R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920) by Karel Čapek. R.U.R. was written as a play, and premiered onstage in 1921. The work officially introduced the word “robot” (coined by Čapek’s brother) to the English language and to science fiction in general. In the Czech language, the word robota means forced labor, and is derived from the word rab, meaning “slave.” The name Rossum is in reference to the Czech word rozum, which means “reason,” “intellect,” “wisdom,” or “common-sense.” Robot novel author Isaac Asimov wrote: “Capek’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.”
A scientist accidentally discovers a chemical with the same properties as protoplasm, “except that it did not mind being knocked around.” (wiki) This leads to the invention and proliferation of assembled meat robots, similar to humans.
I enjoyed this quick read insomuch as I felt reading it was completing a rite of passage for a science fiction writer.
NANA [cleaning]: Nasty beasts! Heathens! God forgive me, but I’d—
HELENA [in the doorway with her back to the audience]: Nana, come here and button me.
NANA: I’m coming, I’m coming. [Buttoning HELENA’s dress.] God in heaven, what wild beasts!
HELENA: What, the Robots?
NANA: Bah, I don’t even want to say that word.
HELENA: What happened?
NANA: Another one of ‘em took a fit here. Just starts smashing statues and pictures, gnashing its teeth, foaming at the mouth—No fear of God in ‘em, brr. Why, they’re worse’n beasts!
HELENA: Which one had a fit?
NANA: The one . . . the one . . . it doesn’t even have a Christian name. The one from the library.
NANA: That’s him. Jesusmaryandjoseph. I can’t stand ‘em! Even spiders don’t spook me as much as these heathens.
HELENA: But Nana, how can you not feel sorry for them?!
NANA: But you can’t stand ‘em either, I ‘spect. Why else would you have brought me out here? Why, you wouldn’t even let them touch you!
HELENA: Cross my heart, Nana, I don’t hate them. I just feel so sorry for them!
NANA: You hate ‘em. Every human being has to hate ‘em. Why even that hound hates ‘em, won’t even take a scrap of meat from ‘em. Just tucks its tail between its legs and howls when those unhumans are around, bah!
HELENA: A dog’s got no sense.
NANA: It’s got more’n they do, Helena. It knows right well that it’s better’n they are and that it comes from God. Even the horse shies away when it meets up with one of those heathens. Why, they don’t even bear young, and even a dog bears young, everything bears young . . .
HELENA: Please, Nana, button me!
NANA: Yeah, yeah. I’m telling you, churning out these machine-made dummies is against the will of God. It’s the Devil’s own doing. Such blasphemy is against the will of the Creator [she raises her hand], it’s an insult to the Lord who created us in His image, Helena. Even you’ve dishonored the image of God. Heaven’ll send down a terrible punishment—remember that—a terrible punishment!
HELENA: What smells so nice in here?
NANA: Flowers. The master brought them.
HELENA: Aren’t they beautiful! Nana, come look! What’s the occasion?
NANA: Don’t know. But it could be the end of the world.
Čapek’s childhood was shaped by “an overbearing, emotional mother and a distant yet adored father” (wiki) He was plagued with spondyloarthropathy, which manifests as a painful spine. The intensity of pain is inversely proportional to physical activity. Čapek was very close to his brother Josef, who ultimately died in a concentration camp in 1945, seven years after Čapek died of double pneumonia.
. . . . .
The Uncommon Reader (2007) by Alan Bennett. This story is written as a “royal humor” piece, and I must confess my blood is not sufficiently blue to appreciate the barbs. I did, however, enjoy the story as a social commentary. Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom becomes an avid reader of “common” books, as opposed to an occasional reader of “royal” books. The common reading leads to common writing. *SPOILER* At the conclusion of the story, the Queen is forced to throw caution to the Windsor. That last line was my attempt at “royal humor.” *END SPOILER*
It was with some relief that she got back into the coach and reached behind the cushion for her book. It was not there. Steadfastly waving as they rumbled along she surreptitiously felt behind the other cushions.
‘You’re not sitting on it?’
‘Sitting on what?’
‘No, I am not. Some British Legion people here, and wheelchairs. Wave, for God’s sake.’
When they arrived at the palace she had a word with Grant, the young footman in charge, who said it was security and that that while ma’am had been in the Lords the sniffer dogs had been round and security had confiscated the book. He thought it had probably been exploded.
‘Exploded?’ said the Queen. ‘But it was Anita Brookner.’
The young man, who seemed remarkably undeferential, said security may have thought it was a device.
The Queen said: ‘Yes. That is exactly what it is. A book is a device to ignite the imagination.’
The footman said: ‘Yes, ma’am.’
It was as if he were talking to his grandmother, and not for the first time the Queen was made unpleasantly aware of the hostility her reading seemed to arouse.
‘Very well,’ she said. ‘Then you should inform security that I shall expect to find another copy of the same book, vetted and explosive-free, waiting on my desk tomorrow morning.
Some vulgar language.
In 2008, Bennett announced he will donate the entirety of his “archive of working papers, unpublished manuscripts, diaries and books to the Bodleian Library, stating that it was a gesture of thanks repaying a debt he felt he owed to the British welfare state that had given him educational opportunities which his humble family background would otherwise never have afforded.” (Wiki)
In 2010, Bennett reported he had been “mugged by two women who surreptitiously squirted him with ice cream in Marks & Spender, Camden Town. As they purported to wipe off the confection with tissues, the robbers stole £1,500 cash he had withdrawn from the bank minutes earlier. Bennett, who initially was grateful the women had helped clean him said the experience afterwards made him ‘less likely to believe in the kindness of strangers.’ ” (Wiki)
. . . . .
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) by John Buchan. A political drama-adventure shocker in which the hero implausibly eludes a national manhunt and uncovers an international political assassination plot at the same time. In London, at the dawn of WWI, secret agent Richard Hannay gets mixed up in the business of fellow spy Franklin P. Scudder, who claims to have uncovered a plot to murder the Greek Premier, and so forth. Somebody murders Scudder, and Hannay escapes to Scotland to avoid erroneous prosecution. I found the book a chore to finish, as I don’t particularly enjoy political intrigue books.
“At your service,” he said politely. “I am the landlord, sir, and I hope you will stay the night, for to tell you the truth I have had no company for a week.”
I pulled myself up on the parapet of the bridge and filled my pipe. I began to detect an ally.
“You’re young to be an innkeeper,” I said.
“My father died a year ago and left me the business. I live here with my grandmother. It’s a slow job for a young man, and it wasn’t my choice of profession.”
He actually blushed. “I want to write books,” he said.
“And what better chance could you ask?” I cried. “Man, I’ve often thought that an innkeeper would make the best story-teller in the world.”
“Not now,” he said eagerly. “Maybe in the old days when you had pilgrims and ballard-makers and highwaymen and mail-coaches on the road. But not now. Nothing comes here but motor-cars full of fat women, who stop for lunch, and a fisherman of two in the spring, and the shooting tenants in August. There is not much material to be got out of that. I want to see life, to travel the world, and write things like Kipling and Conrad. But the most I’ve done yet is to get some verses printed in ‘Chamber’s Journal.’ ”
I looked at the inn standing golden in the sunset against the brown hills.
“I’ve knocked a bit in the world, and I wouldn’t despise such a hermitage. D’you think that adventure is found only in the tropics or among gentry in red shirts? Maybe you’re rubbing shoulders with it at this moment.”
“That’s what Kipling says,” he said, his eyes brightening, and he quoted some verse about “Romance bringing up the 9.15.”
“Here’s a true tale for you then,” I cried, “and a month from now you can make a novel out of it.”
Pejorative and vulgar language. Buchan wrote TTNS while convalescing from a life-long ulcer. The title “The Thirty-Nine Steps” originated with Buchan’s daughter counting the steps from the nursing home where Buchan convalesced, to the beach. “Some time later the house was demolished and a section of the stairs, complete with a brass plaque, was sent to Buchan.” (Wiki)
. . . . .
The Thanksgiving Visitor 1967 (magazine), and 1968 (book), by Truman Capote. A boy is bullied, and is taught that bullies should be coddled instead of humiliated, as bullies suffer enough already. Buddy is relentlessly bullied by his classmate Odd. Buddy’s best friend and cousin, Miss Sook, invites Odd to have Thanksgiving with them. *SPOILER* Buddy catches Odd stealing, and Miss Sook stands up for Odd, instead of Buddy. *END SPOILER* Having endured a childhood of bullying, I did not agree with the moral of this story.
“I don’t suppose there will be much Thanksgiving in their house. Probably Molly would be very pleased to have Odd sit down with us. Oh, I know Uncle B. would never permit it, but the nice thing to do is invite them all.”
My laughter woke Queenie; and after a surprised instant, my friend laughed too. Her cheeks pinked and a light flared in her eyes; rising, she hugged me and said, “Oh, Buddy, I knew you’d forgive me and recognize there was some sense to my notion.”
She was mistaken. My merriment had other origins. Two. One was the picture of Uncle B. carving turkey for all those cantankerous Hendersons. The second was: It had occurred to me that I had no cause for alarm; Miss Sook might extend the invitation and Odd’s mother might accept it in his behalf; but Odd wouldn’t show up in a million years.
He would be too proud. For instance, throughout the Depression years, our school distributed free milk and sandwiches to all children whose families were too poor to provide them with a lunch box. But Odd, emaciated as he was, refused to have anything to do with these handouts; he’s wander off by himself and devour a pocketful of peanuts or gnaw a large raw turnip. This kind of pride was characteristic of the Henderson breed: they might steal, gouge the gold out of a dead man’s teeth, but they would never accept a gift offered openly, for anything smacking of charity was offensive to them.
TTV is Capote’s sequel to A Christmas Memory.
Here’s a bizarre story about the cultural and societal attitudes of the era in which Capote lived.