the helicopter story on sex, gender, and dysphoria

woe to you who strive with your Maker,
earthen vessels with the potter!
does the clay say to the one who fashions it, "what are you making?"
or "your work has no handles!"
woe to anyone who says to a father, "what are you begetting?" 
or to a woman, "with what are you in labor?" 
isaiah 45:9-10

i don't really want to talk about the discourse that led to me seeking out this work. what happened to the author, isabel fall, shows a lack of comprehension and empathy on the part of self-identified 'allies' who chased a trans woman off the internet because she produced something alien to them. with that being said, fall wrote something thoughtful and horrifying. i think it's worth to draw out the implications of this piece to better understand how it contributes to our knowledge (or lack thereof) of gender.

barb, helicopter (pilot)

So, in the same way that we attached sounds to meanings to make language, we began to attach clusters of behavior to signal social roles. Those clusters were rich, and quick-changing, and so just like language, we needed networks devoted to processing them. We needed a place in the brain to construct and to analyze gender.

Generations of queer activists fought to make gender a self-determined choice, and to undo the creeping determinism that said the way it is now is the way it always was and always must be. Generations of scientists mapped the neural wiring that motivated and encoded the gender choice.

And the moment their work reached a usable stage—the moment society was ready to accept plastic gender, and scientists were ready to manipulate it—the military found a new resource. Armed with functional connectome mapping and neural plastics, the military can make gender tactical.

If gender has always been a construct, then why not construct new ones?

the best science fiction only pretends to be about science, when in reality it is an exploration of current or ongoing social strife. the fantastic literal machines which plague science fiction works are a metaphor for the social unconscious machines which determine our desires and behaviors [1]. orwell's nineteen eighty-four is a trotskyist polemic against national(ist) socialisms, and the surveillance states that tend to exist therein. huxley's brave new world criticizes the effects of fordism: everything becomes manufacturable and disposable, including people. fall's "helicopter story" is about the construction of gender, and to what extent we as conscious individuals have a say in it [2].

the protagonist barb is a female helicopter pilot whose neurological gender pathways have been artificially restructured by the military so that she could perform more excellently as a pilot. the story opens when barb and her gunner-partner axis bomb a high school in hostile territory. they are found and chased by a foreign mercenary, the likes of which (barb notes) have been employed by the enemy forces because they are desperate to escape their "climate-seared" defunct countries. the effects of imperialism and industrialism are ingrained into this story. the new construction of gender which barb experiences is inseparable from its function to transform ungendered persons into persons gendered for military use.

But, like all advanced neural nets, these systems are black boxes. We have no idea how they work, what they think. Why do Pear Mesa’s AIs [3] order the planting of pear trees? Because pears were their corporate icon, and the AIs associate pear trees with areas under their control. Why does no one make the AIs stop? Because no one knows what else is tangled up with the “plant pear trees” impulse. The AIs may have learned, through some rewarded fallacy or perverse founder effect, that pear trees cause humans to have babies. They may believe that their only function is to build support systems around pear trees.

i've been reading a book called anti-oedipus lately. it offers a criticism of freudian psychoanalysis insofar as it forces clinical patients into categorical boxes with respect to the oedipus complex. the authors argue that the oedipus complex is non-universal and it is becoming less applicable over time. they offer instead a theory of "desiring machines". our human bodies and minds are blank slates at birth, and the possibilities of our experiences are endless. something like the oedipus complex is then forced onto us as an alien thing: it gives us rules for how we are to perceive and desire things, and it restructures our experience accordingly. these rules are called desiring machines. like code instructions, they tell us how and why to behave.

barb seems to be of the opinion that gender is the desiring machine of desiring machines, or that it is the primary determiner of human experience that governs everything else [4]. this is a very european-'christian' notion of gender, derived from the earlier understanding that women and men have intrinsically different modes of experience even to the level of the immaterial soul. it follows then that the relationship between gender-as-desiring-machine and biological sex is mostly arbitrary, and there is no reason why one thing ought to typically determine the latter. barb says that there was a social push to allow individuals to self-determine their own gender-as-desiring-machine. this led to scientists developing the technology to change people's gender-as-desiring-machine by manipulating neurological pathways in the brain.

barb, who received plastic neurosurgery to 'become' an attack helicopter, is not by any standards a trans-sex or transgender person. that is, if a trans person is someone who seeks socialization and surgery to reflect their actual mode of existence ("my body is X, but my mind is Y") then barb does not actually fall into that category. she is someone whose 'gender', her mode of experience, was reprogrammed. this story is a story about brainwashing in disguise, and we should understand that a story about brainwashing is never about the science of it. at the end of nineteen eighty-four, the protagonist is psychologically tortured into reaffirming his loyalty to his country's regime; we understand that this is a metaphor for the methods that totalitarian states use to silent dissent.

likewise, barb believes that in retrospect she was always destined to be an attack helicopter, and the mechanical body that she inhabits is proof of this. i claim that we should actually read barb as a non-trans person, or a cis person, within the logic of the narrative. she arrives on the scene fully-formed as a helicopter, and faces no conflict with this assignment by the military. prior she was like a pre-gendered person impersonating a woman, whose womanhood was only aesthetic and superficial. thanks to the military, her appropriate desiring machines have been encoded into her helicopter body. she grew into becoming a helicopter in the same way that children experience puberty, their bodies maturing and their socially-determined behaviors becoming fully realized. it is not a stretch to read the military technology in this story as the social forms which 'give' us gender, and then to read barb as an individual whose becoming-gendered has been totally successful and functional.

axis, gun(ner)

the same cannot be said for barb's gunner-partner, axis [5]. axis experiences what barb identifies as 'dysphoria' while trying to bomb the school and shoot at the hostile craft. he becomes unwilling to fulfill the mission assigned to him by the military, by his own 'body' made up of guns and other machines. barb acknowledges that axis' body was made to do what it was meant to do: shoot planes, bomb schools, fulfill the mission. however, barb refuses to report axis' dysphoria to their superiors (perhaps to be reprogrammed to better suit his military assignment) because she loves him and he is her partner [6].

the story's conclusion reflects the absurd realism of its premise:

In the Applied Constructive Gender briefing, they told us that there have always been liminal genders, places that people passed through on their way to somewhere else. Who are we in those moments when we break our own rules? The straight man who sleeps with men? The woman who can’t decide if what she feels is intense admiration, or sexual attraction? Where do we go, who do we become?

Did you know that instability is one of the most vital traits of a combat aircraft? Civilian planes are built stable, hard to turn, inclined to run straight ahead on an even level. But a military aircraft is built so it wants to tumble out of control, and it is held steady only by constant automatic feedback. The way I am holding this Apache steady now.

Something that is unstable is ready to move, eager to change, it wants to turn, to dive, to tear away from stillness and fly.


“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, a perversion of a liberty that past generations fought to gain.

barb sees axis' dysphoria as a necessary challenge or instability to maintain the current relationship between his 'gender' and himself. keep in mind that for barb, the queer movement that fought for the 'self-determination of gender' and the military technology that created her are equivalent: she perceives her becoming-helicopter as an actualization of her being, as the product of her own self-determination. yet her very neurological pathways been programmed so that she would be compelled to be a helicopter.

she is only able to accept and empathize with axis by viewing his conflict as an obstacle on the way to self-actualization. if axis is able to 'queer' his gender by questioning and wrestling with it, barb thinks, then he will advance his own self-actualization through it. barb wants axis to pry "the tool of gender back from the hands of the state and the economy and the war", when her gender is nothing but a product of that complex.

axis' military programming has failed. he finds himself in the wrong body and doing the wrong things (not as a matter of expression, but as a matter of existence). barb wants to pull axis back into a 'gender' that was never his own, so that by 'queering' it he can eventually come to terms with it.

i want to thank fall for writing this excellent and mind-bending short story. it's horrifying and well-written in the best way, and i hope my reading adheres to what she wanted to get across. there's more i want to say on the topic in general, especially w.r.t. how certain queer discourses are reductive and harmful to trans people, but i think that's beyond discussion of this work in particular.

[1] if you've read what i've had to say about metonymy & metaphor, or if you're familiar with the linguistic theories of jakobson and lacan, you can see here how metaphor acts as a substitution.

[2] what is gender, anyway? isn't that the question!

[3] the united states is waging war against the pear mesa budget committee, an AI-led credit union that seceded from the united states and occupies part of the continent. barb notes that the united states declared war against pear mesa by claiming that they lacked the resources to care for their population. this is another parallel to the iraq and afghanistan wars, where the apache helicopters were used.

[4] suffice it to say that this does not necessarily reflect the author's view of gender, and more likely the story is attempting to criticize this idea.

[5] this is beyond the scope of this post, but i think it's interesting that barb considers she and axis to be sharing the same 'gender' insofar as they are both components of one helicopter (the pilot and the gunner). i feel as though their relationship more clearly maps to the heterosexual model of two sexes united in marriage--two are said to become one, and they fulfill one another. is this a contradiction that should be drawn out further? what does it mean for two to become one in a heterosexual union?

[6] i use feminine pronouns for barb and masculine pronouns for axis because it makes it easier to distinguish between the two of them. sue me.


  1. I had heard about this story when all the controversy happened, then completely forgot about it. I don't even remember what the controversy was about but I can guess. It's a shame how often brilliant ideas or people are so misunderstood or underappreciated in their time.

    In any case, I decided to read this story after reading this blog post and I have to say it is absolutely brilliant, thanks for reminding me of this. The comparison to 1984 and Brave New World is apt.

    1. thanks for your kind words :) just happy to get the story more out there, and to treat it as something more than a starting point of discourse

  2. Have you played Genderwrecked? Would recommend:

    I would actually like to make a TTRPG micro-game out of it, or something like that. I don't have a particularly strong idea at the moment, but it seems like it could be cool.

    1. thanks for sharing this! :) i'd be curious as to how it defines gender; will need to look into it more

  3. If I take gender as a social construct, or I guess a result of social constructs am I understanding what you are saying?

    1. hi there! generally speaking, i don't think that calling gender a social construct is very productive because it either leads to confusion or spirited arguments about it. i myself think it's even a red herring to more important discussions about gender, especially in how it relates to the human body.

      to me, the story is about a conflict between a perspective that believes gender can be *consciously* constructed (i.e. you can choose your gender), versus a perspective that gender is something that 'happens' whether you want it or not.


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