Book Review: The Voice of the Dolphins, and Other Stories

The Voice of the Dolphins, and Other Stories
By Leo Szilard
Simon and Schuster, New York, 1961.

While working on the Manhattan Project, Leo Szilard claimed that he and his fellow Hungarian scientists were really extraterrestrials. Hungary, after all, was a small country in eastern Europe with a population of less than 10 million. How else to explain the great concentration of brilliant Hungarians in the field of physics? They are clearly extraterrestrials with an advanced knowledge of physics, far beyond that of earthlings. Without their help, we would not have been able to unlock the primal energies of the nucleus.

After reading this book, I’m convinced that he was telling the truth. And furthermore, that his species has not just great wisdom, but also the power to see into the future. In the anchor story of this collection, “The Voice of the Dolphins,” Dr. Szilard outlines in great detail the future history of the world from his vantage point in 1960. In doing so, he demonstrates astonishing prescience with the accuracy of his predictions. He does not fear to give dates to specific events, often nailing them down to within a year or two of when they actually happened. The discrepancy can be explained by the fact that the Martians’ abilities wane as they stay on our planet over a long period of time.

“The Voice of the Dolphins”: Predictions

I’m joking, of course. Dr. Szilard is not really a Martian or a prophet. Along with his accurate prophesies, the book features a number of very strange predictions that are as bizarre today as they must’ve seemed to readers in 1960. His predicted future for Germany bears virtually no resemblance to the actual course taken by history. However, Dr. Szilard is an astonishingly intelligent man, with an exceptional ability to extract the most salient points from any trend, ignoring all the confounding noise that distracts other pundits. By taking a look at the world as it stood in 1960, he could project these trends three decades into the future with a great deal of accuracy.

You might call him a psychohistorian, as Isaac Asimov coined it in his Foundation novels. It works great so long as history remains on a steady course, driven by long-term trends. But when the accidents of history intervene — say, a particularly forceful statesman who had his own ideas for how history ought to proceed — then Szilard’s extrapolations fail. That explains his particular failure when it comes to Germany, for he was writing not only before the Berlin Wall, but also before Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik. The history of Germany changed drastically when West Germany accepted the separate sovereignty of the East.

“The Voice of the Dolphins” is best known for its plot twist, which suggests that the super-intelligent dolphins who are directing the course of world events may not be all that they seem. But it is clear from the very first pages that the whole story is an allegory and must be taken as such. By 1960, mankind had attained, for the first time, the power to destroy itself — something that was not necessarily true just a few years earlier in the nuclear age. The “dolphins” — or Martians, or computers, or gods, or any other device that would work equally well — simply represent the most rational path for humanity to take in order to survive the Atomic Age. As far as nuclear weapons were concerned, we ended up following Szilard’s path closely enough that we managed not to blow ourselves up.

In outlining a plausible future for the world, Szilard got a lot of things right. Szilard saw through the rhetoric of the thermonuclear strategists and realized that hydrogen bombs could never actually be used. Mutually Assured Destruction ensured that wars would continue to be fought with conventional weapons. He predicts that the Middle East will continue to be the focal point of armed conflict throughout the Cold War — though he has the strange idea that the main conflict would somehow not involve Israel and would instead take place after a Communist revolution in Iraq in 1970. Of course, any observer could see that the Middle East would blow up, but it’s certainly intriguing that the Baathist Revolution took place in Iraq in 1968, and that 1970 also happens to be precisely midway between the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973.

Now comes a series of predictions that must have been astonishing for 1960 — and all the more astonishing today because we know they came true. Szilard predicts an economic recession for the United States in 1974, just one year after the Arab oil embargo hit in real life. He then predicts that the United States would be distracted by a crisis in Iran in 1977, just two years before the Iranian Revolution actually took place. In the early 1980s, Szilard sees the price of gold rising, with so much money flowing into Swiss banks that they stopped paying interest and instead imposed a 2% annual carrying charge on depositors. He’s a decade late with the rise in gold prices, but Swiss banks did indeed offer negative interest rates in the late 1970s! He foresees that Russia would be the primary beneficiary of the rise in gold prices, since it had an abundance of that metal. The ailing Soviet economy did indeed get a boost in the 1970s, just as the Western world was in recession. The only thing that Szilard got wrong was that the boost to the Soviet economy came primarily from oil and gas — black gold, rather than the yellow kind.

Geopolitics

He dismisses the domino theory of Communist expansion, agreeing that many third-world countries will find Communism appealing, but pointing out that Communism was far from a monolithic bloc. Communist nations were liable to feud with each other just as capitalist ones do. This fact was already obvious in 1960, with the examples of Yugoslav non-alignment and the Sino-Soviet split. It was the politicians who stuck to their rhetoric in the face of all factual evidence.

Szilard also predicts that the United States would become the most prolific veto-wielder in the United Nations. Quite an astonishing statement for 1960, at which point the Soviet Union had issued dozens of vetoes, and the United States zero! And what’s more, he makes this prediction despite paying no attention to Israel, on whose behalf the US ended up wielding almost all of its vetoes. But this is just psychohistory at work — ignore all the irrelevant trends, and zero in on what matters. Szilard could see that the newly-decolonized Third World would soon outvote the Western world in the United Nations, and came to the logical conclusion that the ex-colonies would probably not vote with their ex-colonizers. It could just as well have been any other issue that came up — it just happened to be over Israel. The friction point would be purely symbolic.

Szilard takes it for granted that China would join the United States and Soviet Union as a superpower — and he was writing at a time when China was deep in a famine! He points out that China would be successful not because of Communism, but simply because it had any kind of government at all, something that it had lacked since the fall of the last imperial dynasty. The rest would be accomplished by “the civic virtues of the Chinese, which the Indians were totally lacking.” That last bit bears some explanation. See, in his world, India became Communist but somehow couldn’t make it work, which severely disillusioned the Chinese about the merits of spreading Communism to other peoples. Of course, history didn’t exactly turn out that way — but Szilard notches up another point in predicting that China would enjoy greater economic success than India. He further astonishes us by predicting that China would be voted into the United Nations, that the United States would not change its vote, and that it would finally take a 2/3 vote of the other nations to overcome the Americans. His predicted year was far too early, but the circumstances were entirely correct.

He thinks that history will end in 1988 with total disarmament. Pretty close to the “end of history” in 1991, although it took place with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the nuclear disarmament process got stuck at about 10% of peak levels. Remember: He could’ve picked any other year — say, 2050 — but he saw in 1960 that the Cold War would only be able to last another three decades. Likewise, he saw a growing clamor in the 1980s for disarmament. Indeed, it was only in the 1980s that the concept of nuclear winter really became popularized. A chance event, the 1983 airing of the ABC television movie The Day After, turned the course of history back onto the Szilard plan. Ronald Reagan watched the movie and went to bed “greatly depressed,” ultimately backing away from his early brinksmanship to reach wide-ranging disarmament agreements with the Soviet Union. Director Nicholas Meyer, then, must be an agent of the Second Foundation, working to negate the effects of the mutant Ronald Reagan (the Mule) and putting us back on Plan.

Apart from these larger trends, Szilard also makes a number of other points that have been borne out by historical events. He feels that economic sanctions would be completely useless in forcing the hand of an aggressor, although he gets the reason wrong — he thought that it would be because the supplier could not bear the economic loss. He thinks that South Africa would have a black-majority government by the early 1980s — about ten years too early, though he did get it right in making this inevitable event roughly contemporaneous with the end of history rather than as an unrelated event. He foresees that the Green Revolution will solve the then-pressing problem of producing enough food for the world’s expanding population, though he believes the claims of 1960s futurists that salvation will arrive in the form of farmed algae, rather than greatly improved hybrid seed variants. He thinks that contraception will have a profound impact on world population growth, although he indulges his whimsy by assigning contraceptive effects to the nutritious algae, which overcomes Catholic dogma.

Thus, Szilard could be said to have peered into his crystal ball, but perhaps with his spectacles off. He saw the future, but saw it a little bit blurrily. Certainly he’s doing much better than random chance.

Predicting the future: a dangerous game

Of course, Szilard was not necessarily setting out to predict the future. He was merely presenting a future that looked plausible from the world situation as it stood in 1960. For example, he could extrapolate from the European Coal and Steel Community to foresee eventual European political integration. And of course, he was not writing in a vacuum. Many other people had the same vision for Europe, and it was not hard to predict that it would come true eventually — or even that France and Germany would spearhead it.

But he got the path of German history almost totally wrong. Such are the dangers of extrapolating present events out for three decades.

Szilard envisions that Germany would unify in the 1960s, that far-right populist groups would grow to dominate German politics, and that Germany would put pressure on Poland to return the traditionally German territory east of the Oder-Neisse line. Ultimately, the Soviet Union would resolve the dispute by offering to return to the status quo ante bellum, thus restoring the 1939 borders of both Germany and Poland. This line of events was sort of plausible in 1960, when the two Germanies were still sending a unified team to the Olympics, and before the Berlin Wall had divided the capital city. Indeed, Germany had not yet renounced irredentism. I once came across a German world globe from the late-1960s, showing all the newly decolonized states of Africa and all the adjusted borders of Europe — with the exception of Germany and Poland, which were still shown with 1939 borders. That a newly reunified Germany would meekly accept the existing borders without pushing for a single adjustment would have been very hard to foresee. It is not surprising that Szilard could not anticipate it.

Szilard spends much of the story discussing the technicalities of nuclear war. ABMs, the danger of a first strike against a small nuclear power, the dangers of submarine-launched weapons that did not identify the launching nation, the possibility of false flag nuclear explosions, the game-theoretical implications of nuclear threats, the willing trading of one city for another in order to prevent an escalation into a civilization-ending war. We know that humanity managed to avoid any nuclear exchanges during the Cold War. Thus, the scenario is best read as a hypothetical scenario laid onto the predicted history in order to illustrate the problems of nuclear war.

Szilard’s scenario essentially summarizes nuclear strategy as it stood in 1960, memorably preserved for posterity in the movies Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe. He also spends a great deal of time discussing the particularities of disarmament: what types of inspections would be needed, the need to make reductions in stages, the need for the superpowers to reassure smaller nuclear powers, the inspection process, and the safeguards necessary to ensure that weapons could not be hidden from inspectors.

In this nuclear scenario, Szilard has the Soviet Union disarming first, forcing the American economy to labor under the burden of excessive armaments production. That it happened the other way around is simply a result of Szilard’s intended audience. Having the Russians collapse first would send the wrong message and lull Americans into a sense of security. Indeed, with America now spending more on its military than the rest of the world combined, Szilard’s warning has regained its relevance.

Comments on America

The book includes a number of other stories by Szilard, all having something to do either with war or with the future progress of mankind. It begins with a most appropriate poem, Stephen Vincent Benet’s “Nightmare for Future Reference,” about the end of mankind after the Third World War. Written in 1938, when the Second World War looked almost inevitable but had not yet begun, the poem describes the sadness felt by survivors of a doomed civilization. Thus, it very much anticipates nuclear-era post-apocalypse fiction such as On the Beach. The farsighted poem is especially appropriate as an introduction for such a far-sighted book.

The other stories in the book show the heavy burden felt by a man who, with Einstein, wrote the letter urging President Franklin Roosevelt to pursue the development of the atomic bomb. “My Trial as a War Criminal” puts Szilard himself on trial, in the fashion of Nuremberg, after the Soviet Union uses biological weapons to defeat the United States. He and the other American defendants, from Truman himself to Secretary Stimson, find themselves trapped in a post-facto judicial system in which they are reduced to tu quoque arguments against the victors.

Printed in the Chicago Law Review in 1949, after many earlier critics of the Nuremberg tribunal had already overcome their objections, Szilard shows his willingness to defy the bounds of political correctness and puncture the moral righteousness of the victors. This was around the time that Szilard moved into biology, and his description of the agent (“five mutational steps” from the original and targeted at certain age groups) anticipates the future precision of genetic engineering. Certainly, the random mutation and selection available to biologists of 1949 would be hard-pressed to produce such targeted effects. Vaccines were created that way in the old days, often being passed 100 or so times on poor media to stress the pathogen and cause gene loss, but it is much easier to do a broad knock-out of functionality than to generate a specific desired effect.

The Mark Gable Foundation

The book jacket copy played up “The Mark Gable Foundation” as a lighthearted look at future customs, “in a world where it may not be socially acceptable for a woman to have children by her own husband.” This rather misses the point. The story follows in the best tradition of satire, featuring a protagonist who is placed into suspended animation for 90 years, and wakes up to a world in which designer babies from genetically well-endowed sperm donors have become the norm. The story has earned notoriety of another sort in the scientific community, as the protagonist seeks to slow down scientific progress by organizing a foundation for the eponymous Mark Gable. The scientists would be occupied with endless committees and meetings, spending all their time looking for funding and following the research flavor of the moment. Written in 1948, shortly after the National Science Foundation was established, Szilard saw that the massive expansion of science funding would also give rise to its own bureaucracy and change the parameters of scientific discovery.

The story is often used today to complain about the ruthlessness of the current academic research environment. But it can also be appreciated for its satirical comments on the American society that Szilard lived in. The protagonist wakes up to a world in which his white-shoe WASP law firm (Adams, Lynch, and Davenport) had added a Jew and an Italian (Rosenblatt and Giannini). It is also a world in which “finally there’s a truly progressive party in the United States,” but only because the United States had become 80% Catholic after the Protestants had been outbred by the more prolific Polish, Irish, and Italian-Americans. And that, in turn, came after “seventy-five years of Republican mismanagement,” as the Democratic Party lost its majority as more and more Southern states started to vote Republican. Do note that Szilard is writing this in 1948, a year that saw Dixiecrats and not Republicans win the South. But as an outsider, he could clearly see the fundamental incompatibility of Southern conservatism with Democratic progressivism, and point out that Southern Democrats actually belonged in the Republican Party.

From a technological standpoint, Szilard foresees the development of in vitro fertilization, as the wealthy sperm donor Mark Gable has fathered far more children than would be humanly possible with traditional sperm bank methods. (He donated only once — at age 24 — and it lasted a lifetime.) The dream and conceit of cryogenic freezing is to preserve people into a future in which their disease has been cured. This does take place for some diseases in this story, but Szilard notes emphatically that cancer is not one of them. How could he know in 1948 that cancer would prove so resistant to human ingenuity?! It was just one year prior, in 1947, that Sidney Farber had run the first aminopterin trials for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. In the age of penicillin and other miracles of modern medicine, surely anyone but an extraterrestrial would have been tempted towards overoptimistism.

Space-based Science Fiction

“Calling All Stars” (1949) further examines human civilization from the outside. The story is written from the viewpoint of a bank of sentient computers who have observed a number of uranium explosions on the nearby planet, and ponder the possibility of organic life and the inevitable conflict that would arise from their competition for resources. Here, he fails to anticipate the transistor revolution, since he places the computers in vacuum so that they can work better.

“Report on Grand Central Terminal” (1948) adopts the science-fiction conceit of aliens exploring a long-dead Earth, trying to figure out an illogical human society through archaeology. The most puzzling discovery is money — the aliens cannot conceive of it as a medium of exchange, and assign it a status of religious offering. They also ponder why the civilization had been destroyed. Surely the conflict came about because of overcrowding and a competition for resources?

Both of these deal with more traditional science fiction topics, which have been covered by many other writers during the Golden Age of science fiction. They're still cute stories, though.

Conclusion

What stands out about Szilard’s stories is his thoroughness in thinking through his topic, as well as their personal impact and prescience. Szilard was instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb, only to see his dreams of a better world turn into an armaments standoff. He was so disgusted by the effects of his work in physics that he moved into biology after the War. Knowing these facts, we can appreciate how his conscience must have driven him to try and set us on a better course. We can also appreciate his frustration at seeing the dysfunctional politics of the world’s most powerful country (the Senate filibuster gets a mention). How is it that people could fiercely resist moves that will produce logical and obvious advancements for humanity?

Perhaps we need dolphins — or Martians — or at least Hungarians, to show us the way.