"'Attack helicopter' is a gender identity, not a biological sex."
January 10, 2020 9:03 AM   Subscribe

"I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter" is a short story by Isabel Fall, published in the January 2020 issue of Clarkesworld (with an audio version also available). And yes, she knows what she's doing.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish (124 comments total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
Oddly enough, not the first instance of this I can think of.
posted by kyrademon at 9:15 AM on January 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

I thought this was a fantastic piece of writing. On a par with "Spar", also co-incidentally published in Clarkesworld. It leans into the idea and pushes it so far it turns into something amazing.

Someone I follow said: “This is like something Peter Watts would write 6 months into HRT” and I can’t say I disagree.
posted by pharm at 9:21 AM on January 10, 2020 [16 favorites]

I identify as an attack helicopter, in the sense that I cost everyone around me huge amounts of money and I’m not very useful at defeating an insurgency
posted by Space Coyote at 9:28 AM on January 10, 2020 [32 favorites]

I need to go back and actually read to make sure, but I think I may have found my favorite part:

I was always aware of being small: aware that people could hurt me.
Now I yield to speed walkers in the hall like I need to avoid fouling my rotors.

posted by Don Pepino at 9:30 AM on January 10, 2020 [6 favorites]

Love this. My favorite response to this tired line is "I wish you identified as a better joke".
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 9:58 AM on January 10, 2020 [14 favorites]

Wow, do I have mixed feelings about this story...

On the positive side, I got that feeling that I sometimes get when reading science fiction, that’s like, oh, this could be prophetic! Also this feeling like woah, this reveals new facets of the existing world, connections I didn’t think about or see before, but now that they’re here they feel so compelling and obvious it’s like I’ve always known them.

And there’s a lot of potent, evocative writing. And the central concept is portrayed so forcefully and so convincingly. And there’s a lot of cutting truths shared about the experiences of women/some enbies under patriarchy.

On the other hand... well, maybe this is just me or my own filters, but I was reading this somewhat as an open letter to Internet edgelords and alt-right (or alt-right adjacent) Gamer bros. I mean, here, the narrator/protagonist basically directly addresses those people:
Some people say that there is no gender, that it is a postmodern construct, that in fact there are only man and woman and a few marginal confusions. To those people I ask: if your body-fact is enough to establish your gender, you would willingly wear bright dresses and cry at movies, wouldn’t you? You would hold hands and compliment each other on your beauty, wouldn’t you? Because your cock would be enough to make you a man.

Have you ever guarded anything so vigilantly as you protect yourself against the shame of gender-wrong?
And this rhetoric? It’s great! It’s fresh, it’s brilliant, it seems (to my already persuaded, non-binary self) to have a decent shot at getting at least some people to question their fucked up beliefs about gender.

But the fact that it’s this character, in this story, speaking these words seems to me to run a big risk of undercutting this very message. Because the politics of this story and the war in it seem very muddled to me and the character is very likely a war criminal and could easily (at least from my perspective) be read as an apologist for imperialism.

I don’t wanna make this comment too long, but the short versions is: it seems like one strand of the story is suggesting that the war is fucked up and that Axis is right to question what’s happening. The narrator even says something along these lines. And for a moment I thought they would both defect and I would have loved that. But then they conclude that they themself can’t question these things and that I order to survive they have to keep successfully being an attack helicopter.

Okay, so I honestly just realized maybe the author meant the ending to feel like, “shit that’s fucked up” as an expression of how gender as an institution can be fucked up and oppressive, which is kinda brilliant and makes me like the story more than I thought before writing all this out.

But also it seems like one could easily read the ending (and thus the story as a whole) as something uncomfortably close to fascist propaganda. Which is not what I want an open letter to alt right adjacent types to convey, you know?

And even the message I like more—that gender pushes us to do fucked up things—is one that could be alienating to a lot of enby and trans folks. I felt like very little of my own enby experience was reflected in the story. Which maybe is okay but also doesn’t feel great to me.

Also it seemed to conflate sexual orientation with gender much more than I wanted it to. I know that’s a huge thing that cisheteropatriarchy does but also wanted some acknowledgement of the separation between those/the range of genders within any sexual/romantic orientation.

Maybe it’s unfair to treat this as a primer on queer genders... I did enjoy it as a story and it got me to think a lot (clearly). And here’s a bit of my own queer gender expression: as someone with a Virgo moon, one of the ways I express admiration is through detailed critique. *kiss emoji*
posted by overglow at 10:14 AM on January 10, 2020 [18 favorites]

"I caress the cyclic." Wow. Phew. That is the best thing I've read in a long long time. Thanks for pointing it out.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 10:16 AM on January 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

This human knows a lot about helicopters.

The end is so good:
We are propelled by disaster. We are moving swiftly.
posted by zenon at 10:24 AM on January 10, 2020 [4 favorites]

Overglow, that brings me around to something I thought of going into in the post but cut when I decided to go minimalist: nobody seems to know who in the heck Isabel Fall is. She has no previous published works under that name and no biography on Clarkesworld. So one thing that's piqued my interest about the perspective here is whether this is being written from a trans and/or NB perspective, or that of a cis person who's thought about/studied gender intensively.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 10:26 AM on January 10, 2020 [7 favorites]

I'm a little concerned about the possibility of a milkshake ducking as the writer seems to be approaching this from a bit of a biological perspective, e.g. gender reassignment surgery. And that's ringing a few alarms in my head. That said, it's got some brilliant writing behind it. Ta for posting.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:24 AM on January 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm a little concerned about the possibility of a milkshake ducking as the writer seems to be approaching this from a bit of a biological perspective, e.g. gender reassignment surgery.

The gender reassignment was neurological.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 11:58 AM on January 10, 2020 [7 favorites]

I read this twice yesterday, and it hit me so hard the second time that I think I'll wait a couple days before tackling it again.

Very curious/excited about whatever else Isabel Fall may have in the works.

(p.s.: ROU (Eccentric) The Smooth Stone Joy of Doing Something That Takes Everything)
posted by runehog at 12:06 PM on January 10, 2020 [5 favorites]

Maybe it’s unfair to treat this as a primer on queer genders...

I think the assumption here is that what we see as an unalloyed virtue can be twisted by the industrial complex for their own morally questionable ends. The author is doing more than one thing here. Think of it as an extreme form of coopting---if gender fluidity finds complete acceptance, there will be people who monetize, maybe even militarize that fluidity. Just as maleness is monetized, militarized and toxified today, how might fluidity be perverted to the serve the ends of an amoral militarism? That's one of the questions of this piece.

Much of the best sf is not just speculative, but also precautionary.
posted by bonehead at 12:19 PM on January 10, 2020 [25 favorites]

Yes, I think this story is (partially) about saying that the military can and will use anything it can get it's hands on for tactical advantage. If you can control & manipulate gender identity, then you can bet that somewhere in the Rand Corporation will be a study on whether it can be used for militiaristic purposes.

So it's maybe both a warning and an exploration of what the idea of gender identity might mean to individuals in such a future.
posted by pharm at 12:28 PM on January 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

"We don’t get to know why the AIs pick the targets.”
posted by runehog at 12:43 PM on January 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

This is beautiful and fascinating, thanks very much for sharing.

Someone I follow said: “This is like something Peter Watts would write 6 months into HRT” and I can’t say I disagree.

I was thinking this also. Underlying theme is very different of course but at times I was strongly reminded of Malak.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 1:37 PM on January 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

This was a wild ride. I love imagining a world with bespoke custom genders and weaponized/weaponizable genders seems like the grim corollary of that.
posted by Tesseractive at 2:28 PM on January 10, 2020

“ the smooth stone joy of doing something that takes everything.”

DAMN she’s good.
posted by panglos at 2:36 PM on January 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

That’s a crazy level of control for a first time writer. The preachy thing about how everyone has to have a gender identity or why wouldn’t dudes wear dresses and cry at movies was off base (the narrator wouldn’t have any interest in 2020 fights between trans activists and gender criticalists) but still - solid.
posted by MattD at 2:56 PM on January 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

fwiw, the trans people I happen to follow on Twitter have gone nuts for this over the last 48 hours. I guess it just didn't work for you anem0ne.

Seo Ji-Hee is an actual South Korean actress, but I see both Seo Ji Hee and Seo Ji-Hee being used as western transliterations of her name online all over the place, so if the non-hyphenated version is wrong then it's a very common error.
posted by pharm at 3:16 PM on January 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Couldn't help thinking of the gang member who called himself "Chopper", and got charged with (and convicted of) murder because his tattoo of a helicopter firing on people reminded a sheriff of an unsolved crime.
posted by jamjam at 3:58 PM on January 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

The more I think about it the more it reads TERF to me. Gender is tied to roles because brains are just wired that way &shrugemoji. And I hate that I am reading this into it because otherwise it's kind of cool from an SF standpoint. But I feel that a real SF author would not have switched gears on the title and actually ran with the sexuality angle, and it would have been a better story for it.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:23 PM on January 10, 2020 [4 favorites]

fwiw, the trans people I happen to follow on Twitter have gone nuts for this over the last 48 hours. I guess it just didn't work for you anem0ne.

Hi, I’m a non-binary person (who doesn’t usually identify as trans ‘cause that word doesn’t fit quite right for me) and earlier in this thread expressed my own qualms and dissatisfactions with the story, including my concern that key elements of the story “could be alienating to a lot of enby and trans folks.” So even in the small sample size of this thread it’s inaccurate to say that it’s only anem0ne who’s voicing criticisms.
posted by overglow at 4:44 PM on January 10, 2020 [7 favorites]

I read it as delicately ambiguous. Possibly a carefully executed troll, along the lines of Ancillary Justice.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:47 PM on January 10, 2020

> the character is very likely a war criminal and could easily (at least from my perspective) be read as an apologist for imperialism.

American Imperialism, anyway - note that the war is against a credit union. If the story's ambivalent, it's the stronger for it. It's art, not propaganda. Expect to see this one getting a Hugo.
posted by Leon at 5:42 PM on January 10, 2020 [5 favorites]

Ancillary Justice is not a troll. The lens of not understanding human gender is not really the focus of that story. The narrator is not interested in normal human gender or sexuality, and that's fine.

I haven't thought about it in many years, but the same could be said of my namesake. Being the fastest thing in the sky is more interesting than being the most masculine or feminine thing in the room, and I like how this short story takes that comparison seriously.
posted by Phssthpok at 5:43 PM on January 10, 2020 [7 favorites]

It's such a polarizing piece written exceptionally well. I'm not sure that it does gender or war or scifi or sexuality or anything perfectly but it does it so compellingly.

I really really enjoyed this piece. I like how it can be taken apart in thousands of different ways. How there isn't an consensus on what exactly is going on at all.

I am nonbinary leaning. I find the connection of sexuality important in this piece because how i express my sexuality is very much impacted by my gender identity and dysphoria. That doesn't make the criticisms of this piece invalid, but it did allow me to think about things slightly differently.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:02 PM on January 10, 2020 [6 favorites]

Ancillary Justice is not a troll. The lens of not understanding human gender is not really the focus of that story.

"Troll" is probably not the right word, but I think the sex/gender stuff in it is significant, as one facet of the book's overarching theme, and does tend to be misread. From an earlier conversation:
I'm really not sure how the gender thing is supposed to be read at all. It kind of seems to me the whole universal pronoun thing is basically a formal gimmick and Leckie hasn't really thought about how fundamental different gender and sexual roles can be

I think this is a reasonable conclusion if you assume that the genderlessness is meant to be taken at face value, as a rare strand of enlightenment in the middle of all the dystopian brutal conquering empire stuff. This seems to be the usual reading but the more I think about it the more convinced I am that this wasn't what Leckie meant at all; that the single universal gender of the Radch is, just like numerous other things that appear superficially unified (characters' identities, the Radch as a social class, the Empire, the book's narrative), a lie used to conceal all kinds of drives and conflicts.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:48 PM on January 10, 2020 [4 favorites]

even just in the personal experience of reading this, this was ... provocative and i had to step away from it a couple times! i have no idea how to feel about it or what audience this is written for, truly, but i think i'm interested that it's pushing the boundaries it's pushing? it does have the feeling of the kind of sci fi writing that sticks with me the longest in confusing ways
posted by gaybobbie at 7:39 PM on January 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

The more I think about it the more it reads TERF to me. Gender is tied to roles because brains are just wired that way &shrugemoji

Granted, I read way too much Egan back in the day, but this really reminded me of Axiomatic. I didn't read this as "We arbitrarily changed your gender to attack helicopter and now because of that you automatically [do helicopter stuff]" analogous to "We changed your gender identity to male so now you automatically like trucks and refuse to wear skirts." I read it as the Army fiddling around with her neurology enough to upload a complete package of the new identity and the roles and expressions the Army wanted that to have.

And Axis as breaking out of / free from some of those roles and expressions in much the same way as Wossname in _Quarantine_ breaking free from the Ensemble while remaining utterly loyal to the Ensemble.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:53 PM on January 10, 2020 [6 favorites]

Leckie’s point in Ancillary Justice and sequels was orthogonal to what people fight about on “gender” now. Her concept was that biological sex had become a socially unimportant taxonomy for the Radch. For all we know, all the Radchi were cis-gender ... but it just mean that much.

This story is rather bolder. It posits that the brain space that (presently) aligns self to a gender identity and sexual orientation is a lot more mutable than its current short list of objects.
posted by MattD at 8:06 PM on January 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Well, shit. I linked it to a few friends including a trans woman I admire, I really hope I haven't offended anyone. Thanks anem0ne and overglow for sharing your perspectives.

The fact that the piece is so well crafted (technically, if not perspective-ly) makes me suspect that someone is writing under a pseudonym. (Apologies to Ms Fall if it's just a really accomplished debut.) Either way I'll be following both the author and the ongoing conversation around this particular story with interest.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 8:56 PM on January 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Tangentially, this also contains a neat little horror story about artificial general intelligence.

But, like all advanced neural nets, these systems are black boxes. We have no idea how they work, what they think. Why do Pear Mesa’s AIs order the planting of pear trees? Because pears were their corporate icon, and the AIs associate pear trees with areas under their control. Why does no one make the AIs stop? Because no one knows what else is tangled up with the “plant pear trees” impulse... Pear Mesa’s citizens cannot question the machines’ decisions. Everything the machines do is connected in ways no human can comprehend. Disobey one order and you might as well disobey them all.

posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:08 PM on January 10, 2020 [8 favorites]

Her concept was that biological sex had become a socially unimportant taxonomy for the Radch.

This is what the book's unreliable narrator tells us, yes. She also tells us that one of the reasons for this is the decoupling of reproduction from sex, because any Radchaai who wants to have a child can just go down to "the clinic" (presumably for some kind of artificial conception and gestation). This, however, seems unlikely to be true for the agricultural labourers, undocumented station inhabitants and colonised subject peoples who apparently make up a large part of the empire's population.

Anyway, my point is that "unreliable narrator with psychological/psychoanalytical themes" is one of my favourite book genres, and I get a strong sense of that from this very cleverly written attack helicopter story.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 9:58 PM on January 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I really want Barb to meet Ancillary Justice's Breq, and Murderbot... except Breq would be like WHAT IS THIS GENDER NONSENSE AUGH and Murderbot would be like "Wait, you fuck?"
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 10:08 PM on January 10, 2020 [9 favorites]

So even in the small sample size of this thread it’s inaccurate to say that it’s only anem0ne who’s voicing criticisms.

It was not my intention to imply that either your or anen0me’s reactions were isolated (or invalid for that matter). If that was what you read into my comment then apologies: I should have been more explicit.
posted by pharm at 1:49 AM on January 11, 2020

This thread is fascinating, and quite a relief - I've seen this story shared all over the place and always in a positive way, and yet my initial reaction (as a cis, het person) was exactly like u/overglow's - that this read hard as TERF. Hard to put a finger on it, but it's the blurring of gender/sexuality, and the implied moral in here which isn't just 'the army will corrupt things' but also 'this is the future liberals want/if you mess with gender identity this is the chaos that you'll get'. There is a tone and a phraseology here that absolutely resonates with my experience arguing with articulate, smart transphobic campaigners.

I had assumed that as a cis/het person I just 'didn't get it' & maybe it's smart repurposing of that language by a writer, but it seems that it's more complex than that. (And I am also relieved to find that the ethnic representation here is ... off, as it read that way to me as well).
posted by AFII at 1:54 AM on January 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

This is what the book's unreliable narrator tells us, yes.

Being a military AI created by the Radchaii, it's always seemed likely to me that Breq knows a lot more of the official pravda than she does the truth.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:05 AM on January 11, 2020 [6 favorites]

What I enjoyed about this story is that the author took this godawful phrase, asked the question "in what universe would that even make sense as a genuine statement", and then actually came up with an answer and wrote a story around that.

The fact that the universe and the story is bizarrely contrived seems like the point. It shows how ridiculous the statement was in the first place.
posted by automatronic at 5:05 AM on January 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

I don't hate it. Vegan-leather combat boots vibes.

Better luck next time, Werewolf.
posted by Acid Communist at 5:30 AM on January 11, 2020

There is a tone and a phraseology here that absolutely resonates with my experience arguing with articulate, smart transphobic campaigners.

god yeah actually, as i think about it, the language and imagery here could so easily be terf-style stuff combined with how sometimes the narration is hostile to people who don't think about gender (possibly cis men?) and sometimes to people who do (possibly trans people?) and just like . the extreme knowledge about gender combined with the very basic moral statements about gender. fuck if true
posted by gaybobbie at 8:53 AM on January 11, 2020

I'm in no position to tell anyone how to think or feel about this story or its politics.

The story reflects a question I've talked about with a friend who is transitioning. She desperately wants relief from her dysphoria, and to be more feminine, but is aware that the things she wants and considers feminine are the traditional patriarchal definitions of femininity. She wants to be graceful and beautiful and a woman, but is she reenacting harmful gender roles? And what does it mean that she absolutely cannot let go of that specific goal of traditional femininity?

I can see why this might read as crypto-TERFy. She is living in an environment with heavy TERF activity and they have altered the range of discourse. It's hard not to react to them.

I feel like the story's answer to this question is simple acceptance that the question exists, but also the certainty of purpose and self knowledge. She is right to transition, and if parts of that are confusing or difficult they're subsidiary. For now she is moving swiftly.
posted by Richard Daly at 10:11 AM on January 11, 2020 [7 favorites]

If the story's ambivalent, it's the stronger for it. It's art, not propaganda.

Generally, I love ambivalent stories and complexity. Because everything is nuanced and layered and also I just enjoy the aesthetics of art that is open-ended and subject to multiple interpretations.

For me, it's harder to get into that head space with a story that is heavily based on a transphobic meme. Like, my hackles were up from the beginning.

Alongside my love for ambiguity, I also believe that all stories, intentionally or not, are political. (Am I being a bit self-contradictory? A bit layered and convoluted and hard to line up exactly or square perfectly in my own opinions?) That dynamic is super highlighted for me with this story because it's central concept references a heated, hurtful, ongoing political conflict.

In other words, writing a story like this was a high risk move. Does that risk pay-off? Is the story successful? Well, what is the story trying to do...

Coming at things from a different angle: Of course there are trans and non-binary people who do messed up things, who fight in unjust wars, who defend, support, and benefit from empires and oppressive systems. But (at least for me and I bet for a lot of gender non-conforming folks) bringing up the whole "attack helicopter as gender identity" meme brings up the question/fear that people won't see our genders as valid (won't see us as valid/won't see us as human, or at least not fully human, not entitled to safety and respect). So the idea that someone's non-cis gender identity might be intrinsically tied to something villainous, something destructive, something evil/wrong/bad is, well, basically the message that people who promote the meme in the first place are trying to put out there.

To be clear, I'm not saying that's the only way to read this story or that such a message is definitely the author's intention (does that matter? how much does that matter? isn't The Author dead anyway?) I am saying that it's important to examine a story like this, a story that directly references a transphobic meme, for it's political dimensions and to understand that some people will likely view such a story with skepticism and mistrust.

Also, just to be ambivaaaalent, I did enjoy reading this story and definitely will follow this author with interest. Though if all her stories feel potentially crypto-TERFy like this one, I will likely stop. Isabel Fall clearly has a lot of talent and a sharp mind and a wicked imagination and I'm very interested to see what she writes next.
posted by overglow at 12:19 PM on January 11, 2020 [5 favorites]

I liked this a lot, but there's enough ambiguity that I understand why others would read it differently.

I read the conclusion as Barb accepting Axis's "queerness". I'm thinking of a quote from Eve Sedgwick:
What’s “queer?” Here’s one train of thought about it. The depressing thing about the Christmas season -- isn’t it? -- is that it’s the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice. [...] They all -- religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy -- line up with each other so neatly once a year, and the monolith so created is a thing one can come to view with unhappy eyes. What if instead there were a practice of valuing the ways in which meanings and institutions can be at loose ends with each other? What if the richest junctures weren’t the ones where everything means the same thing?
Along those lines, the genders created by the military are anti-queer. Everything about them lines up, and it is in the service of the institution, including their sexuality. (It doesn't say, but I read the fact that they're a sexual pair as an encouraged way of maintaining the tight coupling of the two biological parts of the system.) When Axis starts questioning why, that's a piece of them that no longer lines up with the rest.

You're right, anem0ne, that it's use of dysphoria for this is off, but I thought it was nicely deliberately so, used as a technical term related to the gender-reprogramming that had been done to them. That it's so self-consistent and all-encompassing that any sign of deviation is visible and worth noting.

And in the end, even as Barb cannot ask those questions because her programming is in full force, she realizes that that enforced consistency is greater than it needs to be to fulfill the tactical needs of surviving as soldiers, and that not asking questions is in the interests of the institutions that they serve, not themselves. Barb stops calling it dysphoria, which to them means malfunction.

As an SFnal use of gender and queerness, I thought it was quite good. From Doylist viewpoint... yeah, this could easily be the work of a TERF. If the author intends "dysphoria" to map cleanly to the use of the word in the real-world, then Barb dropping the term at the end maps to the TERF project of understanding "dysphoria" as something imposed on gender non-conforming women, preventing them from charting their own path and expressing themselves within the category of 'woman'. The whole thing is quite ugly, and I hope that's not the case, but I don't think it's clear until more information about the author or writing by the author is published.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 12:35 PM on January 11, 2020 [4 favorites]

I haven't read Ada Palmer's Terra Incognita series beyond Too Like the Lightning, but I remember that it had a pretty messed-up point-of-view character somewhat unreliably discussing how their society treated gender, and that (separately from that character's perspective) the gender expectations/configurations in that society were not working and had a lot of problems. I wonder how similar the layering there is to the layering in this story. What can we rely on in what Barb is telling us?
posted by brainwane at 1:26 PM on January 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

"Women live in cross-reference. It is harder work than we know."

That's a line that really sticks with me.
posted by brainwane at 1:27 PM on January 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

I don't understand the utility of "let's shear off the sf&f elements of an sf&f story." I don't think it's a fair way to argue a point.
posted by pelvicsorcery at 6:57 AM on January 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

As side point: I don’t think we ever actually learn the gender of the gunner for certain. They are described in ways that we generally associate with maleness, but it’s (deliberately, I presume) left ambiguous.

Despite that, one of the critiques linked above assumes the gunner’s gender & then uses that as a stick to beat the author with. Honestly, to me that suggests that they’re not interested in any kind of reading that assumes good faith on the part of the author: they’ve already decided that the piece has been written in bad faith and worked backwards from there to justify that, an interpretation which it seems to me turns on insisting that the only way to read it is as a direct allegory for trans-ness in the modern world.
posted by pharm at 8:33 AM on January 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm not saying the story is good or bad or transphobic or trans affirming, and more power to you to argue that it's harmful or doesn't achieve its goal. That said:

The author has been non-existent on social media, and so the discourse has but scraps to go off of;

This troubles me. I can't articulate why. It makes me want to be non-existent on social media.
posted by pelvicsorcery at 8:53 AM on January 13, 2020 [6 favorites]

I'm not sure whether this matters, but it seems clear from "A few decades ago this would’ve been a crime," and what we know of Barb, that Axis must be AFAB. So I do not think the story is deploying heterosexuality.
posted by mittens at 9:05 AM on January 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

when people are arguing this is a reclamation of something vile used to hurt me and my community, I want to know who is the source of it.

I think the ambivalence is what gets to me most. Literary ambiguity is fine and good for a lot of things, but when people are literally being killed for their gender, this isn't a topic that can bear much ambiguity. There's a need for moral clarity, and this story just doesn't have it. And if that lack of clarity takes you out of the story, if you're constantly interrupted by questioning "what did the author actually mean by this, is it a red flag, is it an ironic repurposing of conspiracy theories, worse, is it a non-ironic repurposing...what are you left with? Clearly the story wants to say something, and is capable of it--I certainly learned more about how helicopters work than I expected!--so why leave any question as to the political stance?
posted by mittens at 9:24 AM on January 13, 2020

I just wrote an email to an editor at Clarkesworld pointing to this thread as a place where people are asking questions about this story and about the editorial process, and asking whether they'll be responding to some of these questions. I said:
I understand that Neil Clarke is currently recovering from surgery (and I hope that recovery is swift and complete), so organizational response is probably slower than usual. But I hope the editorial staff will soon respond to some of these community questions, even if some of the answers are, for instance, "we will not be sharing that information, to protect the author's privacy". Will you be responding? If responses will be in next month's editorial, perhaps you could say that soon (on social media)?
(Context for the first line: for the next 4-6 weeks, Publisher/Editor-in-Chief Neil Clarke is recovering from heart surgery.)
posted by brainwane at 9:53 AM on January 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

I don't even know where to start with this.

I would honestly like to know what people are seeing in this story that actually speaks for the trans, nb or non-conforming experience that they're finding so illuminating. The story is a confused, jumbled mess of mixed metaphors and doesn't really seem to justify the trope or premise of the thesis and title.

The writing is vivid and clever and there's some nice lines and gems in it scattered here and there, but most of these lines don't seem to be really aligned with the story itself, they are just kind of glued on there on a muddy background.

I've read the thread a couple of times and there's nothing that's really satisfactorily explaining nor defending the above question - what are you reading in this? What's your takeaway - specifically about gender identity issues? Where are you finding any reliable viewpoint, empathy or transmission of understanding in this story about gender identity? Further, are you cis/het?

Can anyone here that's cis/het give me a clear summary about how this story speaks to them about gender identity issues? I read a lot of SF and I'm a competent reader - and so far for me there's no there, there.

Sure, this might be a metaphor for one person's experiences with being NB, lesbian and/or queer but I'm having a lot of trouble finding it, and I'm pretty flexible.

Sure, the story isn't required to do this. It makes no promises to do so, regardless of the premise and title. The framing of the post suggests it, perhaps however hopefully or misunderstood.

Personally it doesn't speak to me at all about the issue of gender, queerness or trans experiences and issues. It does apparently nothing to educate or affirm, much less lift.

To me it's reading more like weaponized confusion and really suspiciously crypto-TERFy at worst or maybe written by someone who was cis/het at best and wanted to write something provocative and didn't really know what they were doing except going for a really convoluted take on some 4chan greentext.

Seriously, what are all these metaphors doing here? What do they actually mean in the story?

Being trans is not like being an attack helicopter. It's not a cybernetic enhancement or genetic engineering. It's not a marriage, forced to a machine or otherwise. It's also not a relationship except for the kind of relationship anyone might have with themselves. It's not a sexual preference, or an attraction. It's not a choice or something someone did to you that needs correcting. It's definitely not an programmed urge to perform a function, especially not blowing up a school.

It's like walking around in very heavy, clumsy, stuffy cartoon mascot suit for your entire life, being told that you need to keep the suit on all the time and that is the real you. And then eventually wondering why you feel so heavy and trapped all the time, why it's such a pain in the ass to keep a job or even make yourself a sandwich, and then eventually realizing you can try to step out of the clumsy suit and leave it behind.
posted by loquacious at 12:40 PM on January 13, 2020 [10 favorites]

I quote the following comments which have been added to the story, but I can’t vouch for their veracity & don’t know who “pip” is:
pip wrote on January 13th, 2020 at 3:26 pm:

The author is a trans woman. She has requested that the story be withdrawn and the payment donated to a charity, but Neil’s recovery from heart surgery needs to come first.

pip wrote on January 13th, 2020 at 3:52 pm:

More from her: There was no plot to astroturf the comments and no intention of secret Nazi imagery. Isabel was born in 1988. Her name is not based on anyone else’s work. She is not familiar with TERF talking points and tries to avoid them out of personal distaste. The intent of the title was to steal the top spot on search engines from the meme and replace it with trans writing, but it was clearly ill considered. She wants to convey her deep sorrow that her writing has for so many readers failed so badly to do what she hoped. She has withdrawn her future submissions and would appreciate privacy.
posted by pharm at 12:41 PM on January 13, 2020 [7 favorites]

loquacious: Personally, I don’t think it’s meant to be a metaphor for anyone’s (the author’s or otherwise) experience of trans/lesbian/NB/queerness. It reads to me to be exactly what it says on the tin (so to speak). i.e. as an exploration of what it might mean if that title was real, was something that could actually happen: What would that world look like? What context would give meaning to that phrase?

If that was her goal, then I think she succeeded in creating a genuinely effective piece of writing.

If she has withdrawn her other submissions I really hope she decides to re-submit them in the future because she has a pile of talent & it would be a crying shame if she was denied being able to publish because her first story didn’t land the way she’d hoped.
posted by pharm at 12:53 PM on January 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

What resonated for me and made me want to post it (cis white guy, so obviously not a definitive take) is that it struck me as a successful attempt at taking a “joke” that is on its face complete nonsense, creating a setting where the statement could actually be true, and then digging into what that would mean for the speaker. The part that I found especially impressive was that she at least tried – again, cis, not the authority on whether she succeeded – to dig into where a gender identity of “military hardware” would fit into a person’s overall self-image, and as part of that grappling explicitly with the fact that gender is a crucial part of one’s sense of self, but not the entire thing. I saw the “military brain surgery/washing” part as a necessary step to a setting where the statement is factual; after chewing on it for a while the only other paths I can think of to that goal would run into tropes about transness being a mental illness, or the result of abuse/trauma.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:05 PM on January 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

I didn't mean to elide that -- my point was that if your goal is to make "I sexually identify as an attack helicopter" a factual statement in the context of your story, I can't think of a way to get your character to that point without mental illness, battlefield trauma, or having the military rewrite their gender identity on purpose. All of which are problematic in their own way if read as a statement on what being trans is really about (which is why I didn't read it as such).
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:14 PM on January 13, 2020

I don't know if it's good or not. But I read it in the context of occupation forces in today's world pinkwashing the crimes they commit.

To me, queer means fuck your borders. LGTB means let's guillotine... Anything less is to uphold kyriarchy. So I think a lot about our language being co-opted, about what it means to gain acceptance or safety at the cost of the security of others. McKinsey Pete and all that.

I'm also not convinced that Barb is meant to be a good example of anything? The fact that the mercenaries fighting for Pear Mesa are climate refugees made me immediately begin to identify with their cause. It does not seem like a far step to me for an imperialist military to try and find a way to actively use gender to make a "better" soldier, instead of just demanding that we love their killers because some are openly gay now.
posted by Acid Communist at 1:19 PM on January 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

The title of this story is an anti-trans dog whistle and I'm really disappointed that the post does not have any other context about the history of the phrase or the controversy around the story. It feels irresponsible.
posted by Tevin at 1:22 PM on January 13, 2020 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Drop it, pharm, anem0ne. This is not an acceptable level of escalation, period.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 1:27 PM on January 13, 2020

wtf were you all thinking?

It had a lot to do with the framing of the post and arguments developing in this thread. It also has a lot to do with willingly grabbing the lightning rod* "I identify as an attack helicopter" meme and trope. (*edit, forgot words)

I regret not being more charitable and demanding that there had to be a message. If the author reads this, please accept my apologies and I wish you a speedy and healthy recovery. Please do keep writing.
posted by loquacious at 1:43 PM on January 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Only because I commented before:

Can anyone here that's cis/het give me a clear summary about how this story speaks to them about gender identity issues?

It didn't. It was a deep-materialist thing about what it means to take conscious control of our own neurology and how that can be exploited by the powerful.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 1:50 PM on January 13, 2020 [8 favorites]

This story found its way to me today via a private trans forum, someone asking if it was a troll story, and I clicked and read and saw myself there--by the time I went back to comment, someone else had said what I was thinking: this is clearly a trans story.

These were the lines that spoke to me, as a trans masc person:

"When I was a woman I wanted to be good at woman."

"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."

"When I was a woman I wanted to machine myself."

"Something about their merciless self-possession and self-modification stirred me. The first time I ever meant to masturbate I imagined one of those women coming into my house, picking the lock, telling me exactly what to do, how to be like her. I told my first boyfriend about this, I showed him pictures, and he said, girl, you bi as hell, which was true, but also wrong. Because I did not want those dresses, those heels, those bodies in the way I wanted my boyfriend. I wanted to possess that power. I wanted to have it and be it." (my emphasis)

"Have you ever been exultant? Have you ever known that you are a triumph? Have you ever felt that it was your whole life’s purpose to do something, and all that you needed to succeed was to be entirely yourself?

To be yourself well is the wholest and best feeling that anything has ever felt."

These are some of the best pieces of writing on AFAB dysphoria and subsequent euphoria that I've ever read. I've read numerous responses online that the speaker's focus on the size of women is patriarchal and misogynist, but as a trans masc person with height dysphoria that kicked in at 13, the moment I stopped growing, I have literally never heard someone articulate this experience so well. Because we can say that women can be any size but then talk about how we'd never date someone shorter than us, or never want to get too muscular and "bulky" and maybe you are small anyway and also not a woman. Maybe you look for ways of feeling powerful and strong. Maybe you fantasize about having no body, avoiding physical touch like massage or getting your haircut because it reminds you that you have a body. "I peel off my skin and expose wires in place of sinew," I wrote the night after I lost my virginity, never connecting it with trans feelings. I sent someone a picture recently, Dr. Manhattan as a disembodied brain and spine. "#transmood." For me, this speaks to studying gender and its rules so well, trying to find a certain power you crave in the performance of your gender while also fitting in the (yes, false, but still) box of gender and then finding yourself in your new gender and being so euphoric that you occasionally wade into toxic masculinity instead. This feels like a story about being seduced by toxic masculinity in its purest, most weaponized form. Barb is not an attack helicopter because of what the military did, necessarily or entirely. It's because he is happy as an attack helicopter. And maybe Axis is not, but ultimately, Barb resolves the question of Axis' dysphoria by expanding his definition of attack helicopter to include a possibility of queering, of being flexible.

This story is fascinating as fuck and it really speaks to my experiences, as a late-ish transitioner who once cried because I thought if I didn't make a sufficiently delicious meal for a pot luck, the other moms would know I wasn't a "real woman." ("When I was a woman I wanted to have friends who would gasp at the precision and surprise of my gifts.") Obsessed by all the little ways my real self would show, hyperaware of them, obeying every rule even if I didn't believe in every rule, looking for small ways I could rebel, craving some sort of simultaneous obliteration of my body. All while playing with this classic SF trope, brains in tin cans. Anne McCaffrey's brainships, and did I ever think about why that idea captivated me at thirteen? Well, no, not really, because I was more interested in being a masculine brawn than a feminine brain. But I love how this plays with this idea, anyway, even if they're not autobiography for the apparently trans feminine writer. I am very glad she wrote this.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:09 PM on January 13, 2020 [59 favorites]

Thank you for sharing that reading of the story, PhoBWanKenobi!
posted by mittens at 6:36 PM on January 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

I wrote a response piece on medium after hearing the author was planning to pull the story. I hope y'all don't mind if I share it here, as it's an expansion of my comment.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:47 AM on January 14, 2020 [26 favorites]

I'm glad it's not a milkshake duck scenario. I think the different reactions here (including my own) highlight how everyone's journey, and what we see and feel along the way, is different -- even if our goal (self actualization) is the same.

As a trans-nb (I feel like this should be a thing?) person who angrily refuses to be wedged into any kind of label, I am sensitive to the slotting of people into stereotypes based on nothing more than trivial cues. So, for me, the protagonist's giddiness about finding their identity so closely matching their new body makes me personally recoil in horror. "How dare you assume I'm an attack helicopter just because I look like one?!"

But I'll never have that joy myself -- my body will never match how I feel I should look; there's no surgery for that. (There's only attitude: I am fabulous.)

Overall, I'm very happy for people who can find/make/get a body that matches their identity, in this world, or in a fictional one. But I'll still always have that bit of horror: How dare you assume.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:28 AM on January 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

I've been reading some social media responses (and the continuing thread of comments on the story itself). Some threads and posts interested people may want to look at, with a variety of opinions: by Marc Drummond, ML Clark, Nikki, Emma Humphries, Cat Rambo, Orion Rodriguez, Rachel Swirsky, snurri, Alex MacFarlane, and Arinn Dembo.
posted by brainwane at 9:45 AM on January 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Overall, I'm very happy for people who can find/make/get a body that matches their identity

That's not what happened to Barb. The Army took Seo's brain and, in the act of making her Barb, altered it to force the identity of "attack helicopter" onto them along with making this new body match it.

The point was never to make Barb happy in any way, except as an irrelevant side effect. The point was to take whatever the neurological systems that underly gender identity turn out to be, with all their brutal assaults on people's happiness, and use them to support the mission. I've no idea what being trans feels like or what it feels like to be constantly made/asked/forced to perform things that are contrary to your actual gender. The only terms I can access are: The point is that whenever Barb does something that the Army has decided isn't attack-helicopter-ish, Barb is made to suffer in the same way that a cismale like me might suffer if made to do things that society has decided are coded for women and not for men.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 11:00 AM on January 14, 2020 [5 favorites]

...this has not been my experience.

That was tongue-in-cheek. We can say that (people do--did, about this piece, online), but it's not actually true. Our society intimately links gender to size and size to romantic prospects. I know very few adult cis women who will date people smaller than them. I can't tell you how many women have told me their heights make them feel "giant," and that this is directly related to the people they are willing to consider romantically. "I would never want a boyfriend I could pick up," was one comment that stuck in my mind. I can't tell you how many women have told me they wouldn't be involved with someone as short as my husband (5'5"), or expressed relief for me that I'm shorter than he is--never mind that I often wear boots with 4" heels and enjoy having a couple inches on him. Then there is the short woman I know who was told that "tall women hate you" because her husband is 6'7". Or the woman I know who is 6'1" and chose her husband almost entirely based on his height of 6'6". It's very heterocentric but it's femininity and masculinity as defined by size differentials, and it ties into other notions of how we're expected to take up space, or not. Manspreading or sitting like a lady. Bulking up or toning.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:32 PM on January 14, 2020 [10 favorites]

S. Qiouyi Lu has written and self-published "My Gender is Classified", a response story. They say in the Clarkesworld comment thread [comment #51]:

Wrote my own take on the concept (linked as comment author website), which I don’t mean to put forward as a “correct” take, just one that’s coming from another perspective to add my (nonbinary) voice to the discussion. Regardless of what the authorial and editorial intents were, we can’t take this one piece as representative of any particular politics or group, or even as representative of the author’s background or ideologies.

I also recommend to you their author's note on their story, which includes:

I do not intend this piece to be “the correct subversion” of the attack helicopter meme, nor am I commenting on whether Falls succeeded or failed. I believe that there’s room for more than one understanding of gender, that trans and nonbinary people can have complicated and conflicting experiences, and that you don’t have to ascribe to any one set of politics for your gender identity—regardless of what it is—to be valid. Instead, I simply offer this piece as my own elaboration on what exploitation of gender in a MilSF context might look like.
posted by brainwane at 5:37 AM on January 15, 2020 [5 favorites]

(Okay so I swear I'm going to read this second story as soon as I have a chance, but can I just say how much I love this sentence toward its beginning: Pattern-recognition skills for classifying people into different gender categories also have a neurobiological basis that can be repurposed for warfare. One conflict I've always felt in discussions about gender is that I sense gender as something being done to me, rather than an internal compass pointing towards something, rather than a felt identity, and to have that stated explicitly like in this sentence, that gender--some part of gender, some part of my gender, if not anyone else's--takes place in someone else's head rather than my own--feels very good to read.)
posted by mittens at 5:48 AM on January 15, 2020 [8 favorites]

Another twitter thread from Carmen Maria Machado (previously on the blue).
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:30 AM on January 15, 2020 [5 favorites]

A friend of the author reached out to me to say basically that she's feeling awful and in a bad place. I'm so disappointed by the decision to unpublish it, though I understand the author's impulse toward both self-protection and to prioritizing the feelings of others.

Those are both very trans reactions.

posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:11 AM on January 15, 2020 [14 favorites]

I am really not liking how the pushback to the story is being portrayed.

The pushback resulted in Fall removing the story and withdrawing all other open submissions. You selected a particularly harsh quote, but there's no doubt the author was personally attacked and accused in no uncertain terms of writing/publishing in bad faith, a pseudonymous man trolling the community, and a TERF. It has echoes of the type of vitriol that has been in recent months lobbed at folks like Natalie Wynn as well.
posted by tclark at 9:40 AM on January 15, 2020 [23 favorites]

I'm not sure there was a worse way for this story to end. Sending happy thoughts to the author, really hoping we see more from her.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 9:47 AM on January 15, 2020 [5 favorites]

Why bother naming her any sort of Asian name at all, though?

By my estimate, about 30% of published short SF throws in a nominally gay protagonist, whose orientation has absolutely nothing to do with the story. It's the same thing. It's just showing that the future is diverse. You don't have to do anything with it.

I hope the author's ok. She doesn't deserve to be run out of SF on a rail.
posted by Leon at 9:57 AM on January 15, 2020 [3 favorites]

anem0ne, I see you've buttoned, I'm sorry if anything I said contributed to that. I absolutely hear what you are saying. I think it's possible for the author to have written something that reads problematically without being themselves a bad person or acting in bad faith so I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt. The pushback and then the pushback-to-the-pushback has gotten ugly, more so than the least charitable reading of the story itself.

I've really appreciated your voice in this and many other threads and I really hope you come back soon.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 10:22 AM on January 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

loquacious: I've read the thread a couple of times and there's nothing that's really satisfactorily explaining nor defending the above question - what are you reading in this? What's your takeaway - specifically about gender identity issues? Where are you finding any reliable viewpoint, empathy or transmission of understanding in this story about gender identity? Further, are you cis/het?

Personally, I found more in the story about queerness in general than about gender identity per se, which I talked about some above. On a gender front, I appreciated it as an exploration of "What is gender, anyway" through the fictional conceit of programmable gender and how that might be used, but the story itself didn't do much to develop that or go somewhere in particular with it. I am neither cis nor het.

I'm glad to hear that the author is not a TERF, and I still hope we'll see more from her in the future.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 10:33 AM on January 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

By my estimate, about 30% of published short SF throws in a nominally gay protagonist, whose orientation has absolutely nothing to do with the story. It's the same thing. It's just showing that the future is diverse. You don't have to do anything with it.

But you see, this is exactly the problem. Having a story where orientation or race or gender has "absolutely nothing to do with the story" is total tokenism. This kind of strategy was barely tolerable in the past, but honestly, you can't just write characters and make them a different race and say "Ta-da! The future is inclusive! We did it everyone!"

Identity is much more complicated than a name or a skin color, it's about dealing with society and perception and history and family and culture and more, and the glibness with which the Korean name is mentioned once and never again simply smacks at a kind of superficial lip-service "checking off the box about racial diversity."

Not to mention that 99.99% of the time, the people doing this are NOT of that orientation or race or gender. I imagine that if the writer was themselves Korean, she wouldn't do this. (There's a 0.01% dim chance that she's actually Korean and wants to talk about it but isn't yet talking or thinking about race for many reasons including internalized whiteness)

Not to mention the ways in which a quick random reference to Asianness has functioned as a gimmick or a joke in many kinds of media, especially film. (E.g. the 'camera pans to surprised confused looking asian family' trope?).


What makes you feel like you can dismiss someone who's Korean critiquing the questionable inclusion of Koreanness in a story? How much are you aware about others' knowledge or lived experiences about these issues?
posted by suedehead at 12:01 PM on January 15, 2020 [9 favorites]

Anyone else get reminded of Yoon Ha Lee's stories?
posted by mabelstreet at 5:37 PM on January 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

File 770: Clarkesworld Removes
Isabel Fall’s Story
Isabel Fall’s short story “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” in the January Clarkesworld, the subject of intense discussion on Twitter this week, was removed from the magazine’s website today at the author’s request.
posted by happyroach at 6:54 PM on January 15, 2020

Clarkesworld statement.
posted by pharm at 1:21 PM on January 16, 2020 [4 favorites]

This whole affair makes me sad because it demonstrates just how toxic the bots and trolls have become to trans discourse. As a cishet person I don't understand all the nuances of trans and NB criticism of this story, but it's valuable and something I want to listen to so I can understand more. But because of the toxicity these #YourSlipIsShowing style alt-right trolls have introduced, bad faith is assumed always, and conspiracy theory in its wake.

The trolls have weaponized pain in a way that turns the pain of communities against those communities themselves. And the trolls laugh while they do it.

I hope we can talk about this story again in a real and critical way one day. Meanwhile I just hope Isabel Fall is OK and that Clarke takes the lessons outlined in his piece to heart going forward.
posted by dw at 3:38 PM on January 16, 2020 [13 favorites]

I am either angry or sad about Clarke's statement, and I can't tell which it is. Maybe it's always that way, when you read the lessons someone learned from a controversy, and you think, okay, but if you'd just thought about this in advance, you could've saved everyone a lot of trouble! I mean, they're a respected, popular publication that utilizes sensitivity readers, and it didn't occur to them at all that contextualizing the story with something about the author's identity might help?

I've been thinking a lot about overglow's parenthetical earlier in the thread--"Isn't the Author dead?" It's such a common conceit, and it's useful, really useful, when we expand it to the idea that intentions are less important than outcomes when we're talking about harm prevention and reduction...but. But! But when we talk about queer voices, trans voices, authors of color, disabled writers, anyone who starts from a marginalized identity, it's really not the case that the author is irrelevant to the piece. We know this. We talk about it all the time. We have had a recent thread where a writer wrote a novel about an immigrant experience that was not her own, and the trouble that caused. The Author Is Dead does something very strange; what rises from the grave is this nameless, faceless voice, and how can you trust a ghost?

One of the responses I kept seeing was that identity doesn't matter, that any writer of sufficient skill and insight can write any sort of character, but we have a thousand libraries of examples where we see how often that goes wrong, and so the antennae twitch when we're confronted with a mysterious, anonymous voice. (That said, again, I appreciate the LGBT voices who expressed connection to and enjoyment of the story.)

Fall should not have been forced or coerced to reveal her identity. I hope it doesn't sound like I'm leading to that point. But she should have been given good advice. There's an awful lot of people out here who have been injured in bad, bad ways by cishet culture, and that injury needed to have been thought about--deeply--by the publisher.

God, I don't really know how to talk about this issue, but it's something I think about, worry about, every single day. There are SO MANY controversies out there in the writing world, and I've watched queer friends have their careers simply erased because they were on the less powerful side of things. That's brutal, and it's scary, and it can lead to a sense that you have to write what's safe, what won't cause a stir. (That's fun, too. Here's a career where you have to be noticed, to make a dime...but being noticed can put you in the crosshairs.)

So it's a really fine line. Say what you are, what you truly are, and expose yourself to possible harm from that? Or keep it to yourself--which you should have an absolute right to--and possibly cause harm?

It's a decision you really shouldn't have to make yourself, without lots and lots of knowledgeable, sensitive input from people who understand the risks on both sides, and I don't think Fall was well-served here.
posted by mittens at 4:55 PM on January 16, 2020 [6 favorites]

I mean, they're a respected, popular publication that utilizes sensitivity readers, and it didn't occur to them at all that contextualizing the story with something about the author's identity might help?

I got a different read on this particular detail, namely that Isabel was not out as trans, and I think that communicating to Fall that outing herself as trans as a precondition -- or even just a warning of potential backlash -- was considered a bad idea. I know from trans folks in my life (at least one of which is definitely not out publicly) that any point where they could remotely be outed as a condition or warning before having them do something would be a grave disservice.

I don't disagree that Fall was poorly served in the whole situation in any case, but I also think it's possible that there was no way to win here without harming Isabel. Deny publication, warn her that she should out herself in her bio, or publish as it did? We know what actually happened but I have no idea whether the other alternatives would have been better. It surely would have prevented great harm to readers, great anger in others, yet also prevented great positive experience to yet OTHER readers who felt really seen and understood.

Being cis/het I do not have much place to opine on this situation (and certainly not in any sort of authoritative fashion -- if I am out of line, please flag for a mod to remove, and I will henceforth not comment on this) but I do believe that the single most harmed person in this entire process was Isabel, and I don't know how much of the blame should land on Clarkesworld, unless someone knows something at odds with Neil's statement and that their actions fell far short of the due diligence required. It seems to me that the backlash was predicated upon an assumption that Isabel was acting in bad faith, including accusations of TERF in this very thread and far worse on Twitter.

Aside from things happening as they did, the only alternatives I can think of would be A) not publishing at all (either directly or after a wider sensitivity reader sweep brought up the serious objections) or B) forcing Isabel in her bio to be outed as trans. I do not see how anything short of nonpublication would have avoided the backlash had the readers been in a position to presume Isabel to be a man or a TERF.
posted by tclark at 6:11 PM on January 16, 2020 [8 favorites]

I am livid, and also genuinely shocked, to see people in the sf/f field with blue checks or 50K-follower accounts admitting to tearing down Isabel Fall out of professional jealousy.

From Alexandra Erin: ” I hope the lesson the author takes from this is ultimately to be careful with her power and not that she has none.

Icarus did not sin in flying too high, too fast. He outran the voice of reason. He strayed too close to the sun. The consequences were an effect, not a punishment.

From LR Lam: “Personally, I thought the story was ambitious--too ambitious.I liked the prose. Certain elements really resonated & stuck with me and sang loud. Other notes jarred. It's difficult to pick out the Barb's idea of gender identity vs physical sex vs gender performativity.”

I really don’t know how to respond to this. At least older generations of published sff trolls like Winterfox tried to hide their attempts to take out writers from their own demographic they perceived as competition. Seeing “like Icarus” and “ambitious— too ambitious” on my tl— zero shame, “this bitch is too good and she needs to be taken down” — was deeply disturbing in a way it’s difficult to describe.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 7:17 AM on January 17, 2020 [30 favorites]

I don't know - while the Alexandra Erin tweet is victim-blaming nonsense, I read that Lam tweet as a relatively neutral opinion re the story's reach exceeding its grasp - see Lam's comment later in the same thread that "Basically, I think the author bit off more than she could chew, but I still applaud her for trying to do something so bold, even if it hasn't worked on the page."
posted by inire at 8:28 AM on January 17, 2020 [2 favorites]


The person who brought 1988 as a sure sign that Isabel Fall is a Nazi into the dialogue has a quote from Winterfox/requires hate/Benjanun Sriduangkaew in their twitter bio and appears to be pretty tight with them.

All of this is entirely within the Requires Hate playbook. Especially the pivot to blaming Isabel Fall for bringing it upon themselves. Target selection is extremely Requires Hate as well.

I think people got played and this whole thing is inorganic.
posted by Artw at 8:33 AM on January 17, 2020 [12 favorites]

The hurt was genuine Artw, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all to discover that a few “Requires Hate”-style individuals were stirring the pot with both hands, amplifying the pain so that they could feed off it.
posted by pharm at 8:49 AM on January 17, 2020 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I don't think it's 100% inorganic; I've absolutely seen people I trust not to pull that shit have visceral reactions to both the title and the story as a whole (and wish I'd waited until those reactions had showed up to post something more robust, instead of riding the initial wave of positive responses with a "hey look at this neat thing" framing). But deliberate shit-stirring is absolutely a fact of life on the Internet.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:53 AM on January 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

The story itself was about a genuine core (this does not mean there were not problematic elements in the framing etc), that oppressive systems deliberately and horrifically manipulated and leveraged in order to weaponize for their own purposes.

That just adds more tragic irony to how this all played out.
posted by Drastic at 8:55 AM on January 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

The person who brought 1988 as a sure sign that Isabel Fall is a Nazi into the dialogue has a quote from Winterfox/requires hate/Benjanun Sriduangkaew in their twitter bio and appears to be pretty tight with them.

Well, well, would you look at that. I hadn’t known that particular detail but I’m not in the least bit surprised. And yes, people had intense emotional reactions to the story. But I don’t think the bad actors and long-term community predators we’re talking about here would have been able to cause such a storm if the progressive twitter community hadn’t internalized the Supreme Court Graham v Connor ruling that instituted the police lethal force “I was in reasonable fear for my life” defense and regurgitated it out as the always nebulous but ever-present “harm was done” as an excuse to destroy trans women and push them into community exile. As if that wasn’t “harm”— the mass mobilization of an entire community to vilify trans women deemed problematic isn’t something anyone is personally responsible for instigating or participating in, it’s a process of nature, “an effect, not a punishment.” I’m sure the people nodding along and agreeing that this wasn’t about punishment are sleeping well this week— better certainly than the women they’ve decided to sacrifice.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 9:03 AM on January 17, 2020 [12 favorites]

The context of the Alexandra Erin tweet, a thread in which she also says:

"The author is hurt by the reception and the knowledge that the arrows she fired into the air for liberation have landed in places she did not intend, foresee, or prepare for. People who know her say she's in a bad place. I hope she recovers. I hope everybody does."
posted by brainwane at 9:28 AM on January 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Mod note: One comment removed. I know this is a difficult and charged situation, but I think the MetaFilter discussion is gonna work better at discussing and unpacking the fallout of this if we can aim more for "here's what I'm feeling" approaches and less declaring what other people feel. As a specific bit of that, putting non-quotations in quotes feels like especially tricky territory in this context when folks are already feeling pretty strongly about the literal stuff some people have been saying, so let's keep that distinction extra clear.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:42 AM on January 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm baffled by the people claiming this story wasn't *effective.* It was SO GOOD and complex, as a piece of SF and general fiction. On a prose level, on a conceptual level. In contrast, I found the response story linked upthread pretty unreadable.

There are, like, a teeny handful of things i would have tweaked had I been editing it but none of them relate to the content but rather more careful phrasing of queer stuff to avoid what might be seen as more obvious identity pitfalls. But the story itself is so good.

I agree that some of the crits remind me of requireshate.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:53 AM on January 17, 2020 [11 favorites]

Coming late to this, I have to say that I'm not feeling really great about how it has all played out.

On the face of it, it appears that Clarkesworld published an unsuccessful story that had some good lines but didn't really work out its ideas about gender very carefully. But then rather than saying, "hey, this incompletely worked out set of ideas about gender leads us in hurtful directions, maybe the author should think more carefully next time" we all decided that she must be a literal Nazi TERF and that our collective duty as readers was to read the story as unsympathetically as possible.

This really bugs me, because it highlights for me just who gets sympathetic or tolerant readings and who doesn't.

Like, on one axis, I think left-leaning SF fandom is specifically bad about this stuff - consider even more controversial trans writer Andrea Long Chu, who is widely criticized but also gets far less of the "you are a monster who is personally grinding your boot in my face" treatment. That's because she doesn't write science fiction and is in a different left environment - her ideas are dealt with as ideas and criticized as ideas rather than read primarily as a lump of things intended to harm other people.

On another, it's clearly about trans women being suspect. (It's not like anyone has said, "well, the author is actually a trans woman, I guess we should accept the possibility of multiple readings and maybe revisit a little"; the emphasis has continued to be on the writer's cruelty, ignorance, harm-causing, etc.) I can think of a number of recent books beloved by left SF fandom that have incoherent, badly worked out ideas about gender, sexuality and consent that are reaaly horrible if you follow them to their logical conclusions , but those books are actually held up as wonderful smol bean cinnamon bun books and recommended all over the place. The difference? Well, the authors aren't trans women so they get more benefit of the doubt.

I'm also not really happy with the intense moralizing language that is used around this stuff - the writer didn't write an unsuccessful story, she made a mistake and has to make amends. Does anyone suggest that Andrea Long Chu pull her essays, give back her book contract and make amends? Not that I've seen - and a lot of people really don't like her. And of course someone Not A Trans Woman and/or Not On The Left is never told that they "made a mistake" if they write something that is not politically that great.

I just...look, books upset and hurt and make me angry all the time. I recently read a popular, highly-recommended magic realist queer romance from a well regarded press that I found extremely cruel, classist and just...deeply disappointing in its underpinnings. And it touched me nearly because the character who gets it in the neck is the character whose physical body and experience of discrimination most parallel mine. It reinscribed my usual feeling that I am an unwanted quantity, risible, not fit to associate with the valuable people, etc. And with that book, it's so popular and cute that people don't want to hear anything negative.

My point being that I do feel hurt and marginalized by books, and I don't feel that anyone without my specific experience ever has my back on it.

But I also think there's a human cost to having our criticism be really brutal and abjecting. It is difficult enough to hear that your story doesn't do the political work you wanted it to do; how much worse to hear people talking about how you're basically a bad person whose work is so harmful that it needs to be scrubbed from the internet and you need to make amends. And of course that gets brushed off with "but she made the readers feel bad". Well, yeah, okay, but the readers can close the tab; she has to go on being her, also a trans woman, also discriminated against, and now feeling like she has a giant target on her forehead.

On another note, I immediately assumed that the writer was trans from internal cues in the story. The story was not only amenable to a "this must be written by a TERF" reading.
posted by Frowner at 12:20 PM on January 17, 2020 [30 favorites]

I’d go as far as to say it is not amenable to a "this must be written by a TERF" reading at all, at least not by anyone even mildly familiar with TERFs. They have absolutely no need to Trojan horse something in via multiple layers of supposed misdirection, or the capability to do so. They are not subtle people.
posted by Artw at 12:33 PM on January 17, 2020 [7 favorites]

I’d go as far as to say it is not amenable to a "this must be written by a TERF" reading at all, at least not by anyone even mildly familiar with TERFs

Regardless of the validity of the TERF-author reading, pretty sure the vast majority of those taking that view are more than mildly familiar with TERFs.

we all decided that she must be a literal Nazi TERF and that our collective duty as readers was to read the story as unsympathetically as possible.

Some people did, rather than all, but that... kind of makes it worse. If you can see that trans people, others whose views you trust, etc. have a diversity of opinion on something, surely you'd be inclined to give it a bit more thought? And even if you end up sticking with your initial reaction, why on earth would you react in a way normally reserved for Actual Fascists towards people who are not just on your side, but are also (on your reading) the very people targeted / harmed by the story?

(I appreciate that not everyone who had a very negative reaction to the story did react in that way, but enough did. Also, the point about targeting your own community similarly applies to those who did like the story and are dismissing those who didn't as thumbsuckers, etc.)
posted by inire at 12:59 PM on January 17, 2020

Regardless of the validity of the TERF-author reading, pretty sure the vast majority of those taking that view are more than mildly familiar with TERFs.

You'd think, and yet I'd stick with "It is not plausible in a thousand million years that a TERF wrote this". Which is why, as I say, one of the earlier and most shared reactions being so strongly negative in that way AND having a connection to a troll troll known for stoking this kind of mob reaction is significant. Once that was out there the ludicrous TERF-author reading became viable and started rolling.

And even if you end up sticking with your initial reaction, why on earth would you react in a way normally reserved for Actual Fascists towards people who are not just on your side, but are also (on your reading) the very people targeted / harmed by the story

People often double down when conned. There's a hell of an incentive to just role with mobs once they start going. I would urge you to read that link about what Required Hate used to pull because there are a lot of disturbing echoes here.
posted by Artw at 1:29 PM on January 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

What, is the Guardian piece, "....and very good too, more attacks please"? They have a lot of nerve writing anything about trans people.

Of course, the rush to instrumentalize and exploit begins. People who do not, themselves care about trans people OR science fiction or know anything about either can rush to opine; people whose support will embarrass Fall can jump in and pearl clutch about her. If for some reason she says something to the media, it will be reproduced and almost certainly twisted in a way that will not help her at all.

This, needless to say, doesn't help trans writers or trans/nb/genderqueer readers, since it just reaffirms that any kind of fame except some very low-key back-pats from trans/nb/genderqueer people means that things will probably go to shit.

Poor Fall. I certainly hope that she's not identifiable/reachable by any of these ghouls.
posted by Frowner at 3:18 PM on January 17, 2020 [14 favorites]

There are bits of the story I really loved, particularly the (far too plausible) suggestion that war crimes will be considered morally neutral once military strategy has been turned over to AIs. I mean, we're practically there now, our long-distance weapons are just directed by people staring at screens rather than AIs.

The idea that psychological drives will be repurposed by the military is not new: it appears in Cordwainer Smith's The Game of Rat and Dragon [link to story] which was published in 1954. To be honest, I'm not sure how much Fall has been able to bring to that conversation; in a way Smith's depiction is more radical.

I think I'd have got more from the gender-reassignment element if I were the sort of person who feels gender deeply. The author's portrayal actually spoke to me more than other explanations of gender identity have. So that part worked well for me.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:29 AM on January 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

A few observations:

1. I really don't like it when people jump to the conclusion that some particular news event is A Major Signpost of Our Time That Emblematizes Significant Cultural Meaning. Not all news events are cultural signposts of our time. Sometime stuff just happens that doesn't signify anything larger at all. Having said that, it's worth considering whether this whole fiasco is representative of larger trends in the world of 2020.

2. As we walk towards a place where it's the norm for powerful people (or powerful groups of people) to insist that the expression of artistically or intellectually unusual views requires various kinds of cultural certification -- for example, someone who contends that you in particular shouldn't explore that (for various values of "you") -- it strikes me as terribly sad. I can see how such a statement could have the same effect as saying "you should shut up," and I can see how enough reiterations of telling people to shut up can lead to artistic and intellectual sterility.

3. From a neutral perspective, there is no such thing as a "problem" or a "solution." What people understand as a "problem" will depend on the baggage they bring to it. Some people will see the statement from Clarkesworld to the effect that it should have employed a larger collection of sensitivity readers as part of a larger solution. Some will see this part of its statement as creating or participating in a larger problem.

4. I am glad I read the story. It was significantly better than many sf stories I read these days. But it wasn't anywhere nearly as good as "The Game of Rat and Dragon." (Thank you, Joe in Australia.) TGoRaD is awesome.
posted by PaulVario at 8:42 AM on January 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Well, having skimmed both cursorily, it appears that you two like the rat dragon one better than the helicopter one and find it more rad because it does not take on gender. It appears in fact to align with my notions of gender when I was a barely verbal four or five years old: "Dogs are boys; cats are girls." Every male in the ratdragon story is a born cis man and every female in it is either a fluffy lil kitten or an elegant cat. The men get to mindmeld with actual cats, which of course is better than trying to interact with human women, with whom, it being 1954, there is of course "something wrong."

Just as she
[one of I think two human females that get spoken lines in this thing] stamped out, he burst into her mind. He saw himself a radiant hero, clad in his smooth suede uniform, the pin-set crown shining like ancient royal jewels around his head. He saw his own face, handsome and masculine, shining out of her mind. He saw himself very far away and he saw himself as she hated him.

She hated him in the secrecy of her own mind. She hated him because he was—she thought—proud, and strange, and rich, better and more beautiful than people like her.

He cut off the sight of her mind and, as he buried his face in the pillow, he caught an image of the Lady May.

"She is a cat," he thought. "That's all she is—a cat!"

But that was not how his mind saw her—quick beyond all dreams of speed, sharp, clever, unbelievably graceful, beautiful, wordless and undemanding.

Where would he ever find a woman who could compare with her?

Thanks for linking, though. If nothing else, the contrast confirms that I want to actually read this now (I hope not forever) lost story.

I was always aware of being small: aware that people could hurt me.
Now I yield to speed walkers in the hall like I need to avoid fouling my rotors.

posted by Don Pepino at 9:44 AM on January 19, 2020

I happened across a really terrific Twitter thread from Lee Mandelo (if you're into SF, you might recognize their writing about Joanna Russ, a lot of which appeared on Tor.com under their old first name.)

It is very worth reading the whole thing, but here are a couple of highlights:

Art does not exist to be evaluated on a scale of “harm” to “uplift,” and if we want to talk dog-whistles, that right there is a huge one: it’s deeply anti-intellectual, and it centers a form of toxic individualism that evacuates solidarity/difference in favor of moral purity. ....

This is where the whole “criticism is an art itself and has theory” thing comes in. Because Sedgwick wrote re: queer theory’s internal failings a long ass time ago about “paranoid” vs “reparative” reading practices.
What we saw here was a classic case of destructive/paranoid readings that (1) FORCIBLY OUTED A TRANS WRITER and (2) caused a lot of misery and stress across the board for everyone... but that stress has been processed unevenly.
Paranoid readings are also a valid understandable response to a violent world that seeks to harm us! But they close in on themselves and each other like a fucking bear trap. Reparative readings are open to pain as useful and potential, and are by definition attempting generosity.

As to "The Game of Rat and Dragon": I think that science fiction as a genre is best understood as unusually dialogic/constituting a coherent body of work. Because stories are written and published so rapidly, because there's a highly fandom-identifying fandom, because of the strong con culture, because of the sense of the historic that even a fairly casual fan brings to the genre, I think it's useful to situate stories as building on and responding to each other rather than as seeking to be the absolute last word on a theme; that is, if the topic is "how does the military weaponize subjectivity" you don't need to endorse any particular story to read it as part of an in-genre working through of an idea. That is, I don't think that stories are best read as capping each other.

Cordwainer Smith is a really interesting, influential and above all atmospheric writer (take, if you like, "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard") and he's not at all bad about gender compared to his writerly peers. Still, I'm definitely not going to read him for his insights into gender and sexuality any more than I'd say, "hey, I'm going to read Bleak House for its brilliant portrayal of female interiority" - but that's not the only reason to read Bleak House. I guess I'd say that one could plausibly find "The Game of Rat and Dragon" a better story on some axes (a more innovative voice, IYAM, or more of a leap taken in developing the theme) but it's always worth asking yourself what you mean by "better". A story might be a better development of a military SF theme while being, eg, less smart and less interesting about gender.
posted by Frowner at 11:13 AM on January 19, 2020 [7 favorites]

I'd also like to add that if Fall's story is popularly understood as "so bad it should be taken down", which is something I've seen from a bunch of people, cis and trans, why shouldn't Bird's stories (or, god knows, Harlan Ellison's or Isaac Asimov's) stories also be "taken down"? Why shouldn't they be scrubbed from the genre? Joanna Russ has a couple of stories with frankly disturbing age-gap relationships in them, not to mention the honestly idiotic (and later apologized-for) parts about Islam in The Two of Them, and it's just gotten a nice new edition. We as science fiction fans are constantly reading and talking about politically unsatisfactory but SFnally significant work.

It's Fall's story; if she wants it taken down, that's her right. But it's disingenuous to pretend that her decision is solely about not wanting to post a story that upsets people and totally uninfluenced by threats, harassment, people saying outsizedly ugly things about her, etc. I personally am not sure that "your community is going to hate you if you wrote a science fiction story that speaks deeply to some trans people but angers others, so if you do mistakenly publish one, better get ready to retract it or face expulsion" is a great position to take. For trans women, who TBH get treated pretty shittily a la Porpentine's Hot Allostatic Load, the weight of shunning is a lot greater than for cis people or even masculine spectrum trans people.

I think that people would be less likely to accept the "this story genuinely and deeply upset some trans people while other trans people thought highly of it, so depublishing it is a good idea" position if the author were not a trans woman. It's not like we never, ever see contemporary SFF that has actively terrible, ignorant portrayals of trans people.

More, I think that when folks go along with the "this causes some people real pain; therefore it should be taken down and de facto removed from science fiction" line, it is useful to ask ourselves what we mean by canon and genre. Most people wouldn't say, "science fiction as a genre should be composed only of politically worthy things, especially things that are up to the minute worthy - the feminism of 1920 is unacceptable in works written in 1920", but it's difficult to reconcile that with the idea that depublishing a story is morally necessary.

I mean, again, it's Fall's story and if she wants it down that's fine. It's reasonable enough to say, "this story didn't work, I don't want it out there as the first thing I ever published". But the context in which this decision was made is IMO far from ideal.
posted by Frowner at 11:44 AM on January 19, 2020 [19 favorites]

(Like, I love Joanna Russ and I'd be just as happy if The Two of Them dropped out of print - and yet no one ever says boo about this awful book.)
posted by Frowner at 11:46 AM on January 19, 2020

A quick observation about "The Game of Rat and Dragon": I am not a big fan of "military SF" and I am not even sure if this story qualifies as "military SF." It certainly isn't hard SF; maybe a better term is "military fantasy," but the fact that it has military motifs is for my money the least important thing about it. In my view, what makes "The Game of Rat and Dragon" awesome is its compelling portrait of deep cultural alienation, spiced up with a dash of class alienation and sex alienation. The protagonist is haunted by a feeling that there's another, better way of thinking and feeling and living, but also that his biological nature blocks him from getting there. His co-workers have resentment and contempt for him: he wears a uniform he is highly ambivalent about that others find ridiculous. He is frustrated, more than anything else, that he lacks the vocabulary to understand his situation, and that the necessary failure of knowledge and communication that this epistemological vacuum creates makes it impossible for him to have a real relationship with the one he is most fascinated by. This is strong stuff for 1955, and while I don't think that the author ever gave much thought to transgender issues, it seems to me that the story might have some special resonance for transgender readers today.

Maybe it's true, as suggested upstream, that this story doesn't "take on gender." My own view is that it doesn't exactly ignore it.
posted by PaulVario at 3:15 PM on January 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

One of the things addressed by I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter is “what would it be like to experience an alien gender?” That's why I feel that The Game of Rat and Dragon is about gender: the protagonist's experience when telepathically connected to his Partner has directed his erotic desire and perhaps experience towards something outside normal human existence.

Another story that speaks to this (probably better) is And I Awoke and Found Myself Here on the Cold Hill's Side by James Tiptree, Jr. It's an awful, seminal, classic piece, but it doesn't try to convey what it would be like to inhabit that re-gendered body. That, I think, has never been done better than by Isabel Fall.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:30 PM on January 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

That's why I feel that The Game of Rat and Dragon is about gender: the protagonist's experience when telepathically connected to his Partner has directed his erotic desire and perhaps experience towards something outside normal human existence.

Arguably something actually like an exploration of new possibilities is trying to happen now, so I don't want to deride the whole idea that we could expand limits by experimenting outside the confines of species. But in '54 and a few years later when Hef started his bunny clubs, the traditional binary remained intact and possibility for growth or achievement for the female half of it was if anything decreased by the meld (male: radiant hero, handsome and masculine, proud, and strange, and rich, better and more beautiful; neworderfemale, cat or bunny: beautiful, wordless and undemanding.) It's blazingly evident why somebody IDing as male would like the cat story and somebody IDing as female would like the helicopter story.
posted by Don Pepino at 5:42 AM on January 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

To clarify -- I think perhaps it has been overlooked that, in "Rat and Dragon," the pinlighters are not, as a class, men or male: West is expressly both a girl and a soldier. This has implications that foil some strict gender-binaried readings of the story. I also don't think it's remotely relevant to invoke Hugh Hefner and Playboy bunnies here; that kind of guilt-by-association raises the inference that the target of the criticism isn't actually "Rat and Dragon" -- rather, the target is apparently 1954.

And it is fine if people want to criticize 1954; God knows there is much to criticize. But it is more reasonable to read this story (and lots of CB's/Linebarger's writing) as a reaction to or criticism of the world he was in at the time, not solely as a text that mirrors or is trapped by a local mindset. His multicultural sensitivity, almost certainly produced by a biographical crucible of intense and extraordinary life experiences, is one that I (having spent 95% of my life in the USA) envy and can only dream of.
posted by PaulVario at 6:44 AM on January 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

West is expressly both a girl and a soldier.
Really? Where? Author does not appear to be saying anything new about gender with this kid. She's a little girl. She's pre-puberty, so she's not unacceptable like the only other human female in the story. She conforms to the spunky cute premature girl acceptable female role. There's nothing expressed about her soldier-ness and everything said about her is to emphasize her awesome, pre-woman humberthumbertappealingto little girlness and fuckalottathat.

This has implications that foil some strict gender-binaried readings of the story.
WHERE. Are the receipts?

I'm not criticizing 1954. I'm criticizing the to me really bizarre effort to drag 1954 in here and try to make it relevant to this discussion in a way it cannot possibly be. "Make Gender Great Again." Yeah, naw.
posted by Don Pepino at 9:08 AM on January 20, 2020

Metafilter gets a mention, recursion fans: Copter Crash: Isabel Fall and the Transgender SF Debate
posted by Artw at 7:43 AM on January 21, 2020 [5 favorites]

That article highlights the phenomenon of major cis authors tweeting about the story without having read it which is... really quite something there, isn't it. Not great, whatever your position on the story is.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 11:43 PM on January 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Only two authors are reported to have criticised the story without reading it; only one of those is apparently cis; and her criticism is based on the harmful consequences of the story's publication, not its inherent value.

I think it was a good story, if an uneven one, but I don't think its title was a great idea.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:04 AM on January 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

That's for the correction there - I was focused on N.K. Jemisin's spot in the article as she's an author I respect quite a lot, so it was jarring to see how she was talking about the story there. Re-reading, I can see the greater nuance in what's she wrote, and the text in the article is not a fair representation. Looks like she deleted the twitter thread in question since anyway.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 9:28 AM on January 25, 2020

I saw it when it was up. It was gross and disappointment and presented the attacks on Fall as justified and her outing and withdrawal of the story as a positive outcome. It got a LOT of pushback, including from trans and NB people, and there was no acknowledgement of that, just the snotty deletion.
posted by Artw at 10:18 AM on January 25, 2020 [8 favorites]

I wasn't super happy about NK Jemisin's remarks. I dunno, I think that a problem with twitter is that almost no one is a genius saint - on twitter it's way too easy for people who are admirable writers or great organizers or very funny or insightful marxists or whatever to share poorly thought out stuff with the world when it would have been better shared with friends in conversation to think through a bit more.

On that note: I really, really wish that we, the Very Online, could dial back some of this History's Greatest/History's Greatest Monster routine. How much less horrible this whole thing would have been if people had been a bit temperate in their criticism, or a bit less sure that they were 100% correct! I would really like it if some of the people who went very hard on social media with "this is a story by a Nazi TERF" would do some public reflection about themselves as readers, assumptions we make about authorship, how to do more thoughtful, slow-paced criticism in the age of social media, etc, but I'm really not seeing that.

(It would also be cool if we could not automatically assume that a first-person narrator represents the author's viewpoint in any super straightforward way.)

I also wish that we could talk a little bit about what it means to be harmed by a piece of writing. I have a controversial opinion: This story upset people but was not harmful in any clear sense, and what is more, the harm to the writer from the shunning, hyperbole and attacks far exceeds any harm this story could do to any other person. This story did not introduce unique, hitherto unthought bad ideas about trans people into the discourse for cis people to weaponize. It is not mandatory reading anywhere. It is far less bad on gender than stories that are published every day in mainstream SF outlets, and it's FAR less bad than stuff that the fucking Guardian publishes all the time. It is not more controversial among trans people than writing by various other contemporary trans commentators - again, check out Andrea Long Chu, a smart and interesting writer who is really very worth reading AND who has said some really pretty ugh/edgelord stuff.

I'm not saying that it's not angering, disappointing or hurtful when someone from your own community says something controversial, ignorant, offensive or politically bad. But I think that actionable harm has to be more than that.

I'd like to contrast the Very Online response to this story with the response to the recent NYT profile of the guy who transitioned in his late forties who wrote about experimenting with misogyny while in the company of cis men and seemed to be writing very much for the cis gaze. That piece got some deserved criticism, but it also got a more nuanced reading and some deserved praise, and nowhere was there a suggestion that the NYT should yank it. I, a transmasculine person, was far more uneasy with the "and like any guy would, I introduced a misogynist complaint into my conversation with this dude" part than with a short story which can be read a number of ways about gender, some of which are bad.

Trans women don't get the benefit of the doubt, and fan-oriented milieux need to figure out better ways to manage criticism. We, left SF fans, responded with the intensity and Hulk-smash qualities of right-wing SF fans, and I think that's because it's a pathology of fandom.
posted by Frowner at 11:54 AM on January 25, 2020 [43 favorites]

I found NJK's remarks pretty hurtful, particularly the framing that those who supported Fall must have known who Fall was. I still don't.

I also wish that we could talk a little bit about what it means to be harmed by a piece of writing. I have a controversial opinion: This story upset people but was not harmful in any clear sense, and what is more, the harm to the writer from the shunning, hyperbole and attacks far exceeds any harm this story could do to any other person.

Agreed, but the current discourse around harm reduction and writing is very focused on side-stepping potential triggers, and I disagree with that, as a person with C-PTSD. This is in part because I have triggers that seem very . . . strange and maladaptive in normal society and are not things people would ever assume one would need a trigger warning for, but I'm not alone in that (as with the classic example of war veterans feeling afraid of planes flying overhead; we wouldn't request that airlines ground planes--that would be seen as absurd). Lee Mandelo talks about this in his thread, the angry and hurt reactions we can have while triggered which still do not make our triggers the responsibilities of others. One of my triggers is being asked to make phone calls while emotionally distressed. This seems ridiculous unless you know the reason--that my sister asked me to call family and friends after an uncle called to tell us that our dad died when I was eight, to tell them what had happened and we were home alone. This was later compounded by complicated, dysphoric feelings about my voice and gender performance. I can float along normally and make phone calls for professional reasons now, though it always makes me sweat a little, but a certain combination of emotional distress and being asked to do it makes me feel eight again, in an awful way. Literally triggered.

I was tweeting with someone about their reaction to NJK's thread and my post during all of this and they asked for a phone call to talk it out. My feeling--immediate, visceral--was "I DON'T WANT TO!!!" and "DON'T ASK THAT OF ME!!!"--because traumatized people have outsized emotional responses. But I can step back now, and see how the request wasn't really unreasonable, and any normal person would have found it to be an okay ask. It's not on them for triggering me. The triggers--the harm--is inside of me, a bodily reaction, and not necessarily being perpetuated by other people.

I'm doing EMDR work, and it's really shifted the way I've thought about it, too. I once thought I would have been held captive by my triggers, probably for a lifetime, and so avoidance was the only management strategy. Already some of them have fallen away and I feel tentatively hopeful that someday, someone asking me to call them won't evoke a bizarre and maladaptive "HOW DARE YOU!" response. And I think of all the people triggered here by the title--I believe that they were triggered, genuinely--and think of all of us who assume that our triggers are permanent. Maybe they don't have to be.

And yes, the contrast here between a story that was largely innocuous in intent and those who were being cruel and gaslighty to the author is strange. Death of the author and all that, but intent counts for something, especially when we're talking about marginalized voices. Once people heard, and knew, that she was a trans person in pain, I wish they had stepped back about it. But I think Frowner is right and that a lot of it has to do with her being a trans woman.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:04 AM on January 26, 2020 [8 favorites]

BTW I'm an Indian-American woman and I genuinely enjoy when there's a character who looks like me, has my name, etc., even when that aspect of the character does not have any visible effect on the story, on whether the character acts different than white people near them, etc. It makes me feel like I get to be in the story.
posted by brainwane at 3:09 PM on February 9, 2020 [5 favorites]

rather be jorting, thank you for your reply. Have you watched any of the Short Treks yet? One of them stars a woman of South Asian descent. And have you ever read fiction by Mary Anne Mohanraj? "Jump Space" in particular (which I'm partial to since I published it) is fun and stars a woman of South Asian descent. I haven't read THAT much Ashok K. Banker or Salman Rushdie but I remember South Asian women characters being in both. And I should check whether Kumail Nanjiani has gotten to write any sf/f yet because I bet his work would have a bunch of neat South Asian women characters!

And, to clarify, yeah, I know that there are some overlaps and some differences in how different ethnicities have been treated in Western fiction/media, and in particular in SF/F. I personally usually like it when a depiction of a person of South Asian descent is written by a person of color, or by a person who is not a person of color, and it's nice when the ethnicity seems to have an effect on the story, and it's also nice when it doesn't! So it sounds like we're sometimes having different experiences on that dimension. :-) For others reading (including white people who write fiction): If you are thinking of naming a character Sumana, I'd very likely love that! Charlie Jane Anders wrote a story with a Sumana in it and it made my day!
posted by brainwane at 5:59 PM on February 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh and there was Tory Foster in the Battlestar Galactica reboot! I just remembered.
posted by brainwane at 6:00 PM on February 9, 2020

« Older We are saddened that this [narrow drain channel]...   |   Every film about war ends up being pro-war Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments