Sunday, November 16, 2014

Book 161, Czech Republic: "Rossum's Universal Robots" by Karel Čapek

And thus begins my third set of 80 books! This blog's title is getting more and more inaccurate. (Will I actually get to Book 240? Doubtful, but let's see!)

I actually never got round to finishing Kafka's The Castle, because it didn't seem to be going anywhere interesting (and from the intro, I actually know it doesn't go anywhere at all, since the manuscript's unfinished.)

But I did get round to reading one of the great works of Czech drama - the first text in which the word "robot" appeared, in fact. 

It actually took me a while to decide which book to go with:

The Castle
1. is written by a more iconic writer
2. is in German 
3. is a novel (I've written about loads of them)
4. was actually inspired by the sight of a specific Czech castle.

1. is written by a less iconic, but still famous writer
2. is in Czech
3. is a play
4. takes place on an unnamed island, accessible by steamer... perhaps not even in Europe...

In the end, my friends instructed me to go with the book that I actually enjoyed. Still feeling guilty, though.

But really, R.U.R. is fascinating. It takes place in the future - the physiologist Rossum (meaning "reason") is said to have retreated to said island in 1920 (the year the play was written), and invented the synthetic protoplasm for robots in 1932. He's interested in using the protoplasm to play God, more or less, creating grotesque semblances of dogs and humans. It's his son who comes up with the idea of turning these homunculi into efficient substitutes for labour. The entire cast of the play are the inheritors of said project, coming a generation later: the scientists and engineers on the island who're trying to perfect the design and marketing of the robots in the global market.

Plays set in the future are often a little dodgy - even George Bernard Shaw wasn't too successful with it - but this works. Perhaps because the device of the robots is so striking (of course it was novel then, but even now, when robot uprisings are a dime a dozen in print and on screen, the idea of seeing one on stage is still uncanny). 

Yet it's also because the tale is so deeply human - even to the point of farce. Its soul is a woman named Helena Glory, the daughter of President Glory (president of what, we're never told). She comes to the island as a fresh young twentysomething, eager to liberate the robots, whom she feels are being exploited. But she finds them too soulless to understand their condition, and is instead wooed by the very persistent CEO Harry Domin... as well as all the other engineers, who are for some reason all male (hey, it was 1920) and are all passionately, immediately, in love with her.

Ten years pass and surprise surprise, Glory's married to Domin. But now there's something off about the robots: we discover from whispers among the engineers that they've led a bloody revolt to exterminate humans - they had the capability after the nations of the world started using them as soldiers. And though they try to shield Glory from the news - they tell her that their getaway boat is actually a pleasure craft, presented to her on the anniversary of her arrival - they're actually shit-scared.

And it turns out that everything is (or may be) her fault. She's the one who demanded that the engineers improve the robots' intelligence, so she would stop feeling so scared and alienated by them. And she's the one who decides to burn Rossum's original manuscripts, which contain the formula for creating the robots - and is the engineers' only bargaining chip, their one chance of survival.

So Helena is Helen of Troy, Pandora, Eve - the woman to be blamed for everything. The introduction to this volume notes that there's actually notes there's a similar figure in the earlier Czech legend of the Golem: the foolish rabbi's wife who insists on using the Golem to help her with everyday chores, only to discover that she cannot control its power.

And yet Helena doesn't come off as an awful person - she might be dumb, but she's the stand-in for the audience in the show; the only main character who actually has normal human emotions beyond a thirst for progress and wealth and control. And (as with Eve) it turns out to be something of a happy fall in the end, as her improvements to the robots perhaps provide new hope for the renewal of the planet in the post-apocalyptic age...

Ah, I know I'm talking more about the human element of the play than the sci-fi stuff or the way the whole thing's a metaphor for the oppression of workers under capitalism (which really is a big thing, and fascinating in its own right). But mostly I'm intrigued by how the piece actually works as a genuinely entertaining play. 

Lots of humour, by the way - as I might have been able to guess from reading Čapek's other famous work, War With the Newts. Also highly recommended. Also check out Vítězslav Nezval's Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and of course Kafka's Metamorphosis and The Great Wall of China...

Ahhh, the Czechs have loads to offer. Good for them!

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:

HELENA: But that's appalling, Busman!

BUSMAN: How right you are, Mrs Domin. I too used to have a dream. A Busmanesque dream about a new world economic order; an all-too glorious ideal, I'm ashamed to admit. But while I was working here on the balance sheet, it dawned to me that history is made not by great dreams, but by the petty needs of all respectable, mildly crooked and selfish people, that is, everyone. the only thng that idas, lovs, plans, heroisms, all those airy-fairy things are fit for is to be turned into the stuffing of a figure to be displayed at some Museum of the Universe and labelled; Ecce homo. Full stop.

Next book: Zbigniew Herbert's The Collected Poems, from Poland

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