War With The Newts† by Karel Capek
[The edition I read was titled War With Salamanders.† The above is the more common translation of the title.]
This certainly isnít hard SF.† Should I categorize it as "science fiction" or "speculative fiction"?† If itís speculative fiction, itís not because it includes the supernatural, magic or similarly anti-scientific elements.† It just lacks hi-tech (even by the standards of when it was written) or other specifically science elements.† The premise is a species of large, relatively intelligent salamanders.† Of course, such a discovery would be of great interest to the science community, but especially without much justification in the story of how such a species evolved, it may be better to call it speculative fiction.† That said, I'll stop quibbling over the genre designation.
The book is written in a colorful, entertaining and often amusing style and narrative.† The story begins with a ship captain trading in the Indonesian / Polynesian area.† His company has asked him to keep an eye out for islands that do not yet have pearl diving (an idea he considers foolish, as he assumes there are no undiscovered areas).† They come to an island where the natives stay away from a bay because it is inhabited by "devils".† The captain finds there are salamanders the size of 10-year-old boys living in the water there - and they come on shore at night.† He finds the salamanders are fairly intelligent, have 4-fingered hands and can imitate human voices.† The salamanders are prey to sharks.† The captain arranges to show them how to use knives against the sharks.† He then arranges to trade with them - they bring him pearls and he gives them knives and other tools.
The salamanders aren't able to travel between islands themselves.† The captain arranges to get a ship with a pool on it, which makes it possible for him to take some salamanders from one island to another.† He is then able to make his pearls-for-knives trading with them at various islands around the region.
As the salamanders become present in more locations, there is an increase in incidents where people see them.† So we get an amusing vignette of two wealthy young couples on a yacht who encounter the salamanders.† One young woman imagining herself as an actress is approached by the salamanders who hope to give her pearls in exchange for knives.
Next Capek presents us with his view of scientists responding to reports of mysterious creatures, debating where to put them in the family tree of animals and what name to give the species, etc.
Then we are given the case of a salamander that has made its way into a zoo.† One of the zoo workers finds the salamander repeating phrases it has heard zoo visitors speaking.† In his spare time, the worker teaches the salamander to speak and (later) to read the newspaper.† This leads to some incidents with the zoo administrator, and later with a professor invited to see the salamander.
There is also a chapter which covers a board meeting of the company trading with the salamanders.† All the pearls collected by the salamanders have created an oversupply, causing the prices to drop.† It may have also contributed to pearls going out of fashion.† The company must reconsider how it is going to make money.† Perhaps, they will be less generous with the salamanders.† There is also mention of an impending population explosion of salamanders.† And readers might see the implications of the coming crisis.
The salamanders are sold as laborers for underwater work, such as dredging harbors, building artificial islands, etc.† It quickly becomes a large international business that plays a significant role in the world economy.† We are given a few examples of related events.† And then issues of legal position of salamanders developed.
Events begin to spiral out of control.† The salamanders now live under conditions where their population is skyrocketing.† The salamander population is far greater than the human population, yet the salamanders are limited to living in shallow waters by shores.† And various governments have been using salamander sections of their military to operate in the water.† The salamanders have also been used for underwater demolition work.† They can control the waters around a nation, and therefore control all the international trade by ships...
Capek has constructed a series of events starting with fairly innocuous (trading with the salamanders for pearls), then building up by expanding the locations of the salamanders...† up to where the consequences of those actions become more serious.† We see a flow in which each step leads to the next.† All that is needed to keep the movement towards disaster is short-sighted people focusing on near-term gains, nations who believe if their neighbor makes a deal with the devil they must also, leaders who are too ready to congratulate themselves on their wisdom, and so forth.† Today, at a time of climate change, environmental threats, weapons of mass destruction and such, it's worth thinking about the long-term consequences of human actions.