Caveats: I have not yet read the so-called Helicopter story.
I know, and have conversed with Neil Clarke, regularly if not frequently, for the past several years.
Neil publishes a science fiction magazine, I publish a science fiction magazine.
Neil has had a heart attack while in harness and so have I. Neil’s was apparently a bit more complicated, necessitating follow-on surgery fairly recently.
Both Neil and I have experienced public-facing crises while dealing with equally complicated personal issues, and it is this aspect of the current situation I wish to address, although in choosing to do so, it does not mean that I am not mindful of the fact that this may not be the most important aspect of the issue(s) and certainly does not mean that I am ignoring that this issue has deeply affected the author of the story in question, not to mention trans members of our community, nor the community as a whole. I am mindful of those effects and hurts and discussion on them can be found in many places at this point in time, so rather than jump on those bandwagons, I’ve chosen to look at this from a more personal point of view.
Back in 2013, Amazing Stories, the website, was just beginning to find its footing. The comments section of the site (which we had hoped to turn into a vibrant social network for fans) was doing fairly well – growing, generating interesting discussion, drawing in recognizable names in the field – when a hot bed subject hit the comments at a time when I was unable to devote 100% of my attention to such things.
I was, in fact, away from home, playing medical advocate for my father, while also trying to wrangle the immediate family and the effects that my father’s illness was having on it.
He’d been diagnosed with a rare and extremely aggressive form of bile duct cancer (of the “by the time we find it, the patient usually has a couple of days left” variety); rather than give in to the inevitable, my father chose to gamble on the very slim chance that major surgery might save him. Major as in radical, hail-mary type surgery.
A discussion was raging on the website, one that was threatening all-out-internet war and I was trying to monitor and moderate it during very brief visits to my parents house in between hospital vigils.
During one such interlude, it was apparent to me that a few participants in the conversation thread were heading overboard into unrecoverable territory and I had a handful of minutes to decide how to handle things: should I block individual users? should I let things be? should I try posting to steer things back on track? should I shut the entire thing down?
I had to make a “command decision” when I was not only pressed for time, but was also mentally and emotionally compromised, the issue itself befogged by the personal stuff that was going on. I chose to shut down the conversation, writing a brief explanation before returning to the stuff that was, quite frankly, more important to me at the time than the fact that some fans were upset over what some other fans had written.
Herein lies one of the rubs. The emotional involvement by participants in the website conversation was just as deep and important to them as handling my father’s illness was to me. I’m sure that many would agree on an intellectual level that impending death does not equal internet feels, but, on an emotional level, perhaps they do. And you know, it really isn’t fair, or even practical, to try and compare and contrast emotional hurts. Insults to one’s ego and sense of self are insults, regardless of the source.
The upshot is that two things happened: first – the fact that I had a major personal crises taking place was not respected as an explanation for my actions. Second – the comments section of the website took a major hit and never recovered. The accusation that seems to have been responsible was that it wasn’t worth participating because anytime things got interesting, I’d just cop out and shut the conversation down.
Now, let me talk about heart attacks for a moment.
Neil had his at a Readercon convention, while I had mine in the early AMs at home. He was whisked off to hospital pretty quickly, I took a trip through the Twilight Zone before reaching the ER (see Elsewhere on the Night the Bed Bell Down here [pg 5]). At the very next convention we were both present at, I welcomed him into the survivors clubs and we compared some notes that made me jealous; we’d both gotten stents (wire mesh tubes inserted in an artery to open a blockage). I asked him how long he’d gone having trouble putting on his socks as my stent had been inserted through my femoral artery (in the groin), which made bending over nearly impossible for me, only to discover that new procedures now had them inserting stents through the artery in your wrist. Neil had had no trouble putting on his socks.
Physical effects aside – and I can only speak for myself here – having a heart attack puts you into a different state of mind, a state of mind that has you questioning everything. I felt brittle. I felt that my heart had betrayed me. I spent months falling asleep while wondering if I would wake up in the morning. I constantly wondered “what next?” (some wag had said “just wait – diabetes is next”); I questioned the advisability of doing anything and everything that I had done before; I tried to clamp down on emotion as I believed that emotional stress was a a contributing factor. And of course clamping down on emotion only served to increase emotional stress.
For months after I was not in my normal state of mind. Mortality – a subject that I had dismissed as nothing I need concern myself with – was now front and center in my thinking. And it colored my judgment and does to this day. (For example, I have been cautioned about shoveling snow, but living in New Hampshire, down the end of a dirt track by myself, not shoveling snow is not an easy option. I take it easy, turning a 15 minute job into an hour long one, not filling up the shovel, not ever overly exerting myself, but all the time I’m doing so, I think about Cryil Kornbluth dropping dead on a train platform after shoveling snow, and I wonder how many days will pass before they find my body.)
Like I said, in this regard, I can speak only for myself. What goes through Neil’s head it is not my privilege to know, but I can be fairly certain that he enjoyed lying in a hospital bed and “resting” while STUFF WAS HAPPENING! as much as I did. And I am certain that Neil would have much preferred that his personal crisis had not overlapped with a professional one, because –
like me, Neil is a small press publisher, with limited staff and limited resources, someone whose name is intimately associated with his publishing efforts, as well as being someone who cares deeply about the work he produces, the people around him and the community that he serves, someone who is no doubt aware that personal stuff is affecting professional stuff in some fashion or another, and on top of everything else, is regretting that fact.
Which all goes to say – can we PLEASE find a way to cut each other some slack? Can we please try to remember that there are people behind the comments? Other human beings who have stuff going on in their lives that may be affecting them in ways we are probably unaware of? Can we find a way to slow the impulse to advance our own agendas when things like this happen? Can we ask questions first, before assuming we know all and mount our fiery steeds while couching the lance of outraged justice? Can we remember that one of the things that makes us human is empathy?
Because, at least in this case, it appears that the the story in question WAS written from experience, it WAS reviewed and reviewed and reviewed, it WAS presented to viewpoint readers (we’ve done the same here at Amazing) and no doubt endlessly discussed, as one does when one is a responsible publisher attempting to balance innumberable considerations. A little patience, a little understanding, a hint of trust, could have made this an opportunity for enlightened discussion instead of what it ended up being.
*Neil’s notes on the removal of Isabel Fall’s I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter, here