April 27th, 2012

Books!

We all need control.

Another Dover Thrift Edition, another “hole” in my education plugged. Here's something you may not know … the term “robot” is derived from a word in a Czech dialect meaning “forced labor” or “drudgery”, and was coined by a Czech writer. Now, I had some idea about the broad strokes of this, but hadn't encountered the writer, nor the book in which the term had been introduced previously, so I was thrilled to pick up Karel Čapek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots).

As widespread and persistent as the idea of robots have been in popular culture (let alone their less-glamorous, but more productive, non-anthropomorphic cousins on factory production lines), it is fascinating to take a look at where the word originated. The idea of the automaton or other artificial being had, of course (be it Dr. Frankenstein's re-animated corpse, or the Golem of Jewish folklore, etc.) preceded this depiction, but I believe that Čapek introduced the idea of industrially manufactured beings. Interestingly, Prague was the scene for the most famous Golem narrative, and it was in Prague that Čapek published, in 1920, R.U.R. . I should say published and staged, as this is a play (something that had not filtered into my mental file on the work, and something that I certainly did not expect).

The play features the daughter of some government head, who is on a trip visiting the Rossum factory, where she meets with the factory director, and eventually with various of the department heads there. What is quite interesting is that the process for making the robots is organic and that they are artificial biological creatures, rather than mechanical devices. This has a key element to play in the course of the plot (and, by the way, if you're “allergic to spoilers”, you may want to quit reading as I'm going to discussing all the major points here).

Anyway, this young woman arrives and meets with the factory's director, who gives her the background on the development of the robots … a scientist named Rossum (derived from "reason") had come up with “artificial living matter” that he could coax to differentiate into various tissues and forms … but it wasn't until his son, an engineer, got involved that they were able to make artificial humans. Once developed, factories could be set up to make the new workers in whatever quantities were necessary.

As one would expect, this quickly turns into a dystopian vision, with the robots causing unemployment, and then being armed and turned into fighting forces that eventually turn of their creators and seek to destroy the humans. This happens between acts one and two in the play. In the latter part of the book (ten years after the first act) the remaining humans are trying to figure a way to survive. At one point the main character, Helena, burns the files that end up containing the only formulas for making the materials from which the robots are made.

This, of course, becomes inconvenient as nobody else has been able to independently figure out what was involved in producing this, and without it there will be no new robots, and the robots have been doing a fairly efficient job of eliminating the humans. The robots are shocked to find that the few remaining humans in the factory can't discover how to recreate the formula, and are facing their own extinction (they, like the Replicants in Blade Runner only last a certain amount of time, about 20 years). However, the stress of this situation appears to be enough to evolve the robots, and two of them start exhibiting emotional behavior (in trying to protect each other), and eventually become a new “Adam and Eve” at the very end of the play.

This is a very short work, under 60 pages, so there's not a lot of room for “fleshing out” a lot of the finer details or filling in too much of the wider “historical” story arc. Most of the action (in terms of wars and massacres, etc.) happens off stage and in vague reports. The actual dialog is presented within a few rooms in the factory complex with a 10 year span happening between. Because it is a play, most of the story line is carried forward by discussions and interactions between the main characters, so there isn't much opportunity to detail the happenings beyond those walls.

Needless to say, R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) is a fairly quick read, but an entertaining one that does closely hold one's interest. There were certainly parts of this where I would have liked to have had more information on what was happening in the wider world, but, within the context of the play, one is limited to the sources the characters have available to them, so there's not much temptation to get cranky about not having long descriptive passages inserted into the dialog.

As you would expect for a book from the 1920's, it can be found free on the web, however, the Dover Thrift Edition of R.U.R. has a mere $2.50 cover price, so is one of those things you should keep in mind when ordering from the on-line big boys where free shipping kicks in at twenty-five bucks, and one often finds your order is just a buck or two shy of that. I enjoyed reading this, and feel like I've added a “key piece” to some part of the puzzle of recent culture in having read it!


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