Before cyberpunk and Asimov, before Star Trek and the film Metroplis there was the play Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Capek. The play premiered in Prague in 1921 and introduced the world to the word ‘robot’ (other words had been used). The thoughts and questions raised in the play have been pondered and mediated on ever since almost a century later with respect to robots and artificial intelligence.
The play looks at themes with what we have come expect with respect to the relationship of humans and robots. The ethical treatment of robots, what happens if the creation and advancement of robots goes too far, when robots rebel and become self conscious, when they start to glitch. What I was surprised by with respect to the play was that Capek looks at what would happen not just if the humans went too far, but if the robots did as well. Capek also looks at how far an organisation would go to satisfy shareholders for the sake of profit, so there is a little pop at capitalism to a certain point there. The main company in the play never question what the buyers of their robots do with them before it’s too late. We also get to see the worries of the robots when they realise they can’t create other robots. We read about the concerns of being treated like slaves (origin of the word ‘robot’ has its roots in the word ‘slave’ in the Czech language)
It is a relatively short play, there’s four acts and an epilogue with a form of introduction of what’s going on, the problems that arise and a conclusion which see the world change drastically. The Robots in Capeks play are mechanical robots but organic ones like the replicants in Blade Runner for example, as they are designed to be more human they become to behave in that way. I wanted to read this play because despite being a fan of science fiction myself, I never really knew much about it. I heard a mention of it on the TV show QI about where the word ‘robot’ came from and there is a reference to it in the video game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided which is also set in Prague where of course the play originates but other than that. Capek had also written a novel War With the Newts which has some similar themes as RUR and other science fiction works which I want to have a look at in future.
Karel Capek from what I’ve read lived a fascinating life, coming from what was then Czechoslovakia and lived through the interwar period but sadly passed away in 1938 before the world took major a turn for the worse, the only solace if any that could be gained is that the Nazis did not get to him before he died.
RUR surprised me in that the themes and thoughts that Capek writes about are still written today, to compare it to anything it is like piece Bauhaus furniture from the 1920s. Despite the decades that have past, it still feels somewhat modern.