Clarkesworld Removes
Isabel Fall’s Story

Isabel Fall’s short story “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” in the January Clarkesworld, the subject of intense discussion on Twitter this week, was removed from the magazine’s website today at the author’s request.

Editor Neil Clarke tweeted:

The story remains available to read at the Wayback Machine.

This roundup illustrates the sources of the discussion within the sff community, and points to some of the more frequently cross-referenced conversations.

IS THE STORY TRANSPHOBIC?

D Franklin challenges numerous passages as transphobic. Thread starts here.

D Franklin agrees the story should have been pulled. Thread starts here.

Another critic of the story as transphobic makes a detailed case for that viewpoint here.

Lynn E. O’Connacht communicates that “there’s a pretty big difference between “this story makes me uncomfortable’ and ‘this story caused me harm’”. Thread starts here.

WIDER CONTEXT.

Bogi Takács sheds light on some matters that drive the reception of this story and works by and about other minorities.

First thread starts here.

Second thread starts here.

POSITIVE RESPONSES TO STORY.

Phoebe North supports the story and author in “An Open Letter” at Medium, an autobiographical essay that concludes:

Whatever you decide to do with your story, Isabel, thank you for writing your story. Thank you for making me feel seen and heard. We don’t get a lot of ourselves in fiction. We often only get scraps. This was more than that. A mirror.

Alex Acks says North’s essay “articulates a lot of my own difficult to verbalize feelings” about the story.

Berry Grass believes the story has shortcomings, but aligns more with those who consider it to be thought-provoking. Thread starts here.

CONTROVERSIAL ART.

Carmen Maria Machado wrote a long, thoughtful thread about provocative stories in the context of art and literature, but while I was editing this together she locked her tweets to all but followers so those are not available to quote.

Malcolm F. Cross criticizes the story as having shortcomings as MilSF, too, but marks out more territory on the art vs. harm map. Thread starts here.

Warren Adams-Ockrassa’s thread seems to say that whatever the writer’s goal was, they should have handled it differently. Starts here.

PULLING THE STORY.

Cat Rambo is sorry the story was pulled. Thread starts here.

One of several eye-opening comments on Rambo’s thread:

ROLE OF AN EDITOR.

Setsu U finds the discussion about the story connects with many questions and concerns they are responsible for as an editor. Thread starts here.

ENDNOTES.

Several people have been circulating screenshots of a statement that’s represented as giving background about the story and author. I have neither found the source of the original post, nor confirmation that it is from a Clarkesworld spokesperson, so I am not posting these but you can find a copy here.

Alexandra Erin on why she won’t read the story. Thread starts here.

Cheryl Morgan says she hasn’t read the story, however, offered advice for holding the discussion. Thread starts here. Some of her points are —

There’s extended discussion at Metafilter. As a whole, I thought I learned more just by searching “Clarkesworld” on Twitter.   

40 thoughts on “Clarkesworld Removes
Isabel Fall’s Story

  1. Several people have been circulating screenshots of a statement that’s represented as giving background about the story and author. I have neither found the source of the original post, nor confirmation that it is from a Clarkesworld spokesperson, so I am not posting these but you can find a copy here.

    That screenshot is from the comments posted on the story at Clarkesworld. The comments can be seen in the last screenshot in the Wayback Machine (you have to click “50 COMMENTS – JOIN OR START THE DISCUSSION!” at the end of the story). There was never any verification whether it was actually from someone connected to the author or to Clarkesworld.

  2. Thanks for that round-up.

    [ninja’d by JJ 🙂 ]
    // I have neither found the source of the original post, nor confirmation that it is from a Clarkesworld spokesperson//

    It was a comment on the story when it was still up claiming to be from somebody writing on behalf of the author. It disappeared along with the other comments when the story was pulled. I guess that the story was pulled is some confirmation that the comment was genuine.

  3. Thanks for the summary. I kind of saw this coming when Twitter got wound up.

    I thought it was a uniquely interesting story. I started my shortlist for next year’s Hugos with this story. It not only opened some interesting thoughts about gender, but it also opened up some thoughts about military service and the changes we endure; what gets questioned and when it gets questioned.

    Given that, at least within the US, the military has a history of being ahead of the curve on social issues, I think the story presented a good framework for several different conversations.

    My appreciation of it aside, it is terrible whenever we give in to bullying tactics that remove genre work from the conversation. Criticism of literature that fails in some way is good. Forcing it to be withdrawn is just another form of censorship.

    Regards,
    Dann
    ”      ” said Pooh as he was rendered speechless

  4. One of the comments on the story is under the name “Peter Watts.” I wonder if that’s the author Peter Watts? The comment references “back when I was just starting out,” which certainly makes it seem like the comment-writer is an established author.

    The story itself is very dense and thought-provoking, with a lot of interesting ideas and incisive social commentary. It struck me as being quite feminist (e.g. “Women live in cross-reference. It is harder work than we know” ; “Woman felt like a little tic of the lips when I was interrupted, or like teasing out the mood my boyfriend wouldn’t explain. Like remembering his mom’s birthday for him, or giving him a list of things to buy at the store, when he wanted to be better about groceries.”).

    I can understand that Clarke was respecting the author’s wishes in removing the story, but I wish he hadn’t. Both because it was a good story with a lot to say, and because it feels like letting the people who were hurling vitriol at the author win.

  5. I think the story has a lot of problems, as identified by the people linked in this post. If the author is trans, then I think they have internalized a lot of oppressive thinking which shows itself in the story.

    But I wish that the story had been left up, because without it being readily available, it makes the conversation a lot harder to have — and I think it’s a good conversation to have.

  6. Dear folks,

    I’m going to be going way out on a limb here, but I’m hazarding a guess that this was an exercise in modern radical trans theory. And I do mean hazarding — mrtt is deep and turbulent water, and I can merely dog-paddle. I’m “appealing to authority” by asking someone who navigates those currents better than anyone, and if she gives me a publishable response (yea or nay), I’ll pass it on.

    In the meantime, I’m throwing this out for tentative consideration. There are meta-aspects of this that remind me of Andrea Long Chu, who is very much at the cutting edge of mrtt… I mean that in multivalent ways. The outrageousness, the provocation, the hyperbole. What I’d call the “court jester” approach to revealing truth.

    Mrtt itself is cutting and it is frequently painful. Currently it is inherently and unavoidably controversial. As nascent philosophy, its experiments often fail.

    If, and I emphasize that’s a huge if, I have the correct context for this, then it could well turn out to be that the author pulled the story because they decided it was an unsuccessful exercise and did not produce the reaction they desired. We’ll have to wait for their statement, I guess.

    At this point, asserting that it was pulled because they were forced or bullied into it is at least as speculative. Facts not in evidence.

    pax
    Ctein

    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. http://ctein.com
    — Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com

  7. I didn’t read the story. Couldn’t not be aware of it, but the title was off-putting.

    The discussion is fascinating, though, and to me at least suggests the story isn’t gone forever. It may need to stew in people’s minds a bit, maybe including the author’s, and it may need a different home, but it sounds like at least some of the reaction may be useful and creative.

  8. As a moderator on a forum for alternative sexualities, I’ve lost count on how many times I have moderated comments to remove the offensive anti-trans line. It is over 50 times, how many more I don’t know.

    I think if you have seen it constantly appear, not once or twice in passing, but constantly, then you will be primed from the start when you see a short story with that name. My first thought was “is this really necessary?” together with anger at Clarkesword.

    Thing is also that by using that title, you are also setting the lens through whitch the story should be understood. You are saying that from the start that this is about a transperson whose identity is called into question.

    If the title had been “Before I was a tank” with basically the same concept, we would have been free to think about it from other angles such as genderfluid or just as plain SFF where a person is transformed into a machine. That would have given us a broader spectrum for interpretation. But with the title, we were told what the central question was, that of a transpersons identity and how to think about it. This made it a personal thing.

    I’m not for or against it being removed. It was the authors decision. The only thing I hope for is that if it is published again, then please change the title first.

  9. @Ctein

    I read it as very much based in modern queer theory and the experience of being trans, myself… but because it’s also talking about co-option, homonationalism, and the fetishisation of military hardware I can see how someone who came to it already angry about the title could take it for transphobic feminist satire. Though of course it’s easy to be wrong about satire, and I’ve been wrong in the past.

    The view from my part of the trans community over on Mastodon is sympathetic – consensus is that it reads like a trans person’s story and that the backlash is unfair. There’s a certain amount of grumbling about tumblr and the aggressive pursuit of purity, but I think that’s just habit.

    I don’t know that I want to go wading through all the critiques and counter-critiques at this point, but Bogi Tacaks’ point about engagement is well made.

  10. Going out on a limb here (since pip’s statement didn’t mention anything about this), but I’d say it’s entirely possible the author pulled the story because of all the speculation (often cissexist and gender-essentialist) about her identity.

    Plenty of trans folks on twitter (supporters and detractors) mentioned how commentary like “no $identity would have written this” or “only $gender think this way” kicked up a ton of dysphoria, so I can definitely see an author (especially a trans one) throwing up their hands and peacing out.

  11. It’s precisely because of situations like this that I am reluctant to even try my hand at writing fiction. Art works best when it asks hard questions, takes people into uncomfortable and scary places and, most importantly, challenges a person’s beliefs, viewpoint and intellect. Ideally, in my opinion, the ultimate goal is to provoke a reaction that either reaffirms your point of view or changes your mind.

    Art, in whatever form, is constantly under review and criticism. Even more so in the day and age. I don’t feel like creating in an atmosphere where a group of people, marginalized or not, have an upper hand in whether or not my work has any merit or a right to exist at all.

    When the right to criticize and cancel outstrips the right to create, art dies.

  12. @Kitty Hawk

    At the very least, I think a transphobe looking to create a fuss would be more likely to fight back than withdraw.

    @Chris Barkley

    We’d all prefer our creations to be celebrated and never judged, of course, but that’s not really how art works.

  13. If you want to create uncomfortable and provocative art, don’t be surprised if people get provoked or uncomfortable and absolutely expect to become uncomfortable and provoked yourself by their reactions.

  14. I read it via the Wayback machine.

    My take is, it’s a human-becomes-machine or cyborg story onto which the author repeatedly pushes a wholly unconvincing “machine is gender” narrative that just doesn’t work.

    What comes across in the text is that becoming a helicopter is a major transition from being human or being a biological being. There’s no point in the story at which I find it persuasive that being a helicopter is a transition from being female.

    I don’t have an opinion about whether it was transphobic. My only opinion about it is that I think the author had an idea that didn’t work.

  15. @Chris Barkley:

    So, what should I do if a piece of art asks hard questions, and my answer to those questions is “the author is wrong about this, because $reason”? Keep quiet so as not to challenge the author’s beliefs and viewpoint?

    And, what should an author do if her art asks hard questions, people answer some of those questions in public, and the reader reaction changes the author’s mind by bringing up something she hadn’t previously thought of?

    As of now, we don’t know why the author took the story down. She might have felt attacked–but “this is a harmful story” is different from “the author was trying to hurt me,” and neither of those is the same as either “this story should not have been published” or “the author is a bad person.”

    If I believed both that a story was harmful and that the author was not a bad person, and wasn’t trying to hurt people, why shouldn’t I let them know that I thought they were hurting people unintentionally and unnecessarily?

    I don’t think writers necessarily, or often, should withdraw a story, or turn down reprint requests, because of criticism–but I do think the writer should be able to do so, and that might sometimes be the right choice.

  16. I think it’s worth noting that the people who found the story hurtful are genuinely hurt, even if I think they’re misreading it, and that not wanting to hurt people is a perfectly good reason to take the story down.

  17. @Laura Resnick There’s no point in the story at which I find it persuasive that being a helicopter is a transition from being female.

    That’s not something I’d thought about – the story so obviously started from speculation about what it would be like to actually identify as a helicopter that I just suspended my disbelief. I find the treatment of comfort and discomfort and embodiment convincing, I think, and the sense of the complexities of gender. And monsters and cyborgs are both common metaphors that people use to navigate the experience of being trans.

    What’s uncomfortable about the story is the weaponsation of gender. Are we meant to believe that the deconstruction of gender “went too far”, or that the process was interrupted and co-opted by those in power? I think the ending points to the second reading, but the tone of the rest doesn’t always support it.

  18. The story is zeitgeisty and gnarly as hell, which is what I ask from science fiction. It has me thinking all sorts of turbulent thoughts. I’m glad I read it. Thank you for bringing it to my attention, Mike.

  19. I don’t feel like creating in an atmosphere where a group of people, marginalized or not, have an upper hand in whether or not my work has any merit or a right to exist at all.

    The author withdrew the story. Nobody forced it offline.

    If you’re waiting for a day when writers don’t run the risk of putting something to paper that generates a lot of negative reactions, you’re probably out of luck.

    A much greater risk to the writer is reader apathy, not reader anger. How many times in SF/F publishing in recent years has a story been withdrawn from publication over a controversy? Situations like this one are rare.

  20. To be fair, the initial responses speculated that the author was connected to a racist/sexist strain of the right-wing. That includes the speculation that the author’s claimed birth year (1988) was a form of self-identification. The number 88 is tied to a number of hard-right pathologies.

    Once the author’s gender was confirmed, trans critics started claiming that the author had no idea how to represent a trans perspective in their work.

    Second or third hand (very few have heard directly from the author) reporting suggests that the author was subjected to harassment that extended beyond criticism of their work.

    The withdrawal of the story seems to me to be more out of self-defense than anything else. In my book, that’s a form of bullying that should be a concern for anyone with an interest in promoting an open environment where ideas (even difficult ones) can be discussed.

    Regards,
    Dann
    Whatever it is that hits the fan will not be evenly distributed.

  21. How many times in SF/F publishing in recent years has a story been withdrawn from publication over a controversy?

    Over the last 12 months? This makes three.
    Kosoko Jackson A Place for Wolves
    Amelie Wen Zhao Blood Heir

    Not to debate the merits of those previous withdrawals, but I have to wonder if publishers are taking second look at books from marginalized authors and asking “The potential controversy isn’t worth it. Can we go with this nice uncontroversial story about a white cishet male instead?”

  22. @Hampus Once upon a time, I’d submitted a piece and gotten a request for revisions. I realized that the revision request meant that there was a gap of understanding of what the anthology was about. I’d read it as a science fiction call, but it was a horror call. I’d inadvertently played into a long-standing anti-gay trope I wasn’t aware of. Naturally, I found this out while I was waiting to hear its fate. Had I strengthened the story into a horror story, I would have made that trope worse.

    I thought about it for a day, then decided I was going to pull the story. I didn’t feel comfortable with the genre change, and I didn’t feel comfortable with being published in the anthology that was proposed even if I could find a way around the story/LGBT issues.

    (FWIW, I myself am bi, but the story featured a gay man and I was ignorant about their history at that time.)

  23. Based on the commentary quoted and in the comments, I decided to read the piece. I will only quote one line (that’s not about being trans) later on.

    Over the years, I’ve read quite a few self descriptions by trans people in non-supportive situations trying to capture their self-loathing. It’s heartbreaking stuff, and I think the author captures that on the page. Obviously, I can’t speak for the trans experience, which is as vast as human expression can be.

    As for that line I was going to quote, about the Boeing Apache helicopter: “America names its helicopters for the people it destroyed.” Ouchhhhh.

    Topic shift: Three days ago, Beautuber Nikkie Tutorials came out as trans, apparently due to a blackmail threat, possibly because she’d just announced her engagement. So she turns it around with a #1 ranked YouTube video with 28 million views. You go, girl.

    Which brings me to a larger issue. Yes, trans people were hurt by Isabel’s story. Yes, Isabel’s trans. Isabel, you’re still part of the larger sf/f community. God knows we’re imperfect and we fight and can be dysfunctional as hell. I know you were trying to say something and it worked for some people and not for others. And art’s like that.

  24. @Dann

    the initial responses speculated that the author was connected to a racist/sexist strain of the right-wing.

    Correction, one initial response. There was a wide range of initial responses, from praise to disquiet to speculation it was an established author transitioning.

    That includes the speculation that the author’s claimed birth year (1988) was a form of self-identification. The number 88 is tied to a number of hard-right pathologies.

    Correction, one person said that.

    Once the author’s gender was confirmed, trans critics started claiming that the author had no idea how to represent a trans perspective in their work.

    Correction, some trans people criticised the story for a number of reasons, some praised it, some had very mixed feelings.

    The withdrawal of the story seems to me to be more out of self-defense than anything else. In my book, that’s a form of bullying that should be a concern for anyone with an interest in promoting an open environment where ideas (even difficult ones) can be discussed.

    Correction, given that all the evidence you used to get to your conclusion of “bullying” was incorrect, it isn’t correct either.

  25. Pingback: Clarkesworld’s Statement About Fall Story | File 770

  26. It’s a really good statement by Clarkesworld.

    I read it multiple times and never could get to a place where I was really okay with it, let alone like it; it reads to me like reading an Andrea Long Chu essay, as in, provocative like a paveway, rife with alienating assumptions, littered with weird small errors that crack foundations, and rococo prose. It works for some trans people. It doesn’t work for others. It really did not work for me.

    But even a mere six words in the bio, “Isabel Fall is a trans author,” would have given me so much more space to trust the author instead of having to continually fear and worry about the “true” intent, and scry with scraps as to whether this was a nasty piece of work or whether the state of online discourse about people like me, especially in communities that have long had weird conservative streaks here and there had calibrated my antennae a little too coarsely. Even then, regardless of intent, the actual impact of the piece–seeing a trans helicopter attacking a school (where children are, a common anti-trans trope), describing killing as being gendered (echoing common anti-trans talking points about trans women perpetrating “male violence”), and the continuation of cyberpunk’s sprinkling of Asianness into stories without much thought of how Asian identity interacts, intersects, and informs other identities, particularly Queer ones…

    In this case, lacking sufficient context on the author, seeing so many comments from outside my community, especially with the tone they were starting to take? Especially some on the Clarkesworld site itself? I could not find a purchase from which to extend trust.

    In the absence of context and information, it’s easy to rely on what little, partial data there is, which is, of course, one thing that can cause collateral damage.

    I do hope Isabel Fall publishes again. I do hope the conversation surrounding the story stops being so binary; few things are binary, except maybe my own gender.

  27. Dear Sophie Jane,

    I sent a query to Sandy Stone last night asking what she made of the story (anyone who doesn’t know who Sandy Stone is, she founded transgender studies — she’s highly Googleable). This was before we had any context or gotten a statement from Neil Clarke; her opinion (quoted with permission) comes solely from reading the story:

    “IMHO it’s a really good piece of writing. Gripping, nicely laid out, and with a lovely, twisty, nasty sense of personal experience.  The important thing for me is that the unsubtle subtext rings true, which is what makes the whole thing work:  if you strip away all the sci-fi plumage it’s straightforward trans theory; I’d call it barely radical.  I could find no further information about the author, but she can certainly write a good shtick.”

    It’s not like she gets to dictate Trans Party Line –- Heck, there ISN’T a Party Line. But her opinion carries a certain weight.

    I’ll likely argue with her that it’s not as straightforward, and it’s more radical, than she thinks it is. I’m not counting on winning that argument — she plays a much deeper game than me. But sometimes…

    The meta- I pull from the story is closely aligned with an observation of Andrea Long Chu’s: that gender is not so benign a thing as a social construct but rather it is a social demand, an imposition that is laid on us that we consent to only because it’s an offer we cannot refuse. (As in, “Nice little life you have there. It would be a shame if something were to happen to it.”) It’s not an agreement we enter into, it’s coercion.

    Unsurprisingly, that observation is HUGELY controversial among trans folk. Me, I wholeheartedly agree with it, I think it’s brilliant insight. Others are hugely offended and enraged by it (and, often, by Andrea).

    I agree with Neil that he should take care not to be blindsided by this sort of reaction in the future, and I sincerely hope it will NOT dissuade him from publishing significant trans fiction. But he’s going to have to recognize that any really important trans-fiction WILL seriously piss off, on a deeply personal level, some significant subset of the community.

    I’m surprised the author didn’t know that the story would provoke such strong reaction within the community. I’m very sorry she had the experience around it that she had. but if she continues to write work that gripping, she’s not going to be able to avoid it. For a substantial subset, work like this is a real punch in the gut, going to the very core of their sense of self, no matter what gender-sociopolitical position the work takes. It’s unavoidable.

    pax
    Ctein

    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. http://ctein.com
    — Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com

  28. @Ctein The meta- I pull from the story is… that gender is not so benign a thing as a social construct but rather it is a social demand, an imposition that is laid on us that we consent to only because it’s an offer we cannot refuse.

    Put that way, I think it is orthodox gender theory: as far as I’m able to understand Judith Butler, it’s what she means by “gender is performative”. (That is: not an act we put on but a thing we create by doing, for ourselves and for others.) But I kind of take took that as a baseline – the interesting parts for me were gender as language and the potential for co-option.

    The problem is that trans identity and the nature of gender is an area of multiple overlapping tensions, so it’s going to be controversial for as long as trans people are required to explain and justify their existence… and it can be personal in ways that have to be treated with care, as we’ve just seen.

    (There’s lots more to unpack here but it’s taking a lot of my energy already and I’m not sure this is the best forum in the first place. Maybe one day we’ll get that beer.)

  29. Dear Sophie Jane,

    First, a modest correction — the end of Sandy’s quote should have been “…she can certainly write a good stick.” Not shtick. Dunno why I changed it, Sandy never makes typographical errors.

    (In further conversation, she did agree with me that the story is more radical than her initial comment implied. She likes to leave herself wiggle room [s].)

    I think you’re quite right that a lot of the story is about performative gender, ala Judith Butler, and there’s certainly nothing radical about that, very mainstream. (Sidenote to onlookers — mainstream doesn’t mean agreement; e.g., the Democratic and Republican parties are both mainstream parties.) The part that isn’t mainstream, that is radical is formulating gender as coercion. That goes well beyond Butler.

    “Overlapping tensions…” is that ever an understatement! I think it’s going to remain controversial until we have a much better understanding, on a factual basis, of gender and sexuality, and we’ve made precious little progress on that front. We’re only slightly less ignorant than we were in the 60s.

    I don’t feel the controversy is a consequence of the constant demand to explain and justify one’s existence. But hell yes, the imperative certainly is. I mean, cis-straight people do not, by and large, put effort into trying to figure out why they are the way they are and how they fit into society. I think you’re entirely right — that being constantly challenged drives that introspection. Another social imposition. Which unfortunately doesn’t make it any less real or personal (like gender).

    In the interest of full disclosure: this is partly my fault. I was one of the architects of the essentialist position back in the mid-1970s. There were probably a few of us who believed it, but the majority didn’t — we promoted it as political strategy. I’m sure we assumed that it would go out of fashion, as political positions unsupported by fact are wont to do. Had we known it would hold such sway almost half a century later, it would have given us pause.

    It was a good idea at the time, but oh boy, the cost.

    Personally, this feels to be a decent and civilized forum for this conversation, but I understand the energy it takes. If you feel it is better pursued in private (and deserves pursuing), I am highly emailable and easy enough to find.

    pax
    Ctein

    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. http://ctein.com
    — Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com

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