Book Talk: 'Rossum's Universal Robots' by Karel Čapek - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Rossum's Universal Robots' by Karel Čapek

Alexander Wallace explores a groundbreaking science fiction play. In print form. Naturally.
This far into the twenty-first century, we take robots for granted. We assume that the likes of Elon Musk or Bill Gates are working on some sort of automata as we speak, and that America’s armed forces use them regularly. We accept that they make so many of the goods that we buy, and fear that they will take our jobs away. What we often don’t bother to acknowledge is that the word ‘robot’ has a very particular, defined origin: the 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots, by Czech writer Karel.

Rossum’s Universal Robots is absolutely terrifying a century after its inception because it is so prescient; the issues it raises regarding the automation of labor could come right out of a heated discussion today. As post-industrial society makes more and more work done by machines, human beings end up obsolete. Čapek was smart enough to see this coming long before they actually came about.

Regular readers of science fiction may find the experience of reading a play just a tad odd; we are used to imagery conveyed by narration and not by stage directions. In any case, this makes the play a brisk, efficient read, so it can fit into a busy day without too much difficulty.

The plot begins with a young woman, Helena Glory, who cajoles her way into an audience with Harry Domin, the head of the titular enterprise (the Rossums of the title are the founders, deceased by the time the play begins). Harry Domin is perhaps the most prescient character in a play full of them, with a cocksure swagger and unbounded faith in human reason and technological progress that calls to mind the likes of Elon Musk or other ‘techbros’ that we either admire or mock.

Čapek’s robots are not quite robots as we understand them; they are made of synthetic versions of organic material rather than inorganic material (Wikipedia says they’d be androids in modern parlance). Beyond this, Rossum’s Universal Robots becomes a parable of business’s exploitation of the worker, and the arrogance of the creator towards his creation. It assumes dimensions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for both are works that ask potent questions about what a metaphorical ‘parent’ owes to their metaphorical ‘child.’

I will not spoil what comes next, for that is a pleasure (if you could call it that) that is best left for the reader to discover. What I will say is that the last act of the play, once again, reflects the current discourse (and science fiction’s long-held fears) about robots and their place in society.

The great writer of short science fiction stories Ted Chiang once argued that science fiction as a genre is a product of the industrial revolution. As we have seen that massive social processes transform more and more areas of our life, we are left more and more at the mercy of machines. Čapek was intelligent enough to see this a century ago, and he gives us much today to ponder.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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