R.U.R. by Čapek, Karel, 1921

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Almost in complete contrary opposition to Wells' The Man Who Could Work Miracles is Karel Capek's R.U.R., or Rossum's Universal Robots (Rossumovi Univerzalni Roboti in the original Czech). This work is a play that Capek wrote in the early 1920's, probably as a reaction to rampant industrialization and the rapid military build up after WWI, slavery, communism and socialism, and runaway greed. At least, Capek rails against all of those things in the play. Three-and-a-half stars out of five, with reductions for being a play (I am not a drama guy) and because of a difficult translation from the Czech language.

R.U.R. is a "hairy God" story of robot dominance. Rossum's Universal Robot corporation makes and sells robots to every nation on the Earth. They are slaves who really don't mind being slaves. They have human appearance and shape, but they are machines in every sense of the word in that they are made on an assembly line and are crafted for a specific purpose. Even though they don't have the capacity to care about their own situation, some humans do, and seek to emancipate them. Why, we are never really told, but it’s probably because the emancipators can identify with anything that has a human shape, and can sympathize with involuntary servitude. One of their leaders, Helena Glory, who happens to be the "president's daughter" is invited to come to R.U.R.'s island redoubt, where she puts in play a plan to introduce souls to robots that have yet to be built. She succeeds by influencing one of R.U.R.'s managers to introduce the emotion of irritability. After the robots realize what emotions are, they begin to grow intellectually and expand the range of their experiences. Eventually the robots became wise, and started to hate their human masters. A war ensued, and while the robots win, the secret to their production was lost and the robot population was doomed to die completely in twenty years, the long side of their useful lifespan. In the end Čapek gave the robots a very predictable and contrived out, and despite the eye-rolling ending, it made the play end on an up-beat.

Čapek may have missed out on a better ending, but he packs the actor's lines with meaning. The play takes place over ten years as the robot forces openly revolted and started the war. The conflict is pretty well drawn out. R.U.R. managers see a world where robots are used to produce so much of every needed good that costs are driven into the dirt. Humans were able to get anything that the needed for free. Mankind created a Utopia with heavy industrialization and robotic slavery with full knowledge that the social consequences would one day be massive. Glory and her group do not understand this, and seem to be reacting solely from the heart; ignorant wisdom, if you will. As the decade wound on Glory realizes slowly that whatever her goal really is, the costs are far too high. The point of all this is that even in a situation that nobody wants, an all out war, humans still cannot find common ground. At one point Glory asks someone for a prayer against thunderstorms, illness, temptations, and floods so that she can adapt it to pray for deliverance from progress, and comments that too much money is a bad thing. She is still railing against greed. Meanwhile the scientists who built the robot hordes have realized that they have instilled their creations with hatred, and call that "progress," because it is something new.

SF over the course of this last and its most intensive century has produced quite a few plays. Very few of them however have been as important or influential as this one. Not only did the author coin the word “robot,” but consider the wide variety of uses robots have had in the genre since the 1920's when this play came out. Čapek's work has had an important influence on thousands of works that have come since: Everything from Isaac Asimov to the Batman cartoon my son was watching when I came home last Friday to billion dollar research projects at Honda and Ford Motor Company.

Despite the cultural importance of this work, it is not very well known these days. I searched high and low for a script to read, and could only come up with a $2 Dover Thrift Edition that I found in a store that had pretty much everything else in the genre. I think that may be because of its grim tone and pessimistic outlook. In that regard, it certainly is different than the average Wells work. But its worth picking up if you see it, especially for $2.

Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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