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  • 12/22/2004

Karel Čapek

Novelist, playwright, and editorialist

used word robot for first time


January 9,1890 -December 25,1938)

The Czech novelist, playwright, and editorialist Karel Čapek was born inMalé Svatonovice,Bohemia, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now theCzech Republic). Capek's elder brother, Josef (1887-1945), was a Cubist painter, novelist, and dramatist who collaborated with Karel on some plays and illustrated several of his brother's books. Čapek started to write poetry and short stories while still in high school. In 1909 he enteredCharlesUniversity in Prague, where he studied philosophy. Capek continued his studies in Berlin, and Paris, receiving his doctorate in 1915 for a thesis on Objective Methods in Aesthetics, with Reference to Creative Art. Capek settled inPrague in 1917, where he began to write for the leading daily,Lidové Noviny. Most of his essays were written in popular rather than formal Czech and were playful or humorous, but he also dealt with aesthetic life and politics.

He wrote with intelligence and humor on a wide variety of subjects. His works are known not only for interesting and exact descriptions of reality, but also for his excellent work with the Czech language. He is perhaps best known as a science fiction author, who wrote long before science fiction became established as a separate genre. He can be counted as one of the founders of classical non-hardcore European science fiction, which focuses on possible future (or alternative) social and human evolution on Earth, rather than technically advanced stories of space travel. However, it is best to class him with Aldous Huxley and George Orwell as a mainstream literary figure who used science-fiction motifs.

Many of his works discuss ethical and other aspects of the revolutionary inventions and processes that were already expected in the first half of 20th century. These included mass production, atomic weapons, and post-human intelligent beings such as robots or intelligent salamanders.

His other books and plays include detective stories, novels, fairy tales and theatre plays, and even a book on gardening. The most important works try to resolve the problem of epistemology, or "What is knowledge?": The Tales from Two Pockets, and first of all the trilogy of novels Hordubal, Meteor and An Ordinary Life.

His writings were very much pro-democracy and he vehemently denounced communism and fascism. Čapek, who had suffered from a spinal disease all his life, died of pneumonia, Christmas Day 1938, an exhausted and dejected man in the face of fascism's rising power. After the invasion ofCzechoslovakia in 1939 his works were blacklisted by the Nazis.

Later, in the 1930s, Čapek's work focused on the threat of brutal Nazi and fascist (but also Communist) dictatorships. His most productive years corresponded with the existence of the first republic of Czechoslovakia (1918-1938). He wrote Talks with T.G. Masaryk, a Czech patriot and first President of Czechoslovakia and a regular guest at Čapek's Friday garden parties for Czech patriots. This extraordinary relationship between the great author and the great political leader is perhaps unique, and is known to have been an inspiration to Václav Havel.

Karel Čapek died in the December preceding the outbreak of World War II and was interred in the Vysehrad cemetery in Prague. Soon after, it became clear that the Western allies had refused to help defend Czechoslovakia against Hitler. He refused to eat or leave his country and died of double pneumonia. The Gestapo had ranked him as "public enemy number 2" in Czechoslovakia. His brother Josef Čapek, a painter and also a writer, died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

After the war, Čapek's work was only reluctantly accepted by the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia, since during his life he had refused to believe in a communist utopia as a viable alternative to the threat of Nazi domination.

Etymology of Robot

Robota is a Czech cognate of the German word arbeit ("work"), from the Indo-European root *orbh- (http://www.bartleby.com/61/roots/IE363.html). It is usually translated as "serf" or "forced labor" and was the name used for the so-called "labor rent" which existed in Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1848. From this word K. Čapek created the word robot = a working or serving machine.

On the science fiction cartoon show Futurama, a planet inhabited entirely by robots was named "Čapek 9", as a reference to Karel Čapek's coining of the term "robot".

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