Five Fascinating Facts about Karel Čapek
Interesting trivia about one of science-fiction’s greatest voices
1. Čapek’s most famous work introduced the concept of the ‘robot’. Čapek’s 1920 play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) was the first text to use the word ‘robot’ to denote man-made creatures – the word comes from the Czech roboti meaning ‘slave’ or ‘drudge’. In Čapek’s play, the robots are built in a factory for the purpose of undertaking menial labour for their human masters – but, as with The Terminator over sixty years later, they eventually turn against their owners and destroy the human race.
2. Indeed, the Terminator parallels don’t end there – for the ‘robots’ in Rossum’s Universal Robots aren’t, strictly speaking, robots at all. At least, not according to our modern sense of the word, where ‘robot’ is distinguished from ‘cyborg’. (Cyborgs resemble humans but are really machines; robots are clearly not human, though their general shape may resemble ours.) The robots in Čapek’s play are clearly machines rather than people, so these days we’d probably call them cyborgs or androids, if we were being pedantic.
3. Čapek might be viewed as the Franz Kafka of science fiction. Kafka himself leaned that way, but his famous novella The Metamorphosis is a fantasy (no scientific rationale underpins Gregor Samsa’s alteration into an insect) and his other works, such as The Castle, approach the genre of dystopian fiction but are not much concerned with scientific questions. Čapek, though, addressed these questions head-on.
4. Čapek also wrote a series of very short – and very funny – takes on popular stories. Čapek’s Apocryphal Stories (1932) takes famous tales and parables from mythology, the Bible, and Shakespeare, among many other important works of western literature, and responds humorously to them. The Apocryphal Stories have been described by Peter Kussi as ‘playful variations on the idea of the plurality of possibilities in every life, a rewriting of history to suggest that the lives and ideas of famous figures might easily have been different from the versions printed in schoolbooks.’ You can find the Apocryphal Stories (Modern Classics) on Amazon.
5. Čapek foresaw several scientific developments. His 1922 novel Krakatit foretold the nuclear bomb, while much of Čapek’s work foresaw the rise of Nazism. Čapek himself died in 1938 – death got to him before the Nazis did. His brother Josef was not so lucky, and was killed at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, just weeks before the end of the war. He wrote a volume of poems while interned there, Poems from a Concentration Camp.
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Image: A scene from the original stage production of Rossum’s Universal Robots, via Wikimedia Commons.