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Shambling Towards Hiroshima
James Morrow
Tachyon, 192 pages

Shambling Towards Hiroshima
James Morrow
James Morrow has been called "The most provocative satiric voice in science fiction" by the Washington Post. It may be true. He won a World Fantasy Award for his novels, Towing Jehovah and Only Begotten Daughter, and has been nominated for his collection, Bible Stories for Adults.

James Morrow Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Only Begotten Daughter
SF Site Review: The Eternal Footman
SF Site Review: Blameless in Abaddon

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Hughes

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Remember those at-the-time underappreciated halcyon days between the fading of childhood and the onset of adulthood, when the only consequence of not rising before noon was to have missed a lecture on the poetry of Sir Phillip Sydney? We could stay up all night rapping with friends or roommates, altering our minds with wine or tequila or wacky-backy, and riffing on cool thought-nuggets like, "Whoa, dude, if God's dead, who's gonna dispose of the body?"

Then one day, real life shoves its way into the happiness, obliterating all the fun beneath a deluge of kids and mortgages and credit card statements and the only thinking we do at four a.m. is when we're woken by the gut-liquefying terror of the impending pink slip. After a while, we can't remember any of those hilarious original thoughts. They faded, along with the recollection of long summer twilights, playing hide-and-seek under haloed street lights.

Yet a few of us -- a tiny, precious few -- manage to hang onto that state of mind, even as the years begin to deliver their endless packages of wrinkles and grey hairs. Ray Bradbury is one of the few. So is James Morrow.

You or I might forget a "who's gonna dispose of the body?" line. Morrow turned into it into Towing Jehovah, his World Fantasy Award-winning novel about an oil tanker captain's effort to deliver the huge and decomposing divine corpse to its resting place in an Arctic glacier.

And then he spun the concept into two more critically acclaimed sequels, Blameless in Abaddon and The Eternal Footman. Now, that's riffing, dude.

So, I imagine, somewhere back around 1969, Morrow was hanging out with his college buds, pounding back a few and somebody said, "Whoa, dude, what if Godzilla wasn't a Japanese cultural metaphor for the unleashing of atomic weapons on people helpless to defend themselves against the trashing of their cities?"

And somebody else said, "Oh man, imagine if the US Navy grew these, like, totally huge mutant iguanas -- fire-breathing, train-munching, Zero-swatting monsters. And they could tranquilize them and tow them by submarine to the Japanese coast then let them rip."

And somebody else says, "Yeah, but they've got to convince the enemy that the monsters are, like, real. So they invite these high-ranking Japanese diplomats to check out a demonstration, with smaller mutant iguanas stomping a model city."

"Yeah, cool," says the next guy, "but the little mutants aren't ferocious enough, so they make a rubber suit with a built-in flamethrower and they hire some Hollywood B-movie actor. And the Japanese film the demonstration and take it back to show the emperor."

And so it goes. Everybody else who was in that smokey, funky, wine-fumey room has long since forgotten the what-if-Godzilla-was-real riff. But James Morrow held onto it, mulled it, turned it over in his elegant unconscious, purified it, added to it. And forty years later, out came Shambling Towards Hiroshima, a book that opens by describing itself as either a brief memoir or long suicide note. Its author is Syms Thorley, an actor most usually seen swathed in a mummy's linen strips or sporting several added-on brains as Corpuscula, and rendered in glorious 30s black-and-white chiaroscuro.

Thorley is writing his screed in an upper-floor room of a Holiday Inn, having just participated in yet another convention of classic horror film aficionados, at which he received a lifetime achievement award, which he gives away to a bellhop. Outside, it's Ronald Reagan's America and some of the Gipper's Cold Warriors are talking seriously about survivability rates if they should spring a first-strike, neutron-bomb surprise on the Russkies.

Before Thorley is finished his reminiscences, we are treated to a slapstick plot as tightly and seamlessly joined as a Buster Keaton one-reeler, and a cornucopia of real-life characters from the golden age of monster movie-making: not only the instantly recognizable names like Karloff and Lugosi and the rings-a-faint-bells like James Whale and Colin Clive, but a raft of never-heard-of-hims like Franz Waxman, composer of the score to Bride of Frankenstein, who composes the full-orchestra accompaniment to the trashing of a miniature Japanese city as Thorley performs the role he was born to play.

Throw in snappy 40s-type repartee, grim meditations on the kind of thinking that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, self-obsessed Hollywood types mixed in with Navy brass who would cheerfully hang them for treason, and the resulting concoction yields just the right blend of the absurd and the horrific. It's called satire, and James Morrow does it brilliantly.

Copyright © 2009 Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes
Matthew Hughes writes science fantasy. His stories have appeared in Asimov's, F&SF, Postscripts and Interzone. His latest novels are Template, and Hespira: A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn. His web page is at http://www.archonate.com/.


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