I first read Karel Capek’s R.U.R., a play about a group of scientists who create artificial life-forms as servants, back in 1989 or ’90, somewhere around the time I graduated from high school. I’ve been a fan of science fiction since I was a little kid, (probably since around 1977 when my parents took me to the drive-in to see this one great show, with laser swords and space wizards and tons of robots in it…), so I thought a DRAMA about robots sounded like something I HAD to read! According to the Wiki page, the play was written in 1920, first performed (in Czech) in 1921, and by 1923 had already been translated into 30 languages, AND it was apparently the introduction of the word “ROBOT” into literature and onto the world stage. According to the notes from the edition of the book I read for this review, the word “robot” is Czech for “drudgery.” If you’ve seen the 2013 sci-fi / horror / comedy, The World’s End, with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, you were told a dozen times that the word means “slave,” and either definition works for the purposes of this review. The point is…being a robot ain’t a great life…
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual digital book that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Karel Capek – R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1923/2001) [Translated by Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair]
So… How much fun is a hundred-year-old Czech play about drudgery? Short answer: It’s pretty damn fun---although DARK. This is a surprisingly modern tale, meaning it feels like it fits with today’s world, and the play bounces between compressed, almost cartoonish, melodrama and outright horror. It’s also a very SHORT play, which I think most folks could probably read cover to cover in a single sitting of an hour or two. (I read slowly, and it didn’t take ME very long to read it through twice!)
Let’s talk about the plot. The PREMISE of the play is that a handful of brilliant scientists, beginning with “Old” Rossum, have discovered a means of creating artificial humans, and “Young” Rossum---who was less artist/philosopher, like his father, and more engineer/businessman, streamlined the process so that it became ridiculously inexpensive to produce these artificial beings, called “ROBOTS,” and sell them to various industries, like farming and manufacturing, as laborers. The product becomes an instant success, and the number of robots doing menial tasks quickly soars until robots outnumber humans by hundreds to one.
Enter Helena Glory, the daughter of the current President of Rossum’s Universal Robots, who visits the island factory where the robots are manufactured. Though she arrives supposedly just to see how robots are made, in secret, she represents a league of robots’ rights activists and has arrived at the factory to try to convince the robots to stand up for themselves and demand fair pay for their labors and other rights enjoyed by humans. In a cartoonish twist, Harry Domin, the general manager of the factory, and all five of the scientists and technical managers (basically all the human males on the island) fall instantly in love with Helena and prepare to propose, but Domin beats everyone to the punch, and after a bit of man-handling, the lady agrees to marry the manager of the factory that she’s come to disrupt…for some reason…
The second act of the play, which takes place ten years later, is where things start to fall apart. The robots, many of which have been “breaking down” and refusing to work---even smashing up their places of employ---have begun to organize… Can humanity survive when they are outnumbered hundreds to one against tireless, super-intelligent, super-strong enemies??? (I’ll let you read the story yourself to find out…) It’s a ripping yarn, though, full of tension and humor and weird melodrama. Definitely fun---though also rather dark and thought provoking, as well.
The play, despite the ridiculous humans, does deal with some extremely serious themes: privilege, class warfare, the ethics of consumerism, what is means to be “human,” and the “Frankenstein” question, raised in a million sci-fi / horror stories…Just because we CAN do something, does it mean that we SHOULD do it? One of the more horrifying elements of this tale is the mindset at play in the second act, in which the scientists who create the robots decide that they are going to change how the robots are created. Instead of UNIVERSAL robots, which are all alike, they decide that they’re going to start manufacturing REGIONAL robots, with different skin tones and facial features, and then PROGRAM the robots to HATE robots that don’t look like themselves. The scientists argue that this will help stop the robots from organizing and coming together to overthrow their human creators. If they can convince them to hate each other, the argument goes, they’ll always be isolated and subservient… (It’s shocking, a hundred years later, how this “divide and conquer” strategy still seems to be working…)
Whether read as just cartoony melodrama or analyzed for it’s not-so-hidden political satire and philosophical conundrums, R.U.R. is still a great tale. It’s short, odd, funny at times, tense, and meaningful, AND it’s an important part of science-fiction history. This play still has as much to say today as it did just before World War II. The digital copy that I bought was less than a dollar, (SUPER CHEAP!) and it came with some interesting notes on Capek and the context in which the play was written. (It also has a couple of typos---although what do you expect for a book that costs less than a buck???) I’m going to give this one a big thumbs up! I was just as entertained by the play at 47 years old as I was when I read it at 17 or 18, and that hasn’t held true for everything I’ve re-read! So, if you’re a fan of theater, especially Absurdist or Surrealist drama, or if you’re a fan of science fiction and have an interest in the historical roots of the genre, OR if you’re socially engaged and interested in a serious contemplation of class stratification, slavery, and the tools of propaganda, I can recommend this play as applicable to all of those interests! Plus, like I said, it’s just GOOD, remarkably entertaining,…falling somewhere between Westworld, The World’s End, and a Monty Python skit! (Chew on THAT recommendation for a bit!)
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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