‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ by Karel Čapec

I got my birthday present two months late, but it was worth the wait.

As part of the surprise it was great to realise what good taste my friends have in matter of books. What can I say, I choose them well.

However, the book itself was the real hit.

The same day I turned the last page of ‘Brave New World’, I unwrapped my present to find ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ by Karel Čapec, which means the legendary play where the word ‘robot’ was used for the first time. It still gives me goose bumps.

The play is composed of a prologue and three acts. Basically the story evolves in three stages:

  • Robots are robots, without a soul, no more than machines, cheap workforce and fancy stuff to show off;
  • Robots are still without a soul (read ‘unable to feel or love’), but they are enhanced to feel pain, just enough to look after themselves;
  • Robots develop a ‘soul’, desires and initiative. With logic, as robots do, they decide that men are inefficient and shouldn’t be in power and overthrow the government.

From a man who has written an essay titled ‘Why I am not a communist’, this play written in the wake of the Russian Revolution tells a different story. But I don’t want to argue with Karel (who is Czechoslovakian and had good reasons not to be a communist).

What is interesting in this play, even 100 years later, is Čapec’s take on technological progress and machines. It’s like Terminator, but 60 years earlier and without time travel.

Domin is the director of the Rossum’s company that produces the Universal Robots. He’s a man who produces cool toys for people who want to enjoy life, while the machines take care of the rest.

Because robots are so efficient and have so little needs (thanks to the way they are produced), Domin decides to use robots instead of men in his factories. So robots are producing robots.

However, when robots produce robots who do what people once did, but don’t do anymore, then… what happens to people?

And when the robots are responsible for the production of everything, stuff no man is trained to produce, they acquire power over it. So, why should humans be in power?

These are some of the questions that drive the play forwards.

How it ends? Let’s just say that Terminator was a fairy tale compared to Rossum’s Universal Robots.

 

If you want to know more about this play, you can visit its Goodreads page.

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