Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), 1920-2020

Guide compiled by Ralph Dumain

Note: Čapek’s play R.U.R. which introduced the word ‘robot’ (attributed by Karel to his brother Josef) to the world, was published in 1920 and premiered on January 25, 1921. It was also arguably the first technological dystopia to appear after the conclusion of World War I, and a historic turning point in the perspective on the automaton in popular culture. Čapek followed up with socially critical novels based on science fiction premises, and returned to his original theme in his 1936 novel War with the Newts, this time substituting intelligent salamanders for robots. Even without the device of the robot, the issue of machines becoming more human-like and humans becoming more mechanical was a key theme of the 19th century as the industrial revolution peaked, and while technology has itself evolved in the past century, the issues as Čapek presented them are as fresh as ever. This bibliography is one step in my efforts to promote a centenary celebration of this landmark play. Indented paragraphs are quotations. More can be found on my bibliographical guide to Karel Čapek. — RD

THEAITRE | Can a robot write a theatre play?

Broadway ’Bots? Robots Are Writing a Play to Celebrate The 100th Anniversary of the Word ‘Robot’ by Jacob Oller, SyfyWire, Aug. 4, 2020

THEaiTRE: A theatre play written entirely by machines by Ingrid Fadelli , Tech Xplore, August 3, 2020

Celebrating 100 years of the ‘robot’: a new version of R.U.R. by 3Ai, 3A Institute, Blog by Ellen Broad, Charlotte Bradley and Genevieve Bell, March 6, 2020

Still Stuck at Home in Confinement? Watch this Prophetic Czech Film Based on Karel Čapek’s Play by Temir Asanov, Prague Morning, May 20, 2020

Arts Commentary: Pestilence on Stage, Part One — Karel Čapek’s “The White Plague” by Bill Marx, The Arts Fuse, April 1, 2020

“Robot”: A 100 Year Anniversary by Daniel Allen, DirectIndustry e-Magazine, August 19, 2020

The Word Robot Invented 100 Years Ago, by Sue Gee, i-programmer.info, 26 January 2020

In fact, Asimov’s [author of I, Robot] “Laws of Robotics” (which are discussed here) are explicitly designed to prevent the kind of situation depicted in R.U.R. as they impose a total inhibition against harming human beings or disobeying them.

‘Robot’ was coined 100 years ago, in a play predicting human extinction by android hands by Brian Heater, Tech Crunch, February 27, 2020

How the human race succumbed: two dystopias by Čapek by Laszlo Solymar, The Article, March 28, 2020

Karel Čapek: Novelist, playwright – and travel writer, with Mirna Šolić, Radio Prague International (with sound file), 02/06/2020. See also book.

130th anniversary of birth of great interwar writer Karel Čapek by Ian Willoughby (with voice quotes from Ivan Klíma & Zdeněk Vacek, Radio Prague International (with sound file), 01/09/2020

War with the Newts: Karel Čapek’s prescient, dystopian magnum opus by Brian Kenety (with voice quotes from Robert Weschler), Radio Prague International (with sound file), 04/01/2020

Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Made to Order: Robots and Revolution, Edited by Jonathan Strahan, Locus,  May 1, 2020 [Made to Order: Robots and Revolution, Jonathan Strahan, ed. (Solaris 978-1781087879, $11.99, 400pp, tp) March 2020.]

Anthologies about robots may be nearly as important in SF history as individual novels and stories, from one of the earliest, Groff Conklin’s 1954 Science-Fiction Thinking Machines (which included Capek’s play, probably presented for the first time in the context of genre SF) to the more recent and playful (such as Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe’s Robots vs. Fairies a year or so ago).

Slavery, the “robot,” and Orientalism in science fiction by Ibrahim Al Marashi, TRT World, 26 June 2020

The Birth of the Modern Robot by Sharon Lin, Hackaday, December 19, 2019

Robots of Ages Past by Robert W. Lebling, AramcoWorld, November/December 2019

The Short, Strange Life of the First Friendly Robot by Yulia Frumer, IEEE Spectrum, 21 May 2020

From manufacturing to something better. Industry 4.0 could redefine Slovakia, by Peter Dlhopolec, The Slovak Spectator, 26 June 2020

Is the future of robots in good hands? by Chris Middleton, Diginomica, January 21, 2020

The future is sci-fi: On Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, AI and artificial empathy by Prahlad Srihari, Firstpost, January 06, 2020

R.U.R. & Related Web Pages

R.U.R. - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), translated by David Wyllie

R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (2014-09-16), Librivox: sound recording

RUR (Rossum's Universal Robots), Jerz’s Literacy Weblog

Mutual Inspirations Festival 2015 - Karel Čapek (Embassy of the Czech Republic, Washington, DC)

Some Older Theatrical Performances & Adaptations

Sci Fi Bytes: And the First Sci Fi TV Series Was . . . by johnnyjay, Cancelled Sci Fi, August 26, 2020 [Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.]

Save the Robots

RUR - A Retro-Futuristic Cabaret Musical (4:54)

RUR Embassy: Selected Excerpts from Reading of R.U.R. Robots vs Man as a Retro-Futuristic Musical based on Karel Capek’s play at the Czech Embassy September 2015 by The Alliance for New Music-Theatre [24:19]

Supplementary Bibliography

Asimov, Isaac. “The Vocabulary of SF” [Asimov's Editorials], Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, September 1979; reprinted as “The Vocabulary of Science Fiction,” in  Asimov on Science Fiction (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1981).

Čapek’s play is, in my own opinion, a terribly bad one, but it is immortal for that one word. It contributed the word ‘robot’ not only to English but, through English, to all the languages in which science fiction is now written.

Čapek, Karel. The Author of the Robots Defends Himself, Science Fiction Studies, #68 (Volume 23, Part 1), March 1996.

Cave, Stephen, Dihal, Kanta; Dillon, Sarah; eds. AI Narratives: A History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198846666.001.0001

Part I Antiquity to Modernity
1 Homer's Intelligent Machines
2 Demons and Devices
3 The Android of Albertus Magnus
4 Artificial Slaves in the Renaissance and the Dangers of Independent Innovation
5 Making the Automaton Speak
6 Victorian Fictions of Computational Creativity
7 Machines Like Us? Modernism and the Question of the Robot
Part II Modern and Contemporary
8 Enslaved Minds
9 Machine Visions
10 'A Push-Button Type of Thinking'
11 Artificial Intelligence and the Parent-Child Narrative
12 AI and Cyberpunk Networks
13 AI: Artificial Immortality and Narratives of Mind Uploading
14 Artificial Intelligence and the Sovereign-Governance Game
15 The Measure of a Woman
16 The Fall and Rise of AI

Demson, Michael; Clason, Christopher R.; eds. Romantic Automata: Exhibitions, Figures, Organisms. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2020.

List of Illustrations
Notes on Contributors and Co-editors
       Michael Demson and Christopher R. Clason
Section I: Exhibitions
   1. The Uncanny Valley: E. T. A. Hoffmann, Sigmund Freud, Masahiro Mori
        Frederick Burwick
    2. The (Re-)Winding of Hoffmann’s Automata: from Offenbach’s 1881 Opera to Powell and Pressburger’s 1951 Film
         Ashley Shams
    3. Wounded Bodies in the Lithographs of Théodore Géricault, 1818-1820
        Peter Erickson
Section II: Figures
   4. Romantic Tales of Pseudo Automata: The Chess-Playing Turk in Hoffmann, Poe, and Benjamin
         Wendy Nielsen
    5. On Toys, Violence, and Automated Gender
         Erin Goss
    6. Automatic for All: Mary Shelley’s Posthuman Passion
         Kate Singer
    7. “A little earthly idol to contract your ideas”: Global Hermeneutics in Phebe Gibbes’s Zoriada, or, Village Annals (1786)
         Kathryn Freeman
Section III: Organisms
   8. Schelling’s Uncanny Organism
         Stefani Engelstein
    9. “it […] lives by dying”: S. T. Coleridge’s Mechanical Life and Colonial Necropolitics
         Lenora Hanson
    10. The Metaphysical Machinery of Mining in Novalis’s Works
         Christina M. Weiler

Engster, Frank; Moore, Phoebe. “The search for (artificial) intelligence, in capitalism,” Capital & Class, Volume 44, Issue 2, June 2020 (Special Issue: Machines and Measure), pp. 201-218. Contents.

Jones-Imhotep, Edward. “The ghost factories: histories of automata and artificial life,” History and Technology, volume 36, Issue 1, 2020, pp. 3-29.

Jordan, John. Robots. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016.

Kakoudaki, Despina. Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People. New Brunswick, NJ; London: Rutgers University Press, 2014.

Koetsier, Teun. The Ascent of GIM, the Global Intelligent Machine: A History of Production and Information Machines. Cham: Springer International Publishing, Springer, 2019. For Čapek, see chapter 12.2.

Kang, Minsoo. Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Kinyon, Kamila. “The Phenomenology of Robots: Confrontations with Death in Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.,” Science Fiction Studies, #79 (Volume 26, Part 3), November 1999.

Liu, Lydia H. The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

March-Russell, Paul. “Machines Like Us? Modernism and the Question of the Robot,” in AI Narratives: A History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines, edited by Stephen Cave, Kanta Dihal, and Sarah Dillon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), pp. 165-186.

On technophobia based on fears of mechanization of humans, especially in the wake of Čapek’s R.U.R. Joyce is mentioned only in passing. Three phases of literary responses are detailed: (1) Consciousness and the Technological Imaginary (Z0la, Albert Robida); (2) Proto-Modernist Representations of Mechanical Intelligence (Samuel Butler, H. G. Wells); (3) Modernism and Robot Consciousness (E. M. Forster, Raymond Roussel, Villiers de l’Isle Adam, Karel Čapek).

Paul, Jean [Johann Richter, 1763-1825]. Jean Paul: A Reader, edited, with an introductory essay and commentary, by Timothy J. Casey; translations by Erika Casey. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Ramírez, J. Jesse. “Marx vs. the Robots,” Amerikastudien/American Studies,” Volume 62, Issue 4, 2017, pp. 619-632.

Riskin, Jessica. The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Riskin, Jessica. Frolicsome Engines: The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence, The Public Domain Review, May 4, 2016.

Riskin, Jessica, ed. Genesis Redux: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Artificial Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

List of Contributors ix
List of Illustrations xiii
Acknowledgments xvii
1 Introduction: The Sistine Gap / Jessica Riskin 1
ONE Connections
2 The Imitation of Life in Ancient Greek Philosophy / Sylvia Berryman 35
3 The Devil as Automaton: Giovanni Fontana and the Meanings of a Fifteenth-Century Machine / Anthony Grafton 46
4 Infinite Gesture: Automata and the Emotions in Descartes and Shakespeare / Scott Maisano 63
5 Abstracting from the Soul: The Mechanics of Locomotion / Dennis Deschene 85
6 The Anatomy of Artificial Life: An Eighteenth-Century Perspective / Joan B. Landes 96
TWO Emergence
7 The Homunculus and the Mandrake: Art Aiding Nature versus Art Faking Nature / William R. Newman 119
8 Sex Ratio Theory, Ancient and Modern: An Eighteenth-Century Debate about Intelligent Design and the Development of Models in Evolutionary Biology / Elliott Sober 131
9 The Gender of Automata in Victorian Britain / M. Norton Wise 163
10 Techno-Humanism: Requiem for the Cyborg / Timothy Lenoir 196
11 Nanobots and Nanotubes: Two Alternative Biomimetic Paradigms of Nanotechnology / Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent 221
12 Creating Insight: Gestalt Theory and the Early Computer / David Bates 237
THREE Interactions
13 Perpetual Devotion: A Sixteenth-Century Machine That Prays / Elizabeth King 263
14 Motions and Passions: Music-Playing Women Automata and the Culture of Affect in Late Eighteenth-Century Germany / Adelheid Voskuhl 293
15 An Archaeology of Artificial Life, Underwater / Stefan Helmreich 321
16 Booting Up Baby / Evelyn Fox Keller 334
17 Body Language: Lessons from the Near-Human / Justine Cassell 346
Index 375

Strätz, Juliane. “The Ordeal of Labor and the Birth of Robot Fiction,” Amerikastudien/American Studies,” Volume 62, Issue 4, 2017, pp. 633 - 648.

Tresch, John. The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Voskuhl, Adelheid. Androids in the Enlightenment: Mechanics, Artisans, and Cultures of the Self. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.

West-Knights, Imogen. “Kings and Machines: Game of Thrones Star's Daring Transhuman Adventure,” The Guardian, 23 September 2020.

“Stage show adapted from a book, Mark O’Connell tells us in his 2018 Wellcome prize-winning book To Be a Machine, an exploration of transhumanism.”

Laity, Paul. To Be a Machine by Mark O'Connell review - solving the problem of death, The Guardian, 23 March 2017.

Wijeratne, Yudhanjaya. Future Tense: “The State Machine”; Slate, September 26, 2020.

“A new short story imagines a government run entirely by machines.”

Divya, S. B. “Under the Gaze of Big Mother,” Slate, September 26, 2020.

‘Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s “The State Machine” shows the danger of trusting machines to be free of bias.’

Winterson, Jeanette. Frankissstein: A Love Story. New York: Grove Press, 2019.

On this site

Karl Marx on automatons, machinery, capital & labor

Ralph Dumain: Antaŭparolo al Karlo Markso: La tiel nomata Fragmento pri maŝinoj (elgermanigita de Vilhelmo Lutermano) [in Esperanto]

Maŝinaro kaj granda industrio (Ĉerpaĵoj ) de Karlo Markso, trad. V. Lutermano (in Esperanto)

The Ascent of GIM, the Global Intelligent Machine (Contents +) by Teun Koetsier

Peter Swirski & artificial intelligence: the last gasp of bourgeois reason by Ralph Dumain

Robots in Finnegans Wake?

Karel Čapek: Selected Bibliography & Web Links

James Joyce & Technology, Vitalism, Robots, Artificial Intelligence, Cyberculture & Combinatorics:
A Bibliographic Pathway

Frigyes & Ferenc Karinthy in English

Leibniz & Ideology: Selected Bibliography

Ars Combinatoria Study Guide

Cybernetics & Artificial Intelligence: Ideology Critique

Big Data, Big Brother, & Algorithmic Tyranny: A Guide to Analysis & Fightback

Science Fiction & Utopia Research Resources: A Selective Work in Progress

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Studies in a Dying Culture radio program / podcast series (5/10/10 - ) by R. Dumain: See programs:

11/18/17 Dialectic and Dystopia: A Century Before and After the Russian Revolution Through Literature (transcript)
05/07/16 Frigyes Karinthy: the Hungarian Swift & his musical robots
05/06/12 The Utopian Vision of Sándor Szathmári
05/06/14 Science Fiction, Utopia, and the End of Imagination (1)

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