The Disturbing Case of the Disappearing Sci-Fi Story

A young writer wrote a controversial bit of military science fiction about sexual politics. The fallout was nuclear.

Memes continue to be a messy business. They harm as well as empower. Sometimes the harmful ones can become empowering. Sometimes that makes them even messier.

In 2014, people began to claim that they sexually identify as attack helicopters. The meme was intended to mock modern expressions of gender identity and sexuality, including those of the transgender community. Its creator, a player of the videogame Team Fortress 2, declared in the original copypasta that anyone who refused to accept their right to kill people was a “heliphobe” who should “check their vehicle privilege.” To a certain kind of internet user, the post was riotously funny. From Team Fortress 2 chat rooms, the meme spread to Reddit and then on to 4chan. Though usage peaked in mid-2015, according to Google Trends, the meme continues to hurt and offend many people.

At the beginning of this year, the science fiction and fantasy magazine Clarkesworld published a short story called “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Fall. The story, which appears to be Fall’s debut, follows the first “somatic female” to undergo “tactical-role gender reassignment” surgery. She becomes, more or less literally, an Army helicopter. “When I was a woman I wanted my skin to be as smooth and dark as the sintered stone countertop in our kitchen,” the narrator says. “Now my skin is boron-carbide and Kevlar.” The experience of the narrator seemed to reflect the real-world struggles of transitioning. “Severe gender dysphoria,” Fall writes, “can be a flight risk.” The story took the offensive meme, slapped some rotors on it, and flew away to surprising places.

Responses were vehement. Readers who liked it saw an author being intentionally subversive. “I expected the worst when I saw the title,” wrote Reddit user Terminus0. “But I like how it leans into and treats seriously the saying … that people use to dismiss gender fluidity and makes it literal.” Most others in the thread agreed, saying they found the piece gripping, pleasantly surprising, or reminiscent of erotic sci-fi’s preeminent provocateur, Chuck Tingle. “I have been talking for days to everyone I meet about ‘I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter,’” @hoverpope tweeted. “It was immediately canonized for me.” Other celebrators of the work included noted author Carmen Maria Machado, who praised the story’s messy boldness. She also called out the critics—of which there seemed to be just as many. “My heart is so crushed and my brain is so angry,” Machado tweeted.

As Machado noted, some of the loudest detractors seemed to come not from far-right forums but from within her own social-justice circles and the queer community. The offensiveness of the meme, for some transgender readers, couldn’t be wiped away. “[The meme] 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,” @aphoebebarton tweeted, though she admitted to not having read the story. Others claimed a trans person would never have written a piece like “Attack Helicopter” in the first place and that perhaps the author was in fact a troll. “[The comments have] me concerned that these people are trying to troll the Hugos again,” @1000YearPlan tweeted, referencing attempts by reactionary readers to hijack the Hugo Awards several years ago.

The notion that the story was written by someone who agrees with the transphobic sentiment of the original meme caught hold. Some felt the author was likely to be a “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” (commonly known as a TERF) because of how Fall talked about gender and dysphoria and the experience of being trans. “The story is about a woman being ‘transed’ by the government, which is a prime TERF concern,” @EffInvictus tweeted. Eventually, everything that seemed to be known about Isabel Fall—who appears to have zero internet presence—came under scrutiny, including her birth year, 1988. To some, the year seemed significant because the number 88 is sometimes a Nazi dogwhistle, code for Heil Hitler (H is the eighth letter of the alphabet).

Others felt Fall’s story pointed to problems larger than the piece itself. “Regardless of what your take is on the attack helicopter story, I feel one thing should be noted,” @bogiperson tweeted. “A trans story which explicitly invokes rightwing extremism in the title got more notice than ANYthing else trans-writing-wise in the past year. What does this tell trans writers?” Criticism continued to ramp up, with reports claiming Fall was dismayed and overwhelmed by the reception.

Then, a shock: On January 13, Clarkesworld’s editors removed the story from the site—“at the request of the author,” a note said.

Since then, criticism has slowed; instead, many have taken to Twitter to express frustration with how the story was received. “I liked the attack helicopter story a lot,” @austinchanted tweeted. “But not as much as I’d like it if we could learn to critique queer people’s messy, interesting, fucked up works without needing to decide if they’re Good and Pure or Evil and Shameful.” Many others have tweeted in sadness and in support for Fall. “‘I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter’ struck me as a complex, ugly, lovely story: partially satire and partially an attempt to reckon with the complexities of gender identity,” @asher_elbein tweeted. “I get why some folks didn’t like it, but the author withdrawing it is a tragedy.”

Clarkesworld updated the post on January 16 with a note from the magazine’s editor, Neil Clarke. He offered sincere apologies to those hurt by the piece and asked for respect for Fall and the decision to remove the piece. “This was not a hoax,” he wrote. “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.” As a “defense against the attacks,” Clarke added, Fall had to out herself as trans. “That should never be the case and is very disturbing to me.” Finally, he noted that Fall had signed over her payment for the story to Trans Lifeline, a nonprofit that assists transgender people in crisis. Clarke matched the donation.

All Rights Reserved for Emma Grey Ellis

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