Science Fiction Studies

#68 = Volume 23, Part 1 = March 1996

Karel Čapek

The Author of the Robots Defends Himself*

I know it is a sign of ingratitude on the part of the author, if he raises both hands against a certain popularity that has befallen something which is called his spiritual brainchild; for that matter, he is aware that by doing so he can no longer change a thing. The author was silent a goodly time and kept his own counsel, while the notion that robots have limbs of metal and innards of wire and cogwheels (or the like) has become current; he has learned, without any great pleasure, that genuine steel robots have started to appear, robots that move in various directions, tell the time, and even fly aeroplanes; but when he recently read that, in Moscow, they have shot a major film, in which the world is trampled underfoot by mechanical robots, driven by electromagnetic waves, he developed a strong urge to protest, at least in the name of his own robots. For his robots were not mechanisms. They were not made of sheet- metal and cogwheels. They were not a celebration of mechanical engineering. If the author was thinking of any of the marvels of the human spirit during their creation, it was not of technology, but of science.** With outright horror, he refuses any responsibility for the thought that machines could take the place of people, or that anything like life, love, or rebellion could ever awaken in their cogwheels. He would regard this somber vision as an unforgivable overvaluation of mechanics or as a severe insult to life.

The author of the robots appeals to the fact that he must know the most about it: and therefore he pronounces that his robots were created quite differently—that is, by a chemical path. The author was thinking about modern chemistry, which in various emulsions (or whatever they are called) has located substances and forms that in some ways behave like living matter. He was thinking about biological chemistry [sic], which is constantly discovering new chemical agents that have a direct regulatory influence on living matter; about chemistry, which is finding—and to some extent already building—those various enzymes, hormones, and vitamins that give living matter its ability to grow and multiply and arrange all the other necessities of life. Perhaps, as a scientific layman, he might develop an urge to attribute this patient ingenious scholarly tinkering, with the ability to one day produce, by artificial means, a living cell in the test tube; but for many reasons, amongst which also belonged a respect for life, he could not resolve to deal so frivolously with this mystery. That is why he created a new kind of matter by chemical synthesis, one which simply behaves a lot like the living; it is an organic substance, different to that from which living cells are made; it is something like another alternative to life, a material substrate, in which life could have evolved, if it had not, from the beginning, taken a different path. We do not have to suppose that all the different possibilities of creation have been exhausted on our planet. The author of the robots would regard it as an act of scientific bad taste if he had brought something to life with brass cogwheels or created life in the test tube; the way he imagined it, he created only a new foundation for life, which began to behave like living matter, and which could therefore have become a vehicle of life—but a life which remains an unimaginable and incomprehensible mystery. This life will reach its fulfilment only when (with the aid of considerable inaccuracy and mysticism) the robots acquire souls. From which it is evident that the author did not invent his robots with the technological hubris of a mechanical engineer, but with the metaphysical humility of a spiritualist.

Well then, the author cannot be blamed for what might be called the worldwide humbug over the robots. The author did not intend to furnish the world with plate-metal dummies stuffed with cogwheels, photovoltaic cells, and other mechanical gizmos. It appears, however, that the modern world is not interested in his scientific robots and has replaced them with technological ones; and these are, as is apparent, the true flesh-of-our-flesh of our age. The world needed mechanical robots, for it believes in machines more than it believes in life; it is fascinated more by the marvels of technology than by the miracle of life. For which reason, the author who wanted—through his insurgent robots, striving for a soul—to protest against the mechanical superstition of our times, must in the end claim something, which nobody can deny him: the honor that he was defeated.

*First published as a newspaper column in Lido'vé noviny, 43 (290), 9 June 1935, 9. Collected in: Karel Čapek, O umení a kulture III. (Spisy XIX). Praha: Ceskoslovensky spisovatel, 1986, 656-657.Translated from the Czech by Cyril Simsa. The translator would like to thank Norma Comrada for allowing him to refer to the excerpts from her own translation of this article contained in her Oregon Council for the Humanities Chautauqua presentation: "Karel Čapek: the Man Who Gaves us Robots, Karburators and the White Plague." Any inadequacies in the finished text, needless to say, are entirely his own.]

**Throughout this text, Čapek makes a consistent distinction between the words v da (literally "science," though one presumes he means what we would today call the natural sciences) and technika ("technology"). The translator has done his best to preserve this usage, even though it is not a distinction that translates entirely happily into English.

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