Josef and Karel Čapek

(Translated by William E. Harkins)

The profound influence of Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (1921) upon science fiction, plus the continuing popularity of War with the Newts (1936), would lead one to believe that there would be scarcely a work of value by that author not available in the public libraries. The truth of the matter is that many of his works have not yet been translated into English. Until the appearance of William E. Harkins’ scholarly study Karel Čapek in 1962, an article titled Karel Čapek: The Man Who Invented Robots by the editor of this collection, first published in Fantastic Science Fiction Stories, July, 1960, and then included in Explorers of the Infinite in 1963, was the most comprehensive dissertation ever to appear in the United States in English on Čapek!

Karel Čapek wrote many of his stories and plays in collaboration with his talented brother Josef. One of their earliest satires of dehumanization of man by machine was a short story titled System, which first appeared in 1908 and was included in a collection titled The Garden of Krakonoš (Krokonoš’ Garden) in 1918. The scientific dictatorship discussed in this story takes place in the United States, which had already achieved an international reputation in mass production in 1908. Especially for this collection, William E. Harkins, Professor of Slavic Languages at Columbia University, has translated System into English for the first time. It is an anti-utopia of the type popularized by George Orwell, with a highly original gambit of its own.

Enticed by a sunny Sunday afternoon, we embarked at St. Augustine on the excursion steamer General Hoddle, on which a popular outing had been arranged, not suspecting that by so doing we would find ourselves in the company of a sectarian brotherhood. After a half-hour sail, when it had become clear that our convivial behavior displeased the members of that pious body, we were flung into the sea for some impropriety or other; shortly afterward a gentleman dressed in a white suit joined us, while the good souls on the desk threw down three lifebelts and, singing hymns, left us to drift on the broad ocean.

“Thank God, these lifebelts are Slanke products,” the man in the white suit attempted to strike up a conversation as we fastened the rubber discs around our waists. “No harm done, gentlemen,” our new friend sought to quiet our fears. “In six hours, I trust, we shall reach mainland if this southeast wind holds.” And he presented himself in a more proper manner: he was Mr. John Andrew Ripraton, the owner of plantations and factories in Hubertstown, staying in St. Augustine on a prolonged visit with his sister. When he had protested against our expulsion from the General Hoddle, he had been persuaded to make our acquaintance under such unfavorable conditions.

In the course of these formalities the endless ocean murmured indifferently, and a light current impelled us toward the mainland, rocking us in time with the rhythmic motion of the waves.

Meanwhile Mr. John Andrew Ripraton told us of his studies in economics in Europe, where he had audited courses by Bŭcher in Leipzig, Liszt and Wagner in Berlin, studied the works of Schäffer, Smith, Carey and Taylor, of his pious pilgrimages to the chapels of industry, of pilgrimages which had suddenly been cut short by the strange murder of his father and mother by striking workers.

Then the two of us, as members of the leisure class, began to lament: “Woe to the workers! You, sir, are a victim of the social question. The worker is the manufactured product of the nineteenth century; what can we do with him after a century of overproduction? There are millions of them: each of them is a man, a question mark, a problem and a peril, a peril by now a century old. Each working hand is a bud, sir, from which a fist will blossom forth. The ruling classes have numbered a mere ten thousand from time immemorial; we do not multiply, while there are more and more of them. The workers have murdered your father and mother, esteemed sir. They have murdered the tradition of the nineteenth century. Once they have killed our fathers and mothers, it will be our turn next. You will be killed, we will be killed, and our charming female companions in the New World will, alas, be killed when that time comes which now hangs so threateningly over our heads.”

“Watch out for that wave, gentlemen,” Mr. John Andrew Ripraton warned us, and went on conversing with a contented smile. “Excuse me, gentlemen, but I won’t be involved in killing. My factories, my Hubertstown lives in absolute quiet. I have introduced cultural reforms, I have succeeded in grafting the noble flower of industry onto the rough trunk of the proletarian question.”

“Aha,” we cried, rocking violently on the waves, “you are one of those who have tried to reform the worker: you introduce Sunday schools, popular universities, teetotalism, art for the home; you found discussion groups, orchestras, debating societies, fellowships; you go in for theosophy and dilettantism. You ennoble the workingman, you awaken him, you teach and domesticate him. But, esteemed sir, if once you permit him to taste the fruits of knowledge, you will arouse a cultural tiger within him. In each of us there sleeps a superman. All at once we will be engulfed in a wave of leaders and preachers, the factories will belch forth millions of saviors, intellectuals, ideologists, popes and enlighteners; it will be annihilation. What cannot be saved will be swept away. Having attained the crest of its development, the world will dissolve into heavenly dust. The last stout heart will rocket through the universe like a meteor.”

Mr. John Andrew Ripraton, hearing this lament to the end, drew a cigar out of a waterproof case and lighting it, said, “Please help yourselves to cigars, gentlemen, you touch on what I reflected some twenty years ago. Continue, gentlemen!”

Lighting up, we went on talking, rocked by the rhythm of the waves.

“But still an ideal workingman exists. He is the loom, the spinning jenny, the rotary press, the locomotive. The loom, sir, does not seek to judge or govern, it does not organize nor does it make speeches; its one idea, a powerful idea, sir, a great and all-embracing idea, is to spin, to spin as much thread as possible! The spinning jenny asks nothing from you but that you let it spin; it has no other idea or program than that of spinning. To spin is a great idea, sir, to spin is the greatest task in the world. To spin is everthing.”

“Excellent, gentlemen!” cried Mr. John Andrew Ripraton in ecstasy, pushing some slimy sea creature away from him. “If you are made of such stuff, gentlemen, then surely you can understand the value of my system, of my solution of the proletarian question, of my project genus Operarius utilis Ripratoni. Listen to me, gentlemen! The word ‘fabrication’ is derived from febris, and it means ‘feverish activity.’ Gentlemen, industry is no mere business; industry is a fever, fed by ecstasy, lofty contemplation and idealism. A glorious assembly! To process fifty thousand bales of cotton is no small feat, but imagine a million bales, gentlemen: for that you need an artist’s imagination and his idealism. And to process everything? To process the whole world? The whole world is just raw material. The whole world is nothing more than unprocessed matter. The heavens and the earth, mankind, time, space and infinity, it is all nothing but raw material. Gentlemen, the task of industry is to process the whole world. The world must become a factory!

“We are just beginning that task on a large scale. Everything must be speeded up, but the proletarian question delays us. We will declare war on socialism, tuberculosis, on decreasing birth rates, enlightenment, the eight-hour day and alcoholism. Nothing must be permitted to hold us up. The worker must become a machine which will simply spin. Every idea is a breach of discipline! Gentlemen, all of Taylorism is one systematic mistake, for it overlooks the question of the soul. The worker’s soul is no mere machine, and hence we must do away with it. That is what my System accomplishes! My System is the great answer to the social problem.

“Gentlemen, from the very beginning we have deceived ourselves where the worker is concerned, for he is no more than the unit of work. And so I have taken into my employment only chosen people, the retarded, the poor, phlegmatics, illiterates, albinos, orangutans, hydro, macro and microcephalics, members of inferior races and so on, only those whom Professor Münsterberg has proven to have no ideas, who see nothing and want nothing, who have no conception of poetry, astronomy, politics, socialism, the history of mankind, or of strikes and unions, for their life consists only of inherited deprivations and of acquired habits. Over the whole world my agents have recruited these chosen individuals. My Hubertstown runs perfectly.”

“Hey, sir, watch out for that log!” we called out to him. “Dear sir, of course you have a wonderful system there. But aren’t you afraid your model workman will degenerate with time? That some external influences will cause him, say, to break down and thus give him the full exercise of his spiritual powers? Don’t you need some sort of sanitary inspection once a week? Can your workmen never have sudden flashes of insight?”

“Never,” replied Mr. Ripraton triumphantly, pushing away the misdirected log from his vicinity. “Gentlemen, I have sterilized the workman and purified him: first I have destroyed in him all germs of altruism and friendship, family feeling, the sense for poetry and the transcendental; I have regulated his alimentary and sexual activities, I have made a desert of his environment, I have influenced him through architecture, astrology, diet, temperament, climate and a precise regimen . . .”

In the course of this speech Mr. John Andrew Ripraton had become entangled in a thicket of slimy seaweed from which he was unable to free himself, while the sluggish current carried us on slowly toward the shore, whose narrow strip shone white on the horizon. In his anxious haste to finish expounding his system, Mr. Ripraton raised his voice after us higher and higher:

“Please tarry a moment longer, gentlemen. Every one of my workers has a bed of roses, made of deprivation and routine. Every one is like a separate cell in a battery, I have built workers’ barracks. Each worker has his own cell, and all the cells are identical. Each workman has the same pleasures, the same working hours, the same dreams. No one has anything to say to his fellows, anything to ask for or anything to bestow—but just a moment more, gentlemen. I have hemmed them in with poverty, with plenty, with apathy, with comfort and cleanliness. You hear me, gentlemen! But what about women? Women awaken the sense of beauty, of the family, of right and wrong, they arouse the sense of society, romance, poetry and culture in general. Yes, gentlemen, in me as well, I know from my own experience. Woman is—ah!—woman is the enemy of every system. Woman, gentlemen—but give me a moment more to explain. It is clear why I allow my workers to have women every so often; the skilled workmen every third day, the metal workers once a week, the men in the cotton mills once a fortnight, and the hands on the plantations once a month, but only at night, in complete darkness, so that they cannot behold women’s beauty and experience esthetic excitement. Hello, gentlemen, can you still hear me? So that they cannot feel esthetic or moral excitement or any higher thing or—I tell you, gentlemen, woman . . . no disturbing . . . pacify the workers . . . my Method . . . Farewell, gentlemen!”

So John Andrew Ripraton called after us, louder and louder until he had quite vanished from our sight, hopelessly imprisoned on the waters like a stationary buoy, while the wind, which ever blew toward the mainland, ceased to waft his voice in our direction. Then suddenly it was moonlight, and only after midnight did we emerge on the shore near Charlestown, from where we sent a boat to look for Mr. Ripraton, who assuredly passed an unpleasant night on the waters.

From there we all made our way by wagon to St. Augustine without any more significant occurrence. On the next day we paid a visit to Mr. Ripraton and his sister. We found him seated in a rocking chair with a letter in his hand and an expression of the deepest anguish. He greeted us in silence and without a word handed us the letter, which read:

Hubertstown, January 27.

Honored Sir!

My letter is a pitiful one. A catastrophe has occurred; all is lost. The men have rioted and burned down the factories; nothing could be saved, and they have murdered your esteemed wife and your three little children.

The riot happened quite unexpectedly. By bad luck a young workman, Bob Gibbon (No. C 10,707), was left in a cell with the light on at the time when a woman, alas, a very beautiful one, was admitted to him. Thus a sense of beauty and of man’s higher destiny was kindled in him along with all the finer feelings, and the next day, in spite of the punishments administered by the guards he began to sing, to draw all sorts of things, to laugh and indulge in day-dreams, to talk and make significant glances, and in general to express his feelings in the most refined way.

At his instigation the other workmen supplied themselves with candles for the night goings on and all of them experienced the same awakening. They then provided themselves with dress shirts, needles, mirrors and looking-glasses, with poems, musical instruments, pictures and similar objects closely connected with their amorous feelings; in no time they had founded four choral societies, two drawing clubs, two amateur theatrical companies and several sports teams. The officials were unable to stop them. Finally the workmen succeeded in breaking into the women’s quarter, carrying the women off and settling down with them in family groups; by the next day they had won a shorter working day and an increase in pay; on the next day they launched a general strike, founding three workingmen’s organizations, a union of metal workers, of textile workers and of plantation laborers. On the twenty-fifth of January three magazines were founded, the stores and warehouses in the inner town were broken into; on the twenty-sixth the slaughter began. These are the events of the last days which occurred during your absence from home.

Try to console yourself, my dear sir, if you are able.

Your devoted servant,   
Francis J, Mulberry

Mr. John Andrew Ripraton turned his face to the window so that he could weep without hindrance. We sighed as we told one another, “Poor Ripraton! Poor Gibbon, the new Adam! How dangerous you are, enchanting ladies of the New World! May heaven preserve our youth!”

SOURCE: Čapek, Josef & Karel. “System” [orig. 1908], translated by William E. Harkins, in Masterpieces of Science Fiction, edited by Sam Moskowitz (Cleveland; New York: The World Publishing Company, 1966), pp. 420-427.

Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), 1920-2021
Guide compiled by Ralph Dumain

Karel Čapek: Selected Bibliography & Web Links

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


Karel Čapek - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Josef Čapek - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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