shine through. You'll make the world a better place for it.

And thank you, SCI FICTION, for publishing a story that contains such an important truth.

Link to story.

"The Dragons of Summer Gulch" by Robert Reed: An Appreciation by Sarah Prineas

Robert Reed's "The Dragons of Summer Gulch"

Okay, I admit it. I hadn't read this story before choosing it for the ED project, and I chose it because it had the word 'dragons' in the title. Because fantasy's all about the dragons; for me, dragons represent the awesome, airborne, sense-of-wonder possible-impossibility of the fantastic. How do they manage to fly, anyway?

Here's what I liked about this story: the happy camels on leashes. The moron-genius Manmark who says, "And then my father died, and I took my inheritance, deciding to apply my wealth and genius in the pursuit of great things." The Wild West setting turned askew. The best locomotive available on short notice. The sly aboriginal girl's story-within-a-story. The eighth dragon. Everything else dragon: the fossils, the eggs, the gold-silver-platinum spleens, the Claws of God.

So obviously, this is not a review or a critique, but an appreciation of the sheer fantastical wonderfulness of this story. It's big, it's not very aerodynamic, but holy cow, it flies.

Link to story.