‘Dolphin’s Way’ by Gordon R. Dickson
The editors introduce this as “clean, precise, powerful, it is one of Dickson’s finest stories.” Which is a bit of a back-handed compliment since it is rubbish. Perhaps the charm lies in the fact it got to a couple of ideas that have appeared elsewhere first? Who knows.
A scientist is trying to communicate with dolphins but in six years has made little progress and is worried his funding is about to be cut. He is undertaking this research for two reasons. Firstly, he has a hopelessly romanticised view of dolphins, the happy-go-lucky rapists of the sea. Second, by achieving successful communication he believes he will signal to the (unglimpsed but presumed) interstellar community that humankind is ready to take its place amongst them. This is an idea which in mutated form underpins David Brin’s Uplift novels but Brin’s version is both more interesting and more plausible.
I say that our scientist hero has made little progress but he has taught them to speak English. The problem lies in overcoming the “environmental barrier”. It is a familar gloss on Wittgenstein: if a lion could speak, would we understand it? It turns out that Dickson’s answer is yes, of course we would, as long as we got down on all fours and pretended we had a tail. Our scientist simply pops on some flippers, dives into the ocean and undergoes a paradigm shift. It’s not clear why it took him six years to hit on this less than ingenuous solution.
So, does this mean humanity can now take its rightful place amongst the stars?
At the beginning of the story, a reporter comes to cover the dolphin story. A reporter who just happens to be a beeootiful lady. Scientist falls for her instantly which adds an inept layer of mundane musings about life, love and work to an already clumsy SF story. But wait, when another character checks up on her, no-one from the magazine has ever heard of her. Who could she be? As the reader has already guessed she is an alien who is here to witness the final breakthrough. But she has a bit of bad news which I can summarise thus: so long and thanks for all the fish.