Copter Crash: Isabel Fall and the Transgender SF Debate

Copter Crash: Isabel Fall and the Transgender SF Debate

On New Year's Day, the latest issue of the digital science fiction magazine Clarkesworld went live. The line-up included a mixture of established talents and new names; in the latter category was Isabel Fall, who contributed a story entitled “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter.” Isabell Fall's piece was available on the website for

On New Year’s Day, the latest issue of the digital science fiction magazine Clarkesworld went live. The line-up included a mixture of established talents and new names; in the latter category was Isabel Fall, who contributed a story entitled “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter.”

Isabell Fall’s piece was available on the website for a little over two weeks. Then, on January 15, Clarkesworld announced that it had pulled the story at the request of its author. This decision occurred after a heated dispute that took place during the brief period in which Clarkesworld hosted the story — a dispute so strong that “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” will almost certainly be counted amongst the most controversial SFF works of this fresh new year.

The story in question was a piece of transgender-themed fiction, written by a trans author. Yet the backlash came, in large part, from trans people; and at the same time, the story received substantial defence from other trans readers. As well as a case of a community turning in on itself, the controversy touches upon matters relating to censorship, publishing, and the increasingly porous divide between authors and audiences — with Isabel Fall, an apparent newcomer to the world of science fiction, caught in the middle of the argument.

How could one piece of short fiction cause such commotion? That question requires a long answer, one that should start with the story itself.

Clarkesworld 160 cover

Examining the Story: “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter”

Isabel Fall’s story fits into a long tradition of LGBT communities reclaiming slurs and symbols of oppression. There are many examples of this phenomenon, from the word “queer” to pink triangles. In this case, the author takes a years-old meme designed to mock transgender people and builds an entire science fiction narrative — one with far more nuance and sensitivity than the original meme.

The central premise of the story is that the protagonist does, in fact, identify as an attack helicopter. “According to US Army Technical Manual 0, The Soldier as a System, ‘attack helicopter’ is a gender identity,” says the narrator in the beginning. “My body is a component in my mission, subordinate to what I truly am. If I say I am an attack helicopter, then my body, my sex, is too. I’ll prove it to you. When I joined the Army I consented to tactical-role gender reassignment. It was mandatory for the MOS I’d tested into. I was nervous. I’d never been anything but a woman before.” All of this is part and parcel of a future in which genderfluidity has been weaponised by the military:

“Generations of queer activists fought to make gender a self-determined choice, and to undo the creeping determinism that said the way it is now is the way it always was and always must be. Generations of scientists mapped the neural wiring that motivated and encoded the gender choice.

“And the moment their work reached a usable stage—the moment society was ready to accept plastic gender, and scientists were ready to manipulate it—the military found a new resource. Armed with functional connectome mapping and neural plastics, the military can make gender tactical.”

As a result, would-be combatants undergo neurosurgery that tailors their gender identity — along with every perspective and performance that comes with it — for warfare. “If gender has always been a construct, then why not construct new ones?” asks the narrator. “My gender networks have been reassigned to make me a better AH-70 Apache Mystic pilot.” But the central character also reminisces about how they were before their reassignment:

“Before the Army my name was Seo Ji Hee. Now my call sign is Barb, which isn’t short for Barbara. I share a rank (flight warrant officer), a gender, and a urinary system with my gunner Axis: we are harnessed and catheterized into the narrow tandem cockpit of a Boeing AH-70 Apache Mystic. America names its helicopters for the people it destroyed.”

“An attack helicopter has a crew of two,” Barb informs us. “My gunner is my marriage, my pillar, the completion of my gender.” Multiple passages are spent describing Barb and Axis’ helicopter in terms of both cosmetic addition and sexual organ: “Now my skin is boron-carbide and Kevlar”, says Barb, and elsewhere we read of a “clitoral bulge of cockpit on the helicopter’s nose.” Meanwhile, Barb describes painting their “bit down nails… desert colors, compulsively.”

Barb and Axis’ mission, assigned by AIs, involves destroying a high school in the desert spanning what were once California and Nevada. “This is enemy territory,” says Barb. “You can tell because, though this desert was once Nevada and California, there are no American flags.” This action is part of a futuristic war between the US government and a credit union, while Barb and Axis also run into trouble from “Werewolf Apostles” who “are mercenaries, survivors from the militaries of climate-seared states.” Throughout the story, details of this dystopian conflict are intermingled with musings about the nature of gender and performance:

“We are here to degrade and destroy strategic targets in the United States of America’s war against the Pear Mesa Budget Committee. If you disagree with the war, so be it: I ask your empathy, not your sympathy. Save your pity for the poor legislators who had to find some constitutional framework for declaring war against a credit union.

“The reasons for war don’t matter much to us. We want to fight the way a woman wants to be gracious, the way a man wants to be firm. Our need is as vamp-fierce as the strutting queen and dryly subtle as the dapper lesbian and comfortable as the soft resilience of the demiwoman.”

The reader will question the morality of partaking in this war. But as Barb points out, one violates the societal expectations of their gender at their peril: “I kill for the same reason men don’t wear short skirts… Are those good reasons to do something? If you say no, honestly no — can you tell me you break these rules without fear or cost?” In addition, identifying as an attack helicopter has its benefits. “No one stalks an attack helicopter,” Barb points out. “No slack-eyed well-dressed drunk punches you for ignoring the little rape he slurs at your neckline.”

Axis, however, is less convinced, and begins showing qualms about following orders — a mental state that the story directly compares to gender dysphoria. After a climax in which Barb and Axis engage in raucous helicopter sex, “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” ends with the two characters becoming gender rebels, as Barb pines for “a necessary new queerness… which pries the tool of gender back from the hands of the state and the economy and the war.”

Reader Reactions

Early responses to “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” appear to have been largely positive. At Clarkesworld, the story’s comments section quickly filled with praise: “Not only have you created a masterwork of fiction,” said one commentator, “you’ve uplifted the LGBTQ community by giving us such fantastic representation through your writing’s excellence.” Another reader hailed the piece as “by far the best story that has ever been published in Clarkesworld,” while still another opined that “Clarke and Asimov would be proud.”

Clarkesworld comments

A sample of the comments posted in response to the story prior to its removal from Clarkesworld.

In a MetaFilter thread about the story, readers praised Fall’s work as “a fantastic piece of writing,” “beautiful and fascinating” and showing “a crazy level of control for a first time writer.” However, certain commentators in the thread were less enthusiastic. Some questioned the story’s approach to the themes of warfare and imperialism, while others objected to its treatment of transgender themes: “[t]he more I think about it the more it reads TERF to me,” said one poster. Another commentator, “Holy Zarquon’s Singing Fish,” prefigured the direction that the conversation would take by speculating about the author’s personal gender identity:

“[N]obody 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.”

Isabel Fall had evidently decided to keep a low profile and spotlight her work over her individual identity, as is her right. But where social media is concerned, personal privacy all too often leaves space for gossip and rumour-mongering.

On January 11, blogger Gary Tognetti theorised that the story was written as a prank. “I could be wrong, but I believe the story and the author are a puppy-like troll”, he said on Twitter, alluding to the right-wing Sad and Rabid Puppies slate-voting campaigns that affected the Hugo Awards from 2013 to 2017. “All of the comments are absurdly over-the-top praise that appeared almost immediately after the story was published. There are way more of these than is normal for a Clarkesworld story.” Tognetti concluded by expressing concern “that these people are looking to troll the Hugos again… as retribution for Campbell’s name being stripped from the new author award.” This last comment refers to controversy over Worldcon’s John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer being renamed the Astounding Award due to John W. Campbell’s racist beliefs.

Various other commentators on Twitter questioned the author’s decisions and motives. “[I]t’s clearly written by a cis person and didn’t go anywhere near a trans editor or sensitivity reader,” said nonbinary writer-artist Orion Rodriguez. “We exist and some of us could use the work, but I guess making fun of us is easier.” Rodriguez added that “if it’s that unclear what the purpose of a satire actually is, and who it’s targeting, that the story has failed.” Author Jay A. Rama, meanwhile, expressed the feeling that “the author doesn’t actually know what being trans is, what dysphoria is, even what a woman is!”

Clarkesworld comments

One of the less favourable comments posted on the story.

Isabel Fall’s choice of title also came in for criticism. “I never read the story itself, so I won’t comment on its content”, said transgender writer Phoebe Barton. “I read the title. It was enough… ‘I Sexually Identify As An Attack Helicopter’ is a meme. It was built for a specific purpose. To mock and to hurt. Think of it as a gun. A gun only has one use: for hurting.”

“This withdrawal is to be commended, regardless of whether you feel the discussion was entertaining to you or important to the SFF community”, said Vanessa Rose Phin, who is non-binary and serves as editor at online magazine Strange Horizons. Phin also praised Clarkesworld for “heeding the cries of a traumatized minority.” Nibedita Sen, a cis writer, similarly argued that it was justifiable for Clarkesworld to remove “art that was hurting vulnerable minorities”.

Fall and Clarkesworld‘s move to retract “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” occurred piecemeal, in part due to editor Neil Clarke having recently undergone surgery. On January 13, an individual using the name “Pip” left two posts in the story’s comments section announcing that Isabel Fall had requested that the story be removed, at the same time clarifying that Fall is a transgender woman — contrary to speculation otherwise. The story was removed on January 15, and the following day Clarke issued a lengthy statement on the affair:

“Yesterday, I removed the story “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Fall from the current issue of Clarkesworld Magazine. The recent barrage of attacks on Isabel have taken a toll and I ask that even if you disagree with the decision, that you respect it. This is not censorship. She needed this to be done for her own personal safety and health. It does not rule out the possibility that the story will be restored (changed or unchanged) at some future point, but that’s not our priority right now.

“I sincerely regret that the timing of my surgery contributed to this situation. I’ve been offline for much of the internet storm, most of which occurred on Twitter. I feel terrible that I wasn’t there to help mitigate the attacks that have ultimately hurt Isabel and allowed this situation to escalate.”

In his statement, Clarke goes on to deny that the story is some sort of hoax or trolling attempt: “Isabel honestly and very personally wanted to take away some of the power of that very hurtful meme. The story had been through multiple revisions over many months and it had been seen by sensitivity readers, including trans people.” The statement also confirms that Isabel Fall is transgender, with Clarke expressing justifiable dismay that the author had to out herself in response to the gossip surrounding her:

“Isabel was not out as trans when this story was published. Various claims being made against her pressured Isabel into publicly outing herself as a defense against the attacks. That should never be the case and is very disturbing to me.”

Amongst other things, Clarke also clears up one of the weirder accusations levelled at the publication: that Isabel Fall’s year of birth — one of the few biographical details made public — was intended as neo-Nazi code. “Isabel was born in 1988,” said Clarke. “That does not make one a neo-Nazi. I’m honestly surprised and disappointed that I have to say that.”

Rallying Support: The Controversy Continues

The backlash against “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” spurred a new round of support for the story, much of it from gender noncomforming people. Phoebe North, a nonbinary author, penned a deeply personal essay comparing incidents from their own struggles with gender dysphoria with excerpts from “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter,” arguing that Isabel Fall’s piece is “first and foremost, a story in which I found myself reflected.”

Some of the story’s defenders showed marked hostility towards its detractors. “I don’t think the people who attacked the publication and author and made accusations of Isabel are capable of shame but if they are I hope it haunts them,” said transgender games designer Sadie Lee. “Trans people are diverse in their experience and expressions, attacking that is a true violence that stays for decades.” Trans writer Gretchen Felker-Martin hailed Isabel Fall’s work as “a wonderfully tight and intelligent story with so much to say about our long history of assimilation, rebellion, self-destruction, and reinvention.” She was not impressed with the complaints directed at the story: “Something these dullard puritans don’t get is that they’ve created a united front of freaks by pushing us together into smaller and smaller corners of the internet. The art and culture we create is going to be an absolute atomic strike to their sterile, joyless little world.”

These thoughts echo a comment by “Nyx,” transgender writer and self-proclaimed advocate of CyberWitchNecroMarxism, in response to the Isabel Fall controversy: “There is clearly a need for a space for trans women writers who make stuff that doesn’t sit well in the company of abusive secular slave moralist wokescolds.”

The descent into name-calling marked by such comments about “wokescolds” was, perhaps, not what the controversy needed. One of the story’s detractors shot back with a 2142-word parody entitled “Challenging Story to Blow Your Tiny Wokescold Brains With How Powerful And Messy It Is,” which is credited to “Bellatrix Fortissima.” This paragraph is typical:

“I’ve had my body overall redesigned, too, beyond the penis-reduction-for-improved-pissing. For example (and I, the author, can totally cite research papers that found this to be true! This story is SERIOUS, HARD, ERECT, SCIENCE FICTION) my tits have been crammed full of silicone and heat sinks and computer circuitry, to improve my aerodynamics and to give me an expert system which is meant to give me the ability to accurately hit targets at unfathomable ranges with assorted guns. The fact that I have truly massive boobies is not, in any way, a sign that the author has a fetish and also has no idea when to let that fetish out to play, such that her writing is irretrievably skeezy because in the middle of a very edgy monologue about the reshaping of the body by capitalism or neoliberalism or imperialism or whatever shit, she’s talking about how she’s a fucking N cup fetish model or something. First of all, I’m even larger than that (the expert system is water-cooled and they needed more space) and second of all, this is serious fucking science fiction and if you find this premise absurd or ridiculous it’s because it’s too challenging for you, pitiful reader.”

The parody is a remarkably spiteful piece of work, one that simultaneously attacks Isabel Fall’s story, the people who defend the story, and Fall herself. Via the authorial voice of “Bellatrix,” the story caricatures Fall as incoherent, egotistical (“Just read this goddamned amazing, challenging, incredible story written by a fucking goddess in the flesh, someone whose brain is so vast it actually sucks the brains out from everyone else in the room.”) and motivated by sexual fetishism. This last detail is particularly cruel, given that transgender people are routinely accused of merely living out fetishes: the parody, ostensibly critiquing the portrayal of gender in Fall’s story, ends up doing far more to perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

Not all the transformative works inspired by the story were so mean-spirited, however. Jay Sizemore wrote a poem, “Transitioning,”, which is dedicated to Isabel Fall and makes another attempt to put a trans-positive spin on the old meme.

After the Crash: Sifting Through the Wreckage

Looking back on the controversy surrounding Isabel Fall — now that her story has been removed and she has been forcibly outed as transgender — is an ugly business. The rumour-mongering that she was a transphobic troll, along with the spite and pettiness exemplified by the Bellatrix Fortissima parody, are bad enough. But it is also worth mentioning how many presumably well-intentioned critiques backfired.

Various established cis writers used their platforms to signal-boost the opinions of trans and non-binary commentators — but in practice, tended to emphasise the commentators with negative reactions to the story. This led to the implication that hostility to the story is somehow the proper response, while transgender people who find value in Isabel Fall’s piece — who regret its removal, and who feel that the affair sets a bad precedent for creative freedom and literary exploration — are a misguided minority. Negative reactions to fiction are as legitimate as positive reactions; but when the negative responses lead to censorship — and while we can quibble over definitions, the removal of the story from Clarkesworld is at least comparable to censorship — equality has been lost.

The Buddhist monk Shantideva famously observed that wearing shoes is preferable to covering the world in leather. While it is fair to extend empathy to people who were emotionally troubled by the title or execution of Fall’s story, the idea that this empathy should lead to the story being purged from publication is a very different proposition.

Meanwhile, Isabel Fall has maintained her justifiably low profile. Even during the height of the controversy, she issued statements through mediators — first “Pip,” then Neil Clarke — rather than take a public platform herself. It remains to be seen what paths her creative career will take after her needlessly hostile reception this month.

Another concern is the lasting effect that the controversy will have on trans authors as a whole. The affair of “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” makes plain a dilemma for contemporary transgender literature: fiction that is personal and boundary-pushing, that takes insults and abuse and turns them on the head to create something new, clearly runs the risk of being wildly misinterpreted and misrepresented. But the alternative — of creating only art that conforms to a narrow notion of “proper” transgender experience, that strives to avoid even the hypothetical possibility of causing offence or discomfort — is hardly appealing.

If transgender fiction is to soar, then it cannot afford for people like Isabel Fall to be bullied off the launchpad.

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  • Jetamors
    January 24, 2020, 12:09 pm

    Hey, thought you might like to know that there was another piece of fiction inspired by this story: My Gender Is Classified by S. Qiouyi Lu https://s.qiouyi.lu/article/my-gender-is-classified/

    REPLY
  • Standback
    January 21, 2020, 5:12 am

    I’m so saddened by this entire case.
    It’s a storm of very small errors — which resulted in a story (raw, which is part of its charm; imperfect, as all stories are; with blind spots, as might be expected from somebody newly transitioning and getting their new experiences into words) being catapulted into a blazing spotlight which the story, the magazine, and the author were absolutely not ready for.

    I think it’s crucial to acknowledge that there’s a full spectrum of experiences and responses to the story, even if we focus particularly on responses from trans and nonbinary readers. There are those to whom the story spoke deeply; and others to whom it was horribly hurtful, both in content and in context. There are those who have clear, well-measured objections; others who assume trolling and conspiracy theories; and still others who began with the former and concluded the later. There’s no easy line saying "this here is legitimate and important criticism, but no further" — and, without any contradiction, there’s no question that theorizing about birth-years, or assuming puppydom, is absolutely beyond the pale.

    So I don’t feel like we can meaningfully talk about the story, or the reactions, without discussing the fact that it went viral in the first place. I doubt Fall ever expected it to go viral. I doubt Clarke ever expected it to go viral. Short fiction really doesn’t tend to do that, as a general rule. The same story with a different title wouldn’t have received a hundredth of the attention; nor the same story with the same title in any nonfree venue — it’s the sharing around of a super-provocative title, shorn from even the context of "hey so you’re reading a SF magazine", that pushed things this way.

    Some people will be deliberately provocative, willing to stand in the center of a firestorm like this. I obviously can’t know for certain, but I deeply doubt Fall was doing that, or the enthusiasm the story received would have outshone the worst of the criticisms, and she wouldn’t have retracted the story. I doubt Clarke was doing that, or this particular piece wouldn’t have been scheduled right during his surgery.

    But I do think a lot of the responsibility here lies with Clarkesworld. As the publisher and venue, it’s they who should have been prepared, and weren’t; it’s they who lost control. They didn’t appreciate the power of provocation, and didn’t take precautions for it. A simple content note at the beginning would have gone a long way towards aligning expectations, making clear the story upfront is about reclaiming the meme rather than twisting it further. Damage control earlier in the process would have also made a huge difference.

    It’s a provocative story; it proved provocative far, *far* beyond expectations; and the outlier responses of those provoked are ugly. That’s not a *good* dynamic; it looks to have been devestating to Fall. But I don’t think the story, or the responses, can be meaningfully discussed, without acknowledging that this is even more about internet dynamics than it is about the actual contents of the piece.

    REPLY
  • DMaster
    January 21, 2020, 2:23 am

    Why do people on the left and/or in oppressed minority groups keep succumbing to this useless infighting?? BREATHE, you nincompoops! BREATHE! BREATHE for a few minutes and then THINK about how you’re reacting! Gah!!

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