Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Shambling Towards Hiroshima, by James K. Morrow

A semi-satirical alternate history in which the U.S. threatens Japan with... kaiju.

Shambling Towards Hiroshima

Tachyon Publications, 2009, 170 pages

It is the early summer of 1945, and war reigns in the Pacific Rim with no end in sight. Back in the States, Hollywood B-movie star Syms Thorley lives in a very different world, starring as the Frankenstein-like Corpuscula and Kha-Ton-Ra, the living mummy. But the U.S. Navy has a new role waiting for Thorley, the role of a lifetime that he could never have imagined.

The top secret Knickerbocker Project is putting the finishing touches on the ultimate biological weapon: a breed of gigantic, fire-breathing, mutant iguanas engineered to stomp and burn cities on the Japanese mainland. The Navy calls upon Thorley to don a rubber suit and become the merciless Gorgantis and to star in a live drama that simulates the destruction of a miniature Japanese metropolis. If the demonstration succeeds, the Japanese will surrender, and many thousands of lives will be spared; if it fails, the horrible mutant lizards will be unleashed. One thing is certain: Syms Thorley must now give the most terrifyingly convincing performance of his life.

In the dual traditions of Godzilla as a playful monster and a symbol of the dawn of the nuclear era, Shambling Towards Hiroshima unexpectedly blends the destruction of World War II with the halcyon pleasure of monster movies.

This short novel is a fun romp that bounces back and forth between semi-serious commentary on arms races and the morality of killing civilians to end a war, and copious shout-outs to monster movies and SF fandom.

The premise is just this side of ridiculous, the sort of plot you'd find in one of the monster movies references in this book: as the War in the Pacific grinds to its inevitable denouement and the U.S. seeks a way to force the Japanese to surrender without having to invade Japan, there are two doomsday weapon projects running in parallel. While physicists develop the atomic bomb, a team of biologists have successfully irradiated mutant iguanas and created giant, fire-breathing monsters capable of destroying cities, if ever awoken from their drug-induced coma. The Navy, wanting to beat the Army to the bomb, wants to set up a demonstration of these fearsome monsters to a Japanese delegation, who will then run back to the Emperor and convince him to order a surrender before Japanese cities are stomped beneath giant, radioactive lizard-feet.

Scientifically, it's pretty silly, but author James Morrow takes this idea and plays it straight, incorporating the kaiju plot with the actual history of World War II and the negotiations and speculation and multifaceted considerations that the U.S. and Japan took into account as they struggled towards the end of a war whose outcome everyone knew was already a foregone conclusion.

The main character is Syms Thorley, a B-movie actor famous for stomping around Hollywood sets in a rubber monster suit, which is why the Navy hires him to put on a show for the Japanese delegation. There is a whole contrived set-up to explain why they think this will work, and why Thorley has to pretend to be a baby giant radioactive lizard, and the U.S. government building spectacular, detailed mockups of the Japanese cities that Thorley will stomp on, complete with tanks, Zeroes, and the Battleship Yamato, all of which will fire live ammo at Thorley in the big climactic rampage.

Shambling Towards Hiroshima is narrated by Thorley as an aging actor making a living on the sci-fi con circuit, appearing at autograph sessions to rant about abolishing weapons of mass destruction while still haunted fifty years later by his participation in the top-secret WMD project the world never saw, the one that failed to prevent the nuclear age.

While I got the impression Morrow was sort of serious about wanting this book to be read as an allegory, it was hard to take too seriously. It is, after all, about an actor trying to end World War II by pretending to be Godzilla. But Morrow isn't that serious about it, and his humor makes this book also a pleasure to read for fans of Godzilla movies and monster movies in general. There are self-aware winks at the genre and fandom throughout.

As an alternate history novel, this was quite an unusual little gem.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, reviews, science fiction

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