In 1920 Karel Čapek invented the word robot in his play R.U.R. That’s all I vaguely knew about him as an author until I read War with the Newts, a novel about how humanoid newts from the ocean end up taking over the world. Beware!
The novel was written in 1936, but my expectations for the book were based on pulp novels where grand ecological disasters wipe out the world or aliens on a power trip beat-down humanity with a galactic stick. (Yes, there are also the “humanity on a power trip” novels where Earth beats down aliens, expertly done with righteousness, paternalism, and colonialism as its main components.)
But War with the Newts is not that. I’m not sure if because it falls into the very strong line of Eastern European Science Fiction as Social Criticism, or if it’s simply that Čapek is an innovative writer whose novels would seem on the outskirts of fashion no matter what or when he wrote. War with the Newts is not a typical novel. The major thread throughout the book is the newts, chronicling from the point when they were discovered to the end of humanity, when the newts are dismantling the continents to expand their own living area under the ocean. It’s the story of how the “innocent” newts (One strong thread of the novel is how the newts are presented as essentially unknowable—the only way the reader understands them is through the prejudices and assumptions of the human characters) are corrupted by humanity’s influence and learn how to be, basically, human in their assumptions about the world.
Specifically, the newts are treated as animals. They are used as forced labor to extend the continents and build new land areas for humanity to colonize. They are experimented on and vivisected and, in some cases, even eaten (though their meat has to be cooked delicately to make it palatable). When they destroy the continents with explosives, they apologize for the carnage, making it clear they don’t want anyone to be hurt, but that they have to take the land in order to fit their growing population. It’s the worst, most banal, unselfaware explanation since, for example, the taking of Native American lands by the U.S. And perhaps that’s why no one in the book is really horrified, even through their anger: the newts are simply being more effective people than they are.
The book is a history, mostly, told through found documents, interviews, and small scenes that give clear pictures of how newts are treated and how people see them. There are no heroes, and there are no villains, and there isn’t even a single continuous character, really, from beginning to end. This makes War with the Newts hard to get lost in, though it also makes it intensely fascinating to me as I wait to see what Čapek comes up with next.
I’m not sure it’s a recommendation (the book is pretty good, however) but I can’t imagine this book or anything much like it being published today (in the U.S. at least).
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite parts of the book, and most emotionally affecting. This is the final section of a scientist’s self-description of his investigation into Newt physiology:
[The newt Hans] was an able and intelligent animal with a special bent for scientific work; he was employed in Dr. Pinkel’s department as his assistant, and even refined chemical analysis could be entrusted to him. We used to have long conversations with him in the evenings, amusing ourselves with his insatiable thirst for knowledge. With deep regret we had to put Hans to death, because my experiments on trepanning him made him blind. His meat was dark and spongy, but did not cause any unpleasant effects. It is clear that in case of war Newt flesh could form a welcome and cheap substitute for beef.