Review of “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Fall

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This story was published by Clarkesworld Magazine in January 2020 and subsequently removed after the author felt unsafe due to responses from the SFF community. It was followed by an apology from publisher Neil Clarke to readers who felt it was insensitive. The story is fairly long, coming in at approximately 7750 words. For anyone who is interested, it’s still available to read in the Internet archive here.

Barb is a somatic female who has had her gender identity modified by the US military so that she identifies as a Boeing AH-70 Apache Mystic attack helicopter. Her gunner Axis, apparently a somatic male, has also been modified to identify as armament, and the two of them are harnessed and catheterized into a sort of marriage as pilot and gunner. They are now airborne to carry out a mission against a Pear Mesa Budget Committee target. They take out a high school of unknown strategic value in the Mojave Desert, but Axis hesitates over the shot. Barb has already detected signs of stress, and wonders if Axis is questioning their gender identity as a gunner. Returning from the mission, they are detected by a fighter jet. Barb initiates evasive maneuvers, but fails to shake the jet. How can they survive long enough to get back to base?

This is one of the sort of creative, artistic, postmodern works that seems to be popular lately, where the author writes about seeming unrelated issues and the work eventually comes together to produce themes and meaning. Gender identity as an attack helicopter is actually an Internet meme that was designed to cast aspersions, but Fall has developed it into a story. In this case, there are two well-defined, solid characters and a gripping and effective plot, where the Apache takes out the target and then has to deal with pursuit from the fighter jet in order to get safely home. I have no experience at all to help me judge, but the flight jargon here sounds authentic. Besides this, we get a dash of world-building, background on how the US government ended up making war on a credit union’s AI, and a lot of discussion about gender identity issues—what it was like to be a woman; what it’s like to be a helicopter, non-binary, gay, trans; Barb’s relationship with Axis, and various other issues. One passage equates sex with violence.

This is a fairly complex project. As an action-adventure fan, I was pleased with the adventure story, and also the symbolic romance between pilot and gunner and the equation of sex and war. I was also entertained by the absurdist world where the US ends up making war on a credit union. The gender identity element was harder to integrate, though, and I didn’t think it worked that well. Identity is more than just gender, so the basic premise of mixing gender identity with military equipment didn’t quite work for me. Although it wasn’t showcased, this is an example of transhumanism enforced by the military.

There were some questions about who Isabel Fall might be. I’m sort of with the faction that believes this is an established writer using a pseudonym. Although it was only briefly published, I expect this one might be in the running for an award next year. Recommended for the creativity and ideas.

Four stars and a half stars.

Erasing the Past to Change the Future?

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There are a number of issues that stand out in the recent RWA controversy. It would take a while to work through them all, but one thing that caught my attention is the apparent culture clash between one set of authors who thinks their work should be historically accurate, and an opposing author who charges that this perpetrates a dangerous, racist stereotype. More specifically, this is a look at Courtney Milan’s comment, “The notion of the submissive Chinese woman is a racist stereotype which fuels higher rates of violence against women.” This raises the questions: 1) whether Chinese women in the 19th century (as featured in Davis’ novel) were “submissive,” and 2) whether it’s racist to say so in contemporary fiction (as claimed by Milan).

First some background: Actually, there’s a long history of various cultures attempting to control women and their child-bearing capability, so enforced submission isn’t a problem that’s particular to Asian cultures. In general, Asian cultures are more collectivist than individualist. That means all members of society are required to show a responsibility and duty to the family, the community and the nation that should be stronger than his or her individual interests, i.e. everyone is expected to sacrifice for the greater good. I gather this expectation falls heavily on daughters, as much of the recent work I’ve read from Asian women seems to be about rebellion.

Besides this, the submission of women in Chinese culture in the 19th century was enforced by other customs, including foot binding. This procedure was promoted as enhancing beauty, but actually it crippled girls, reduced their mobility and prevented them from running away. This made it easy to control them in marriage, and also made them good workers in cottage industry. The end result of these social customs was outward compliance, though women generally developed methods of intrigue and manipulation to advance their individual interests.

So, is this mandated submission now a dangerous racial stereotype? Apparently, the answer is yes. Research verifies that the “submissive Asian woman” is a stereotype that persists, and that some men seek out Asian women with the idea they will be sexually submissive. When this turns out not to meet their fantasy, of course, rates of domestic violence escalate.

So, all the authors in the argument are correct in what they say. Now the question arises as to what writers should do in a situation like this. A story that is historically accurate has the advantage of exposing the practices that controlled women in the past, but it also has the danger of suggesting to some readers that these practices were appropriate and that Asian women are still somehow trained to be submissive. A story that erases the social conditions (like foot binding) leaves the reader with a false idea of how societies work and what dangers have historically limited personal freedoms. Issues like this aren’t singular to romances with Chinese characters, either. European women in the 19th century were controlled in various ways, too, not to mention African women. So what choice should the community of writers make? Should we agree that it is now sexist/racist to feature any subservient or submissive female characters in our work?

Checking through a few romances, it looks like the solution to this problem over the last few years is the headstrong heroine in a historical setting who somehow manages to have her way and her lover, too, a man who appreciates her willful character. Speculative fiction doesn’t even have to provide the romance. See Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of Mulan, for example, where an Asian girl masquerades as a boy to save her father from having to serve in the war, and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series that suggests women really did have a place in the early US space program. Both these are fantasy, but does it really have a purpose? Disney’s The Last Jedi came right out and said that Rey would never accomplish anything until she cut herself loose from history. Presumably isolation from the past is expected to give young women better self-esteem and more readiness to grasp opportunities. Will it work? Can we really change the future with fiction that rewrites the past? Or is this strategy only creating a dangerous ignorance?

Getting back to the issue with the RWA, men don’t generally read romance novels, so it seems unlikely that Milan was concerned that Davis’ book would influence their stereotype of Asian women. That strongly suggests she was: 1) attacking Davis with words she knew would cause damage, 2) using Davis’ book as a pretext for an activist rant on Twitter without regard for consequences, or 3) both. Now that she has generated a backlash, is she really a victim?

So what’s going on with the Romance Writers of America?

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In case anyone has missed the complete disaster Tingle is writing about, it came to a head in late December, 2019. Here’s a quick summary: After some back and forth about Sue Grimshaw, an acquisitions editor at Suzan Tisdale’s Glenfinnan Publishing with alleged conservative views, Courtney Milan, a Chinese-American romance writer, past board member of RWA, ethics committee chair and diversity activist, made racism charges on Twitter about Grimshaw, Tisdale, Glenfinnan Publishing, and Tisdale’s employee Kathryn Lynne Davis. In particular, Milan called Davis’ book Somewhere Lies the Moon (originally published in 1999) a “f–king racist mess.”

Tisdale and Davis approached RWA management and were encouraged to file ethics complaints against Milan. Apparently a new ethics committee was convened to consider the charges, and the organization then suspended Milan and banned her from holding future leadership positions. The problem was that many took this as shady dealings to get rid of a minority author who functioned as a diversity gadfly. There were mass resignations from the board and the previous ethics committee. The past president resigned, and the new president was forced out.

The RWA documents on the case were posted to Twitter, which meant the whole thing played out in the most public way. Quickly backing up, the RWA revoked the suspension, reinstated Milan, cancelled the RITA awards, and announced they were hiring a law firm to “to conduct an audit of the process and these events to provide a clear report of the facts.”

The notable thing about this is how quickly it went out of control. Milan posted, “The notion of the submissive Chinese woman is a racist stereotype which fuels higher rates of violence against women.” Davis insisted the comments were “cyberbullying” and complained that they cost her a publishing contract. Grimshaw lost an editing job because of the Twitter campaign. Tisdale insisted that Davis’ book was historically accurate, and only needed minor editing to update it and meet the current standard for politically correct. Tisdale and Davis both called Milan’s comments “unprofessional conduct,” but later expressed surprise at the RWA’s actions, saying all they really wanted was an apology. By January 10, Milan was calling the affair a white supremacist backlash.

I’ve just published a couple of blogs addressing activist behavior that’s apparently calculated to create a backlash and provide a larger platform. Milan might have had this in mind, or this might be a case of mean girl bullying, or it might be a case of young writers going after the old guard. Whatever, once made, I think the claims about racism deserve real consideration. So what are the important points here? First, was Milan justified in attacking Grimshaw as a gatekeeper with alleged conservative views and Tisdale for employing her? Next, was Milan justified in complaining about an old historical novel that portrays 19th century Chinese women as submissive? Next, is this a historical behavior that really needs to be erased to create a more equitable society now? And because Milan claims this is so, is she justified in making profane charges of racism in a public forum without regard for the effects on other professionals’ careers?

On the other hand, was the ethics complaint justified? Were Tisdale and Davis right that Milan’s behavior was unprofessional? Did she target Grimshaw, Tisdale and Glenfinnan Publishing unjustly for issues they had no control over? And last, was the RWA’s over-the-top response justified in any way?

The end result is that Tisdale and Davis are backpedaling in interviews, trying to blame the RWA for encouraging them to file complaints about a minority writer who called them racists, while Milan is reinstated. Meanwhile, the RWA seems to be in ruins, oozing black, cancerous slime, if you can believe Chuck Tingle.

This is a fairly major breakdown, similar to what has recently affected the traditional form of the SFWA, except more so. According to Jemisin, “The only way to enact change in such a system is to destabilize it — unfreeze it.” Presumably, Milan has now destabilized the RWA organization. Can it be rebuilt along more diverse lines?

Review of Reactance by Dacia M. Arnold

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This young adult dystopia novella was self-published in August of 2018. It’s listed as Book #2 of the series, a companion piece to Apparent Power, and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Sasha Bowman is 18 and on the point of graduating from high school when disaster strikes. The awakening of a dormant gene divides society in the city of Denver into a new hierarchy of haves and have-nots. The haves can control and channel electricity, making them an asset, but also a danger to the general population. Sasha has the gene, which means people are afraid of her and the government wants to control her abilities. She and her mother are captured by the government, and put under control of DiaZems, people who can gather and use the power of people affected by the gene. The power-hungry Queen DiaZem murders everyone in the city without the gene, including Sasha’s father. Attracted by a friendly boy, Sasha writes some documents and then finds she is helping form a subversive organization, the Reactance. Can they fight against the new order and find some way to return the gene to a dormant state?

This should be well-received by the young adult age group. It’s a easy, quick read, written in journal format, that reveals Sasha’s problems and how her life suddenly changed when she became a captive of the DiaZems. Other issues investigated here include the responsibility of parents and the difference between activism and terrorism. I’m glad to see someone in young adult addressing that last topic.

On the not so positive side, this seems really soft-pedaled. I know someone wouldn’t instantly achieve wisdom when something like this happens, but Sasha has a lot of naiveté to overcome. It seems simplistic that she’s joined with a subversive group and doesn’t understand the consequences–or that the DiaZems don’t immediately come down on her in a really ugly way. If they’re murdering people, surely they’ve got means to watch, control and punish their captive population. I’ve missed the first book, so maybe I don’t quite understand the gene situation and the new political structure–a prologue to explain those would have been helpful.

Three stars.

Review of Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

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This is a young adult science fiction novel published by Delacorte in November of 2018. It runs 515 pages. This is described as a trilogy, and book #2 called Starsight will be released in November of 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Spensa is seventeen. She lives below ground on the world Detritus, which is a desert planet encased in space junk. Periodic openings in the junk layer allow Krell fighter ships to descend and launch attacks that could crack the caverns and destroy human habitation on the planet. The DDF is in dire need of fighter pilots to defend both the surface Alta Base and the caverns. Spensa wants to fly like her father, but he was branded a deserter and a coward after the Battle of Alta, so she has to battle a lot of prejudice to get into the pilot training program. She finally succeeds and enters a class taught by her father’s wing mate Cobb. Because of the shortage of pilots, the cadets are forced into combat almost immediately, and members of the class start to die. Spensa stumbles over an ancient, abandoned fighter ship in a cavern near the military base. When she starts to rebuild it, she finds there are a lot of questions about the situation that she needs answers to. And was her father really a coward?

The characters are very well-developed here, and we get attached to the cadets. There’s a lot of experiential time devoted to the mechanics of the fighters and the experience of flying, a la military SF, but the best thing about it is the always-dependable Sanderson themes. The first is the nature of cowardice, and the next is the issue of independent thought. Spensa is a scrappy outcast, always having to fight to get ahead, and this gives her a different perspective than the entrenched wealthy and politically powerful people she is dealing with. As her goals turn out to be questionable, she starts to think for herself about the society where she lives. Her friend FM wonders what it does to have a military government and to glorify fighting instead of building a better society. “Most people never question,” FM says, “and doggedly go through the motions of an obedient life.”

On the not so positive side, I thought the resolution to this was a trifle simplistic. Besides that, it pretty much changes the meaning of everything that’s gone before, and leaves all of Spensa’s attitude, goals and efforts in this book completely empty. There was some foreshadowing of unexplained issues, of course, but nothing to predict the extent of the lies. Do the leaders of this society even know what it’s based on? It’s like all of the fabric of reality crumbles, and we have a sudden, fairly jolting shift in perspective. Sanderson says something in the acknowledgements about this being fueled by his own experience as a kid, so I’m thinking it’s an intended symbolism. There are also a few loose ends that I’m suspicious about. We’ll have to see how this develops in Book #2.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Numbercaste by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

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I was sort of taken by “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi, a finalist on the 2019 Nebula ballot, so I went looking for more of Yudhanjaya’s work. This novel was originally self-published in 2017 and runs 300 pages. It was the winner of the 2017 Virtual FantasyCon Award. Yudhanjaya is Shri Lankan and has worked as a programmer, tech journalist and social researcher. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 2030 and Patrick Udo lives in Chicago where automation means jobs are scarce. At his mother’s funeral, he meets Julius Common, who wants his father to do marketing and publicity for NumberCorp. About the same time, Patrick’s banking app asks him to log in with his number and UN-ID, and to supply social media accounts. When he checks to see what’s behind the app, it’s NumberCorp, a six billion dollar financial tech company based in Silicon Valley. The UN-ID is a global blockchain-based ID system, and the number rates your social worth. Fascinated, Patrick takes the job instead of his dad, where he goes to work in the Communications department. They do battle with Facebook and win, go on to capture America. Patrick is transferred to a project in Sri Lanka, where he helps launch the number in South-East Asia, then Europe. Patrick becomes the company’s man as they launch campaigns to take India and China. The number will build a new world order, but is what they’re doing right?

This book isn’t exactly a page turner, but it’s well-written, inquiring and a little scary. It’s the flip side of Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope , but instead of the protagonist looking at the elitist rating system from the outside, Udo works for the company that’s building it. The plotting, world building and characterizations here are excellent, as the author outlines the people, events and campaigns that build the company into world dominance, and then shows its dark underbelly. Another item of interest: Although this is initially based in Silicon Valley, it doesn’t have an America-centric feel. Instead, it’s very global. Commons is an immigrant, and much of the story takes place in Europe and Asia. It ends, as it began, with the UN.

On the not so positive side, there’s not much of an action line here. The story just cooks along at a leisurely pace as the characters interact and the company mounts various campaigns that finally prevail. What is probably the climax passes, and Yudhanjaya, maybe needing to fill out more length for the manuscript, adds articles at the end that Udo wrote about the founder Julius Commons. In the end, this just gives you something scary to think about.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Writer Walter Mosley Quits Star Trek: Discovery

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So, this is still a very interesting cultural collision that I think is worth discussion. Again, here’s my comment that was censored by Mike Glyer at File 770: “Normally African Americans are given a pass on the N word. The question is why someone complained about his use of it. Did they not realize he identifies as black? Is there maybe a mandatory reporting rule at the studio? I expect he’s gotten huffy because he feels entitled to use the word.” Why did Glyer think this would generate an uncomfortable discussion? One comment on the story at File 770 suggested Mosley’s reaction was about privilege and entitlement. Is this the problem we can’t talk about?

There have been previous issues with the use of abusive language at this particular studio, which may have set up, at least, encouragement by Human Resources to report any language that might lead to discomfort among the writers, if not a mandatory reporting rule. Next, Mosley has a very light complexion, so it’s possible some onlookers may not have realized he considers himself African American (and therefore, by US custom, entitled to use the N-word without sanction). Accordingly, here’s what he says about it: “If I have an opinion, a history, a word that explains better than anything how I feel, then I also have the right to express that feeling or that word without the threat of losing my job.”

If neither of these issues above supports why someone reported him to HR, then is it possible the issue is something similar to the NRA suing the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for calling them terrorists, or Ahrvid Engholm filing a complaint about Jeanette Ng’s Hugo-acceptance speech where she seemed to associate white males with the word fascist? In other words, backlash. Was the reporting co-worker annoyed that Mosley was exercising some sort of special privilege and entitlement in using the N word?

Some prominent discussions have recently emerged about the success of minority groups in American culture, in particular, and how this generates backlash. For example, over-achieving Asian students recently sued Harvard University for discrimination in Affirmative Action admissions. Jews are perennially targeted for their economic success. And, likewise, black Americans are becoming concerned that backlash from other groups will curtail some of the gains they’ve made. Some sources frankly called the Mosley case an example of cultural backlash against a minority writer. Mosley, himself, called it an action of the political culture, writing: “I do not believe that it should be the object of our political culture to silence those things said that make some people uncomfortable.”

So, how do we sort this kind of conflict out? Is Mosley responding from a position of privilege and entitlement, or does he have a real case that the N word is necessary to express his life experience? Comments?

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