I have a confession (my reviews often start with confessions because reviews are as much about the reviewer as they are about the book): I don't much like monster movies. Unlike many film buffs, I do not revel in the campiness of 1940s and 1950s costuming; I do not drool over stop-motion animation or long for the good-old days when the monster was some guy in a suit, not a tennis ball married to a motion-capture unit. Boris Karloff film festivals hold no magic for me. Whether it's Frankenstein's monster or Dracula, this area of speculative fiction has never gripped me as much as, say, space opera.
So I approached Shambling Towards Hiroshima with some scepticism. Could a story so steeped in this subculture hold my interest? The narrator, Syms J. Thorley, is a has-been monster movie actor recounting his involvement in the New Amsterdam Project, also known as the Knickerbocker Project. As an alternative to the Manhattan Project, the Navy and a biologist bred giant fire-breathing lizards that could be towed to the shore of Japan by submarine and unleashed to wreak devastation on the island nation. But they needed a scale-model monster to destroy their scale-model of Japan in front of representatives of the Japanese government. Enter Thorley, professional monster man.
The only real science fiction in this book is its premise. While essential to the plot, it never steals the stage from Thorley's voice as a harried old man or his story about balancing his movie obligations with his duty to his country. At first, the idea that the Navy might be breeding Godzilla-like monsters to defeat Japan may sound outrageous to a reader—it did to me! Then I stopped and considered what the public must have thought in the aftermath of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "Atom bomb" sounds like something out of science fiction—indeed, until the Manhattan Project reified it, it was something out of science fiction. Yet nuclear weapons, while not commonplace (thankfully) like toasters or computers are a matter of common parlance, part of our technological canon, if you will. If we can harness the power of nuclear fission for destructive purposes, surely breeding fire-breathing lizards is not that crazy.
And what about duping the Japanese with a guy in a suit? Well, that is just one of the many levels of satire in which James Morrow engages. In a commentary on both the United States military and the Hollywood film industry, Morrow looks at the relationship film has with deception. The government is no stranger to deception as a negotiating tactic. When they need to deceive the Japanese delegation about the veracity of their scaled-down monster, it makes perfect sense to turn to a professional industry practised in such deception. With the proper costuming, lighting, and acting, anything is possible in the movie industry.
Shambling Towards Hiroshima is rife with satire of the movie industry; much of it, owing to my unfamiliarity with 1940s American cinema, went over my head. I knew enough to gather that James Whale and Willis O'Brien, hired to direct Thorley's performance and manage special effects, respectively, were real people in the movie industry. Morrow gives Thorley an over-the-top rival, who also plays a somewhat antagonistic role in both Thorley's life and the plot. Siegfried Dagover is enjoyable because he is a caricature of the jealous actor rather than despite this fact. Similarly, the rough characters of Thorley's director and producer on his movie project hearken back to the coarser era of American cinema. By no means do I subscribe to a view that American cinema was ever "innocent", but this was an era where radio was still the dominant communications medium. The cult of celebrity around movie actors, especially those who specialized in the monster movie industry, manifested differently than it does today. Morrow displays the differences, both celebrates them and mocks them, as is evident from Thorley and Darlene's interrupted adventures on Santa Monica beach with Thorley's monster costume. . . .
Moving further into meta-fictional territory, Morrow comments on the monster movie form itself. He (ironically, I think) has Thorley insist that, "the writers repeatedly employed a conceit that, in retrospect, seems to strike a blow for feminism." The necessity for a romantic interest for the male protagonist would often lead to his association with a lonely female scientist. Lo and behold, the biologists working on the Knickerbocker Project are Dr. Ivan Groelish and his daughter, Joy. Joy's relationship with Thorley is more short-lived and platonic than it is romantic, but it's clear Morrow is not aiming for a one-to-one correspondence. In fact, the biologists play a surprisingly small role considering the monstrous premise—again, because this is a story about Thorley and his role in a deception that failed to end a war, not a story about monsters invading Japan.
Any satire spared the monster movie industry Morrow saves for the United States military. Admirals Yordan and Strickland, like Dagover, are caricatures of stereotypes. And because everything about Shambling Towards Hiroshima is a caricature of a stereotype, that works. Yordan acts like an atheist attached to a religious event, forced to oversee a project he doesn't understand implemented by people who, not being military personnel, he does not trust. Of course, the situation is not helped by Thorley's irreverent attitude.
Like all satire, however, Shambling Towards Hiroshima has a serious point, embodied by the frame story. Thorley has eleventh hour encounters with a sympathetic hooker, a friendly hotel steward, and a fan stuck in a costume model after Thorley's famous monster. These characters serve as windows into the mind of the older, more experienced Syms Thorley, one haunted by his role in the war. More than just a failure to end the war, Thorley's mere involvement in the war has rendered the rest of his life in a darker shade of grey. He's continued to shuffle as a mummy, to howl as a werewolf . . . but that profession that he loved so much has been tainted for him. And all the awards and accolades that he has accumulated, the money and the cult recognition, if not fame, is a hollow victory compared to what could have been.
War is hell. This a theme oft-repeated, and to do something truly innovative with it is a formidable challenge for a writer. Simlarly, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are some of the most controversial events of the twentieth century, events that marked the beginning of the "Atomic Age" of humanity, and all the good and ill it would bring. I suppose it is possible to interpret this book as a pro-bomb statement. Simply read, this is a story of the military trying to persuade Japan to surrender through a mock demonstration of a superweapon. If that were the case, however, why not write about a mock demonstration of the atomic bomb? Instead Morrow chose to portray a fictitious alternative to the Manhattan Project. In doing so, he decouples the nearly indelible link between the mechanics of the atomic superweapon and the morality.
More than just a story about dropping the bomb, Shambling Towards Hiroshima is a story about the mindset of those working so hard to end the war. It's all there in the title, which is so perfect. "Shambling" is reminiscent of zombies—but, more topically, it refers to all the various monsters of the 1940s cinema. It also conjures the image of an inexorable but by no means smooth path toward the dropping of the atomic bomb, a weighty spectre of fate. Morrow gave me, someone who has no context for Hiroshima, an idea of the zeitgeist of 1940s America. As the war in the Pacific drew ever on, the prospect of ending it with one fell swoop grew ever more appealing. Each successive event compounded on the last, making the deployment of the bomb more likely. And so the world lurched and shambled, one step at a time, toward the beginning of the Atomic Age.