Review: War with the Newts by Karel Čapek

“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.”
~Karel Čapek, War with the Newts

Plot summary

“Man discovers a species of giant, intelligent newts and learns to exploit them so successfully that the newts gain skills and arms enough to challenge man’s place at the top of the animal kingdom.” More on Goodreads

On Karel Čapek
Karel Capek, War with the Newts (1955 - Banthams Books)
Karel Capek, War with the Newts (1955 – Banthams Books cover)

“Karel Čapek is one of the the [sic!] most influential Czech writers of the 20th century. He wrote with intelligence and humour on a wide variety of subjects. His works are known for their interesting and precise descriptions of reality, and Čapek is renowned for his excellent work with the Czech language. His play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) first popularized the word ‘robot’.” More on Goodreads

“They all had a thousand good economic and political reasons why they couldn’t stop. I’m not a politician or a businessman; how am I supposed to persuade them about these things. What are we supposed to do; quite likely the world will collapse and disappear under water; but at least that will happen for political and economic reasons we can all understand, at least it will happen with the help of science, technology and public opinion, with human ingenuity of all sorts! Not some cosmic catastrophe but just the same old reasons to do with the struggle for power and money and so on. There’s nothing we can do about that.” ~Karel Čapek, War with the Newts

Key concepts
  • Animals gone wild
  • Prophetic satire
  • The difficulty of human communications
Review

Well, if you thought that George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) was revolutionary, think again. And I have to say, Animal Farm is one of my favorite novels. Karel Čapek (1890-1938) and the newts in his book are not taking over a single farm but pretty much the whole planet. I read War with the Newts in my teens and the book just blew me away. I’m not so sure how the reading experience would currently be if I re-read the novel. I sort of wish to preserve the sensation it had on me years ago.

War with the Newts falls into the category of all those things under “I told you so, this cannot end well!”, capturing the element that humans are incapable of learning from past mistakes. This dilemma is often presented in science fiction where boundaries of humanity are examined when robots/androids/replicants turn against their former masters. Čapek shows a potential outcome of unsuccessful cooperation between species.

In the treatment of the newts and how humans make decisions, Čapek paints a gloomy picture of reality. Human vice after another come to the fore – greed, slavery, maltreatment, cultural imperialism and others to name a few. In the end, the story is not really about newts but about the chaos that reigned in mid-30’s in Europe.

I honestly do not want to spoil the fun, so this review will be very short indeed. Btw, I ran into another WordPress review on the novel, go check it out on Kate Macdonald‘s blog.

Also, check out the post 10 Neat facts about newts by Mark Mancini at mental_floss.

More information
– Lydia Millet: Lydia Millet On Karel Capek’s War With the Newts, published on 20 December 2011, link retrieved on 4 November 2016
– Robert Zubrin: The War with the Newts: A Prophetic Satire Is Once Again Relevant, published in National Review on 29 April 2014, link retrieved on 4 November 2016
– Daniel Spacek (2011): War with the Newts – Movie concept art for the adaptation of Karel Čapek’s novel, link retrieved on 4 November 2016

Other novels and stories by Čapek
  • R.U.R. (1920)
  • The Absolute at Large (1920)
  • Krakatit (1922)
  • Tales from Two Pockets (1929)
  • The White Disease (1937)

“Besides, people never regard anything that serves and benefits them as mysterious; only the things which damage or threaten them are mysterious.”
~Karel Čapek, War with the Newts

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Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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