You Intellectually Identify as a Fool: The Strange, Sad Case of Isabel Fall’s Brilliant Sci-Fi Story

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Since last summer, I have been getting addicted to science fiction short story magazines, sojourning bimonthly to my local Barnes and Noble to purchase the digest-sized Analog and Asimov’s while listening to weekly podcast episodes of similar publications, the most notable of which being Clarkesworld. The former, entering its 90th year this month, is know for publishing “hard sci-fi,” stories more focused on details and intricacies of science, while the latter two, aged 42 and 13 years respectively, run “soft” fare, stories that skimp on the details of the warp engine in the name of plot and character development.

One particular story run this month by Clarkesworld which I found rather amazing was “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Fall. A first-person narrative, the story uses innovative and intriguing ways of contemplating gender and its link to militarism and imperialism. It blends the “hard” with “soft” in ways that I was quite taken with. Regrettably, due to what can only be called identity politics run amok and call-out culture rampaging across Sleepy Hollow with a flaming pumpkin in hand, the story is now lost to us all, removed from publication owing to harassment of the author. (Read this important story by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic for deeper insights.)

The divide between the “hard” and “soft” is historically a cover for a much more complicated matter. When Analog began its run under the banner of Astounding Stories of Super-Science at the start of the Great Depression, it was catered towards more conservative readers by its white supremacist editor John W. Campbell. By contrast, while the “soft” genre has never been perfect, it has been one that is attenuated more towards the philosophical, contemplative readers who find a great deal of enjoyment from stories that bend and challenge notions of gender, sex, religion, race, and other social mores within both the genre and contemporary world, coming into its own during the “New Wave” period of the 1960s and ’70s. This contrast was given brilliant exposition by David Forbes in their monograph The Old Iron Dream.

In the past decade, the sci-fi/fantasy publishing and attendant fan subculture industries have been in the midst of a vicious culture war that left everyone who is not a white cis-heterosexual male member of these markets fearing for their lives. Overgrown man-children with hard-right political delusions of grandeur have waged pitched turf wars against inroads being made by BIPOC, intersectional feminist, and LGBTQQIAA+ authors alongside anyone who isn’t, well, a rabid white nationalist alt-right internet troll. (Read this impressive profile of author N.K. Jemisin, a sometimes-target of these goons, authored by Raffi Khatchadourian for The New Yorker and this story for Slate by Katy Waldman for more info.)

As a result, the progressive community of authors is (understandably) a tad antsy these days. Their opponents within the industry have evolved and mobilized beyond their cruel internet proclivities into the alt-right, with the carnage of Charlottesville’s 2017 riots having an undeniably eerie tone that was found originally in this intergalactic war of position.

But what happened with “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” was an absurdly bizarre boomerang effect that sought to challenge a perceived bigot who instead ended up being a member of the very marginalized group that folks attempted to defend!

The story is not perfect, admittedly, and there’s certainly room to critique any piece of prose from any number of angles. But at the core it was a narrative, written by a then-closeted trans person, which grappled with an uncomfortable and under-discussed topic, that American imperialism and the mainstreamed feminism that now can include trans/nonbinary folks have worked hand-in-hand to perpetuate imperialism and colonialism at home and abroad for over 500 years. Let’s just face it, there are trans/non-binary war criminals that perpetuate violence in the Global South on behalf of the Pentagon. That’s a big issue that has been plaguing feminism, in one form or another, since before the Seneca Falls Convention at New York in 1848.

And then an overly-PC attack, seemingly from out of left field, was launched by the allegedly-woke readers who told the author to “stay in their lane.” The crudest rendition of this came from the cisgender Tennessee-born literary critic Arrin Dembo, who used that bastion of epistolary prudence, Twitter, to racialize, misgender and tone-police the author about the defined boundaries of “acceptable” ways that a trans person can discuss gender and sexuality.

And predictable insanity resulted. Neil Clarke, editor and publisher of the story, wrote:

  • Isabel’s bio is intentionally short and internet presence negligible. I understand that to be a common practice for trans people who are wary of attacks from anti-trans campaigners. Unfortunately, the same shield used against them opened her up to an unexpected attack from others. Furthermore, 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.
  • Isabel was born in 1988. That does not make one a neo-Nazi. I’m honestly surprised and disappointed that I have to say that.

There’s an honest question to ask Dembo here, who has muted her Twitter account, deleted her polemic, and taken down her webpage, as well as those of her opinion. Is she offended because of genuine concern that the story was edging too-close-for-comfort towards genuine reaction? Or is it instead that liberals don’t like being pushed towards an edge where they need to seriously interrogate their smug, self-assured notions of diversity and consider how their variation of identity politics is underwritten by a subtle-but-persistent racism, sexism, and homo/trans-phobia? What is particularly grotesque about Dembo’s critique is her refusal to allow the fictional narrative voice differentiation and distinction from that of the author, meaning Dembo claims the scribe endorses opinions expressed by her characters. (This is even more egregious because one of the foundational volumes of the genre, Frankenstein, is told by multiple unreliable narrators!) This is sheer idiocy masked as a crass satirical remake of a 1970s women’s lib broadside.

The fact that she chose to use the preferred venue of the current Commander-in-Chief makes the icing on the cake all the more rich. It also reflects how the devices that the Left has formulated in the name of restorative justice can be bastardized and turned into the intellectual equivalent of a Happy Meal by the internet, reducing the distinctions tween the alt-right and their opponents to the barely-distinguishable.

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