Early translations of R.U.R. gave the word “robot”—derived from the Czech word for forced labor—to the English language. Subsequent users have, however, shifted its meaning. Rossum’s robots are slaves manufactured from artificial flesh and blood, but the word is currently applied in industry to refer to machines that mimic the actions of a human limb. The shift in meaning was begun when Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1926) extended the term to embrace a humanoid creature made of metal. It was taken a stage further when some science fiction writers who wished to discriminate between humanoid machines and humanoids made of artificial organic materials—and who were more familiar with Metropolis than R.U.R.—chose to restrict the term “robot” to metallic humanoids while calling fleshy humanoids “androids.”
The fact that people associate the term “robot” with machinery led some commentators to interpret R.U.R. as an allegory about mechanization. It can, indeed, be decoded in this way, but that was certainly not what Karel apek intended. He used a very similar plot in the novel Válka s mloky (1936; The War with the Newts, 1937), in which the role played by Rossum’s robots is played by a newly discovered race of intelligent animals. A novel that does feature marvelous machinery, Továrna na absolutno (1922; The Absolute at Large, 1927), proceeds in a rather different manner. It is true that apek was suspicious of the march of technology, but he was far more suspicious of the follies and mistaken ambitions of human beings, as can easily be seen in Ze ivota hmyzu (1920; And So Infinitam: The Life of the Insects, 1923), a satire he wrote with his brother Josef shortly after writing R.U.R.
R.U.R.’s primary target is the attitude of mind that Harry Domin represents: that human beings are—or ought to be—eager to be released from the burden of labor, for which they are in any case ill-adapted by virtue of their appetite for play and other diversions. Labor, according to Domin, ought instead to be done by beings specifically adapted to that task: beings without ambition or distraction and hence without rights to enable them to pursue ambitions or...
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