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Rossum's Universal Robot - Tips For Studying A Science Fiction Classic

Updated on January 22, 2015

The Philosophy of Robots

What motive would make the Conditioners to sacrifice and labor so that we, and posterity, may have what we like? Their duty...However far they go back, or down, they can find no ground to stand on. Every motive that they try to act on begs the question. It is not that they are bad men…Nor are their subjects unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artifacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of man.

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

Karel Capek’s R.U.R. marks a turning point in science-fiction fantasy. It originated the term “robot” (derived from the Czech “robota” which means drudgery or forced labor) and has influenced countless depictions of automata in books, film and other media. The ubiquity of androids, droids and other human-like machines may be traced to the success of Capek’s work. It inspired films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Isaac Asimov’s book, I. Robot. In short, the play you are about to see has left an indelible trace upon our popular culture.

What has been conspicuously overlooked by the science-fiction community is Capek’s legacy as a Christian intellectual. R.U.R. depicts a factory that produces artificial people with genuine emotions who revolt against their makers or “Conditioners.” The play continuously cautions that an increasingly mechanized society risks discarding its more refined qualities. As Lewis divulges in the above quote, the cost of human achievement sometimes suffers a loss of humanity itself. These are the questions Capek poses in his work: when does charity become inefficient, a residual malfunction of the “human machine”? If humans relinquish their signature experiences—toil, love, empathy—are these experiences altogether lost? Even though written about a future long past, R.U.R. persistently confronts us with foundational problems of our biological and (thankfully) intellectual survival.

R.U.R. Audiobook - Karel Capek

Factoids on Androids

You may be aware that R.U.R. introduced the word “robot,” but Capek’s play is well-known for other reasons. Below are just a few explanations why Newsweek’s obituary of Capek read, “Although he believed [R.U.R.] the least interesting of all is works, it brought him greatest fame.”

  • The name “Rossum” resembles the Czech word “rozum” and means “reason” or “wisdom.”
  • Karel Capek abhorred two things, war and extreme poverty. Many of his memorable literary contributions feature attempts to eradicate both phenomena from human experience. In fact, Capek eschewed membership in the Communist Party due to his distaste for revolutionary violence and personal experiences with poverty-stricken Eastern Europe.
  • Capek’s play features the first biologically designed “faux” humans, an idea that has since been repeated in works like Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
  • Capek was an avid gardener; his writing on the subject, A Gardener’s Year, remains a popular non-fiction work in his country of origin. Many of Capek’s stories, plays and essays use gardening as metaphors for domestic contentment.
  • FANUC Robotics Inc., the United States’ leading distributor of industrial automata, programs their machines with the “KAREL” language.
  • Capek incorporated his faith into several of his major works, including R.U.R. Within the play are direct references to Scriptures and other theological concepts.
  • Karel Capek was the third individual placed upon the Gestapo’s arrest list after the annexation of Czechoslovakia. Although Capek died prior to being apprehended, his criticisms of fascism marked him as a danger to the Third Reich.
  • One of the most important figures in Capek’s life was his older sister, Helena. Several of Capek’s more sympathetic heroines, in novels, plays and short stories, bear the name “Helena.”
  • The initial London staging of Capek’s work prompted considerable controversy. Among the attendants at a public discussion of the play were George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton. The greatest object of controversy was the symbolic significance of the “robot.” To this, Capek later replied, “For myself, I confess that as the author I was much more interested in [humans] than in robots.”

Karel Capek - Famous Quotes

Manufacture Forecast: History and Legacy of R.U.R.

R.U.R. remains an untried but esteemed touchstone of fantastic realism and science fiction fantasy. It’s innate polarity—humorous yet melodramatic, light motif yet sober—highlights its equally wide array of dramatic themes—existential, social, and spiritual. Its unity derives from the playwright’s own passion for humanity. Capek and his writings ache for prosperity and peace in the face of bald violence and poverty. One of the core threats to humanity Capek confronts in the work are the consequences of an increasingly mechanized society; one where individuals are amalgamated into a set of discrete, “efficient” functions; one where mere survival supersedes all other endeavors.

One may appreciate the gravity of these issues in light of historical circumstance. Written in 1919, R.U.R. emerges in the wake of World War I, the Soviet Revolution and the zenith of early “Fordism” in the United States. These factors contribute to the play’s dramatic conditions. The characters’ sundry concerns over armed conflict relates to the some forty million casualties accrued in the “Great War.” The revolt of the robots (a word that connotes forced labor) speaks to the unprecedented civil war in Russia from 1918-1921. More than a few scholars have noted the overtones of Marxist revolt in respect to Capek’s creation. This era also exhibited the rise of assembly lines, especially those guided by Henry Ford. The capacity to reduce costs of goods and services by reducing the cost of labor features prominently in the ideals of Capek’s human characters.

Though helpful, such readings might reduce the play to historical anecdote. This would unnecessarily dismiss Capek’s fervent spiritual legacy. This legacy may be continuously extracted from the play despite the passage of time. In regards to the consequences of human achievement, R.U.R. warns that those institutions that bring prosperity can also impose misery; that mass appeal often corrodes each individual’s well-being. In short, Capek cautions that with social acquisition often comes an irreplaceable, personal cost.

Hence, the play’s characters find satisfaction by eschewing “utopia” for spiritual understanding. True, this acquisition sometimes raises its own existential questions: what is the value of the soul if it cannot assist in survival? Can humans better recognize the soul through love or suffering? The fundamental teaching we derive from these questions is the importance of trust, in humans as individuals, in humans as something more than a “species.”

C.S. Lewis echoes these ideas in Mere Christianity: “…we shall never save civilization so long as civilization is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more.” Certainly, R.U.R. argues that society’s ills cannot be wholly cured through The Treaty of Versailles, dissolving class structures or welfare capitalism; that humankind’s evolutionary progress must, at some point, reach beyond biology itself. With Capek, we find the sublimity of sacrificial charity in human survival.

The Origin of Robots

Break a leg with your next performance. I sincerely hope these provoke a thoughtful conversation between yourself and like minded performers. In the meantime, I look forward to your kind feedback and hope you'll check out my other Hub Pages related to the performing arts and drama.


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