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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: Shambling Towards Hiroshima
SF Site Review: Only Begotten Daughter
SF Site Review: The Eternal Footman
SF Site Review: Blameless in Abaddon

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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After the Second World War, the people of Japan had a national trauma to deal with the like of which none of the rest of us have ever had to experience. It wasn't the fact of defeat, or even the emphatic scale of it, that was at issue, it was the unprecedented nature and violence of the destruction wrought at Hiroshima and again at Nagasaki. One of the ways they found to deal with this trauma was to personalize the destruction in the monstrous character of Gojira or Godzilla. A terrible creature from the past awakened by and rendered all but invulnerable by the dawn of the Atomic Age, Godzilla first appeared in 1954 and has gone on to feature in some twenty-odd other films not to mention television programmes, comics and novels.

Now, in a curious example of cultural appropriation, James Morrow has claimed Godzilla for America, not just as the embodiment of nuclear destruction, but as the cinematic icon. In a novella full of mixed messages (an emphatic anti-nuclear stance, which we might expect from the author of This is the Way the World Ends, is coupled with what amounts to a celebration of the sort of devastation wrought by the bomb; a story of horrors and despair is written as farce) the monstrous beast from the depths turns out to have been an American invention, an actual breeding programme designed as an alternative to atomic weapons. With these terrible beasts heavily sedated in a remote lake, the military must find a way of convincing the Japanese high command of the reality of these monsters. The way they devise is to bring senior Japanese officers to Hollywood to watch a young monster destroy a model Japanese city. Unfortunately, the young of the monsters prove to be very docile, so they resort to a man in a monster suit.

The man they choose is second rate monster movie actor Syms Thorley. Much of the humour in this often very funny book derives from Thorley's sense of his own place in movie history. He has spent his career swathed in bandages as the mummy Kha-Ton-Ra, or disfigured as the low-rent Frankenstein's creature, Corpuscula, yet he talks earnestly of the heights of his acting or the art of his films.

Meanwhile his co-star, Siggy Dagover, is also his greatest rival, forever competing for the next cheap role that is going to win them immortality. One of the most farcical moments in the novel occurs when Thorley goes to a party hosted by Dagover in the expectation that he will meet the top directors of the day who will be falling over themselves to read his new vampire script. Of course none of the directors turn up, and Thorley loses the script to Dagover who will use it to establish his own post-war career.

We know about Dagover's subsequent career because the novella is framed as Thorley writing his memoirs in old age after receiving a lifetime achievement award at a horror movie convention. He has decided to write everything down during one night as he contemplates his suicide in the morning. But, just like everything else in Thorley's career, neither the writing nor the suicide goes as smoothly as planned. He is an old man doomed by nature to be a ham in a monster suit, and doomed just as surely to resent the fact.

And inevitably, his greatest performance can never be known, because he, along with Hollywood's finest costume designers, set builders and directors, is conscripted into a secret project. By day, he is busy making "Revenge of Corpuscula," by night, he is preparing for the role of Gorgantis in a command performance that only certain members of the American and Japanese high commands are ever intended to see. Although it doesn't help to keep things secret when his wife decides the Gorgantis costume is the sexiest thing imaginable, and the police catch them in flagrante on the local beach.

Alternating between the clumsy lunacy of America's war time film-making and the grandiosity of this sub-Manhattan secret project, and the even clumsier lunacy of Thorley's constantly interrupted attempt to write his memoir and kill himself, Shambling Towards Hiroshima is a slight novel clearly written for absurd effect. It makes one uneasy to find that everything associated with one of the most singular Japanese responses to the atomic bomb is here the creation of America. The monster itself is a genuine creature bred by Americans as an intentional alternative to the bomb; the first Gorgantis film is made by Americans and stars an American; the original American-made Gorgantis costume is bought by the Japanese for their first film; and the American actor, Syms Thorley, who first wore the costume in America goes on to star in many Japanese films wearing the exact same costume, and indeed writes a number of them under Japanese pseudonyms. And yet, for all one feels that Japan is somehow not even being allowed its own response to its own catastrophe, still this is a very funny book. Treat it as what it is, a satire on the American military mind and the cheaper aspects of American popular culture, and this is a very funny book indeed. Just don't try to peer too far below the surface.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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