Fantasy at large--a true history of science fiction and moral imagination in the works of Karel Capek.

Author:Hala, Peter
Position::Critical essay

There is a popular computer science adage--"To err is human, but to really mess things up you need a computer." For better or for worse, we are all affected by science and technology in every minute detail of our lives. Industrialization reflected the changing world-views after the Reformation, and the development of small sophisticated computers finally allowed the unprecedented proliferation of technology into all areas of modern life. The many technological wonders and benefits of science are unquestionable. Yet, and perhaps as the result of all these amazing achievements, there is a general tendency to downplay or ignore the detrimental and threatening aspects of such awesome sophistication.

Optimists see our age as the final frontier of science, the last exciting push to split the atom one more time to finally discover the "God particle," or to split the DNA and find the ultimate mysteries of life or of God's creation.

Others are deeply concerned, even fearful, of what these new discoveries may mean, or how they can be misused and abused, very much like Marshall McLuhan was concerned about the blindness to the downside of technology. To an increasing number of people science and research which involves the most profound concerns about life, human dignity and freedom, seems like the Faustian bargain. Goethe may have been an optimist, but can today a mad scientist, a modern doctor Jekyll, or a smart nerd, like those from the popular The Big Bang Theory TV series, finally break through and discover some deep or ultimate secret of life and mind?

In 1921 Karel Gapek's play RUR or Rossum's Universal Robots premiered in Prague, with the subsequent productions in New York, London, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. The play became an instant success and a new word 'robot' appeared. In 1938 an RUR adaptation was broadcast by the BBC in what was the first piece of TV science fiction. RUR was also broadcast on BBC Radio in 1941 and 1948, proving the long-lasting fascination of the audiences with the intriguing themes of the play. The enormous success momentarily elevated Karel Capek to the status of one of the best-known science-fiction writers and playwrights, although later his work became shunned and almost forgotten.

Alluding to the Czech word 'rozum' (brain, reason, or intellect) and to science and technology run amok, which is the play's main theme, RUR challenged the unrestrained scientific development culminating in the hi-tech carnage of two world wars, hinting at the conflict of evolution vs. religion as the root problem, prefiguring the ethical conundrums of our modern genetic engineering and other sophisticated technologies.

The word 'robot' is today a widely used term in science and technology, and the modern robotic production lines are amazing. 'Robota' in Czech means work, 'rabota' in various Slavic languages also means hard work or servitude, from the old root 'rab' meaning serf or slave. In Capek's play the word robot thus also raises an important dehumanizing and exploitive social dimension of the oppressive industrial servitude which has been felt by the working men since the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

A derivative has emerged, 'web robot' or 'bot', a sophisticated software which could be used for malicious or clandestine Internet activity. Surveillance of citizens by their own governments has become a huge concern, as it could quickly erode the hard fought-for freedom and democracy. It might lead to a Big Brother police state, or to what Hilaire Belloc called the Servile State, inevitably resulting in constant surveillance. Disturbing robotic crowd control and robotic warfare seem inevitable, very much like in the play RUR. What a century ago was mere fiction is becoming reality. Karel Capek was the first successful playwright to explore these themes in drama.

A century ago the art of science fantasy was not only leading and prefiguring many important scientific discoveries, but the science-fiction imagination also reflected the values and judgments of ordinary people, presenting an imaginary mirror, casting an ethical and moral judgment on the scope and influence of science and technology.

Historically, the genre developed in parallel with the Industrial Revolution, but the roots of science fantasy reach into the ancient times and they reveal the deepest conflict between two essential ideas--the ancient Judeo-Christian messianic vision with its 'heaven and earth' paradigm, and the ever recurring 'heaven on earth' hope for a happy and just society here rather than in the afterlife. Paradise or Eden has been at the very focus of human imagination since the ancient times. Long before Plato mentioned Atlantis, poets Hesiod and Homer were yearning for a happy society.

Philosophically, Aristotle severely criticized Plato's communist anti-family Republic where women and children were held in common. Literarily, the Greek writers expressed their yearning to live in a happy place by writing adventure stories, their heroes, like the mythical Argonauts, were sailing these as looking for islands or cities with perfect and happy kingdoms. The Syrian-born Roman rhetorician and writer Lucian (Loukianos) of Samosata (115-200 AD) satirized such stories in his work "A True History" (or "A True Story"), in which he described how a whirlwind blew a ship of terrestrial explorers into the outer space where they discovered fantastic societies inhabiting the sun, moon, planets and stars, and where the militant extraterrestrials flew on large vultures, undoubtedly inspiring the Klingon Bird-of-Prey warships in Star Trek and the flying horse-birds in Harry Potter. However, like the earth-dwellers, these extraterrestrial kingdoms were also at war with each other, and far from perfect. The point of Lucian's satire was that the peaceful terrestrial kingdoms and paradise islands, and the ideal happy planets and stars, if indeed inhabited, were all fiction. Lucian didn't spare the philosophers proposing or designing ideal societies either, because he wrote that Plato went back to live in his fictitious Republic, cheerfully submitting to his own Laws.

Lucians satire of cynic Peregrinus, who took advantage of the gullibility of Christians, is one of the earliest pagan perceptions of Christianity. Such criticism of Christianity by the very popular Lucian prompted even the Greek Christian Fathers to respond, and eventually the New Christian Rome or Byzantium became by far superior to all the other known societies. Throughout history Christians, whose main aim has been the 'kingdom of heaven, were repeatedly accused of being gullible and neglecting the temporal worldly affairs. St. Augustine's response to the fall of Rome was his City of God, in which he balanced the two Christian loves--the love of God and the love of self and others (Lev. 19:18, Lk. 10:27, etc.). Pagans thought they had to choose to belong either to the City of God (Jerusalem) or to the City of Man (Rome), but there was a third 'ideal' choice, the City of Man, or state, formed or informed by the values of the City of God. Such society was superior to any other possible human state or republic, pagan or otherwise.

These concepts were later refined by St. Thomas Aquinas, who, based on the philosophy of Aristotle, also distinguished between two human forms of love, love of passion and love relating to will or intellect. But Aquinas distinguished another form of love, caritas or supernatural love, which exceeds ordinary human love of either kind. Relating to man's soul, our intellect forms abstractions or universal meaning from the images in our brain. It is through passive intellect that we receive "phantasms", via sensory perception and dreams, daydreams, or internal appearances, and we must form the proper meaning of such phantasms by actively analyzing the received data through the agency of our intelligence, reason, or by good judgment and wisdom.

The word 'fantasy' is derived from the Greek 'phantasm' meaning appearance or phantom. Aristotle and Aquinas stressed the need to intelligently reflect on these phantasms, whatever their origin, natural or supernatural (angelic or demonic), or else they could become mere fiction which can overwhelm us and deceive us into drawing wrong conclusions, and our imagination might succumb to such haunting phantoms.

Finally, we act or must act, accordingly. For Aquinas the right action meant a rational choice based on eternal or natural law which applies universally. Thus the concept of 'right' emerges from 'good 'through law and order or reason. Ethics is based on practical reason, science on theoretical. Just as there are universal natural laws like gravity, there are also 'natural' universal social laws based on the "jus divinum" or the divine law in the mind of God, flowing from God through His love (caritas), which the Creator instituted as universally valid for the human race for all time. The same kind of law, "jus naturale" or natural law, that directs our daily lives and choices towards good, directs social or political affairs towards common good. Individual nations can customize their societies (constitutions) based on their preferences, but this process is not science but rather the art of politics. For Aquinas "art" (beauty, harmony) also involves intellect and wisdom, and it cannot be haphazard, like through a drug induced hallucination.

When the Byzantine scholars and emigres brought Plato's and Lucian's works to the culturally backward Italy in the 15th century,...

To continue reading