Sunday, May 16, 2010

Shambling Towards Hiroshima

Novella by James Morrow

This has been reviewed to death elsewhere, due partly to it's Nebula and Hugo nominations, and partly due to being James Morrow. An index of other reviews can be found here.

My only comment in regards to reviews is that people thinking anything can be inappropriate subject matter for satire or humor is just plain wrong. Humor can be done tastelessly, but it can't be inherently off-limits by topic. And James Morrow is not tasteless. Actually his handling of the sensitive issues here is quite delicate.

Syms Thorley is a B-Movie actor during WWII. The Navy hires him to help demonstrate their giant, fire-breathing lizard project by dressing up in a lizard suit.

Many reviewers remarked on the change in tone at the end of the novella. This is really the difference in tone/theme between the historical memoir and the framing device. Towards the last 1/5 or so, the memoir wraps up and what was initially the framing device becomes the entire story. The memoir is the bad horror movie/military weapons project satire that the book is generally described as, while the framing is established with the opening sentence:
"Whether this memoir will turn out to be the world's longest suicide note, or instead the means by which I might elude the abyss, only time can tell...".

So this darker suicide central story is sprinkled throughout, and we learn what happens with the war effort long before we learn what I see as the central question: whether Syms will kill himself or not. And on this front the book particularly impresses me. I was genuinely surprised several times in what I expected to be a very predictable substory. And perhaps the most tragic moment in the entire book made me laugh. And then feel bad about it, but it was funny, dammit. That is the real pleasure of this book. Essentially it is a book about suicide and about how nuclear weapons are both horrible and stupid. And it makes its points while being one of the funniest things I've read in some time. Not Douglas-Adams-style absurdity, more Vonnegut-sarcasm. And I use Vonnegut not only because it seems apt in the style sense, but because Mr. Morrow mentions on his website that he loves/hates that comparison: unlike Vonnegut, Morrow actually likes people.

Overall, a very funny novella, but one where you need to think, not just to get the jokes, but to get through the serious points. You don't need to know anything about B-movies, 1940s actors/producers/directors/screenwriters, the Manhattan Project, WWII, Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, or comic/SF conventions, but they all add to the experience. Well a passing knowledge of Poe and WWII and monster movies may actually be required. But not too much is needed.

4.5 out of 5 actors don't realize how easy it would be to pick up chicks in a giant lizard suit.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What do you think some of the themes are in "Shambling Towards Hiroshima"?