Science Fiction Studies

#140 = Volume 47, Part 1 = March 2020


Prosthetic Personhood in R.U.R. Most SFS readers will be aware that Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots, 1920) provides a defining template for all subsequent robot stories, not only through its depictions of artificial persons but also through the very neologism “robot” itself, which stems from the Czech word for “worker” and “slave.” The term is appropriate, for the play offers a scathing critique of assembly-line production and sheds light on the dehumanizing conditions of the people forced to work in this way. This, at least, is a predominant way R.U.R. has been analyzed in existing scholarship, which is to say as a satirical take on the emergence of the modern factory, with its attendant attributes of efficiency, time management, and modular labor. This reading makes excellent sense, and the play confirms it unambiguously in an early scene, when the Director of R.U.R. notes that the process of building robots is “just like making a car.”

I would like to return to this same moment, however, to tease out a different but complementary perspective, namely, that the production of the robots—and their parts—in R.U.R. resonates with the swift advances in prosthetics that occurred in the wake of World War I. In both readings, the human body is valued primarily for the specific labor it is capable of performing and often becomes indistinguishable from it. With this hypothesis in place, a closer examination of this early scene will be instructive.

The play begins with Domin, the “Director General” of R.U.R, who dictates to his robot secretary a business letter confirming an order of “15,000 robots.” He is interrupted by Helena Glory, an ambassador from a human rights organization, who has come to investigate whether or not Rossum’s robots are at risk. Domin finds the suggestion ludicrous and aggressively insists that the robots are not at all human. When Helena refuses to believe this, Domin proposes that they take Sulla, his secretary, to “the dissecting room” and “open her up” so Helena can have a better look. The assembly of robots is a piecemeal process, he explains, with various machines devoted to the production of their individual components:

I’ll show you the mixers ... [for] mixing the dough. Each one of them can mix the material for a thousand robots at a time. Then there are the vats of liver and brain and so on. The bone factory. Then I’ll show you the spinning-mill ... where we make the nerve fibres and the veins. And the intestine mill, where kilometers of tubing run through at a time. Then there’s the assembly room where all these things are put together, it’s just like making a car really. Each worker contributes just his own part of the production which automatically goes on to the next worker, then to the third and on and on.... After that they go to the drying room and into storage where the newly made robots work.

Although the earliest known prosthetics date back to antiquity, in the form of a false toe found on an Egyptian mummy and a fake leg on a buried Roman soldier (Coughlan), the manufacture of prosthetic limbs became a modern science after “the unparalleled destruction of the First World War combined with improved emergency medical care.” Consequently, “thousands of servicemen surviv[ed] their devastating injuries and subsequent amputations. The situation demanded both increased production of artificial limbs and improvements in prosthetic device technology” (“Prosthetic Devices”).

In an article from 1956, “Economic Aspects of the Artificial Limb Industry,”McCarthy Hanger, Jr. details the swift advances made in this area:

Some of the more outstanding of the mechanical devices invented by members of the industry in the last 50 years are: many different designs of artificial hooks, which are designed to fulfill particular needs such as those of the farmer, mechanic, or office worker, as well as the needs of daily living; ball bearing joints of several different designs for amputations below the knee or at the knee; the hip control or pelvic method of suspension above the knee limbs; limbs made of aluminum alloy and of fiber; all-rubber functional ankle joints; mechanical hands of several different designs, which have contours resembling a human hand, and which provide grasp; non-functional hands with cosmetic plastic covering which are quite life-like in appearance. (69)

This passage is consistent with the piecemeal parts with which the robots in R.U.R. are constructed. Here, each prosthetic part is fitted to an individual profession: “farm, mechanic, or office worker.”In R.U.R., each robot is assembled and trained in a profession the day it is created. In fact, the robots themselves are enlisted in the process of their own assembly, each assigned to a particular station within the factory. Robot occupations include accountants, typists, construction workers, and cooks, while a recently invented line includes “tropical robots,” half a million of which have been earmarked for “the Argentine pampas to grow corn.”

In “Reconstructing the Crippled Soldier,” a Red Cross treatise by Douglas C. McMurtrie, the tone is one of unbridled optimism: “Perhaps the one of greatest consequence for the future is the new attitude toward the war cripple—a human waste product at last coming to be utilized” (1). Pictures of disabled veterans fitted with occupation-specific prosthetics appear throughout its pages. In one particularly powerful photograph, a man with a prosthetic arm works to sharpen a scythe, the metal of his prosthesis meeting the metal of the scythe’s blade. Its caption is unambiguously positive: “A farmer, crippled in the war, ready to go back to his former work” (6). It is also of interest for another reason. A scythe is the tool of the farmer, but it also signifies death as the Grim Reaper’s weapon of choice. Its presence here connects the farmer to that cluster of associations as well, suggesting someone who has both survived a brush with death and reclaimed use of its deadly instrument.

R.U.R.’s robots take on any possible job; this capacity emerges from their mode of piecemeal production: mills, vats, mixers, spinners, assembly rooms, and stampers that are responsible for making robot intestines with “kilometers of tubing,” for manufacturing robot livers and brains, for mixing robot “dough” providing the raw “material for a thousand robots at a time,” for weaving the robots’ nerve fibers and veins, for putting these disparate components into a coherent, working whole, and finally for dissecting defunct robots to “grind” them down to “powder.” Each of these devices or spaces singles out a single body part for creation, which will then be joined with its other constituent parts. In R.U.R.’s vats, prosthetic objects grow in order to be assembled for service.

Karel Čapek was not himself a soldier; he was excused from combat on account of a spinal disability. Yet he was profoundly affected by the war and continued to write about it for years after its conclusion. In such writings, one recognizes an unsettling and familiar set of images. Of the soldiers of his generation, he writes:

Half of them were fighting on various fronts, where they were croaking from dysentery or “dragging their bowels across the battlefield,” the other half didn’t find it worthwhile buttoning up their trousers as they were running from muster to muster, from hospital to hospital. It was a repulsive makeshift life; no one would have given sixpence for our skins.... (Believe 36)

The description of the soldiers’ bowels as external to their bodies is not unlike the “tubes” of intestines manufactured in the robot factory, while “running from muster to muster” has some similarity to the way robots are ordered about and commanded to perform a variety of tasks, none of their choosing. The fact that soldiers could not even take time to dress completely suggests a dehumanizing schedule in which modesty and propriety have been stripped from them. The “makeshift” nature of their existence speaks to an on-the-fly process of living that affords no certainty or security. And the low cost of their “skins”—a common metonym, to be sure, but one that takes on extra resonance when compared to the early scene in which Domin invites Helena to touch Sulla’s face to test the realistic texture of of her skin—is not terribly different from the way the robots are marketed: “Latest invention; Robots for the Tropics. 150 d. each ... Reduce the Cost of your Products!”

In a subsequent passage in his reflective essay, Čapek makes the following statement: “if mine is a generation at all, God knows in what many and sundry places it is.... You’d have to dig it out from the mass graves at the front, from ordinary working life” (42). Division, dying, exposed organs, running to and fro at the beck and call of military assembly, and located finally in “many and sundry places”: it is not difficult to see in the tragedy of the disposable soldier, divided in life and dispersed further in death, its continuity with Rossum’s manufactured and disposable robots.—Lisa Swanstrom, SFS


Čapek, Karel.  Believe in People: The Essential Karel Čapek. Trans. Šárka Tobrmanová-Kühnová. London: Faber, 2010.

─────.  R.U.R. 1920. Project Gutenberg. Online.

Coughlan, Sean. “Oldest Prosthetic Helped Egyptian Mummy to Walk.” BBC News. 2 Oct. 2012. Online.

Hanger, McCarthy, Jr. “Economic Aspects of the Artificial Limb Industry.” Orthotics and Prosthetics 10.2 (1956): 65-79.

McMurtrie, Douglas C. “Reconstructing the Crippled Soldier.” Red Cross Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men. 1918. Online.

“Prosthetic Devices.” Medicine in World War I Exhibit. Yale Univ. Library. Online.

The Senses of Science Fiction: Visions, Sounds, Spaces Conference. On 5-7 December 2019, the Speculative Texts and Media Research Group, based at the University of Warsaw’s American Studies Center and headed by Paweł Frelik, held its first international conference. “Senses of Science Fiction: Visions, Sounds, Spaces” began with a Thursday evening screening of Dead Slow Ahead (Mauro Herce, 2015) that was introduced by Mark Bould. It continued on Friday and Saturday, offering eighteen sessions and two keynote lectures devoted to  aesthetics and sense perception in a variety of works of sf (understood broadly). Taking place at a similar time of the year as 2018’s “Worlding SF” conference in Graz, “Senses” reunited many of the last year’s participants and offered another proof that early December is a good time for a midsize sf-related scholarly event. The topic proved specific enough to allow for a clear thematic consistency but also invited a broad range of perspectives.

The presentations addressed the call to reclaim the place of the sensory in science-fiction cultures and called attention to the specificity of sf aesthetics across different media and lesser acknowledged sense perceptions. The presentations engaged with sight and sound but also other senses, including smell, touch, and taste. Topics included investigations of the aesthetic overlap between science fiction in representations of Mars and narratives of virality, the futurity of contemporary music videos, the role of aesthetics in representing asexuality, the connection between the culture of drug use and the development of sf literature, Lo-Fi Sci-Fi aesthetics in contemporary Brazilian cinema, and a cross-media aesthetic analysis of adaptations of The Handmaid’s Tale. Of note was a stream of panels entitled “Ab-Sense: Sensation, Sense-Making, and the Absent in Science Fiction,” co-organized with the London Science Fiction Research Community and headed by Francis Gene-Rowe. The panels successfully managed to open up the topic of the conference even further by exploring various homonyms of “sense” while still staying close to the tenor of the event. Both keynote lectures were highlights. Coming from two distinct sensibilities and offering very different theoretical perspectives, both managed perfectly to take advantage of the keynote format. Amy Butt’s talk about the spaces of science fiction was richly rooted in her experience as an architect and impressive in its textual scope, theoretical relevance, and—last but not least—the beautiful economy of her presentation slides. Erik Steinskog’s appeal to conceptualize science-fictionality in aural rather than visual terms, illustrated by a number of examples ranging from Sun Ra to CopperWire’s Earthbound and clipping’s Splendor and Misery, to Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, was passionate, intellectually stimulating, and ambitious in its aim to splice together various theoretical perspectives.

Largely due to the high quality of the contributions, the conference proved to be informative, inspiring, and aesthetically pleasing. A full program of the event is available at <>.—Filip Boratyn, University of Warsaw, Poland

(Re)Thinking Earth: From Representations of Nature to Climate Change Fiction, 22-23 April 2020 in the National Library of Portugal, Lisbon. Earth Day was first celebrated in the United States on 22 April 1970. It now mobilizes citizens and communities worldwide, representing the first massive expression of public concern with the ecological sustainability of our planet and launching the modern global environmental movement. As much of the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020, our symposium, “(Re)thinking Earth,” aims to bring together plural perspectives under the collaborative interdisciplinary model of the environmental humanities. We invite papers on a range of topics that may include nature writing over time and space, global voices in ecopoetics, affect and ecocriticism, climate change in contemporary fiction, reimagined pastoral landscapes, space and scale in environmental writing, agro-ecological storytelling, the anthropocene, representations of environmental science in literature and film, the climate change crisis in visual culture, ecomedia and environmental science, climate change in utopian and dystopian literature, postcolonial and indigenous representations of environmental collapses, sf/fantasy and environmental crises, film and televisual representations of climate change, environmental ethics, and environmental education/literacy. Submit a 250-word abstract in English or Portuguese by 15 March 2020, accompanied by a brief bio-note. Letters of acceptance will be sent no later than the end of March. Send inquiries and abstracts to Teresa Botelho at <> and to Isabel Oliveira Martins at <>.<>.—Teresa Botelho and Isabel Oliveira Martins, National Library of Portugal, Lisbon

Call for Articles: Ready Reader One: The Stories We Tell About, With, and Around Videogames. Videogames are a powerful storytelling medium, but what are the stories we tell about videogames, with videogames, around videogames? While there is an extensive body of scholarship on how videogames create worlds, construct characters, and explore themes, there has been almost no scholarship on the representation of videogames in literary texts. Yet the study of the stories we tell about videogames, with videogames, and around videogames can shed new light on how conceptions of character, space, time, the body, and identity are being reshaped by new forms of play, playable media, algorithmic systems, surveillance culture, and social media. We seek essays by scholars interested in establishing the foundations for the study of this fascinating but underappreciated body of literature. The essays will appear in an anthology that we are calling “Ready Reader One: The Stories We Tell About, With, and Around Videogames.” We are primarily interested in scholarly work on written literatures: short stories, novels, poetry, autobiography, creative nonfiction, rap lyrics, fan fiction, and graphic fiction. While we are less interested in essays on cinematic and televisual representations, we welcome exceptional proposals in this vein. Possible topics include analyses of individual texts whose focus is videogames, videogame players, or videogame culture; the representation of videogames, videogame players, or videogame culture in texts that are not “about” videogames per se but feature them in some significant fashion; and comparative analyses of texts that focus on a specific genre of videogame, such as MMORPGs, virtual worlds, fighting games, etc. Send abstracts of 300-700 words to Dr. Megan Amber Condis and Dr. Mike Sell at <> by 31 March 2020.<>.—Megan Amber Condis, Texas Tech, and Mike Sell, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

SFRA Awards Renamed. After the votes were cast and tallied, the SFRA  formally changed the names of two of its awards. The award formerly known as the Pilgrim Award will hereafter be known as the SFRA Award for Lifetime Contributions to SF Scholarship; the award formerly known as the Pioneer Award will hereafter be known as the SFRA Innovative Research Award. The former names remain on the website so that any past recipients can still be found using either the old or the new monikers. Full information on the awards, their description, recipients, and award committees can be found on our website in the pages under the Awards tab.

I want to thank SFRA members for beginning this debate, for suggesting alternate names, and for voting. The forum, now closed for further discussion, remains posted on the site, so that members (current, past, and future), can retrace the considerations that led to the change.—Keren Omry, President, Science Fiction Research Association

Call for Essays: Hélice. An online journal in Spanish and English, Hélice <>, welcomes new research for its May and November issues. We are particularly interested in discovering and encouraging new talent among graduate students in the areas of English and Spanish speculative fiction, both European and Latin American. Apart from academic articles and reviews, we welcome brief texts relevant to sf studies based on personal reflections that follow a non-academic essay format.—Dr. Sara Martin Alegre, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

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