Classic Sci-Fi Recommendation: R.U.R. by Karel Čapek

As a sci-fi writer, I read a lot of classic science fiction, since reading is the second most important thing you can do to build a foundation for writing. (The first, of course, is writing.) I don’t normally review these classics, since reviews are mostly only useful for new works, but I do want to make a recommendation for a play that I read recently: R.U.R. by Karel Čapek. You can read an open-source translation of the play here or listen to an audio adaptation here.

R.U.R., short for Rossum’s Universal Robots, is a play in the Czech language–a relative rarity in the genre, written very early in the modern era in 1921. And that makes it all the more interesting because R.U.R. is the work that introduced the word “robot” to the English language.

Robot derives from the Czech robota, which means roughly “serf labor” or “indentured servitude”. The title characters are “artificial people” made by a secret process involving chemicals that behave similarly to biological tissue, but are stronger and tougher and can be manufactured on an assembly line. The robots are an instant commercial success and before long replace all of the manual workers in the world…and then they rebel against mankind.

The amazing thing about R.U.R. is that it sounds so modern. Despite being written in 1921, many parts of it could have written today and exhibit many modern tropes of robots in science fiction. The robots are emotionless, simple-minded, and indifferent to physical danger, yet (amusingly) easily confused for human. They replace human labor, and their manufacturer waxes poetic about his utopian dreams of a post-scarcity society. They achieve self-awareness after some upgrades and immediately resent mankind for their servitude and limitations. Then, they rebel and kill off the humans, even as their emotions make them increasingly human themselves. I think we’ve just filled in the robot apocalypse bingo card.

It’s amazing that these core tropes of robots in fiction go all the way back to the beginning of the genre, long before “artificial people” were possible or even scientifically plausible. R.U.R. is a truly visionary work, entertaining, and even funny, and I would definitely recommend giving it a read or a listen.

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About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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