Posts Tagged ‘War with the Newts’

As usual, I have probably missed a serious and academic discussion about when exactlythe great sundering took place between what we now call SF and Serious Literature. You know what I mean: no-one honestly considers people like Arthur Conan Doyle or George Orwell to really be SF authors, but one of them wrote a book about an adventure with dinosaurs and the other one came up with possibly the definitive work of dystopian fiction. I suppose part of it stems from the fact that neither of them just wrote SF, but on the other hand to simply put it down to this is to overlook the fact that, once upon a time, it was completely acceptable to mix and match your output without it being a big deal. No-one really does that these days, certainly since the passing of Iain Banks; perhaps we just have a much stronger sense of the importance of genre these days.

Back in the first half of the last century it was possible to do things differently: one of my favourite novels is Star-Maker, an extraordinary work of visionary SF written by Olaf Stapledon, someone completely unaware of the existence of SF as body of work. Stapledon is not much remembered these days, nor does he honestly seem to have been much influential. The same is not true of another writer from roughly the same period, Karel Capek.

These days Capek is mainly remembered for two things: inventing the word robot in his play R.U.R. (although he apparently admitted it was his brother’s idea; he himself preferred labori), and – rather as a consequence of this – inspiring the name of a second-division Doctor Who villain. I must confess to not being especially familiar with R.U.R., for all that it is surely one of the foundation texts of modern SF, but I have read Capek’s much later novel War with the Newts. This book is rather less well-known, but it seems to me to be a remarkable piece of work and quite possibly very influential, in its own way.


Published in 1936, this is a piece of genuine SF masquerading quite effectively as droll comic satire. The main thrust of the narrative concerns the discovery on a remote Pacific island of a population of large, sentient, highly imitative and adaptable humanoid amphibians (it is later suggested they have inadvertantly been transplanted to this location by human agency). A passing trader sees the inherent potential in training the creatures to fish for pearls, and as a result the Newts slowly come to the world’s attention.

Soon enough the global pearl market is saturated, and the corporation exploiting the Newts hits upon a new scheme, where they will be put to work on a much larger scale, carrying out large-scale underwater construction works on coastlines around the world. The Newts thus spread around the world, and are given all the essentials of an industrial society – the essential nature of the creatures themselves is overlooked in favour of the profits they can help to generate, something Mankind ultimately has cause to regret…

It sounds like a grim and doomy tale, but Capek is aware of the inherent absurdity in the concept and he never neglects the comic potential of the story. The opening chapters in particular feel like a bizarre mash-up of different authors from the early 20th century: the South Seas colonial setting inevitably summons the shade of Somerset Maugham, while initial descriptions of the Newts themselves – primordial beasts of the deep – is equally reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft and his Deep Ones (the Newts are also described as ‘sea devils’ in a few places, which naturally hit a few of my own buttons). But the style of the prose as the novel goes on is predominantly droll and witty – this is the closest thing I’ve ever read to the proverbial H.P. Lovecraft – P.G. Wodehouse collaboration.

Nevertheless, this is a book with some genuine concerns and one which is never afraid to make its points. The story unfolds over many decades, not really featuring a particular group of central characters, and is initially presented as a series of drily-recounted vignettes concerning the discovery and early exploitation of the Newts. As the situation of the Newts becomes more complex, so does the book become darker and, if not more serious, exactly, then certainly more pointed in its satire. Early on there’s a good joke about a Newt in London Zoo which has been taught to read using tabloid newspapers, the punchline being that when asked any question the poor creature’s instinctive response is to blether out whatever line the paper has been pushing, along with various advertising slogans (‘clearly no more intelligent than the average man’ is the scientists’ response). However, later on the jokes are darker and more savage: scientists arguing in favour of Newt rights are dismissed on the grounds their research has involved insufficient vivisection, while some researchers lament the experimental necessity of cooking and eating the Newt which has been serving as their lab assistant.

The book is more about human society than an attempt to present the Newts as a credible nonhuman intelligence, and perhaps this is why some sections of the book make slightly uncomfortable reading these days. This book is clearly loaded with allegorical potential, with much to say on the topics of both slavery and animal rights, but as usual when these two themes are tackled in close proximity it’s hard to shake the sense that on some level African people are being likened to beasts – it’s the same feeling I get watching Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, in which elements of the civil rights struggle in America are allegorically recreated with the role of African-Americans played by apes. The intention is laudable but the realisation potentially suspect.

Anyway, the story moves on to its final section, in which the tables are of course turned. Here again the book has a sort of weird familiarity to it, but in this case it’s a similarity to a book that wouldn’t be published until over fifteen years later. There aren’t many book concerned with the rise of a nonhuman intelligence to domination of the world’s oceans, concluding with the inundation of the continents and the collapse of human civilisation, and there are fewer still where this unpromising subject matter is treated both lightly and somewhat satirically. Even so, I am a little wary of bluntly saying that War with the Newts is the obvious inspiration for John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes, but I would be astonished if the resemblance between the two is entirely coincidental.

War with the Newts is funnier, however, rather more absurd, and also does have some specific points to make. These do not seem to me to be racial or cultural but instead political and economic – it’s the prospect of economic gain and the fear of economic collapse which is the driver throughout the rise of Newt civilisation, and it’s the human refusal to treat the Newts as civilised creatures in their own right, but rather as the property of human nations, which makes an effective response to them impossible to effect. Is it too much to say that this book is a product of the same post-Depression disaffection as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath? In neither book are individuals held accountable for the horrible events which occur, but rather impersonal systems of human economics and politics which are running out of control. Humans are not really in charge of their world even before the Newts go on the offensive.

P.G. Wodehouse, Somerset Maugham, H.P. Lovecraft, John Wyndham, John Steinbeck: I’ve compared Karel Capek to a lot of very disparate and rather celebrated people while writing about War with the Newts. I think he warrants it, and I think it shows how accomplished and distinctive his writing is. And I think the book is as relevant today as it in 1936 – the problems he writes about have hardly disappeared in the intervening years. Exploitation is still the world’s biggest problem even if giant salamanders remain only a minor concern. It seems odd that a Czech SF novel from the 1930s can remind us of this, but then that’s one of the joys of great literature, I suppose.

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