The first book of the project is a play, which is an early indicator of how esoteric this list really is.
R.U.R. stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots, the latter term being coined by Karel Capek (an enigmatic Czech writer perhaps best known for his bizarre novel War With The Newts) as a derivation of the Czech word for “drudgery” or “labor:” hence, “Robot,” in this context, transcends and pre-dates the early century’s depiction of a tin man. Capek’s “Robots” are automats, workers, but they are biological in nature, built from manmade parts that are vat-grown in a factory by some unexplained scientific process invented by the elder Rossum, a tinkerer. In this sense, these Robots are like Golems, brought to life from primordial matter.
R.U.R. is a B-movie play. Romance and revolution happen automatically, with little precedent, almost as though the story were meant to be mythological, allegorical, a kind of passion play with stilted deliveries and exaggerated, iconic costuming. Although it was never meant to be, I’d like to see it as a shlocky Hollywood production — R.U.R.’s plot (robotic workers take over the world) is remarkably obvious. Still, its readers must always remember that Capek precedes Asimov, not to mention Ray Kurzweil. R.U.R. is the first in the genre: It formulates the fear of robots as well as naming it. It has no optimism about a future powered by automats, not even briefly: the manufacture of men is posited as a disaster before disaster even falls. These Robots, these workers, are not imbued with morality, or even a sense of physical pain, a combination which makes them ruthless from the start. Not to mention, of course, that the primary function of the manufactured men is as automatic soldiers, fighting human wars.
The play occurs in three parts: first, the isolated Robot factory (an island), staffed by human scientists, facing criticism from a petulant politician’s daughter, representing some kind of humanity league. She is troubled by the emotionless treatment of the Robots, but her pleas for compassion sound too facile, and the male factory workers both deride and fawn over her, the first woman they’ve seen in ages. She is quickly subsumed, falling for the charismatic company president.
In act two, the Robots have already begun an insurgence, killing millions of humans — all of them, it’s implied — everywhere on Earth but the Robot factory. They surround the factory, armed to the teeth, psyching out the trembling scientists and their bride, who represent the very last dregs of humanity. The Robots have a manifesto, as well as a leader, and they aim to annihilate their creators. After a long stalemate, a blitzkrieg of violence finishes off the humans, all murdered save for one, spared because he was a worker himself.
In the last act, the Robots have been ruling the world for some time, actively building and fixing everything, until they have worked themselves to exhaustion. With no human scientists to repair them and the secret of their genesis murdered with the scientists who invented it, the Robots turn to the only surviving human, the worker, who has devoted his life to cracking the secret of life, to no avail. It seems the Robots are facing extinction, as they were never designed to last much longer than twenty years. As the story winds down, a pair of young Robots are introduced, expressing an as-yet-unseen romantic fervor for one another. Although R.U.R. never states it, it’s implied that this couple will be the Adam and Eve of the Robot generation, a fortuitous return to biological reproduction. There’s a kind of horror to it, like at the end of Jurassic Park when it becomes apparent that the dinosaurs are reproducing, despite being bred genderless.
I do wonder if Kapek was influenced by Freud’s essays on the uncanny — it seems that R.U.R. is largely about the human, sterile, too-similar faces of the robots as they stand in silent mutiny along the edges of civilization, clutching rifles. Although Rossum’s Robots are created with a utopian vision in mind (“In ten years’ time Rossum’s Universal Robots will be making so much wheat, so much material, so much of everything that nothing will cost anything,” a character proclaims in the play’s opening scene), they quickly turn into a threat, tearing through the Robot factory like stylized automat hellions, stabbing all the remaining humans.
Freud wrote that the human desire to create a “double” — a catchall phrase covering all likes of dopplegangery, and a mantle which fits nicely the human-looking Robots — is a kind of insurance against the destruction of the ego, a preservation against extinction. Certainly this is the initial Rossum motive. However, the double is both comforting and alarmingly uncanny precisely because it is not human, not the self. The Robots lack all the fears that make humans tick; at one point, a baffled woman asks a servant Robot, “Aren’t you afraid of death?” Coldly, the Robot answers, “No.”
Freud writes of the double’s ambiguous position between comfort and terror, that “from having been an assurance of immortality, it [the double] becomes the uncanny harbinger of death.” Freud was thinking of puppets imbued with mysterious animism, and disembodied human hands dancing across the floor, but Capek’s Robots are the ultimate doubles: manlike in almost every capacity, but manmade and precisely inhuman.
During the play’s final stand between Robots and humans, a scientist remarks, “We made the Robot’s faces too much alike. A hundred thousand faces all alike, all facing this way. A hundred thousand expressionless bubbles. It’s like a nightmare.”
NEXT BOOK: WILLIAM GIBSON’S NEUROMANCER.