PD Smith

Voice of the Dolphins

28 March 2008 | atomic bomb, C-bomb, Doomsday Men, Hiroshima, Kevles, Kubrick, Science & literature, Szilard, Wells | 3 comments

Carol Van Strum has written an excellent piece about Leo Szilard's 1961 collection of stories The Voice of the Dolphins, as well as reviewing Doomsday Men for the campaigning organization the Department of the Planet Earth.

VoiceSzilard - the brilliant scientist who saw how to realise HG Wells's dream of atomic energy in the 1930s - is the central figure in my study of superweapons. He was a wonderfully witty and engaging character. He fiercely opposed the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and after the war became a tireless campaigner for nuclear arms control. After one of his articles on the subject was rejected by a newspaper editor, he told a friend: "If they cannot take it straight, they'll get it in fiction." The Voice of the Dolphins was the result.

It collects the stories he had been writing from the end of the war until 1961. As historian Daniel J Kevles has said, "it is a fiction of Swiftian nature, addressed to major issues, including those of geopolitics, the arms race, disarmament, population control, the morality of war, and the mismatch between modern man's enormous technical capabilities and his limited moral capacities." The collection is also wonderfully expressive of Szilard's own character and speaks powerfully of the influence of HG Wells on his life and work.

One reviewer noted its quality of "half farce and half nightmare". It was a quality that Stanley Kubrick soon realised was essential to depict an era living in the shadow of the Bomb. His classic film Dr Strangelove also depicts Szilard's most chilling brain-child: the cobalt doomsday bomb.

As Van Strum rightly says, "the satire, humor, and serious issues in these stories are as relevant today as they were forty-some years ago - a sorry reflection on our failure to heed the words of the wise."

She concludes with a wonderful quotation from Robert Lawson's The Fabulous Flight (1949), in which a boy called Peter and his seagull, Gus, steal a superweapon the size of an aspirin which is powerful enough to wipe out all of Europe:

"'Gus,' Peter said suddenly. 'I've been thinking about that capsule. We've got it and nobody else can get it and I don't think we ought to give it to anyone - even our own Government. It's just too terrible.'

"'Ben sort of thinkin' the same thing myself,' Gus replied. 'Of course I ain't eddicated, but seems to me that ain't a thing anybody ought to be let loose with."

You can read her excellent article here.

3 comments so far:

  1. Mary McMyne | 28 March 2008

    V. nice review.

    Those children books sound amazing. Did you have to research them, or did you read them yourself growing up?

    Oh and I love her first footnote:

    "Mostly men, anyway, at least from the records available."

    That got me grinning...

  2. Mary McMyne | 28 March 2008

    Children's books, sorry!

  3. PD Smith | 29 March 2008

    The quotes from the children's books are actually ones the reviewer has found! They're excellent. Full marks to her.

    And yes, it's not called 'Doomsday Men' for nothing...

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