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Karel Capek’s Apocryphal Stories

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads the charming short stories of Karel Čapek

The modern meaning of the word ‘robot’ has its origins in a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek. The play, titled R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), begins in a factory which manufactures artificial people, the ‘universal robots’ of the play’s title. The robots are designed to serve humans and work for them, but the robots eventually turn on their masters, wiping out the human race (shades, or rather a foreshadowing, of The Terminator here). This sense of ‘robot’ is taken from the earlier one defined above – namely, the Czech for ‘slave worker’ or ‘drudge’.

Karel Čapek himself didn’t coin the word. The word ‘robot’ was in existence before he wrote his play. But nor did Čapek come up with the idea of taking the word ‘robot’ and using it to describe the man-made droids that feature in his play. He originally called them labori, from the Latin for ‘work’, but it was his brother, Josef Čapek, who suggested roboti. Josef, himself a gifted artist, would later write a volume of poems from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in which he was interned. In April 1945, just weeks before the end of the war, he became one of the 6 million Jews who were murdered in Hitler’s Final Solution.

Most readers who know the name Karel Čapek associate it with robots and little else. Yet Čapek was also the author of some charming short stories and skits, which were collected together as Apocryphal Stories (Modern Classics). Read the rest of this entry

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The Best David Gemmell Novels Everyone Should Read

The 10 best novels by David Gemmell, master of heroic fantasy

In the 1980s, with his debut novel Legend (1984), the British author David Gemmell revolutionised heroic fantasy. Drawing on the stories of Robert E. Howard and the novels of Michael Moorcock and J. R. R. Tolkien, Gemmell also took inspiration from his favourite novelist, the prolific writer of Westerns, Louis L’Amour. L’Amour’s stripped-back style of writing, and his emphasis on the darker aspects of the Wild West, combined with the epic qualities of The Lord of the Rings, and Gemmell’s own strong belief in the power of redemption, to create a new model for heroic fantasy, with no-nonsense writing, fast-paced action, and superlative characterisation. There are no longueurs in Gemmell’s fiction, no padding which sees characters talking at length without doing anything. The result was a string of bestselling fantasy novels which were true page-turners. He has often been described as one of those writers who can keep readers up into the small hours because they simply have to read another chapter (or, indeed, several chapters). Below we’ve chosen ten of the greatest David Gemmell novels – going roughly from the 10th best to the number one book (a controversial view) – any of which could be read as a standalone tale of courage, action, love, power, and redemption.

Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow. Gemmell’s final project, which he was still at work on when he died in 2006, was a trilogy about the Trojan War, harking back to the original work of fantasy literature in the western world, Homer’s Iliad. This book, the first in the trilogy, follows Heliakon (better known as Aeneas) but also boasts a cast including Odysseus, Andromache, Agamemnon, and many others. Read the rest of this entry

Michael Halberstam’s ‘The Wanting of Levine’: An Uncanny 1970s Political Novel Worthy of Rejuvenation

In this guest blog post, Warren Adler discusses Michael Halberstam’s novel The Wanting of Levine, a neglected political novel that uncannily predicted today’s America

Any serious novelist worth their salt fantasizes that their work will endure beyond their lifetime.  As both an earnest practitioner of the novelist’s art and a lifetime student of classic literature, I am always heartened when I learn about a novel written decades ago, long buried from public view, that suddenly pops into the public consciousness offering remarkably pertinent moral and psychological insights that eerily reflect contemporary events and concerns.

There is no easy explanation for a novel’s comeback.  If one looks closely at the historical record of once popular novels, as measured by the bestseller lists, one sees a startling lack of endurance. They enter with a shout and, for the most part, exit in barely a whisper. The trigger that signals a novel’s rejuvenation is mysterious, magical and unpredictable. I am reminded of Henri Beyle, a Frenchman writing under the nom de plume of Stendhal who dedicated his novel The Red and the Black to the ‘happy few’ as if divining in advance the lack of contemporary readers of this novel which deals with the universal themes of the addictive and often destructive nature of ambition and love. His not too subtle dedication was correct. What he could not predict was the endurance of his novel, which has become one of the great classics of French literature. Read the rest of this entry