Classic Science Fiction: R. U. R.

A dystopian future where a giant corporation has millions of robot workers which have put the masses out of work, in which man's struggles against his own creations raise questions about what it really means to be human. Am I describing the plot to the next Blade Runner movie? Not quite. This is R. U. R., a play written by the Czech writer Karel Capek in 1920. Nearly a hundred years old now, Capek's play echoes many of the concerns today about the consequences of robots and automation. Maybe in a hundred years those concerns haven't changed all that much.

Of course, every piece of science fiction is inevitably a product of its own time. His play was written at a point when the deep traditions of Western culture were crumbling and a new era of modernity was rolling in. Capek's concerns about individual freedoms were no doubt informed by the post-war Czech political climate, where World War 1 had just ended and at the same time there was a communist uprising in Russia. Capek's own nation would fall under communist rule within a few decades of the play's publication. So a lot of that background comes through in the play's characters and plot. But in many other ways the play is so strikingly modern that it could have been written yesterday.

His play was written at a of great flux. Its author's life, much like ours, was a life of constant change and upheaval, where few traditions were left to fall back on. So maybe it's not surprising that in this environment Capek wrote a play that was so original and influential, that it's ideas would change the shape of the science fiction of the next century. Its ideas were spread far and wide and would be imitated and adapted countless times. The play actually gave the word 'robot' to the English language. How many writers can say that?