War with the Newts by Karel Capek (Book Review)

I’ve been hyper-aware of cautionary tales of late. Some are set in our modern day world and in the future often begetting, lamenting, or proselytizing the coming age – AI, machine learning, driverless cars, 3-D printers, and so on. But, what if there was a book, written in the darkest history of the last few generations – current history in the making notwithstanding?

War of the Newts by Karel Capek is that book. Within the book’s 233 pages, Capek details a history of a race of Newts on a small, far distant unknown island. The Newts keep to themselves, but when approached are helpful, learn easily, and can breed quickly. Sounds Utopian, doesn’t it?

Learn is the key word here. The humans who discover the Newts are thrilled the creatures are able to learn so quickly and adding to their…value…to human society. Unfortunately, the Newt’s learn so quickly and understand the nuances behind the desire of the humans to control them, they soon surpass the humans in their abilities. Yes, you guessed it. They begin to take over, and now the Newts are in control.

Translated into English from the original Czech, I would rank this story with the likes of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and George Orwell. It is science-fiction at its best. Written in 1936, it is a light in the dark of those times, and in Harry Potter vernacular – “he and those who shall not be named.”

In the Note on the Author at the end, these lines rang sonorously:

“They (the Newts) are also symbols of our own shadows which have assumed a life and reality of their own because we have instilled such life into them by our own selfishness, hatred, and lack of charity.

Thus the book is an ironic and grotesque caricature of a society which finds itself defenseless in the face of a race of monsters which it has reared and armed.” – Egon Hostevsky

Though you may or not have heard of Karel Capek, you are likely quite aware of something he invented. Best known for his play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) written in 1921. It has been said he invented the robot.

It’s not an easy read, though it’s told simply. It bounces about, slows down and speeds up, at what seems at times more like a boat ride on a gently rolling wave than the wild roller coaster we’ve come to expect from science-fiction.  Which makes sense if you want readers to take special note. Force them to slow down so they savor every morsel.

This is a book which needs to be read. A reminder, you might say, of what can happen when something which seems so simple and so easy, goes unchecked.

 

 

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