Tuesday, November 13, 2007

War With the Newts (book)

By Karel Capek

War with the Newts

Karel Capek's career boils down to one word:  Robot.  He popularized the term (evidently, he credited his brother for actually coining it) in his play R.U.R. in 1920.  It caught on.  (Oddly, the robots in R.U.R. were not mechanical; they were organic, more like the traditional science fiction android than robot.)

I read R.U.R. back in college in a science fiction course, so you don't have to. It has dated extremely badly and boils down to exploited workers revolting -- with an ending that is now one of SF's greatest clichés (and was probably a bit clichéd back in 1920).  So when, later on in the course, we were required to read Capek's War with the Newts, I was less than enthusiastic.

Then I read it.

War with the Newts is the work for which Capek should be remembered.  It's a deft satire, leaving the preachiness of R.U.R. behind but still making some fascinating points.

The book tells about the discovery of an intelligent type of salamander in the South Seas. At first, the salamanders are trained for menial labor, but as time goes by, they prove to be too intelligent for that. 

The story is divided into three sections. The first describes how the salamanders are discovered, and how they are soon put to use on underwater projects.

It's the second section that really stands out.  Entitled "On the Road to Civilization" it is a total parody of all human history, filled with strange footnotes and digressions.  I read it with a sense of incredible wonder at Capek's ingenuity.

In the final section, the Newts -- whose reproductive capacity far outstrips humans -- start modifying the world to meet their needs.  Capek is drawing a parallel between the Newts and the Nazis (who were rising to power in Europe at the time), but also makes some points about all dictators in general.

It's a book that's fun, but with an important point (still valid today). It's still in print, so go out an get a copy.  You'll be glad you did.

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