BRIEF SYNOPSIS: During WWII, a B-movie actor has to impersonate a giant, rampaging lizard in order to impress the Japanese and encourage them to surrender.
PROS: James Morrow + Monster Movies = Fascinating
CONS: There is a jarring tone shift towards the intensely serious at the end of the story.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a short read that has a lot to say about a number of topics.
1950s monster movies and apocalyptic scenarios went together like mac ‘n’ cheese after the nuclear explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that helped to end WWII. In retrospect then, it’s no surprise that James Morrow has shifted the Monster element backwards in time to coincide with the Manhattan project in his alternate/secret history novella, Shambling Towards Hiroshima. Let it be said, though, that I can’t imagine anyone thinking of such a thing until Morrow went and did it.
In this story, a solid B-rate monster actor is asked to contribute to the war effort. It looks like there might not be enough fissile material for the bombs in development by the Manhattan Project to be built, so focus has shifted to an alternate doomsday weapon being developed near California’s China Lake–giant fire-breathing monsters. These monsters have been successfully engineered from their desert iguana brethren, and now they may be the key to the war effort: tow them to Japan via submarine, wake them up and set them loose. Cooler heads are trying to prevail, suggesting that a demonstration of their destructive power might obviate the need for actually releasing them (this was also a real proposal made about the A-Bombs). Obviously they can’t let the adults destroy Los Angeles just for a demonstration, so they turn to juveniles. However, as youths these abominations from the deep are as playful as kittens. In desperation, the powers-that-be decide to make a monster suit to look like the juveniles and have an actor rampage through a miniature set of a real Japanese city for the benefit of Japanese observers.
If this sounds like the set-up for one heck of a comedy, it is. Most of the first two-thirds of this short work involve Thorley trying to manage his defense work around his shooting schedule, his rivalry with the guy who plays the villains in the same B-rate monster movies, the inherent comedy in any “Top Secret”-type project, Jimmy Whales (he of Frankenstein directorial fame) orchestrating the mock-rampage to suit his own aesthetics, and much else. The book uses many of the tropes of the monster movie genre and gleefully points them out whenever they show up: the mad scientist, the mad scientist’s beautiful daughter, the B-movie villainy, etc.
All this culminates in the actual demonstration, at which point we also arrive at a major tone-shift in the novel. Morrow actually writes a pretty serious anti-nuclear weapons message here, and after the “climax” of the story, the denouement takes on a depressing note. This circles back to the framing narrative: the story is supposedly being written by Syms Thorley in the early 1980s as he’s just received a life-time achievement award (the “Raydo” to honor Ray Bradbury & Ray Harryhausen and their work on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) at a Comic-Con analog, and he’s seriously considering jumping out the window of his high-rise hotel building. At first this tone is completely jarring with the mad-cap comedy that he’s narrating, and in the chapter breaks his depression is often mediated by various random visitors stopping by to chat. However, after the telling of the full-blown monstrous demonstration, everything comes crashing back down and we remember that anything-of-mass-destruction isn’t actually a laughing matter.
These two approaches to the material–keystone-cops-comedy as well as real tragedy–exist somewhat uneasily in this novel, but they contribute to Morrow’s deconstruction of the 50’s giant-monster-style movie. In the text itself he cites Susan Sontag’s famous paper on the subject (one of the first academic works to treat any pop culture as a serious subject worth examination, an innovation for which all of us sf-critics may be grateful), and once you reach the end of this novella and reflect on what you’ve just witnessed, it is an impressively multi-layered narrative. Amongst other things I noted the concept of monster movies as humanizing mass destruction in a way that wasn’t possible with an impersonal bomb strike, bringing art and aesthetics to a holocaust that was otherwise too mechanistic. I’ve been avoiding the major spoiler of the novel so far, so I’ll take it no further, but this is a short work of surprising depth, given its subject matter. Certainly now I understand the book trailer for it much better–it had seemed quite dark and gloomy, and as I was reading the comedic bits I couldn’t figure out why. Once you get to the end though, that trailer makes perfect sense.