On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre
Edited by Gerry Canavan
12. Karel Čapek, or the Aliens Amongst Us
1. There is both irony and poetic justice in the fact that Karel Čapek is today, at least outside the Slavic countries, remembered mainly as the creator of the word robot. A first irony is that this neologism – from the archaic Czech robota, meaning “drudgery” with strong feudal connotations of the serf’s compulsory work on the master’s property – was coined by Karel’s brother Josef, a prominent painter and writer with whom he collaborated on a number of early works, including the plays From the Life of the Insects and Adam the Creator, and who himself wrote a symbolistic SF play (Land of Many Names, 1923). A second irony is that Karel Čapek’s eight plays are, despite the world popularity of some among them (including Rossum’s Universal Robots, or R.U.R.), the weakest part of his opus, which comprises about fifty books of stories, essays, travelogues, novels, and articles. The poetic justice, however, stems from the fact that a quite central preoccupation of his was with the potentials and actualizations of inhumanity in twentieth-century people, and that this preoccupation was throughout his whole opus translated into the image of the Natural Man versus the Unnatural Pseudo-Man. This manlike, reasonable but unfeeling being is in Čapek’s work represented by a number of approximations, one of the first among which were the robots of R.U.R.
Josef Čapek’s happy coinage, with its blend of psychophysiological and political meanings, hits thus the bull’s-eye of what his brother was trying to get at....
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