War With The Newts & Anticipation

The MIT Press ReaderJohn Rieder, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, shares the following, excerpted from the book Uneven Futures: Strategies for Community Survival From Speculative Fiction:

On Karel Čapek’s Prophetic Science Fiction Novel ‘War With the Newts’

The Czech writer’s darkly humorous novel, published in 1936, anticipated our current reality with eerie accuracy.

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.

Read the whole article here.

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