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.
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.
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.”
 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.
 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.