Thursday 4 August 2022

The Question in Bodies #48: Rainbow Flags, Painted on the Sides of Missiles

[I wrote this piece, which juxtaposes little-seen British sitcom Hyperdrive and Isabel Fall's short story "I sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter" back in February this year, and you can see the original version of it on my Patreon. It's just my luck that the very week I choose to make it public is the week that the Helicopter Controversy gets a rather revealing and depressing coda. I've had to do a little rejigging because of that. But nothing's been toned down. If there's a content warning, it's for unvarnished rage.]


Few people commented, even at the time, on Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley’s BBC sitcom Hyperdrive (2006-2007), but weirdly, it reads better now than it did back when it was broadcast. The basic concept was straightforward. Britain, a couple of centuries in the future, a nation which has not, contrary to more optimistic space operas we could name, sorted out its issues with the rest of the world, protects its interests in the stars. The show follows the HMS Camden Lock as they engage in interplanetary diplomacy in a changing galaxy. The comedy comes from the simple idea that a British space navy would still behave under the delusion that it mattered on the international stage and that it was competent and compassionate. 

A ship full of petty bureaucrats and jobsworths flies through space, its crew convinced they are heroes. They travel to far off worlds and contact new civilisations so they can build supermarkets, use these new planets as nuclear waste dumps, and sell the more unprincipled indigenous rulers bombs. They represent Britain in the stars, and they have exactly the same amount of awareness of how poisonous they are to themselves and everyone else as individual cancer cells do.

This would make for depressing viewing if the tone wasn’t so daft. Nick Frost and Miranda Hart as the incompetent Commander Henderson and the thirsty Science Officer Teal play versions of their usual comic characters, only in space, while Kevin Eldon as the psychopathic First Officer York doesn’t so much take his performance over the top as into outer orbit. Space opera jargon in the mouths of these characters becomes word salad (“Commencify, Mr. Jeffers”). The extraterrestrials are especially daft, for they spoof already daft Star Trek aliens: the Lallakiss are Estuary Klingons who declare their enmity for the human race with a catchy viral song; the Shiny Red Robots of Vortis are a cut-price Borg; and Geoffrey McGivern, as the recurring Tyrant of Queppu, is just a bit insecure for an alien dictator (“You marvel at my power! There – you marvelled! I distinctly saw you marvel!”).

But, as has been the case for British situation comedy from Steptoe and Son through to One Foot in the Grave and beyond, the daffiness is a fig leaf for the misery, the disillusionment. All of the technology is broken, disappointing and shoddy; each of the main characters is in some way broken, disappointed and lonely. No triumph is allowed without it being spoiled in some way; any moment that could be uplifting or inspiring has to be deflated. And while the tail end of the Blair era seemed at the time to be a miserable period, there’s something indefinably Brexit about Hyperdrive, in the way that it marries the delusions we have of our goodness – our heroism even – in the face of every evidence with the bitter truth: Britain, even in the best case, does nothing to improve the world. It feels right for now (except of course, we don’t get to make the comedy of disillusionment on the BBC anymore, so it couldn’t have been made now either).

There is probably value in a long-form defence of Hyperdrive, which was poorly received, little watched and only reluctantly promoted, but really we’re here for the one dystopian concept in the show that has real bite. Becky Sandstrom (Petra Massey) is the ship’s navigator. She’s an Enhanced Human, which is HR speak for “cyborg”, connected to the ship’s systems, the better to make the ship run better. If anyone is home inside her metal-encased skull it’s hard to tell. Becky signed up for cyborg enhancement because her student loans would be paid off. She assumed the safety warnings were a formality because she trusted that the authorities knew what they were doing and cared enough to do a good job of enhancing her, displaying that quintessentially British blind trust in dangerously incompetent authority figures that got us all exactly where we are right now.

Sandstrom doesn’t remember who she is. She smiles vacantly and talks like an automated telephone queuing system. While the Commander balks at the description of her as “an innocent woman… turned into your techno-slave” he admits in the same breath that she does obey every order he gives and then immediately infantilises her: “...but she loves it! You should see her little face light up when I give her a command!”

Sandstrom is only permitted to eat “nourishment gel”, which is probably exactly as depressing as it sounds, and god forbid she taste chocolate, because it short-circuits her digi-brain and sends her into a homicidal rage. Sandstrom can’t find her way out of an open door without a bit of help, helplessly bouncing off the doorframe over and over again with plaintive servomotor whines. A computer virus infects her mind and forces her to spout curse words randomly. The crew deal with her malfunctions with the weary resignation of the employee who just has to work around the crappy systems their workplace uses. And two of the male bridge crew are in love with her, because of course they are. In return Sandstrom holds a flickering digital torch for York, the crew member mostly responsible for programming and repairing her, who calls her things like “loyal digi-servant”. Sandstrom loves her slavemaster.

Consider: when, in using your smartphone, laptop, smart TV or whatever device you use, was the last time an app malfunctioned or crashed? When was the last time you saw an intrusive ad while watching a video, playing a game or scrolling social media? When was the last time a spam email or text message avoided your spam filter and wound up in your inbox? The answer is probably some variety of “very recently”.

And if the answer to those questions is not some variety of “very recently”, what did you have to do to avoid these things? Having to install an adblocker, for example, requires conscious effort to avoid intrusive adware and causes other obstacles and sometimes online pushbacks. A better spam filter needs to have been tweaked by someone who knows what they’re doing. Somewhere along the line we became acclimated to these things. And even if it works elegantly, you don’t technically own it. It’s designed to stop working in two years, so you’ll have to upgrade when the next model comes along. It’s made in a factory where conditions are so bad that they have nets around the sides of the factory to catch workers who attempt to commit suicide by jumping off the roof. But you’ll accept that. Because you have a phone.

In Hyperdrive it’s played in broad strokes, but there is a banal horror in Sandstrom, of a human being transformed into an appliance, into something less than human, and having that called “enhanced”. And what is especially horrific in a woman being made into a depersonalised thing and that being called an improvement is that in the psychopathic schema of capitalism – and I use “psychopathic” precisely here, with its connotation of manipulative charm as much as violent disregard for the human spirit – it really is an improvement. It makes us into the things that capitalist society needs: helpless, obedient consumers, faulty at the point of manufacture, only temporarily reparable, and that for a price.

Someone is going to have to have been the guinea pig for that. We’ve already seen stories about all the monkeys tortured to death by steel plates and interface chips implanted in their skulls (thanks, Elon).

People turned into literal Human Resources is a phenomenon that fiction has approached. But hardly anyone seems to have written about the crapness of it, the way in which the neurally linked cyborg will have to contend with dismal obstacles like viruses that scramble our language centres and make us call out swears at inappropriate moments, or targeted pop-up ads projected over our retinas, or having our memories paywalled, or having our implanted technology subject to data plans or broadband outages. The concept is largely absent from fiction (although Sorry to Bother You does supply an adjacent example; Jeunet's recent Big Bug is another). Sure, science fiction is full of technologies that warp and control minds, but if they don't work, it is normally for story purposes. Technologies that are faulty because they are made by entities for whom profit is the only metric of success and who only fix things if it’s financially viable to do so are rare in fiction.

Forget sex and gender, the reluctance of so much of science fiction to write about these things is one of our final taboos. But the idea that the foundational ideal of Western society itself is a ravening creature that destroys souls is more real and more terrifying than anything a Lovecraft could have thought up because we live it daily.

And it’s more horrific still because not only do people live it, they are so used to living it, they do not see it, they can only see through it and past it, and if you make comedy about it (and remember that the comedy that punches up, the good comedy, is often predicated on horror), they won’t even see that there is supposed to be a joke – certainly, this is what happened with the critical reception of Hyperdrive – and if you make horror about it, people will be so confused by what they see as the absurdity of it that it won’t even scare them.

Because of that, mistakes are made.

Of Helicopters and Tactical Gender Reassignment

When I started this project, I wanted to concentrate on the horror of the self in media, in film and television. And then I thought, perhaps I would try some literature. I thought I might just look at things, film by film, book by book, and draw some ideas from them, like I did in that book that everyone liked so much.

But I started to experience horror myself. I realised that the most horrifying thing I could imagine was to be trapped in here, in this body, with me. And then I realised that, more horrifying still, was to be trapped in here, in this body, with me, in a society that chews people up and spits us out, and whose evils are not invisible, but unseeable. And we who see it begin to think we might be mad, because no matter how loudly we scream to the world about the formless invisible monster that controls our destinies and brainwashes us into trusting that it cares, no one hears.

And this brings me to the only short story to date, and probably ever, credited to Isabel Fall, which was published in January 2020 and taken down soon after. Originally titled “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” (and then, later, “Helicopter Story”), it was simply too good to be allowed to survive.

The story is simple enough. The narrator, Barb, once presumably identified as feminine, but has undergone Tactical Gender Reassignment at the behest of the military, and now identifies their gender as Attack Helicopter, because identifying at the level of gender and sexuality with the killing machine they are programmed to pilot makes Barb a better weapon. There is no redemption in the story: right from the beginning, Barb commits atrocities. Barb delights in being a machine. Barb flirts with their similarly rewired copilot. The story is a nightmare of the military-industrial complex gone wild, Becky Sandstrom played straight as an unapologetic and mostly happy war criminal, affirmed and fulfilled in a gender identity created by the structures of a society that makes them do monstrous things. There is no hope here, just the acceptance of an existence in a dystopian world where those of us in minorities might proudly join our cishet white colleagues as tools of the capitalist-military enterprise.

The story more or less spells it out. It isn’t even especially subtle:

“Voice recorder’s off, right?” Axis asks.

“I love doing this. I love doing it with you. I just don’t know if it’s . . . if it's right.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“Thank you for thinking about whether it’s right. Someone needs to.”
Maybe what Axis feels is a necessary new queerness. One which pries the tool of gender back from the hands of the state and the economy and the war. I like that idea. I cannot think of myself as a failure, as something wrong, perversion of a liberty that past generations fought to gain. But Axis can. And maybe you can too. That skepticism is not what I need… but it is necessary anyway. I have tried to show you what I am. I have tried to do it without judgment. That I leave to you. (Fall, “Helicopter Story”)

Of course it’s a horror story. And like the best dystopias it’s not really about the future. Everyone probably knows that 1984 is just 1948 scrambled, but people weirdly slide past what that actually means, instead either laughing because they think the promised dystopia never came, or seeing it as a warning about communism and reacting to it either way depending on which end of the political spectrum they are. Of course Orwell wrote a parable about his now. 

Orwell’s concept of Newspeak was based on the now pretty much disproven Sapir-Whorf theory of linguistics. In fact, you can think and feel things you don’t have words for – you can go back as far as Catullus to prove that – but what Orwell is doing is showing a society that systematises what his society, our society, already did, does, continues to do. He’s showing us a society that is deliberately trying to make it impossible for people to imagine a different one.

Fall is doing the same. She presented a world where the language of revolt is almost lost. Barb cannot think of themself as something wrong. They cannot see that they are a perversion of the rights of the diverse. Axis can, but Barb is happy. Barb loves being gendered as a vehicle for atrocity, because Barb has been programmed to feel this way. Barb is unable to imagine not being a killing machine – Axis can, but Barb’s gratitude for Axis’s doubts lies in those doubts being, in Barb’s reprogrammed selfhood, a confirmation that this is right, the sense that as long as you’re aware of a thing and question it, that means you’re probably doing the right thing. Barb is a perfect, textbook liberal: Barb is forever sad about bombing schoolchildren, but thinks that being a diverse voice in bombing schoolchildren somehow redeems that.

And that just makes everything worse. It’s not an awakening, it’s a confirmation that Barb is forever fucked and doesn’t even know it. 

It is a beautiful and nuanced piece of writing. The rage under the Attack Helicopter’s streamlined nacelles, in the warheads of its shining missiles, is palpable. But it was never going to fly with the public. Because it it not subtle. It might beggar belief that people might not get it. But here we are. 

It seems counterintuitive, but the most brutal critics of the story were the very people it was for. The title, reclaimed from the already tired right-wing meme, aroused suspicion from the start. People seemed not to be able to see the critique in it. Inevitably, accusations of entryism – Fall, early in her transition (and I am using “her” because that’s how she was identifying when the story was published – I don’t know what pronouns Fall uses now) had been intensely private and had no internet presence under that name. People who should have understood the story read it and said – and at first assessment this is baffling – that they were hurt by it, that it was viciously transphobic. The inevitable accusation levelled at trans people who don’t play the game correctly, “internalised transphobia”, appeared. People simply couldn’t countenance the idea of someone suggesting that our society might pervert gains in inclusions and diversity to perpetrate its primary crimes. They mistook the presentation of a character unable to see the wrongs of this as an attack on diversity.

Supposedly progressive communities, especially the Extremely Online ones, often have an implicit, unspoken moral calculus by which they can work out the cost of a human being’s expendability. And among the most expendable are queer people who don’t for whatever reason behave according to certain unsaid rules. Isabel Fall wrote a story that was powerful, that had a core of rage, that provoked and transgressed, that interrogated our societal shibboleths. And she did not step forward and declare her interests publicly. So, of course she paid for it. She was not performing her queerness in a domesticated way. Because the spectre of what Mark Fisher called Capitalist Realism was so endemic in the speculative fiction community – especially in the speculative fiction community –  people weren’t just inadequately literate to understand a sword-wielding archangelic metaphor blazing with fire and rage right in front of their faces, they were unable even to understand what it was they were even reading, and it disquieted them in the way that an angel disquiets the mortal and mundane. Do not be afraid, says the angel. But of course, fear of a thing that you are not equipped to understand is the only likely outcome.

Or maybe they did understand it. Maybe that was the problem.

It turned out long after the damage had been done, that at least one of the prominent critics of the story, a trans person who claimed that the story was personally hurtful, in fact worked for one of the biggest manufacturers of weapons of mass destruction. This rather underlines the point really. Of course this person was hurt by it. This was the exact sort of person that the story is about. The trans arms industry employee was right to feel attacked by it, because it was a direct attack. If it had not hurt this person, the story would have not worked. What was wrong was equating a recognition of disquiet and upset with the idea that the story was doing some sort of harm. 

And because people were disquieted, they assumed that Isabel Fall was a bad actor. They behaved like they had the right to legislate her identity, and they didn’t care who this person was. Eventually it came out that Isabel Fall, traumatised by the response to her story, went back to her deadname and returned to the closet for the sake of safety. She had detransitioned. Isabel Fall was gone. Insincere regrets were expressed, justifications were concocted, non-apologies were made. Nothing changed. The existential manslaughter of Isabel Fall was effected, and her writing has been effaced largely by the very people who scream to the heavens that they are on the side of people like her. 

The Sexual Counter-Revolution has consolidated its gains.

Isabel Fall wrote a story about a world where multinational corporations that pay their slave labour employees poverty wages and bleed ordinary people dry the moment they dare to get ill paint their brand dress with rainbows one month every year and everyone smiles and applauds. She wrote about a world where people wouldn’t have a problem where a government might systematically put children in concentration camps and be celebrated for legislating equal marriage in the same year. Or where a person in a minority might be the landmark winner of a literary award whose ceremony is sponsored by an international arms manufacturer. Isabel Fall wrote about a world where diversity – and diversity is a good in and of itself and the fact I even have to write that is terrifying – is reduced by the forces that rule us to the implicit definition of allowing people to become the sole of the boot rather than the material the boot grinds underfoot. And a world where pointing out that your gains in rights might only make you the sole of the boot immediately makes you a thing that must be stamped on, hard. 

Some people have fought to be part of that rubber tread, after all.

“I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” is an utterly chilling story, absolutely terrifying, but the most entirely horrifying thing about it is how its author fell prey to the very processes she wrote about.

True liberation cannot happen until we have places where we can safely imagine the ramifications of who we are without harming anyone, or exposing ourselves to harm. 

We need to be allowed to imagine idealised or appalling forms immune to your shock. 

We need to be depicted behaving badly on occasion, not because we are queer, but because we are human. 

We need to be released from the patronising need to be the perfect role model. 

We need to be able to exist in fiction without being your representation tithe. 

We need to say why we reject your claim that “everything will be OK” or why “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice” is a patronising lie designed to keep us in our place. 

We need to explain we are not your property and why we are neither your fetishes nor your inspirational stories. 

We need to have the right to reject your offered compromises, your bribes. 

We need to get to choose who we are, without requiring your permission, for as it stands, the revocation of your permission spells our destruction as humans. 

Until then, the best that we – and I mean that “we”, I’m including myself here – can hope for is a clean, well-lit, well-ventilated closet, firmly padlocked on the outside.