War With the Newts by Karel Čapek

Well, it’s been a while but I’m back with a review of a book I recently finished. I don’t know if I’ll manage to review all of the books I’ve read this year — so far, there’s six this month alone, though one of those I’m reviewing for a newspaper– but I quite enjoyed this bizarre novel and so I figured I’d mention it here.I’ve wanted to read the book since 2001 or so, when my friend Jack was reading it, but I only got myself a copy a few years ago and, well, finally I made the time for it. I’m very glad I did.

Karel Čapek is, of course, the Czech author of R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), the play that popularized the last word in the title and is therefore remembered widely by SF fans. War With the Newts seems less widely remembered (if perhaps, I hope, more widely read), and is once again is a scathing satire of humanity, this time with special attention to how our inhumanity and our greed could spell our undoing. The book is, in fact, many things all that once: an attack on colonialism and slavery; a mockery of several major nations–especially across Europe, and most often of Germany’s racist fantasies, already very prominent by 1936 when the book was published in Czech; but also a satire of capitalism and greed, of the human tendency to think in the short term, and to be blinded by imaginary things like nation-states and their borders, or the special status on one’s own group, even in the face of impending annihilation. There’s delightful mockery of philosophy, of religion, of explorers and exploration, and much more.

And the best thing is: it’s really a story less about a war between humans and the sentient newt-slaves that humans kidnapped from Southeast Asia and spread all around the world, and much more about that process itself and how it led, inexorably, to war.. well, if humans likely being destroyed by the Newts counts as war.

Also worth noting is that Čapek has great fun with all those sorts of things that “postmodernist” novelists like to pretend they invented: the narrator becoming a character in the story, footnotes of incredible length, a self-reflexive (and perhaps at times unreliable) narrator, and so on. This book reminded me how fun–and educational–it can be for an author to destroy the world.

While plenty of readers seem to like to think Čapek was especially prescient in his mockery of 1930s Germany, and of World War II in general, I think it’s much more stunning if you read this as a kind of satirically-veiled ecological holocaust. As much as the Newts are made to stand in for oppressed groups of people, they also can be seen as a (subhuman) personaification of Nature itself. And when you read it that way, it looks pretty stunningly prescient of the conundrum we’re facing now in terms of climate change. If you screw Nature hard enough, eventually it will react, as the Newts do in this novel’s “war.”

I highly recommend this book to any reader, though especially for anyone writing speculative fiction, especially satire, and anyone feeling a little stifled by the traditional narrative form and voice we tend to default to in SF stories. But you don’t need to be a writer to enjoy this book–it’s brilliant and hilarious on its own.

Ah, and by the way, the original language of the book is Czech. My copy was translated by Ewald Osers, and is the Unicorn edition published in 1985 by Unwin. There’s a newer translation out, and while I haven’t read it, I have heard good things about it. It must be tricky to translate such a bristling satire and sharpness of voice as Čapek’s, but I found the Osers was very well done.

All of which is to say, I’ve added Čapek to my list of authors I need to read more from…

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