“Our houses and machines will be in ruins, our systems will collapse, and the names of our great will fall away like dry leaves. Only you, love, will blossom on this rubbish heap and commit the seed of life to the winds.” – Karel Capek
The Czech writer Karel Capek, in terms of being a writer of slender acquaintance, falls somewhere between Rudyard Kipling, a Nobelist remembered now only for children’s stories and Rhian Roberts, a Welsh writer of great promise who published a few short stories and then disappeared. While he is often (erroneously) credited with having coined the word for a creation that may haunt the 21st century, was nominated for the Nobel Prize numerous times, and even has literary awards named for him, Capek is not widely read now.
He should be. His central themes – the ability of technology to overwhelm and destroy humanity, the dangers of rampant consumerism, corporatism run amok, the evils of authoritarianism of both left and right political persuasions – will resonate powerfully with contemporary readers. Given that Capek died in 1938, his prescience about the power of these forces in our lives makes him a writer who should be widely read and discussed.
The work for which Capek is best known, if known at all, is the play R.U.R. A dystopian tale of capitalism driven technological disaster, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) tells the story of an unscrupulous, amoral (indeed, immoral) inventor and hisequally despicable manufacturer son, creators and makers of robots who eventually achieve sentience and rebel, first subduing, then extinguishing the human race:
Robots of the world, you are ordered to exterminate the human race. Do not spare the men. Do not spare the women. Preserve only the factories, railroads, machines, mines, and raw materials. Destroy everything else. Then return to work. Work must not cease.
At the end of the play, faced with their own imminent deaths, Alquist, the Rossum company’s chief clerk, sums up why the Rossums and their market – humanity – have reached the crisis:
Old Rossum thought only of his godless hocus-pocus and young Rossum of his billions. And that wasn’t the dream of your R. U. R. shareholders either. They dreamed of the dividends. And on those dividends humanity will perish.
In a novel called The Absolute at Large Capek associates the issue of energy consumption (attained via a “reactor” that turns any matter into energy) with morality. A by product of the energy reactor is something dubbed “the absolute,” best described as the spirit of whatever fuel is fed into the reactor. As the absolute increases, it causes bizarre changes in human behavior leading to major wars and disasters both economic and social:
There came into the world an unlimited abundance of everything people need. But people need everything except unlimited abundance.
Capek, never really a healthy man, died on Christmas Day 1938. So feared were the ideas in his works that the Nazis came looking for him right after their invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, unaware that he had died. Instead they took his brother Josef, a poet and painter who had collaborated with Karel Capek on some works. Josef died in Bergen-Belsen in 1945.
Capek deserves a wider audience for multiple reasons. His work is science fiction, and his influence on the genre places him among its most important figures. His political satire and skewering of the evils of both fascism and communism makes his work deeply relevant in our current political climate. His indictments of the evils of capitalism and consumerism run wild speak to issues we are trying desperately to address. His explorations of what these forces do to the individual are chilling and have the ring of undeniable truth.
So find some Karel Capek and read. Here’s his story “The Last Judgment” – an excellent place to start.