Cancel Culture

Transgender Writer Forced to Retract Trans-Themed Science Fiction Story

Isabel Fall is canceled. It's the science fiction world's loss.


Clarkesworld, a well-regarded science fiction and fantasy web magazine, recently published first-time author Isabel Fall. The title of her story, "I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter," alludes to a meme typically used to delegitimize transgender people. But the tale is anything but anti-trans: It's a surreal, mind-bending war story that turns the meme on its head. It was read and approved by sensitivity reviewers—some of them trans. Its author, Fall, is herself trans.

As far as I can tell, most of the social-media reaction to the story was positive. But a small number of militantly unhappy people attacked the story for offending them. Their harassment of Fall was so unpleasant that she asked Clarkesworld to un-publish the story, and the editor complied. "I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter" is canceled.

Clarkesworld editor Neil Clarke published a lengthy note about the removal that politely objected to the critics' most unreasonable claims. Some had apparently claimed that Fall's stated birth year—1988—was an alt-right dog whistle, since the double eights could be seen as referencing H.H. (H being the eighth letter of the alphabet), or "heil Hitler." This, of course, is conspiratorial nonsense (though I was also born in 1988, so some people will probably think the conspiracy just runs a little deeper).

But for the most part, Clarke accepted the criticism and apologized for publishing a piece that had offended a group of pathologically unreasonable people:

Even with ownvoices authorship [authors writing about their own race, class, sex, etc.] and ownvoices sensitivity reading, it is still possible to miss something. In this case we can see two groups of trans readers with directly opposing views that are deeply rooted in their own experience and perspectives. In some cases, what made the story speak to some is also what alienated others. Neither perspective is wrong, but they appear to be incompatible with one another on some level. Knowing that this was a potentially controversial story, we should have employed a broader range of sensitivity readers. This is not to say those we worked with failed, but rather that they only represented a slice of the community and additional perspectives could have helped inform us of a potential conflict. It may not have "fixed" things but it would have provided opportunities to better prepare ourselves and our readers for what lay ahead. This was an oversight….

That we didn't understand enough about trans politics to properly advise a new author who was wading into the deep end. I'm not suggesting that we tell an author what they can and can't say, but had the previous two items be done correctly, we would have been in a better place to prepare her. Because of those failures, our knowledge gap contributed to the problem….

In the meantime I offer my sincere apologies to those who were hurt by the story or the ensuing storms.

Clarke began his note with this statement: "This is not censorship. She needed this to be done for her own personal safety and health." An author self-canceling due to venomous harassment from a tiny cabal of ideological activists may not meet the strict definition of censorship, but it's certainly a blow to the spirit of artistic freedom. A stronger defense of Fall and her work was merited. This is capitulation.

Writing in his newsletter, Jesse Singal astutely summarizes the problem with Clarke's statement:

Clarke could have easily published a short statement with the general shape of, "Unfortunately, the author of this story, Isabel Fall, received a wave of harassment after it was published. She requested it be unpublished and I have regretfully agreed." Instead, he chose to stoke the idea that because people were offended by this story, there is something wrong with it. How else can one interpret his claim that someting was 'missed' and could have been 'fixed'? This is what I mean when I say he's pretending to support Fall but throwing her under the bus: He's absolutely accepting the framing of the hysterical online critics when he didn't have to at all.

But nowhere in this almost 1,400-word-long statement will you find a clear explanation of exactly what is wrong with the story. That's because the only accurate answer to that question is something like "Some people have very superficial but dearly held ideas about what gender is, and because this story took a more complicated and fraught and creative approach to its theories of gender—one which challenged those ideas—those people became deeply offended." That's why a story in a major sci-fi outlet had to be unpublished.

This episode demonstrates one of the most salient and oft-overlooked facts of cancel culture: The people most vulnerable to canceling belong to the very marginalized communities that the cancel-culture enforcers are purportedly protecting. These attacks on wrongthink do not help the oppressed. Indeed, it's often weaponized against them, attack-helicopter style.