literature

Cold War with the Newts

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Riffin' on Karl Capek's "The War with the Newts"

By the year 2010 the Newt War has begun to recede into memory: it having essentially dragged to a stalemate in the late 1980s, a new generation has grown up neither knowing the Newts as the implacable enemy of their parents or the troubling slave-species of their grandparents. They are an Enemy, but the horror and revulsion of their parents towards Newts and anything "Newtish" somewhat disturbs young people.

But then, among the older generations, the old terror that the Newts might succeed in sinking the continents still lingers, in spite of Professor Appfelbanger of Ulm's calculation that the razing of Europe, the lowest-lying of the continents (which would require the removal of 735,000 cubic miles of rock and earth) would take a full billion Newts with the best equipment a nation that size could afford some 1,146.21 years (and of course, after the destruction of such traitorous (AKA "starving", "blockaded") nations as Japan and the UK, high-powered mining equipment is harder to obtain in the seas).

Such calculations, after all, fail to take into account just how much of the Earth's surface is only a few dozen feet or less above sea level, requiring far less effort in terms of Earth removal and undermining to submerge: the fact that an inhabitant of the Western interior of the US might not have anything to worry about does little to reassure a member of the Dutch Diaspora.

The War was not ended when the Newt's terrestrial sources of supply were cut off: using conquered Island bases and shorelines and captive humans (most notably the coastal cities of Australia) the Newts proved able to construct much equipment of their own, and proved ingenious in developing underwater factories using only a minimum of materials by necessity manufactured above water. The Newt assault was brought to a halt by a combination of factors; on the one hand, human maneuvers such as the effort to establish "continental autarchy", the evacuation of shorelines combined with "scorched earth" tactics, the damming of rivers, and the sophisticated use of sensitive seismographs and giant explosive mines to collapse Newt undermining efforts before they could bring ground stability to a point of crisis; on the other, the discovery by the Newts that collapsing huge portions of shoreline into the sea does not give you a rich and stable shallow-water ecosystem anywhere near overnight (sharply setting back prospects for unlimited new breeding), and that the Newt King's promises that humanity would serve them were hollow, led to rising discontent leading finally to the assassination of the Newt King and his replacement with Rule By Committee, which the Newts found much more comfortable.

Eventually, an armistice was achieved (although the wilder free Newts of the Pacific took rather longer to sign onto it and evacuate some of the human islands they held): humans had no real options for destroying the Newts for good that would not also involve poisoning the entire ocean and creating an ecological holocaust, while the Newts had no real ability to penetrate deep inland. And humans did not at all like the harsh, regimented life and massive cut in living standards the unending war effort had brought about (the Newts minded it less: descended from communal weir-dam- and-tunnel builders rather than hunter-gatherers, Newts _like_ repetitive work).

In the current year world human population stands at some 5 billion, lower than OTL thanks to the long war with the Newts and the Newt takeover of various low-lying areas near the sea – often formerly areas of rich agriculture and dense population. The exact number of Newts is unknown, but most scientists estimate it as being somewhere in the same range – although Newts intensively cultivate the shorelines, lagoons, coastal swamps and the continental shelves out to roughly 500 feet in depth with fish farms, algae plantations, etc., their living space is limited (generally Newts do not find conditions comfortable below 200 feet): most Newt tadpoles are eaten before they achieve proto-sapience.

The efforts to establish Continental Autarchy and resist those traitorous nations that would sell off other's land or trade with the Newtish Enemy led to the (often bloody) formation of various transnational power blocks, some of which have held together in the new peacetime (others, not so much).

The North American Union is thoroughly dominated by the US, which has absorbed Canada (less Quebec) outright, and openly talks about incorporating Mexico. The United States of Europe, initially badly hampered by internal political quarrels, consolidated with the collapse of the German Fascist regime [1] (after a series of military disasters culminating in the Foundering of Hamburg) and moreso after the destruction of Britain's industries (and much of its population) united the Continental nations in a sort of Mau-Mau like blood pact. Today only a few of the poorer Mediterranean states are not full member states of the USE (and then there is Britain, still undergoing Reconstruction under a joint European mandate).

Soviet Great Asia has however fallen messily apart, breaking up into the Chinese Republic, the SE Asian Soviet, and the Soviet Union itself, which barely managed to come out of the debacle with the minor gains of Xianjing, Outer Mongolia, and Tibet. (Korea, during the war years the residence of the "legitimist" anti-Newt Japanese government, became Korean-run after the Soviet Intervention of 1989, and remains a Soviet ally). Japan proper is currently divided between the USSR and the United States, which has reestablished itself as a Pacific power after the Armistice.

The national government that took power in India after the collapse of British rule attempted to pursue a policy of strict neutrality in the Newt War, but after its refusal to provide war material to the Newts led to the flooding of much of Bengal India joined the Continental System, although it did not become fully Integrated with the Tabriz Union to the west (unified by the Turks, either with persuasion or loads of Soviet and European-provided military hardware).

While the War and the Bengali Exodus forged bonds between Indian and Hindu Muslims strong enough to have kept India together and relatively democratic in the year 2010, the Renewed Ottoman Empire is today by necessity a harsh and militarist place, suffering from internal stresses (most notably Iranian Shiite separatism, sponsored by the USSR) and fears of foreign military intervention as its dominant share of the world's oil supply provoke envy and suspicion.

Two Continents never really succeeded in achieving unity – Africa and South America. Although the US sponsored a unified continent under Brazilian leadership, the non-Portuguese rest of South America resented this, and poor internal communications hampered the development of either effective military control or economic self-sufficiency: things were not helped appreciably when the Newts overran much of Brazil through its extensive network of huge, deep rivers. Although the Brazilians managed to eventually establish control over much of the continent with the aid of frequent US invasions (by air, since even without the Newts there was no highway going through the Panamanian jungle), what with economic collapse and rebellions, South America remained fairly chaotic until the end of the war. (The Newt extraction of foodstuffs from the Amazon caused horrendous ecological damage that was much commented on at the time, but really wasn't worse what the OTL Brazilians did by themselves 1960-2010). The lefty Andean Union emerged from the mess as a Soviet ally: the rest of the continent remains contended between the US and Europe.

Africa, with the Suez area blockaded, bombarded and gassed by the Newts, remained accessible by air, and in the interior regions, far from the sea, colonial rule continued through the war, although the expensive demands of wartime provoked more than one rebellion. Mostly highlands, and very poor in industry, Africa wasn't much of a Newt target in any event (with a few important exceptions, such as the Niger Delta oilfields, flooded and then Newt-repurposed, or the Libyan Sea). Most remaining colonies became independent over the last two decades: efforts to create a United States of Africa or at least a Unified Francophonie have not benefitted from European hostility to the notion (they already dislike the raw materials concentration in the Ottoman Empire). Large Union of South Africa is Large.

Democracy has had a bad time of it: the Asians are all dictatorships of one sort of another, as are most of the states of Africa. Europe is fairly democratic, but has a rather creepy fascist European-is-beautiful-center-of-all-civilization-marching-boys-in-uniform vibe about it, and most states retain rather alarming "emergency powers" from the wartime years. (And then there is the Dutch Diaspora, which tends to go all genocidal whenever the Newts are mentioned, as do the British, who however also tend to go genocidal when talking about "collaborators" – in some cases collaborators with the Newts, in other cases collaborators with the European-backed "national rebirth" government).

The United States, with its biggest cities by the sea and its low-lying eastern coast, suffered considerable damage and disruptions during the war, but has managed to make an economic comeback in the last two decades. Although proportionally rather more of its population lives well inland and in the mountainous west (mile-high Albuquerque, New Mexico has over a million and a half inhabitants), New New York is growing rapidly: funded by some of former New York's fabulously wealthy, it has already surpassed half a million as its inhabitants, mostly refugees from the largely flooded metropolis, strive to replicate the best of sunken Manhattan on the Alleghany plateau. The US is still fairly democratic, but is also the most Technocratic of human nations, the "armory of humanity" during the Newt War having come to embrace science and technology to an extent other human nations denigrate as "Newtish", and correspondingly suffering from an excess of "scientific" planning.

The Soviet Union, always well set up for an emergency wartime economy, has not done so well in peacetime, and current economic difficulties have not been helped by the ongoing spitting match with China. Australia is a US protectorate, while Indonesia (mostly under Newt control during the War) was formerly under strong influence from the Southeast Asian Soviet, but after civil war broke out there, has moved closer to India.

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The Newts are intelligent amphibians, some four foot high standing on their hind feet, five-toed feet and four-finger hands including opposable thumbs. They can walk upright on land, but tend to sway from side to side in a somewhat comical manner. Their skins, which secrete a defensive toxin, are (usually) black and shiny, their heads large and round with black goggle-eyes. Their long and flexible tongues can master most human languages, although they have trouble with the letter "r" and agglutinative languages. Remnants of an earlier era, they had survived for ages as a tiny population in a saltwater lagoon on an isolated peak of a crumbled continent surrounded by seas too deep and shark-infested for them to cross, until a British naval vessel captured some of them and, so to speak, let the genie out of the bottle.

They are in some ways superior to humans, being faster learners and more persistent workers, much faster breeders, and have some quite remarkable regenerative powers (aside from tails, they can regrow limbs and eyes and even some internal organs). On the other hand, they are also vulnerable to drying out, which can happen rather quickly out of water and in sunny conditions, and are not a particularly imaginative or creative species. They were also long hampered in their efforts to escape their condition of serfdom by their inherently conflict-avoiding attitude: having little in the way of natural defenses save their toxic slime (which does little to discourage sharks), their normal response to threats is to burrow and hide rather than fight back, and although they were quick to learn to use human weapons to defend themselves from sharks (only deep-sea pelagic and abyssal varieties have escaped extinction), their first effective military leader, the "Newt King", was in fact a human renegade with dreams of Evil Overlord (with a harem and all) status.

The Newts still have their own language, but it is a language of sex and burrowing and the ocean: for science and planning and working Newts use standard Simplified English as a means of communication, everywhere except for the "free Newts" of the Pacific, which speak several human languages as needed. Newts like fairly still and shallow water, and use elaborate systems of dams and weirs to keep the water flow slow and even in their underwater communities. Although much of the construction of Newt cities, nowadays made of special chemical foams that harden into solid walls underwater rather than expensive metal, factories and shops and government buildings, etc., rests on the seafloor, the Newts historically have spent the brighter daylight hours resting in burrows, and Newt living quarters are usually dug into the seabed. Newt society is generally collective, Newts generally being happiest when working together en masse.

A proviso here: that is, male Newts. During the mating season, there are frenzied mass spawning like some ordinary amphibian species, but during the rest of the year, males and females don't have much to do with eachother. Females have their own society, parallel and separate from the male one, and tend to be loners by Newt standards: although some of Newtdoms most creative scientists and inventors come from among the females of the species, they generally do not get along well in mass-labor situations. When humans talk of "Newt Society" then generally think of males: females are less tractable slaves and were only a small percentage of the population that most humans during the period of Newt enslavement were likely to meet: nowadays, female Newts rarely if ever come out of the water.

Newt government, unless a human can be found to be decisive and violent, tends towards lots of committees and argument: it tends to move very slowly until consensus is reached, after which it can move forward with almost irresistible momentum. Newts do not buck the crowd, and it is perhaps characteristic of their species that the only known form of Newt-invented "art" is the great mass dances held on the shores, under the moonlight, at the start of the mating season by the males.

Female Newts sometimes sing beneath the sea. Nobody knows what their songs mean: although many of them have learned human languages, the language of the female Newts is far more a mystery to humans than that of the male Newts (and that only remains partially and spottily understood).

The continental shelves above the levels where algae will not grow is as densely cultivated as south China: fish farms confined with sonic barriers, algae plantations rooted and floating, barnacle and clam habitats, edible corals and jellyfish ranches. This has of course meant the large-scale extermination of less useful species: the ecological consequences, in plagues of unwanted algae or bacteria or god knows what, are still working themselves out, to the consternation of Newt cultivators and food bureaus: in their defense, it must be noted that very few above-water humans had considered the ecological consequences of explosive Newt population growth, either.

Newt society is collectivist, somewhat "socialistic" and very materialistic: Newt religions tend to be vaporous, faddish (if occasionally very odd) things, and building, eating, sleeping and reproducing is the norm of life for the majority of Newts, who worry about things a lot less than humans (the neurotic Newt is a rare organism indeed). Newt creative energies usually go into building things or scientific work: the Newts have little art, although they do have some crude decorative impulses re their homes and cities, and the males at least don't find much of interest in music. They do have a literature of extraordinary tediousness in which construction of a complex, involved plot with all the threads neatly tied together at the end is more important than such minor issues as pace, characterization, imagination…

The biggest weakness of Newt technology is the problem of chemistry in an effectively infinite pool of solvent, and some of their manufacturing procedures still need air, although the use of automated, entirely sealed underwater factories is growing increasingly important. This has forced the Newts to concentrate some important facilities on many small scattered islands, sandbars, etc., (many of them Newt-built for humans and then seized after the revolt) which creates certain vulnerabilities in case of war. The Newts are working on the problem. Newt machinery is variously powered by wind and solar (floating on the surface, cables going into the depths), thermal differential between different levels of the sea, and oil (North Sea oil? Mexican Gulf oil? Newt oil). Atomic power in this somewhat different universe is harder to achieve than OTL, fortunately since otherwise humans and Newts would probably have blown each other up a while ago: it currently remains a very experimental thing involving Giant Machines of Superscience, and speculations on whether Atomic Power when finally achieved will Save the World or Doom it appear in the papers whenever someone has even the teensiest breakthrough to report. Chemical and biological agents (some more powerful than anything developed in our world) are the doomsday weapons of choice.

The Newts find Global Warming very, very funny.

Newts nowadays cross the ocean by submarine (Newt submarine design is aided by the fact that leaks don't really matter): however, the Transatlantic Tunnel promises to soon be completed. Newts aren't allowed any aircraft by the stipulations of the Armistice, and in any event most Newts, dwellers in a buoyant medium in which "falling" is unknown, find the idea of travelling through air rather terrifying. Newts are tolerated in a few countries enough to come on shore as tourists (business matters usually take place over the phone lines), wearing special reverse "wet suits" that keep them moist and protect them from sunlight (the Newt tourist will always check to make sure their hotel room has a full bath). In hot climates, Newts must mount heavy and uncomfortable cooling units on the backs of their suits. Humans of course can do the reverse as visit Newt territory – more safely, given the less aggressive nature of the Newts as individuals - but since they need to bring their own air, tend to be rather more limited in their capacity to enjoy the local amenities.

Trade, in fact, has slowly been reestablished between the Newts and the surface world. There are a lot of valuable mineral resources beneath the sea, and in the seawater itself (the Newts have developed a pseudo-organic substance that does a great job of filtering out, say, gold), and the surface can manufacture a lot of things (metal things, in particular) a lot more cheaply than the Ocean realm can. Although there remain endless lists of forbidden trade items, greed and increasing complacency has led to the steady erosion of the total trade freeze of the war years.

If there are strict limits on what humans can sell to Newts, it works the other way to some extent: ocean fish and other foodstuffs are now rare luxury items in human lands, food surpluses meaning in Newt thinking "more baby Newts, yay" rather than "trade items."

Newt society, being a development of the last seventy years or so, is much more homogenous than that of humans, but there are a couple major divisions. Newts, given their small initial population, are badly interbred, and only the vast numbers of Newt children (a female can produce up to 100 fertile eggs in a year) keep genetic damage from crippling the population: as it is, a high number of genetic sports and mutants occur, which is how many suggest the Baltic Newt got its start. Larger and lighter (more grey than black) than the majority of its fellow Newts, they have fastened on to the German notion that this was a higher, "Nordic" type of Newt: currently colonizing northern areas considered less than suitable by "black" Newts, (Newts can survive being frozen and revived, but generally don't like cold) the Nordic Newt treats its fellows with a sort of sniffy condescension that in a more bloody-minded species would probably have led to violence by now.

Then there are the "Free Newts" of many a Pacific island and atoll, with only a crude technological package begged, borrowed or stolen from humans: they think of the other Newts, former slaves and the descendants of slaves as far too "human" and Un-Newtish, and resent their efforts to "modernize" and "civilize" them.

Inter-Newt warfare, in spite of human hopes, remains unobserved.

************************************************

Technology is somewhat different: aircraft travel is more developed and extensive for overseas travel than in our world (and the aircraft considerably larger), while civilian travel on land, to save fuel for airplanes, is generally by high-speed electrical rail (the latest Trans-Siberian Express can go from Moscow to Pyongyang in only 29 hours), the trains being rather enormous by the standards of our world. Things are fast, shiny, powerful, metallic, and colorful: a Popular Mechanics sort of world. Study of Newt regenerative abilities have been useful for the advance of medicine, and fingers and toes (if not yet entire limbs) can be re-grown in the hospital, and the hydrogen-cell powered mechanical arm or leg are available for those with larger injuries. Dryland farming technique has reached new heights of efficiency as prime farming areas near coasts were lost. Unmanned rockets have been to the Moon: there has been some talk lately of colonizing Mars, which in telescopic observations seems rather dry and barren – in other words, a place unlikely to ever be visited by Newts. A number of manned satellite stations keep an increasingly close eye from above on Newt activities: the Newts begin to wonder if giving up the skies was entirely wise.

Swimming is no longer a popular activity, and the edges of the continents are all lined with massive metalloceramic composite walls and breakwaters, (concrete in poorer nations) extending deep below the ground: nobody goes to the beach anymore, and all rivers are massively dammed. People still take baths, but being too enthusiastic about water sports is considered "Newtish", and seawater is seen as dirty and corrupt (all those fish and Newts pooping in it, for one thing). Mountain living is popular. Body hair is In. Black people in America still go in for big Afros: it's bad enough being Newt-colored ("Black is beautiful" has been a hard sell in this world) without a dark, smooth shiny head…
(Of course, teenagers being teenagers, some do go in for the "slick, hairless" look to bug their parents…)

The religious response has generally been of the "divine punishment/warning" variety, and the existence (or non-existence) of Newt souls has been a hotly debated topic. The "Newt=Naga" theory is popular among Hindus, which clashes with the view that the upright-walking snake in the bible was actually a Newt). A variety of eccentric new religions and offshoots of old religions have arisen since the start of the War: those which are actively pro-Newt tend to be suppressed. (And don't get me started on the Church of Lovecraft…)

Still, it is not all bad. People live and work and love, and great new cities rise on highland and plateau. Science marches forward. Racism among humans is well down from what it was before the 1930s, and indeed is less prevalent than in our world: in the face of the Newtish Menace, the Jewish Conspiracy looks quite fanciful, and human physical differences are minor in the face of the amphibian. In the middle east, Turkish rule is not really worse than the various pre-revolutionary despotisms of our world (although the Turks themselves are less free), and Africa is more stable and in better condition.

And, in secret labs, beneath sea, beneath rock, Newt and human scientists continue work to find the ultimate biological weapons to use on the other species.

Just in case, you know.

Cross my heart and hope to die.


[1] Less daring than OTL's bunch of gangsters, and in any event fascinated by the possibility of expanding into the Baltic through Newt-built land, the German refrained from throwing Europe into a general war.
The book is really more satire than SF, but I am often excessively literal-minded. :)
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