I needed to read Karel Čapek’s RUR, his 1920 play in which he invents the robot, so I bought it in the SF Masterworks edition. The other half of this edition is an extraordinary novel called War With the Newts, which was an unexpected pleasure. It was almost the last thing Čapek published, in 1936, since he died only a few years later, just in time not to be persecuted by the Nazis when they invaded Czechoslovakia. However, he gets in a good few cracks at the Nazi regime in this novel, which is a superb satire on capitalism, totalitarianism, the Hollywood system, and human fallibility.
The Newts are discovered by Captain Van Toch, a merchant seaman, on an island near Java, in the Indonesian archipelago. They crawl out of the sea, they fish for pearl oysters in return for small gifts, such as knives, and they are masterful underwater builders and architects. They start to learn speech from the captain, who becomes uncommonly fond of these strange amphibious sea-creatures. He quietly amasses quite a large pearl fishery from his trading, but then he spoils it all by going back to his home town in Czechoslovakia to talk big business there to G A Bondy, the most entrepreneurial, go-getting moneyman in town. Van Toch wants to expand the exploitation of the Newts – in a humane, managed way under his personal administration – to other areas of the ocean, to use them to find even more pearls. Bondy develops the Newts into a worldwide industry of indentured and slave labour.
Beginning as a curious Joseph Conradish sea story, Čapek has a riot with different modes of writing and satire in this excellent novel, telling the Darwinian rise of the Newts unto the near-annihilation of Man. In a pastiche of the naïve-but-honest Anita Loos style, a party of young rich Americans on a cruise encounter the Newts on a beach and attempt to film a glamour swimming shot with the Newts as supporting cast. The resulting newsreel of course makes the Newts a craze among bright young American people with money and leisure, and trained teams of sea-racing Newts drawing clam-shell chariots become fashionable among rich young women. The Newts’ sexual behaviour influences a new dance called the Salamander Dance, protested against vigorously by the church and older generations. A scientific report describes how the Newts are undoubtedly an evolutionary dead-end that has been restarted, since the Newts are beginning to show evidence of intelligence, learning ability and higher cognition. They learn to speak. On the death of Captain Van Toch, Bondy’s conglomerate decides to begin selling the Newts as underwater construction teams, effectively enslaving them. They are traded freely, trained and graded for global marketing, tests are made to determine whether their bodies yield any useful components for human use or consumption, and the more competent among the Newts are given names. Whether they give themselves names is not something the humans trouble to find out.
The careful reader will see that this is turning into a pointed parable about slavery and rampant greed, with the fantastical element of the Newts opening up marvellous new possibilities for satirising the depths of human iniquity. The satire begins to turn into a nightmare when the Newts show how worryingly competent they are in almost every human field (even mountaineering), and in many of their own that humans cannot touch. It starts to dawn on the coastal regions of the world that the Newts are in fact a terrible threat, since they are beginning to take land back to the sea for their own increasing population (they are not deep-sea dwellers). And what are the Newts doing with all the humans’ undersea earth-moving equipment and explosives?
War With the Newts is a tremendous story, perfectly pitched between the improbable and the impossible, and has enough variety in how Čapek tells the story to keep the lack of a leading narrative character from being not that much of an omission.