Thursday, January 1, 2009

SF authors born 1884-93: 1890

1. Karel Čapek
2. H. P. Lovecraft
3. E.E. Smith


Karel Čapek (1890-1938)

Čapek, one of the most influential Czech litterateurs of the 20th century, was born in Malé Svatoňovice, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary (now Czech Republic). The name is pronounced something like "Chop-ek." An internationally important playwright, novelist, and essayist — and a fine satirist. He studied philosophy and received his doctorate in Prague in 1915. After the independence of Czechoslovakia he allied himself to the theatrical world; with his brother Joseph he managed a theater. His first books were collaborations with hia brother, the pair being noted for their verse play The Insects (1920). About the same time Karel, alone, achieved international success with his drama R.U.R., which first opened in Prague in 1921.

Čapek "can be considered one of the founders of classical, non-hardcore European science fiction, a type which focuses on possible future (or alternative) social and human evolution on Earth, rather than technically advanced stories of space travel," a Wikipedia entry notes, as of this writing. "However, it is best to classify him with Aldous Huxley and George Orwell as a mainstream literary figure who used science-fiction motifs." Many of his works discuss ethical and other aspects of revolutionary inventions and processes that were already anticipated in the first half of 20th century. These include mass production, atomic weapons, and post-human intelligent beings such as robots or intelligent salamanders. In addressing these themes, Čapek was also expressing fear of impending social disasters, dictatorship, violence, and the unlimited power of corporations.

Capek is remembered as one of the European authors who wrote about the evils of "scientific barbarism" which could be seen in the rise of Nazism and Fascism. In the 1930s, Čapek's work focused on the threat of brutal Nazi and fascist dictatorships. His most productive years coincided with the existence of the first republic of Czechoslovakia (1918–1938). Soon after it became clear that the Western allies had refused to help defend Czechoslovakia against Hitler, Čapek refused to leave his country — despite the fact that the Gestapo had named him Czechoslovakia's "public enemy number 2." Čapek died of double pneumonia on December 25, 1938, shortly after part of Bohemia was annexed by Nazi Germany following the so-called Munich Agreement. His brother died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

After the war, Čapek's work was reluctantly accepted by the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia, because during his life he had refused to accept a communist utopia as a viable alternative to the threat of Nazi domination.

Čapek's most important non-SF works attempt to resolve problems of epistemology, to answer the question: "What is knowledge?" Examples include "The Tales from Two Pockets", and the first book of a novelistic trilogy that includes Hordubal, Meteor, and An Ordinary Life.


* R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots): A Fantastic Melodrama (Doubleday, Page: Garden City, N.Y., 1923; the play — Rossumovi univerzální roboti — premiered in '21). Karel Čapek, R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots): A Fantastic Melodrama (Doubleday, Page: Garden City, N.Y., 1923; the play premiered in '21). This surreal morality play takes place in the 1960s or so, and it's set in the factory of a (USA?) manufacturing concern that has shipped hundreds of thousands of "Robots" — biological humanoids designed for cheap labor — around the world. (The term, coined by Čapek's brother, comes from the Czech for "serf labor," or "drudgery." We'd call Čapek's Robots "androids," now. See Spock-like sketch from the '22 New York production, at left.) The Robots, which have a limited life span, are supposedly soulless. Not so, claims Helena Glory, a liberal activist married to the factory's GM (who envisions a utopia in which humans won't have to do any work). At Helena's urging, R.U.R.'s scientists develop Robots tricked out with extra humanity... at which point they rise up and exterminate humankind. In an epilogue, Alquist, R.U.R.'s construction engineer and the last surviving human, give his blessing to two new-model Robots, Primus and Helena, who have discovered love. Dubbing them the new Adam and Eve, Alquist warns them to avoid the sins that destroyed his own species, then sends them forth to be fruitful and multiply.

PS: R.U.R. was written in 1920, premiered in Prague early in 1921, was performed in New York and London in 1922, and published in English translation in 1923. The following year, G.B. Shaw and G.K. Chesterton (both of whom wrote some SF) were among those in London participating in a public discussion of the play. Capek responded, via The Saturday Review, to what he felt was the excessive thematic attention they and other critics paid to one of his devices: "For myself, I confess that as the author I was much more interested in men than in Robots." It is one of the most frequently anthologized plays ever written.

* The Absolute at Large (1922 as Továrna na absolutno; published in translation, Macmillan, London, 1927). In the near future (i.e., the Thirties), a Czech scientist invents "perfect combustion," and an industrial concern starts manufacturing an atomic reactor that provides cheap energy — with an unexpected byproduct: God. To be precise, it's the Absolute, the spiritual essence that permeates every particle of matter... or did, anyway, until matter began to be annihilated by the super-efficient Karburetor. Instrumental rationality, and the capitalist cult of efficiency, are satirized brilliantly by Čapek. As they're released from imprisoning matter by the Karburetors and Molecular Disintegration Dynamos cranked out in the thousands by Ford Motors (the novel's Czech title means "the factory of the Absolute") and other manufacturers around the world, God-particles infect humankind with wonder-working powers and ecstatic religious sentiments. What's more, the Absolute begins operating factories itself, producing far too many finished goods for anyone to consume: "It wove, spun, knitted, forged, cast, erected, sewed, planed, cut, dug, burned, printed, bleached, refined, cooked, filtered, and pressed for twenty-four to twenty-six hours a day." As a result, economies collapse, unemployment is universal, and from 1944 through 1953, fanatical sects whose -isms (including rationalism, nationalism, and sentimentalism) are religious only in the broadest sense do battle. Every single country on the planet is drawn into the Greatest War, during which everyone invades everyone else, atomic weapons are deployed, and civilization collapses. Now, that's instrumental rationality operating at peak efficiency.

* Krakatit: An Atomic Fantasy (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1925). An English translation of the Czech author's 1924 novel. A queer inventor discovers the most powerful explosive ever, but he refuses to share it with (see above) Earth's flawed political powers. The Art Deco jacket design captures both the excitement and terror of such a discovery. The stylish typeface says, "Not to worry, the future is awesome!" But K. Romney Towndrow's artwork — an explosion rending the very planet in half — says, "Yes, worry." Still, this is a satire, so we're not encouraged to take things too seriously; the illustration kinda reminds us of limelights in a canyon of skyscrapers. It's as though we were approaching a 1925 Hollywood movie opening, perhaps Marion Fairfax's The Lost World. Fun facts: The book was adapted as a 1947 movie (d. Otakar Vávra) and a 1960 opera (Václav Kašlík); both are supposed to be tremendous. The 1925 US edition of Krakatit has a more restrained, but still fun, jacket.

* War with the Newts (1939 in English; Válka s mloky, Dr. Borovny, Prague, 1936). Dystopian satire. Intelligent nets become "civilized." One of the best modern satires on intolerance, militarism, and exploitation. MORE TK.


H. P. Lovecraft (TK)



E.E. Smith (TK)


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