Review: R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920) by Karel Capek


R.U.R. (1920) is famous in science fiction history for giving us the first instance of the word ‘robot’. It is not the first work ever written to feature an artificial person, but the word ‘robot’ was first coined by Karel Capek’s brother Josef. R.U.R. is not a novel, it is a play of about 60 pages.

It is interesting to dive a little deeper into this. Nowadays, almost every robot story in science fiction starts with the robot being indentured and soulless and ends with some form of freedom or recognition for the robot. That’s the standard arc for robot stories, isn’t it? Now, see where the word robot comes from and its connotations. Robot referred to the peasant class in end-19th century Czechia, and these peasants were not much more than serfs, forced to live a life of drudgery for a quarter of the year for their landlords. When Karel Capek was a teenager, these Czech peasants organised themselves into an agrarian political party and promptly dominated the elections. In Capek’s perception, a robot was a serf on the road to liberty, and that concept still echoes through in today’s robot stories.

It is amazing how R.U.R. hits it on the head with everything one can say about the topic of robots in a small amount of pages. The play has three acts that skip through decades in which we see the evolution (and disaster) of robots in society. Honestly, it is like Capek took Mary Shelley’s monster of Frankenstein with the commentary on man playing God, added the idea of mass-production and so created the robot idea. R.U.R. is the missing link between Frankenstein (1818) and Asimov’s I, Robot (1950), and all Capek had to do was add the idea of production line work in factories. Interestingly, Rossum is a play on the Czech word rozum, which means mind or reason. Let that stand for the Enlightenment which gave us industrialisation and factory work, and Rossum’s Universal Robots is translated as Reason’s Universal Serfs.

But Jeroen, isn’t this a stuffy old book? Is it still readable today? Well, there are some terribly dated gender interactions, but Capek is also funny and lighthearted in his dialogues. It is a satire of the robotage of peasants, after all, and has plenty of wit and philosophy. I think it is still worth a read, but mostly for historical interest. Asimov didn’t like it, and created his Laws of Robotics to prevent the situations that happen in the play.

For the other story in this collection, War with the Newts, I will write a separate review.

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12 Responses to Review: R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920) by Karel Capek

  1. savageddt says:

    Adding this to my tbr. Thank you for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Alex Good says:

    It’s a wonderful foreshadowing of humanity’s obsolescence. With robots doing all the work humans give up on life (and even breeding) while our robot inheritors live lives of total despair because they can’t do anything but make more crap they don’t want or need.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ola G says:

    Interesting! I might need to dig around for a copy in Polish 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. piotrek says:

    Interesting! I’ve just bought a great new edition of War with the Newts, full of illustrations by a German artist Hans Ticha… haven’t read it yet, but the pictures are superb, I hope they are included in your edition (but it seems you have a Fantasy Masterworks volume of both R.U.R. and this?). When I read it, I’ll do a review that is going to be mostly images 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • haha wow I didn’t know that existed. They are not included in my edition, unfortunately. Googling for War with the Newts, I see that this book has spawned many interesting cover art through the years. I hope you will present some of the illustrations when you’ll write your review.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Review: War with the Newts (1936) by Karel Capek | A Sky of Books and Movies

  6. Pingback: Karel Čapek, War with the Newts (1936) – Re-enchantment Of The World

  7. Pingback: The Best of 2021 in Books and Comics – Re-enchantment Of The World

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