Gollancz (SF Masterworks). Â£8.99
Reviewed by John Howard
Karel ÄŒapek (1890-1938) was the Czech writer whose 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossumâ€™s Universal Robots) introduced the word â€˜robotâ€™ (originally meaning serf or forced labour) to the English language. Rossumâ€™s Robots – they would be called androids today – were created from protoplasm in order to perform all sorts of menial and repetitive tasks, liberating human beings from toil and bringing in an earthly paradise. Inevitably the mass-production of Robots and the low cost of using them lead to their employment in many other ways. They become indispensable to some and impossible to work with for others. Gradually some Robots are improved to be more like humans and to seek to be treated like them – and so the Robots learn to hate their creators. â€˜â€¦They couldnâ€™t hate us if they were only a little more human.â€™ / â€˜Nobody can hate man more than man.â€™
The context of War with the Newts (1936) was the rise of National Socialism inGermany and the political insecurity of the inter-war years inEurope and throughout the world in general. The Newts are a newly discovered race of amphibious creatures which is taught to work for humans and exploited in order to exploit the resources of the sea. Newts can only live in shallow coastal waters, so vast colonies develop as the Newt population expands. The Newtsâ€™ situation soon becomes a source of tension for many people, with some advocating the granting of full rights, while others wish them to be suppressed entirely. Meanwhile the Newts labour at their allotted tasks, but no-one really knows what they are doing under the sea. And then the earthquakes begin, with the inundation of large areas of coastline and low-lying land allowing the Newts to expand at the expense of the inhabitants of the land.
Both R.U.R. and War with the Newts look at the unintended consequences of â€˜progressâ€™ and mankindâ€™s manipulation of nature, and how mankindâ€™s institutions rise (or donâ€™t) to the new realities they and the race have to deal with. But while ÄŒapek certainly did have a serious intent behind his work, this shouldnâ€™t obscure their ironic wit and gentle wisdom (especially in War with the Newts). Both are tragic stories, but even in a world where nothing is secure it is yet possible for people to perform acts of humanity and meet the end with a wry smile. There are worse ways to go, as ÄŒapek himself would undoubtedly have found out if he hadnâ€™t died when he did.