Karel Čapek (1890-1938)
Information and questions for reading R.U.R.

The introduction by Ivan Klíma is very informative (and Klíma himself is well worth reading). And note (from the material inside the front cover) that Čapek himself was a biology major. (This wasn't planned, but so far all our authors seem to have had a scientific or technical education.)

Although Klíma’s introduction accurately describes what Czechs must have felt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it's true that at this point only peasants in villages were completely fluent Czech, that situation resulted from centuries of Austrian domination. Czech was first used as a literary language in the 13th century (before that, in Bohemia as elsewhere in Western Europe, most writing was in Latin), and Czech writing flourished in the 14th century. Czech theological writing was represented by Jan Hus (and others less well-known in the West); the important late Renaissance author Comenius (1592-1670) was born Jan Amos Komenský but had to leave Bohemia in 1628 - Protestantism was banned there after 1620. (Remember when I mentioned that the Austro-Hungarian Empire had descended from the Holy Roman Empire? "Holy Roman" sums up their religious preferences very nicely.) On the other hand, good that Klíma isn’t idealizing a distant past of ideal Czechness. After Czechs decided to revive their own language as an instrument for literary and public discourse, it took many years to work out the balance between the elite literary language that was stamped out in the 17th century and the folksy tongue of the villages. Moreover, is it plausible that Czech could have been revived at all if only peasants in villages spoke it? (That would be more like the situation in contemporary Belarus.)

p. viii – Klíma mentions the important 19th-century writer Jan Neruda. Interesting fact: Chilean poet Pablo Neruda took his pseudonym from Neruda, though they pronounced the names differently (NEruda versus NerUda).

p. ix – also interesting that Klíma says, "the World War gave the Czechs an independent republic“ – well, the Slovaks were part of it too!

By all accounts, the interwar Czechoslovak democracy functioned pretty admirably, though it was dominated by the more populous and wealthy Czech parts of the country, Bohemia and Moravia, which some Slovaks did not appreciate. Before 1914, Slovakia had spent several decades under Hungarian rule, while the Czechs under Austrian governance had not really faced the German equivalent of energetic Magyarization. (And Hungarian, as you already know, is very different from the Slavic languages, much harder for a Slavic speaker to learn than German was.)

The word "robot" comes from the Czech word "robota," meaning 'heavy work' or 'labor' (and stressed, like all Czech words, on the first syllable.

Why, you may ask, is the word "Czech" spelled in that odd way? In Czech, it's spelled "Čeh" with the same economical use of diacritical marks as in "Čapek." "Czech" is the way Czech is spelled in Polish, which uses digraphs (cz, ch) to spell some of the sounds Czech spells with the diacritical mark called a haček (č, š, ž).

Questions for reading Rossum's Universal Robots (1920):

  1. What earlier literary robots (or robot-like things) do you know of?
  2. How plausible is the action and the technology, given that it was supposed to be set in 2000 (an apocalyptic date, as you may recall)?
  3. Since Klíma brings it up, would you say that the play is science fiction?
  4. What’s the effect of reading a play – a genre that’s meant to be performed?
  5. Large parts of this play are supposed to be comic – does the humor work for you?
  6. What about Domin’s comment about the robots (pp. 13-14) that "they never think up anything original. They’d make fine university professors"?
  7. Where is the robot factory located? (How and when do we discover that?)
  8. Compare Robotic Palsy (p. 19) to Briusov’s Mania contradicens.
  9. How does this author, who is not a socialist, present the human need to work?
  10. How might the plan to produce National Robots recall the story of the Tower of Babel?
  11. Why does Radius declare Alquist a robot, rather than saying he is equal to a robot? Has "robot" just become a synonym for "worker?"
  12. How does the play define humanity?
  13. What’s the effect of seeing robots made of protoplasm, etc. – as chemical or biological, rather than mechanical creations?
  14. Is the ending satisfying?

Return to the syllabus for Russian and East European Science Fiction.