The Big Idea: James Morrow

James Morrow is one crazy cat, and I say this with great affection. It takes a special sort of person to imagine, for example, using a supertanker to tow the two-mile long corpse of God, as he did in the World Fantasy Award-winning novel Towing Jehovah, or, in his latest, Shambling Towards Hiroshima, to imagine a real-world basis for Godzilla (or, more accurately, “Gojira”), featuring the closing days of World War II and a b-movie Hollywood actor. It’s a nutty idea, but as Publishers Weekly notes in its starred review, “the sheer insanity of the premise only makes the eventual payoff even more powerful.” Indeed. Here’s the author to explain how everyone’s favorite Tokyo-stompin’ lizard was part of his secret history of the world’s greatest conflict.


The great Gojira, that walking metaphor for the atomic bomb, that ambulatory parable of nuclear annihilation, that radioactive allegory on the Hiroshima tragedy, remains among the most potent tropes ever to emerge from the low – but honorable – brow of popular culture. So resonant is the Godzilla myth that even a degraded emanation like the 1998 Roland Emmerich iteration boasts a certain crude appeal. I came out of that crummy movie saying to myself, “The legend still resonates. One of these days, I’m going to do something with it.”

My first Big Idea for a Godzilla homage manifested itself as an outline for a novel, What Rough Beast, which I never wrote. According to my notes, the magnificent lizard travels to Washington DC in 1995 to inspect the controversial Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute, his intention being to incinerate the city unless the curators prove willing to acknowledge certain political, military, and human truths about Hiroshima. I’d just finished reading Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell’s Hiroshima in America, an impassioned revisionist critique of Truman’s decision to wage nuclear war on Japan, and I was brimming with indignation over what might be called A-Bomb Denial Syndrome.

This was familiar territory for me. In the mid-eighties I’d published a caustic fantasy savaging the Reagan Administration’s cavalier attitude toward weapons of mass destruction. The Big Idea behind This Is the Way the World Ends was “the unadmitted,” a hypothetical race of humans whose passports to existence are canceled when their would-be ancestors exterminate themselves via thermonuclear war. Upon receiving a one-year lease on life down in Antarctica, the unadmitted resolve to round up the perpetrators of Armageddon and put them on trial for “crimes against humanity” under the Nuremberg precedent.

After noodling with What Rough Beast for several months, I abandoned the project on aesthetic grounds. To use the historical facts of the Smithsonian exhibition in such a bald and moralistic way, I decided, would entail too few novelistic virtues and too many finger-wagging harangues. When Jacob Weisman invited me to contribute a short book to the Tachyon list, I rethought the whole Godzilla thing from top to bottom, eventually hitting on the Big Idea of a secret biological-weapons initiative overseen by the Navy in tandem with the Army’s Manhattan Project. The Knickerbocker Project reaches its climax in 1945, bringing forth a generation of giant mutant amphibious bipedal fire-breathing iguanas just in time to influence – perhaps – the outcome of the Pacific War.

While the Naval high command is eager to deploy the monsters strategically, the Knickerbocker scientists want to demonstrate the deadly lizards to a delegation of Emperor Hirohito’s advisors. The scientists believe that if they can get a dwarf form of the behemoth to destroy a model of Shirazuka – a hypothetical Japanese city – in the presence of the enemy ambassadors, they might, just might, leverage the unconditional surrender demanded by the Potsdam Ultimatum. Alas, the dwarf behemoths prove much too docile, so the scientists have to hire a horror-movie actor, Syms Thorley, to don a rubber “Gorgantis” suit and wreck the miniature Shirazuka before the eyes of the visiting dignitaries.

Shambling Towards Hiroshima is Syms’s story from start to finish. This conscientious, cynical, world-weary actor, loosely based on Lon Chaney, Jr., must give the performance of his life. If he can raze Shirazuka with convincing ferocity, then the Pacific War could very well end without a bloodbath. If Syms screws up his assignment, Truman will have to choose among three woeful options: invading the Japanese mainland, unleashing the city-stomping monsters, or dropping atomic bombs on civilian targets.

My essential aim in crafting Shambling Towards Hiroshima was to offer readers an amusing satiric tribute to 1940’s horror movies combined with an affectionate celebration of the kaiju phenomenon. As with This Is the Way the World Ends, though, I also wanted to fashion a lament for the victims – both real and potential – of nuclear war. This loftier agenda found me composing a framing story in which Syms Thorley, now retired from the silver screen, attends a monster-movie convention in Baltimore. There he meets a Japanese fan whose aunt was one of the hibakusha, the “explosion-affected persons” – victims of the atomic bombs. This earnest young man tells Syms all about the horrors his aunt witnessed in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Why bring in the hibakusha? Well, I guess I want readers to consider that our affection for Hollywood behemoths may come at a price. By all means, let’s continue to revel in our kaiju eiga, but let’s remain mindful of the point Susan Sontag makes in her classic essay on science-fiction cinema, “The Imagination of Disaster.” Whether we like it or not, such films are often “in complicity with the abhorrent.”

Miraculously, the original Gojira – not to be confused with the 1954 Raymond Burr re-edit marketed to Western audiences – manages to have it both ways. On one level, of course, Ishiro Honda’s low-budget masterpiece is a fun and engaging monster movie. And yet the scenes dramatizing the denouement of Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo – particularly the tableaux set in hospital wards – include images that deliberately evoke documentary footage of the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Rent the beautiful Toho DVD restoration, and you’ll see what I mean.

Looking back on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, can we say that Truman made a morally justifiable decision? A bedeviling conundrum – but not, I feel, the one we should really be addressing. I think we should ask ourselves a different question. Given the fear and remorse that the Hiroshima attack evidently instilled in Emperor Hirohito, was it truly necessary to hit Nagasaki immediately afterwards, as General Leslie Groves had systematically arranged? In my view, that’s a question that must never go away, a question we ignore only at our peril.


Shambling Towards Hiroshima: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit James Morrow’s Web site here.

21 Comments on “The Big Idea: James Morrow”

  1. The wikipedia article seems to make things pretty clear. Japan was told to surrender unconditionally or else, but they were still waffling around two days after the first bomb. They might have had a little more time but weather was expected to be bad for many days after the 9th, so that’s when the next run was moved to.

    I think you need to dial it back to Truman’s decision to drop the first one since it was all military and mechanics after that.

  2. I Know a very nice lady who was part of the death march.She is forgiving and may agree with what you question,but i am not sure any others still alive would .that what’s great about fiction. YOU DON’T DEAL IN REALITY .

  3. This is an excellent big idea, and sounds like a fascinating book. That particular Sontag essay is a favorite of mine, and I often find myself judging SF books based on whether or not it feels like the author is cognizant of that dimension.

  4. The main stumbling block to Japan’s reluctance to surrender unconditionally was the possibility that Emperor Hirohito would be tried as a war criminal. It wasn’t as if there was any realistic possibility that Japan would rearm at that point. They were beaten and everybody knew it. Dropping the bomb was about demonstrating the new technology to the world, not ending the war. If the war in Europe hadn’t ended when it did, it would have been Berlin that would have been nuked instead.

    Btw. Even with the unconditional surrender, the Allies decided not to try Hirohito in the end. So much for the military justification.

  5. Wow… and here I was just wondering the other day if James Morrow had written anything recently. Morrow is absolutely one of my very favorite authors, and I’ve devoured just about everything he’s written. Thanks for the Big Idea!

  6. Tudza wrote.

    “I think you need to dial it back to Truman’s decision to drop the first one since it was all military and mechanics after that.”

    I think you have to go back even further. Once you accept the concept of Firebombing a civilian city, is the fact that you are using one bomb to the same effect really that much worse?

  7. I love Morrow’s work. Special mention for Only Begotten Daughter. I’ve been looking forward to Shambling… for a while.

  8. Unrealistic or not, it’s important to keep in mind what was going on in the Japanese military after the first bomb dropped. The first thing they asked their nuclear scientists was “How soon can we have one of those?”

    While the Japanese nuclear program, such as it was, was nowhere near advanced enough to produce a bomb, their scientists were knowledgable enough about the technical issues involved to tell the military that the Hiroshima bomb was a Uranium bomb, and that such bombs required difficult and expensive separation of U235 from U238. They speculated that the Americans probably didn’t have any more of them.

    After Nagasaki, the scientists told the military “That was a plutonium bomb. All you need for those is a reactor. They probably have more.”

    Just a technical detail often overlooked in the emotional discussion of one of the great tragedies of the last century.

  9. I’m sceptical that the Japanese scientists had the data, and the knowledge to interpret, it to tell the difference between uranium and plutonium bombs that quickly.

    When the Japanese cabinet was discussing the allied demand for surrender on August 9, they had two pieces of news. One was that a second city had been destroyed, the other was that the Russians had declared war (on the date long agreed, 3 months after the end of hostilities in Europe). Both must have had an impact, but there were still some calling to continue fighting even in the face of further destruction of cities.

  10. I’m glad to see that my Godzilla novella has sparked such a lively discussion. Permit me to add that, beyond the Nagasaki question — should the dropping of the plutonium bomb have been postponed or suspended? — I think two other problems are worth considering.

    First, how essential was it to define the “unconditional surrender” of Japan in the most draconian terms imaginable? From the enemy perspective, the Potsdam Proclamation clearly allowed for Emperor Hirohito to be tried and executed as a war criminal, an intolerable thought for the Japanese — and surely one reason for Tokyo’s maddeningly equivocal reaction to the ultimatum. And yet, ironically, after Hirohito finally demanded that his generals capitulate, there was evidently no sentinent among the Allies for arresting him. Indeed, McArthur allowed the Emperor to remain the titular head of his nation, a gesture that proved essential for shutting down the tattered but fanatical remnants of Japan’s once mighty military machine.

    Third, how necessary was it, both to immediate American interests and to the welfare of humankind in general, that the Pacific War end with minimal assistance from Stalin? It’s worth remembering that, the day before the Nagasaki attack, the Soviet Government officially declared war on Japan. Some historians have concluded that, even without the atomic-bomb factor, the Japanese would have ultimately surrendered in consequence of massive Soviet involvement — a situation that Truman, of course, could not countenance, given his understandable desire to curtail Stalin’s postwar influence in the Far East.

    I only ask. I do not know.

  11. Japanese friends always insisted that the Stalin only joined the war at the end so that he could steal the Kurile Islands from Japan (Chishima to the Japanese). They were captured with the fishermen who lived there, and are Russian possessions still.

  12. 15: James, I’m thrilled with the whole notion of this book, and it’s already on order, as I’m sort of an atomic bomb geek myself. I’ve always guessed that, had we postponed the bombing of Nagasaki (or ultimately had to proceed with the invasion) and let the Soviets get more involved in the Pacific War, they’d have seized the Kuriles early, but waited until we had bloodied ourselves senseless on Kyushu and then picked up the other pieces that may have made sense. Stalin was screaming for an invasion of France from the fall of 1942 on, and certainly no later than 1943 and wouldn’t have minded a little payback and an additional exhaustion of American resources to diminish our own influence in post-War Europe.

    That said, I’ve always been ultimately comfortable with the decision to use it, even as early as the 9th. It’s not clear to me that the Imperial Army was ready to quit or that an order from the Emperor wouldn’t have been creatively interpreted in such a way as to really ignore it. While Hirohito, of course, had huge influence on Japan, he still let his government (i.e., the junta) run the show.

    All great questions to ask, however, and I look forward to reading this one. What atomic bomb history books did you rely on in getting up to speed on the subject of Manhattan and the like? I’ve read most of the big ones and will be curious to see how your research plays out.

  13. First, let’s be clear that there are many factors to consider in the evaluation of the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. I’ll leave the reader to enumerate them all, but one can start with the relative lack of familiarity with the side effects of atomic explosions at the time. To most involved, they were simply very big bombs, inherently no worse than the thousands of smaller bombs used on Tokyo, Berlin, Dresden, Coventry, etc. The horrors of the attendant radiation only became apparent later.

    As to the assertion regarding the state of knowledge of the Japanese nuclear scientists, I can only trust my source, which ultimately is a recently published book: “The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation”, by Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman. (Curiously, I heard about book in a review of the stage play “Dr. Atomic” in the New Yorker.) Stillman and Reed both had long careers in the nuclear weapons field in the Cold War, so they should know what they’re talking about.

    They assert that Japan had two atomic-bomb programs during the war. One was Project N, at the Aviation Technology Research Institute, in Tokyo, overseen by Yoshio Nishina. Its work was largely destroyed by firebombing early in 1945; they lost their small cyclotron though the larger 60-inch cyclotron survived. The second project, the F-Go project, operated by the Navy, was situated at the Imperial University of Kyoto and involved centrifuge research; its facilities survived the war, but the researchers made only a little technical progress. However, according to the book, Nishina and the chief of the Kyoto project, Bunsaku Arakatsu, knew enough about nuclear weapons at the time of the Hiroshima bombing to be able to advise the Japanese government about the nature of the bomb used by the Americans, its yield, and its fissile material—uranium, in the case of the Hiroshima bomb. Information about these two projects can be found in the book “Yoshio Nishina: Father of Modern Physics in Japan”, by Dong-Won Kim.

    After Hiroshima, the Japanese scientists concluded, correctly, that the United States must have labored long and hard to create enough U-235, the difficult-to-extract fissionable isotope of uranium used in atomic bombs, and that they probably did not have any left—the Hiroshima bomb was a one-time shot, at least for now. After Nagasaki, however, these scientists recognized the plutonium used in that bomb and understood that it must have come from a working reactor—and, therefore, there would be more where that bomb came from. The authors surmise the scientists’ advice to the Japanese war cabinet after Nagasaki: “Better take this one seriously; better accede to American demands; there are probably more plutonium bombs.”

    While it’s been nearly 30 years since I earned my (unused) degree in nuclear engineering, I retain enough to speculate that if one knew what to look for, it shouldn’t be that hard to distinguish between the fallout from a uranium bomb and a plutonium bomb.

    One the other hand, the irony is that the Americans really didn’t have any more bombs, of either kind, and they wouldn’t for months. While it’s difficult to find precise information, it seems that at the time of the Bikini Atoll tests the next summer (July 1946) there were only ten bombs: “…the two tests used twenty percent of the available inventory.” That implies a production rate of around one per month, which sound reasonable. One can hazard a guess that if the Japanese had refused to surrender after Nagasaki, the next bombing would not have happened for at least a month and probably longer.

    Fortunately, two was enough. The tragedy of course is that any had to be used at all.

  14. Kirk @ 19: After the Nagasaki bomb was used on the 9th of August 1945 (the original target was Kokura Arsenal not far from Nagasaki, but the weather over Kokura was problematic and Nagasaki was the alternate) Colonel Tibbets ordered a “pit” (a plutonium implosion core) toi be sent from Los Alamos to Tinian field in the Pacific in preparation for another nuclear mission. According to Tibbets the pit had reached San Diego when the Japanese surrender was announced, and it was never shipped to Tinian.

    Tinian had at least one spare bomb housing on hand, another Fat Boy design missing only its plutonium core. It is possible that another weapon in addition to this third one could have been used on Japan by the end of August.

    The really scary thing was that the Boeing plant in Seattle was producing 300 B-29 bombers a month and large numbers of B-17 pilots from the European war theatre were ramping up conversion training. By the time the Olympic/Coronet invasion took place in late October Japanese cities could have been subjected to massive “conventional” bomber raids every day and night until there was nothing left worth bombing on the Home Islands.

  15. Robert @ 20: Thanks for the additional details. My speculation was intended to be conservative, so I’m not at all surprised that they had prepared a few additional plutonium cores. That is after all precisely what the new information reveals that the Japanese nuclear scientists were concerned about.

    The focus on the horror of atomic bombs should not distract from the horrors of “conventional” warfare; the firebombings of cities in WWII are to my mind on the same level as the atomic bombings in their inhumanity. They lack only the long-term radiation-induced health consequences. Even using conventional means only – in some parallel world in which we did not develop the atomic bomb – the probable death toll in Japan from aerial bombings would have been truly beyond description. Add to that the loss of life in the invasion which would follow, and it becomes truly staggering.

    If one is concerned with ending the war while minimizing the total loss of human life, then avoiding an invasion of the Japanese home islands becomes a priority. The choice then becomes a conditional surrender or using the atomic bombs. There may have been other choices with the potential for less human cost, but they were not without their own risks in the long term. The merits of the various approaches can be debated without resolution interminably. I’m just glad we got out of it as cheaply as we did and with Japan as an ally for the last sixty-plus years and the foreseeable future.

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