Leo Szilard

The August Birds: 2 August, 1939

august birds cover jpgSo. I’ve recently published my first novel, The August Birds. Because it takes place over the month of August, with each day corresponding to a chapter, I’ll be uploading it piecemeal over the next few weeks. If this is your first stop, the story starts here.

AUGUST 2, 1939

LONG ISLAND, U.S.A.

“I’ve been reading up on you,” said August. He was balanced on her body, his legs held in place by her wings and dangling down, his hands filled with feathers and imprinted with iron. Huginn flew beside them, his eyes half closed as he hovered with them in silence, high over the island and circling to keep in place, a slow and gentle movement that allowed August to inch closer to Muninn’s head and whisper where he thought her ear would be.

“What have you read?” said Muninn, her wings lazy in the air and so very black against the blue.

“You don’t just fly about to know things,” said August, remembering the weight on his bed, the raven declaration. I am Muninn, sometimes called Memory, and the other is Huginn, who is also Thought. “You’re like spies, you report back. Are you reporting back on me, Muninn?”

“Who do you think we are reporting back to?”

“Odin,” said August, confident in his assumptions. “From Norse mythology, my book says.”

“You think very highly of yourself,” said Muninn. “Assuming you are right, what would Odin want with you?”

“I don’t know,” said August. He wasn’t particularly clever, or brave. He knew there were a lot of kids in the world, and a lot of them were sick. It didn’t exactly make him special. He would never grow up to be a warrior, some sort of giant berserker with a funny helmet. That was alright with him. He didn’t really want to be a warrior anyway.

“Science is more exciting,” Muninn acknowledged. “Though it has its place in wars as well.”

“Not the sort of science I want to do,” said August, who hadn’t managed to decide what he wanted to be but knew what he did not. His science was green and blue and gold, the science of oceans and suns and the many colours of polar ice. He didn’t like to think of it khaki-coloured and in trenches, breaking down instead of building up and with blood all down its front.

“Just because you don’t like to think about it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t,” said Muninn. “Some things are inevitable. It does no good to ignore them.”

“I wish I could ignore them,” said August, who thought more than he wanted to about things he could not change and things he did not like, and those thoughts were of sickness and failing and death. Of there being no-one who could help him, not really. “It’s easier to be happy when I forget,” he said, knowing as he said it that the forgetting was a fragile thing, a thin surface over the truths he never really lost, not deep down, but just pretended that he did.

“What would that ignorance get you, though?” said Muninn. “If you want to imagine that you’re going to die in your own bed, a hundred years old and having achieved everything you set out to do then no-one can stop you. If you want to convince your family to do the same then no-one could stop them either. You could be pretend to be happy together–but you would miss the time you have, August, and you do not have the time to spare. And should the world change around you in your ignorance, it will change without you.”

“It’s going to change without me anyway,” said August, and the knowledge of his own mortality was heavy then, as it had ever been and growing heavier still.

“You are missing the point,” said Muninn.

“What did you expect?” said August, frustrated and clinging tighter to feathers in his frustration. “I’m only ten.” And it was a lie and an excuse both, for August was not ten yet and still he was old enough to understand comets.

“Some things we wish we did not have to understand,” said Muninn. “Some things we wish we never knew about. The men I have brought you to see are familiar with such knowing, or will be when they are done.”

“I don’t see any men,” said August, but before he had finished speaking the ravens were dropping lower and lower still until they were skimming over roads, above and behind an old-fashioned motor car that slowed eventually, pulling up to a door that August did not know.

Leo is in that car,” said Muninn, winging to a cottage with a screened porch and Huginn beside her and settling into corners. On the porch was someone August did know, knew from hair and face if not from voice and then the man Muninn called Leo stepped onto the porch and Albert was there to meet him, dressed in an old robe and slippers, dishevelled.

“Today they write a letter,” said Muninn, perched beside August as he sat on the floor, with Huginn flown forward to the chairs and standing between. The men were speaking then, Albert’s hair wild upon his head and him ruffling it as they talked, a mixture of English and German and dread. And then it was Albert talking, Albert alone in the language that August could not understand and his words were written as he spoke.

“It is an exercise in recording,” said Muninn. “The first of the day. When he is done Leo will take it back to the city and make a recording of his own in a language meant for this new country, and not the old. He will dictate to his secretary, and she will think he is mad, wanting her to take down letters to a President from Albert instead of himself. Though it is from both of them really, looking ahead to knowledge they are afraid of, to things they would rather not be known.”

“What does the letter say?”

“The short one, the one they are working on now, talks of war and uranium and bombs, bombs that are more destructive than any yet made. They have come from Europe, Leo and Albert, both of them come from a continent made unhealthy for them, and both able to see the future. To see what happens if the bomb is made by other than them.”

On the porch, close enough so that August could see every tense expression, every gesture, Albert and Leo drank tea and talked. It was quick and earnest and then measured again, slowed with silences for more than tea, for more than liquid that tanned and cooled in cups. If August did not understand all the words he understood the worry. He had seen worry before, seen it on more faces than he wanted to count and on those closest to him as they braced for an apocalypse that would settle in their smallest bed and would not be turned aside.

“Why are they sending it to the President?” August asked. “Are they trying to get him to make one first?” It wouldn’t surprise him. That worried look he had seen on his parents’ faces came before questions, usually, and plans and response and direction.

“Sometimes reacting to something is all you can do,” said Muninn. “Even if that reaction might make things worse. That is the price of knowledge, August: you can take it in your hands and recognise it and know that your recognition comes with taint, and still not help yourself. Because sometimes that taint is necessary, though it is hard to tell the difference. That is why they are writing.”

“They’re reporting,” said August. “They’re telling him things that they know. Like you, Muninn. Like Huginn. You go out and you learn things and then you pass them on to everyone.”

“Do I look like I am passing information to anyone other than you?” said Muninn, and her voice sounded amused somehow, as if she were humouring a very small child.

“But the books say,” August began, and Muninn interrupted him.

“Books say a lot of things. They are almost as much memory as I am. As much thought as Huginn. And not only books… all that writing, passing on.” Before them, Huginn stabbed at papers with his beak, stabbed at the shaping of letters, the consideration and the response. “Huginn and I,” Muninn continued, “have always existed. And if we send out what we have as letters, as Leo and Albert are doing before the dark, it is rarely and to more than story.”

“Do you do it because you see a bad thing coming?” said August. “Like they do?” Like he did, with his slow dissolution, with his incipient death.

“In a way,” said Muninn. “Though my horrors are not yours, they exist even so, and there are no Presidents to ask for aid.”

“That doesn’t sound very nice to think about.”

“It isn’t.”

“But you think about it anyway?” About flowers and coffins and headstones, about being gone. About agony and abandonment and grief.

“I do.”

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Tune in tomorrow for the next chapter, wherein August is taken back in time to see the first discovery of a Neanderthal burial!

If you’d like a copy for yourself,  The August Birds is available for free in a variety of formats at Smashwords. Thanks for reading!

© Octavia Cade

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Review: “The Voice of the Dolphins” by Leo Szilard

szilardThe Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories (Expanded Edition)

By Leo Szilard

Published by Stanford University Press, 1992

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I admit, I’ve always had an interest in the Manhattan Project. It’s a fascinating period of history – as part of my PhD research, I went on a trip to Los Alamos to write a collection of poetry based around the Project’s wartime work. Thus, I’m already familiar with Szilard – arguably the man who more than anyone else saw the potential of (and the potential horror of) atomic war, and realised the need for Allied research. It was Szilard who went to Einstein, who wrote with him the letter to Roosevelt that kickstarted the Manhattan Project. He also drafted the petition that argued for a bloodless demonstration of the atomic bomb as a means of ending the war, rather than its ultimate use on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Knowing this, I wonder if I would have recognised the author of this collection, had I found it with the author’s name whited out. I can’t honestly say that I would – but I would have been close, I think. The Voice of the Dolphins is not a work written by what I would call a “natural writer” – someone whose prime concern is the linking together of word and image, someone concerned with the aesthetics of a sentence. For someone who is so associated with the written word – with letters and petitions – Szilard doesn’t have a great deal of fluidity in his language. Of course, he was multilingual where I am not so that is perhaps an ungenerous assessment.

That being said: if this book had come to me, apparently authorless, it wouldn’t be hard to perceive the kind of man who wrote it. The concern with failure is so profound, the nuclear issue so pronounced, that it’s easy to see in its pages the stamp of someone who could have been involved in the Manhattan Project. Add to that the historical context of the stories – so concerned with the Cold War, with the relationship between Russia and the USA – that the provenance is almost certain.

Szilard tried to publish some of the stories in this collection in fictional and non-fictional fora. Once one reads “The Voice of the Dolphins” it’s clear why. Having failed to prevent war-time use of the atomic bomb, Szilard is trying to develop a blueprint of a global community where nuclear weapons can be limited in their use, where the international debate over their use becomes a catalyst for peace. Some of it, looking back, seems almost pitifully naive: the insistence that a nuclear power give two weeks’ notice of intent to the city that they plan to bomb, so that the inhabitants of that may safely evacuate. Reading that now seems almost laughable… but then I thought of Szilard, writing desperately away until his hand cramped, trying to find a way out of the maze that he himself conceived and helped to build. I thought of how (as described in Bernstein’s comprehensive introduction) he sent copies of that story to a number of American officials and politicians, how he had the story translated into Russian so that he could get it to Khruschev… the poor man. You could weep for him, you really could.

It’s not a large collection, only six stories. A couple of them are more typically science fiction, regarding alien perceptions of Earth under/after a global nuclear war that at least in “Report on Grand Central Terminal” has left the planet bereft of human life. “Xram thinks that there had been a war fought between inhabitants of the two continents, in which both sides were victorious” (145).

Once can infer that this is Szilard’s nightmare, the end-point of his work, wrought all too well – and all too necessarily, to make the fear of it just that much more bitter. No matter how Szilard must have dreaded the possible nuclear future he helped to build, he also knew that such a future was coming, and better it not come at the hands of the Nazis. Such are our choices made: easy choices, and easy to be right in. (To be wrong in.)

The bulk of the remaining stories – including “The Voice of the Dolphins”, the largest and most significant of all the pieces – outline ways to avoid this future, the lack of it, the alien curiosity. They are, essentially, alternate histories. In “Dolphins”, there is a scientific breakthrough: communication between humans and dolphins is ostensibly established, and the latter are found to be clearly and deeply intelligent. The dolphins then guide humanity through political and scientific changes that ameliorate the risk of nuclear way and eventually lead to global peace and prosperity. The interest here is in Szilard’s hypothetical sequence of events – and it very nearly is a simple sequence. As I commented above, one should not look for a particularly literary value here. The value lies in the historical context, in the thought experiment of a great thinker, set in the environment caused by his life’s work.