Welcome to Fantasy Magazine! We’re so happy to bring your story “Man vs. Bomb” to our readers. It’s not often I see the word “genitals” show up in the first paragraph of a story. Can you tell us what inspired this story and how it came about?
Thank y’all so much for helping this weird little story find its audience!
The worldbuilding that went into “Man vs. Bomb” was originally inspired by a series of discussions about the comic book series Y: The Last Man, as well as the realization that if Animal Farm were set in North America, it would have to feature a lot more White-tailed Deer. Deer , like, have all of the scary qualities of different farm animals combined into one wild creature, including the fact that they will eat human flesh under the right circumstances.
I wrote the story at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ workshop in 2019. When it became clear that my 9,000-word tour of the Jewish afterlife in the form of a bird identification guide wasn’t going to be ready by my workshop deadline, I picked “Man vs. Bomb” out of my stack of outlines, figuring I could put together something short and finish the bird guide later. I cranked out the first draft in a day and handed it directly to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, who had just arrived to mentor us that week, because who really cares about first impressions anyway? Needless to say, it’s come a long way since then.
The emphasis on the predator vs. prey dynamic reduced to a spectacle really resonated for me. Beyond the clear textual fact of the world being changed and humanity no longer being an apex predator, were there any particular realities that inspired the story’s setup?
Around the time I was outlining this story, I was living in a communal house in Columbus, Ohio. A big part of my decision to move out of there was the fact that another one of the residents had bought an AR-15 rifle without any discussion and was keeping it in the house, often unsecured, sometimes even left unattended on the living room coffee table. In the Pulse/Vegas/Parkland era of mass shootings, I thought it should be easy for my housemates to understand why this was a big problem for me, a queer domestic violence survivor with PTSD, but it wasn’t. After all, our housemate was one of the good guys, and he just liked the AR-15 because it appealed to his mechanical sensibilities, so why would there be a problem? Some of them had grown up with guns kept in the house, so for them it was normal. There was no consideration of the fact that, for most people on Earth, one antisocial white man with an assault rifle looks much like any other.
That’s something I hoped for this story interrogate: how do you look, to someone who doesn’t share your frame of reference? When you or I think about, say, zombies, we tend to think that what separates them from normal people is their amoral mindlessness, their bottomless hunger, and the fact that they will instinctively slaughter pretty much whoever happens to be in front of them. But for a prey species, like a deer, that’s just a description of a human. They wouldn’t see any meaningful difference between what we call a “man” and what they call a “bomb.” One is just a more honest version of the other. Likewise, every American who owns a literal killing machine with no logical purpose beyond mass murder has their justifications for why they “need” it, or why the social prey species of our culture shouldn’t be afraid of this particular killing machine enthusiast. But from an outside perspective, the only visible difference is who has fired into a crowd and who hasn’t fired into a crowd yet.
Second person isn’t the most common narrative style out there. Was this story written in second-person from the beginning, and can you give any insight on why you chose that perspective for it?
I guess my hot take here is that second person is actually very common, just not in things that tend to be considered “real” literature. If you like visual novels, or Choose Your Own Adventure books, or D&D campaigns, second person is something you see quite a lot of, because it’s usually what works best for interactive storytelling.
“Man vs. Bomb” isn’t interactive fiction, of course, but I wanted it to feel like it, which is why even that rickety first draft was narrated this way. I was specifically going for something close to the Star Trek VCR Boardgame I had as a tween. The idea of that game was that a Klingon has locked himself on the bridge of the Enterprise, and you have this videotape of him taunting you and trying to put you in stasis fields and making you do weird tasks, while you roll dice and draw cards to try to kick him off the ship. So it wasn’t just second-person narration, it was a second-person narrator who is also an antagonist in the story he’s telling. In retrospect, it’s a little weird that someone gifted 11-year-old M. Shaw a game that was basically a “getting topped by a bratty alien” simulator. I enjoyed the game, but thematically it was way above the sexual pay grade of someone who’s just entering adolescence. Now, I kinda wish I still had it.
. . . Sorry, what was the question?
I was struck by the depersonalization of the characters, reducing them to their job roles of “man” and “bomb” and “trainer,” and the emphasis on money in the context of blood sport. Were you specifically aiming at a critique of late capitalism here?
Late capitalism is so often a parody of itself that I never really feel the need to put in the work on critiquing it. But, yes. Yes, I was.
Are there any projects you’re working on now that you’d like to talk about? What can our readers look forward to seeing from you in the future?
As of this interview, I’m editing the third draft of a novella that I really hope the world gets to see. It’s about loneliness and codependency, albeit in a way that involves a lot more cadavers being resurrected post-dissection and a lot more people eating, uh, things that aren’t food, than you might expect. For readers who enjoyed “Man vs. Bomb,” you can look forward to more stories about coming to terms with your own mortality under extreme duress, more stories about people being attacked and/or enslaved by animals, and more stories in which I try to make the horrors of late capitalism as amusing as possible. I have a Twitter and a website for those who want to stay updated on all the fiction, nonfiction, and poetry I’m putting out.
Spread the word!