RUR and War with the Newts by Karel Capek
Published by Gollancz, October 2011 as part of the SF Masterworks series
Introduction by Adam Roberts
ISBN: 978 0 575 09945 6
Review by Mark Yon
Karel Capek’s name may not be known that well outside the Czech Republic, though he has the distinction of being the originator of one of SF’s most endearing tropes – the word ‘robot’.
In this re-release we have two tales: the first is a script for Capek’s play which introduced us to that term, Rossum’s Universal Robots, or R.U.R., first published in 1920.
The second is a traditional novel. The War of the Newts was written in 1936, and though it may seem quite different to R.U.R., does have some common themes.
To be honest, RUR’s reputation beyond that of creating and using the word ‘robot’ is fairly unimpressive. What is interesting though is the fact that the robots in the play are not metal nor manufactured, as you would perhaps expect these days (and the cover rather misleadingly portrays), but are rather what we would these days call bio-engineered: that is, they are biological, created by biotechnology and, unlike R2-D2 or C-3PO, can be seen as human in appearance, even mistaken for human.
There are debates, as in Shelley’s Frankenstein, on the morality of such creatures and Science versus God along the way.
Other than that, the tale is one that is typical of its time, that of robots revolting in order to escape their slave-like existence whilst advocating freedom and independence. This was a common story-trope with the metal robots in the early days of pulp SF, as people felt intimidated by new technology. Asimov wrote his Robot stories as an alternate response to this idea of robots running amok.
Echoes of Metropolis (film, released 1927) are here.
War of the Newts follows a similar theme in that there is a revolution against oppression. This time the tale deals with an alien subspecies, an intelligent sea-dwelling race of newts, who rebel against slavery and exploitation and end up in a global war against the humans.
Though the book is titled War with the Newts, most of it deals with how the Newts were first met, how they became servile to humans and what led to the war, which actually only take up the last thirty-five pages or so. However when it does happen the war is both sad and weirdly affecting in that such catastrophic events are recounted in such a matter-of-fact manner. The last two sentences of the novel describes what must have been a common feeling at the time of writing: “And then?” “…Then I don’t know what comes next.” (page 349.)
The interesting thing for me here were the alien newts, who actually come across as tolerant, rational and quite sympathetic, perhaps even more so than the overbearing humans. The newts are clearly put into a situation that they feel is intolerable and the ensuing consequences are unfortunate but necessary. It may be that there are parallels here to Capek’s own life situation at the time. As a citizen of the Czech Republic in the mid-thirties they were experiencing the threat of Nazi occupation (which did occur in 1939.) It may not be that far-fetched to see the allegorical similarity between the Czech ‘newts’ and the Nazi ‘humans’ in this dystopian satire. Capek sadly died on December 25, 1938, of double pneumonia, shortly after part of Czechoslovakia was annexed by Nazi Germany.
All in all, an interesting read, though a book definitely of two halves. Capek is often ranked with Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Though much less well known, on the strength of this it’s not hard to see why.
Mark Yon, October/November 2011