Shambling Toward Hiroshima

Novelist Jim Morrow talks about science fiction, atheism and the threat of nuclear disaster.

By Steven Wells
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 21, 2009

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Pennsylvania author James Morrow's fiction features the corpse of God, giant fire-breathing lizards and a healthy dose of local history.

It’s 1945. The United States is steeling itself for an invasion of the Japanese home islands that will cost thousands—maybe hundreds of thousands—of Japanese and American lives.

But the American government has a plan that, if it works, will totally devastate one or more Japanese cities, killing and hideously injuring thousands upon thousands of civilians. This, it is hoped, will finally persuade the Japanese to surrender, and thus end the bloodiest war in human history.

The Americans have developed a weapon—a terrifying, devastating, awesome weapon, a history-changing abomination so horrible as to be almost beyond human comprehension.

Giant, fire-breathing super-lizards.

That’s the breathtakingly daft plot of Philly author James Morrow’s latest novel Shambling Towards Hiroshima. Top Hollywood monster actor Syms Thorley is persuaded to don a monster suit and stomp a scale-model Japanese city to rubble in the hope that this will so terrify a visiting Japanese delegation that they’ll immediately capitulate—and so avoid the unleashing of the real monsters of mass destruction.

I stumbled across Shambling while browsing the new releases in Borders and was hooked by the cover (Japanese war flag, giant lizard—what’s not to like?). As well as a brain-twisting bizarro alternative history -- in reality, of course, the fire-breathing, city-stomping giant lizard Godzilla was created as a metaphor for the atomic bomb. Shambling is both a love letter to the classic horror movies of Morrow’s youth, and a damning indictment of nuclear war. And it’s also Morrow’s first openly science fiction novel for some years.

A self-described and active atheist, Morrow is perhaps best known for his sometimes surreal (and often gruesome) Godhead Trilogy which features the enormous corpse of God found floating in the Atlantic, the trial and post-mortem assassination of the creator and a pitched Mad Max battle between Jews and Nazis in New Jersey, among many, many other delights and horrors.

More recent Morrow novels have been equally challenging. The Philosopher’s Apprentice is a crash course in Western philosophy (although the reasonably intelligent but pig-ignorant will find it thoroughly enjoyable—I did) and, as an added bonus, features an army of born-again Christian reanimated 30-year-old aborted fetuses who set out to destroy the citadel of the novel’s super-feminist heroine with shotguns, howitzers and big oil donated gas trucks. And The Last Witchfinder —set partly in colonial Philadelphia—is a brilliant historical romp featuring the Salem Witch trials, sentient books, Sir Isaac Newton, witch-prickings, Native American warriors, pirates, an escaped slave utopia and the young and extremely horny Philly super-nerd Benjamin Franklin.

In short, while Shambling Towards Hiroshima will delight anyone looking for rollicking good, no-nonsense, speculative-historical sci-fi. those plunging deeper into Morrow’s oeuvre should prepare to have their brains dangerously stretched.

Morrow—who was born in Abingdon in 1947 and now lives in State College P.A. with his wife, teenage son and dogs—litters his work with Philly and South Eastern Pennsylvania references, perhaps fitting for novels that so often explore the struggle between the ideas of the enlightenment and reactionary superstition.

You went to Abington High School. What are your memories of Abington Township?

I have fond memories of my Roslyn childhood, especially of hiking with my friends to the legendary Willow Grove Park — not the shopping mall, but the fabulous amusement park that once stood on those grounds, complete with an artificial lake and three roller coasters. The early scenes in my sixth novel, Blameless in Abaddon, take place in Abaddon Township, Pennsylvania, a conscious nod to Abington. Blameless also makes use of the fact that the famous 1963 Supreme Court decision outlawing mandatory classroom Bible recitations traced to a family, the Schempps, whose kids went to the Abington Public Schools.

Speaking of which, let me take this opportunity to praise the humanities department at Abington Senior High, circa 1963. The paperback edition of The Last Witchfinder includes an essay I wrote called “My Literary Hero,” all about James Giordano, a brilliant teacher from whom I learned how fiction works and why it matters.

The Philadelphia area often features in your work. Do you think of yourself as a Philadelphian?

Philadelphia is indeed a major motif in my fiction. Martin Candle of Blameless in Abaddon, who ends up putting God on trial for crimes against humanity, likes to go “urban spelunking” in derelict parts of the city. Julie Katz in Only Begotten Daughter attends the University of Pennsylvania (as did I). And Benjamin Franklin is one of my heroine’s lovers in The Last Witchfinder.

When I was an undergraduate at Penn during the late sixties, my favorite English professor, Joel Conarroe, argued that Philadelphia was “the Athens of America.” He might have been overstating the case, but I do think Philly is too easily underrated. The Last Witchfinder celebrates Philadelphia as a major focus of the great eighteenth-century Enlightenment, in contrast to Boston, which in the colonial era was a haven for theocrats, an ethos that culminated in the Salem Witch Trials.

In an interview in 2000 you talked about the stigma — once science fiction lost its “provisional respectability” — attached to the label of SF author. You also railed at the snobbery directed at SF and mentioned the debt you feel you owe to the SF (and I hate using this word) community. As an author who is both marketed as an SF and a literary writer, do you feel this snobbery is so hard-wired into mainstream literary criticism that it will never be overcome? Is the genre itself still healthy?

In my view the bias against science fiction exhibited by so many mainstream critics and authors doesn’t map vaguely onto racial bigotry — it maps precisely onto racial bigotry. The literati have prejudged the entire enterprise. They know in their gut that SF is worthless, all Buck Rogers and ray guns and Star Wars, so they needn’t bother to learn anything about it. Sure, the literati will acknowledge the occasional exception like Ray Bradbury — a real credit to his race, that man — but this “some of my best friends write genre fiction” malarkey only reinforces the prejudice.

I hate to say it, but the degree to which I am marketed as a mainstream writer is the degree to which I enjoy respectability, cultural prestige, and serious review attention. But I actually think that my occasional re-marginalization in the SF ghetto, such as occurred with Shambling Towards Hiroshima, is a good thing. Such exile allows me to take risks, experiment wildly, go crazy. I see science fiction as a kind of anti-genre: there are no rules, you sign no implicit contract with the reader. That’s entirely different from the way mysteries, westerns, medieval fantasies, horror stories, or romance novels work.

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