Monday, November 21, 2016

RUR by Karel Čapek

Rating: WORTHY!

Many people believe that Čapek (pronounced like Chappeck) invented the word 'robot', but it's not true. He did bring it to popular attention, but it was his brother, Josef Čapek, who died in Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, who coined it from the Czech word 'robota' meaning labor, particularly drudgery, or slave labor. The word was employed in his 1920 play, RUR (or Rossumovi univerzální roboti - Rossumov's Universal Robots, or more commonly, Rossum's Universal Robots) to indicate a newly-invented sentient automaton which looked very human, but which was made (or grown) from organic substances the inventor had discovered. Thus, the robots were more like what we would call cyborgs or even clones, if we employ 'clone' in the sense of copying inexactly, as when commercial competitors might clone a best-selling product for example, or YA authors shamelessly clone original trilogies to generate sub-standard rip-off versions of their own.

In the three-act play which also has a prologue (and in this case I actually read it, since had I attended this play it would have been the first scene!), we hit the ground running right before the robot revolution. And revolutionary it was, because although this motif of rebellious machines is common now, when we do have real robots among us (and I for one welcome them!), in 1920 when this play was published, there was no such thing. It's quite something to read such a ground-breaking work like this, even though the play itself is less than thrilling as it happens, although it was so short that I didn't feel I'd wasted my time in reading it.

A big difference between this and the more modern narratives is that the robots win! Humanity is wiped-out until only one man remains - the man the robots are counting on to help them reproduce - a facility they do not have. Since he knows next to nothing about exactly how to make them work, their chances of survival are slim, so it's a pyrrhic victory at best.

My problem with this was how to rate it. If it were a modern work, I would rate it negatively. It was far too melodramatic and pedantic, but then I found myself cheating slightly - doing a Dumbledore and awarding last minute points! There are other considerations here, not least of which is this being an historical document! Not this copy exactly, which was a Penguin reprint, but the work itself, which is fascinating for the glimpse it gives us into the way people thought back then, and which allows us to compare and contrast it with how we view that same scenario today.

On top of that, Čapek was hated by the Nazis, who were rather perturbed to find, when they invaded what we now call the Czech Republic and went looking for him, that he had died of pneumonia on Christmas day, 1938. They arrested his brother, who died in 1945, but his wife Olga Scheinpflugová survived him and the war, and died in 1968. This rather contrasted with the story, wherein all the women and all but one of the men were wiped out. In real life the men were all gone and a woman survived! On balance, I decided to stick one in the eye of the Nazis, and rate this as a worthy read taking everything into account, so Čapek-dor wins! I think it's worth a look if you're interested in this kind of thing.

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