“Will there come a time, the President wonders, when we are wearied by this accumulation of images, this multiplying of worlds?”
Over the past decade, British freelance author Ken Hollings has made a career out of writing essays that play in the back alleys of popular culture. In such publications as the online cultural magazine CTheory, the film journal Sight and Sound and the popular British monthly Bizarre, Hollings has penned pieces that range over such breezy topics as the life of Criswell, the undead narrator of Plan 9 From Outer Space and other Ed Wood anticlassics; the career of Elvis Presley; and the behavioral quirks of androids in Hollywood films like Star Wars and Forbidden Planet.
Yet considering the light-headedness of their chosen subjects, Hollings’ essays are blessed with a surprising gravity and poetry, perhaps because of their capacity for unexpected connections. His lengthy meditation on the fifty-year-old Godzilla phenomenon, “Tokyo Must Be Destroyed,” is most likely the final word on Godzilla as clumsy metaphor for the horror of atomic war, and explores the symbolic meaning of landmarks as signifiers of national identity. Undoubtedly due to its effortless fusion of high and low culture, “Tokyo Must Be Destroyed” benefited from a fairly unique crossover phenomenon, enjoying mention not only on the occasional cultural theory web page but also on several Godzilla fan sites.
Ken Hollings’ new novel, Destroy All Monsters, expands upon this fusion of high and low culture, using mass-media tropes to elaborate on endlessly dense themes. The novel is most easily summarized as an “alternative history,” a what-if scenario.
Over the past half-century, the most common alternative history scenario has been, what if Hitler had won World War II? Imagining what life would have been like under an end-of-history global Nazi regime has been the stuff of innumerable Twilight Zone episodes, B-grade movies, and pulp science fiction novels, most of which are preoccupied, by and large, with underscoring the great peril Nazi expansionism presented to Western civilization, and the narrow chance by which the Allied powers salvaged freedom and averted one-world tyranny.
All of this may be marginally true, as far as it goes. But a general characteristic of alternative histories is that they grossly oversimplify the complexities of modern war. They present dystopian visions of parallel realities in order to reassure us that we live in the best of all possible worlds, that even though we’ve emerged from the bloodiest century in human history (and are heading into one that, by all present appearances, promises to be even bloodier) everything has somehow turned out exactly as it should.
These alternative histories also function by presupposing a conflict whose sides are perfectly discrete, and substituting one concrete, unambiguous outcome (the Axis wins) for another (the Allies win). But by suspending concrete outcomes entirely, Destroy All Monsters subverts this tendency among alternative histories to reaffirm the status quo. The novel’s key what-if scenario is to suppose what might have happened if the Persian Gulf War had never ended, but had instead devolved into an endless standoff. As the novel opens against the backdrop of a gradual loss of control over events in the Middle East, the President of the United States (who, though never named, is clearly modeled after George H.W. Bush) is rapidly sinking into emotional dissolution and suicidal madness, and the ongoing Mideast conflict is leaving the “KTO”—Kuwaiti Theater of Operations—so horribly polluted that it is becoming inhospitable even to the practice of war.
Yet from the novel’s opening line—“It is Day 500 of Operation Desert Storm, and everything is going according to plan”—the American government and media struggle to maintain a semblance of control and normalcy no matter what the true state of affairs. NBC marches through its endless parade of TV news specials on “America at War,” the New York Stock Exchange pauses for a daily moment of somber wartime silence, and the President attends church services, mumbling hollow prayers for peace.
These rituals occur in the context of science fiction at its most deliberately chaotic and wonderfully preposterous—a robotic praying mantis exhibit at the Smithsonian has killed the President’s grandchildren, Elvis has returned to life as a synthetic animatron, and a panoply of Godzilla-type monsters stand poised to unleash fiery destruction on the world at large. Still, the banality of the war-peddling spectacle the American government and media apparatus orchestrates in Destroy All Monsters’ opening paragraphs will be immediately familiar to many Americans, who have seen the same dog-and-pony show trotted out time and time again, for one U.S. military action after another since World War II, ad nauseum.
As this opening scene takes place, the war is beginning to spill over these flimsy borders of containment the government’s propaganda machine has constructed around it. What follows is a multivalent plunge into boundless Armageddon elaborated over a series of parallel plotlines, each of which is adapted from one or another aspect of popular or tabloid culture. There is the thread following Earthquake Island, for example, a subterranean research complex modeled after the pseudo-scientific laboratories that turn up so often in the Godzilla series and other Japanese live-action monster films. At the island, a guilt-wracked scientist assists the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency in genetically engineering a variety of destructive monsters with such kaiju eiga-compliant names as Hellcore, Gravaton, Manta, and Micronosaur. One of the beasts created at DARPA, meanwhile, has taken control of the scientist’s daughter, Muri, who is an android assassin. Muri trolls about Tokyo, by all appearances a perfectly normal club-hopping Japanese youth until she succumbs to Sirhan Sirhan-style trances and the urge to murder overtakes her.
Another plotline involves the reanimated, cybernetic Elvis Presley—cobbled together from the total archive of images collected over the real Elvis’ career—who, while touring and singing old favorites to mobs of aging fans, begins to buckle under the incoherent burden of embodying an entire lifetime at once. Yet another centers around a cult leader named The Spirit of Joseph, who commands an armed compound clearly modeled after the one David Koresh ran at Waco. These various plotlines are easier to follow through the unfolding text than they are to summarize, and each traces a similar trajectory as they all move toward an eventual convergence.
The novel’s setting disintegrates from barely sustained order to full-blown chaos (in a bout of depression Elvis commits apparent suicide, sparking riots; federal agents overrun the Spirit of Joseph’s compound; and finally the monsters at Earthquake Island break free, wreaking havoc over all the world’s major cities). At the same time, the various characters, struggling to cope with escalating privation and, to a one, subject to mysterious outside forces of control, gradually lose their coherence—what one would call their “humanity,” save that most of the characters in Destroy All Monsters aren’t exactly human to begin with.
After the President is killed in a terrorist attack, the Vice President (a woefully incompetent, fictionalized Dan Quayle) is given control of the government. Once in office, he soon succumbs to the influence of an “alien being” of the Area 51, Majestic-12 variety. A friend of Muri’s is similarly infected with microscopic aliens following a sexual misadventure, and becomes gradually more and more obsessed with finding a doctor who will believe her when she explains what happened to her, and purge her colonized body. And the animatronic Elvis, meanwhile, is dogged by AL/VI5, an artificial antibody that—in a process far, far too complicated to explain here—is the medium through which the ghost of his stillborn twin brother, Jesse, returns to torments him.
Despite all of this craziness, the novel reads nearly effortlessly, due in part to its straight-ahead prose style, brief chapters, and clockwork cycling from one narrative line to another. As things progress, it becomes clearer that the novel’s apparent central conceit—the alternative reality of a never-ending Gulf War—is only a mechanism used to sketch a broader picture of the irrationality that is a byproduct of the propaganda surrounding modern warfare. The public relations machine around the ongoing Gulf War exacts a toll on our basic cultural sense of reason, the novel intones. When vast information resources are deployed to excuse the massacre of humans on a mass scale, a debt is incurred that must be paid out of our faith in our institutions, out of our sense of autonomy, out of our feeling that our lives belong to us.
Or: as the cliché goes that the first casualty of war is truth, it follows—but is rarely ever said—that the second casualty of war is sanity.