Wednesday, March 31, 2010
21. The War with the Newts by Karel Čapek
Wow, what a cool book! Sometimes truly classic sci-fi can be a bit austere and difficult to get through (say, for instance, We or Flatland), but this was thoroughly enjoyable. It was written in 1937. At the time, Capek was a succesful playwrite and satirist. The War with the Newts is basically the story of what would happen if intelligent, industrious creatures were discovered that would do in the sea what we do on land, e.g. build and populate.
There is no real protagonist, nor a single storyline. The book is more like a fake collection of historical artifacts, with some fiction thrown in highlighting various episodes in the history. It starts off with the captain of a merchant ship who first discovers these 'devils' (as the natives call them) in an avoided lagoon on a south pacific island where the pearls are mostly harvested. Realizing that not only is their lagoon filled with oysters, but that the newts are capable of harvesting them extremely efficiently for the cheap price of some knives to fight off sharks, their natural predators, he sets about making friends with them.
The newt's 'intelligence' is a major issue in the book. They can learn and grow increasingly more sophisticated. But they never seem to develop any real culture or individual personality. A lot of the book is about the various human reactions to the existence of the newts, socially, intellectually and ultimately economically. When it is discovered that they are capable of great underwater engineering projects, they soon become turned into labour commodity, with giant newt farms and newt trading markets. A lot of this section really made me think of District 9, except this book actually takes the concept much further and it really does make you think, why weren't the prawns in District 9 exploited for labour?
The War with the Newts is funny, prescient and really enjoyable. This is true science fiction at its best, in that the author came up with a novel concept and then took it to its limit. In doing so, he also reflects a very critical mirror back on humanity and our own social and political limitations. Top notch and definitely deserving of its classic status.