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.
Visit James Morrow’s Web site here.