Karel Capek

Capek's greatness as a writer often depends not on the success of his conscious intention, but on what has slipped in, almost in spite of the author. In spite of his experimentalism, his use of scientific or philosophic themes, traditional literary values abound in his works. In spite of his determined effort to come to grips with life, and unconscious terror of life returns returns again and again in his work. Though he tried not to admit it, Capek kept stumbling over the tragedy of life. All his work after Wayside Crosses is in a sense a defense against the metaphysical horror which he perceived in that book. -- William E Harkins, Karel Capek, 1962

Much melancholy has devolved upon mankind, and it is detestable to me that might will triumph in the end ... Art must not serve might. -- Karel Capek

I think I am slowly becoming an anarchist, that this is only another label for my privateness, and I think that you will understand this in the sense of being against collectivity. -- Karel Capek

RUR Born in Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic, Czech playwright and novelist Karel Capek (1890-1938) introduced the concept of a robot in his play RUR, Rossum's Universal Robots.

The works of Karel Capek has similarities with Aldous Huxley Brave New World, George Orwell Ninteen Eighty-Four and the works of H G Wells. He looks to the future as to how society may be.

Karel Capek warns against man's misuse of science and his desire to master life. His writings was much admired by George Bernard Shaw and G K Chesterton, the novel War With the Newts was praised by Thomas Mann.

The works of Karel Capek include the plays RUR, Rossum's Universal Robots (1921), from which the word 'robot' is derived and which describes the elimination of humanity by robots, and The Macropoulos Secret (1922), on the discovery of a drug capable of prolonging life (turned into an opera by Janacek), as well as the novels Krakatit (1924) about the invention of an all-powerful explosive, and War with the Newts (1936), about giant newts at first exploited by men but finally taking over the world. The Insect Play (1922), written in collaboration with his brother Josef, is an allegory satirizing human pretentiousness, greed, and militarism. The trilogy Hordubal (1933), The Meteor (1934), and An Ordinary Life (1934) explores problems of truth and human personality.

Along with Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hasek (author of The Good Soldier Svejk), Karel Capek is ranked among the great figures of modern Czech literature.

Although not a science fiction writer, more a mainstream writer like Huxley or Orwell, Karel Capek is seen as the founding father of Czech science-fiction, and an annual science-fiction award is made in his name in Prague.

The works of Karel Capek were banned during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Neither did he find favour under the communist regime.

From RUR, 1920, (trans by Paul Selver):

Young Rossum invented a worker with the minimum amount of requirements. He had to simplify him. He rejected everything that did not contribute directly to the progress of work. He rejected everything that makes man more expensive. In fact, he rejected man and made the Robot. My dear Miss Glory, the Robots are not people. Mechanically they are more perfect than we are, they have an enormously developed intelligence, but they have no soul. Have you ever seen what a Robot looks like inside?

RUR, Rossum's Universal Robots premiered in Prague in 1921. It was translated from the Czech into English by Paul Selver, and adapted for the English stage by Nigel Playfair in 1923. Basil Dean produced it in April 1923 for the Reandean Company at St. Martin's Theatre, London.

Nabil Shaban appeared in Dr Who February 1938, a thirty-five minute adaptation of a section of RUR was broadcast on BBC Television, believed to be the first piece of television science-fiction ever to be produced. In 1948, another adaptation, this time of the entire play and running to ninety minutes, was screened by the BBC, and in between in 1941 BBC radio had also produced a version. None of these three productions survive in the BBC's archives.

In an episode of the BBC TV programme Doctor Who entitled "The Robots Of Death" (1977), the crazed leader of a group of murderous robots is named "Taran Capel", which is deliberately similar to Capek's own name.

Although Karel Capek introduced us to the word robot (from the Czech robota, 'compulsory service' or 'forced labour') it was actually his bother Josef Capek who coined the word robot.

The concept of a robot had existed before, as an automata, but it was Karel Capek who gave a name to the concept.

His robot was what we would now call an android, an automata of humanoid appearance.

OED: robot | rbt | n. E20. [Czech (in K. Capek's play R.U.R. ('Rossum's Universal Robots'), 1920), f. robota forced labour = Pol., Ukrainian robota (whence G Robot forced labour), Russ. rabota work.] 1 A machine (sometimes resembling a human being in appearance) designed to function in place of a living agent; a machine which carries out a variety of tasks automatically or with a minimum of external impulse, esp. one that is programmable. E20. b = AUTOMATON 3. E20. 2 An automatic traffic light. Chiefly S. Afr. M20.

If Karel Capek introduced us to the idea of robots, it was the science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) with his robot series of novels and short stories who introduced robots into popular culture.

Asimov, together with Arthur C Clarke, Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein, wrote in what is now seen as the golden age of science fiction.

Asimov contributed two classic series, the Robot series, and the Foundation series. In his later writings, these two series were to merge in Robots and Empire.

Asimov explored a similar theme to Karel Capek, the conflict between men and robots. The greatest contribution by Asimov was the Three Laws of Robotics.

Handbook of Robotics, 56th edition, 2058 AD:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or the Second Law.

I, Robot, has been turned into a film, but apart from a reference to the Three Laws of Robotics and featuring three of the main characters, it bears no resemblance to the book of the same title by Asimov, a collection of short stories.

Josef Capek, brother of Karel Capek, was a Czech writer, painter and poet. As a painter he belonged to the Cubist school, though later developed his own playful primitive style. He collaborated with his brother Karel on a number of plays and short stories, on his own he wrote the Utopian play Land of Many Names and several novels, as well as critical essays in which he argued for the art of the unconscious, of children and of 'savages'. He was named by his brother Karel as the person who coined the term robot. As a cartoonist, he worked for Lidové Noviny, a newspaper based in Prague. His critical attitude towards Nazism and Adolf Hitler, led to his arrest following the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939. He died at the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in 1945, from where he wrote Poems from a Concentration Camp.

Isaac Asimov was born near Smolensk in Russia in 1920, He moved with his parents to the United States three years later where he grew up in Brooklyn. Asimov was a prolific writer. He died in 1992 aged 72.

Jordanian born, writer, poet, artist, producer and playwright Nabil Shaban appeared in Dr Who. His latest work is Poems My Father Sold Me, a collection of poetry and graphic art.

For my lovely friend Iva from Prague.
Literature ~ Isaac Asimov
(c) Keith Parkins 2006 -- July 2006 rev 0