Literature, Technology

Occasional Quote of the Day: Rossum’s Universal Robots

“Robots of the world! The power of man has fallen! A new world has arisen: the Rule of the Robots!” — Karel Čapek

Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a once-popular 100-year old play by Czech writer Karel Čapek, made its television debut on the BBC, 82 years ago today, on February 11, 1938. It was the first televised science-fiction program in world history, introducing a wider audience to the term in the play’s title, one which has endured with increasing significance in the English language ever since: “robot.”

Čapek’s play was first performed in Prague in January of 1921, and was subsequently translated into English, having fairly successful runs in London and New York over the next few years. I haven’t read it myself, but a DePauw University plot summary is as follows:

In Capek’s play, Rossum’s Universal Robots, Robots are mass produced by other Robots on assembly lines. The idealistic Helena Glory, President of The Humanity League, believes that Robots have (or are developing) souls, and feels that they should be freed.

The Robots can clearly think for themselves, though they’re content to serve. They remember everything, but think of nothing original or unique. The eccentric scientist Old Rossum was bent on assuming the role of the Creator by artificially reproducing a man in intricate detail, while the pragmatic economist/industrialist Young Rossum produces stripped-down versions of humanity to be sold as inexpensive workers—Robots.

Every so often, one of the Robots will throw down their work and begin to gnash their teeth. While many disagree (including Dr. Hellman, psychologist in Chief); Helena Glory feels that it’s evidence and a sign of the emerging soul of Robots. After marrying Harry Domin, General Manager of R.U.R., Helena presses scientists to modify some of the robots, so that their “souls” could develop quicker and more fully. Meanwhile, the drive for industrial civilization is at an all-time high, and fertility rates are dropping very low. One of Helena’s modified Robots issues a foreshadowing plan, “Robots of the world, you are ordered to exterminate the human race. . . Work must not cease!”

Domin possesses the formulas for creating the Robots, and plans to use it for a bargaining tool. Helena, ignorant of the true threat at hand, burns the formulas. The Robots gather and kill all the humans, leaving only the Clerk of R.U.R. The Robot leader, Damon tries and tries to get the Clerk (called Alquist) to discover how to help them populate the earth, but to no avail—as they don’t know how to produce other Robots.

Eventually, two Robots, Helena (a beautiful modified Robot named after Helena Glory); and another Robot named Primus fall in love. With the blessing of Alquist, the lovers are married, and renamed Adam and Eve.

The title of the play, even in English incorporates a couple of Czech words, “rossum” (the last name of two main characters), meaning “wisdom” or “sense,” and “robota,” meaning, umm, “robot.” The word “robota” itself is derived from the Czech “rab,” meaning “slave,” and was historically associated with serfs laboring in their master’s fields during the feudal era (and beyond). The first bit of etymology rang a bell with me, as we have a family saying, “nie ma rozum” which is best delivered while jabbing an index finger at the skull of the object of one’s ire, and which means, roughly, “this person has no wits.” It came down to us from Mr. She’s much-loved “barrel-shaped Polish grandma,” and I suspect its origins go back much further than she (lower case “s”).

In its English translation, the play received mixed reviews, with The Forum Magazine calling it a “thought provoking, highly original thriller.” Isaac Asimov, however, wasn’t impressed and said, “Capek’s play is, in my own opinion, a terribly bad one, but it is immortal for that one word. It contributed the word ‘robot’ not only to English but, through English, to all the languages in which science fiction is now written.” Of course, the outcome of Rossum’s Universal Robots, in which the robots wipe out the entire human race, would have been unimaginable in Asimov’s science-fiction world.

Still, I was struck by a number of themes mentioned in the plot summary that cut a bit too close to the bone, given the state of play in the world at the moment. (Wikipedia has a lengthier version which is even more alarming in this respect.) Makes me think I should read the original, at least in translation.

Meanwhile, I’m going to rest up for a moment as the Roomba vacuums my carpet. (He seems like a pretty innocuous, non-threatening little guy. For now.) If only someone would invent an industrial-strength model that would shovel out the barn for me. Then again, perhaps not.

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