'Heads Down, Thumbs Up' by Gavin J Grant.
NH: I suppose the first thing I would say is that I think this is one of my favourite short stories of the year so far. Despite the fact that I don't understand it.
CM: Yes, me too.
NH: It really demonstrates how much worldbuilding you can cram into 5000 words if you try, and the images in it are really sticking to my brain.
CM: *nod* It's interesting how he works on the very edges of what we know from fairy tales. Fairy tales being probably the first place in which a child learns about tragedies. Famine, death, all those things.
NH: But I'm not sure it really feels like a fairy tale. And I think that's where my understanding falls down a bit--I try to map what happens to some story I already know, or one of the stories mentioned, but fail.
CM: I don't think you are really supposed to be able to map it, I think you are supposed to try and fail. None of the references to the wolves, the apples, the witch in the oven quite map to what we know. And we as readers try to force the logic--well, maybe not force, but I think it helps to keep the story nagging at us, because we want to put all the pieces together.
NH: And they won't fit. Very interesting point--I'll come back to that! But we should explain what the story is actually about. It's a fantasy, set in a world where the borders between countries move. And when you cross the border, you literally think differently. There's a great line about how the protagonist feels the change in language in his head.
NH: "Like dirty water spreading across the painting table when I knocked over my paint cup."
CM: Yeah. But it's not just think different, you are different.
NH: Well, you think different first and then become different because you're thinking different, I would say. It's not an instantaneous change.
CM: Point. If I were going to say what the story was about, I'd quote this bit:
I was eleven and I knew what borders did. I could have told them, but no one wanted to listen. I knew they didn't have to go around digging ditches and shouting about parents and blood and our party, their party. They could have changed the flag, washed the windows, and gotten ready for the army's visit. They made me angry. I'm just a boy, I thought. I understand. Why don't they?
NH: What do you think he means when he says that he knows what the borders do?
CM: The changes in people, in the rules.
NH: So do you think he means that the adults literally don't understand, for whatever reason? Or that they understand but ignore it?
CM: I don't know that he understands that there is another option other than accepting.
NH: Ah, right. That makes sense.
CM: At one point he says 'listening to her, I realize the cake, the apple, the hard black and white liquorice mints, any and all of these will be enough to make me climb into the oven.' And I don't know if it is a turning point for him, but I think it epitomizes how he can't do anything but accept the changes.
NH: Is that how you read the ending--that he accepts? I was trying to decide whether or not he retains the self-belief he picked up during the story.
CM: I'm not sure. The first time he gets punched, the judgement that he was foolish comes from within, the second time it comes from without. And it seems like he is trying to resist the language change, but I'm not really sure.
NH: OK, different question: is one country better than the other, or are they both fairly dystopic?
CM: I don't think one country is better than the other. I think his parents are a mixed marriage though. I think his mother is from the country where the women are strong and that's why she hid from the father the son was going to the Long Forest. I think she wanted him to stay on that side of the border. Also the father's stories of growing up where there are no adults are not so very nice.
NH: He also says something like 'Dad's rubbish in this country' at one point. And I was going to bring up the gender roles. Call the first country A and the second country B. Which country is Ms Matchless from? I was thinking country A.
CM: Which country has the Long Forest? That one.
NH: Country B has the Long Forest, but doesn't she work against country B by taking the kids back to the border?
CM: I think she only does that because another border has crossed into the forest, so it isn't really country B any more. I don't think they would have left if that hadn't happened.
NH: Ah! Now I feel stupid. There's a third country, isn't there.
NH: And the third one is where the girls are stronger, but if Ms Matchless is from country B it still makes sense that she'd take them back to the border.
CM: And at the end their town becomes C or possibly some other country. "A thought settles inside me: she is not Ms. Matchless, but she is a girl: she is strong."
NH: I wasn't sure whether that was him holding on to something he learnt during the story, or a new axiom. If the last border change is B->C it makes sense as that axiom reasserting itself; but then the teacher's name change suggests it's B->A.
CM: But I think you can read the last change as him thinking she will be Mrs Black. But you never really know, because she doesn't actually write her new name.
NH: Oh! You're right again. So the last question, I guess, is what the point of the story is. Just a thought-experiment about changing gender assumptions? Or something more specific? And this is where I'd go back to your point about us not being meant to understand.
CM: Hmmm I don't really think the gender issues are that important. I think that's mostly meant to add a level of strangeness. I think at least partly it's about what life is like in a disputed territory. What do you do to live. And maybe that goes to the lesson of Ms. Matchless at the end--everyone else accepts the changes but she has no name except in her own country.
NH: I think you've pretty much put your finger on it. And I think it deliberately avoids mapping too closely to the real world.
CM: It's possibly also about growing up in general--he's very sure at the beginning that he Understands, that everything is clear, and at the end I think things have become somewhat clouded.
NH: Yes--"It's night in my head." Although I did assume that the differences in gender roles were in some way driving the conflict.
CM: Possibly, the women seem to be the ones injured, but I'm not really feeling it tie into the story all that much.
NH: Maybe I'm just reading too much into that side of things then.
CM: You've read 'Boys' by Carol Emshwiller?
NH: No. I know I should.
CM: Heh. I was going to offer that as a counter example of where the sex differentiation feels important to the story. Here's another question--I know the title is a choosing game but I've never really worked out how it relates to the story.
NH: I think I'm missing a cultural reference here. This page has 'heads up, thumbs up'.
CM: Yes, that is the game exactly. I'm just wondering if that was really intended to mean something in some way or not.
NH: Well, there's the way people change roles. And the way the rules are kind of arbitrary and seem a bit pointless. ;-)
CM: That's what society is--pointless arbitrary rules. Else how could we tell them from us?
NH: Well, exactly. I think that justifies the title, though. And we should probably try to have some kind of conclusion now.
CM: Girls are better than boys?
NH: I was going to say that we'd kinda already decided on our conclusion when we decided it was one of the best stories of the year so far, but that now we've justified that conclusion by exploring the ways the story works. But we could go with your idea instead. Yes, girls are better than boys: The End.