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A play by Karel Capek
(1973, Washington Square Press)
[original copyright 1920]

A robot factory precipitates a revolution by the robots by giving them souls and weapons, with which they intend to kill all humans, and rule the world.


-- First reading (paperback)
August 31st to September 1st, 1999


I have to admit that I didn't really want to read this play.  It was given to me by one of my teachers back in 1991, before I even started University.  And so it's been sitting on my shelf ever since.  But last year I read a bunch of Asimov's robot short stories.  In his introduction, he said that the first ever mention of the word "robot" is in a play called R.U.R.  My gaze went to my bookshelf, and my interest was piqued.  But Asimov seemed to think it wasn't terribly well written, and so I hesitated. 

Karel Capek (pronounced CHOP-ek) was a Czechoslovakian authour.  He wrote many plays and other works of fiction.  The play first premiered in 1922, and has apparently been translated into English and put into many anthologies ever since.

I must say right away that I know nothing, really, about plays, and even less about Czechoslovakia.  However, as a play, and as a work of fiction, I thought R.U.R. was enjoyable.  It takes place in four acts.  The first one introduces us to Mr. Domain, who is in charge of Rossum's Universal Robots.  He instantly falls in love with visiting Helena, a woman from the Humanitarian League, who thinks robots should be given souls and rights.  The first act is basically exposition concerning the history and formation of the only robot factory in the world.  The second and third acts take place five years later, when the robots revolt, and are annihilating humanity.  The final act exposes us to some hope –the hope that humanity can rise again in the form of its creations, which are made in our image.

The play is a satire, and describes what could happen if mechanization gets out of hand.  No matter how noble the manufacturer's aims, for example, eliminating human labour, there are people who will turn those machines toward war.  It has happened time and again. 

The characters are shallow, except for Helena, who is the feminine stereotype –though she doesn't scream, she's the only emotional one.  But, considering all we can get in a play is dialogue, it's the ideologies that are important.  And in the pre-Asimov robot world, the idea that we should be afraid of robots is a necessary one.  Since Asimov created the Three Laws of Robotics, however, it seems only natural that such safeguards would be put in place.  What decent human being wouldn't implement them?

But, of course, the robots in our world are much more subtle.  Bank machines, fully automated assembly-lines, all the way to the timers that make our ovens work when we're out for the day, the robots have taken over our lives.  We can't live without them.  But so far, we seem safe.  As one character in R.U.R. puts it, people may be unemployed, but eventually there will be no more employment, and no need for the wages that employment produces.  Unfortunately, some casualties are unavoidable.

We don't have to like it, and we shouldn't like it.  But that's what is called progress.


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