By Matthew Kresal
In his recent series of articles, Ryan Fleming has been exploring the history of the horror genre and how it might have developed differently. In one recent entry, The Destroyer of Worlds, Fleming discussed the rise of the kaiju genre and perhaps its most famous member: Godzilla, the fire-breathing reptile born as something of a Japanese cultural response to the horrors of nuclear weapons and their effect upon the country. Suppose, though, that another kaiju had risen to take Godzilla's place, with a secret origin likewise buried in the closing days of the Second World War. That was the premise of James K. Morrow's 2009 Nebula and Hugo-nominated novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima.
The novella's premise sits on the borderline between secret and alternate history. During the war, as the US Army led the Manhattan Project to develop the first nuclear weapons, the US Navy worked on its own secret weapon. But whereas the Army was using physics, the Navy's Project Knickerbocker sought a biological solution in the form of large, fire-breathing lizards. Ones taken in tow to the Japanese coast by submarine and let loose on cities, devastating the country. Or, perhaps, a demonstration of what just one of the juvenile creatures could do would be enough to force a surrender. There's only one problem: the younger ones are too docile.
Enter Hollywood horror actor Syms Thorsley who, thanks to his unique creature-playing skills, is hired to be put into a suit matching the Knickerbocker creations for the demonstration.
Told as a memoir written by Thorsley at a science fiction convention across a long night nearly forty years later after a career spent in a kaiju suit, Shambling Towards Hiroshima has plenty to play with. On the most obvious level, Morrow is tying into Godzilla and the kaiju genre, its modern incarnation born from the war's end and its aftermath. The idea of such creatures created as an alternative to nuclear weapons is an intriguing one, to be sure. So too, by the framing device being Thorsley's attendance, is the irony of how something created with high intentions would become seen as little more than low-brow entertainment.
There's also, for fans of Hollywood's Golden Age and the horror films of the period, plenty of references and tropes that Morrow plays with. There's plenty of namechecking, including some Hollywood names who come to be involved with the Knickerbocker demonstration, which adds to the richness of the alternate history created. As are the two alternative film series to rival Universal's Frankenstein and Mummy films, one of which is filming as Thorsley is recruited by the Navy, juggling both projects at once. Thorsley's first-person account helps, too, to capture that feeling of Old Hollywood, well-suiting the narrative that Morrow presents.
Shambling Towards Hiroshima also plays on other legacies of the first use of nuclear weapons. The idea of a weapon of mass destruction given a demonstration in front of the opposing side is, after all, one of the great what-if scenarios of Hiroshima and Nagasaki's destruction. Here, Morrow can present a take on such a possibility, substituting his kaiju (and Thorsley's suited equivalent) for nukes and giving it just enough plausibility to keep the story and reader engaged.
There's another legacy explored, too, and one that is perhaps to the novella's detriment. That would be of the guilt of some involved in the Manhattan Project, given a twist by Morrow that becomes apparent within a matter of pages (and suggested by the novella's title). With Thorsley's narrative being a confession about Project Knickerbocker and his role, Shambling Towards Hiroshima lingers on the edge of being secret history rather than crossing into a full-on alternative, which might more fully explore the ideas that Morrow presents.
(From a writer's nitpicking point of view, the idea that Thorsley manages to write what amounts to a 190-plus page document in a single, sleepless night likewise stretches credibility. True, novels have been penned during a weekend, but in twelve hours? That's perhaps taking it too far, even in a world where the Navy created kaiju during the Second World War!)
Even so, Shambling Towards Hiroshima's ideas and narrator carry it through. While Morrow might not make the most of the ideas he cultivates, plenty remains to recommend it as worth a read. Not to mention demonstrating another example of how alternate history can take tropes and history, mix them together, baking them into a unique tale of what might have been.