Review: ‘War With the Newts’ by Karel Capek

‘War With the Newts’ is a darkly satirical novel, written in 1936 by the man who brought us the word ‘robot’, Karel Capek, and which has similarities to his play ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ (‘RUR’ – which it is published together with, in the SF Masterworks collection). Indeed, the novel has been adapted for stage itself, and may have made a better statement about some of the themes than the now somewhat dated ‘RUR’.

The novel tells of the discovery of an aquatic species of intelligent newts who are enslaved by the human race, and speaks eloquently of many issues and crimes with a human root: isolationism, fascism and Nazism, colonialism, the arms race and (as just one of many examples of racism) segregation in America. All of these are perhaps unsurprising, given the time it was written in, the geopolitics of the day and the rise of Nazi Germany; yet, the themes are still disappointingly pertinent and will resonate with today’s reader in a truly accessible and memorable way.

It must be said that the author’s opinion of America was pretty low and this is apparent in his writings, especially with regards to its track record on racism, but that does not mean that other nations are spared judgement; one particular passage about appeasement even foretells with eerie accuracy the Munich Agreement of 1939, whereby the author’s own country tried unsuccessfully to appease the Nazis.

Darko Suvin, the SF literary academic and critic, hailed ‘War With the Newts’ as “the pioneer of all anti-fascist and anti-war SF” and I am inclined to agree with him. I haven’t read the book for a few years now but it had enough of an impact on me to stay in my mind since, and I just wanted to say how much of a worthy read it is.

I end with a disquieting quote from the novel, itself;

“It suddenly occurred to me that every move on the chessboard is old and has been played by somebody at some time. Maybe our own history has been played out by somebody at some time, and we just move our pieces about in the same moves to strike in the same way as people have always done.”

RUR and War with the Newts

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