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

Isabel Fall’s story raised questions about how we read online

In early January, the influential science fiction and fantasy (SFF) magazine Clarkesworld published a story by an unknown author named Isabel Fall. The story was titled “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter,” which describes the premise: it’s about a woman who becomes a weapon of war. But it’s also the origin of a cruel copypasta used to harass trans people, an internet meme similar to the hyperbolic slur that if queer people were “allowed” to marry, we’d be marrying dogs next.

Part of Clarkesworld’s audience absolutely loved the story, viewing it as an ambitious and beautifully written exploration of gender. But others saw something insidious. Nobody knew who Isabel Fall was. Maybe she was a trans woman reclaiming an ugly meme, or maybe Clarkesworld had just elevated the work of a hateful troll. The result was a panicked dispute that saw the story taken offline at the author’s request, the SFF community grappling with the line between making provocative art and ignoring real-life trauma, and when to take anything on the internet in good faith.

It’s dangerous to talk about any community as a cohesive whole. And people — across all communities — read differently. Most of us read to be affirmed, to see what we long for more of in the world. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t live within such significant online information silos. Sometimes we read to be unsettled or to have our world views challenged, but this is rarer. When we come across unsettling work about real, vulnerable groups, there’s also a strong tendency to be on alert for potential fallout — like a risk of reinforcing stereotypes or giving rhetorical ammunition to bigots.

This risk has manifested in concrete incidents over the past few years in “genre” fiction communities like YA, romance, and SFF, which have been wrestling with a culture war similar to the one that’s gripped gaming, comics, and film fandom. When a major romance writers’ organization, RWA, struggled in late 2019 and early 2020 to respond to institutional racism, SFF’s recent approach to similar issues was held up in pointed contrast.

This is because prominent SFF organizations, publications, and major industry figures have been making more overt efforts in recent years to confront bigotry and to center marginalized communities in its discourse. Those efforts spurred a now-notorious backlash. A group known as the Rabid Puppies tried to “take back” the genre by stacking the Hugo Awards ballot with reactionary authors only a few years after a racist, sexist leader of that movement bid for presidency of the SFWA, a major writers’ association, and garnered roughly 10 percent support.

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

Fall was a completely unknown author, too, with only her name and birth year listed in her bio. And the story used terms and phrases, such as “gender dysphoria” and “When I was a woman,” in ways that some readers felt misrepresented trans experience and others felt offered a rigid, degrading description of womanhood. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the story being a vicious “joke” — or worse, an attempt to infiltrate mainstream SFF with prejudices aligned with right-wing politics. Some even speculated 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 safety, defending provocative storytelling instead of honoring trauma. SFF author K. Tempest Bradford gathered many trans and nonbinary perspectives (not all negative toward the story) in a Twitter thread that also expressly criticized cisgender defenses of the work.

Others thought that hyperbolic criticism gave the story too much attention, while ignoring trans writing that wasn’t causing controversy. Bogi Takács, writer and curator of trans SFF fiction and poetry, noted in a January 12th tweet: “A trans story which explicitly invokes right wing extremism in the title got more notice than ANYthing else trans-writing-wise in the past year. What does this tell trans writers?”

Their experience echoed other recent incidents in the SFF community. Some marginalized groups faced backlash this past year for pushing to rename awards with ugly histories, like one that referenced influential editor and notorious racist John W. Campbell or the one named after the pseudonym of Dr. Alice Sheldon who killed her husband who was disabled. This history informs how many trans people read Fall’s story. Some have argued that even if the community “grows” from this latest incident, that growth cannot outweigh all the trans people who are less likely to participate in community discourse or to submit future work reflecting their experiences.

As the debate continued, a commenter posted a message on Fall’s behalf. Fall was a trans woman, the commenter confirmed, and her aim had been to subvert the story’s titular phrase and hijack search results for it. Also, her birth year and name were not at all secret Nazi coding. Saddened by the response to her story, Fall was asking Clarkesworld to withdraw it and donate her payment to charity. She was also withdrawing future work from submissions queues. (When Clarkesworld editor Neil Clarke posted a statement a few days later, the SFF community also learned that Fall had felt compelled to “out” herself in order to mitigate the story’s impact.)

Some critics didn’t care: being trans and being sorry didn’t absolve Fall from the harm to trans safety and inclusion that her attempt to subvert anti-trans rhetoric had caused. She should have known better, they argued, and she should have gotten input from other trans writers. Clarke later confirmed in his statement that sensitivity readers had been involved. Fall partially succeeded in Google-bombing her title phrase — the first page of links now includes her story and articles about it — but it didn’t necessarily make the search results more positive.

Others were upset to see a seemingly new writer driven from the genre, especially over a tale that affirmed as many people as it alienated. At first, “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” enthusiasts appeared to be primarily non-trans, which made some in the trans community nervous about the story’s intent. But some nonbinary and trans people rallied behind the work, too. SFF author Phoebe North posted an open letter to Fall on Medium, celebrating the story and appealing to Fall to reconsider pulling her work.

On Twitter, many argued that the story’s contradictions resonated with their own experiences. They identified both with the story’s whirlwind of struggles to escape gender stereotypes and with a woman who gives up her womanhood to become something “furiously new.” They were deeply hurt by the story’s withdrawal because this seemed to affirm that their experiences were not welcome, that they were not welcome, and neither were challenging stories written by authors like them. As SFF poet Ennis R. Bashe observed in a January 15th tweet: “the whole Isabel Fall thing is getting me worried that I might be writing my gender wrong.”

If we’re not sure if a story’s metaphors are meant to serve 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 be sure who’s human online anymore, let alone guess a little-known writer’s intentions in a world full of hoaxes and trolls. The same goes for the disputes arising from such stories: are the commenters genuine, or are they puppet accounts for the author or some other group?

We should still listen carefully to people who say a story has misrepresented them or made them feel unwelcome. Being hurt by a story is a gut response, one that’s worth sharing. But what should we do when the same writing can both liberate and traumatize?

It’s possible to practice sitting longer with feelings of unease, resisting the urge to find an absolute interpretation. And there are other tools from literary criticism that we can apply in miniature, ones that would let us hear and learn from a wider range of perspectives. We currently favor the swift removal of divisive or offensive work. Far less frequently do we practice minimizing it: saying “This didn’t work for me” or “That issue was better addressed by [link to X author]” and simply choosing not to pass it on.

When we jump from “This makes me uncomfortable” to “This is only a weapon for our enemies to use against us,” we give those enemies an easy target: our fear. The 2019 film Joker, for instance, could have been read as an indictment of inadequate social services. Instead, even before almost anyone had seen the film, it was written off as a rallying cry for racists and incels. Those people took up the call with glee, and we lost the chance to talk about the film’s ambiguities.

There will be other work where we have to weigh the difference between responding with “That really hurt” and “Someone just stabbed me.” Not everyone is writing in good faith, but neither is immediate condemnation always in our best interests.

When there is even a chance that the author is working from within a vulnerable community — like not identifying as “trans” in their bio because they are not yet “out” — we should prioritize the risk of directly hurting them over worrying about abstract harm caused by their work. This doesn’t mean suppressing criticism so much as getting better at it: targeting the content of the page, not the suspected contents of the author’s heart.

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