There is a significant amount of social media positive-buzz, speculation and concern over a story in the January 2020 issue of Clarkesworld. The story by an unknown (and possibly pseudonymous) author Isabel Fall takes as its title and premise a meme that has been used for a few years now to parody/belittle gender concepts among transgender people. Specifically it takes this meme https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/i-sexually-identify-as-an-attack-helicopter and examines it using science fiction.
The story entitled provocatively “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” [http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/issue_160/ ] is a first person narrative set in a near future America that is in the midst of a civil war. The narrator in a previous life was a woman called Seo Ji Hee who joined the army and underwent neurosurgery to change how they perceived their own gender. The ostensible purpose of this was to repurpose those aspect of a persons mind/brain dedicated to the perception and self-perception of gender and use those aspects to create a more dedicated soldier (or in this case, a more dedicated flight warrant officer).
The story mainly interleaves two different styles. Partially alternating paragraphs deal either with a specific mission being flown by Barb (as the narrator is now known) or with the narrator’s thoughts and experiences with gender in their former life as Seo Ji Hee.
For example, here is an extract from one of the two styles in the story:
‘The target bumps up over the horizon. The low mounds of Kelso-Ventura District High burn warm gray through a parfait coating of aerogel insulation and desert soil. We have crossed a third of the continental US to strike a school built by Americans.http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/fall_01_20/
Axis cues up a missile: black eyes narrowed, telltales reflected against clear laser-washed cornea. “Call the shot, Barb.”
“Stand by. Maneuvering.” I lift us above the desert floor, buying some room for the missile to run, watching the probability-of-kill calculation change with each motion of the aircraft.’
Which contrasts with the more introspective elements:
‘Now I am jointed inside. Now I am geared and shafted, I am a being of opposing torques. The noise I make is cancelled by decibel killers so I am no louder than a woman laughing through two walls.http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/fall_01_20/
When I was a woman I wanted to have friends who would gasp at the precision and surprise of my gifts. Now I show friendship by tracking the motions of your head, looking at what you look at, the way one helicopter’s sensors can be slaved to the motions of another.
When I was a woman I wanted my skin to be as smooth and dark as the sintered stone countertop in our kitchen.’
Certainly a lot of thought and skill have been but into the story. Combining stylistic conventions of military science fiction with musings about gender roles and the cognitive basis of gender shows some adeptness.
Nonetheless, I found it a very odd story. It didn’t work for me either as story about a military mission, as a story about personal understanding of self or as a synthesis of the two. Even so, science fiction should attempt interesting things and a bold story that doesn’t achieve its objectives are still stories I want to see.
However, that takes us back to the title and the other premise of the story which appears to be to take a hostile meme and examine it seriously through the lens of science fiction tropes. In this case, Isabel Fall’s story takes the meme (that had been common in right wing circles over the past few years, particularly as a means of belittling transgender people) as its title and opening sentence and borrows other aspects as well. For example, the original copypasta meme specified an Apache helicopter and so does the story (although updated to a futuristic AH-70 Apache Mystic).
I know I talk about Ockham’s Razor a lot but it is because I’m interested in what default assumptions we should make in a world of imperfect knowledge and understanding. An extension of parsimony for me is to assume good faith in people as the simplest explanation until evidence shows otherwise. Taking that as a starting point, I assume the story is a genuine attempt to take the hostile meme as a starting point and examine it and possibly invert its intent by taking a joke and treating it seriously. Indeed, we can see that the story does overtly take the meme as its title and then presents a serious story.
Taking the story as a good faith attempt to accomplish something does not settle the question of whether it succeeds in doing what it sets out to accomplish. Having read and re-read the story, I don’t think it manages this at all. The story ends up with a muddled view of both gender and gender roles although it picks up the interesting idea of the cognitive support our minds provide (not always consistently) for “doing” gender.
The provocative title necessarily presents as hostile given the recent history of the phrase “identify as an attack helicopter”. That hostility exists independently of authorial intent or the eventual direction of the story. No, I’m not saying “nobody can ever use that phrase as a story title” but rather like telling an edgy joke or playing devil’s advocate on a controversial or emotional topic, there is a cost to both the author and the reader by jumping feet first into controversy. Succeeding at being provocative is not guaranteed and ‘provocative’ is not a virtue in itself. Put another way, a better story with the same title could work. In this case, I didn’t find the story strong enough to carry the weight of the provocative title. Indeed, I think the title very much gets in the way of the story as it positions the concept of gender in the story into the current dialogue on the human rights of transgender people, whereas the story itself really only looks at gender in any depth as science-fiction ‘what-if’ and adds nothing positive to that discussion. No, not every story about gender has to be positive contribution to a current social issue but the story jumps into that discussion with its title and hence gains some new obligations.
The story received a lot of praise in the comments at the web-version of Clarkesworld [archive version as of the time of this post] as well as on social media. I don’t find that odd in itself (some people really love stories I find a bit so-so and vice-versa, that’s just stories) but some of the effusive praise did strike me as a bit odd and struck others as odd as well.
An obvious effect of picking a provocative title and premise is that it will provoke. A benefit of provocation is that it generates discussion — indeed here I am writing a review of the story primarily because its title was provocative! The flip-side of that is suspicion. Like I said above, I’m assuming good-faith in the writing and publishing of the story until I have other reasons not to. However, along with the praise on social media has come people looking at the story’s title and content and wondering if it is essentially hostile.
That suspicion has led to further speculation as to whether the story is some sort of prank or hoax. Well, anything is possible. If it a prank there is a simple method of finding out, which is to simply wait. If it is a prank then there is a prankster and at some point they will say so because that’s the nature of pranks. I’m not convinced that the story is some sort of attempt to hoax awards (aside from anything else, a January publication date presumably pushes the eligibility to nominations in 2021) but who knows? If it is, the writing doesn’t suggest any of the more prank-orientated authors that I’m aware of but then again that is exactly how a good prank would appear.
Put another way, the text of a story alone is not enough to identify that a story is not what it appears to be. The author’s broader identity (i.e. what else they have written, their views on other topics etc) aren’t known and the name may (or may not) be inspired by a story by Ian R MacLeod (http://bestsf.net/ian-r-macleod-isabel-of-the-fall/ ).
My conclusion of sorts is this: I was unimpressed by the story on its merits to the extent that I could ignore the title. Your experience may vary. The provocative title I believe hurts the story and I can understand why people will react negatively to the story as a consequence. Picking a provocative title is just like making an edgy joke: the author takes a substantial risk and nobody is obliged to congratulate them for that if the risk doesn’t pay off.