War with the Newts by Karel Capek

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War with the Newts Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Although he was one of the most versatile and erudite writers of the century, today Capek is remembered mostly for his scientific/philosophical/satirical plays and novels. Alongside H. G. Wells he is also recognized to be one of the most important practitioners of pre-war science fiction. His writings on social, scientific and philosophical topics are of great value, inasmuch as they deal with issues rife not only in prewar Europe, but in the technological world of today: the dangers of modern warfare, the culpability of scientists for the fruits of their research, the nature of technological might, the allure of totalitarianism, or the illusory nature of an industrial Utopia.

Crucial though they are both to his fiction and nonfiction, these concerns arise from his quest for a narrative embodiment to an even more central theme: a moral definition of an individual and his role in a democratic society. This is not to suggest that these two goals are distinct from each other. Quite the contrary: much as in War with the Newts, Capek the philosopher/scientist is indistinguishable from Capek the social analyst/historian. For, sexual and emotional makeup apart, the thinking and oppressed salamanders are uncannily human, from the head to each of their five toes.

After all, Captain van Toch, who plays the seminal role in the Newts' integration into the human economy, is at the bottom a good man. He obeys a kind of code of honour even while he makes the Newts toil for him in an ironic parallel to the good old days of imperialism, during which Europe bore the white man's burden by bringing the torch of progress to savage lands, often by torching cultures too resilient to the ideals of the civilized world. On the surface, G. H. Bondy, the archetypal Captain of Industry who inherits from van Toch the idea of exploiting the Newts' industrial potential, is also a decent chap. He is, after all, deeply concerned (about his earnings), mindful of his fellow men (all of whom sit on the board of the Salamander Syndicate), and attentive to the Newts' needs (to the extent required to optimize their market value).

The theme which unites Capek's works is his constant striving to recast political, social, economic, scientific, religious and philosophical issues as moral ones. Not that the author sacrifices his penchant for satire and grotesque even among the most gruesome facets of contemporary reality. When he pillories the American South, where the presence of the Newts serves only as a handy excuse to burn and lynch more blacks, his ironic distance packs more punch than any earnest sermon. In another wrenching episode, and with similar detachment, he mocks the learned scientists who slay and vivisect salamanders in the name of knowledge, even while the sentient victims cry out to God for help. Whether the victims are black-skinned people or black-skinned Newts—insists the author—such actions and policies are simply morally indefensible. For, as the book reveals, the Newts are human in more than a symbolic sense. A report of an early paleontologist hypothesizes that the Salamanders may be living antediluvian fossils of the early man, while their genus name—Andrias Scheuchzeri—links them to the Greek word for Man: andros.

On another level, War with the Newts is a sustained investigation of the impact of science (as seen through new technologies, inventions, economic developments, philosophical dilemmas, quasi-religious miracles) on the social and moral character of mankind. Like in the works of Stanislaw Lem in the recent decades, Capek's critiques of scientism and technology worship stem not from any neo-Luddite prejudice, but from a humanist outlook on the relation between people and technology. It must be remembered that the...

(The entire section is 926 words.)