Up from the depths, thirty stories high.
Breathing fire, his head in the sky!
-theme song, The Godzilla Power Hour
With Halloween just around the corner, I'm thinking about monsters. In particular, I'm thinking
about why it is so difficult to keep monsters scary.
Take Godzilla, Japan's first and foremost symbol of the horrors of atomic war. The original black
and white film, Gojira, had the monster not just stomping through the city destroying property,
but eating people. By the time I was a kid in the 1970s, Toho's movie Godzilla was practically
a hero, fighting other monsters and teaming up with MechaGodzilla. In the Saturday morning
cartoons of my childhood, the crew of the Calico could call him by pushing a button! Every
time they got in trouble, he would come save their stupid asses. And I don't even want to
talk about his cute "nephew," Godzooky. The latest incarnations are in between, imagining
Godzilla as ecology's scaly angel of death, avenging our wrongs against nature with a
flaming sword--and in one recent anime series, even driving us from the planet into space
on generation ships.
Why not just show what happens to people when they're exposed to radiation, as in the
classic manga and anime Barefoot Gen, based on the memories of a Hiroshima survivor?
Why are starvation and bloody diarrhea off-limits?
Because they're too real.
You see, humans like being a little bit scared, as long as there's some sense of distance and
control, as long as we can turn it on and off. As an instructive example, watch a child (or a rat)
run away from being tickled, screaming--and then turn around and come back to the tickler for
another dose. It's healthy to exercise the emotions, within limits. Unreal fantastic constructions
help us to do that, as Gerard Jones wrote in Killing Monsters. They are useful precisely because
they are not real. Our recognition that we created these things allows us to titrate our emotions,
just like adding acid or base to a solution, a drop at a time, to achieve a desired pH. A little bit
of acid offers an interesting tartness. A little more, a hilarious pucker-face. We stop before we
blister our mouths, and everything is fine. There's even an equation to model the process more
The models of how to produce an activist are similarly one-dimensional, with names like
"ladder of engagement." Just add outrage, a little at a time, to move a person from rung to
rung. Click on an online petition. Send a little money. Write a representative. Attend a rally. Boil
a frog in a saucepan.
But that model is only partially right. Stretch our emotions too far, out of the dynamic range of
social convention and rational justification, and we freak out. Plus, unlike the one-dimensional
acid-base case, or a rubber band metaphor, our emotions are multidimensional. Rage, panic,
and depressed paralysis are all possible. Also, unlike the simple acid-base equation, our
emotions are nonlinear and dynamic. Our freak-out thresholds move depending on our histories,
our current mental conditions, and our environmental circumstances.
Fortunately, for most of us those extreme emotions don't last very long. Unfortunately, we now
have weapons that are uniquely unforgiving of emotional instability. As few as 100 nukes going
off, plus the fires that would inevitably follow, could lift enough dust into the stratosphere to shut
down photosynthesis around the globe and starve many, many millions of us.
According to Daniel Ellsberg's latest book, The Doomsday Machine, the single set of launch
codes in the silver briefcase is a comforting myth. There are literally thousands of people capable
of launching missiles, should they decide to do so. Not to mention the possibility of an honest
mistake. Eric Schlosser's Command & Control centers on the explosion of a Titan missile inside
its silo in Damascus, Arkansas, caused by a tech dropping a wrench and poking a hole in the
fuel tank. It then goes on to describe over twelve hundred nuclear arms accidents in the United
States alone. The worst part is that probably every one of the nine known nuclear states has what
Ellsberg calls a dead hand system, guaranteed to launch massive retaliatory strikes if seismic
sensors detect a nuclear explosion in its territory. Even a big meteor strike (which are much
more common than we think) might be enough to set one of those systems off. This is not
paranoia; there have been a whole series of documented close calls.
Was that too much? Have I exceeded your threshold? Are you freaked out? Probably not. Just a
bunch of words on a screen. Not even a repeated message, like the many Cold War episodes of
The Twilight Zone, or Star Trek. We've milked that atomic snake of its radioactive venom and
made mental antibodies. Godzilla's not going to eat that little girl from Stranger Things. That
would be absurd.
Maybe it's time to step away from metaphors and monsters, as in The Day After, the highest-rated made-for-TV movie ever, which showed regular Americans trying to cope with radioactive
contamination. The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the
United States is about as realistic as you could ask an SF novel to be. There are no talking apes,
no mole people worshiping a bomb, no kaiju, and no mutants roaming the wastes of Anarchia
outside New Chicago like on Buck Rogers. There are no pseudonyms or other emotional buffers.
2020's volatile president, "Hurricane Donald," is our volatile president. Former national security
advisor John Bolton is called out by name. Even the eyewitness reports are based on those of real
Japanese victims of the two real atomic bombs.
[Name witheld] Arlington, VA: I looked next door and I saw the father of a neighboring
family standing almost naked. His skin was peeling off all over his body and was hanging
from his fingertips. I talked to him, but he was too exhausted to give me a reply. He was
looking for his family desperately.
--Black Rain, p. 239
Ironically, as stated in the diagram of the blast radius around Trump Tower in Manhattan on the
page before, "Third degree burns extend throughout the layers of skin, and are often painless,
because they destroy the pain nerves."
Is this more shocking, more realistic, better? Or is it too much to think about? Will it galvanize us
to do something about these weapons, or will it overwhelm us so that we shut down in frustration
and apathy? Research shows that any one event is unlikely to change our emotional baselines for
very long. It takes repeated engagements, over months or years, to move the needle in public
health campaigns. So we need a steady stream of stories to keep the issue in front of the public
(like BotAS, but fictional), and they need to be different kinds of stories, because of the changing
set points I described above, and because fashions change with time, like music.
An old man, an old man
Has got his little hands on the button
Feels like nothin' anyone can do
People out there crackin' up, crackin' up
And I'm just tryin' to keep it together
- Lake Street Dive
There's no formula but evolution. Try everything, and keep trying until something works.
Randall Hayes, PhD, generally likes being alone with his thoughts. There are exceptions,
As with much of 70s animation, I had a love/hate relationship with this show. I so wanted
it to be cool, and it just wasn't. Occasionally one of the monster designs would be kind of
Just discovered this podcast, and am really digging it. Love the comparison of the
monster with a giant toddler.
"Come on Godzilla, make it fast! Your good buddy's in trouble!" -The Breeder Beast
"This stuff is pure DNA--a genetically clean slate. If that barrel was full of this stuff, it
would be like a mass of clay, waiting to be molded." -Trust No One
The 90s iteration was better in some ways, but man, that is so backwards.
Now if you had everything else except the DNA. . .
Don't know why Tojo never tried anime before. Seems like a natural. There's a sequel,
If you scroll down, there's a video.
"Never underestimate the power of swag!"
More detail, including graphs.
See especially Figures 2,3, & 4.
Ellsberg, Daniel. The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Bloomsbury
I only made it through a couple chapters of the massive book version.
So Dr. Strangelove was right?
Though these high airbursts are interesting, there's probably not much danger of
mistaking them for nukes.
Good info on the variables that go into making such decisions, and links to similar
Lewis, Jeffrey. The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Attacks Against the United
States: A Speculative Novel. Boston: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.
Also mentions the Mars Hill, SC, accidental bomb drop, but not the one in Goldsboro,
Make sure to click through to Paul Bracken's chapter from the online book
BULLETIN OF THE ATOMIC SCIENTISTS
I invited these two young policy analysts from the Brookings Institution to brief
my students at the NC Governor's School via Skype. Some of the kids wanted talks
at their own schools back home. That's hopeful.
Sabido's method is rather formulaic, so they might disagree with me on this one, but I
think the difference is in generating initial interest (engagement) vs. later, deeper
transformation of mental models (education).
Read more by Randall Hayes