Let’s take a trip back to 1920 for today’s Throwback Thursday, ScienceFiction.com’s ongoing column dedicated to the great science fiction of the past.
‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ is a short play written by Karel Čapek, a Czech writer who you may recognize from the novel as the author of ‘War with the Newts’ if you’re an old school science fiction type fan. If you’re wondering, the title is basically the plot of the story, so don’t think about it too hard.
‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ is credited as the first science fiction story to feature robots, though we would not likely call them robots in this day and age. Essentially, the founder of the company Rossum’s Universal Robots (RUR) discovered a way to biologically create life. They call these things robots, and they take commands even though they are less machine and more creature. The play starts with a young woman visiting the facilities of the robot manufacturers to get more information about how the robots are created. She later reveals that she is a part of the League of Humanity, and she wants to destroy the business because it doesn’t treat robots like humans.
However, in an absurd way, she ends up marrying the owner of the company with his team of management who are also all in love with her. The play then switches gears to ten years later where everyone discusses in an even more absurd way about how the robots they created to do their slave labor are rebelling, and no humans are having children anymore (a la ‘Children of Men’). And then, of course, in the next act, the robots succeed and all of humanity dies out.
This may sound like a common science fiction trope to you, but this really what started that way of thinking.
Like all good science fiction, ‘RUR’ is actually a commentary on the contemporary world. It talks about the complacency of people in comfort when they think a war is far away, and how the privileged live their lives solely based on oppressing others without understanding the depths of their reliance on slavery. It also touches on things like nationality, as the humans try to impose different nationalities on the robots in hopes that they would fight each other instead of the human masters. Also, in Czech, the word “robota” means “forced labor”, so the play can often be seen through a Marxist lens. Knowing that the play was written just after the first world war, and before the second, certainly puts the story into perspective. The mark of good science fiction is to take current issues, and place it in a future context in order to either criticize or idolize a way of thinking. ‘RUR’ certainly does that.
While the play received a great deal of critical acclaim, it’s contribution to science fiction is largely the word ‘robot’. The great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who famously created the Laws of Robotics to stop robotic uprisings, was very critical of the play. “Čapek’s play is,” Asimov stated, “in my own opinion, a terribly bad one, but it is immortal for that one word. It contributed the word ‘robot’ not only to English but, through English, to all the languages in which science fiction is now written.”
Regardless of whether or not it is good or bad, ‘RUR’ is an essential part to science fiction culture, and it’s a must-read/watch even if you only do it once.