“I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” or How to Succeed in Both Offending and Encouraging Readers

clarkesworld

Cover image for issue 160 of Clarkesworld Magazine – Zarrio by Edwardo Garcia

UPDATE – January 18-2020: Fortunately someone archived the original story, so it is preserved, even though Clarkesworld it offline.

UPDATE – January 16, 2020: This story has been pulled from publication by the magazine, and the rationale can be found here!

On twitter, I happened across a tweet by Cora Buhlert. It was referencing a story written by Isabel Fall for Clarkesworld Magazine called I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter. Actually, I saw that Buhlert was referencing a twitter conversation of someone called The 1000 Year Plan (actually a Marxist blogger named “Gary” who announces personal pronouns as “he/him”) commenting on Fall’s story.

As you can guess, he didn’t like it.

What got my attention first is that Gary tweeted:

All of the comments are absurdly over-the-top praise that appeared almost immediately after the story was published. There are way more of these than is normal for a Clarkesworld story.

I looked at the story and couldn’t see any comments anywhere. Slightly earlier, Gary tweeted:

The most telling comment – “I feel bad for any new author publishing their first short this year, they don’t have a chance at a new author Hugo, this is it right here” has me concerned that these people are looking to troll the Hugos again.

Shades of the Sad Puppies, is that level of paranoia still running around, especially after whoever runs the Hugos fixed it so there couldn’t be a repeat of the previous “incident?”

As my long time readers know, my personal opinion is that going forward, only authors who have certain political and social attributes, and only those who write the same are even going to be considered for a Hugo. It doesn’t come down to the quality of the writing as such, but the “wokeness” of the author and the story.

So enough is enough. I read Fall’s story. I didn’t take it the same way as I think the folks on twitter did.

First of all, the main character didn’t say she “identified as an attack helicopter” the way Caitlin Jenner says she identifies as a woman. It was actually unclear in the tale (for me anyway) just how much of Seo Ji Hee’s personality was infused in the “Barb” helicopter. She says in part:

Before my assignment neurosurgery, they made me sit through (I could bear to sit, back then) the mandatory course on Applied Constructive Gender Theory. Slouched in a fungus-nibbled plastic chair as transparencies slid across the cracked screen of a De-networked Briefing Element overhead projector: how I learned the technology of gender.

This suggests that the character doesn’t just give mental/emotional ascent to being an “attack helicopter,” but that an actual physical/technological transformation occurred.

She further states:

If gender has always been a construct, then why not construct new ones?

My gender networks have been reassigned to make me a better AH-70 Apache Mystic pilot. This is better than conventional skill learning. I can show you why.

Look at a diagram of an attack helicopter’s airframe and components. Tell me how much of it you grasp at once.

Now look at a person near you, their clothes, their hair, their makeup and expression, the way they meet or avoid your eyes. Tell me which was richer with information about danger and capability. Tell me which was easier to access and interpret.

The gender networks are old and well-connected. They work.

In the seeming symbiosis between pilot and machine, where does one stop and the other start? That appears to be the point of the story.

“Barb” talks about when she used to be a woman and now she’s something else. She doesn’t talk a lot about what life is like for her now when she’s not piloting the helicopter.

There are any number of science fiction tales written over the past fifty years or so that explore the interconnectedness of biology and technology. Cyborgs are one example, and yes, how much of a person’s body parts do you replace before that person starts to think of themselves as “more machine now than man,” to quote Obi Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) when referencing Darth Vader?

What about stories where a person is physically/psychically linked to their ship? Are they a person piloting a vessel or is the vessel their (extended) body and are they flying that body through space?

It’s an interesting question, and one I think the author is bringing up in this missive. The difference here is that it’s affecting the protagonist’s sense of gender identity.

I remember being a woman. I remember it the way you remember that old, beloved hobby you left behind. Woman felt like my prom dress, polyester satin smoothed between little hand and little hip. Woman felt like a little tic of the lips when I was interrupted, or like teasing out the mood my boyfriend wouldn’t explain. Like remembering his mom’s birthday for him, or giving him a list of things to buy at the store, when he wanted to be better about groceries.

I was always aware of being small: aware that people could hurt me. I spent a lot of time thinking about things that had happened right before something awful. I would look around me and ask myself, are the same things happening now? Women live in cross-reference. It is harder work than we know.

Now I think about being small as an advantage for nape-of-earth maneuvers and pop-up guided missile attacks.

Now I yield to speed walkers in the hall like I need to avoid fouling my rotors.

This sequence highlights the differences she experiences when “transitioning” from a woman to a helicopter, and then afterward, what it’s like to be outside the chopper but still feel like she has “rotors.”

I can see how mixed up things could get.

Look, you can read the story for yourself by clicking the link above. It’s free.

So what’s the big deal? Why all the terrific angst?

Oh, I can understand, at least up to a point. The transgender community has been making strides in being recognized and legitimized by the wider human population. So much so, that it becomes highly offensive in certain demographic circles to “misgender” someone (going back to Gary’s “he/him”) or to in anyway shape or form, deny or even question that a person born into one physical sex can perceive themselves as a different gender and demand that be an established reality for everyone in their environment (and given the Internet, that environment is now world wide).

In many circles, transgenderism and gender fluidity have become the norm, the status quo for the larger population, sometimes out of sincere ascent, and sometimes out of fear of being identified a “transphobic” bigot.

But the history of science fiction is replete with challenges to the status quo. It was only a matter of time until speculative fiction would “take on” the question of transgender and gender fluidity. Science Fiction, like comedy, is the art of talking about topics in a way the world doesn’t want to see and confront, even if some people get offended.

apache

Apache Attack Helicopter AH-64D/E – USAASC – Found at https://asc.army.mil

I mean, just look at Ricky Gervais and his opening monologue at the much vaunted Golden Globe Awards last Sunday. Right?

I looked up the statistics, and the best estimates say that about 0.6 percent of the US population identifies as transgender. An interesting “status quo,” since that means 99.4 percent of the US population does not identify as transgender. That means 99.4 percent of the US population, the vast, vast majority, are perfectly okie dokey with their biological sex mapping totally to their perceived gender identity.

Okay, minority populations have rights, too. I’m not advocating going out and disrespecting a transgender or gender fluid person just because they represent a tiny, tiny percentage of the wider population. I certainly don’t advocate violence against anyone based on their gender identity, and I don’t support the idea of damaging someone to the point of clinical depression and suicide by harassing such individuals.

I also don’t believe Isabel Fall is doing any of that in her story. Yes, she is exploring the concept of gender as a construct rather than something inborn (which it seems to be for most of us). Yes, she’s talking out loud about gender as a construct and putting it right in front of the reader’s nose.

If you can’t be open, honest, and transparent about controversial topics, if you have to hide and cloak them behind polite euphemisms, couch them in carefully constructed phrases and labels for fear of offending anyone, I suspect that means something has gone wrong. You can’t know a person and their identity and attributes by not asking questions and being forthright. I think that’s what Fall is doing with her story.

Guess what?

I finally found the comments link to the story. As I write this, there are 18 comments. Let’s have a look.

The first comment was:

Oh, man. This story did something new, and was also pretty brilliant in each and every paragraph. Who is this Isobel Fall person?

Doesn’t seem terribly offensive, and I asked the same question. I came up with exactly zip in a Google search, leading me to believe that Fall is a pen name. I suspect the author saw the “shit storm” that was heading his/her way and decided to put a pseudonym between him/her and his/her critics.

Skipping around, the fourth comment said:

That was absolutely unique. Questioning and interpreting today’s themes with the possibilities of technology advance is one of the main tools of science fiction, and this story does it as brilliantly as some of the greatest classical authors of the genre. It’s a tradition that comes from decades of awesome writers. C. Clarke and Asimov would be proud. The questions the narrator asks to the reader directly are razor sharp and they hit us deep, mostly in the ones who have closed a mind or who rarely think about these questions. I do hope to come across more of Isabel Fall’s writings in the future!

You see, this was my point as well (see above). Challenging the linguistic barriers that shroud the topic of transgenderism is at the heart of speculative fiction. So I’m not alone in my perception.

The sixth comment declared:

“When you imagine the innocent dead, who do you see?”

Amazing. Not only have you created a masterwork of fiction, you’ve uplifted the LGBTQ community by giving us such fantastic representation through your writing’s excellence. The themes you explore are mind-bending, novel, and page-turning. I can’t rave about you enough.

Please, PLEASE keep writing this brilliant stuff. I can’t wait to see more.

I don’t know if this person is a member of the LGBTQ community, though it seems he (the first name used is typically male) might be. If so, then Fall’s wee story did not appear to offend.

Of 18 comments, only number 17 was dissenting:

This entire story read like a long, mean joke about gender identity, and the over-the-top comments are confirming that. Gross.

However, the 18th comment:

“This entire story read like a long, mean joke about gender identity.”

So?

[1] That doesn’t make it any less artful or clever. In fact, the story does what good science fiction is supposed to do.

James Tiptree’s SF is mostly a long, mean joke about biological determinism, for instance. The Pohl and Kornbluth stories of the 1950s are a long, mean joke about American capitalism.

Good SF doesn’t have safe spaces.

[2] Because what if what the story proposes is actually possible? Then maybe the joke is inbuilt into our — and certainly your — concepts of gender identity, to begin with.

“Good SF doesn’t have safe spaces.” I think that’s going to be my new motto. Thanks for that, Mark Pontin.

On Gary’s twitter conversation, Camestros Felapton, who I follow on twitter and his blog, and who has occasionally commented here on my blog, said:

It is very curious and the comments are over the top and also odd.

This caused me to briefly consider that the complementary comments on the Clarkesworld story might have been faked by trolls. Then again, given the amount of policing I do with comments on my wee blog, I can only imagine a platform such as Clarkesworld must seriously vet each comment before they allow it to be published.

Which means, in spite of the concerns expressed by Gary and some of the people responding to him, there are others who see Fall’s story in a different light, one that is revolutionary and perhaps evolutionary, rather than “a long, mean joke about gender identity.”

In this case, I think the author intended the story to be controversial and provocative in order to push people past the politically correct threshold. It was to get them to truly examine their assumptions, or the assumptions foisted upon them by others, including other social groups with real or perceived status.

If Isabel Fell, or whoever he/she is, succeeded in writing (and Clarkesworld in publishing) “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter,” it was because he/she wasn’t afraid to take on a social “sacred cow” and tip it flat on its side. That’s what at least some realms of science fiction are all about.

Oh, in doing research for this article, I came across something called Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man written by Maria Popova. I’ve enjoyed some of Le Guin’s books, and only a fool would deny her inestimable influence in the world of science fiction. But in this case, I believe she was overthinking her concept. For 99.4 percent of us in the United States, it’s just not that complicated.

15 thoughts on ““I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” or How to Succeed in Both Offending and Encouraging Readers

  1. Very interesting. The most tendentious element I see is the titular evocation of sexuality in relation to a technological device which does not reproduce itself. Thus its considerations of bodily and functional identity are cluttered with irrelevancies. But of course these were necessary to the story’s purpose of tweaking the nose of the human gender re-assignment arguments. An interesting musing evoked by the notion of fusion between human and machine is about what is to become of the memories of human functionalities that are no longer relevant to the new technological body. Effectively a formerly human intelligence has become a machine intelligence, an alien intelligence whose sensations and reactions are adapted to their alternative bodily environment. I seem to recall once reading an earlier story which also dealt with this notion of a human transitioning into a mechanical system, but I cannot recall the details.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sure there’s been more than one story on the topic of transitioning from biological to machine. As far as reproduction goes, there are large segments of society that see sex as primarily for pleasure and, for the most part, avoid using it for reproduction, so a machine that feels “sexual” but doesn’t reproduce may not occur to some as being odd. Besides all that, the author had another point to make, relative to “gender as a construct” rather than gender and biological sex being consistently mapped within a person’s identity. She took it one step further stating that if gender can be a social construct rather than inborn and innate, why can’t we construct gender technologically, totally opening up the playing field? It’s a way to get past the current rhetoric and delve into just what you could do with gender if you imagine it is totally malleable. As you might imagine, some folks disagree. I posted a link to this article on twitter and one of the responses was “Gross.”

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      • well, if the notion of “sexuality” is viewed as a characterization of pleasure seeking, which can be directed at any desired object — be it a human of the same gender or some other sort of gender, or possibly a child or a domesticated animal — perhaps the “sexuality” of an attack helicopter would be the pleasure its intelligence might derive from destroying targets with its weaponry. That would, of course, need to be a rather sociopathic and destructive motivation, which is rather contrary to human sexuality.

        Human sexual pleasure is intended to be a positive motivator to engage in sexual activity that has a high probability of inducing reproduction that supports the continued survival of the human species. It also encourages the formation of pair-bonds that increase the probability of repeated pleasurable engagements and of lengthened durations of familial bonds that improve the likelihood that offspring will survive and continue the propagation of the species.

        If pleasure-seeking is decoupled from reproductive pair-bonding, it loses any social meaning and becomes effectively mere self-stimulation. It may then revert to uncivilized, predatory forms — not unlike the way the function of eating often operates in the wild. Contrary to this sort of view, even pair-bonding that fails to achieve reproduction still may accomplish socialization and civilization which contribute to species survival.

        This is merely a simple anthropological analysis. If we wish to analyze theoretical non-human “gender” constructs, we may do so in fiction; but I’m not sure that this exercise has any applicability to the genders of humankind. Human gender is determined genetically, not behaviorally. Human behavior can be complex; and it may be linked beneficially to genetic gender, or it may ignore those genders and produce other consequences.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. As an update, I posted a link to this blog post on a science fiction Facebook group and received general condemnation. I did invite the admins (not that they’d need my permission) to delete the post if they felt it was outside of their policies and standards. They didn’t but then again, maybe they were taking the weekend off.

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  3. On another note, it is a habit — or the conviction — of a computer-educated [with multiple degrees and well-employed for decades] individual in my life to respond to the fact that humans reproduce, in his stubbornness and enthusiasm, if not obtuseness, that machines will reproduce (create more machines or machinery).

    I haven’t read your story, yet, but the title strikes me as funny. I have a son who apparently reads at reddit too much and has told me people are putting such things on their birth certificates (or arguing that they ought to be able to — I find it difficult to believe anyone really thinks this is happening). I’ve told him it’s not real.

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    • I now see it’s not one of your own short stories. (Thus, for one thing, it wasn’t an attempt, on your part, to be politically/conservatively-correct, nor an outgrowth of said positioning.) I’ve begun reading it, but can’t finish it right now as I have someplace to be soon. I’m finding it interesting reading, so far. And a key meaning, therein, seems to involve connection of the urinary tract (which we know is somewhat familiar for astronauts and others even if this has not previously been characterized as altering gender). The urinary tract sure is tied in with human sexuality — the biology aspect. I will add, at this time, that conversation in these respects has had sex, gender, and sexual orientation as different subjects. Now, I have to stop typing… as this is where “things” seem to get complicated.

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    • You (James) said: I looked up the statistics, and the best estimates say that about 0.6 percent of the US population identifies as transgender. An interesting “status quo,” since that means 99.4 percent of the US population does not identify as transgender. That means 99.4 percent of the US population, the vast, vast majority, are perfectly okie dokey with their biological sex mapping totally to their perceived gender identity.

      ……………………………………………………….

      … in doing research for this article, I came across something called Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man {*} written by Maria Popova. I’ve enjoyed some of Le Guin’s books, and only a fool would deny her inestimable influence in the world of science fiction. But in this case, I believe she was overthinking her concept. For 99.4 percent of us in the United States, it’s just not that complicated.

      I read the article, at https://getpocket.com/explore/item/ursula-k-le-guin-on-being-a-man *

      I don’t get, from that, the sense Ursula was one of the 0.6 percent, or even in the margin(s).

      I take from it that she was a woman of a certain timeframe, or kind of influence; for instance a generation that took to heart the need for broad shoulders (in people of repute or people who go about their days being listened to whether privately or at the local shop or in a corporate office), literally… such that suit jackets had overdone pads. [To one extent or another, various women still deal with such factors in varied ways.] Remember, also, the idea that the best body for a woman was sometimes said to be that of a twelve-year-old boy (at least a boy was male)? Ursula indicated she maybe could get ahead of the curve in her old age and be what she, in fact, was, an old woman (not “created” yet — or recognized — but perhaps creatable even if she did miss the boat when younger women were created or “invented” with a significant marketing campaign). Acknowledged gender biases, or not being totally okie-doky, isn’t equal to being transgender. Now… I recall, at another moment, you lamented, maybe lightly, character lines noted in men but not [as contrasted to be plain old wrinkles] in women. (I’ve paraphrased.)

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    • Thank you for the update, James.

      I can appreciate a transgendered person coopting habits, or choices, of language that have been used pejoratively — coopting in order to create, rather, a more useful allegory so as to further understanding. Doing so could also redirect, given a bit of time, much of the (often online) heated meanness, instead, toward a more structured consideration of realities in biology… and maybe biotech… I mean, we have been learning a lot since discovering chromosomes as well as rethinking imposed surgical interventions at birth or in childhood (I’m not sure when such torture was most prevalent, or if it still is, but it is losing favor — even while adult choice, for said self-same adult, is gaining favor or acceptance… sometimes as a remediation for earlier harm).

      I think the story started strong. At some point, I was a little lost as to the point or added meaning. I don’t know if that’s because I’m not transgender (or lgbtqi in any way), and thus would never get it, or because the story could be written or developed more carefully.

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  4. I speak a lot about the Law of Attraction. I even have a FB page designated to that topic. Today, I went to a comment on my home FB page and saw the first really bad reaction to a comment I wrote about LofA. He said, yes, how well it worked for the holocaust victims. I was just a bit stunned. I knew the answer I had for that type of question (I had to in order to believe in myself), but I could not find the words to answer to that horrible statement, one that would not open doors into hate and all from, perhaps, hundreds. I did tell him how it worked for me and I refused to argue the point. So, I understand how all this comes about. I admire people who take on lions…but lions can be tough!
    Scott

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    • In keeping with the saying: “Please check your assumptions at the door.”, I noted the multiple levels of assumption and ignorance and misinterpretation represented by each of the characters featured in this video clip. But the element that may be extracted as applicable to the present discussion is the one that ignorantly objects to transgender assertions and, indeed, the entire set of misanthropic deviations represented in the GLBTQ social movement. As such, it is comparable to numerous comments posted on social media of various kinds, many of which are just as thoughtless or ignorant and some are merely expressions of blind hatred. The Jewish lessons about the dangers of “sinat ‘hinam” and “lashon ha-r’a” are well-taken to ignore such things insofar as possible in the moment of encounter and to combat them with education subsequently.

      I went back to re-read James’ updated essay above, and pondered the conflict which the scifi story evokes to provoke some objective consideration. The title of the story was, of course, tendentious by invoking the confusion that arises in the linkage between human sexuality and gender. But one can look at the question from a bit greater distance, and coolly and rationally, to recognize the linguistic base of the word “gender” as meaning a “kind” or “type”. In that sense, it is not unlike what we think of when we use the word “species”. Hence what “transgender” people are actually seeking is to cease being fully human, or human at all, but to reinvent themselves as some other kind of being — not unlike the non-human attack-helicopter of this story which need not concern itself with the problems and challenges of being human any longer. Of course, the closer this other form of being resembles a human, the greater the challenge of fitting into human social structures including those surrounding the civilization of human sexuality. I’m reminded of some episodes of StarTrek TNG in which the android Commander Data sought to understand and emulate human behavior including sexuality, and even reproduction in the sense of exploring the concept of “parenting” another new android that he constructed; as well as the new android’s challenges of choosing and adopting a simulated form of one human gender and trying to learn how to emulate its associated social signaling. The disaffection of a “transgender” individual from his or her native gender and sexuality is, of course, complicated by that inescapable native biology; and no doubt it contributes to the vehemence or adamancy by which he or she attempts to sever that native connection. The challenge for the 99.4% majority of humans remains a question of how to cope with that tiny percentage of misanthropic individuals and their desperate behavior to escape their human bondage. We don’t really wish to be “unkind”, but if they choose to act like attack-helicopters we may have no choice but to defend ourselves by shooting them down.

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      • Ha-hm-hm-hm. The attack helicopter meme really is problematic. I agree with you. I followed the links James has provided, such that I found at least one example (perhaps an early example) of someone (among those who want to “own the” libs) comparing transgender people to humans wanting to be helicopters or whatever else. My youngest son — this was years ago now as a senior in high school — was overly concerned, because he believed such people (these particular righties or agitators), that there were states beginning to let individuals choose things like ferrel wolf and anything at all to put on birth certificates. I didn’t, back at the time, look at reddit with my son and see what he was reading or watching. But I assured him this wasn’t true; states were not doing this.

        Now, to address the content of the video I shared (which was nothing about machines). There is certainly an unhealthy obsession… when people who consider themselves religious go public with “prayer” indicating some nonsense that Michelle Obama is not really a woman and that her children are not really her children (because she couldn’t give birth to them as a non-woman). Some supposedly religious (or perhaps they are religious and I should say supposedly spiritual) people have gone off the deep end; sadly, there may be no water to shield their fall. Michelle Obama is a woman, and the wife in her family with Barack Obama. But the merging hatreds drove a niche fanaticism to slander her and make it seem like something about which good people would be concerned.

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