Helena: Oh, I thought that…if someone were to show them a bit of love…
Fabry: Impossible, Miss Glory. Nothing is farther from being human than a Robot.
Author: Karel Čapek
Published: 1920; the play premiered in 1921.
Hello Internet world! I finished the sixth story on my list, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek. This play introduced the word “robot” to the world (“robota” meaning “forced labour” in Czech), making it a very important piece of sci-fi history. Hot dog! There’s so much to love and write about this play, I hardly know where to begin!
Plot & Narration
R.U.R. is a play, meaning there’s no real narration to speak of. The play takes place on a remote island where the R.U.R. factory creates/manufactures the robots. These robots are built to take over all the labour-intensive and menial tasks humans have come to despise. At first they are unaware of their own situation and condition, but they soon realize that they are actually better than humans in many ways and so stage an uprising that leads to the extinction of the human race. R.U.R. is a very interesting play that explores many interesting themes.
One interesting point to note is that the robots in R.U.R. are not mechanical robots, which is what we typically think of today. Old Rossum, the original creator of the robots, actually created them using a synthetic substance of sorts, and each part of the robot is grown and then all the parts are put together. So the robots in question are really more clones or engineered humans than what we would think of as strictly robots today.
One interesting theme in R.U.R. is that of labour. The director of the R.U.R. factory is obsessed with producing as many robots as possible, so that every single person is freed from menial labour in order to enjoy their lives to the fullest.
“Yes, people will be out of work, but by then there’ll be no work left to be done. Everything will be done by living machines. People will do only what they enjoy. They will live only to perfect themselves.”
This seems great in theory but I wonder about reality. What is the logical consequence of humans having everything done for them so that they are free to pursue their own self-perfection? One possibility is the Star Trek path, where individuals actively pursue their own self-betterment because they don’t need to worry about making money. This would seem to alleviate a lot of stress from the modern worker. What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about money?
Man, that sounds great.
The other possibility seems to be The Time Machine path, discussed here. In The Time Machine, the protagonist postulates that the future world to which he travels is a result of humans having achieved everything, thereby being left with nothing to do, which resulted in a “devolution” so to speak. I like to think this wouldn’t happen in reality, but that may be wishful thinking.
“There is nothing more terrible than giving people paradise on earth.”
Moreover, too much freedom (I mean with time), is not necessarily a good thing. Humans are by nature (I think), industrious, productive beings. We like doing things and accomplishing things. It makes us feel so good to check off that next task on our list and to go to bed tired from productivity. We are also constantly looking for our purpose in life, so I’m not sure that total freedom from labour is a good thing.
Theme: Robots vs. Humans
Another main theme in this play is obviously robots vs. humans. Some of the characters regard the robots as simple labourers without souls and minds of their own, always and only following their orders, and always and only working, working, working. Later, the robots revolt against this regime because they become self-aware. They know that they are better than humans, and they want to become the masters.
R.U.R. might very well be the predecessor to the Terminator movies and other such stories. Though Čapek wrote the play in 1920, fear of a technological uprising is very much our modern nightmare. Terminator just takes it to the next level.
I find this theme interesting because of the realization and emotions it evokes. Were such an uprising to happen, we really would have only ourselves to blame. And realizing that something is entirely your fault (we’ve all been there) is a most distressing feeling. When there’s no one else to blame, the feeling of regret is that much harsher. In this way R.U.R. is similar to Frankenstein.
This theme also forces us to think about the actual question at hand. Are robots really better than humans? Supposing we could create self-aware, sentient robots who look and act like humans and we can’t tell the difference, would that actually be a good thing? (I feel a tangent post coming on.)
If we can answer this question in advance, it might prevent our nightmare from ever coming true.
One last theme I want to discuss is the progress/production theme in R.U.R. This ties in with the first theme discussed. The director of the robot factory is obsessed with producing as many robots as possible. He is a firm believer that more is better, that progress means producing all the time.
“Any acceleration constitutes progress, Miss Glory. Nature had no grasp of the modern rate of work. From a technical standpoint the whole of childhood is pure nonsense. Simply wasted time.”
The idea is that more and more robots produced for cheaper and cheaper is true progress. This reminds me of today’s “race to the bottom” economics seen in many companies. It’s not the quality of the product or service that matters but rather the quantity and the cost of production. I’ve seen first-hand companies doing their almightiest to spend practically nothing on creating their (inevitably low-quality) products (and then wondering why their business isn’t doing better). I’m a firm believer that if you want a good product or service, and that product or service is important to you, then it is worth every penny, both in making that product and purchasing it.
For me, quality beats quantity every single time.
At a macro level, I often wonder why the world’s economies put so much emphasis on growth. Is all growth all the time really sustainable? Does all growth all the time equal quality? (Hear that? That’s the sound of another tangent post coming along.)
I for one don’t buy into that as I’m on the sustainable side of things. If “growth” means sustainable, good-quality products and services, then I’m all for it. But if “growth” means more and more stuff we don’t need, then not at all.
All in all, I found R.U.R. to be wildly interesting. The plot is simple yet totally creative, and the dialogue is very ideas-based, if that makes sense. I highly recommend it. Enjoy!
Stay tuned for the next book on my list, Brave New World.
Quotations: Čapek, Karel. R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Kindle Edition.