War With the Newts, book review
War With the Newts by Karel Capek
(Trans. by M. & R. Weatherall)
Giant Newts are found in the south seas. It's observed they're intelligent, capable of speech and using tools. How to exploit the Newts for human gain is soon discovered. Said "discoveries" spread across the planet and a period of unprecedented prosperity for humans ensues, "The Age of Newts." Various societies to improve the lot of the Newts spring up, schools for Newts are opened. Newts multiply and multiply, eventually finding themselves requiring more habitat to support their growing population. Newt habitat are the shallow coastal shorelines of the world and Newts begin a campaign to increase those. It doesn't end well for humanity.
Capek is a social satirist in the same vein as George Orwell, Jonathan Swift and (yes) Jody Scott, but very much a pessimist. The only ray of hope, of redemption in Newts is the postulated possibility that the Newts too will eventually destroy their civilization, for reasons similar to the cause of humanity's downfall, namely "human nature."
In the concluding chapter, The Author Talks with Himself, Capek summarizes the internal dilemma of his own pessimistic prescience, and makes the moral case for social satirists:
"Don't ask me what I want. Do you think that through my will human continents are falling to bits, do you think that I wanted this to happen? It is simply the logic of events; as if I could intervene. I did what I could; I warned them in time... They all had a thousand absolutely sound economic and political reasons why it's impossible. I'm not a politician or an economist; I can't change their opinions, can I? What is one to do? The earth will probably sink and drown; but at least it will be the result of generally acknowledged political and economic ideas, at least it will be accomplished with the help of the science, industry and public opinion, with the
application of all human ingenuity! No cosmic catastrophy, nothing but state, official, economic, and other causes. Nothing can be done to prevent it."
Written in 1936 War with the Newts may seem a tad slow in places for readers of today, weaned as we are on multiple, simultaneous, attention span-eroding streams of constant external input, but the reader willing to enter into the pace of Capek's novel will be rewarded with a story that is funny, sometimes horrifying, often thought-provoking, richly satisfying and still very much relevant, Recommended!
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