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Prof. Elana Gomel

Provocation | On Robots and Newts

Čapek’s Scifi vision reflects the politics of his turbulent time and we're experiencing the fallout of those violent upheavals to this day.

On December 25 1938 Karel Čapek died of pneumonia. It was a fortunate escape because a couple of months later, when his country of Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Nazis, the Gestapo showed up to arrest him. Unable to arrest a dead man, they detained his wife Olga and his brother, Josef. The latter died in 1945 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Karel Čapek, Image from Wikipedia

What does this sad wartime story, one of hundreds of thousands of such stories of that time, have to do with robots? Well, Čapek, of course, was the author of R.U.R. (1921), (Rossum’s Universal Robots) a science-fiction play that coined the word “robot”. Derived from the Slavic word for “work” (robota), the term has entered the mainstream of Anglo-American culture in a way that few other Slavic imports have. But at the same time, it underwent a cultural metamorphosis that severed it from its roots in the turbulent cauldron of Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. Our idea of robots is shaped by Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” and by Star Wars clunking droids. We forget that the initial robots were nothing like Robbie or C-3PO & R2-D2.

To begin with, the robots of R.U.R. are not machines. They are organic beings: artificial humans bred to serve. Today we would probably call them “androids”, even though this is not precise either; they are more like Philip K. Dick’s replicants or possibly, genetic clones. And the second important distinction is that Čapek’s robots, far from obeying the Three Laws, rebel and kill their creators, ruthlessly exterminating all humans. Since the formula for creating new robots is destroyed during the revolt, robots cannot procreate until two of them fall in love and are prophesized by the single remaining human to be the Adam and Eve of the new race.

צמד הרובוטים ("דרואידים") R2-D2 ו-C-3PO מ"מלחמת הכוכבים". מהווים דימויים תרבותיים מרכזיים עבור "רובוטים"

Robots R2-D2 and C-3PO (“Droids”) of Star Wars fame. Central to the public and cultural perception of robots.

תפאורת ההצגה "הרובוטים האוניברסאליים של רוסום"

Set design for Rossum’s Universal Robots.

R.U.R. is not about technology. It is about revolution. When Čapek is writing, a wave of violent social uprisings is sweeping Europe. 1917 is the October Revolution in Russia. Between 1918 and 1924, several socialist republics rise and fall in Germany, Hungary. Lithuania and other countries. In Italy, fascists and communists battle each other until Benito Mussolini seizes power in 1924. And in 1920, a street demagogue named Adolf Hitler is beginning to preach his own brand of revolutionary violence in Bavaria.

All these revolutions, and many others that convulse the world at the time, have one thing in common: the no-holds-barred struggle between the powerful and the powerless; between Masters and Slaves. Even Mussolini and Hitler present themselves as champions of the underdog, defenders of the working people against the bloodsucking international elites, whether capitalists or Jews (aren’t they one and the same? – U.A.). Čapek’s robots are indeed “robots” in the original sense of the word: they are workers, faceless exploited drones who lash out at their masters with the same resentful fury that their creator saw in daily news.

לנין במוסקבה (לימין הבמה, טרוצקי), נואם בפני חיילי הצבא האדום לקראת יציאתם אל החזית הפולנית. תמונה: גריגורי פטרוביץ' גולדשטיין, אתר הניו-יורק טיימז

Lenin addressing Red Army troops heading for the Polish front in Moscow, 1920. To the right of Lenin, facing the camera, is Leon Trotsky. Photo credit…Grigory Petrovich Goldstein, The New-York Times

When we think about the AI apocalypse, we imagine technology run amok. Skynet and its skull-faced machines marching on of the Terminator franchise (parts 1&2 directed by James Cameron, 1984&1991), the conniving mechanical seductress of Ex Machina… (2014, Alex Garland). But technology is not an issue in R.U.R. except for the fact that humans use it to control the robots they created. Our robot-uprising nightmares reflect our fears of technological and scientific change that may, supposedly, undermine our humanity. R.U.R. belongs to a much more ruthless and clear-sighted age. It depicts a world in which humanity has already been lost. The powerful and the powerless have nothing in common. Masters and slaves are at each other’s throats. In this struggle, only one class can emerge triumphant. Even the sentimental, if somewhat confused ending (how does falling in love make up for the lost formula?), is a hopeful cop-out rather than an actual resolution. Humans are dead because their workers have killed them. And a new society created by these workers may be better, or worse, or just as bad as the original one. We do not know.

Actually, we do know, sort of. Čapek’s other great science fiction work – The War with the Newts (1936) – takes up where R.U.R has left off. The newts are a semi-intelligent amphibian species used pretty much like the robots – as cheap labor. Like the robots, the newts rebel and proceed to blow up the human-populated landmasses. However, instead of a love story, the novel ends with a cynical discussion of the future newt world conducted between the author and his alter ego. The newts, it turns out, are just mediocre imitations of humans, without creativity, curiosity, or artistic genius. Their “liberation” is nothing but a genocide; and the newt society is just a regimented industrial machine. No spark of love or poetry can ignite in the newts’ slimy breasts. And the final insult – the leader of the newt uprising, the Chief Salamander, is a man – a former NCO named Andreas Schultze. No great perspicacity is required to recognize the initials of another NCO, Adolf Schicklgruber, as Hitler was often mockingly called at the time because of the illegitimacy of his father’s birth.

The War with the Newts, Karl Čapek, 1936

The War with the Newts, Karl Čapek, 1936

Newts or robots, Čapek’s SF reflects the politics of his turbulent time. But it’s worth revisiting these politics because we still live in the fallout of its violence. Neither Nazism nor Communism are around but class conflict most certainly has not gone anywhere. Disguised by inchoate fears of climate change or pandemic; dressed up as a rejection of technology; entangled in the woozy debates about “humanity”, the story of a robot uprising still boils down to the naked calculus of power. Masters or slaves; top or bottom; elites or masses – the struggle continues.

The closest approximation to the robots of R.U.R. in contemporary SF are probably the replicants of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream or Electric Sheep (1968). And even in this novel, written 50 years after R.U.R., class struggle is very much in the open. Just like the robots or newts, Dick’s replicants are not particularly sympathetic. Having watched the fallout of the 20th-century revolutions, Dick is not inclined to romanticize social violence. But like Čapek, he realizes that where you have imbalance of power, violence is inevitable. Compared to the soppy sentimentality of the Blade Runner movies (especially Blade Runner 2049, 2019, Denis Villeneuve) which disguise the political struggle under the veneer of metaphysics and ethics, Dick’s novel presents the replicants as an underclass clawing its way out of the gutter where the corporations placed them to work themselves literally to death. And there is no Utopia promised at the end; no brave new world of justice and equality. There’sonly struggle. Robots rebel because of the robota (work) that they do – nothing more complicated than just that.

Android Roy Batty playing Chess with his maker, 1982 Blade Runner, director: Ridley Scott

When the Gestapo came for the dead writer, they did not care about his metaphysics, only his politics. Today robots in SF are often seen as images of the dehumanizing impact of technology. But it may be good to remember that robots were born in the bloody cauldron of the last century’s revolutionary politics; and that the issue at the root of this politics was the same as it has always been, economic power.

While we anxiously check our smartphones for fear of an emerging Skynet, it is worth remembering this sentence from War with the Newts:

“If it was just newts against people, it might be possible to do something; but when it’s people against people then there is no way of stopping it, is there”.

Robots R Us.

ארה"ב, 25 באוקטובר 2021. הפגנה של עובדי אמזון בניו-יורק בעוד הם מגישים עצומה להקמת איגוד.

Brooklyn, NYC, USA. October 2021: Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse workers protest as they file petition for union election.