Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

Sympathy for the Devil


4.  The Death of Berlin

     It might be possible to make a case that up ‘til this point DeFries bears only limited responsibility for the events that have been taking place.  To be sure, he was the leading member of the political committee which, snowed by Manning’s charm, made the mistake of choosing him as a reform candidate for Congress.  DeFries has served as a minder of detail for Manning both in Congress and in the Army.  And he did stage manage Manning’s successful re-election campaign in 1944 from his Army office, even though Manning has come to think of his Congressional career as old hat and it is against the law for DeFries to have done it.  

    Perhaps the most damning thing he’s done is to speak up at the right wrong moment about the fish kills in Chesapeake Bay and set Manning to thinking of Dr. Karst’s radioactive medical dust as a potential weapon of war.

    Now, however, by agreeing to serve as the personal agent who carries the dust to England, DeFries compromises himself beyond all question.  He joins the conspiracy.  He becomes an active participant in an unconstitutional scheme.
    It is a decision that will have fatal personal consequences.  While “sitting on that cargo of dust” in the course of delivering Manning’s weapon to the British, DeFries is exposed to “cumulative minimal radioactive poisoning” which in time is going to kill him.

    It seems odd that something like that could be allowed to happen.  For one thing, it means that the scientists and technicians who’ve been manufacturing and storing the dust haven’t had sense enough to put it in shielded containers.  And neither have they kept DeFries from harm by issuing him a protective suit and armor of the sort they habitually wear when dealing with radioactive materials.  They haven’t so much as pinned a strip of film to his lapel to fog up and reveal exposure to radiation.

    Who was asleep on the job?

    It’s all the stranger since DeFries himself certainly ought to know better.  He’s told us over and over again just how toxic the stuff is and he’s fully aware of the need for safeguard against it.  We’ve seen him suiting up before entering Dr. Karst’s lab, and listened to him discussing protective gear as a possible defense against the dust with Manning.

    So where was Manning in all this?  Why wasn’t he looking out for DeFries?

    As it is, having been given responsibility for transporting the weapon to England, DeFries forgets everything he knows and doesn’t trouble himself to ask anyone what precautions he ought to observe in handling the dust.  Instead, he watches over it like a first-time babysitter.  If we take him literally, he actually spends a week sitting on top of the canisters.

    He must really be stupid – and he will pay for it.

    On the other hand, just like the Army Chief of Staff pushing Manning’s case with the Secretary of War, and then the Secretary of War working to convince the White House that it ought to give Manning a private meeting with the President as early as tomorrow, while DeFries is carrying out Manning’s mission, he’s temporarily granted something of Manning’s magical ability to turn the head of higher authority.

    After he’s arrived safely in England with his cargo of dust, DeFries is commanded to appear at a Royal audience.  But he won’t go.  He won’t leave the dust.  Instead, he’s called upon by a Member of Parliament and a “Mr. Windsor” – whom we are to take as the Prime Minister and King.

    They ask him questions and DeFries answers them as best he can considering that ignorance is one of his major credentials for being here.  Again, we aren’t told what either the questions or the answers are.  Nevertheless, this Army captain must have managed to be persuasive because the next thing we know the British are ready to use the diabolical new weapon, even though to do so means agreeing to American terms of settlement of the war.  

    Surrender to the US, that is.

    The Prime Minister’s government will fall over this.  And the King will violate constitutional precedent.  Nonetheless, it seems that both men must have agreed to the plan.  We just aren’t allowed to hear them doing it or why they do it.

    After British warnings of direness-to-come and German failure to capitulate, thirteen British bombers – a strange and ill-omened number – leave England bound for Berlin armed with the dust.  At Manning’s request, DeFries is aboard one of them as an official observer, as though it were somehow possible for him to become neutral and objective once again after all he’s done to make the bombing happen.

    The planes approach Berlin from different angles and slice the city like a pizza, dropping canister after canister of Karst-Obre dust as they go.  The canisters are armed with explosive devices to disperse the dust as widely as possible.

    These prototype dirty bombs leave the streets and structures of the city standing intact.  But so lethal are they that every living thing in Berlin is killed:  Men, women and children – guilty and innocent alike.  Dogs and cats.  Parakeets and pigeons.  Rats and mice.  Earthworms, ants and butterflies.  All of them dead.

    The narrator doesn’t tell us how many casualties this amounts to – but at the time that Heinlein wrote “Solution Unsatisfactory” in 1940, the human population of Berlin was nearly four-and-a-half million people.  And every last one of them imagined as dying from the dust.

    As an index of the magnitude of the death toll resulting from this fictional bombing raid, when the United States dropped two Atomic Bombs on Japan in August 1945, the targets would be substantially smaller cities and the human deaths far fewer.  A sober latter-day estimate suggests that 66,000 people were killed in Hiroshima, and another 39,000 in Nagasaki.  In both cases, three-quarters of the population would survive, at least for the time being.  With more than forty times as many deaths as from both Atom Bombs put together, the radioactive sterilization of Berlin in this story has to rank as the greatest atrocity in human history.

    DeFries may have transported the devil dust to England, helped persuade British leaders to use it and borne witness to the dropping of the canisters over Berlin.  But he doesn’t immediately appreciate the overwhelming, disproportionate and irrevocable nature of the human catastrophe he’s been party to.

    In contrast, Dr. Estelle Karst understands as soon as the dust has been used that Col. Manning has abused her trust and perverted her research in the medical use of radioactive isotopes.  Her choice of the dust to commit suicide is not an accident or a convenience.  It’s an act of moral protest.

    The awfulness of what has happened only becomes apparent to DeFries after he has seen films showing the death of Berlin.  He says, “
You have not seen them; they never were made public, but they were of great use in convincing the other nations of the world that peace was a good idea.”

    There’s a gaping hole in the narrative at this point, all the more significant for being completely unacknowledged.  What was American public reaction to the overnight death of four-and-a-half million people in Germany?

    What did the newspapers and the radio pundits have to say about the British acting in such an overwhelming and barbaric fashion against the civilian population of an enemy city?   Did they criticize them for having done it?

    When did the American public learn that the weapon was actually a US invention, and England had only been given one-time use of it in order to test it on Berlin?  Did the President speak up then and take personal responsibility for having sent them the dust and talking them into using it?

    How did the Secretary of War and the Army Chief of Staff react when they found out that they’d allowed themselves to be deceived, used and outflanked by Col. Manning?

    And was there protest when the public discovered that it wasn’t going to be allowed to see what this new American secret weapon had done to Berlin, but films were being shown to people in other countries as a warning not to get out of line?

    We’re never told.

    What we do learn from DeFries is that he himself is a changed man for having witnessed those reconnaissance films.  They make an impression on him that watching canisters of K-O dust being dropped one by one from a bomber at night had not.

    In the language of Christian belief which Heinlein absorbed as a child but ordinarily didn’t use in his science fiction stories, he has DeFries say, “…So far as I am concerned, I left what soul I had in the projection room and I have not had one since.”

    Heed what the man is telling us:  For all his superficial appearance of artless speaking, he has no soul.

    If he had told us so at the outset, rather than at this late moment, it most certainly would have had an effect on what we’ve made of all he has to say.  As it is, his lack of a soul – or lack of a conscience – might go a way toward explaining all the gaps, contradictions and unlikelihoods we’ve taken note of in this narrative.

5.  Secretary of Dust

    After the dusting of Berlin, Germany is ready to capitulate.  

    Britain is slower to surrender.

    The immediate assumption of the British people is that the weapon which has ended the war is their weapon, and they’re eager to make Germany pay for the years of bombing they’ve had to endure.  Consequently, when the Prime Minister reveals the private bargain he’s struck with the United States for its loan of the dust, his government falls.

    However, British reaction turns around after the King, rather than uttering words that have been handed to him to read from the throne, as is customary, speaks out on his own authority.

    Once more we aren’t allowed to hear what someone actually has to say at a crucial turn, only to accept what takes place as a result, even though what happens may be unlikely.  In this case, the King advocates surrender.  And so persuasive is he that his voice “sold the idea to England and a national coalition government was formed” for the purpose of yielding British sovereignty.

    Lucky thing for them, too.  Until the British unite in a national consensus to throw up their hands, Manning is prepared to convince them to do it by taking out London, with the prospective death of another eight-and-a-half million people, including his sometime allies, the Prime Minister and King.

    Or, in the more delicate way in which DeFries puts it:

    “I don’t know whether we would have dusted London to enforce our terms or not; Manning thinks we would have done so.”

    What Manning thinks has now become significant.  After Berlin, his power is greatly increased.  Instead of being thanked for his services, given a retirement promotion to general, and sent back to Congress out of harm’s way, a place is made for him at the President’s side as a chief advisor and spokesman.  

    Once again, his righthand man is brought along with him.  Or, as DeFries tells us:

    “By this time, Manning was an unofficial member of the Cabinet; ‘Secretary of Dust,’ the President called him in one of his rare jovial moods.  As for me, I attended Cabinet meetings, too.”

    Speaking in his new capacity, Manning completely dominates his first Cabinet meeting.  As “Secretary of Dust,” it’s his estimate that only a small window of time exists – ninety days or less – during which the United States has the advantage of sole possession of the new weapon.  He proposes that all aircraft around the world not in the service of the United States Army be grounded, including American commercial and civilian planes.

    He says, “
After that we can deal with complete world disarmament and permanent methods of control.

    When it is objected that this would be unconstitutional, he answers:  “
The issue is sharp, gentlemen, and we might as well drag it out in the open.  We can be dead men, with everything in due order, constitutional, and technically correct; or we can do what has to be done, stay alive, and try to straighten out the legal aspects later.’”

    The Secretary of Labor –  the newest and least powerful Cabinet member, but the most vocal among them now in resisting Manning’s appeals to fear and urgency – concedes that control of the dust is going to be necessary.  However, he says:
    “But where I differ from the Colonel is in the method.  What he proposes is a military dictatorship imposed by force on the whole world.  Admit it, Colonel.  Isn’t that what you are proposing?’

    “Manning did not dodge it.  ‘That is what I am proposing.’”
    Let’s not dodge this one, either.  Instead of hurrying on just as though nothing remarkable has been said, the way the story does, let’s consider what is happening for a second.

    This is yet another unlikely event we’re being asked to accept, another whopper like believing that an Army colonel could win a private appointment with the President of the United States for tomorrow while declining to tell anyone what it’s about.

    Now we’re being asked to imagine that everyone at a Cabinet meeting has been told to shove over and an extra chair has been pulled up to the table so that this same Army colonel can sit in.  And not merely as a guest, either.  The President introduces him to the various Cabinet members by telling them to consider Manning a de facto Secretary on a par with themselves.

    What’s more, this new unofficial Secretary is given the floor.  The President of the United States, apparently in complete agreement with everything he has to say, is content to sit back passively through the rest of the meeting and “let Manning bear the brunt of the argument.”

    Speaking on behalf of the President, this colonel-who-is-more-than-a-colonel informs the Cabinet Secretaries that since the United States has sole possession of the dust for the moment, US policy, effective immediately, is going to be to violate the Constitution at home and to impose a military dictatorship on the world.

    Even if we grant Manning all the unique privilege we’re told he now has in the story, the course he is indicating is such a radical break with the usual assumptions of American politics that we have to wonder at the temperate way in which his words are received.

    As a reality check, imagine the reaction of the Cabinet in 1945 if Gen. Leslie Groves, the Army officer in charge of the actual development of the Atomic Bomb and a man not known for his modesty, had presumed to speak to the assembled Secretaries in such an arrogant, presumptuous and authoritarian a manner as this.  At the very least, I think he’d have instantly lost all credibility and that the good sense, if not the sanity, of the President would have been called into question for sponsoring this kind of powertrip.

    Even within the much more accommodating confines of “Solution Unsatisfactory,” we have to wonder why the Secretary of War – whose equivalent today would be the Secretary of Defense – doesn’t speak up.

    I mean, there he is, seated across the conference table from Manning at the left hand of the President.  The military is his area of responsibility.  This officer ought to be under his authority.  And not only has Col. Manning already broken the oath he’s sworn to support and defend the Constitution and is proposing to do it some more, he’s betrayed him personally.

    Manning has developed a radiological weapon of unprecedented deadliness at the Army lab he commands without informing his superiors of what he is doing.  By some arcane means, he has managed to persuade the Army Chief of Staff and the Secretary of War to arrange an urgent private meeting for him with the President, while refusing to tell them why such a meeting is either necessary or appropriate.  Then, over their heads, he has convinced the President to introduce this horrendous new weapon into the ongoing war between Britain and Germany, with the slaughter of millions of civilians.

    As his reward for this usurpation of power, Col. Manning has been granted informal Cabinet status, and now speaks on behalf of the President.  It’s his assertion that America’s enemies – and maybe its friends, as well – are on the verge of launching an attack on the United States with radioactive dust of their own.  The only way to be secure in this brave new world of Manning’s making is for the US to use its advantage while it has it and impose military dictatorship on the world.  Right now.

    Under circumstances like these, you’d think that the Secretary of War would have a question or two for him.  As one possibility, he might ask Manning just who he has in mind for the job of world dictator?

    But in telling about this crucial Cabinet meeting, the narrator doesn’t even so much as mention the Secretary of War.  Maybe he couldn’t make the meeting and they had to go on without him, or perhaps he just had nothing to say that day.

    What DeFries does recall happening in the wake of Manning’s confirmation that he is advocating the imposition of a global military dictatorship is a counterproposal from the Secretary of Labor.  He suggests that the present moment of opportunity be used to establish a worldwide democratic commonwealth, and then control of the dust be turned over to the new world government.

    But Manning replies that this isn’t feasible.  While he personally would lay down his life in order to accomplish global democracy, most of the world has no experience of democracy nor any love for it.

    He says:

It’s preposterous to talk about a world democracy for many years to come.  If you turn the secret of the dust over to such a body, you will be arming the world to commit suicide.’”

    Manning then sets forth a scenario of an inevitable series of back-and-forth dustings which will kill three-quarters of the world’s population and reduce human culture to the level of peasants living in villages.

    If previously it has been the territory of the Secretary of War that Manning has usurped, it’s now the area of responsibility of the Secretary of State he’s attempting to muscle in on.  Up to this point, however, the Secretary of State has been silent, too.

    DeFries tells us, somewhat patronizingly, that he was “really a fine old gentleman, and not stupid, but he was slow to assimilate new ideas.”

    Now this sweet old fudd speaks up on behalf of a policy of isolation, as though he were an old-time backwoods politician addressing a bunch of yahoos from a stump rather than the man in charge of American foreign policy now faced with the diplomatic challenge of a lifetime.  He suggests that we just “
keep the dust as our own secret, go our own way, and let the rest of the world look out for itself.  That is the only program that fits our traditions.’”

    But Manning dismisses this course of action, too.  The research that other countries are doing – or might do – into the new weapon won’t permit the luxury of going our own way.  What if it had been Germany who’d made and used the dust first instead of the US?  They might have done something awful with it.

    He declares that “
it is the best opinion of all the experts that we can’t maintain control of this secret except by rigid policing’” – just as though there were no problems with the words “best opinion,” “all the experts,” “maintain control,” “secret” and “rigid policing.”

    In the event, neither the Secretary of Labor’s internationalism nor the Secretary of State’s isolationism has a chance.  The President’s mind is already made up in favor of Manning’s fear of Karst-Obre dust in the hands of others who might be as ready to use it as the two of them have been.
    With two more unconstitutional moves, the President declares martial law in the United States and, in what is called a “Peace Proposal,” informs the leaders of every other nation that they must disarm themselves.  As a start, all airplanes capable of crossing the Atlantic must be delivered into US hands and destroyed.  Failure to comply with this will be considered an act of war.

    Or, as DeFries translates this diplomatic ultimatum, the American answer to the touchy problem of a roomful of men all armed with .45s is,
Throw down your guns, boys; we’ve got the drop on you.’”

6.  The Four-Days War

    There are three gunslingers in particular that the narrator singles out as posing potential threat to the United States – England, Japan and the Eurasian Union.    

    However, America’s friend and ally, England is no longer a problem.  It's already in the act of throwing down its guns, thanks to the King’s radio address.

    (Unless, of course, like me you’re inclined to believe the persistent rumor that a canister of K-O dust went missing during the bombing raid on Berlin – I mean, all those planes, all those canisters, all that confusion – and only got found again afterward.  And the British, not wanting to cause a fuss over nothing, were too polite to mention they had it.)

    As for the Japanese, they may dismiss the lethal power of the dust as just a story, and they may be convinced that they cannot be defeated, but it’s possible to bully them into submission by pressing the right psychological buttons.

    DeFries tells us:

    “The negotiations were conducted very quietly indeed, but our fleet was halfway from Pearl Harbor to Kobe, loaded with enough dust to sterilize their six biggest cities, before they were concluded.  Do you know what did it?  This never hit the newspapers but it was the wording of the pamphlets we proposed to scatter before dusting.”

    Now, what do you suppose could have been said in those pamphlets – and, more important, with what spin? – that wouldn’t just anger the Japanese, but which having been shown to them would be sufficient to make them instantly acknowledge their inferiority and bow low in submission?  It must have been something devastating.

    This leaves those unknown men who’ve been running the Eurasian Union since the death (on this alternate timeline) of Joseph Stalin in 1941.  They’ve put Lenin and Stalin behind them.  And they’ve held their country out of the war between England and Germany.  Now they’re quick to agree to American terms.  They declare themselves willing to cooperate in every way with the President’s ultimatum.

    But they’re only trying to trick the United States.  Instead of delivering their long-range aircraft to a field in Kansas to be parked alongside the planes already surrendered by Germany and England, as they’ve been directed to do, they launch a series of bombing raids over the Arctic against New York, Washington and other cities with dust of their own.

    Exactly how successful these attacks were, we are never told.  DeFries says there’s no point in repeating what’s been in the newspapers.  But we’re assured that the Four-Days War was a near thing which America should have lost – “and we would have, had it not been for an unlikely combination of luck, foresight and good management.”

    How close did the United States come to losing the Four-Days War?  At least some of the planes that failed to land in Kansas made it through to New York with radioactive dust.  DeFries tells us “we lost over eight hundred thousand people in Manhattan alone.”  Enemy planes must also have been successful in dropping dust on Washington since he says in passing that “Congress reconvened at the temporary capital in St. Louis.”

    But the Eurasian Union is promptly paid back for what it’s done.  The US sterilizes the cities of Moscow, Vladivostok and Irkutsk, with a combined population of another four-and-a-half million people.  And, just that fast, the war is over.

    The part played by luck in America’s victory is that one of the planes sent to bomb Moscow went off course and arbitrarily picked the city of Ryazan as the place to drop its dust instead.  Completely by chance, this industrial center turned out to be the location of “the laboratory and plant which produced the only supply of military radioactives in the Eurasian Union,” so the Eurasians are unable to make any more dust.

    Very good fortune, that.  Like firing a gun randomly into the air and having the bullet fall to earth and kill a cat.  And not just any cat, either – the King of the Cats.  Right between the eyes.

    As for foresight and good management, that’s Manning covertly at work.  It seems that one more time, in his role as Secretary of Dust, his authority has grown.

    DeFries says:  “Manning never got credit for it, but it is evident to me that he anticipated the possibility of something like the Four-Days War and prepared for it in a dozen different devious ways.”

    Manning or somebody ought to have been anticipating an attack on the US since once again, as on other occasions in America’s history, some of them alluded to in “Solution Unsatisfactory,” an incident has been deliberately provoked in order to provide justification for the United States to go to war.

    The Eurasians were goaded into fighting.

    Just consider:  One of the reasons America had for dropping the Bomb on Japan to end World War II was to make an impression on the Soviet Union.  And enough of an impression was made to set off the Cold War.  

    Imagine if you will that in 1945 the United States had gone on to order the Russians either to disarm or suffer the consequences and called this a “peace proposal” as in this story.  An ultimatum like that would have immediately triggered a Hot War exactly as it does here.

    Not only are the Eurasians deliberately pushed beyond their tolerance by the demand that they surrender all their long range aircraft to the US and then disarm themselves, the door for their attack has been left invitingly open.  Eurasia’s bombers aren’t collected and destroyed on Eurasian soil.  Instead, they’re pointed in the direction of Kansas and not inspected before they go.

    No wonder the attack which follows has been anticipated.  Air traffic in the United States is at a halt and military planes are standing by ready to intercept the Eurasian bombers and shoot most of them down before they can reach their targets.

    America is also poised to make a counterattack.  Vladivostok is a long way from anywhere; Irkutsk is off at the foot of Lake Baikal in Siberia; and it’s possible to get lost while trying to fly to Moscow and wind up in Ryazan.  In order to successfully launch immediate coordinated strikes on targets like these, distant from the continental United States and widely separated from each other, advance planning and logistical work must have been done.

    If we call preparation to meet the Eurasian attack and then strike back decisively “foresight,” the “good management” part is the holding of American casualties to an acceptable minimum.

    New York City is largely empty when it is hit.  A completely unfounded rumor of bubonic plague has been circulated and everybody able to do it has deserted the city.  DeFries has no idea how so effective a whispering campaign was organized and carried out, but he gives Manning credit for having arranged it.  And with such perfect timing that most people escape the Eurasian dust.

    As for Washington, thanks to Manning’s doing, Congress has gone into recess.  The President has granted a ten-day leave of absence to the civil service (an authority I wasn’t aware he had) and then left town himself to make a sudden political jaunt through the South.  The only people who are still at home to receive the attack are the permanent population of the city.

    DeFries suggests that it must have been Manning who put the thought of going off on a political swing in the President’s head.  He couldn’t have split the scene to save his own skin:  “It is inconceivable that the President would have left Washington to escape personal danger.”

    That puts a nice face on it, but it’s bushwah.

    Since the dusting of Berlin, international tensions have been running high.  The President has declared martial law in the US and told all other governments that they must surrender immediately or fight the United States.  As a precautionary measure, he’s closed down official Washington and sent it to visit the folks back home.  The American military is on alert, anticipating imminent war with Eurasia.

    This is no time for kissing babies, and Manning hasn’t suddenly turned into the President’s chief political advisor.  He’s the Secretary of Dust.  And when it’s the Secretary of Dust who whispers in the President’s ear that now might be a good time to pay a visit to Florida, the President doesn’t need to hear it twice.  He’s on the next train south.

    Anything else you may have been told is just a cover story.

    It only takes four days for the war to be over – one day for the Eurasian attack, a day for assessment of the damage, American counterattack on the third day, and Eurasian surrender on the fourth.  Very shortly, the President can join the other survivors at the new temporary capital in St. Louis.

    So, how great has the cost been to America from this invited catastrophe?

    With no newspapers to consult to find out what DeFries doesn’t tell us because it’s been in the papers, it’s impossible to say with any certainty.  But the largest city in the United States, hub of its commerce and center of its publishing and broadcasting industries, is now uninhabitable, and the nation’s capital and all its buildings and records have been made inaccessible for years to come.  The focal points of American life have been attacked, normal existence has been shattered and refugees are everywhere.

    If eight hundred thousand people are dead in Manhattan alone, then at least several million Americans must have been killed in all the cities struck – 666 times as many as the three thousand people who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

    Without luck, foresight and good management, it would have been far worse.

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[Note:  The full story "Solution Unsatisfactory" can be read here.]

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