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The War With The Newts

(first published 1936)

   This science fiction novel talks of human like salamanders taking over the world. A Czech sea captain finds intelligent salamanders / newts on a South Pacific island. He trains them and teaches them how to talk. He brings some over to Europe and along with a Czech businessman they start up a revolution in human history. The newts are used as cheap labor force mainly for water constructions, etc. They need little food, their body has a great healing capacity and they are highly intelligent. Slowly things start to get out of hand, the newts begin to threaten the humans and eliminate most of the continents in order to have shallow sea water they prefer best for their habitat.

   Some would say it would be enough to secure one's position in the history of literature to invent a term. Capek did as much when he coined the word "robot" for the very first time in his play, R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). Later, Isaac Asimov (see above) would coin the term "robotics" and generate the Three Laws of Robotics, pervasive in much robot-centered sci-fi.
   More importantly, though, Capek wrote one of the most amazing books of science fiction, truly prescient and postmodern considering it was written in Czechoslovakia in 1936; War With the Newts. I first found out about War With the Newts in 1990 when my friend Daniel George plopped a tattered paper bag full of science fiction paperbacks on my desk at The Evergreen State College, after he had found the it in the "Free Box" (where I obtained some of my favorite possessions). I think that was the only book I read of the group, but it alone was worth Daniel's salvage job. In general War With the Newts is a satire about slavery and the silly nature of the modern world.  The story is about a crusty sea captain who discovers a population of large newts ("about the size of a 9 year old boy") living in the lagoon of a little known island in the Pacific. Under the tutelage of the captain, the newts soon progress from simple tool use while employed as expert pearl harvesters to rudimentary speech and eventually to all aspects of thought and scholarship.  My favorite scene is one in which a distinguished Newt scholar, Dr. Charles Mercier, is asked to give a sort of commencement speech at a French academy and is kept behind the dais in a tin bathtub while attemptingto wear a stately black cap and gown.  The amazing thing--well, one of many amazing things--about "War with the Newts" is Capek's use of a kind of "multimedia" approach to this novel. He includes newspaperclippings (in a font which resembles a tear sheet), "scientific" articles, minutes of executive meetings, andother odd props to provide a rich ensemble of Newt source literature, all carefully archived by the thoughtful Mr. Povondra, a former butler and self-assessed catalyst for the new Salamandrian epoch. The break in text, both visually and conceptually, the hard swing between narrative and press clipping, reminds one of the multimedia "postmodern" format of magazines such as the late Mondo 2000, Wired, or the books of J.G. Ballard. All this from a man writing in pre-war Czechoslovakia! Palpably sarcastic yet brilliantly subtle, Capek sketches a convincing account of looming diluvean apocalypse to overthorw our homo sapiens hubris. Prescient, funny, and important.
    This is the only book I have read by Karel Capek, and it was so powerful he instantly entered the Pantheon. It is still available (Amazon.com, etc)--go read it now. Don't forget to check out the Links section for more sites with information on War With The Newts.

Excerpt from the book

Here is an excerpt from the earlier chapters of the book when newts are viewed as a curiosity only.

[A reading from the Chapter ``Andrew Scheuchzer'' of The War
With the Newts, by Karl Capek, just after an intelligent Newt has
been placed in a London prison.] 

...the director of the Zoo, Sir Charles Wiggam, was walking
through some of the houses to make sure that everything was in
order. When he went through the section with the newts there was
a great splashing in one of the tanks, and somebody remarked in a
croaking voice, ``Good evening, sir.''

``Good evening,'' replied the director, taken aback. ``Who's

``Excuse me, sir,'' said the croaking voice. ``Isn't it Mr. Greggs?''

``Who's that?'' repeated the director.

``Andy. Andrew Scheuchzer.''

Sir Charles drew nearer the tank. There was only a newt sitting erect and motionless there. ``Who said something here?'' 

``Andy, sir,'' said the newt. ``Who are you?'' 

``Wiggam,'' blurted out Sir Charles in amazement. 

``I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance,'' said Andrias [the newt] politely. ``How do you do?'' 

``Damn it all,'' bawled Sir Charles. ``Greggs! Hey, Greggs!'' [Greggs is the cage-keeper.] 

Mr. Greggs rushed tot he door, breathless and apprehensive. ``I beg your pardon, sir?'' 

``Greggs, what does this mean?'' burst out Sir Charles. 

``Is there something wrong, sir?'' stammered Mr. Greggs uncertainly. 

``This animal here is talking!'' 

``Excuse me, sir,'' said Mr. Greggs, abashed. ``You ought not to do that, Andy. haven't I told you a thousand times that you
ought not to annoy people with your talking? I beg your pardon, sir; it won't happen again.''

``Is it you that has taught this newt to talk?'' 

``But he began it, sir,'' expostulated Greggs in self-defence. 

``I hope that it won't happen again, Greggs,'' said Sir Charles sternly. ``I shall keep my eye on you.'' 

Some time later Sir Charles was sitting beside Professor Petrov and discussing the so-called animal intelligence, conditioned
reflexes, and how popular ideas overrate the reasoning powers of animals. Professor Petrov expressed his doubts about the
Elberfeld horses which, it was said, could not only count, but also raise a number to a higher power and find the square root of
a number; ``for not even a normal, intelligent man can extract the square root of a number, can he?'' said the great scientist. 

Dominik Zunt 1998-2004, design: Radek Varbuchta