War With the NewtsWar With the Newts by Karel Čapek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Czech author Karel Čapek,(pronounced CHOUW-pek) the author of “The War of the Newts” and “R.U.R.-(Rossum’s Universal Robots)” did one thing that made him world-famous and remembered for the last hundred years: he invented the word “Robot.” The word first appeared in any language in the sense of a man-made intelligent humanoid machine in the play “R.U.R” in 1921, was translated into English and dozens of other languages becoming a worldwide-used term shortly thereafter.

The word derives from the Slavic term for “work” or “worker” and from the first it was clear that the robots’ function was always meant to serve as tireless mechanical slaves performing endless drudge work for their human owners, or at least those human beings who could afford to be owners. Coming shortly after WWI and the Russian Revolution, featuring a revolt of the Russian workers against their masters who attempted to treat them also as soulless machines, R.U.R., as does all good science fiction, raised not only compelling technological scenarios in action, but also the implied human, personal and social dimensions embedded in that technological future, in that case the prospect of the similar revolt of intelligent robot workers against their exploitating human masters, a fear we hear echoed even today with renewed anxiety and fear of an impending “Singularity.”

In Čapek’s second great Science-Fiction Classic, the 1936 dystopian satire “The War With the Newts,” man discovers a species of giant, intelligent newt, or aquatic salamander, a hidden parallel chain of evolution surviving in isolation on the bottom of the littoral seafloor of a distant Indonesian island. Naturally, man’s only concern is how to exploit this great disovery to its own selfish advantage, and as in the cases of the invented robots and of the conquered colonial peoples of the great European global empires, mankind, and particularly profit-seeking corporations sucessfully teach the newts first language, then abilities to walk on two legs and use their hands for manipulating advanced tools, then higher echnical skills, such as to make them productive.

Man then propagates this slave species along seacoasts across the globe, the better to exploit their productive power. Conflict initially is minimized by the fact that the Newts must live most of the time underwater, though having the capacity for amphibian short-term visits to land as well. At first the Newts are a “model minority” eager to learn and increase their usefulness, in the meantime using their relentless and untiring “work ethic” to catch up to human prowess and progress. Gradually, however, the inevitable contradictions of the relationship of the two species begin to sharpen, and not only do the Newts begin to develop technologies rivaling or even surpassing humans, but they begin to transform their industrial technologies into military ones, setting the stage for potential power struggles and war.

The appearance of the War of the Newts in 1936 was not, of course, the first time the prospect of a war between two species had appeared in the annals of Science-Fiction in World Literature. Čapek had derived considerable advantage from the prior model of H.G. Wells’ classic “The War of the Worlds” featuring a Martian invasion of the Earth, published in 1898. But in so building on Wells’ foundations he was as little transgressing as Wells himself was in taking the liberty of building upon the foundations of prior geniuses of the genre, particularly Jules Verne, who had published such classics as “A Journey to the Center of the Earth” in 1864, “From the Earth to the Moon” in 1865 and “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” in 1869.

Though Verne was the first writer in World Literature to make the genre of Science-Fiction settled and wildly popular and himself a global celebrity, even he himself was not the first to write in it. Science fiction is far older than Verne and Wells, of course. About 150 A.D., a Greek-speaking Syrian, Lucian of Samostata, wrote a book called “True History” (which is exactly what it is not!)telling the tale of a man who reached the moon via a giant waterspout, who took part in wars between the peoples of the Sun and the Moon, and who visited Venus, a kind of classical age precurser of such tales as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter,” recently made into a movie.

The famous German astronomer Johann Kepler, father of the elliptical orbit, In his short story “Somnium,” wrote a description of a voyage to the Moon in which a traveler is carried there in a dream by dream spirits. Kepler was one of the first Science-Fiction writers to attempt to reconcile the ‘science” with the “fiction,” as when he made use of his own astronomical calculations of the Moon’s rotation, giving it in his story the two-week day and two-week night and rare atmosphere it actually has. This I would venture to consider the first work of “Science-Fiction” in World Literature, in the sense of striving towards a maximal scientific accuracy and plausibility, topped off of course by liberal flights of fantasy. Before Kepler, writers indulged in fantasy without the slightest scruple for scientific accuracy, but after him writers sought scientific verisimilitude and faithfulness alongside the fantastic.

Another little acknowledged Science-Fiction writer was the great French poet, Cyrano de Bergerac, who really did, by the way have an oversized nose and fought duels. In 1650 he published “A Voyage to the Moon” in which the hero flies utilizing gunpowder rockets, becoming thus the first to conceive interplanetary rocket travel. Voltaire published a work “Micromegas” in which 8-mile high creatures from Sirius visit the earth to research its progress.

Mary Shelley’s classic, “Frankenstein” emerged at the beginning of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, and anticipates the conundrum of man overreaching God in the creation of life through science, and strikingly emphasizes the folly of such an empowered science if not accompanied, in the Romantic tradition, by the wisdom of the heart. Shelly’s Frankenstein further informs Čapek’s own work in that the creation of the “Robots” in “R.U.R.” is through a similar process of their manufacture utilizing synthetic organs and electrical energy. In this sense the original of the “Robots” from Čapek’s work were not the commonly supposed computer-driven electro-mechanical machines we now associate with that word, but were rather organically derived and closer to the modern concept of “clones” or “androids.”

In America, Edgar Allen Poe pioneered in the Science-Fiction genre with the publication of a sketch of the future entitled “On Board Balloon ’Skylark,‘April1, 2848.“ He foresaw transcontinental Zepplins criss-crossing the globe and adventures in a tradition later emulated by Pynchon’s “Against the Day.” Jules Verne expanded on this concept in his 1863 creation “Five Weeks in a Balloon,” leading to his further expansion of the genre in his “voyages extrordonaires” including “A Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “From the Earth to the Moon” and “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”

After Verne, the leading innovator became H.G. Wells, with his “Time Machine” and “War of the Worlds.” Verne had bent the tradition in the direction of scientific plausibility and a rather technical and quotidian annaling of the ventures, pursuing a realism or naturalism which deflated some of the romance. Wells reintroduced some of the elements of romance and human drama by two methods: 1) He allowed himself a greater latitude of divergence from scientific verisimilitude, as in his use of the “Time Machine,” scientifically impossible as modernly understood, yet just plausible enough to allow the reader or cinema viewer to lend his “willing suspension of disbelief” to the story, and; 2) He emphasized the human,social and personal impact of the new scientific and technological encounters. Thus in the “Time Machine ” he was influenced by Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backwards” a tale of time travel emphasizing the desirability of scientific socialism forseen in the future. Thus Wells’ visioning of the future reveals the evolution of two species, Eloi and Morlocks, one lovable, one dreadful, and both headed for destruction and oblivion. Furthermore, after grounding the milieu in futuristic gadgetry and technology, Wells emphasized the human and personal element in his tales—there is human love, family and attachment to country, human emotions and folly. Science-Fiction was not just a technological flight into the future but the story of the reaction of the human heart and human bonds to that technological change. In the end humanity cannot be reduced to a machine.

Čapek in his “The War of the Newts” inherits all of these traditions, yet suradds his own idiosyncratic voice and vision, often ironic, satirical, cynical and comic as well as pessimistic, to his tale of the collision of two intelligent species. As in R.U.R., the unfolding of the tale is colored by Čapek’s lamenting affirmation of the essential selfishness, short-sightedness, and exploitative insensitivity of humanity. On discovering a new intelligent species on earth, as in the early day of European colonialism, the first thought is always to exploit or enslave for one’s own short-term profit. The Newts are discovered by a very flawed but sympathetic character, Czech Captain Van Toch. He is a plain-spoken, down to earth but rapidly deteriorating old sea salt. In trading in a tramp steamer in the Indonesian archipelago he has occasion to stumble upon a bay of a remote island regarded by the natives as “taboo,” inhabited by monstrous creatures or spirits the natives studiously avoid. With Western scoffing at the natives’ fears he visits the inlet himself and comes to learn the truth of the existence of the Newts. His relationship with them is highly ambivilant. On the one hand he devises a scheme to make a fortune by training them to dive for pearls. On the other hand he comes to have an authentic and affectionate relationship with them, enjoying their company and their own capacity for learning from his training. He becomes a sort of father figure to them, with all the paternal contradictions and ambivilances attached.

When he returns to Europe, however, and overcomes initial disbelief through his account, the advanced Westerners are driven by motives of optimal economic exploitation of the new species, which is endowed with an enormous capacity for obedience, hard work and ability to learn new techniques. A symbiotic relationship developes between the two species, each benefitting but storing up contradictions, reminiscent of the conundrums of colonialism. The Newts are seeded along the coastlines of the world, exploited for economic production, yet growing ever stronger and more numerous even than the humans who enjoy the benefits of their productivity. A ”Salamander Syndicate” headed by Mr. Bondy, a successful Jewish capitalist, and drawing in the leading actors of the corporate and financial world is formed to monopolize the trade in Newts and Newt labor power, just as in the case of the Tranatlantic slave trade, and to control and extract its benefits for the monopolizing few, just as ordinary workers are forced into unemployment.

In the tradition of Wells, the story is told with a human voice, detailing the impact of the changing world on the lives of Captain Van Toch, on the family of Mr. Bondy, who becomes immensely rich and powerful, and also on an ordinary working middle-class family, the Povendras, who work for the Bondy syndicate. We see how lives are sometimes benefited and sometimes destroyed by the new developments.

Mr. Povendra, the secretary of Mr. Bondy takes up the hobby of collecting news clipping on the Newts, then becomes the corporate historian of the Salamander Syndicate. When things later start to go radically wrong, the lowly Mr. Povendra blames himself for having adversely changed the world through his inadvertent fateful intial act of setting up the appointment between Captain Van Toch and Mr. Bondy which leads, unforeseeably, to all of its cataclysmic consequences. As in Wells’ Martian classic, we see the world unravel through the eyes of a lower-middle-class family we can empathize with as a mirror of ourselves.

The human governments of the world are shown to be imbecile in their attempts to deal with the rising Newt threat, corrupted by the profitability of Newt exploitation and paralyzed by their short-sighted fears of rival governments who would gain a politcal and military advantage if their own country reigned in the exploitation of the Newts. This parallels the dealings of the Powers with Nemo in Verne’s tale of a threat from the sea. When the Newts gain the power advantage during the war, which follows from the breakdown of all negotiations, the Powers even offer to give the Newts China in exchange for peace, mirroring the fate of the Czech people, sold out in the Munich Appeasement with Hitler only three years after the book’s publication. In short, sometimes harshly, sometimes comically, humanity through its veniality, selfishness, fears, and competitive duplicity is seen to dig its own grave. I will not spoil the story by revealing the details of its ending, but let us say there is no happy future in prospect for the human race.

The World Classics of Science-Fiction deeply influenced also the composition of my own recent novel, Spiritus Mundi, in which again the human race is threatened by extinction, not through external invasion by an alien species, but rather by humanity’s own internal contradictions manifested in a threatened World War III in the wake of an era of Globalization and shifting great-power relationships, accompanied by a failure to find any legitimate political or spiritual source of global unity. As in Wells’ approach, a narrative balance is sought between realism and romance, with the Science-Fiction elements, as in the case of the Time Machine, not being wholly scientifically grounded yet close enough to allow the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief.”

In Spiritus Mundi the major Science-Fiction cum Fantasy elements are found in Book II, Spiritus Mundi The Romance, whereas Book I, with some exceptions is grounded in the Social Realism illustrating the protagonists global campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly as a globalized version of the European Parliament. In Book II the motifs of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” are echoed in the escape of the Spiritus Mundi idealists from the underground bunker of the Iranian nuclear facilities in Qom, Iran where they are held as hostages and “human shields” following a nuclear terrorist attack in Jerusalem. From there they descend lower into the bowels of the Earth until ferried to the Central Sea at the Center of the Earth, echoing Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, as well as Nemo’s 20,000 Leagues, as they are transported by underground tunnel-seaways to the Center of the Earth in Nemo’s Nautilus. It also echoes the archetypal motif of the Descent into the Underworld of the Odyssey, Aeneid, and Dante’s Inferno to Paradiso.

From there, after meeting the Magister Ludi of the Crystal Bead Game, a scientific revitalization of Hesse’s monastic Glass Bead Game they undertake a Quest after the Silmaril Crystal, which alone can avert humanity’s destruction by its use in laser reactors of the Game, linked to a human history now entering its fatal endgame above on the surface of the earth. To complete their Quest they must journey to the Island of Omphalos in Middle Earth, where there exists a Cosmic Wormhole through Einsteinian Time-Space which will take them to the Black Hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy where a cosmic Council of the Immortals will convene to review the question of humanity’s extinction or continuation. Here the details of the Wormhole are grounded in plausible science, similar to Sagan’s “Contact,” or at least marginally enough in the tradition of Wells’ Time Machine, as to allow a “willing suspension of disbelief.”

A third element of Science-Fiction in Spiritus Mundi is revealed in its Time Travel dimension. The World War III threatening Earth is revealed as having been conspitorially catalyzed by an escaped 23rd Century War Criminal, Caesarion Khannis, who has returned, Terminator-like to our time to abort the creation of the United Nations Parliamentary Assembly which will prove the first seed of two centuries of world peace and progress, with a conspiratorily induced WWIII. The Magister Ludi is revealed to be a 23rd Century prosecutor and Senator of the 23rd Century United States of Earth also returned via Time Travel in the Wells’ tradition, to apprehend Khannis and prevent him from unmaking hisory with its benign future. In this Spiritus Mundi echoes and is influenced by both Wells’ Time Machine, and Bellamy’s classic “Looking Backward,” which in turn had influenced Wells.

In conclusion I would highly recommend your looking into the Classics of Science-Fiction of World Literature, including War With the Newts, The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I also invite you to read and enjoy my own new novel in this Science-Fiction Tradition, Spiritus Mundi.

For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:

For Discussions on World Literature and Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…

Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads:…

Robert Sheppard

World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: https://robertalexandersheppard.wordp…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads:…
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I: The Novel:
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance

Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved

View all my reviews

About robertalexandersheppard

Robert Sheppard , Author, Poet & Novelist Pushcart Prize fof Literature 2014 Nominee Professor of World and Comparative Literature Professor of International Law Senior Associate, Committee for a Democratic United Nations (KDUN) E-mail: Robert Sheppard is the author of the acclaimed dual novel Spiritus Mundi, nominated for the prestigious 2014 Pushcart Prize for Literature in two parts, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, Book I and Spiritus Mundi the Romance, Book II. The acclaimed “global novel” features espionage-terror-political-religious-thriller action criss-crossing the contemporary world involving MI6, the CIA and Chinese MSS Intelligence as well as a "People Power" campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly on the model of the European Parliament, with action moving from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem while presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action and surreal adventures. It also contains the unfolding sexual, romantic and family relationships of many of its principal and secondary characters, and a significant dimension of spiritual searching through "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It contains also significant discussions of World Literature, including Chinese, Indian, Western and American literature, and like Joyce's Ulysses, it incorposates a vast array of stylistic approaches as the story unfolds. Dr. Sheppard presently serves as a Professor of International Law and World Literature at Peking University, Northeastern University and the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, and has previously served as a Professor of International Law and MBA professor at Tsinghua University, Renmin People’s University, the China University of Politics and Law and at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China. Having studied Law, Comparative Literature and politics at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph. D.Program in Comparative Literature), Northridge, Tübingen, Heidelberg, the People’s College and San Francisco, (BA, MA, JD), he additionally has been active as professor of International Trade, Private International Law, and Public International Law from 1993 to 1998 at Xiamen University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Graduate School (CASS), and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. In the US he serves as a Professor at Kean University, as well as having taught at Bergen Community College and Pillar College in NJ. Since 2000 he has served as a Senior Consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Beijing and has authored numerous papers on the democratic reform of the United Nations system.
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