Robots & Newts

January 25: Karel Capek's R.U.R. opened in Prague on this day in 1921. The play was soon being produced and debated worldwide, and the coinage "robot"—the play's initials stand for "Rossum's Universal Robots"—soon became the new way of referencing a very old concept. Derived from the Czech word for "forced labor," Capek's robots begin enslaved but soon rebel, eventually ruling the world, driving their human masters to the brink of extinction and developing some of the better human emotions themselves.

 

Capek returned to this scenario in War With the Newts, a dystopian satire published fifteen years later, as Europe headed into WWII. The story describes the discovery of a race of intelligent, industrious salamanders which are at first exploited for economic and military reasons, but which eventually learn to use their indispensability for advantage, revenge, and power. One of Capek's satiric targets is Nazism—for example, the Germans believe that the newts in their colonies are a superior Nordic variant, entitled to more land and power—but few aspects of 20th-century life escape him. In Chapter 9, some curious scientists examine a friendly newt named Andy, who has learned to read the newspaper, and to regard every headline with mindless fascination: 

 "D'you read the paper often?"

"Yes, sir. Every day, sir."

"And what interests you most in it?"

"Police Court news, horse racing, football—"

"Have you ever seen a football match?"

"No, sir."

"Or a horse?"

"No, sir."

"So why do you read about it?"

"Because it's in the paper, sir."

"You're not interested in politics?"

"No, sir. WILL THERE BE WAR?"

"No one can tell, Andy."

"GERMANY BUILDS A NEW TYPE OF SUBMARINE," Andy said worriedly. "DEATH RAYS CAN TURN WHOLE CONTINENTS INTO DESERT."

"You read that in the paper, didn't you?" asked Sir Charles….

Andy nodded his head. "BUY BRITISH, sir. SNIDER'S BRACES ARE BEST. HAVE YOU GOT YOUR NEW SIX-CYLINDER TANCRED JUNIOR? FAST, CHEAP, ELEGANT."

"Thank you, Andy. That will do."

"WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE FILM STAR?"


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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