1945: The Pacific War is reaching its inevitable and bloody conclusion, but the Japanese Empire remains unwilling to capitulate, threatening the unnecessary loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. The American government believes it has the key to a swift victory, in the form of a terrifying new generation of weapons: gigantic, fire-breathing lizards, bred by the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Dr. Ivan Groelish under the aegis of the top-secret Knickerbocker Project. However, due to pressure from conscience-stricken scientists, the government has decided to present a Japanese delegation with a preview of the threat that faces them; juvenile lizards will be set loose upon a scale model of a Japanese city that has been constructed on a movie soundstage. There is only one problem: the juveniles are too docile to intimidate their audience and shock them into submission. Therefore, the military seeks the services of the narrator of Shambling Towards Hiroshima, one Syms J. Thorley, star of Hollywood B movies such as Corpuscula, and "consummate shambler," to take their place. He is required to don a specially constructed lizard suit and give the performance of his life for the visitors; if he fails to convince them, the real, full-scale lizards will be unleashed on Japan, with the loss of countless lives ...
Godzilla/Gojira has long been acknowledged to be a metaphor for the trauma of the nuclear attacks suffered by Japan in 1945, and in Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow has obviously decided to take that metaphor literally, making the famous monster (actually renamed Gorgantis here) the creation of an alternative Manhattan Project. This witty, playful novel is reminiscent of Watchmen, or Charlie Stross's "A Colder War," in considering the impact that a well-worn SF cliche would have if introduced into a more conventional military confrontation. It has the feel of a shaggy-dog story, related at a breathless pace, which pauses only occasionally for moments of introspection or description, while relying on quick-fire dialogue to keep its audacious, high-concept narrative in motion:
"Dr. Groelish informs us that, besides Blondie, Dagwood, and Mr. Dithers [three fully grown fire-breathing lizards], his team has twenty embryonic behemoths in the hatchery," Commander Barzak said. "There's never been an arsenal like this. We can thank our lucky stars that Hitler never got the lizard."
"One advantage of this weapon over conventional ordnance is that it doesn't require a delivery system," Strickland boasted. "No bombers needed, no rockets, no long-range cannons. We simply have to tow the sedated creature into Japanese coastal waters via submarine. As the tranquilizer wears off, we give the beast a colossal jolt of freedom by abruptly removing its shackles. The chain reaction now combines with the behemoth's instinctive viciousness to send it swimming to shore and rampaging across the countryside in search of a metropolis to incinerate."
"Incinerate?" I said. "They breathe fire?"
"Of course they breathe fire," Barzak said. "Why do you think they cost the taxpayers five hundred million dollars?" (p. 40)
It must be said that none of the jokes in Shambling Towards Hiroshima are quite as inspired as the central conceit itself, but nonetheless it remains entertaining throughout. Much of its humour derives from the fundamental culture clash between buttoned-up military authorities and the Hollywood prima donnas who are drafted in to stage the rubber monster's violent "rampage." Thorley himself possesses both an inflated sense of his own thespian abilities and an insistence on relying on method acting, even when portraying lurching mummies, werewolves, and giant rubber lizards. His equally precious director soon puts him in his place when he begins to agonise over his character's "motivation":
"This is not a cerebral part," Whale elaborated. "You are a monster from the id. You are Death with haunches, la Grande Faucheuse with scales. Feel your way into your swampiest self. Cavort, gambol, improvise, surprise." (p. 58)
Shambling Towards Hiroshima is packed full of cameos from Hollywood greats of the 1930s and 1940s (such as James Whale, director of the original Frankenstein) and thick with references to period films—indeed, the narrator's repertoire of similes seems to be drawn entirely from the world of celluloid. It is immediately clear that the author has a great deal of knowledge about, and affection for, both the people and the films that his novel plunders so shamelessly. However, it must be said that some casual readers, like this reviewer, may feel that many of the references are lost on them. This is unlikely to spoil their enjoyment of the novel, which never allows the period detail to overshadow the narrative or the gags, but it does occasionally create the unnerving feeling that it is intended as a prolonged in-joke, comprehensible only to the author and Kim Newman.
The closing chapter sees a marked change in tone, and for a while it looks as though everything is set for an awkward, mawkish ending. Thorley, during the course of his assignment, begins to first sympathise and then identify with the Japanese he is supposedly crushing underfoot. He narrates his tale from the perspective of 1984, by which time the U.S.A. is in the grips of Reaganomics and the second cold war, and he has become a successful actor (within his field), a screenwriter, and a regular at SF conventions. Right from the opening of the novel the reader is made aware that they are reading what Thorley intends, quite possibly, to be his suicide note. He describes himself by this stage in his life as "pompous and didactic," reduced to lecturing SF fans on the dangers of weapons of mass destruction when all they want is nostalgia, guilt-free excitement, and a few decent jokes. Momentarily, it looks like Morrow is making the same mistake as his fictional creation, and that what should be an entertaining piece of whimsy is about to take a misguided detour into portentous and melodramatic territory. Fortunately, this temptation is deftly avoided, ensuring that Shambling Towards Hiroshima retains its charm to the end.
Michael Froggatt lives in Edinburgh.
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