Saturday, July 2, 2011

SF Masterworks #93: Karel Čapek, R.U.R. and War with the Newts


Say the word "robot" today and people are most likely to envision a metallic entity, maybe humanoid in shape but not necessarily so, that may be programmed to protect human life or, conversely, to destroy it.  But if you had said the word "roboti" in say 1920 in what is now the Czech Republic, very different images would be conjured.  It would not be of an entity, but rather verbiage denoting drudgery and slave labor.  It is due to Czech writer Karel Čapek's 1920 play, R.U.R. that the descriptor "roboti" morphed into the noun "robot" and spread far and wide from its Czech roots, altering in meaning along the way.

Čapek was one of the leading Central European writers in the aftermath of World War I.  His fiction, the most prominent of which were R.U.R. and the 1936 novel The War with the Newts, often employed allegories to address issues such as the treatment of the workers, the rise of fascism, and the dangers of violent proletarian revolution.  Although The War with the Newts. may be the technically better work of the two, R.U.R. contains a power of its own that can still move readers (and even more, play viewers) ninety years after its initial release.

The story is divided into three acts and a short epilogue, spanning ten years in length.  At some indeterminate time in the twentieth century, the scientist Rossum (whose name appears to be taken from a Czech word for "reason") has experimented with biological material to create sentient beings who lack the demands that cause human labor to be so high.  Here, Harry Domin, General Manager of Rossum's Universal Robots, explains to Helena Glory (his future wife) how the robots came to be:

Domin:  Well, any one who has looked into human anatomy will have seen at once that man is too complicated, and that a good engineer could make him more simply.  So young Rossum began to overhaul anatomy and tried to see what could be left out or simplified.  In short - but this isn't boring you, Miss Glory?

Helena:  No indeed.  You're - it's awfully interesting.

Domin:  So young Rossum said to himself:  "A man is something that feels happy, plays the piano, likes going for a walk, and in fact, wants to do a whole lot of things that are really unnecessary."

Helena:  Oh.

Domin:  That are unnecessary when he wants, let us say, to weave or count.  Do you play the piano?

Helena:  Yes.

Domin:  That's good.  But a working machine must not play the piano, must not feel happy, must not do a whole lot of other things.  A gasoline motor must not have tassels or ornaments, Miss Glory.  And to manufacture artificial workers is the same thing as to manufacture gasoline motors.  The process must be of the simplest, and the product of the best from a practical point of view.  What sort of worker do you think is the best from a practical point of view?

Helena:  What?

Domin:  What sort of worker do you think is the best from a practical point of view?

Helena:  Perhaps the one who is most honest and hardworking.

Domin:  No; the one that is the cheapest.  The one whose requirements are the smallest.  Young Rossum invented a worker with the minimum amount of requirements.  He had to simplify him.  He rejected everything that did not contribute directly to the progress of work - everything that makes man more expensive.  In fact, he rejected man and made the Robot.  My dear Miss Glory, the Robots are not people.  Mechanically they are more perfect than we are, they have an enormously developed intelligence, but they have no soul. (pp. 5-6)

Consider this exchange in light of the immediate post-World War I years.  Mass production has come to dominate matters, requiring workers who can do repetitive tasks quickly and efficiently.  Economies of scale are beginning to emerge, with "overhead" needing to be eliminated whenever possible in order to lower costs, both production and retail alike.  Workers do not want to work for low wages; general strikes had begun to emerge a generation before.  And looming like a black cloud is the self-proclaimed proletarian state that the Bolsheviks were in the midst of establishing in Russia in 1920.  In many senses, the "robots" of this story, produced from biological material and designed to be docile, work-oriented bio-machines, are but an analogue for the envisioned "perfect" worker, one that would do the drudgery docilely and not demand too much in exchange.

But these robots are too alien for the likes of Domin.  Over a span of ten years, he tinkers with Rossum's formula in an attempt to create a robot more akin to humans.  What he unleashes is a maelstrom, as the engineered robots come to see humans not as masters, but as imperfect mechanisms that must be destroyed.  The Robots rise up in their own form of a proletarian revolt:

Dr. Gall:  What happened?

Domin:  Damnation!

Fabry:  Bear in mind that the Amelia brought whole bales of these leaflets.  No other cargo at all.

Hallemeier:  What?  But it arrived on the minute.

Fabry:  The Robots are great on punctuality.  Read it, Domin.

Domin: {Reads handbill}  "Robots throughout the world:  We, the first international organization of Rossum's Universal Robots, proclaim man as our enemy, and an outlaw in the universe."  Good heavens, who taught them these phrases?

Dr. Gall:  Go on.

Domin:  They say they are more highly developed than man, stronger and more intelligent.  That man's their parasite.  Why, it's absurd.

Fabry:  Read the third paragraph.

Domin:  "Robots throughout the world, we command you to kill all mankind.  Spare no men.  Spare no women.  Save factories, railways, machinery, mines, and raw materials.  Destroy the rest.  Then return to work.  Work must not be stopped."  (p. 34)

This development parallels that of the newts in The War with the Newts.  Humans think they can master and control other sentient life, only to discover that resentment builds to the point of violent revolt against human rule.  Viewed in light of the events transpiring between 1917 and 1939, Čapek's works could be viewed as an indictment of the industrial capitalist system.  But Čapek is not a socialist sympathizer.  In both works and especially here in R.U.R., he takes great pains to show the follies of the revolting side.  The robots do "triumph," and all but one menial laborer, Alquist, are killed.  There are no more humans.  However, the robots cannot replicate themselves and they try and force Alquist to recreate Rossum's success in vat-producing biological robots.  He fails, but in the midst of these experiments of dissection and testing, it is discovered that two robots, Primus and the robot copy of Helena, have evolved the ability to love, an extraneous feature in robots, but essential in human beings. The play ends with the hope that these two will be the new Adam and Eve for a self-replicating humano-robot species.

Čapek's works are often fraught with this mixture of the dark and the vaguely hopeful.  It is perhaps part of the esprit du temps, to be horror-stricken at the massive changes and devastation wrought by the Great War, but Čapek's works still resonate strongly today because we can easily sense our own faults, follies, and hopes within his characters and their situations.  Although R.U.R. does not contain the layers of meaning that The War with the Newts possesses, it certainly is a major achievement in interwar theater, one that still possesses vitality even today.

War with the Newts

More than any other century, the 20th century (and particularly its first half) is known for its dystopic novels. In an age of great upheaval brought about first by the calamitous Great War/World War I, which gave rise to the Bolshevik Revolution, Fascism, National Socialism, and the conflicts these three daughter movements caused, so much faith in the almost holy notion of "progress" was lost.  Whether one looks at Zamyatin's We, Huxley's Brave New World, or Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984, the effects of this disillusionment are widely evident.  Technology is treacherous, at least as prone to betrayal as the humans surrounding the books' protagonists.  There is a vague menace in each of these books, as if "progress" was the Edenic apple being offered by the totalitarian ruler/serpent.  The palpable sense of fear and worry that radiates throughout these texts makes for exciting, troublesome reads.

Czech writer Karel Čapek wrote in 1936 an allegorical/SF novel that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the classics noted above.  His War with the Newts is in many senses an even more dystopic novel than the four novels listed above.  Instead of rooting the problems in a rapacious and/or uncaring society or government, Čapek goes further, attempting to bare the sordid shared human past and how horribly we have treated ourselves and others in the past and present.  Despite being written nearly 75 years ago, War with the Newts still has the power to unsettle us, since so few of the issues referenced there have ever really been resolved.

The story begins with the discovery of a rare, humanoid-shaped species of newts in the South Indian Ocean near Indonesia.  The discoverers quickly discover that this hitherto unknown newt species is extremely intelligent and is capable of learning and speaking human languages.  Just before discovery, the captain of the merchant ship in the area is incredulous when a native tells him of the "tapas" who inhabit this area.  The dialogue is rather revealing, as it mirrors what happens later when a "tapa" is taken into captivity:

Captain J. van Toch turned crimson.  "What?" he bawled.  "You dirty Cuban, you think that I shall be frightened of your devils?  We'll see about that," he cried, rising with all the greatness of his honest fourteen stones.  "I'm not going to waste my time here with you when I have my business to look after.  But remember there aren't any devils in Dutch colonies; if there are any anywhere, then they're in the French ones.  There might be some there.  And now fetch me the mayor of this damned kampong here." (p. 17)
Note the casual dismissal of a native's account.  Pay close attention to the dehumanizing "devils."  The unknown or rumor of the unknown often brings forth charges of the object/entity being non-human, often vaguely threatening to any sense of propriety that the holder of these opinions may have.  But what happens after first contact?  Well, what would you think people would do with a verified sentient being that has been captured?

Some time later Sir Charles was sitting beside Professor Petrov and discussing the so-called animal intelligence, conditioned reflexes, and how popular ideas overrate the reasoning powers of animals.  Professor Petrov expressed his doubts about the Elberfeld horses which, it was said, could not only count, but also raise a number to a higher power and find the square root of a number; "for not even a normal, intelligent man can extract the square root of a number, can he?" said the great scientist.  Sir Charles remembered Gregg's talking salamander.  "I have a salamander here," he began with hesitation, "it's that one known as Andrias Scheuchzeri, and it's learned to talk like a cockatoo." (pp. 114-115)

From demon to being treated like an animal.  It is really surprising that Čapek's narrative follows closely the treatment of indigenous groups at the hands of an invading, "colonizing" power?  For the first first or so of the novel, the newts are shown to be very adaptable, intelligent creatures; the humans around them are boorish, self-satisfied, rather bigoted individuals who deign to believe that the newts are suffering from this malign treatment.  A whole host of social issues, ranging from slavery to the exploitation of the proletariat by the leisure classes, underlies this first part of the novel.

But Čapek is not content to make just an allegory for human mistreatment of other humans.  Instead, he goes further, referencing World War I and the militarism of the German, Italian, Polish, and Russian governments of the 1930s.  While the newts have managed to gain some half-hearted recognition that they are not to be enslaved, the menial drudgery that they undertake in the coastal regions is supplemented by secretive arming plans by the Great Powers that are supplying "their" newts with undersea-adapted weapons.  Yet despite this arms race, the Great Powers fail to grasp the demographic pressures facing the newts as their population swells to several times that of the human populations.  Here, the echoes of Lebensraum are found in the increasingly strident demands of the hidden, secretive "Chief Salamander."  When his demands are unmet, the newts unleash destructive explosive devices that cause massive earthquakes and the creation of new coastal plains for the newts to live.  The humans go to war with them, but they are threatened with destruction by an enemy that has surpassed them without any ever realizing beforehand just how dangerous they had become.

War with the Newts is a powerful allegorical tale of how easy it is for people to ignore the needs and desires of others, how quick people can be to subjugate another group, just because of slight differences in appearance and customs.  These themes are not rooted in any one time (despite Čapek's references to "Nordic Salamanders" and other plays on Nazi racial laws), but instead are universal human concerns that have plagued societies for millennia.  Čapek addresses these issues in a way that makes for a fast-paced yet instructive read that leaves the reader with much to consider.  As a dystopia, War with the Newts is scary in just how plausible its thematic elements (e.g. of how casual dismissal of one group could lead to that group rising up to overthrow the established order)  still can be in this age and time.  It is a novel that survives the test of time precisely because of how "current" its concerns are even now in the early 21st century.  Highly recommended.  

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