What's Godzilla got to do with Hiroshima?

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Fantasy author James Morrow says that his latest novel, Shambling Towards Hiroshima, deals with a figure from popular culture that he's been wanting to write about for years: Godzilla.

"Godzilla is such a potent myth within our planet's popular culture that even a degraded emanation like the 1998 Roland Emmerich retelling boasts a certain crude appeal," Morrow said in an interview. "I came out of that crummy movie saying, 'The legend still resonates. Someday I'm going to do something with it.'"

Most of Shambling Towards Hiroshima is set in 1945, shortly after VE Day. "We learn that, in tandem with the Army's Manhattan Project, the Navy has been working on a top-secret biological weapon," Morrow said. "The Knickerbocker Project is a roaring success, bringing forth a generation of giant mutant amphibious bipedal fire-breathing iguanas."

Although the naval high command is eager to deploy the monsters strategically, the Knickerbocker scientists want to demonstrate the deadly lizards to a committee of Emperor Hirohito's confidants. "The scientists believe that if they can get a dwarf form of the behemoth to destroy a scale model of Shirazuka—a hypothetical Japanese city—in the presence of the delegation, then these advisers might try to talk Hirohito into accepting the unconditional surrender terms of the Potsdam Ultimatum," Morrow said.

But the dwarf behemoths prove much too docile. "So the scientists have to hire a celebrated Hollywood horror-movie actor, Syms Thorley, to don a rubber 'Gorgantis' suit and wreck the miniature Shirazuka before the eyes of the visiting dignitaries," Morrow said.

Shambling Towards Hiroshima gave Morrow an opportunity to speak for victims. "This 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," Morrow said.

Why bring in the hibakusha? "Well, I guess I want readers to consider that our affection for Hollywood behemoths may come at a price," Morrow said. "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 movies, 'The Imagination of Disaster.' Whether we like it or not, such films are often 'in complicity with the abhorrent.'"