Friday, February 23, 2007

War With the Newts

Karel Capek's War With the Newts was written in 1936 (wiki, amazon) and is about exactly what the title suggests, humankind's war with a race of newts. While this sounds like a stupid premise for a book, it is perhaps one of the best science fiction books I've ever read. It is inspired. Mankind discovers a race of newts trapped in a bay and kept at a population minimum by hungry sharks and the Newts' lack of access to sharp tools. Recognizing their potential, they are given sharp knives and liberated from their bay to serve mankind as slave labor, retrieving pearls, building new land, fixing shoreline, and doing all manner of ocean-related labor.

That's not the inspired part. The inspired part is that War With the Newts skewers everything. Karel Capek reads like Vonnegut, only dryer, and in my opinion, better, poking fun at humanity in general, the military-industrial complex (remember, 1936 - well before Ike coined the term, Capek is obviously criticizing it), German eugenics, German anti-semitism (pre-WWII), national defense and the arms race, international squabbling, the rich, the poor, movies, Americans, utopianism, lynching (seriously - I'll quote below - you can bundle it up with American criticism, because that's obviously who he's targeting), political office, sexual politics, science, several nationalities in general (the newts parody their captors), learning, humanity as Newts and Newts as humanity, popular culture, and his own book (in the last chapter - very Tom Jones). And the satire looses little over 70 years. I'm surprised this book was never even mentioned in any of the lit classes I had that used science fiction, nor by any of my science fiction obsessed professors.

Here's a footnote quote example. You don't have to read Philip Dray's book At the Hands of Person's Unknown (a history of lynching in the U.S.) to realize how spot on this was in 1936:
"This may be the place to report that, especially in the American press, reports cropped up from time to time of girls who claimed to have been raped by Newts while bathing. In consequence, there occurred increasingly frequent instances in the United States of Newts being caught and lynched, mostly by burning at the stake. In vain did scientists protest against this popular custom by pointing out that on anatomical grounds such an offense on the part of salamanders was physically impossible; but a lot of girls swore that they had been molested by Newts, and this settled the matter for any right-minded American. Later the popular burning of Newts was restricted by being licensed only on Saturdays and only under the supervision of the Fire Department."


PrincessMax said...

You had science fiction obsessed professors!?!

Well, color me green and call me jealous because mine asked my why I couldn't do my reports and reasearch on real literature.

Christopher said...

Hi, so I'm re-reading War With the Newts, and it has stcuk me that the internet should be able to answer certain random questions that I had during my first reading. If you have any knowledge I'd greatly appreciate it.

There are several footnotes throughout the novel, which are written in foreign languages. Several of these are written in a foreign alphabet as well (anything written in a roman alphabet is easy enough to figure out given various translators, and a wall full of dictionaries). For instance in "Up the Ladder of Civilization" there are two that sprung out at me 1) footnote 22 (page 159 Osers' translation) and footnote 32 (page 168 ibid.)

I understand that these are propably intended to not be read or understood, but I still am curious, and would like the internet to help me solve this conundrum.