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The Ordeal of Labor and the Birth of Robot Fiction

Juliane Strätz

Seiten 633 - 648


This essay analyzes the depiction of artificial laborers in Karel Čapek’s play ‘R. U. R.’ (‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’). The play is informed by the wish to liberate humanity from work, as it degrades the individual. Nevertheless, since work needs to be done, artificial laborers are created. As they are not naturally born but artificially produced, humankind easily finds excuses to treat them as slaves. Moreover, the robots’ entire ‘raison d’être’ is utterly dependent on capitalistic enterprises. They become the materialization of the market’s demands. This dependency becomes even more obvious when the robots kill almost all humans, only to realize that they won’t be able to survive without the corporation they fought. The play is a first encounter with robots that dramatizes the capitalistic demands common in the early twentieth century. In doing so it is informed by ongoing industrialization and coupled with the horrors of WWI and a growing human sentiment against the devaluation of certain types of labor. This essay argues that the play offers a critique of the capitalist mode of mass production, which is influenced by the general perception, hopes, and fears generated by the quick progress of the U.S.-American Fordist economy.

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