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Karel Čapek (January 9, 1890 - December 25, 1938), one of the most important Czech language writers of 20th century. He coined the frequently used international word robot, which first appeared in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) in 1920.
For English speakers, the name is pronounced something like CHAP-ek. (or in SAMPA: ['tSapek]).
Karel Čapek wrote with intelligence and humor on a wide variety of subjects. His works are known not only for interesting and exact describing of reality, but also for his excellent work with the Czech language. He is perhaps best known as a science fiction author, who wrote long before science fiction became established as separate genre. He can be counted as one of founders of classical non-hardcore European science fiction, which focuses on possible future (or alternative) social and human evolution on Earth, rather than technically advanced stories of space travel. However, it is best to class him with Aldous Huxley and George Orwell as a mainstream literary figure who used science-fiction motifs.
Many of his works discuss ethical and other aspects of the revolutionary inventions and processes that were already expected in first half of 20th century. These included mass production, atomic weapons, and post-human intelligent beings such as robots or intelligent salamanders.
In this, Čapek was also expressing fear of upcoming social disasters, dictatorship, violence, and unlimited power of corporations, and trying to find some hope for human beings. Čapek's literary heirs include Ray Bradbury, Salman Rushdie, and possibly Brian Aldiss and Dan Simmons.
His other books and plays include detective stories, novels, fairy tales and theatre plays, and even a book on gardening. The most important works try to resolve the problem of epistemology, or "What is knowledge?": The Tales from Two Pockets, and first of all the trilogy of novels Hordubal, Meteor and An Ordinary Life.
Later, in the 1930s, Čapek's work focused on the threat of brutal Nazi and fascist (but also Communist) dictatorships. His most productive years corresponded with the existence of the first republic of Czechoslovakia (1918-1938). He wrote Talks with T.G. Masaryk, a Czech patriot and first president of Czechoslovakia and a regular guest at Čapek's Friday garden parties for Czech patriots. This extraordinary relationship between the great author and the great political leader is perhaps unique, and is known to have been an inspiration to Vaclav Havel.
Karel Čapek died in the eve of World War II, soon after it became clear that the Western allies had refused to help to defend Czechoslovakia against Hitler. He refused to eat and refused to leave his country and died of double pneumonia. The Gestapo had ranked him as "public enemy number 2" in Czechoslovakia. His brother Josef Čapek, painter and also writer, died in the Belsen concentration camp.
After the war, Čapek's work was only reluctantly accepted by the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia, since during his life he had refused to believe in a communist utopia as a viable alternative to the threat of Nazi domination.
Works which can be considered early science fiction:
- R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)
- The Makropulos Affair
- The Absolute at Large
- War with the Newts (dystopian satire)
- Power and Glory
- The Mother
- The White Disease
- The Gardener's Year (1929) is exactly what it says, a year-round guide to gardening, charmingly written, with illustrations by his brother Josef Čapek.
- Pictures from the Insects' Life, also known as Insect Play, with Josef Čapek, a satire in which insects stand in for various human characteristics, the flighty, vain butterfly, the obsequious, self serving dung beetle.
- Apocryphal Stories, short stories about literary and historical characters, such as Hamlet, a struggling playwright, Pontius Pilate, Don Juan, Alexander arguing with his teacher Aristotle and Sarah and Abraham attempting to name ten good people so Sodom can be saved: "What do you have against Namuel? He's stupid but he's pious."
- Nine Fairy Tales: And One More Thrown in for Good Measure
- Dasenjka, or the life of a young dog
Etymological note: Robota is a Czech cognate of the German word arbeit ("work"), from the Indo-European root *orbh-. It is usually translated as "serf" or "forced labor" and was the name used for the so-called "labor rent" which existed in Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1848. From this word K. Čapek created the word robot = a working or serving machine.