How an experimental story about gender and warfare shook the sci-fi community

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In early January, the influential science fiction and fantasy (SFF) publication Clarkesworld released a story by an unknown author named Isabel Fall. The story was titled “I Sexually Recognize as an Attack Helicopter,” which explains the premise: it’s about a woman who becomes a weapon of war.

Part of Clarkesworld‘s audience definitely enjoyed the story, viewing it as an enthusiastic and magnificently composed expedition of gender. The outcome was a panicked dispute that saw the story taken offline at the author’s request, the SFF community grappling with the line between making intriguing art and disregarding real-life injury, and when to take anything on the web in good faith.

It’s dangerous to talk about any community as a cohesive whole. And people– across all neighborhoods– read in a different way.

This threat has manifested in concrete events over the previous couple of years in “category” fiction communities like YA, romance, and SFF, which have actually been battling with a culture war similar to the one that’s gripped gaming, comics, and movie fandom. When a major romance writers’ organization, RWA, had a hard time in late 2019 and early 2020 to respond to institutional racism, SFF’s current technique to similar problems was held up in pointed contrast.

This is since prominent SFF companies, publications, and significant market figures have actually been making more overt efforts in current years to face bigotry and to center marginalized neighborhoods in its discourse.

So if many early readers of Fall’s story were braced for the worst, it was because a lot of their interconnected category communities had actually already seen similar events.

Fall was a totally unknown author, too, with only her name and birth year noted in her bio. And the story used terms and phrases, such as “gender dysphoria” and “When I was a female,” in ways that some readers felt misrepresented trans experience and others felt offered a rigid, degrading description of womanhood. It wasn’t challenging to think of the story being a vicious “joke”– or even worse, an effort to infiltrate mainstream SFF with prejudices lined up with conservative politics. Some even hypothesized that the author’s birth year and name might be neo-Nazi coding.

Worse still, trans readers hurt by this story thought that the larger SFF world was dismissing their concerns. Some felt that cisgender readers were valuing “art” over trans security, safeguarding intriguing storytelling instead of honoring injury. SFF author K. Tempest Bradford collected numerous trans and nonbinary viewpoints (not all negative toward the story) in a Twitter thread that also specifically slammed cisgender defenses of the work.

Others thought that hyperbolic criticism gave the story too much attention, while overlooking trans writing that wasn’t triggering debate. Bogi Takács, author and manager of trans SFF fiction and poetry, kept in mind in a January 12 th tweet: “A trans story which clearly conjures up best wing extremism in the title got more notification than ANYthing else trans-writing-wise in the past year.
This history informs how lots of trans people check out Fall’s story.

Fall was a trans lady, the commenter confirmed, and her objective had actually been to overturn the story’s titular expression and pirate search outcomes for it. Saddened by the response to her story, Fall was asking Clarkesworld to withdraw it and donate her payment to charity.

Some critics didn’t care: being trans and being sorry didn’t absolve Fall from the damage to trans security and inclusion that her attempt to subvert anti-trans rhetoric had triggered. She ought to have understood better, they argued, and she must have gotten input from other trans authors. Clarke later on verified in his declaration that sensitivity readers had been involved. Fall partly succeeded in Google-bombing her title phrase– the very first page of links now includes her story and posts about it– but it didn’t necessarily make the search engine result more favorable.

At first, “I Sexually Recognize as an Attack Helicopter” enthusiasts appeared to be mainly non-trans, which made some in the trans community anxious about the story’s intent. SFF author Phoebe North published an open letter to Fall on Medium, celebrating the story and appealing to Fall to reassess pulling her work.

On Twitter, lots of argued that the story’s contradictions resonated with their own experiences. They recognized both with the story’s whirlwind of battles to get away gender stereotypes and with a lady who quits her womanhood to end up being something “furiously new.” They were deeply harmed by the story’s withdrawal since this appeared to verify that their experiences were not welcome, that they were not welcome, and neither were tough stories composed by authors like them. As SFF poet Ennis R. Bashe observed in a January 15 th tweet: “the entire Isabel Fall thing is getting me fretted that I may be composing my gender wrong.”

If we’re not sure if a story’s metaphors are implied to act as weapons, it can be a relief simply to decide that, yes, these are the author’s sharpened blades we’re seeing, not just the writing’s jagged edges. We can’t even make certain who’s human online anymore, let alone think a little-known writer’s objectives in a world loaded with scams and giants. The very same opts for the disagreements developing from such stories: are the commenters genuine, or are they puppet represent the author or some other group?

We need to still listen carefully to people who say a story has misrepresented them or made them feel unwanted. Being hurt by a story is a gut action, one that’s worth sharing.
Far less regularly do we practice minimizing it: stating “This didn’t work for me” or “That concern was much better addressed by [link to X author]” and merely picking not to pass it on.

When we jump from “This makes me uncomfortable” to “This is just a weapon for our enemies to utilize against us,” we give those opponents a simple target: our worry. The 2019 film Joker, for example, might have read as an indictment of inadequate social services. Rather, even before almost anybody had actually seen the movie, it was written off as a rallying cry for racists and incels. Those people took up the call with glee, and we lost the opportunity to speak about the movie’s obscurities.

There will be other work where we have to weigh the difference between reacting with “That truly harmed” and “Somebody simply stabbed me.” Not everybody is writing in good faith, but neither is instant condemnation always in our best interests.

When there is even a chance that the author is working from within a vulnerable neighborhood– like not recognizing as “trans” in their bio since they are not yet “out”– we ought to prioritize the threat of directly injuring them over worrying about abstract harm brought on by their work. This doesn’t imply reducing criticism even improving at it: targeting the content of the page, not the suspected contents of the author’s heart.

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