In a World Full of Wonder

The Dolphins of Altair — Margaret St. Clair


1967’s The Dolphins of Altair is an SF novel by Margaret St. Clair.

Fed up with brutal exploitation, the dolphins of Earth take a desperate step. They reach out telepathically to their oppressors. Three humans prove sympathetic: Secretary Madeline Paxton, dock worker Sven Erikson, a former soldier, and Navy psychiatrist Dr. Edward Lawrence.

The humans decide on direct action. Their first challenge; breaking captive dolphins out of the Half Moon Bay naval research station. A direct assault would be suicidal. A more oblique approach might work, one that might not suggest to the authorities that anything more than a natural disaster is to blame. The solution? Use a stolen mine to set off an earthquake of sufficient magnitude to breach Half Moon Bay’s defenses.

This provides only a brief respite. Nowhere on Earth is safe from the dolphin-exploiting humans. If they do not recapture the dolphins, they will very likely kill them outright. What can one handless race lacking all technology do against the cunning apes of the land?

It is fortunate that the dolphins can remember the long-ago days before humans and dolphins went their separate ways. In those days, there was a single, quasi-aquatic species that had mastered high technology that even modern humans cannot match. A species not native to earth, but to the Altair system. Humans and dolphins are kin descended from interstellar colonists.

What the dolphins cannot remember, they can learn from their distant cousins on Altair. What the dolphins cannot make themselves, their human allies can. To buy time for the dolphin race, the allies embark on a bold plan: melt the ice caps and flood humanity’s coastal regions.


Claiming that humans are descended from (comparatively) recently arrived extra-terrestrials is pretty silly. I suppose embellishing it by linking hominids and cetaceans is a lesser silliness, flying in the face of only a few million years of fossil evidence rather than the hundreds of millions of years of evidence that link both groups to the other terrestrial tetrapods. Odd that this book could have been published as late as 1967, when one would think that most SF readers would have rejected it as nonsense. But it sold, as did several other books of the time that alleged interstellar provenance for humans.

I should have thought that the publisher might also have balked at protagonists (the human-dolphin alliance) who are responsible for the deaths of billions of humans. Some died from the immediate effects of the sudden rise in sea levels; many more perished when all seacoast cities drowned, as did most of the infrastructure that makes modern civilization possible.

Not only was I appalled by the megadeaths, I was not charmed by writing (flat), plot (ad hoc), or characters (also flat). St. Clair could write good books; this is not one of them. However, it was short (which limited the suffering) and I did rather like the Lehr cover.

The Dolphins of Altair is available here (Amazon). It does not seem to be available from Chapters-Indigo.


  • Tim

    "But it sold, as did several other books of the time that alleged interstellar provenance for humans." I know of Larry Niven's Protector. Were there other notable ones?

    • Vicki

      Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. The phrasing there is something like "the Terran colony was an experiment, planting one colony on a world with quasi-Hainish autochthones." I'm not sure if that was any more plausible in 1968 than it is now, but if not, fewer people were aware of the molecular evidence for our relatedness.

      A relevant difference is that that book isn't set on or mostly about Earth (even though the main narrator, Genly Ai, is Terran); Gethen has no native primates.

    • James Hogan's The Gentle Giants of Ganymede was published in 1978. Which I know James knows, because he's quoted on the Wikipedia page that I visited to confirm GGG's pub date.

      Now I'm off to see who put him there, and thus lose myself in the Time Suck that is Wikipedia(tm). (As opposed to the Ultimate Time Suck that is TVTropes, up in which I may eventually end .) (I wonder if TVTropes emits Hawking radiation?) (Wait, is that the right name ... wasn't there another name to go with? Better check Wikipedia to find out.) (And this is why some nights I get only a few hours sleep.)

  • Ross Presser

    This reminds me of The Smiling Future by Miriam Allen deFord, where "super-dolphins" reveal themselves, offer to mate with humans, then flood the Earth killing all humans. And now I see I've forgotten than your Young People Read Old SF project covered that story:

  • Robert Carnegie

    In "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", the dolphins took their leave without the genocide. Oh wait - no they didn't.

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