Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Quote of the Day: Rossum’s Universal Robots

 

“Robots of the world! The power of man has fallen! A new world has arisen: the Rule of the Robots!” — Karel Čapek

Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a once-popular 100-year old play by Czech writer Karel Čapek, made its television debut on the BBC, 82 years ago today, on February 11, 1938. It was the first televised science-fiction program in world history, introducing a wider audience to the term in the play’s title, one which has endured with increasing significance in the English language ever since: “robot.”

Čapek’s play was first performed in Prague in January of 1921, and was subsequently translated into English, having fairly successful runs in London and New York over the next few years. I haven’t read it myself, but a DePauw University plot summary is as follows:

In Capek’s play, Rossum’s Universal Robots, Robots are mass produced by other Robots on assembly lines. The idealistic Helena Glory, President of The Humanity League, believes that Robots have (or are developing) souls, and feels that they should be freed.

The Robots can clearly think for themselves, though they’re content to serve. They remember everything, but think of nothing original or unique. The eccentric scientist Old Rossum was bent on assuming the role of the Creator by artificially reproducing a man in intricate detail, while the pragmatic economist/industrialist Young Rossum produces stripped-down versions of humanity to be sold as inexpensive workers—Robots.

Every so often, one of the Robots will throw down their work and begin to gnash their teeth. While many disagree (including Dr. Hellman, psychologist in Chief); Helena Glory feels that it’s evidence and a sign of the emerging soul of Robots. After marrying Harry Domin, General Manager of R.U.R., Helena presses scientists to modify some of the robots, so that their “souls” could develop quicker and more fully. Meanwhile, the drive for industrial civilization is at an all-time high, and fertility rates are dropping very low. One of Helena’s modified Robots issues a foreshadowing plan, “Robots of the world, you are ordered to exterminate the human race. . . Work must not cease!”

Domin possesses the formulas for creating the Robots, and plans to use it for a bargaining tool. Helena, ignorant of the true threat at hand, burns the formulas. The Robots gather and kill all the humans, leaving only the Clerk of R.U.R. The Robot leader, Damon tries and tries to get the Clerk (called Alquist) to discover how to help them populate the earth, but to no avail—as they don’t know how to produce other Robots.

Eventually, two Robots, Helena (a beautiful modified Robot named after Helena Glory); and another Robot named Primus fall in love. With the blessing of Alquist, the lovers are married, and renamed Adam and Eve.

The title of the play, even in English incorporates a couple of Czech words, “rossum” (the last name of two main characters), meaning “wisdom” or “sense,” and “robota,” meaning, umm, “robot.” The word “robota” itself is derived from the Czech “rab,” meaning “slave,” and was historically associated with serfs laboring in their master’s fields during the feudal era (and beyond). The first bit of etymology rang a bell with me, as we have a family saying, “nie ma rozum” which is best delivered while jabbing an index finger at the skull of the object of one’s ire, and which means, roughly, “this person has no wits.” It came down to us from Mr. She’s much-loved “barrel-shaped Polish grandma,” and I suspect its origins go back much further than she (lower case “s”).

In its English translation, the play received mixed reviews, with The Forum Magazine calling it a “thought provoking, highly original thriller.” Isaac Asimov, however, wasn’t impressed and said, “Capek’s play is, in my own opinion, a terribly bad one, but it is immortal for that one word. It contributed the word ‘robot’ not only to English but, through English, to all the languages in which science fiction is now written.” Of course, the outcome of Rossum’s Universal Robots, in which the robots wipe out the entire human race, would have been unimaginable in Asimov’s science-fiction world.

Still, I was struck by a number of themes mentioned in the plot summary that cut a bit too close to the bone, given the state of play in the world at the moment. (Wikipedia has a lengthier version which is even more alarming in this respect.) Makes me think I should read the original, at least in translation.

Meanwhile, I’m going to rest up for a moment as the Roomba vacuums my carpet. (He seems like a pretty innocuous, non-threatening little guy. For now.) If only someone would invent an industrial-strength model that would shovel out the barn for me. Then again, perhaps not.

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  1. Arahant Member

    She: (He seems like a pretty innocuous, non-threatening little guy. For now.)

    But does he give rides to the cats?

    • #1
    • February 11, 2020, at 6:09 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  2. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    She: Meanwhile, I’m going to rest up for a moment as the Roomba vacuums my carpet. (He seems like a pretty innocuous, non-threatening little guy.

    Have you ever heard the adventures of Stabby the Space Roomba?

    https://rubynye.tumblr.com/post/190213019140/on-the-topic-of-humans-being-the-intergalactic

     

    • #2
    • February 11, 2020, at 6:10 AM PST
    • 8 likes
  3. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker (View Comment):

    She: Meanwhile, I’m going to rest up for a moment as the Roomba vacuums my carpet. (He seems like a pretty innocuous, non-threatening little guy.

    Have you ever heard the adventures of Stabby the Space Roomba?

    I had not. But thanks!

    OTOH, I do recall a conversation here some years ago about Roombas and pets, and the havoc and mess that is wrought when one runs over organic matter produced by the other. It didn’t strike me as “Robot’s Revenge” at the time, but I’m re-thinking.

    • #3
    • February 11, 2020, at 6:22 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  4. Arahant Member

    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker (View Comment):

    She: Meanwhile, I’m going to rest up for a moment as the Roomba vacuums my carpet. (He seems like a pretty innocuous, non-threatening little guy.

    Have you ever heard the adventures of Stabby the Space Roomba?

    “Aren’t you just a spinning bundle of death!”

    I love Stabby.

    • #4
    • February 11, 2020, at 6:29 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  5. Bishop Wash Member

    She (View Comment):

    Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker (View Comment):

    She: Meanwhile, I’m going to rest up for a moment as the Roomba vacuums my carpet. (He seems like a pretty innocuous, non-threatening little guy.

    Have you ever heard the adventures of Stabby the Space Roomba?

    I had not. But thanks!

    OTOH, I do recall a conversation here some years ago about Roombas and pets, and the havoc and mess that is wrought when one runs over organic matter produced by the other. It didn’t strike me as “Robot’s Revenge” at the time, but I’m re-thinking.

    I’m sure that this is in my media library because of that discussion. 

    • #5
    • February 11, 2020, at 6:52 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  6. Manny Member

    I should read the original play myself. I think I have it somewhere but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were free online somewhere. It sounds like a communist manifesto for robots! ;) Great post She. A very enjoyable read.

    Edit: Your link took me to the Gutenberg online publication. Thanks.

    • #6
    • February 11, 2020, at 7:07 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  7. Randy Webster Member

    I knew I had some Capek in my library, and thought it was RUR but it turned out to be War with the Newts.

    • #7
    • February 11, 2020, at 3:36 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  8. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    I knew I had some Capek in my library, and thought it was RUR but it turned out to be War with the Newts.

    A great title! What’s it about?

    • #8
    • February 12, 2020, at 6:06 AM PST
    • Like
  9. Randy Webster Member

    She (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    I knew I had some Capek in my library, and thought it was RUR but it turned out to be War with the Newts.

    A great title! What’s it about?

    It’s been about 45 years since I read it. I’ll have to refresh my memory.

    • #9
    • February 12, 2020, at 2:36 PM PST
    • 1 like
  10. Amy Schley, Longcat Shrinker Moderator

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    I knew I had some Capek in my library, and thought it was RUR but it turned out to be War with the Newts.

    A great title! What’s it about?

    It’s been about 45 years since I read it. I’ll have to refresh my memory.

    Not 1990’s House politics?

    • #10
    • February 12, 2020, at 3:43 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  11. OkieSailor Member
    OkieSailor Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    She: begin to gnash their teeth.

    Why would they have teeth?

    Asking for a friend ;>)

    • #11
    • February 13, 2020, at 3:40 AM PST
    • Like
  12. OmegaPaladin Moderator

    I’ve always preferred robots that were treated well and were nice back. I’ve always liked the Tachikomas from the anime Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Imagine an eight-legged spidertank with the curious personality of grade school kids. (yes Japan is weird, news at 11) They are actually great comic relief for the series.


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    • #12
    • February 13, 2020, at 4:46 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  13. Arahant Member

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):
    (yes Japan is weird, news at 11)

    Yet, they probably think we’re a bit weird, too.

    • #13
    • February 13, 2020, at 5:12 AM PST
    • 1 like
  14. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    OkieSailor (View Comment):

    She: begin to gnash their teeth.

    Why would they have teeth?

    Asking for a friend ;>)

    Actually, the “creatures” are less like Robots, and more like what we call androids or replicants, in that they are created from some form of organic protoplasm, rather than built from mechanical parts. Old man Rossum’s original goal was to create a group of artificial human beings who would serve man (“doing the jobs humans just won’t do,” I guess), but since his “robots” were basically memory machines who could remember everything, but think of nothing original, they, and their good masters would live peaceably. 

    What could possibly go wrong?

    Well, what went wrong was Rossum Jr., who went into mass-production and assembly-line mode. Somewhere along the way, things went haywire, and the robots “turned.” As they do.

    So I’m guessing that they had teeth to gnash because it was the old man’s vision to get as close to completing the job of creating an artificial human being as he could.

    • #14
    • February 13, 2020, at 5:59 AM PST
    • 2 likes