Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448
apek started his literary career by writing short stories in a pessimistic vein. He would later soften his pessimism and write with humor, even cheerfulness, yet he was always drawn to the dark secrets of human nature. In The Absolute at Large , he tried to illuminate some of those...
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- Critical Essays
apek started his literary career by writing short stories in a pessimistic vein. He would later soften his pessimism and write with humor, even cheerfulness, yet he was always drawn to the dark secrets of human nature. In The Absolute at Large, he tried to illuminate some of those secrets on a cosmic scale. Although he often wrote to entertain, he combined entertainment with a warning against the negative impulses of human behavior. In doing so, he was often philosophical in his approach, in the tradition of liberal humanism of European intellectuals between the two world wars.
The Absolute at Large is a satire not only on human mores but also on some of the most pressing dilemmas of the twentieth century. The most obvious satire is on the common belief in steady progress brought on by scientific achievements such as atomic energy. The novel reflects somewhat skeptically on the beneficial effects of the splitting of the atom, treating it as an example of the “genie out of the bottle” syndrome. Instead of bringing only benefits, it creates problems such as how to control the unleashed energy, overproduction, alienation, and ultimately war. Although apek did not foresee the horrors of nuclear bombs (he would do that in a 1924 novel, Krakatit), he predicted the divisions, enmity, and war among various nations. To be sure, the wars in The Absolute at Large are based on religious differences and intolerance dating back thousands of years, but the discovery of atomic energy increased the ferocity of the divisions.
The religious wars serve apek only as a pretext for lashing out at fanaticism of any kind. apek speaks as a true humanist immediately after World War I, having witnessed a catastrophe involving many nations and causing almost as much suffering as the fictitious wars of his novel. The novel appeared on the eve of the rise of totalitarian systems in Italy and Germany that gave rise to as much intolerance as in The Absolute at Large. By musing that if annihilating conflicts can happen in the realm of religion, apek warns of dangers in other areas.
Because of its societal and semiphilosophical overtones, the novel is not science fiction in the classical sense. apek uses the framework of the genre to hint at, and warn of, possibilities for the future. Although not everything from the novel has come true, apek did predict important happenings: the power of the atom, often difficult to control; another world conflagration; and warfare fanned by religious intolerance. In this sense, the novel is a moral story, a parable, a satire, and a fictionalized philosophical essay, with enough science-fiction traits to make it a potential vision of the future.