Posted on August 17, 2009 by Kenneth Hite
The high concept of James Morrow’s novel Shambling Towards Hiroshima is, quite frankly, almost worth the price of admission by itself. Unbeknownst to most Americans, the Navy had a backup plan in case the Army’s A-Bomb didn’t work out in WWII — genetically engineer giant, fire-breathing lizards to devastate Japan. (But we were building the A-Bomb to devastate Germany, I hear you cry. Never you mind about that.) But unlike our secretive A-Bomb policy, we decided to demonstrate our monsters to the Japanese to give them a chance to surrender first. But (and here’s where it gets really good) we couldn’t devastate anywhere real for a mere demonstration, so the Navy hired the world’s greatest monster-actor, Syms Thorley, to get into a rubber monster suit and stomp around on a model of “Shirazuka” for the cameras. The plan was to show the film to the Japanese and horrify them into surrender.
This novel is Syms Thorley’s memoir, written forty years after his starring role as Gorgantis, the flame-breathing giant iguana, in the top-secret Knickerbocker Project. Which of course spawned a whole series of popular “Gorgantis” movies in the book’s universe. (As your top-secret government embarrassments so often do.) It’s alternately too clever by half and not quite clever enough. The entire concept is ludicrous, of course, satirizing the ludicrousness of atomic warfare. But Morrow’s use of “Gorgantis” to represent the Bomb in an ironic satire doesn’t work nearly well enough to warrant cheapening Ishiro Honda’s original use of Gojira to represent the Bomb in a horrific cri de coeur. Those who most appreciate the daikaiju myth will find the least to appreciate about this “white liberal guilt” redress of it, even if they are otherwise sympathetic to Thorley’s anti-nuclear politics. Goodwin attempts to hang a lantern on the problem when he has Thorley complain that the audiences at his SF convention appearances never seem to want to listen to anti-nuclear propaganda at a monster-fest. Consider that lantern well and truly hung.
Where the book does shine, however, is in the recreation of Thorley’s monster rally Hollywood of the 1940s. The interplay of somewhat fictionalized characters (Thorley is a riff on Boris Karloff; “Siegfried Dagover” a villainous Bela Lugosi) with real ones (the Navy gets Willis O’Brien of King Kong fame for the special effects and James Whale to direct the secret Gorgantis shoot) is almost seamless. The film storyline — both the secret Navy film and the horror film backdrop — far outpaces the rest of the book in human interest, believability (even during the more ludicrous set pieces), and invention. It’s a shame that the monster-fest keeps getting interrupted by attempted irony, or what’s worse, attempted significance.
Review by Ken Hite