The Cosmic Codex
The Cosmic Codex
The unpublished stories of the artist formerly known as Isabel Fall

The unpublished stories of the artist formerly known as Isabel Fall

The controversy over "Helicopter Story" has cost us more than just one brilliant work
Copyright Brian S. Pauls, 2023; Digital illustration using Midjourney

by Brian Scott Pauls

When I was in my early twenties, Prince changed his name—to a symbol with no known pronunciation. He was protesting what he considered to be an unjust and exploitive Warner Bros. recording contract. Nameless, he quickly became “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”. At the time, many of us who weren’t schooled in the details considered this a whacky promotional stunt, but Prince was standing up for his principles—and for the rights of all artists. He didn’t owe us an explanation.

A little over eighteen months ago, in January of 2020, a corner of the sf community erupted in controversy over a short story in the then-current issue of Clarkesworld Magazine.

Written by new author Isabel Fall, and entitled “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” (a subversion of the anti-trans meme) the story evoked strong reactions—both from those who loved it, and from those who suspected it of being an exercise in trolling.

The controversy soon eclipsed the story itself. With proponents and opponents on social media and in the press, the argument quickly focused on the identity of Fall, who—unbeknownst to commentators—was in the process of transitioning to her female identity. She wasn’t prepared for this very public speculation about, and judgement of, who she was (or wasn’t.) The unintended consequences of the dispute included Fall checking into a psychiatric hospital for suicidal thoughts, and instructing Clarkesworld to remove the story. Subsequently, she has abandoned the name “Isabel Fall”, and withdrawn from pending publication other works exploring what she says are “similar themes.” In an accommodation to those who objected to the original title, she has changed the name of the piece in question to “Helicopter Story”—which is how it appears on the 2021 Hugo ballot.

That’s right, the artist formerly known as Isabel Fall is a Hugo nominee for her first published work.

Some will choose to believe Fall received a Hugo nod because of what happened to her during the controversy. It’s possible some of those who submitted her story for consideration were motivated by an impulse to right the wrong of how she’s been treated. Some of those who vote for her may have the same motivation. That’s how human nature works in these sorts of social disagreements.

I have no objections—we should give Fall all manner of grace for what she has suffered at the hands of our dysfunctional hive-mind.

But make no mistake—even if she had been given the anonymity she desired, even if we had avoided this sad drama entirely—she would still deserve the nomination, for the best of reasons: “Helicopter Story” is an amazing piece of science fiction.

I read Fall’s story on the Internet Archive. By the time I became aware of it, Fall had already requested it be removed from both Clarkesworld’s website and their digital magazine.

I was upset at the way Fall had been treated, but I was also skeptical of her depiction of the way gender might be manipulated neurologically to bond someone with a piece of military hardware.

My skepticism vanished as the story—and the power with which Fall tells it—swept me up. “Helicopter Story” is gripping military sf, about a world where the government turns soldiers into effective and terrifying extensions of the weapons they wield.

It also offers insight into what it’s like to hunger for a physicality at odds with one’s biology—and the transcendence of attaining it. That the character in question is anything but a free agent speaks volumes about the way our society treats those for whom this experience is an everyday reality.

Fall’s ability to open up this perspective to a cisgender man like myself demonstrates she is a talent to be reckoned with.

That’s why it saddens me Fall has cancelled publication of additional stories. The sf community’s inability to accept and accommodate her need for anonymity has wreaked havoc on her life. It has also deprived us of a gifted new writer—a powerful, innovative voice.

The Artist Formerly Known as Prince eventually took back his name, and more albums followed.

The artist formerly known as Isabel Fall may never take back her name. That’s up to her. She owes us nothing, and we owe her a great deal. But it’s obvious she has more stories to tell. I hope she gives us an opportunity to read them—perhaps under a new name, under no name at all, or even under a symbol no one can pronounce. The last would be particularly fitting for an artist who craved anonymity, and was denied it.

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