Thursday, 17 November 2011

‘RUR & War with the Newts’ – Karel Capek (Gollancz)

While I think the jury is still out on whether some of the books, in the SF Masterworks series, are really ‘Masterworks’ I have nevertheless been enjoying the books that I have picked up so far. Really, I have. Check out my reviews Here, Here and Here and see what I mean (‘I am Legend’ is a different edition but does appear in the SF Masterworks series as well). It’s nice sometimes to step back from everything that’s new and shiny to look at the some of the books that have arguably had an influence on the more recent book, don’t you think? :o) I can’t wait for the Fantasy Masterworks series to kick off again next year.
‘RUR’ has actually had a massive influence on science fiction writing but I had no idea of this before I picked the book up. It was the rather gorgeous cover art (seriously, look at it and you might just find you can’t stop looking at it... I need to find a picture with better definition, damn you internet!), and the promise of ‘newt war’, which has had me looking out for this book over the last couple of months. Having read it though, ‘RUR & War with the Newts’ is far more than that. It’s a slim book but one that had me engrossed for several days; I’d give it a go if I were you.

‘RUR’ not only stands for ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ but is the play that coined the term ‘robot’ in the first place. That’s pretty impressive however you look at it; I’m sure we would have arrived at the term ‘droid’ eventually but what would we have called them in the meantime...? It’s clear that the genre owes Capek a huge debt for that one word alone but he also gives us a play (three acts and an epilogue) that really gets you thinking at the same time.

‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ is a company producing robots (human figures given life by a synthesized chemical version of protoplasm) that want for nothing and will do whatever they are told. Or do they? More and more robots are suffering strange malfunctions, could this be the start of a new phase of domination over our planet?

You’ve all heard this tale before I’m sure (‘Terminator’ anyone?) but you can’t help but shiver a little when you hear it being told here. The human characters are running with Rossum’s original idea but they have no real idea where it could take them. All they can do is talk about it and they have no idea what it might eventually mean, something that becomes clear when Helena talks to the malfunctioning robot Radius,

Helena: Do you hate us? Why?

Radius: You are not as strong as the robots. You are not as skilful as the robots. The robots can do everything. You can only give orders. You do nothing but talk.

Helena: But someone must give orders.

Radius: I don’t want any master. I know everything for myself.

The human characters are far too busy increasing their own personal wealth (or seeking to marry Helena, they all seem to want to marry Helena) to notice what is happening right under their very noses. There’s a real sense of inevitability about this, all the more so as only the reader can see it coming.
What we have here then is a cautionary tale warning against power being arrived at far too quickly. It’s no coincidence that the human race loses its ability to reproduce once the robots are doing everything and there is nothing left to strive for. Things do end on more of an optimistic note than you would expect though, suggesting that we’re all at the mercy of evolution and being around to see it happen is a real privilege. Those last scenes were really touching.

‘War with the Newts’ has a lot more meat to it, forming the larger part of the book, and this actually casts ‘RUR’ in a very positive light as its sharply delivered message stands up very well to the more drawn out message on display in ‘War with the Newts’. I found the commentary here slightly ponderous at times with the inclusion of passages that came across more like ‘filler’ than anything else. An essay on the sex life of the Newts, for example, was very interesting but didn’t really contribute anything to the ongoing narrative. It was fleshing things out for the sake of it when there was really no need.

That’s the only real issue I had with ‘War with the Newts’ though (apart from the ending, maybe, I’m still not sure about that). As I said right at the start, it was an engrossing read that kept me going for days.

Capek’s irascible character Captain J. Van Toch discovers the only surviving colony of intelligent (and almost man sized) Newts and is quick to realise that their eager willingness to help him hunt for pearls could be translated into other larger business ventures. Before long the Newts have multiplied and fill all the seas of the world, working tirelessly for their human masters. The ensuing ‘Newt Problem’ is dealt with in many ways but it culminates with the Newts realising that their own personal demands far outweigh those of their human masters. That’s when all out war ensues...

The title ‘War with the Newts’ is a bit of a misnomer really seeing as the actual war takes place right at the very end of the book. Or is it? What we’re looking at here is a book about two distinct races trying to get along with just one planet between them. It’s clear that that something has to give and that’s where warfare makes an appearance, albeit in a slightly more subtle way than you would expect. It’s very cleverly done and when Capek gets it right, more often than not, the accompanying essays and newspaper cuttings give the reader a really detailed and compelling picture of events and how cause and effect lead to an inescapable conclusion.

Much is made of ‘War with the Newts’ being written at the time of the rise of Nazism but I for one didn’t really see much of that coming through in the novel itself (although parallels could be drawn with the rise of the Chief Salamander). If anything, it felt like Capek was telling his readers that if you really must subjugate another race then make sure that you do it properly. Don’t teach them to read and give them rights and their own government! More than anything else, it’s humanity’s need to do the decent thing that ultimately leads to their downfall.

Or does it? Capek displays a keen sense of humour throughout the book (no one escapes from his wit) and this comes to a head after the end of ‘Newts’ where he agonises over whether his ending was a little too bleak and without hope. I personally liked it like that (which is why I’m not keen on his decision to backtrack) but it works and that’s the main thing. There is some hope after all.

The superior ‘RUR’ is held back by the sometimes unwieldy ‘Newts’ but together, they both combine to form something that is far greater than either work on their own. Two cautionary (and visionary) tales that show us full well that man is at the top of the evolutionary chain through no real merit of his own.

Nine and a Half out of Ten.

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