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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So to answer your question, SF is not exactly thriving as a marketplace force, but I do think it remains viable as a medium in which valuable and unpredictable thought experiments can be conducted.

Shambling Towards Hiroshima reads on one level like one those great SF short stories I gorged myself on as a kid in the '60s and '70s (easy on science, heavy on the speculative). It’s the first book of yours that I’d read. I was thus totally unprepared for your other work (which I expected to be in the same vein). Was the writing experience that different?

Let’s face it, most of my novels and stories are top-heavy with theological and philosophical speculation, though I like to think my ruminations are redeemed by entertaining plots and engaging situations. There’s no question that I wrote Shambling Towards Hiroshima, a stand-alone novella, on a lark, as a way to recover from the intellectual calisthenics entailed in The Last Witchfinder and The Philosopher’s Apprentice. The premise of Shambling — Hollywood legend Syms Thorley trying to end the Second World War by dressing up as a mutant lizard — is so frankly ridiculous that it could never sustain a major, full-length novel.

That said, I was pleased to discover that Shambling would allow me to address some serious issues, most especially the horrors of atomic warfare. I would bracket it with my 1986 novel This Is the Way the World Ends, a Dr. Strangelove-like indictment of the nuclear saber-rattling in which the Reagan Administration indulged. World Ends is still in print, so I guess that its central theme — the meaningless megadeaths that any sort of thermonuclear war would involve — still resonates for some readers.

Regarding the framing story in Shambling Towards Hiroshima: Does it draw on any of your own personal experiences of fan culture? Do you attend many conventions?

Throughout the past quarter-century I’ve been a regular guest at Philcon (here in Philly), Confluence (in Pittsburgh), and Readercon (up Boston way), so it wasn’t hard for me to capture that subculture in a few paragraphs. In conceiving the “Wonderama” festival that Syms Thorley attends in Baltimore, I combined a typical SF convention with the glorious Monster Bash extravaganza that Ron Adams convenes every June in western Pennsylvania. One of the featured guests at this year’s Monster Bash will be Ron Chaney, grandson of Lon Chaney, Jr., the actor on whom Syms Thorley is based. I look forward to giving Ron a copy of Shambling Towards Hiroshima.

That novella fully details the horrors of nuclear war. Your generation grew up with that threat ever present. In fact in his book Bomb Culture, Jeff Nuttall made the claim that it was this very threat that drove popular culture in the 1960s. Today we live in a world where more states than ever possess nuclear weapons, and yet the sense of threat seems absent from the culture (despite the best efforts of our former president and his deputy). I wonder how your son’s generation regards Hiroshima? As history?

You’re right: my son’s generation probably regards Hiroshima more as a discrete historical event than as a immanent tragedy of contemporary significance. (At least, Chris Morrow himself agreed with that generalization.) During the '50s and '60s, as well as the reckless Reagan '80s, the specter of nuclear Armageddon was at the forefront of everyone’s consciousness, but this is no longer the case. It’s worth remembering, however, as you noted in your question, that George W. Bush’s Iraq adventure was sold to us as a stopgap measure against “weapons of mass destruction,” a rubric that presumably includes hydrogen bombs.

Of course, as I argued in Shambling Towards Hiroshima and This Is the Way the World Ends, these devices are not “weapons” at all, but Satanic instruments of indiscriminate murder. But Bush couldn’t call them that, because to do so would be to question the legitimacy of our own obscene arsenals.

At the moment everyone is justifiably concerned about the possibility of Iran and North Korean getting the bomb, along with concomitant delivery systems. There’s no easy solution to this menace, but I suspect the answer — if any — lies in tough-minded sanctions and negotiations. I would not put my money on Republican Party fantasies of zapping incoming missiles with Star Wars lasers: the famous Strategic Defense Initiative, so dear to the cult of Ronald Reagan.

I loved the way Shambling Towards Hiroshima brought your love of classic horror movies together with a marvelously absurd alternative history. But what of the horror movies and sci-fi movies of the 50s and 60s? Did you go see these as a teenager? (And if so, where?)

During my junior high and high school years, a ritual would occur in my living room every Friday afternoon: young Jim scanning the Philadelphia Bulletin to see which local movie palaces had programmed their Saturday afternoon “kiddie matinees” with a sci-fi or horror movie. Ideally, such fare would be available at either the Willow Grove Theater (which no longer exists), or the Keswick Theater in Glenside (now a legitimate emporium), because both were easily accessible by bicycle.

Highlights of my childhood included seeing The War of the Worlds, The Mysterious Island, and several Hammer Frankenstein movies at the Grove. The Keswick’s offerings were generally less lurid, ranging from the brilliant Forbidden Planet to the intensely tedious 4-D Man.

You’ve called yourself an atheist. Yet atheists in your novels are often utter idiots (especially in Towing Jehovah). Are you merely being even-handed in your satire, or is there something that bugs you about modern atheism?

Well, it’s true that I’m pretty severe with the Central Park Enlightenment League in Towing Jehovah. That said, I definitely consider myself a part of the atheist “community” (that dreary word again). In the case of the Enlightenment League, though, yes, you’re right, I was trying to function as an equal opportunity satirist. I had lots of fun with the way that, confronted with the Corpus Dei, my rationalists are just as scandalized as the Vatican, and equally prepared to sweep the thing under the rug (though one of the founding members is appalled by this hypocrisy, and resigns in protest).

I certainly can’t blame my rationalists for having this reaction. I think it’s very human of them. But I did enjoy this opportunity to mock my own worldview. When you’re a satirist, I guess, nothing is sacred, not even atheism.

At the moment, I feel that atheism in this country is so embryonic, vulnerable, and beleaguered an enterprise that I would never presume to critique it harshly. I’m just back from delivering a speech at the American Atheists Convention in Atlanta. They’re a thoughtful, quirky, feisty, loving group, and I wish them well.

As an atheist I confess I had difficulty suspending my disbelief while reading the trilogy (in which the enormous corpse of God is found floating in the Atlantic). Did you draw flack from atheists at the time of publication?

Occasionally an atheist critic will suggest that the supernatural conceits in my Godhead Trilogy or Only Begotten Daughter inadvertently undercut the secular-humanist message. But let’s remember that, in a James Morrow novel, the miracles and metaphysical shenanigans are ultimately negative forces. Only Begotten Daughter is about a woman who truly helps her fellow human beings — notably her closest friends and also some homeless Philadelphians — only after she sheds her godhead. Julie Katz gains her divinity by giving it up. And the Supreme Being whom Martin Candle puts on trial in Blameless in Abaddon is finally revealed as a dualistic deity who’s perfectly happy to inflict meaningless suffering on humankind.

I believe that I’m now done with putting gods and devils on stage in my fiction. My most recent novels, The Last Witchfinder and The Philosopher’s Apprentice, both manage to critique received theological wisdom without a whiff of the supernatural, the former being a more-or-less straightforward historical epic, the latter a postmodern, post-Darwinian extravaganza with lots of weird technology but no miracles.

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