On Karel Čapek’s Prophetic Science Fiction Novel ‘War With the Newts’
Karel Čapek’s “War with the Newts,” published in 1936, one of the greatest pieces of science fiction of the 20th century, is a prophetic work. When I say prophetic, I mean it has the gift of seeing the present for what it is — and not only seeing it but also telling the rest of us what we have been looking at. “War with the Newts” said to its contemporaries that their civilization was living on borrowed time; it explained how ultimately suicidal the shortsightedness and injustice of their way of living was. Eighty-five years later, after the Trump administration erased “climate change” from its official websites and the world digs furiously deeper into the pit of fossil fuel dependency, Čapek’s apocalyptic vision has if anything become even more eerily, powerfully unsettling than it was in the context of Europe teetering on the brink of the Second World War.
At the same time, “War with the Newts” is also a very funny book. Čapek was a master of the light-hearted journalistic form called the feuilleton, which Webster’s defines as “a part of a European newspaper or magazine devoted to material designed to entertain the general reader.” “War with the Newts” originally appeared in a Prague newspaper as a series of feuilletons; the central section of the novel pretends to be a collection of haphazardly collected, wildly ludicrous newspaper clippings about the Newts. Čapek is certainly telling his readers about their own vanity, folly, and absurdity. But if “War with the Newts” is a jeremiad, it is the jeremiad as delivered by a stand-up comic.
It is definitely an odd novel, one with no central character, flitting across decades and continents at a frenetic pace. The plot concerns a species of intelligent, dam-building salamanders, the newts of the title, who are discovered in an isolated bay in the Pacific where their population is barely maintained against predation by sharks. The Dutch captain of a pearl-fishing boat gives them knives to combat the sharks; in return, they give him pearls. It turns out that the newts are not just handy at building dams and finding pearls. Once freed from their predators, they are also astoundingly prolific. Their numbers multiply from a few hundred to more than a million in only a few years. In fact, they turn out to be so prolific and such good pearl gatherers that within a few more years the entire Pacific pearl fishery has been depleted, and the market is glutted. With the pearl trade exhausted, the Pacific Export Company makes a momentous business decision: instead of using the newts’ labor to supply them with pearls, they will market the newts’ labor itself. Which is to say, they decide to go into the slave trade.
It really is a slave trade, not some sort of cattle industry, because the newts do not just build dams: They also speak, dance, read and write, and, eventually, become inventors and math professors and formidable technicians. They are not human, but they are definitely persons. It is difficult to understand how the analogy of the newts to colonized peoples could not have always struck readers as one of the most obvious features of the novel, but indeed literary critics for many decades managed to fail to explore the devastating power of Čapek’s critique of colonialism. One of the main thrusts of Čapek’s satire is to show, over and over, how the human world renders the newts into a kind of natural resource as laborers and simultaneously makes them invisible as fellow beings. All the while as the newts are being invaded and exploited in pursuit of the massive expropriation of natural resources, then bought and sold as slave labor, they are also being exoticized, fetishized, anatomized and experimented upon, forced into ghettos, and made into scapegoats. Indeed, detailing the various ways in which humans look at and fail to see the newts makes up most of the novel.
The second part of “War with the Newts,” titled “Up the Ladder of Civilization,” is made up mostly of a heterogeneous collection of newspaper clippings, including, in the order in which they appear:
- a “Newt Market Report” indicating that a million newts have been sold in the previous month, employed in titanic projects worldwide such as widening the Panama Canal and dredging the Torres Straits;
- “Thirty-Six Drowning Passengers Saved by Newts,” recounting the newts’ heroism in a Madras ferry boat collision with a steamship, commended by the local authorities, although “the native population, on the other hand, is most indignant that the Newts should have been allowed to touch drowning persons of higher caste”;
- a series of reports on the so-called S-trade, boasting that “if the slave trade in the past had been as well organized and as hygienically practiced as the present Newt trade, the slaves could have been congratulated”;
- a follow-up on the illegal trade in newts, based on mass abductions, in which “it is estimated that on an average between 25 and 30 percent of the captured Newts survive transportation”;
- reports on projects employing the newts, including the construction of a Greater Italy, “which would take up virtually the entire Mediterranean,” new islands constructed by Japan and Germany, and “the world’s first aircraft island” built by the United States “with a giant hotel, a sports stadium, a Fun Park and a cinema seating five thousand,” all of which signify to the narrator that “man was beginning to realize that only now was he truly becoming the Master of the World, thanks to the Newts”;
- a piece on the first scientific congress on newts, which reports a series of experiments concerned entirely with determining how much pain the newts can withstand and how little food and water is necessary in order to keep them alive; a magazine piece titled “Do Newts Have Souls?” with witty answers by luminaries such as G. B. Shaw, Toscanini, and Mae West;
- a summary of initiatives to devise a universal language to accommodate the worldwide spread of the newt population, though unfortunately “a different Universal Language was championed in each country”;
- reports on the founding of an “international League for the Protection of Salamanders,” which has ensured that “Newt work camps and hutments were surrounded by tall wooden fences to protect the Newts against all kinds of molestation, but mainly to ensure that the world of salamanders was sufficiently segregated from the human world”;
- reports in the American press “of girls who claimed to have been raped by Newts while bathing,” in consequence of which there has been a series of lynchings; an account of the emergence of a new religion, the cult of the Great Salamander, which “gained no adherence among the Newts at all, but it had quite a following among humans”;
- a Communist Manifesto addressed to the newts, rendered incomprehensible by the censor’s erasures; a summary of the opposing views that take shape regarding “the Newt Problem,” one recognizing the newts as “a new working class,” the other viewing them as “a dangerous competition to the human workforce”; the appearance of the first scientific paper written by a newt, “The Geological Composition of the Seabed near the Bahamas”; and, finally,
- a summary stating that the newts, now seven billion strong, “have joined the ranks of enlightened nations” to bring about an age of “unprecedented prosperity.”
Framing this riotous display is a parodic hymn to progress. There we learn that what makes the newtish Golden Age possible is an all-too-familiar form of short-range calculation: “Historical events could no longer be measured in centuries or even decades, as had been customary in world history until then, but by the three-month periods for which the quarterly economic statistics were published.” What may be lost in the long-term perspective, we are assured by the naive narrative persona, is made up for in efficiency: “Take the migration of peoples which used to drag on over several centuries: Today, with our present organization of transport, it could be accomplished in three years; otherwise there would be no profit in it. The same is true of the liquidation of the Roman Empire, the colonization of the continents, the extermination of the Red Indians, and so on. All these things could have been accomplished incomparably more speedily if they had been put in the hands of entrepreneurs with a lot of capital behind them.”
The combination of the horrors of colonial history and the logic of the capitalist corporation in this passage is a key to the prophetic insight of the entire work. The not-so-funny joke at the heart of “War with the Newts” is our seemingly infinite capacity to place our faith in two self-contradictory fantasies: the capitalist fantasy of a constantly expanding economy, and the colonial fantasy of empty lands whose very reason for existing is to be occupied and exploited by the colonial masters. Thus, on the one hand, the newts are quickly set to work constructing artificial islands to satisfy the imperial powers’ appetite for land. On the other, the narrator assures us in the triumphant conclusion to the second part of the novel that “say what you will, the Newts have brought enormous progress to the world . . . The world’s entire future lies in a continually increased consumption and production — so we need even more Newts to produce even more and consume even more.”
Perceptive readers, at this point, might say to themselves, “but remember what happened to the pearl fisheries.” More is not always better. Of course, what Čapek is doing is ridiculing the quasi-religious orthodoxy with which this capitalist enthusiast embraces the belief that corporate profit is the fundamental goal of production — as opposed, say, to the material welfare of the society. He is also resurrecting as joke the apocalyptic logic of Marx’s critique of capital, with the newts as the ever-growing proletariat destined to finally overwhelm and transform the capitalist system. Čapek is most often remembered in Anglo-American literary and science fiction contexts as the person who coined the word “robot,” in the title and text of his 1920 play “R.U.R.”(“Rossum’s Universal Robots”) — but what is not always remembered is that robot is simply the Czech word for “worker.” The newts are in this sense Čapek’s ultimate version of the robot.
The third part of the novel is titled “War with the Newts,” an intentional misnomer both for this section of the narrative and for the novel as a whole, since the novel is almost entirely concerned for its first two thirds with humanity’s undeclared war on the newts; then, at the beginning of the third part, with a war between human nations with the newts as cannon fodder; and finally, as the story reaches its conclusion, with a series of negotiations between humans and newts over the terms of a global restructuring designed by the newts to provide enough shallow shoreline waters to accommodate the now tens of billions of them thronging the oceans. The narrative ends with the redesigned coastline reaching Prague. How far this “war” between humans and newts is from a Wellsian war of the worlds or a space opera, Flash Gordon type of adventure is summed up brilliantly in some of Čapek’s final words on the process. The narrator, here, is talking to himself:
Let me ask you this; do you know who even now, with one-fifth of Europe inundated, is supplying the Newts with high explosives and torpedoes and drills? Do you know who is feverishly working in laboratories night and day to discover even more efficient machines and substances to blow up the world? Do you know who is lending money to the Newts, who is financing this End of the World, this whole new Flood? “I do. Every factory in the world. Every bank. Every country.”
When I first read “War with the Newts,” as a teenager, my main takeaway was that this novel is hilarious. Later, as a graduate student, I reread it mostly in the light of the Marxist critique of capital’s self-contradictory and ultimately self-destructive logic. Still later, about 20 years into my career as an English professor, “War with the Newts” became one of my primary exhibits of science fiction’s historical engagement with colonialism. When I read it before writing this essay, as the Trump administration’s war on environmental regulations was grinding into its fourth year, I could not help but read Čapek’s fable in the context of climate change. And so I ask, who, even now, in full knowledge of the global rise in temperatures, the melting of polar ice, the ever more furious wildfires plaguing California and Australia, is feverishly working to produce even more fossil fuel? Who, even now, is inventing new techniques and designing new equipment to drain every last drop of oil from the ground? Who, even now, is burning more coal and oil every year than the year before? Who, even now, is financing this despoliation of the environment?
What Čapek’s jeremiad tells me these days is that the ironically appropriate outcome of the Anthropocene will be to impress the traces of Homo sapiens everywhere and upon everything in the world — while erasing Home sapiens itself. Let us hope that, instead, voices like those of Čapek will finally be listened to.
John Rieder is an emeritus professor of English at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. He is the author of “Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction” (Wesleyan University Press, 2008) and “Science Fiction and the Mass Cultural Genre System” (Wesleyan University Press, 2017). In 2019, he was awarded the Science Fiction Research Association’s Award for Lifetime Achievement. This essay is excerpted from the volume “Uneven Futures: Strategies for Community Survival From Speculative Fiction.”